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Category Archives: Art Department

Set Design, Technical Drawing, Set Decoration etc

Prosthetics and Make-up – from a lecture by Neville Smallwood in 1948, which includes a piece by Ernest Taylor

NEVILLE SMALLWOOD (1922-2004)

It has long been my contention that, when attempting a heavy character make-up, more use should be made of the materials which have been developed in the last few years – materials which are suitable for the manufacturer of false foreheads, cheeks, noses, chins and so on.  Until recently, there were no make-up laboratories in this country but, owing to chiefly to the foresight and planning of Guy Pearce, now retired (films include Clive of India, The Outsider and Hamburger Hill) and the understanding generosity of MGM, a very well stocked and equally well equipped laboratory was built in their Borehamwood Studio (aka Elstree Studios) 

 

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Neville Smallwood before and after character make-up.

In order to show the value of this type of work, take the example of a comparatively young woman who, as a story unfolds, has to appear as a very much older woman.  Suppose we contrive to make this woman look old with the use of make-up only.

First of all the make-up artist needs to know the main source of light to be directed on the artiste, otherwise they cannot know whether the highlights should be above or below the shadows. This is a point all too often overlooked and I would here stress the importance of co-operation between make-up artist and cameraman, sometimes sadly lacking.

Assume then, a normal shot with main light coming from above the artiste. The make-up artist does his job accordingly and everything looks fine with the lights helping to give the required effect. Then the Director suddenly decides the next shot – to be done immediately – shall be in a dark room in front of a fire. Into the fireplace goes an enormous lamp shining up into the face of our poor artiste – lighting up the carefully placed shadows and leaving the highlights invisible. The result is that our comparatively young woman looks as she did before she was made-up!

Unaltered profile

Another snag is the ‘profile problem’ which is very difficult to overcome. Our artiste looks at herself in the mirror when she is made-up and sees herself as a much older woman, with a satisfied make-up man peering happily over her shoulder – but what has happened to her profile?  Nothing!  The heavily ridged forehead is not really ridged, the bags under the eyes are not bags, the double-chin is an illusion and, unless an artiste is given absolute preference and every consideration before the camera, sooner or later a fairly close shot of her profile will creep into the picture and the result will be unsatisfactory, even if only to the make-up artist.

I am not suggesting that all and every character make-up should be a seething mass of false features forced onto the poor artiste’s face; rather I am trying to put forward good and sound reasons why every studio should be equipped with a make-up laboratory and have capable technicians who are alive to the possibilities of prosthetics when applying a character make-up, when it is required to show a definite and unmistakeable change in a person’s face, whether for historical accuracy or for ageing – or for any other reason.

 

The Development of Materials

Various types of putty, wax cotton, wool pads and so on, have been used for years with varying degrees of success.  Latex or plastic preparations have been painted on to a face to cause wrinkles through shrinkage when drying – but to my mind, none of these things comes up to the standard required at the present time.

It was found that any non-porous material was useless. Take, for example, a false nose; nothing will stop a hot nose in the heat of intense light from perspiring – and no matter what is used as an adhesive, the perspiration will find its way between the skin and the nose and either form a bubble or blister – or give the artiste the appearance of having a permanently running nose, which is not really desirable! The stand-by man in this case has to wipe the artiste’s nose before each shot and probably has to stick it back on his face, which also damages the fine edges where it blends into the face.

The material had to be made with a skin of its own, also porous, which could be varied to suit the texture of skin to which it had to be applied and it had to be of very light weight, able to give and stretch with the movement of the face and recover its normal shape rapidly. The next problem was to find a material with all these properties which would ‘take’ make-up in the same way as the human skin, without showing differences of tone and colour where skin and false pieces met. In addition, the material had to be such that it could be made in shapes, having really extraordinarily fine thin edges tapering away practically to nothing.

A specially prepared to porous sponge rubber has been used with success, though this needs a special greasepaint, as normal make-up changes colour when applied to rubber. More useful and having similar properties, is a porous sponge plastic, which has advantages over rubber in that it is not affected by any greasepaint and does not perish or deteriorate. The only advantage that rubber has at present is that it cures at a lower temperature than the plastic and consequently, a mould will last longer when used for rubber than it will when used for plastic – a point worth bearing in mind when contemplating a long picture where an artiste may have to be made up many times, as all these things can be used only once each for screen work – although for the stage they may be used many times.

The search for a really good material from which a mould can be made easily and quickly – and which will stand repeated and prolonged periods at high temperatures and pressures – continues and is one of our main problems.

 

Neville Smallwood’s Credits: Hamburger Hill, The Bounty, Yellowbeard, The Sea Wolves, Lion of the Desert, The Dogs of War, The Lady Vanishes, The Wild Geese, Orca, Aces High, The Likely Lads, Jesus Christ Superstar, Siddhartha, Nicholas and Alexandra, Zeppelin, Unman Wittering and Zigo, Cromwell, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Casino Royale, Modesty Blaise, The Heroes of Telemark, Genghis Khan, The Long Ships, The World of Suzie Wong, The Vikings, Private’s Progress, Charley Moon, It’s a Wonderful World, They Who Dare, A Christmas Carol, The New Avengers, ITV Saturday Night Theatre, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

 

MAKE-UP IN RELATION TO PHOTOGRAPHIC EMULSION – ERNEST TAYLOR (1913-1987)

Make-up is essential to photography in motion pictures because it corrects the irregularities in pigment and texture that discolour the face and prevent it recording faithfully. In still portraiture, retouching can remedy faults but this procedure is not possible with motion film.

The face is made up of a network of tiny blood vessels and pigments which give colouring to the skin. These natural pigments and blood channels are unevenly arrayed all over the face, causing a change of colour and skin texture around the eyes, nose, cheeks and chin.

Photographed without make-up, the face records a mottled effect on the film emulsion. A balance and graded monotone of colours is produced with the use of make-up which cures over-absorption of light and allows the emulsion to reproduce the subject accurately. Its subtle use can also give character to the face.

 

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The changing faces of Alec Guinness in the 1949 Ealing Studios film ‘Kind Hearts and Coronets’

Lighting and Emulsion Characteristics

The camera, lighting and emulsions are far more involved in use than is make-up. For the best photographic results between all factors, the lighting key should be studied carefully. Strong and hard light tends to burn the makeup off the skin, causing it to record chalkily, whilst subdued low key light tends to cause the make-up to record much darker in tone that would be expected.

First-class straight make-up photographs perfectly. With character and corrective make-up patience, practice and experience are required – both on the part of the make-up artist and the photographer. To master the technique a creative imagination, thorough understanding of light and shade and facial contours, all in relationship to photographic reproduction is necessary.

In this way make-up artists, in co-operation with the lighting men, have learned to create beauty and character with almost any subject. Foundation creams, false eyelashes, rouges, eye shading, lip colours and liners, combine to permit the stars to be photographed at their impeccable best!

After experiments with leading technicians on lighting and emulsions, Max Factor evolved panchromatic make-up for use with panchromatic emulsions. It must be applied with painstaking care and thick, crude lines have to be avoided in use with the soft high-lights and low-lights.

 

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‘Scott of the Antarctic’ showing extensive lighting used in Ealing Studios in 1949 – highlighting the need for cooperation between lighting crew and make-up artists.

Straight Make-up

Apart from providing the necessary protective colouration suitable for the various emulsions, make-up is used to give character to the face. Corrections can be made in the shape of the face and various features by careful shading and correctly placed lighting. Results have to be of a flattering nature and any subject that photographs well normally can photograph beautifully with make-up. Lifelike and natural transparency is further achieved by washing the whole of the make-up with a damp wad to eliminate a matt finish which would photograph flat.

 

Characterisation

The mere addition of beauty aids does not ensure glamour! For example, artificial eyelashes, unless tailored for the individual eye, seldom record naturally. In handling highlights and shadows, both for make-up and lighting, the intricacies of illusory relief have to be understood. The best results can only be achieved by co-operation between the lighting man and the make-up artist.

 

Colour Photography

All the spectrum of colours cannot be faithfully reproduced on colour film, which is either under or over sensitive to certain colours. The human complexion has a greater proportion of red than any other pigment tints and not only has make-up to be considered but also the surrounding colour scheme, as blues and reds are particularly absorbed and reflected. Colour make-up is at present very much a matter of blending shades to compensate for the peculiarities of the natural skin pigmentation. The aim is naturalness plus the texture to resist fading under the intense arc lighting. Make-up varies with the several colour processes which have different sensitivities to certain colours and co-operation between lighting and make-up departments is again essential. Screen make-up, as an art, is still a matter of trial and error.

 

Ernest Taylor’s Credits: Moon Zero Two, His Excellency, I Believe in You, Crash of Silence, Secret People, The Man in the White Suit, Pool of London, The Lavender Hill Mob, Cage of Gold, The Magnet, The Blue Lamp, Kind Hearts and Coronets, A Run for Your Money, Whisky Galore, Passport to Pimico, Against the Wind, Saraband, Scott of the Antarctic, It Always Rains on Sunday, The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby.

 

 

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DYNAMATION … from a lecture by Ray Harryhausen in 1984

Dynamation is a term which was coined by producer Charles Schneer when we started making black and white films together in the 1950s. We specialised in combining live actors with animated models and, since nobody knew quite what stop motion photography was, they would call it an animated film. We were trying to establish a new division between cartoon and three-dimensional animation, so we came up with the word ‘Dynamation’ for that process. As the years went by, the publicity department felt that they had to enhance the word, so we got ‘Super Dynamation’!

Georges Meliés experimented with stop motion photography in France before 1900 with his unique short film Trip to the Moon but it was Wilis O’Brien in America who first found a commercial use for stop motion. His greatest triumph was King Kong which set me off and I have never been the same since!

It left such an impression on me that I felt it was the type of career I wanted, so I made it my business to find out how it was done – hence Dynamation sprang out of the basic O’Brien technique.

The principle behind the technique is that we project a small picture of the live action. Unlike many companies who build 50ft models, we build small models and shrink the actors down to size in order to have control. The larger you go with complicated hydraulically controlled mechanisms, the less control you have – particularly in dramatic situations – so we use a small rear-projected image of the live action behind the animated model, sometimes adding matting process.

When we were presented with the story of Gulliver’s Travels’ we wanted to make it as inexpensively as possible. We had heard of the yellow backing travelling matte process used in England at that time (1959) making its own matte instantaneously using a bi-pack camera. We thought that would simplify combining big people with little people. Since we had planned 150 travelling matte shots, we came to the UK to investigate and we have been here ever since. We used the yellow backing system on three pictures, then it suddenly went out of fashion. That was the darkest day I can remember. Now, of course, we use the blue backing system.

We had just perfected the miniature projection duping process for Twenty Million Miles to Earth where you could hardly distinguish between the original negative and the Dynamation shots – and I would have liked to do the next picture that way – but Charles Spooner said you could not shoot an ‘Arabian Nights’ type picture in black and white, so we made The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad in colour. This took some experimenting as we did not have a choice of colour film which we could use for back projection plates. However, we took the plunge and it worked out quite well commercially. Not too many people found it objectionable to see rather grainy Dynamation shots intercut with the original negative. People who are technically minded are far more aware of that than the average cinema audience, although audiences today are very astute and certainly do not accept things that they would have done twenty years ago.

One of the biggest problems with colour film is contrast and change of colour and we found that the new low contrast print film, designed mainly for television, was very useful. It is much easier to control the colour balance today than it was back in 1958, when you could not leave an unfinished shot in the camera overnight. If you did, it was quite evident the next day to see a colour change jump due to the California temperature drop during the night.

Many times I set my own challenges and I find that my goal is always a little too high for the assets we have. I think that one of my greatest challenges was in Jason and the Argonauts where three men fight seven skeletons. That sequence presented a lot of problems and there were times when I averaged about thirteen frames per nine-hour day – which is less than one foot of film. The accountants got very uptight because they expected me to grind out the footage very much faster than that!

Some of the animated figures used in Jason and the Argonauts

It was necessary for me to handle all the skeletons myself as they had to be synchronised very intimately with the three miniature-projected swordsmen. The skeleton’s feet had to be fastened to the floor and, the minute they left the ground, I had to suspend them on wires for accurate control over the animation. Being keen to make the skeletons look professional, I studied fencing myself but unfortunately, I threw my hip out of joint and had to give it up!

The whole fencing sequence had to be choreographed like a ballet and broken down into numbers. We had to pre-plan the cuts ahead of time through the storyboard – and I cannot stress enough how important that it. When you get on the set you do no want to have a lot of arguments and discussions on how shots should be set up. I always make a number of pre-production drawings which aid everyone concerned in visualising just what the final effect will look like on the screen.

The famous Skeleton Fight from Jason and the Argonauts

I always prefer to animate models of animals for exotic settings and situations instead of using real animals. It is so difficult to find a talented crab who will perform just the way you want, or a baboon who can play chess! You do not want to be at the whim and mercy of a lizard, hoping he will go from point A to point B in so many seconds. I find that real lizards become lethargic under the hot studio lights and barely blink or yawn for the benefit of the camera. The animated ones will perform exactly as directed.

For the bulk of the shots in our films I prefer to use miniature rear projection instead of travelling mattes because it’s easier to execute intimate interplay between actor and model. You have the projected image right there in front of you, rather than wait for weeks to see the combined effect from an optical printer. However, we do resort to many travelling matte shots which, in themselves, are very time consuming to put together.

Dynamation is a word which really means using every trick in the trade – but there comes a point in the economics of doing stop motion animation where you cannot do as much as you would like to do in the way of retakes and careful matching. The time factor is quite considerable. The ideal situation in the future is the Chroma Key method as used in television. When this method has the same resolution as film, you will be able to make instantaneous travelling mattes. I believe that some companies are working on this at the moment.

In recent years there has been a great exposé of the ‘behind the scenes’ details of making complicated special effects. It is my belief that it rather spoils the illusion when the audience is told how it is achieved. It is like a stage magician who tells everyone how he achieves his illusions of magic – soon the audience loses interest in the show!

 

 

 

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The Art of Illusion … by Wendy Laybourn

THE BOOK!

I’ve been really busy for the past couple of years helping my Art Director friend, Terry Ackland-Snow, to write a book about working in the film Art Department. We decided to call it The Art of Illusion: Production Design for Film & Television because that’s what making a film or a television programme is all about – sorry to dis-illusion you but what you and the rest of the audience sees on the screen isn’t altogether real!

Like all good things, this project was started over a glass of wine. Maybe I should think twice next time – but I’ve really enjoyed working with Terry and helping him to pull this whole thing together.

Essentially, the book is aimed at anyone wanting to make a career in film production and it will take you through the processes involved in creating a film set step by step. Film sets have been constantly developing from the simple canvas backcloths used on theatre stages, right through to the present day where computer generated effects augment the highly sophisticated art of designing, building and dressing sets.

All of the tips, tricks and techniques described in the book have been used and refined over many decades and, although the technology might have changed, the essence of film making is still the same as it was in those early days.

The Production Designer and Art Director are artists who can adapt their style to any number of different types of production. They integrate themselves and their team into the mood and feeling of any project, comedy, musical, costume drama or science fiction. The range of materials used and the scope of the design evolve as the development of technology and visual processes year by year.

In film and television production the learning process never ends and so even the most experienced film maker will find each new project a challenge!

The book is due to be published by The Crowood Press in September, provisionally priced at £18.99 and with ISBN number 978 1 78500 343 1. It will be available to buy from all good bookshops and from the Crowood website, www.crowood.com.

 

 

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THE MAGIC OF MATTES AND MINIATURES by Leigh Took

On a location driven film when is it a waterfall and when is it a working model? When is a backdrop real and when is it a matte? This is the magic created by the skill and craft of the model and miniature effects workshop.

Leigh preparing a matte up an 80’ tower on the 1975 film ‘Last Days of Pompeii’ in Pinewood Studios

Leigh preparing a matte up an 80’ tower on the 1975 film ‘Last Days of Pompeii’ in Pinewood Studios

When I reflect on the last thirty years and how I arrived at this point in my career, the key drive has been a philosophy of enthusiasm and positivity – a strong and continuing motivation to work in film and an optimism that the British Film Industry (and in parallel, my own career) will continue to be successful whatever obstructions are thrown in the way.

Ever since I can remember I have had a keen interest in art (as I grew older this interest refined to painting, design and sculpture) and, of course, film. I was very fortunate to secure work experience at Pinewood Studios where I was able to marry my two great loves – art and film. Cliff Culley, who ran a matte painting company there, was impressed with the artwork I had taken to show him and employed me, along with four other teenagers. At that time, matte painting on glass was a very specialized thing with only a handful of people in the UK doing it, all of whom had ‘come up through the ranks’.

I decided to make myself indispensable to Cliff, managing to help out in every way I could, from making the tea to making sure there was always a clean palette and brushes for Cliff every day that he came in to paint. I became an apprentice and, as with any apprenticeship, the wages weren’t great – but without that initial opportunity I doubt I would be where I am today. Amongst the first films I worked on as a trainee were ‘Warlords of Atlantis’ in 1978 and the Ray Harryhausen film, ‘Clash of the Titans’ in 1981, combining matte work with building miniature sets.

clash of the Titans

‘Clash of the Titans’

Slowly, I got to do more drawing-up or delineation of shots, blocking in colours, steadily taking on more responsibility, until I reached the point where I could complete a shot from beginning to end, with Cliff adding a few dots and dashes to my work… after all, he was the boss!  When we weren’t so busy, I’d use any spare time I had to improve my abilities in storyboarding, designing fictitious sets, developing imaginative solutions, and ways of achieving in-camera effects and optical processes in film and multiple exposures – always bearing in mind the real world of business … budget limitations! All this was done before the introduction of ‘digital’ and it was essential to be flexible and imaginative enough to come up with new techniques for achieving the effects that were needed.As my responsibilities increased and I was completing matte paintings myself, I learned not only how necessary it was to put 150% into every job, but also to handle comments from clients – whether good or bad!  That feedback would always result in me wanting to do even better in the future – and I think that’s another thing that helps keep me going today, the desire to impress … basically, showing off!

Mutant Chronicles

Mutant Chronicles

Mutant Chronicles

Mutant Chronicles

After then working for several years with the master of special effects, Derek Meddings, on films such as ‘Batman’, I started my own company, Mattes & Miniatures, and embraced digital technology. We are fully functional with a matte studio and model and special effects workshops which allow us to combine traditional film techniques with digital post production.

After 30 years, the drive hasn’t diminished and I still feel just as excited when I’m involved in big films as I did as a teenager. After meeting Terry Gilliam on ‘The Imaginarium of  Doctor Parnassus’, I went completely mad for a few days, locking myself in the studio at Bray experimenting! Over the years I’ve built up a collection of equipment there – cameras, motion control, lights – everything needed to get creative! Ultimately we went on to build miniatures from his designs and had a fantastic time shooting them.

Angels & Demons model as seen on screen

Angels & Demons model as seen on screen

 

Angels & Demons model on set

Angels & Demons model on set

 

 

 

 

When bidding on a film, we are usually sent pre-visuals and storyboards, sections of script and a list of requirements. The fun starts with working out the best method of constructing a miniature – what it has to do, what scale to build it to – together with a breakdown of labour costs and materials. After the production has weighed up the methodology and costs, we wait for the go-ahead and, on receipt of a purchase order, invoice and, most importantly, money in the bank, it’s ‘all systems go’! Materials are ordered and technicians employed. Art Department drawings are provided in some cases and we are in constant contact with the director throughout the production. Terry Gilliam, as you might imagine, had a very clear vision in mind and so it was key to have his constant feedback as we were building the miniatures, as sometimes things that look OK on the drawing-board need to be modified once made as a 3D model (and of course everyone has to be clear of the budget ramifications of any changes to original specs).

Other times, particularly on lower-budget productions, rather than starting everything at the same time we design and make on the go, showing designs to directors and perhaps discussing ways to make models by ‘recycling’ things already around the Aladdin’s Cave that is the Mattes & Miniatures workshop in Bray. This was our approach on ‘Mutant Chronicles’.

Leigh Took and the finished model

Leigh Took and the finished model

Working on the model for Mutant Chronicles

Working on the model for Mutant Chronicles

Why bother to make miniatures at all? Why not just create the whole thing in CGI? Well – miniatures offer the opportunity to have a three-dimensional artifact which can be viewed by the camera lens as ‘real’ – and the model can be taken outside – there is no comparison to using actual daylight with a backdrop of trees and landscape in perspective with moving cloud patterns.

I hope these  highlights from my journey, together with a potted description of how I approach jobs, will be helpful to those similarly driven – those with a ‘lust for film’. At the end of my career, which I don’t envisage coming for a good 20 years or so yet (!), nothing would please me more than to have the feeling that, through my own work, I have encouraged and helped others to pursue the career of their dreams and be successful in doing so.

Leigh Took’s film credits include: Bohpal – 2013, The Wolfman – 2010, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus – 2009, Angels & Demons – 2009, Inkheart – 2008, Mutant Chronicles – 2008, Stardust – 2007, Highlander, The Source – 2007, The DaVinci Code – 2006, The Descent – 2005, Ella Enchanted – 2004, Guest House Paradiso – 1999, Lost in Space – 1998, The Neverending Story II – 1990, The Rainbow Thief – 1990, Batman – 1989, The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen – 1988, Hawk the Slayer – 1980. Television credits include: The First Men in the Moon – 2010, Band of Brothers – 2001, The 10th Kingdom – 2000.

SOME USEFUL VISUAL PROCESSES:

FORCED PERSPECTIVE is a technique developed not only for miniatures but in the construction of full-size film sets – for example, in a street scene, the buildings will start to condense towards the end of the road and perhaps a ramp will be used to create a false horizon (readers take note of the comments on the Supergirl set in Terry Ackland-Snow’s article) It is a natural follow-on that this technique is used in building miniatures which means that a quite large landscape can be fitted into a condensed layered form so that, from the camera’s point of view, it looks like the real thing. The camera position might need to be locked off in a particular position but it gives an opportunity to create depth of field in a miniature.

LATENT IMAGING is an invisible image produced by the physical or chemical effects of light on the individual crystals (usually silver halide) of photographic emulsions; the development process makes the image visible, in the negative. Shoot a plate (a locked off shot of a landscape, say) then mask off the top half of the matte box on the front of the camera so you only expose half of the film. Take a small piece of that film to be processed then project that piece of film through the camera onto a piece of glass, then draw off the shot and extend it up and incorporate it with whatever is needed in the shot – eg castle or distant landscape or sky. Work on the matte painting and scrape away the bottom where the negative was projecting the plate footage, combining a painting with an unprocessed negative to create a final shot.

FRONT PROJECTION – tiny reflective glass beads, which are an integral part of cinema projection screens, are used in front projection material. The actor (or subject) performs in front of the reflective screen with a movie camera pointing straight at him. In front of the camera is a beam-splitter – a one-way mirror angled at 45 degrees. At 90 degrees to the camera is a projector which casts a faint image of the background on to the one-way mirror which reflects the image onto the performer and the screen; the image is too faint to appear on the actor but shows up clearly on the screen. In this way, the actor becomes his own matte. The combined image is transmitted through the one-way mirror and recorded by the camera.

To see more of Leigh Took’s work, check out Mattes & Miniatures Visual Effects Ltd www.mattesandminiatures.co.uk

 

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THE BUSINESS OF SNOW by Darcey E Crownshaw

Even today, when filming on real snow locations, the logistics of getting equipment, cast and crew safely on and off the snowbound sets adds a whole new dimension to the challenges faced by any production.  These challenges are even greater when filming on mountains, frozen lakes or within the Arctic Circle.  When a film crew work on an area of real snow, it soon turns to mud any area requiring ‘virgin snow’ can only be used for one take, costumes get wet, cast, crew and equipment freeze, trucks get stuck.  No movie in this age has the budget to wait for real snow to arrive when falling snow or blizzards are required….from an article published in Network Nine News     www.snowbusiness.com

 

Lillian Gish in the 1920 film ‘Way Down East’ working in freezing conditions!

In 1920 D W Griffith made what some people class as the greatest movie of all time, ‘Way Down East’ (1920) starring Lillian Gish.  Mr Griffith wanted realism at any cost, he wanted nothing to do with the white painted cornflakes that were regularly used as studio snow at that time. For the climax of the movie, Anna (Lillian’s character) was to be driven out into the blizzard and stumble on to the rivers of moving ice. 

Lillian Gish wrote …”‘Our house was near the studio and I was to report to work at any hour that snow started to fall, as we had both day and night scenes to film.  It was a late but severe winter; even Long Island Sound was frozen over.  I slept with one eye open, waiting for the blizzard. Winter dragged on and was almost over and still those important scenes hadn’t been filmed. The blizzard finally struck in March.  Drifts eight feet high swallowed the studio.  Mr Griffith, Billy, the staff and assistant directors stood with their backs to the gale, bundled up in coats, mufflers, hats and gloves.  To hold the camera upright, three men lay on the ground, gripping the tripod legs.  A small fire burned directly beneath the camera to keep the oil from freezing.

Again and again, I struggled through the storm.  Once I fainted – and it wasn’t in the script.  I was hauled to the studio on a sled, thawed out with hot tea and then brought back to the blizzard, where the others were waiting.  We filmed all day and all night, stopping only to eat, standing near a bonfire.  We never went inside, even for a short warm-up.  The torture of returning to the cold wasn’t worth the temporary warmth. The blizzard never slackened.  At one point, the camera froze.  There was an excruciating delay as the men, huddled against the wind, trying to get another fire started.  At one time my face was caked with a crust of ice and snow and icicles like little spikes formed on my eyelashes, making it difficult to keep my eyes open.

Above the storm Mr Griffith shouted: ‘Billy, move! Get that face! That face – get that face!’ – ‘I will,’ Billy shouted, ‘if the oil doesn’t freeze in the camera!’ Although he worked with his back to the wind whenever possible, Mr Griffiths’ face froze.  A trained nurse was at his side for the rest of the blizzard and the winter scenes. We lost several members of our crew to pneumonia as the result of exposure…..”

Even today, when filming on real snow locations, the logistics of getting equipment, cast and crew safely on and off the snowbound sets adds a whole new dimension to the challenges faced by any production.  These challenges are even greater when filming on mountains, frozen lakes or within the Arctic Circle.  When a film crew work on an area of real snow, it soon turns to mud and any area requiring ‘virgin snow’ can only be used for one take, costumes get wet, cast, crew and equipment freezes, trucks get stuck.  No movie in this age has the budget to wait for real snow to arrive when falling snow or blizzards are required.

Artificial snows solved these problems but at the same time created a whole bunch of new ones.  Snow Business has dedicated itself to developing and producing new materials and methods of application over the last 25 years.

Unbelievably, white asbestos became popular for a time in the 1930’s and 1940’s. It can be seen in films like ‘The Wizard of Oz’ (1939).  At that time white asbestos could also be bought over the counter (packaged as an artificial snow) for the family use on the Christmas tree!  

‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ (1946) used white sand and gypsum to create the snow dressing.  Wet foam was used for the falling snow and this can be seen streaking over George Bailey’s (played by James Stewart) costume during the car crash scene.  Modern dry foams do not do this, they are much more realistic. They have controllable size and rate of fall, the snowflakes look like snowflakes and are self-clearing.  Our dry foam systems are now in use around the world at huge public venues and we used them to obtain the Guinness world record for the largest area ever covered with artificial falling snow (over a mile of Bond Street in London).

For the cavalry charge across the frozen river in ‘Dr Zhivago’ (1965) white marble dust was laid over steel sheets.  Marble dust is heavy, expensive and very difficult to remove, any remnants that remain form a semi-permanent white patch in the landscape.  Today, modern cellulose dusts can be used – they are more versatile, faster to lay and have the key advantage of leaving the location clean. They have even been authorised for use on SSSI and other sensitive sites. 

The ‘ice palace’ scenes from ‘Dr Zhivago’ were created using paraffin wax dressed over white wadding.  Paraffin wax has been used since the beginning of film to simulate ice and icicles but it was only with the making of ‘Day After Tomorrow’ (2004), that bespoke equipment was designed to dress the huge areas quickly and safely.  Modern Ice Waxes have now been developed for spraying which do not yellow under sunlight (for longevity) and are much harder (allowing for use in hot climates).

Three stages of set dressing for ‘John Adams’ in 2008. Left: location before preparation. Centre: prepared with SnowMembrane. Right: set dressed with SnowCel

Urea formaldehyde foam, a two-part foam mix that sets into place, was very popular from the late 60’s to the early 80’s.  It can be seen in ‘Dr Doolittle’ (1969) where it was used to dress the streets and rooftops of Castle Coombe in Gloucestershire.  Urea formaldehyde foam can look fantastic, particularly for large blocks of snow but it is a devil to remove, particularly from surfaces like Cotswold stone.  Modern SnowWhite replaces it, this foam is free of Beetlejuice and CFC’s.  It can be removed easily by jet washing and when disposed of, it biodegrades.

Dendretic salt was very popular in the 1980’s but as with all salts (and sand) it moves in a different way to real snow and more importantly is poisonous, corrosive and capable of doing severe and expensive damage to any location. Magnesium Sulphate was considered at that time as the best snow available (until SnowCel was invented), although it was very expensive it had the advantages of a lovely sparkle and being non-corrosive.  As with all salts it is heavy and, when laid outside, will completely disappear with one nights’ rain.  It cannot be dressed onto roofs or foliage and it has the disadvantage, when used in quantity, of killing plant life. When it is washed into porous stonework, it leaches out over decades leaving an ugly white tidemark.   All unacceptable to the property owner!

Artifical snow and ice on location

Today, there are many types of paper-based products on the market that can be used as snow but caution has to be exercised as many of them contain salts, fungicides, pesticides and even Borax.  The SnowCel range is the only product specifically designed for use on movie sets (fireproof) and locations (chemical free).

Modern paper based snows are light and can be laid at amazing speed.  The delivery systems blow the snow into the air so that it settles just like real snow, the material passes through a high-pressure water mist so that when it makes contact it ‘bonds’ to the surface (sticking inches deep even to inverted surfaces).   The paper does not kill or damage plants and cannot be absorbed into porous stonework thus avoiding any later staining. 

It is crucial to ensure that before any snow is laid, the location is correctly prepared.  Huge rolls of SnowMembrane (600 sq m) are used to cover lawn and garden areas before any loose snow dressing is applied.  The membrane allows water and sunlight to pass through whilst still being strong enough to gallop a horse across. On wrap, snow is washed off the trees and shrubs on to the membrane, the membrane is then rolled up to leave a spotless location underneath.

Falling snow technology has moved forward tremendously in recent years.  Modern ground based machinery can deliver vast amounts of snow into the air almost silently to fill acres with realistic, slow-falling, self-clearing snow.  Gone are the days of plastic flake or the Polystyrene beads that seem to last forever haunting old movie locations for many years whenever the wind changes. 

On any modern movie snow set you can expect to see a combination of seven or eight types of snow in use at any one time.  SnowMembrane to protect the location. SnowCel Full Size paper to give depth, SnowCel Half Size paper to give refinement.  SnowSparkle top dressing to add that ‘twinkle’.  Polymer top dressing for improved tracks and pick up on costume, PowderFrost or SnowEx to fill in background, BioFlake for use as falling snow and IceWax white to simulate that frozen mountain ‘crust’ to break realistically under footfall.

Snow being laid

Gone are the days of dressing snow by hand using scoops, shovels or stirrup pumps.  Machines create a natural dressing at a non-stop rate of up to 2 sq m per second.  Modern artificial ice is sprayed by all electric, computer-controlled technology at a rate of up to 1 sq m per minute.

Gone are the days of toxic materials and damaged locations. By selecting the right material and processes and by doing the correct preparation, any location can be dressed realistically and can be left undamaged.  Work is completed regularly on the most sensitive of sites, including SSSI, English Heritage and National Trust properties.

Modern materials are recycled, eco friendly, biodegradable and incorporate low embodied energy.  The paper used is chlorine free, the cellulose is from managed, renewable sources. Work has already started on auditing each type of snow in order to issue a full eco-rating covering its manufacture, use and disposal.  That way we enable productions to make even better and more informed choices for filming.

CGI has created the opportunity for filmmakers to make even more ambitious snow and winter effects movies.  Films such as ‘Day After Tomorrow’, ‘Alien vs. Predator’ and ‘Star Trek’ allow practical snow making skills to be developed even further, ensuring the continuation of the industry into the future and benefitting all productions through the availability of better equipment and materials.

SNOW BUSINESS FILM CREDITS INCLUDE: The Way Back – 2010; Star Trek – 2009; Benjamin Button – 2008; Quantum of Solace – 2008; The Golden Compass – 2007; The Bourne Ultimatum – 2007; Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – 2005; Nanny McPhee – 2005; Batman Begins – 2005; The Day After Tomorrow – 2004; Phantom of the Opera – 2004; Harry Potter & The Prisoner of Askaban; Cold Mountain – 2003; TELEVISION CREDITS: John Adams – 2008; Emmerdale – 2008; Eastenders – 2007; Hogfather – 2006; Dr Who – 2005; Band of Brothers – 2001  

 

 
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Posted by on July 20, 2012 in Art Department, Set Construction

 

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STORYBOARD MAN!……or how to tell the story in pictures

The following is from an article by Martin Asbury in Network Nine News.  www.network-nine.com

Martin Asbury

A good storyboard artist has to know, understand and love film. He has to think like a camera and draw pictures as stills of movement. He has to tell you all you need to know about what you will see on screen but leave that little bit out for the imagination and invention.

Cutting my speed to 150 m.p.h. I fly low in a sweeping curve, banking with my crimson cloak streaming out behind me. I swoop in a wide graceful curve over the Film Studios dropping down and landing lithely in the car park on the balls of my feet – like a cat.

The security guard outside the Production Office instantly recognises me. “Thank God you’re here!” he exclaims.

As I stride into the office the Co-ordinator screams with delight. “Thank God you’re here!” she squeals. “The Director – he’s in his office” she smiles wanly. “Go on through.”

Brief, firm knock on the door and I enter. The man at the desk is slumped, his head in his hands. He raises his head, grey faced rheumy blood shot eyes staring at me.

“Storyboardman! Thank God you’re here!” he says. “No problem sir.” I reply. “I’m here to help.”

Quickly I undo my compact drawing tools, sitting opposite him and fixing him with a reassuring yet piercing gaze. I open my sketch book.

“Now what’s the first sequence in the script?”

In the past the making of a film was governed by the script. It was honed and nurtured and worked upon, re-written and re-written. When completed to everyone’s satisfaction it was almost set in concrete. It became the Bible – but these days there appears to be more impediments and pitfalls than ever to this process. Constant writing and re-writing of the script through the prep period can only increase the budget and cause wasted effort. I tell stories in pictures – I have told stories in pictures for all my life. So, if I were asked to direct a film, I would for sure write or draw down what I wanted to do before shooting any sequence – a shot list or stick figures.  It is common sense. Nobody in their right mind would walk onto set with no preparation and no plan.

All those people waiting – all the actors, the producers, the first second third fourth fifth sixth and seventh assistant directors, the lighting cameraman the gaffers, the stage hands, the assistants, the stand-bys – well, you know how it is.. and you are there with nothing in your head..  everyone looking..  it doesn’t bear thinking about!  So, the need for storyboarding becomes obvious.

Over the years they have been used extensively, from ‘Gone with the Wind’ and virtually every film since. On the basis that one picture tells a thousand words, a finished board shows everyone what the director has planned, what they have to do, where they have to be and what they are going to try and achieve.

The Director leans forward conspiratorially. “I need something really dramatic for the opening sequence.”

I tap my pencil. “How about an extreme top shot craning down to a quick track then pan followed by a jib up, jib down low angle Steadicam handheld Skycam sort of locked off shot which favours the star?” I say.

He gasps. “Is that possible?  Can we do that?”  

“We can do anything.” I reply.

Storyboards are not gospel. They serve as a starting point. They can be, and often are, discarded when events or maybe better options present themselves on the day. They can show what to do but, more importantly, what not to do. A whole 360º set might not be necessary to build. A scene can possibly be cut without detrimental effect to the story or can be revealed as being too costly. They can show whether set or location, when explosions and other special effects might occur or how, for example, to shoot the double of the star in one location whilst at the same time the star himself is shooting on another set elsewhere. They can show how to heighten drama with oh-such-cunning angles and camera moves and, of course, are almost indispensable to the ubiquitous car chase. They save time. They save money.

A side door opens and a large-framed man is framed in the frame. I frame a clever remark but the Director leaps to his feet.

“Problem solved!” He bellows. “Thank God for Storyboardman! What we’re going to do is: an extreme top shot craning down to a quick track then…”  

“Stop!”  The Producer steps forward, face grim. “Slow down! We may not have the money for it.” 

“But..but.. “ The Director gulps. “What about my dream?.. my vision?”

A successful storyboard will reflect the director’s vision, the concept that he has nursed for many months and translate it into usable workable drawings which the whole of the production team will understand. Everyone hopefully singing from the same hymn sheet. To achieve this the artist should try and get inside the director’s head – not to second guess him but to realise his dream for the first time in a visual way.

That sounds grandiose but nevertheless is essentially true. The storyboard is the very first time the script is translated into pictures.

Every director is different and every director wants something different. Some will be most specific about the way they see a sequence down to precise angles, framing and composition. Others will talk you through the scene detailing particular shots they are anxious to include -; a pan here, a track there, low or top shots, the lens to be used, the composition needed -and the storyboard artist will then make the smooth transition and join up the dots.  Others will allow complete carte blanche and the artist can make his own individual pass at the scene, presenting his own take to the director for perusal and criticism. Rarely in such a case does the director accept the offer-up completely and he might not like it at all – but usually much more discussion follows until he is satisfied. He may accept some of it, alter and revise bits or just cherry pick what he wants. All the time though, he is the sole arbiter of what is finally presented to the film’s producers and the rest of the unit.

The Director, leaning against his desk. “We cannot proceed unless we have a plan.”

Storyboardman  “… and I have that plan.”  Quickly I stand up. The Producer’s eyes widen as he takes in my perfectly formed body. 

I am resolute.  “Let me explain.” I say. I outline my extraordinary idea and with every second see him slowly relax, taking it all on board. I finish talking. I am satisfied.

He lowers his gaze. “You really are the one.” He mutters. “Truly  you are wonderful!  I never would have thought of that.”

The storyboard artist is to the director what the concept artist is to the designer. He is a utensil, pure and simple. If he is worth his salt he will support and aid the director in all his endeavours. If successful, his boards can save a huge amount of money and prevent an equal amount of heartache. If nothing else they can offer up a back stop – a safety net if you will – and be the building blocks to gain the most out of any given sequence. They can kick off discussion or decision.

Nowadays with the advent and growth of the use of Previs, the line between the two approaches has become somewhat blurred. Previs are fantastic. They can be totally accurate in that they can demonstrate what any scene will look like from any given camera position, any lens, any lighting source. Clearly a wonderful tool for any director. At the moment they are expensive and take quite a while to produce but I am sure all that, in time, will change. When that day happens maybe storyboards per se will cease to exist – but I hope not. I still feel that the immediacy of drawing to the director on the spot cannot be substituted. A sudden change to shooting requirements can necessitate an instant storyboard. The good artist can block out a whole sequence in a couple of days and provide a cost-effective kick start for the whole creative process.

I quickly draw 1000 frames a day and complete the whole film in two weeks. Needless to say the whole of the production team is overcome and in awe of my dexterity and expertise.

As I present the final sequence to the gathered company the Producer rises to his feet his eyes watery and sad.

“Hey you guys – the Production Company has decided that they are against the whole idea. They are pulling out. We’re not going to make the film after all. See you on the next. Sorry about that….”

A good storyboard artist has to know, understand and love film. He has to think like a camera and draw pictures as stills of movement. He has to tell you all you need to know about what you will see on screen but leave that little bit out for the imagination and invention. An accomplished storyboard is good for what it tells you. If it is drawn well with excitement feeling and vigour then all to the good but it is all about information and communication. For that is why we are all involved in this business. We inform, we communicate, we tell stories and all in pictures.

Martin Asbury’s credit list as a Storyboard Artist includes such films as: ‘Malificent’, ’47 Ronin’, ‘Skyfall’. ‘Snow White & the Huntsman’, ‘The Cold Light of Day’, ‘Captain America’, the ‘Harry Potter’ series, ‘Quantum of Solace’, ‘Wanted’, ‘Casino Royale’, ‘The Da Vinci Code’, ‘Batman Begins’, ‘Die Another Day’, ‘Resident Evil’, ‘Chicken Run’, ‘Entrapment’, ‘Tomb Raider’, ‘Alexander’, ‘Troy’, ‘Michael Collins’, ‘Labyrinth’ and ‘Legend’.

He also took over as the artist for ‘Garth’, the cartoon strip in the Daily Mirror, from 1971 until its final episode in 1997. www.martinasbury.com

 
 

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The Art Department

Terry on the set of 'Supergirl' in 1984

The Art Department usually employs the largest number of people on any film crew. On big budget fantasy, period drama or sci-fi films, the Art Department Offices, Drawing and Construction Studios can occupy a vast area and employ hundreds of talented people.

 

The following is an extract from an article by Terry Ackland-Snow in Network Nine News:

I really believe that, in order to maintain the art of draughtsmanship, existing practitioners should bridge the generational gaps between ‘ways of doing things’. The best way to achieve this is to have young people taught by the practitioners themselves – with their knowledge and experience. People starting out in the industry must fully understand the role of an Art Director and the Art Department through basic knowledge in design, camera operation, direction, editing techniques – plus scheduling and budget requirements. The Art Department is unique in running its own budget during a production so, to be a successful Art Director, not only do you have to be able to create and visualise, as well as control and inspire a team of people – but also have a full understanding of the financial aspects involved.

It has always been my aim to make sure that the new generation of film makers are fully apprised of the art of creating illusion on film.  I have, for several years now, successfully run a course which allows people to learn the traditional art of draughting, CAD drawings, sets and models – along with trick photography and CGI.

Having been in this industry long enough to witness all the changes myself, I think it is so important to continue the outstanding work of the Art Department that has been developing over the last century.  I also truly believe that, in order to make best use of the incredible technology available in today’s market, the basic skills which created so many classics have to be absorbed and understood.

To check out Terry’s Film Design course go to www.filmdi.com 

Terry Ackland-Snow’s credits include: ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’, ‘Papillon’, ‘Death on the Nile’, ‘Aliens’, ‘Superman II & III’, ‘Supergirl’, ‘Labyrinth’, ‘Batman’ and ‘The Deep’

 
 
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Posted by on January 17, 2012 in Art Department, Set Construction

 

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