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The Stuntman’s World by Jim Dowdall

Fom the perspective of one who has been ‘at it’ for rather a long time and should know better by now!

Jim Dowdall

Jim Dowdall

When I came into the industry in the 1960’s as an armourer with Bapty’s, my first film was ‘The Dirty Dozen’ – and what a picture that was to cut your teeth on!

Surrounded by the legendary luminaries of both the acting and technical departments, I began to realise that, despite my mother’s exhortations that I would be destitute for life without the obligatory 5 ‘O’ levels and 2 ‘A’ levels, it might be possible to make a living in an industry that neither required nor asked for bits of paper – and that my single English ‘O’ level was not required on the voyage!

A prior spell working with big cats as a beastman for Bertram Mills Circus, with a bit of trapeze thrown in and a number of other odd jobs, had infected me with the ‘adventure bug’ and, having left the armoury business some time after finishing on ‘Where Eagles Dare’, I joined the Parachute Regiment, got the Champion Recruit’s Cup and thought that the army was going to be my career – but a parachuting accident left me unfit and I was invalided out 18 months later.

It was now the early 1970’s and the film business was booming, so I enrolled with the ‘Ugly’ agency and a couple of others to get some walk-on work and thus acquire the very desirable (and hard to come by in those days) Equity card.

Being catapulted through an explosion for the boat chase on ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’ - 1989

Being catapulted through an explosion for the boat chase on ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’ – 1989

 

The Stunt Register was just being formed as a professional stunt body within the remit of Equity and I squeezed in with a few of the stunt contracts I had acquired working for an agency called ‘Havoc…Specialists in Hazards’.Since then, life seems to have been a fantastic whirl of various films, TV shows, commercials and occasionally, live shows (which are always unnerving for their very real inability to ‘go again’)

The normal course of events runs like most productions with a script being offered, various meetings to ‘get the job’ and then the business of breaking down the ‘gag’ to work out the best way of translating the director’s wishes into the camera – and always within the limitations of the producers depth of pocket. Of course, just occasionally, one gets the chance to work on various productions (like the earlier Bonds) where you just said what bits of kit and personnel were required and it was so.

 

This was in Iceland doubling Pierce Brosnan in the Aston Martin on the ice chase for ‘Die Another Day’ in 2002. Remarkable likeness (I don’t think!!)

This was in Iceland doubling Pierce Brosnan in the Aston Martin on the ice chase for ‘Die Another Day’ in 2002. Remarkable likeness (I don’t think!!)

The early days of Bond were a real eye opener for me as everything (as on all productions in those days) was shot in-camera and we would sometimes have weeks of rehearsals either on location or in the Band Room at Pinewood Studios – which would be fully kitted out with mats, trampolines and all the other bits of equipment which might be required, usually for the ‘end sequence’ in the villains lair, which then had to be blown up over a number of days. When we did the submarine sequence for ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ (for which the famous Pinewood 007 stage was constructed) filming began shortly after Christmas in a very cold January on a vast stage with a requirement for a number of us to do ‘falls’ into the water. Although we would be paid a stunt ‘adjustment’ for these falls, there was a certain ‘hanging back’ as we knew that it would be unlikely that we would have time to change into a dry costume before take two – and few of us owned such a sophisticated piece of kit as a wet suit!

As the astronaut on ‘Superman 2’ in 1980 being thrown by Terence Stamp. This is the wire job where I have to be revived with oxygen!

As the astronaut on ‘Superman 2’ in 1980 being thrown by Terence Stamp. This is the wire job where I have to be revived with oxygen!

Wire work on pictures like ‘Superman’ 1 & 2 was pushing the envelope at the time and Geoffrey Unsworth’s capacity to ‘light out’ the wires was masterful – in those days it was without the benefit of ‘Paintbox’ or such sophisticated bits of kit which would come on stream in the 80s. I remember being on wires wearing a space suit with the helmet sealed on which gave me a limited amount of oxygen before I began to get a bit woozy. I would then see Geoffrey up and down a tall ladder spraying the wires with a black paint aerosol just before we shot. I had to be revived twice with a whiff of oxygen after a couple of …‘sorry, just need a second on the wire spraying’… occasions.

For ‘Flash Gordon’ doubling for Timothy Dalton, we spent weeks rehearsing the fight on the disc floating in space with knives coming up out of the floor. We also all had to learn how to use a bullwhip from one of the stunt boys, Reg Harding, who had been a ‘jackaroo’ in Australia and was a master with that very dangerous (mostly to the user) bit of kit

Hours spent in the chair having prosthetics put on to double the monster on wires

With Michael Caine  on 'The Eagle has Landed' in 1976
With Michael Caine on ‘The Eagle has Landed’ in 1976

 

for Michael Mann’s ‘The Keep’ meant a 6am start and sometimes a 10pm finish 6 days a week with all the penalty payments and overtime one could imagine – luckily all before Christmas – and the car park at Shepperton Studios, stuffed with a variety of our newly acquired BMWs and Range Rovers after the holidays, became known as the ‘thank you Michael Mann’ car park!

As the 1980s progressed and the sophistication in filmmaking began galloping forward, commercials became a great laboratory for new devices and gimmicks as the repetition on TV, combined with bulky production budgets, meant that the directors wanted to use every new device that was either coming on stream or was just nudging its way through a crack in the door.

In the water with Sean Connery and Katherine Zeta Jones on the set of ‘Entrapment’ in 1979

In the water with Sean Connery and Katherine Zeta Jones on the set of ‘Entrapment’ in 1979

For me, this was an opportunity to be introduced to the cutting edge of every new gizmo whether it was the ‘Hothead’ or ‘Paintbox’ – and I was fortunate enough to be involved in some of the early experimental work on Libra with Nick Phillips and Harvey Harrison by driving various vehicles either on racetracks or bolted to the side of Land Rovers going over really rough territory.

‘Star Wars’, ‘Superman’, ‘Batman’, ‘Bond’, ‘Indy’, ‘Private Ryan’, ‘English Patient’, ‘Enemy at the Gates’, ‘Corelli’, ‘The Pianist’ etc etc, all have their interesting facets and learning curves which require a certain thought process and how we can make it look good safely (within reason….) and the challenge continues!

The main differences between then and now is that we all have mobiles and email and GPS and CGI … but when it comes down to it, the business still requires a good script, good direction, good actors and good action where required. We are just a part of the jigsaw puzzle, the big difference is that the successful ones can put the linament on the bruises with a £50 note!

Stunt people have, by definition, to be jacks of all trades and sometimes master of one or two – tomorrow might be a stair fall on fire, Tuesday falling off a horse, Wednesday turning a car over, Thursday a high fall and Friday a fight sequence.

I did have a week like that a couple of times. Exciting it is, boring it ain’t!

On the set of ‘The Long Good Friday’ in 1980 with Bob Hoskins ‘inspecting the meat’

On the set of ‘The Long Good Friday’ in 1980 with Bob Hoskins
‘inspecting the meat’

Jim Dowdall’s film credits include: Skyfall – 2012, Safe House – 2012, Blitz 2011, Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows – 2010, The Descent 1&2 – 2009 & 2005, RocknRolla – 2008, Death Defying Acts – 2007, The Flood – 2007, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – 2005,  Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – 2005, Sahara – 2005, Finding Neverland – 2004, The Bourne Supremacy – 2004, Die Another Day – 2002, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – 2001, The World is Not Enough – 1999, Entrapment – 1999, Little Voice – 1998, Saving Private Ryan – 1998, Tomorrow Never Dies – 1997, The English Patient – 1996, Batman – 1989, Indiana Jones & the Last Crusade – 1989, Whoops Apocalypse – 1986, Brazil – 1985, Octopussy – 1983, For Your Eyes Only – 1981, Star Wars V – 1980, Force 10 from Navarone – 1978, The Spy Who Loved Me – 1977, A Bridge Too Far – 1977, Star Wars IV – 1977, The Eagle Has Landed – 1976, Where Eagles Dare – 1968, The Dirty Dozen – 1967.

Television credits include: Eastenders 2012, Call the Midwife – 2012, Richard hammond’s Invisible Worlds – 2010, Rock & Chips – 2010, The Bill – 2004 to 2009, Top Gear – 2008, Dalziel & Pascoe – 2006 to 2007, The Gathering Storm – 2002, Prime Suspect – 1995, Minder – 1991, The Professionals – 1982, Doctor Who – 1975.

 

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Film Production Technique …. from a talk given by Alfred Hitchcock in 1948

Alfred Hitchcock 1899-1980

The filming of each picture is a problem in itself. The solution to such a problem is an individual thing, not the application of a mass solution to all problems. Film production methods of yesterday may seem out of date today and yet, tomorrow’s problem may be best solved by using yesterday’s methods. The first rule of direction must be flexibility.

Nothing should be permitted to interfere with the story. The making of a picture is nothing but the telling of a story and the story – it goes without saying – must be a good one. I do not try to put on to the screen what is called ‘a slice of life’ because people can get all the slices of life they want out of the cinema. On the other hand, total fantasy is not wanted because people desire to connect themselves with what they see on the screen.

Those are all the restrictions I would place on the story. It must be believable and yet not ordinary. It must be dramatic and yet lifelike.

Having decided upon our story, we must next develop our characters and the plot. When that is done, are we ready to go on to the floor? I maintain we are not because our picture is going to need editing and cutting – and the time for this work is before shooting. The cuts should be made in the script itself, before a camera turns and not in the film after the cameras have stopped turning.

Script Cutting

My objection to the more conventional method of cutting is twofold. First of all, it is wasteful. The tragedy of the actor whose entire part ends on the cutting-room floor is not entirely a personal one. His salary, the sets he acted in and the film on which his acting was recorded all represent expenditure.

More important, if each scene is filmed as a separate entity out of sequence, the director is forced to concentrate on each scene as a scene. There is the a danger that one such scene may be given too great a prominence in direction and acting and its relation to the remaining scenes in the picture will be out of balance, or again, that it may have been given insufficient value and, when the scene becomes part of the whole, the film will be lacking in something.

The ‘extra shots’ made after the regular schedule is completed are necessitated because, in the shooting of scenes, story points were missed. The extra expository shots are generally identified by an audience for what they are – artificial devices to cover what had been overlooked in the preparation of the film.

How can this be avoided? I think it can best be avoided if a shooting script is edited before the shooting starts. In this way, nothing extra is shot and, most important, story points will be made naturally within the action itself.

If we do not edit before we shoot, we may be faced in the cutting room with one of the most difficult of editorial problems – the unexplained lapse of time. The passage of time may be essential to the plot but it may not have been made clear in the sequences that have been shot. There was a time – long since passed – when one would simply have photographed the words ‘one week later’ in transparency and caused them to appear on the screen in mid-air during the second scene.

The lapse of time can easily be indicated by the simple method of shooting one scene as a day scene and the next as a night scene – or one scene with leaves on the trees and the next one with snow on the ground. These are obvious examples but they serve to point to the need for script editing before production commences.

Camera Movement

Ingrid Bergmann and Cary Grant in ‘Notorious’ – 1946

A director tries never to go on the floor without a complete shooting script but, for one reason or another, one often has to start with what is really an incomplete script. The most glaring omission in the conventional script, I believe, is camera movement.  The director may decide on the floor how he is going to film a sequence – but I maintain that the time for such a decision is in the preparation of the script.

Here we encounter once again the fact that the tendency today is to shoot scenes and sequences and not to shoot pictures. The angle from which a scene is to be shot ought to flow logically from the preceding shot and it ought to be so designed that it will fit smoothly into whatever follows it. Actually, if all the shooting is planned and incorporated into the script, one will never think about shooting a scene but merely about shooting a picture of which the scene in question is a part.

Shooting in Sequence

The object of these remarks is to emphasize that I favour shooting pictures in sequence. The film is seen in sequence by an audience and the nearer a director gets to an audience’s point of view, the more easily he will be able to satisfy the audience. The satisfaction of an audience has been deprecated as an aim of picture making and I think that is a very grave mistake. There has been a tendency to sneer at audiences, to regard them as a tasteless mass to whose ignorance phenomenal concessions must be made by producers and directors.

Why is this? One reason is that a director hears comments about his work constantly and these comments come, for the most part, from people associated with the industry. It is laudable to seek the applause and approbation of one’s co-workers but, once one begins making pictures for their satisfaction, it is only a short step to condemning lay audiences for their lack of appreciation of cinema craft.

This is a dangerous point of view. Of course, it is a fine thing to make a picture whose technique excites admiration from people who indeed understand technique – but these are not the people who pay the costs of production!

Audience Groups

A picture-maker need not try to please everyone. It is important to decide at what audience one is aiming and then to keep one’s eye on that target. It is obviously uneconomic to shoot for a small audience and a motion picture costing some hundreds of thousands of pound, which has taken the efforts of perhaps one or two hundred men, cannot direct its appeal towards people with a special knowledge of film-making or to a certain section of the community.

To approach a cinema audience with contempt invites contempt in response. The great playwrights, Barrie and Pinero for example, rendered more than lip service in their respect for their audiences. They wrote every line with a conciousness that it was designed to entertain adult human beings and every line they wrote shows it. By the reasoning of those who maintain that intelligent drama cannot obtain a mass audience, their plays should all have been artistic successes and financial failures – but we know that they were well received, that many of them were terrific hits and we should profit by that knowledge.

Filming Technique 

I turn now to the actual techniques of picture-making. I have a liking, for instance, for a roving camera because I believe, as do many other directors, that a moving picture should really move. I have definite ideas about the use of cuts and fade-outs which, improperly handled, can remind the audience of the unreality of our medium and take them away from the plot – but those are personal prejudices of mine. I do not try to bend the plot to fit technique – I adapt technique to the plot. A particular camera angle may give a cameraman, or even a director, a particularly satisfying effect but, dramatically, is it the best way of telling whatever part of the story it is trying to tell? If not, it should not be used.

The motion picture is not an arena for the display of techniques. An audience is never going to think ‘what magnificent work with the boom!’ or ‘that dolly is very nicely handled!’  The audience is mainly focussed on what the characters on the screen are doing – and it is a director’s job to keep the audience interested in that. Technique which attracts the audience’s attention is poor technique. The mark of a good technique is that it is unnoticed.

On the set of ‘Rope’ in1948 – the first colour film for Hitchcock

Maintaining Interest

Even within a single picture techniques should vary, although the overall method of handling the story, the style, must remain constant. It is, for instance, obvious that audience concentration is higher at the beginning of a picture than at the end. The act of sitting in one place must eventually induce a certain lassitude. In order that this lassitude should not be translated into boredom or impatience, it is often necessary to accelerate the progress of the story towards the end – particularly of a long picture. This means more action and less dialogue or, if dialogue is essential, speeches ought to be short, a little louder and more forceful that they would be if the same scene were played earlier in the picture.

It is sometimes necessary to encourage artistes to overact!  Of course, it takes a certain amount of tact to induce a good actor to do so and this is another argument in favour of shooting pictures more or less in sequence because, once one has edged an actor into overacting it is, sadly enough, entirely impossible to edge him back again!

Direction is, of course, a matter of decisions. The important thing is that the director should make his decisions when the need for them arises and operate with as few rules as possible.

Alfred Hitchcock was born on 13 August 1899, in Leytonstone, London – the son of greengrocers William & Emma Hitchcock. After graduating from the London County Council School of Engineering and Navigation, he became a draftsman and advertising designer with a cable company. During this period, he became intrigued by photography and started working in film production in 1921 in London as a title-card designer for the London branch of what would later become Paramount Pictures.

In 1920, he received a full-time position at the then American-owned Islington Studios and their British successor, Gainsborough Pictures, designing the titles for silent movies. His rise from title designer to film director took five years and, by the end of the 1930’s, Hitchcock had become one of the most famous film-makers in England. Alfred Hitchcock made in excess of eighty films and several television series

 

 
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Posted by on November 27, 2012 in How It All Began

 

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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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F.A.B! by Gerry Anderson MBE

Gerry Anderson (1929 – 2012) with Thunderbird 2

This is an article written for Network Nine News by the legendary Gerry Anderson in 2009. Gerry sadly passed away in 2012 but his story continues with the new Gerry Anderson Legacy Site www.launch.gerryanderson.co.uk

Born in 1929 in London into a poor family, education wasn’t high on the list of priorities and being evacuated during the war didn’t help at all – so, with extreme optimism I decided that I wanted to be an architect and applied to enter a training course! Luckily, the local polytechnic had other building-related courses and I found that I had an aptitude for fibrous plastering and creating decorative pieces which were used for film work. I enjoyed this work enormously for some time but developed an allergy to plaster and had to give up.

I had developed a passion for film work by then and so spent the next few months tramping round the film studios looking for a job.  Eventually, I was taken on by the Colonial Film Unit which was run by the Ministry of Information. Filming was on 35mm and they had a 6-weekly rotation programme so that the trainees got comfortable with all the disciplines – camera, picture editing, sound, direction, projection- and under the guidance of the legendary George Pearson I found that I had a great affinity for editing. George gave me a piece of advice which I’ve always remembered … ‘when you are filming don’t forget to shoot a few feet of a bowl of tulips for cutaways!’ ….

Growing in confidence I applied for and got a job with Gainsborough Studios in Shepherds Bush as 2nd Assistant Editor then worked my way up to 1st Assistant on ‘The Wicked Lady’ in 1945, ‘Caravan’ in 1946 and many more – all for the princely sum of £10 per week! 

Then, as did everyone in those days, in 1947 I was ‘called up’ for National Service with the RAF, where I spent my time as a Radio Telephone Operator.  It was a requirement that, after National Service, everyone was re-instated into their previous job but Gainsborough had closed and I was re-located to Pinewood Studios – then moved to Shepperton as a Sound Editor working on films such as ‘They Who Dare’ in 1954 for the acclaimed Director, Lewis Milestone (‘All Quiet on the Western Front’, ‘Pork Chop Hill’, ‘Ocean’s Eleven’, ‘Mutiny on the Bounty‘) who terrified everyone on set – although I got on with him very well. 

‘Thunderbirds’ character Alan Tracy with Chief Puppeteer Christine Glanville

In 1956 I formed a production company with Arthur Provis – I think that we were one of the first (if not the only) small production company working at that time, calling ourselves AP Films and renting space in an Edwardian mansion in Maidenhead. We had a filing cabinet, a telephone and headed paper, so we were ready for anything!  However, six months went by without any offers and we all had to do extra work to keep ourselves afloat – then the phone rang!!  It was a lady called Roberta Leigh who had 52 scripts for a children’s series called ‘The Adventures of Twizzle’.  We were over the moon, our big chance to show what we were made of – then she dropped the bombshell that it was a puppet show – but, we were hungry for work and even the modest budget and the tight schedule didn’t put us off.

I hated what I had already seen on television as puppet shows and so we decided to add a few ‘film’ techniques to make the sets more realistic with cut-outs in mid and foreground to add depth – also, whenever the puppets were meant to look at each other they always seemed to miss the eyeline as the puppeteers, who by now we had moved up to a high gantry to give more set space, had a very restricted view, so we painted arrows on the puppets heads to make it easier! 

Every episode we made we got a little better. Christine Glanville was the chief puppeteer and made the heads herself from cork dust, glue and methylated spirits – which was infinitely better than the original papier maché as they could be sanded down to a smoother finish. Eventually all the puppets would be made of fibreglass. We noticed that, as the puppets eyes were made of wood, the grain was very noticable when they moved – so we called in William Shakespeare!  No, not the bard but a nice man who made glass eyes – and he produced the first pair of plastic puppet’s eyes for us. As he said, he had never ever been asked for a pair of false eyes before!

Around 250 set-ups were needed for a half-hour episode and the 1/3 life size sets were built on moveable stages to be wheeled in and out very quickly.

‘Thunderbirds are Go!’ – Lady Penelope and Parker on an undercover mission in France!

So successful were we with ‘Twizzle’ and before the series was finished, Roberta Leigh came to us with another new series, ‘Torchy the Battery Boy’.  The budget was increased to nearly double and the team wanted to see how far they could go to improve the look and ‘workability’ of the puppets – finer wires, a spring in the jaw to snap the mouth shut to simulate speaking without the head bouncing up and down as the puppeteers jerked the wires. Eventually mouth movement was controlled by an electro-magnet device – another first – this was when we came up with the name ‘Supermarionation’

We were working on 35mm film with a Mitchell camera and I wanted to see what the TV audience would be viewing as we were working. I bought a lightweight video camera and fixed it to the Mitchell camera we were using so it looked directly down the lens, linking to a monitor and giving us a constant picture.  This ‘Video Assist’ technique was soon adopted by the film industry worldwide.

The next series,  ‘Four Feather Falls’ finished in 1960, and ‘Supercar’ came along in 1962 with the support of Lew Grade and the ITV network. Eventually ‘Supercar’ was broadcast coast-to-coast in the USA and became the top rated children’s programme.

‘Fireball XL5’ followed closely behind in 1963 with ‘Stingray’ in 1965 made in our new home in a large warehouse in the Slough trading estate.  I think that ‘Stingray’was possibly the first puppet series to entertain an adult audience, was shot in colour and had an enormous budget at that time of £20,000 per episode.

Gerry leaning on FAB 1 – a full-size working model of Lady Penelope’s car in ‘Thunderbirds are Go!’

While ‘Stingray’ was still in production I was writing a new series which eventually would be called ‘Thunderbirds’. Public response when the series was aired was phenomenal! Apparantly the astronaut Alan Shepherd was a fan!  The very futuristic ‘Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons’ came out in 1968 followed by ‘Joe 90’ in 1969.

Shortly after this Lew Grade came apologetically to me and said that, as all the programmes we had produced were being repeated so much on television, we were drowning in our own product so unfortunately, I would have to switch to live action!  What joy – all I’d ever wanted to do was live action!  So ‘UFO’, ‘ Space 1999’ and ‘Space Precinct’ followed

Major developments and change have always been an essential part of the industry. Puppet work has been superceded by CGI and we dipped our toe in the water with ‘Lavender Castle’ and re-made ‘Captain Scarlet’ in 2005 using the latest software – except that I still worked with film people for storyboards and set design to make sure that it had that ‘3-dimensional’ film feel.

The 2005 CGI version of ‘Captain Scarlet’

I always remember something that Lewis Milestone said to me way back in 1947 when I was working with him.  He said ‘Do you want to be famous?’ … I was slightly taken aback by the question but obviously answered ..‘Yes’‘Never second-guess your audience’ he said ‘make what you want – if they like it you’ll become famous, if they don’t you might as well open a greengrocer’s shop!’  I have lived up to this advice throughout my career!

I really enjoy what I do and can’t imagine retiring – the technology and techniques during my career have changed so much and continue to evolve, so it makes each fresh project an exciting and rewarding challenge.

Ed: Gerry brought much joy and entertainment to several generations of of fans. Hopefully, through re-runs and perhaps through unfinished projects which may be completed in the future, his legacy will continue.

Gerry Anderson’s film & television credits include: New Captain Scarlet – 2005; Lavender Castle – 1999; Space Precinct – 1994; Dick Spanner – 1987; Terrahawks – 1983; Space 1999 – 1975; The Protectors – 1972; UFO – 1970; Doppelganger – 1969; Joe 90 – 1968; Thunderbird Six – 1968; Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons – 1967; Thunderbirds are Go – 1966; Thunderbirds – 1965; Stingray – 1964; Fireball XL5 – 1963; Supercar – 1960; Four Feather Falls – 1959; Torchy the Battery Boy – 1958; The Adventures of Twizzle – 1957

 
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Posted by on June 28, 2012 in Animation

 

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Motion Picture Photography

Motion Picture Photography, from a lecture in 1949 by Freddie Young OBE BSC

You have to consider the relation of the cameraman to the director. Some directors are technically wise and help the cameraman sympathetically with his difficulties by arranging action so that it was possible to light speedily, or possibly arranging for a cut in order to avoid an otherwise complicated lighting problem. Nevertheless, the director must have the final decision, since the ultimate responsibility for success or failure of the film rested with him and all the technicians – even the stars – must bow to his judgement.

An experienced lighting cameraman will have learned ways of saving time and will not be experimenting in the same way as a beginner – but he must be careful to avoid turning out stereotyped photography, without artistry or meaning.

Not every picture gives the cameraman the opportunity to show artistic ability. Often he is put on his mettle to demonstrate his speed of working and yet is still required to produce a photographically acceptable picture.

Natural Lighting

Some cameramen strive for naturalistic lighting, the light appearing always to come from a correct source. Others seem to ignore this requirement and allow the light to fall from any direction, providing only that the general effect is satisfactory. I prefer natural lighting so that, when shots are edited, there is a feeling of smoothness and correctness over the entire sequence.

However, this requirement introduces a number of problems. A star often looks better with the key light directly in front and not at all satisfactory with cross-lighting – compromises are often necessary. Front key lighting is flattering to most faces but it can be uninteresting to see an entire picture with the principal characters lit from the direct front, regardless of where the scene is located or the time of day. Some producers maintain that it is necessary only that the stars should look attractive but good lighting is noticed, even if only subconsciously, by the audience.

Questions of mood and atmosphere must not be ignored. Such factors help to make a scene convincing and to maintain a sense of reality with which no film can be considered an artistic success.

Black and White vs Colour

In lighting for black-and-white photography one seeks to obtain a stereoscopic effect by a separation of the planes of the subject, so giving an impression of depth and roundness. A frequent method of producing this illusion is by the use of back-lighting. However, it is not always correct to have light emanating from the back of the set and the use of back-lighting has, in the past, been overdone.

There is an infinite variety of methods of securing contrast in light and shade. A patch of light on a wall will throw into sharp relief a dark mass of furniture standing in front of it. A cunningly placed shadow makes the perfect background for a light object. The cooperation of the art director is valuable in the careful selection of colours and in avoiding placing dark objects one in front of another.

Colour photography is, in some respects, less exacting as colours will separate from each other naturally – one would obviously avoid having a navy-blue dress in front of navy-blue drapes. All such factors will be appreciated by a trained artist and it would be an excellent thing if every cameraman had some art training in order that he might appreciate the laws of perspective and of light and shade.

Light Sources

Just as it is necessary for an artist to have a variety of paints and brushes of all sizes, so must a cameraman have lights of all shapes and sizes. Powerful lights for the broad strokes and smaller lights for the fine detail. Every light has to be controlled and spill or leak light must be kept from illuminating the shadows. All the units must have their barndoors, diffusers or ‘goboes’

Lighting in a low key, such as moonlight or firelight, calls for great skill and judgement. It is easy to under-expose and so lose contrasts. It is desirable to have somewhere in the picture one highlighted point – moonlight, a street lamp, firelight or even a streak of light under a door. Reflectors must be used to give a soft radiance without any definite light source – but as a general rule there should be one highlight in the picture and one area of deep black.

The Light Meter

A light meter is used to obtain a consistent density throughout the film. The negative is developed by sensitometric control and only a small latitude is allowable for incorrect exposure. If the laboratory were to be able to work to a constant gamma and obtain a fixed density throughout the entire negative, the cameraman is compelled to use a light meter.

It would be foolish to try to judge by eye a quantity that could be indisputably measured by means of a light meter. On the other hand, the cameraman must never allow the meter to become his master but must use it as a servant to assist him technically to accomplish the final artistic achievement.

For interiors I prefer to work at low light levels and a wide lens aperture, which more closely approximates the characteristics of the human eye. This also lends reality to practical lights used on the set, such as candlelight, oil lamps or electric lamps of low wattage which, if a high key lighting were used, would be unnaturally dimmed.

Problems of Movement

In cinematography, an entirely different set of problems is presented from those of still photography. The motion picture cameraman has to allow for the movement of his characters. If, for instance, an actor moves towards the key light, the brilliance might increase from perhaps 100 footcandles and serious over-exposure would result. Dimmers must be provided to control the intensity of light throughout the scene. The dimmer controls must be checked by the cameraman with the aid of a light meter.

Shooting in the artificial rain on ‘So Well Remembered’ – 1947 in Denham Studios starring Sir John Mills and directed by Edward Dymytryk.

Examples of quite different looks were screened for the audience. In ‘Goodbye Mr Chips’ made in 1938, there is a mellow atmosphere associated with a traditional English school. In contrast, the ’49th Parallel’ made in 1941, has an atmosphere almost documentary in style. It was photographed during the early stages of the War, most of the exteriors being taken in Canada – these exteriors set the key which had to be matched in the shots taken in a British studio.  The 1947 film ‘So Well Remembered’ was set in a town in the North of England and, to create the atmosphere of squalor, artificial rain was freely used.

 

Some of the comments from the Q&A session following the lecture:

Q: What do you think of the use of the t-scale compared with the old f-value?

A: f-calibration is not definite enough and great errors have been found between different lenses whose f value marking is the same. The new method of calibrating lenses by transmission values will, I’m sure, be welcomed by all cameramen. Difference in aperture can still be due to play in the iris of the diaphragm.

Q: Can you expound on a simple formula for high-key and low-key lighting in footcandles?

A: If the director wants great depth I might set my lens stop at f5.6 and use 300 footcandles, whereas in the low-key set I would work at f2.8 with 80 footcandles, depending on the colour of the set – that’s a most important factor. For a high key of light, the ordinary fair face with normal makeup would demand 100 footcandles at f3. If you wanted the face in a dingy light you could work down to 50 or 60 footcandles at f3. 

Freddie Young (1902-1998)

Building a set at the Shepherd’s Bush Studios. At the Debrie camera are Freddie Young (left) and St. Aubyn Brown

 

Freddie Young entered the film industry in the silent era and, in 1917 he started working at Shepherd’s Bush, gaining his first credit as assistant cameraman on ‘Rob Roy’ directed by  W.P. Kellino in 1922.  By 1928 he was chief cameraman and, in 1929 Herbert Wilcox, largely ignorant of the technical aspects of film craft, placed Freddie under contract to his company British and Dominions, leading to his first solo credit in 1930. Any visual flair in Wilcox’s films of the 1930’s was allegedly due to Young’s inventiveness and technical skill. his first use of Technicolor was in one reel of Wilcox’s ‘Victoria the Great’ in 1937.

He worked from 1922 to 1985 on more than 130 feature films and several television productions. His many awards include an OBE in 1970 and Oscars for ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ – 1963, ‘Doctor Zhivago’ – 1966 and ‘Ryan’s Daughter’ – 1971, as well as the ASC International Award, a BAFTA Academy Fellowship, four BSC Best Cinematography Awards and a Golden Globe in 1963. 

He invented  the process of pre-exposing colour film (pre-fogging) to mute the colours, giving the ability to alter the look of colour photography to suit the subject. This was first used on ‘The Deadly Affair’ directed by Sydney Lumet in 1966 and was the first British cinematographer to film in Cinemascope.

 
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Posted by on May 3, 2012 in How It All Began

 

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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.

 
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Posted by on April 13, 2012 in Set Construction

 

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Editor’s Thoughts

… it is almost forgotten that it takes a team of many people with talent to make a motion picture …

I must say, from the feedback I receive, there are so many areas where it’s felt that there is inadequate information and training available. The industry needs young people who are prepared to put in the time and effort to learn the skills and techniques which have been developed and perfected by the professionals who have spent their careers entertaining the audience with their storytelling abilities. 

It’s probably not ‘what have we done wrong?‘ we should be asking but ‘what more do we need to do to put things right?’ in those areas where specific training for the film industry is needed. Quick answer to that is – if you are running a course at whatever level then please enlist the help of industry professionals – individuals, guilds or organizations – to either advise in the initial discussions on course content or attend as guest tutors. 

Perhaps we shouldn’t limit skills training to those who work creatively – production grades coming into the industry may benefit from taking time out to learn about the responsibilities of the crew they going to employ.  An experienced crew member can prevent a great deal of wastage on time and tantrums if they are used efficiently as they will have the ability to read the mood in the meeting or on the floor and change, alter, move and re-invent as often as the director wants with the least amount of fuss. 

Initial decisions on crew, methods and equipment which are based purely on cutting the budget to the bone can eventually become very expensive, as mistakes made due to wrong or ill-advised choices can have a disastrous impact both on the bottom-line and the quality of the finished product.

Keep the feedback coming – I need your thoughts, ideas and comments so that I can make sure that the ‘News’ is covering areas of most interest.

Go to www.network-nine.com and click on the ‘Guilds & Associations’ page to access some of the industry organizations.

 
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Posted by on February 11, 2012 in Feature Film Production

 

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