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The Army Film & Photographic Unit (1942-46) and its Association with Pinewood Studios … by Wendy Laybourn

Poppy Every 11th November Pinewood Studios hosts a Remembrance Service, not only in memory of the fallen in every conflict – but specifically to honour of the members of the Army Film & Photographic Unit (AFPU) which also embraces the RAF Film Production Unit (RAFFPU). This year the service was conducted by the Reverend Nick Todd CF, Chaplain to the Irish Guards and the two minutes silence at 11 o’clock was marked by Colour Sergeant Shaun Held, Senior Bugle Major, The Rifles – with the Colours presented by the Royal British Legion, Iver Heath.

Formed during WWII, the AFPU and RAFFPU had their headquarters in Pinewood Studios where a permanent reminder in the form of a Memorial Plaque, which records losses proportionately as high as any Unit in the war, is displayed in the corridor leading to the cutting rooms where so much of the film footage, which is still frequently seen on television, was edited.

The AFPU & FAFFPU Roll of Honour

The AFPU & FAFFPU Roll of Honour

Paul Clark is the person who is currently looking after the AFPU Veterans Association, and organises the attendance of the remaining members and the friends and families of those who are no longer with us – as well as the reunions over the years (which were inspired originally by Captain Alan del Strother, a one-time Adjutant at Pinewood). He took over the reins from Harry Thompson, who in turn had taken over from George Reeves. Because PR and war correspondents were attendees at the reunions they are also listed on the roll of honour – and let us not forget the darkroom technicians, camera mechanics, clerical and transport staff who all  played a vital part in running the Unit and are deserving of equal listing. As Paul mentioned in his introduction at the service, the membership is reducing each year but I think that he can rest assured that this wonderful piece of history will continue to be honoured by Pinewood Studios and the friends and families of the AFPU and RAFFPU members.

History

Before the start of the Second World War the Central Office of Information controlled publicity related to all military and civil actions with the Director of Public Relations in the War Office being responsible for the affairs of the British Armed Forces. When the War broke out in September 1939, just one Army photographer, Geoffrey Keating and one film cameraman, Harry Rignold, accompanied the British Expeditionary Force to France.

It was quickly realised that the front line would be a dangerous place for untrained photographers as well as the possibility of them endangering not only themselves but the people in the battles they would have to photograph. On 24th October 1941, the Army agreed to form a corps of trained photographers and cameramen. The unit was called the Army Film and Photographic Unit (AFPU) and, under the leadership of Lt. Colonel Hugh St. Claire Stewart, Pinewood Studios was selected as their headquarters – as well as the RAF Film Unit and the Crown Film Unit, who produced propaganda films for the Ministry of Information.

There were many professional film and press photographers who had already been called up for service so they were quickly located and brought together in Pinewood Studios, which served both as a headquarters and training centre for the Units. Number 1 Unit was based in Cairo, which was to come into its own when retreat changed to offensive at Alamein, opening with the launching of the barrage skilfully and uniquely filmed by Sgt Billy Jordan, MM – who continued as a cinematographer, working in news, features and shorts for Associated-British Pathé, Alfred Hitchcock and The Children’s Film Foundation.

D-Day Landings

D-Day Landings

On D-Day, 6th June 1944, ten men from the newly-formed AFPU went with the first wave of troops ashore, whilst others landed with the airborne troops – continuing to accompany the Armed Forces as they fought through Europe.

Two experienced pressmen, Ted Malindine and Len Puttnam were among the photographers called up to record the British Expeditionary force in 1939 & 1940.

They both recorded the Dunkirk evacuation and were themselves evacuated twice from the French beaches.

The AFPU was deployed in all theatres of Allied action, often alongside special forces such as the Commandos, the Chindits, the Airborne, the SAS, the Special Boat Squadron and the Long Range Desert Group. All the major  campaigns were filmed and photographed – and the footage from the Desert and North Africa Campaigns was used to produce ‘Desert Victory’ which won an Oscar for the best war documentary. In later years footage from D-Day provided background information for the opening scenes of ‘Saving Private Ryan’.

The Italian campaign and Western Europe embraced the action at Monte Casino, Arnhem, the Rhine Crossing and the relief of the Belsen Concentration Camp. The Far East campaign was covered by Number 9 Unit under the umbrella of Admiral Louis Mountbatten and footage was used to produce ‘Burma Victory’.

As an example of the breadth of work of the members of the AFPU, the following passage is part of the memories of photographer Frank Covey:

… ‘Having returned from North Africa and completed my parachute training in January 1944, we were waiting for assignment to units. There I saw a notice which read … “Volunteers needed for a course on Photography” … when we got to Pinewood we were met by a gentleman in civvies, who introduced himself as Major David MacDonald, our new CO. We were told that all regular army bullshit was out and that there would be no time for parades or suchlike – but that we should keep ourselves correctly dressed, behave and put all our efforts into the task ahead.

The commanding staff were all well known people from the film industry. The Boulting brothers with Richard Glendinning and David MacDonald formed the nucleus. There was also the Crown Film Unit at Pinewood making war films such as ‘Target Tonight’, ‘Western Approaches’ and ‘Journey Together’ with Edward G Robinson. A young actor starred in some of these films, who we got to know as Dickie Attenborough! All in all we were a mixed bunch of film, newspaper and magazine photographers from across the country … 

… ‘We broke out of Normandy and followed the German retreat, at times entering villages in forests and finding that we were the first British troops they had seen. We joined the Guards Armoured Division for their dash to Brussels. With the infantry (Welsh Guards) led by armoured cars of the Household Cavalry and Cromwell tanks – we dashed 100 miles and got to the city in the late afternoon of 3rd September 1944. It was crazy, we were covered with flowers, given bottles of Brandy etc …

… ‘We went to the concentration camps of Bergen-Belsen and Neugamme near Hamburg, where we saw the terrible carnage. At Neugamme the ovens were still there and all over the camp white discs were scattered on the ground, which we discovered later were the compressed ashes of those burned’ …

After the War

Many of the former members of the AFPU became established in the film and photographic industries after the war and several became exceptional figures in their chosen professions – here are three examples:

John Aldred

John Aldred

John Aldred joined the film industry in 1937, served with the AFPU working on ‘Desert Victory’, ‘Tunisian Victory’ and ‘Burma Victory’ with Roy Boulting.

After the war he went on to, work at Shepperton Studios as music and dubbing mixer on notable films including ‘Bridge on the River Kwai’ and ‘Laurence of Arabia’. From 1972 he was Head of Sound at Rank Film Laboratories until his retirement.

During his illustrious career he had many film credits as sound recordist and mixer, including ‘Mary Queen of Scots’ (Oscar nominated), ‘Anne of a Thousand Days’ (Oscar nominated), ‘The Italian Job’, ‘Girl on a Motorcycle’, ‘Far From the Madding Crowd’, ‘Half a Sixpence’, ‘The Quiller Memorandum’, ‘Doctor Strangelove’, ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, ‘The Guns of Navarone’ and ‘In Which We Serve’. 

Gillie Potter

Gillie Potter

   Gillie Potter joined the AFPU, already having started his career with the National Screen Service as a Title Artist, and was posted to Mountbatten’s South East Asia Command, where he stayed after the war ended to assist in setting up the Malaysian Government Film Unit. After a few years working in Malaysia he returned to the UK just in time for the start-up of ITV.

He was one of the world’s leading special effects animators and became known as the man who could ‘do the impossible’. His revolutionary work in British commercials advanced the use of specialist ‘in-camera’ effects. He elevated the boring ‘pack-shot’ to an art form and invented the device of having live action sequences taking place on a moving product pack. His work earned him more than 40 international awards including a Golden Lion at the Cannes Advertising Film Festival – and he was involved in the production of more than 2,000 advertisements. His special effects work can also be seen in feature films including ‘The Last Emperor’, ‘Superman: The Movie’ and ‘Jurassic Park’.

Harry Waxman

Harry Waxman

    Harry Waxman started with International Pictures as a camera assistant and worked in a number of studios during the 1930s, including Ealing, Welwyn and Worton Hall.

During the war he served with the RAF Film Unit making his first feature, ‘Journey Together’, directed by John Boulting in 1945. His work on that film led to a contract with Two Cities Films after the war leading to him working at Denham Studios and becoming involved with the Boulting brothers as cameraman on ‘Fame Is the Spur’ and then as cinematographer on ‘Brighton Rock’ both in 1947.

Harry Waxman was a founder-member of the BSC (British Society of Cinematographers) and served as President from 1966-69 – and in 1959 he won an award from the British Society of Cinematographers for ‘Sapphire’. He is credited with more than 60 other films included ‘Swiss Family Robinson’, ‘The Day the Earth Caught Fire’,Crooks in Cloisters’,The Nanny’, ‘The Anniversary’,The Wicker Man’.

The dedicated and outstanding work of the members of the AFPU and the RAFFPU is carried on by the photographers and cameramen of the Royal Logistics Corps, 77th Brigade who are the current British Armed Forces members working wherever the Army, Navy and RAF are deployed. Perhaps one day we’ll see one or two of  their names credited in award-winning dramas or documentaries, like their predecessors!

 

AFPUbadge2

Pinewood copy

 

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GIVE THEM A BREAK! … an Editor’s Thought

Wendy Laybourn - Editor

Wendy Laybourn – Editor

From time to time I’m asked to speak to young people about the realities of working in production. Although many won’t make it into the business, there are always the few passionate and talented individuals whose determination to succeed deserves a helping hand. So, if you’re involved in a production, why not make an effort to include at least one or two of these young people, even if it’s just for a few days. You may very well be disappointed – but it’s more likely that you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Everyone in the industry is very aware that there isn’t enough well-trained ‘new blood’ coming into production – and we all know that the colleges, universities and specialist schools can only go so far in the training process and that ‘on-the-job’ training is the most important aspect – but if the students, trainees and apprentices can’t get a ‘job’ how are they going to learn their skills and keep the reputation of British craftsmen and women at the forefront of the global film industry.

So, Producers, Directors and Heads of Department – take a chance and give these eager young people a break!

 
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Posted by on February 24, 2015 in Editor's Thoughts, Uncategorized

 

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‘Do You Have What it Takes to Survive in Feature Film Production?’

You might think that this title for my series of e-booklets sounds a bit harsh – but if you’re already trying to find a job in production you’ll know that it’s very competitive and you have to have nerves of steel, combined with an … ‘I’m going win at all costs’ … attitude, as well as exceptional skills.

If you’re still at school and considering any sector of the production business as a career, it’s essential that you are fully aware of the type of training and qualifications you’re going to need before you enrol on any course or apprenticeship scheme.

A major feature film can employ hundreds of people in several different departments, all with specific skills. There are many more creative, technical and business skills involved than you may realise – Producer, Director and Cinematographer are only three people out of a possible crew of 200-300 very talented people. A comprehensive film or media course might give you basic understanding and information – and you might pass your course with flying colours – but there is so much more to learn about the range of jobs, skills and crafts which go into the finished movie.

The only way to fully understand the way film production works is to listen and learn from the professionals on the job, there is no other way if you really want to make your mark in this business. This is where my booklets might come in useful. They are a bird’s-eye view of each department with job profiles, suggested qualifications and links to important web sites, magazines and helpful books. The information is supported by articles written by film professionals, with helpful tips and a realistic view of working this amazing business.

Find my books on www.amazon.com and search for Wendy Laybourn

Production CoverTHE PRODUCTION OFFICE

This is the engine room of the production process and controls the entire film from script to screen. This department takes care of the ‘business’ side of film production.

 

 

Art Booklet Cover WhiteTHE ART DEPARTMENT

This creative and talented department is the design centre of film production. They transform the Production Designers sketches into technically correct drawing for the Construction Crew.

 

 

Construction  Booklet Cover White 2.qxdTHE CONSTRUCTION CREW

The skilled members Construction Crew converts the blueprints from the Art Department into three-dimensional sets.

 

 

 

Camera Booklet Cover White.qxdCAMERA, GRIPS AND LIGHTING DEPARTMENT

Camera, Grips & Lighting crews work together to make sure that the Director’s concept for the film turns into images which the audience sees on the cinema screen.

 

 

 

Book 5: Production & Post Production Sound

PRODUCTION & POST-PRODUCTION SOUND

If you are fascinated by the sound effects, music and dialogue which brings the visual images of a movie to life, then this will be an interesting and informative read, especially for anyone who is already dedicated to finding a job in ‘sound’.

 
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Posted by on June 10, 2014 in Editor's Thoughts

 

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International Cinematographers Guild – President’s Letter, May 2013

 

Steven Poster ASC - ICG President
Steven Poster ASC – ICG President

 

Into the Abbey

Last month I had the good fortune to attend the annual exposition sponsored by the British Society of Cinematographers (BSC), which took place on a stage at the venerable Pinewood Studios, located roughly 20 miles outside the heart of London’s Soho District. Pinewood is, of course, famous for scores of incredible movies, including the James Bond franchise and the classic cinema of Stanley Kubrick. It is always a thrill for me to walk into a workplace like Pinewood and feel such awesome movie history.

The BSC event showcases new technology and equipment, not unlike our shows here in the U.S. It provides an intimate and collaborative setting for moviemakers to exchange ideas. I had been invited there to participate on three panels, including one about mixing professional and prosumer systems on set, i.e., everything from Canon 7Ds and GoPros to ALEXA, and another about how the advance of 4K impacts cinematographers.

Not far from the stage where the BSC held its event is a Technicolor film lab, the last of its kind in the U.K. Although no firm date has yet been set, it was made clear to me throughout my time in London that the lab will soon close down, creating yet another obstacle for those British moviemakers wanting to shoot film.

There is no conspiracy or malice about the Technicolor plant at Pinewood being shuttered; there is only the economic reality that the profit center for this type of work is rapidly disappearing. The BSC and other U.K. filmmakers are speaking out with a loud and united voice about protecting film as an artistic option, despite the odds stacked against them. Hints that the BSC’s fight to preserve film in some meaningful way will continue came from the last of the three panels I was on, which centered on new lens technology versus old, and how so many cinematographers (and directors) are seeking this warm and familiar glass to dampen the hyper-clarity of 4K capture. British filmmakers, like many here in the U.S., want to put back in the creative and expressive nuances that high-resolution systems and super-sharp new lens technology have taken away.

While it would be wonderful to keep film as a creative tool, as we are doing with these legacy lenses, I have often said that I’m not particularly nostalgic about the diminishment of celluloid, nor am I antagonistic to the rise of digital. I am a little shocked by how rapidly the change has come, even if it is inevitable.

But if experiences like the BSC event are any guide, I have hope that there are still many dedicated people in our industry intent on keeping film alive as a creative choice. After all, who wouldn’t want the chance to be able to still shoot film at Pinewood?

Steven Poster, ASCICG logo
National President
International Cinematographers Guild
IATSE Local 600

About Local 600

The International Cinematographers Guild represents the most talented camera professionals in the world. The technicians and artisans in our union are the creators of the visual images on the big screen, the television screen and our computer screen.

International Cinematographers Guild members – Directors of Photography, Camera Operators and Assistants, Computer Graphics Specialists, Visual Effects Supervisors, Still Photographers, Publicists and more – are part of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. The IATSE is comprised of highly skilled technicians working in film, television, live entertainment, animation, special effects and new media.

http://www.cameraguild.com/ 

http://www.icgmagazine.com

 
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Posted by on June 3, 2013 in Cinematography

 

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CARPENTER TO CONSTRUCTION MANAGER by Dominic Ackland-Snow

Dominic Ackland-Snow

Dominic Ackland-Snow

How do I see the role of Construction Manager?

The Production Designer has to conceptualise the viewpoint of the script and the Director – and the CM’s job is turning that concept into reality, dealing with the technical, the financial and the scheduling sides.

I’m fortunate to have been brought up in a family with a strong design connection. I was lucky to have been able to crawl around as a youngster behind film sets while my Dad, an Art Director, was working. My first time working on a film set was when I did work experience on ‘Aliens’ with my Father and Peter Lamont in the Art Department. Although I enjoyed this, the element I was most interested in was Set Construction

I left school in 1986 and started an apprenticeship in carpentry & joinery. The company I worked for did mainly television scenery but also some exhibition and theme park work. I left the company after 5 years as a qualified carpenter/joiner and decided to ‘try my luck’ in the film industry as a freelancer, starting with ‘First Knight’ working for Construction Manager Tony Graysmark as a shop carpenter. This suited me very well because I preferred ‘setting out’ and the actual fabrication of the scenery. I worked for Tony again on ‘Goldeneye’ in 1995, then worked on a number of films after this including ‘Fifth Element’ with Ray Barret ‘The Borrowers’, ‘The Avengers’ and ‘Notting Hill’ with Michael Redding and ‘Love & War’ with Terry Apsey.

Construction on ‘Band of Brothers’ showing the back of the aircraft hangar

Construction on ‘Band of Brothers’ showing the back of the aircraft hangar

The front of the hangar with bombers, as seen by the camera

The cast of 'Band of Brothers' as seen by the television audience. It’s all an illusion!

The cast of ‘Band of Brothers’ in front of the hangar as seen by the television audience.
It’s all an illusion!

I was fortunate enough to be supervised by two great Construction Managers – Terry Apsey on ‘Sleepy Hollow’ and ‘Band of Brothers’ and Michael Reading on ‘Quills’ and ‘Tomb Raider II’. I was very lucky with both Terry and Michael, as they were very lenient on my slightly rebellious approach to what I did and how I worked.

The fabulous set of the Paris Opera House for ‘Phantom of the Opera’ - 2004. This was built as a fully-operational theatre  capable of holding a substantial audience in the auditorium, an orchestra and a full cast of artistes on stage. The construction used two adjoining stages at Pinewood Studios so that the action from  the theatre stage could follow right through the authentic  backstage area built on two floors, complete with dressing  rooms, costume department, props store etc, to the stage  door exit complete with  stables.

The fabulous set of the Paris Opera House for ‘Phantom of the Opera’ – 2004. This was built as a fully-operational theatre capable of holding a substantial audience in the auditorium, an orchestra and a full cast of artistes on stage. The construction used two adjoining stages at Pinewood Studios so that the action from the theatre stage could follow right through the authentic backstage area built on two floors, complete with dressing rooms, costume department, to the stage-door exit complete with stables.

I started on ‘Phantom of the Opera’ as a Supervisor but was cajoled by Terry Apsey to try my hand at running Carpentry as Head of Department – this is when I started to be exposed to the financial and scheduling side of construction – an area I found that I really enjoyed.

After ‘Phantom’ I ran a television show as Construction Manager, which was great for cutting my teeth. I had a few leads as CM after this but unfortunately all of them

– which, at that time, was a pretty regular occurrence. I had the horrible experience of working on a film that folded owing me wages – something that most film workers have experienced during their career. Around this time I decided to emigrate to Australia with my wife and children – but before leaving I enjoyed working on my last film with Michael Redding as his Head of Department.

When I arrived in Australia I had made my mind up not to be involved in films any more because the work was so fragmented, so I was really fortunate to land a job with a joinery company as their Operations Manager.

Then, out of the blue, I had a phone call from the production office of ‘The Pacific’ – asking if I would be interested in the role of Construction Manager. Luckily, the production had asked Terry Apsey of my whereabouts and he managed to track down my number. Although I had promised myself not to drop back into the industry, the complexity of ‘The Pacific’ appealed to me.

We filmed in the far North of Queensland, the You Yangs Regional Park near Melbourne, around the city of Melbourne itself and in Melbourne Central City Studios. In total there were 105 different sets and we were turning over 2 sets a day to the 2 main units. Some of the sets were worth $50k and a couple were worth $6m each! The overall construction budget was $24m out of an Art Department budget of $50m.

Because the job was so large it had 2 Supervising Art Directors – Dominic Hyman & Richard Hobbs. There’s quite a difference in work practice between Australia and the UK – in Australia the Construction Manager usually doesn’t have financial control but luckily ‘Pacific’ used the UK system where the CM had full financial control of the construction budget.

Construction in progress on one of the 105 sets for the television series ‘Pacific’ in Australia

Construction in progress on one of the 105 sets for the television
series ‘Pacific’ in Australia

For me, one of the best things that came out of the ‘Pacific’ project was the fact that, because I needed a crew of 450 and the local crew base wasn’t large enough to facilitate this, we undertook a training scheme – specifically in fibrous work. A lot of the sets were very different to normal film construction and involved some fairly innovative approaches, mainly utilizing civil engineering and geo textiles. Also in Australia, the sculpting department is normally as big as the carpentry department because they don’t usually use fibrous plastering – they mainly sculpt in concrete, which is a very, very cost-effective method.

After ‘Pacific’ I returned to the company I started with when first arriving from the UK, where I moved up to the position of General Manager. Although scenery was not in my company’s portfolio, I very quickly added a ‘special projects’ division to the business and have been lucky to have involved the company in theme park, exhibition and film. 

The CM’s first responsibility is to the Designer – and I often see this as a protective responsibility as far as the budget goes, in dealing with the Producers – and also a responsibility to the Designer in allowing enough time for a design to be constructed properly. Because, as I mentioned, I have grown up in a ‘design’ environment, when I see the blueprints I can visualize the construction methods required and see it in a 3-dimensional image – which makes it very easy to budget and schedule the job.

When you work with a good Production Designer like Tony Pratt, it’s easy to understand what you need to produce. Peter Lamont was very much the same, an Art Director of the old school like my Dad and Jim Morahan – and I’m very lucky, having worked in television, exhibitions and theme parks, as well as films, so now I can bring all of those methods together.

From my point of view, the ‘old school’ design, the ‘pencil’ design, is the easiest to interpret because, with a pencil you can actually ‘feel’ the type of set you need to do. With CAD drawing there is no emotion involved. If I look at a drawing by Jim Morahan or Tony Pratt, or my Dad, I know exactly what I need to do – but if I look at a CAD drawing I have to start talking to people to find out exactly what the set is supposed to look like – the feel, the texture, the finishes.

There’s a guy in Australia called Mike Molloy – he’s not in films but I’ve worked with him in commercial construction work in night clubs, shops etc. I use him because he draws in pencil first. I think now that you can actually get CAD which doesn’t use a ‘straight line’ format so it begins to look like an actual drawing – but all the designers on ‘Pacific’, with one exception, were pencil Draughtsmen – and the only set we had major problems with was drawn on CAD! It was the only one that the Scenic Artists and the Plasterers couldn’t quite get the feel of what exactly the Art Director was after. 

Tony Pratt is very conceptual – very epic in his designs – and I was asked to produce two sets of 90,000sq m in 20 weeks alongside 80 other sets. I know that he worried a great deal for 3 months whilst we were conceptualizing and, in the end, I had to remind him that I was the Construction Manager, so it was my responsibility and not his so that he could stop worrying so much! It was such a pleasure working with him. 

I have to say, never have I seen crews who want to please the Designer more than the Australians – if the Designer gains their respect, they will do absolutely anything to produce the best sets possible.

The big difference between Australian and English crews is mainly in construction techniques. Just as you would find a difference working in Prague – but the results are the same, although the differences are reducing as more and more British guys are emigrating – and both crews learn a lot from each other.

I have found that the Australian approach can be very interesting, for example, Chris McMahon is one of the best sculptors I’ve ever worked with. Sculpting here is completely different, they can do very fine work – they did all the work for ‘Narnia’ & ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ but the most amazing thing is that their sculpture is in concrete – and they’ve devised a method which Disney now uses in the theme parks – they’re extremely talented guys and are more construction based than art based. 

The Scenic Department is very different to the UK. The Paint Department is run by the Scenic Artist who is quite often also the Scenic Finisher. Which sometimes doesn’t work very well! To get the best results I think that you need to specialize – Scenic Artists to do backings with the Scenic Paint Department finishing surfaces.

The most important thing is that the Designer gains the respect of the Construction Crew and therefore will get the best work. In a film every person had their own input, whether it’s a Stagehand sweeping or the Producer who raises the money, all have to work as a team to bring the project together – but I wish that, when awards and praise are handed out that the highly trained and creative Construction Crews – Carpenters, Sculptors, Painters – would get more recognition. After all, it is they who bring the Art Department and the Director’s ideas to life! 

Dominic Ackland-Snow’s film credits include: The Invisible Woman – 2013, Sanctum – 2010, The Magic Flute – 2006, Phantom of the Opera – 2004, Tomb Raider II – 2003, Quills – 2000, Sleepy Hollow – 1999, Notting Hill – 1999, Fifth Element – 1997, The Borrowers – 1997, In Love & War – 1996, Goldeneye – 1995.

Television credits: Parade’s End – 2012, Pacific – 2010, Planet Cook – 2004, Band of Brothers – 2001.

 
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Posted by on May 30, 2013 in Construction Department

 

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I WANT TO BE A CINEMATOGRAPHER…..OR A DIRECTOR! by Robin Vidgeon BSC

Robin Vidgeon in 1988 with Raul Julia on  'The Penitant' in Mexico

Robin Vidgeon in 1988 with Raul Julia on ‘The Penitant’ in Mexico

To be at the sharp end of making a feature film, ie. in the camera department, or as a Director, or any of the other departments involved in bringing the film to the screen, you must start with an understanding of how the jigsaw fits together.

I started working at Pinewood Studios for two years in the camera department straight from school – cleaning boxes and learning what went into those boxes – cameras, lenses and all the equipment necessary to photograph a movie. Most importantly, I started to learn the incredible discipline that goes to make a top camera crew.

Now, many years later, I find myself working as a Cinematography Tutor with the new student film makers of all nationalities, in several top film schools and universities and I find a fierce ambition in both young men and women to work in our industry. On my first encounter with my students, it is so important to gently remind them that they must learn to walk before they can fly. They are undoubtably talented but, as a seasoned Director of Photography, I feel it is my duty to teach them the system which has stood the test of time for more than 100 years.

Film making, first and foremost, is a collaborative venture between many groups of people and departments, all striving to bring the best storytelling film to the silver screen.

Even when a student only wants to be a DoP, he or she must go to the set with an understanding of each job done by their camera crew. In film school, I help them to understand each role – Grip, 2nd AC (Assistant Camera), 1st AC (Focus Puller), Camera Operator and the HoD (Head of Department). I am adamant that, as HoD, I am responsible for my crew at all times and that I can only be as good as the crew I have around me. All departments have one goal, to support the Director and his script – and you need to be punctual, remain calm and enjoy each day’s work, with all its ups and downs.

The technology in our industry has changed drastically over the past decade – but the role of the DoP has not! When confronted with a set to light, I don’t think …’what kind of camera is on the dolly behind me?’… I’m there because the Director has asked for me and my expertise on the set. Whether the camera is film or digital, my job has changed little. The Operator’s job has hardly changed either, he is concerned with composition and camera movement and working closely with the Director. The 1st AC’s job has seen the greatest change with the arrival of the computor box with a lens on the front. With these incredible sensors, depth of focus has become a real issue. Digital cameras have a much shallower depth of focus, so great care has to be taken with each shot, whether it is with an ultra wide angle lens, or any other focal length up to 1000mm. With new digital cameras coming on stream every few months, it is a constant battle to keep up with this wonderful technology – and with the range of new studio low voltage, dual colour temperature LED soft lights, an exciting new world is opening up to Cinematographers.

So, when I meet a new group of film students who are aspiring to become Cinematographers, I look for talent that will continue to produce wonderful images for the big screen, to entertain audiences all over the world. I try to encourage them to create a story with images that will entertain, make people laugh, cry and leave the theatre feeling that they have been transported into a world of make believe.

Robin Vidgeon is a Past President of the British Society of Cinematographers, a Fellow of the BKSTS and a member of the Guild of British Camera Technicians.

Robin’s film credits include: Following Footsteps – 2010, Nine Lives – 2002, The World is Not Enough – 1999, Event Horizon – 1997, Neverending Story III – 1994, As You Like It – 1992, Under Suspicion – 1991, Memphis Belle – 1990, Hellraiser I & II – 1997 & 1998, The Penitent – 1998, The Mission – 1986, Indiana Jones & The Temple of Doom – 1984, Never Say Never Again – 1983, Raiders of the Lost Ark – 1981, The Dogs of War – 1980, Close Encounters of the Third Kind – 1977, Rollerball – 1975, The Great Gatsby – 1974, The Lion in Winter – 1968.

 
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Posted by on May 16, 2013 in Cinematography

 

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THE MAGIC OF MATTES AND MINIATURES by Leigh Took

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

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

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

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

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

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

clash of the Titans

‘Clash of the Titans’

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

Mutant Chronicles

Mutant Chronicles

Mutant Chronicles

Mutant Chronicles

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

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

Angels & Demons model as seen on screen

Angels & Demons model as seen on screen

 

Angels & Demons model on set

Angels & Demons model on set

 

 

 

 

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

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

Leigh Took and the finished model

Leigh Took and the finished model

Working on the model for Mutant Chronicles

Working on the model for Mutant Chronicles

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

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

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

SOME USEFUL VISUAL PROCESSES:

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

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

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

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

 

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