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Category Archives: Post Production

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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BEING A JUNIOR COLOURIST … by Aurora Shannon

I found going from Assistant to Junior Colourist very difficult as there was no set path. The leap from assisting on big films to grading is huge, at least 15 years of experience sat between myself and the colourists I had been assisting. I had already sort of taught myself how to grade, by watching the colourists, working through the manual, playing with the tools and grading shorts in my own time.

Aurora Shannon

Aurora Shannon

I first discovered filmmaking during a summer course where I wrote and directed a 16mm short called ‘Noise’. I had just left school with little idea of what I wanted to do except for a general sense of creativity and this inspired me to study BTEC ND Media Moving Image at Lewisham College and BA(Hon) Broadcast Post-Production at Ravensbourne College of Design and Communication, as well as joining a number of young people’s filmmaking groups and courses, where I continued to experiment with filmmaking and animation throughout my studies.

The transition to post-production came very naturally to me, as I found the seemingly limitless possibilities of digital tools incredibly creative. During my time at Ravensbourne where I was, in effect, training to be an editor, I discovered colour grading on an old Avid Symphony. There were only a few basic tools – saturation, brightness and so on – but seeing how they could transform an image was inspiring and, after discovering how to key and change a colour on Quantel I, was transfixed.

Half way through my last year I decided to focus solely on colour grading and spent my work experience unit at Soho Images, as it was the only facility in London to have a laboratory for processing film, a telecine for grading rushes and digital intermediate for grading features, all in one location.

I worked as a Runner but spent as much time as I could sitting with the Features Colourist Rob Pizzey, just watching what he did and asking the occasional question. He seemed to be impressed by these questions and he asked me to stay on, so I was offered a four day a week Runner position in the digital intermediate department – which is now known as Company 3 London. I did this job throughout the last term of university and so, by the time I graduated, I had already stopped being a Runner and was Assisting in scanning and recording.

'Quantum of Solace' (2008), the first film I assisted on with colourists Stephan Nakamura and Rob Pizzey

‘Quantum of Solace’ (2008), the first film I assisted on with Colourists Stephan Nakamura and Rob Pizzey

A few months later I was asked to assist Stephan Nakamura, a Colourist from Company 3 LA, who came to London to grade ‘Quantum of Solace’, although in reality it was the other way round with him very patiently teaching me how to colourtrace and do other basic tasks! After that project ended I carried on as Digital Intermediate Assistant and had the privilege to assist some of the best Colourists in the business, Rob Pizzey, Adam Glasman, Stefan Sonnenfeld, Stephan Nakamura and Mitch Paulson, on over 70 features.

 

'Act of Memory: A Christmas Story ' (2011), the first short that I graded with director Jack Ryder
‘Act of Memory: A Christmas Story ‘ (2011), the first short that I graded with Director Jack Ryder

 

One of the most embarrassing things that happened while I was assisting and still learning the basics of grading, was when I was asked to do a grading test with a cinematographer I really admire, as the Colourist was unavailable. I was reassured that he would just tell me what he wanted me to do and it would be very simple – but every time he asked me to do something like ‘move the highlight towards magenta’ it would go the other way, the exact opposite – until he eventually gave up on the session. I then found out that there are two modes on the system, the Da Vinci Resolve – rank and vector. I was accustomed to using vector as it’s the default but the Colourist had his project set to rank, meaning that everything is the opposite like on the older systems – so I now double check before I begin!

'Arthur Christmas' (2011), the first film that I operated the 3D convergence for with stereographer Corey Turner

‘Arthur Christmas’ (2011), the first film that I operated the 3D convergence for with Stereographer Corey Turner

My proudest moments have always been when I’ve really pushed myself, which happens to some extent on every project I grade. The best yet was asking one of our clients if I could grade the short she was editing, when I hadn’t yet done any – and then watching it on Sky Arts with my family on Christmas Day – which was pretty special and extremely rewarding as it kick-started me into grading my own projects.

'Wonderful Pistachos- Get Crackin’ (2012), the first commercial I graded in affiliation with Frankenweenie

‘Wonderful Pistachos- Get Crackin’ (2012), the first commercial I graded in affiliation with Frankenweenie

A disappointing occasion was when I was approached to grade a really great documentary after the director saw some of my work, but I was unable to meet their deadline and had to pass it up and it went on to win an extraordinary number of awards – but then really surprising things can happen too, I met a friend of a friend at a pub and went on to grade both of his shorts and will be grading his first feature later in the year.

I found going from Assistant to Junior Colourist very difficult as there was no set path. The leap from assisting on big films to grading is huge, at least 15 years of experience sat between myself and the colourists I had been assisting. I had already sort of taught myself how to grade, by watching the colourists, working through the manual, playing with the tools and grading shorts in my own time.

'Snow White and the Huntsman' (2012), the first film I graded all the visual effect backplates for under the guidance of colourist Adam Glasman

‘Snow White and the Huntsman’ (2012), the first film I graded all the visual effect backplates for under the guidance of Colourist Adam Glasman

As my colleagues saw me doing this they began to give me little bits of work – or I asked and sometimes got a ‘yes’ – so slowly my confidence and their trust in my ability built up over the course of about three years until I was doing the video grades, trailers and affiliated commercials, cut changes, new shots and scenes, ‘outsourced’ shots with complicated grades, visual effect backplates and providing additional grading hours on big projects.

'Dead Cat' (released 2013), the first feature I graded in a lead role with Director Stefan Georgiou and Director of Photography Jun Keung Cheung

‘Dead Cat’ (released 2013), the first feature I graded in a lead role with Director Stefan Georgiou and Director of Photography Jun Keung Cheung

Eventually, as clients responded well and I demonstrated that I was ready to take on ‘proper’ work, I was promoted to Junior Colourist. The work is similar to what I did before but the grading side, which of course I enjoy the most, has increased significantly, along with the prestige of the projects that I get to lead on.

So, my advice to anyone wanting to make a career in post-production is to do as much work experience as possible whilst at university so you can find out exactly which aspect you want to pursue – be persistent, learn from your mistakes and, above all, be patient – there’s a lot to learn and there are no short cuts!

'Rush' (2013), the first film I graded the video deliverables for with Director of Photography Anthony Dod Mantle - and also provided additional grading for the main version and  the trailers

‘Rush’ (2013), the first film I graded the video deliverables for with Director of Photography Anthony Dod Mantle – and also provided additional grading for the main version and the trailers

Aurora Shannon, Junior Colourist at Company 3 London

Aurora Shannon’s film credits include: Jack Ryan; The Counselor; Captain Phillips; Rush; World War Z; Les Miserables; Skyfall; Frankenweenie; Anna Karenina; Snow White & The Huntsman; Wrath of the Titans; The Woman in Black; The Iron Lady; The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel; The Inbetweeners Movie; The Decoy Bride; Paul; Prince of Persia – The Sands of Time; Nanny McPhee Returns; Green Zone. Television credits: The Gruffalo; The Promise; The Special Relationship.

http://www.imdb.com/name/nm3381741/?ref_=fn_al_nm_1

 

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