RSS

Category Archives: Set Construction

Film Set Build, Scenic Painting, Ornamental Plastering etc

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!

 

 

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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 illusion is what making a film or a television programme is all about – what 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.

The Art of Illusion will be available on 11th September from all good bookshops and on-line providers with ISBN number 978 1 78500 343 1. If you want to pre-order you can take advantage a discount offered by the publisher, Crowood Press on Crowood Press

 

 

 

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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  

 

 
1 Comment

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

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Apprentice Ornamental Plasterer

Aaron standing in front of a set from ‘Hugo' in Shepperton Studios - 2010

The plasterer needs the technical skills and the creative ability to be able to construct realistic props and materials which blend in with the surrounding period details and must be able to understand and interpret technical drawings.

From an article published in Network Nine News – if you would like to receive the magazine please contact info@network-nine.com – it’s only £12 for a years’ subscription! 

My journey as an apprentice ornamental plasterer in the film industry has been an enjoyable and rewarding one. So far I have learned a variety of different skills which I know that I can fine tune over my career.

I attended Acton College beginning with the basics of solid plastering and then, during my second year I was introduced to a different form of plastering – fibrous – which opened a whole new aspect of the world of plaster! I immediately felt that I’d found something which stretched my technical and creative capabilities and which I could envisage myself doing for life.

I was introduced to this field by Charles Green, a plasterer in the film industry and my mentor. He came to the college and chose six boys to participate in a short movie set building course.  

This short course taught me so much more and then Charles chose three boys, including me, to have a go at working on a film set so I went on to work for Ken Barley, Head of Department Ornamental Plasterer on ‘Prince of Persia – The Sands of Time’ which was an amazing experience!

This film acted as a stepping stone and the start of my career in the film industry. Since then I have worked on ‘Robin Hood’ and ‘John Carter of Mars’ for Doug Allen, who has also been very influential – and I am currently working again for Ken Barley on ‘Hugo’ – so he must have thought that I did a good job on ‘Prince of Persia’!

On this film I will finish my apprenticeship and within a year I will have completed my improvers training. Working hard on the initial training process is essential.

The plasterer needs the technical skills and the creative ability to be able to construct realistic props and materials which blend in with the surrounding period details and must be able to understand and interpret technical drawings. Above all, we need to work with the team, be punctual, pleasant and willing to do what is needed to finish the job on time and within budget.  

I’m now looking forward to a long and fulfilling career in the film industry.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on April 13, 2012 in Set Construction

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Ornamental Plasterer

Ken Barley

Ornamental plasterers working in film production are skilled craftsmen, with traditional solid craft abilities as well as being skilled fibrous plasterers. They are able to make complex moulds and model casts from solid plaster or fibreglass.  The job requires extensive experience, combined with creative skills and the ability to work under pressure and to strict deadlines. Film Ornamental Plasterers have usually progressed to this role after spending some time working as domestic plasterers and most will have accredited qualifications, such as the Intermediate Construction Award, or CITB NVQ in Plastering.

This is from an article written by Ken Barley in Network Nine News. If you want further information contact me through www.network-nine.com

When people think of plastering they don’t always realise how many different disciplines are involved. To start with, we work with at least 8 or 10 different types of plaster and aggregates plus various vermiculites to get all different textures – this is a hard thing to be able to do.

My supervisor and good friend Michael Gardiner is, without a doubt, the best texturer I have seen. Not everybody can do texturing – it’s an art and you either can do it well or you can’t – and he can! On ‘Sweeney Todd’ he did it on his own just using photographs, every brick and stone finish carved and moulded. He’s never won an Oscar but he sure helped Mr. Dante Ferretti to get one for that film!

We use many types of foam rubber, silicone, fibreglass – all different kinds – mattings, translucent glass for ice etc. In one of the ‘Bond’ films, an ice set was built entirely by plasterers – I know because I cast the bar in the ice hotel!

The first job I did in silicone was on ‘Alien’ in 1978 when I moulded the clay alien sculpture for H R Giger, the ‘alien’ designer. For the first suit mould we used a 7ft man, now of course there is CGI and motion capture. From the mould the first prototype suit was made in a translucent resin, again by the plasterers. 

We use lots of methods for textures and have to turn metal into wood, plastic into concrete etc on a regular basis. On ‘Stardust’ we textured a whole set on smooth ply to make it look really olde-worlde, which saved some of the budget.

I’ve worked on far too many films to remember in this article. Working abroad for me is such a great experience. The films I’ve worked on overseas that I’d like to specially mention for the quality of the architectural work are ‘Michael Collins’, ‘Timeline’, ‘The Day After Tomorrow’ and ‘Mummy III’.

For me the industry has changed over the years, apprentices now do only three years and that’s just not long enough – I’m still learning, so I think that I’ve just finished my 47th year as an apprentice!!  I worry that in ten years time the Heads of Department are going to find it difficult to get craftsmen with enough experience and range of talents to service all the films of the future, unless something positive is done about the situation. Budgets seem to be tighter and tighter with less time to do the job properly without the right training.

Recently I had the pleasure of working on ‘The Prince of Persia’ – what a fantastic job. All the plasterers did fabulous work and the sets were the best, architecturally, I have ever been involved with. Construction Manager Brian Neighbour and the team on that film should be very proud of their achievement. Construction crews don’t get the credit they deserve – all those amazing sets you see on the screen wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t for the many people working behind the scenes.

Prince of Persia - Sky Chamber

I hope that the next generation enjoy their life in the industry as much as I have. It’s an exciting career with new challenges every day – and you never know where and what your next film will be – but be prepared to have lots of time out without film work, it’s the nature of the beast.

Ken Barley’s credits include: ‘Snow White and the Huntsman’, ‘Hugo’, ‘Green Zone’, ‘Prince of Persia’, ‘Mummy III’, ‘Sweeney Todd’, ‘Stardust’, ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’, ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’, ‘Phantom of the Opera’, ‘Star Wars I, II & III’, ‘The Day After Tomorrow’, ‘Michael Collins’, ‘Fifth Element’, ‘The Witches’, ‘Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom’, ‘Star Wars – Return of the Jedi’, ‘Dark Crystal’, ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’, ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’, ‘American Werewolf in London’, ‘A Bridge Too Far’, ‘The Man Who Would be King’.

 
6 Comments

Posted by on January 20, 2012 in Set Construction

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

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’

 
 
1 Comment

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

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

 
%d bloggers like this: