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The Art of Illusion … by Wendy Laybourn

THE BOOK!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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DAVID ATTENBOROUGH – ‘ZOO QUEST IN COLOUR’

As part of the David Attenborough’s 90th birthday celebrations, the BBC will be showing the *‘Zoo Quest for a Dragon’ episode – a search for the Komodo Dragon in Indonesia, which marked David Attenborough’s television debut. This episode will be shown on Tuesday 17th May 2016 on BBC4 at 9pm.

Cinematographer Charles Lagus BSC, photographed this 1950s nature series and points out that the publicity has got a couple of things not quite right!

The press have broadcast that David Attenborough stepped in for the regular host, Jack Lester, after he was involved in a car crash as a stand in and that the episode which has been dug out of the archive for viewing on May 11th has had colour added. Unfortunately, according to Charles Lagus, most of this information is incorrect, see below!

… ‘Before departing on these expeditions the Beeb film department naturally expected me to shoot on 16mm B&W stock but from my experience I knew that B&W copy of colour was definitely superior. It was only after much argument (and cost analysis) that I was allowed to use colour. I used Kodachrome 100 foot rolls. The stock was inevitably kept under appalling conditions of temperature and the exposed film not processed until our return to the UK up to 5 months later!

Ninety percent of the Zoo Quest episodes were shot in colour, the few rolls of B&W we had were kept entirely for when there was not enough light for the slower colour stock.

The 11th May is the correct original transmission date and I appear in it almost as much as David, who certainly never expected to be the star or commentator and was most worried about it but had little option under the circumstances.

This upcoming broadcast is in fact completely re-edited from all material found quite by accident by a researcher in the BBC vaults.  It had all originally gone out 60-odd years ago in B&W – never in colour – as only B&W television was available, it took some 10 years before colour viewing became the norm.  Nobody had ever seen the original or remembered its existence, including David.

Those who worked on this version and others who have viewed the copy have all commented on the colour quality … “so much better than what is transmitted now”

Jack Lester, who was the Curator of the Reptile House at London Zoo, contracted an unknown tropical disease after a trip to Africa, which is why he couldn’t host the series, not because of an accident – unfortunately he eventually died after several recurring episodes of the disease.

A typical incident on one of the trips which might amuse: 

David and I were camping by a river when the Indian who was helping us said that he could hear a boat coming with an engine – a rare event and it was a long time before we could hear it faintly. When it came into view it was a primitive dugout canoe with a tiny outboard driven by a Indian. In the bows (true) was a cloven stick with a BBC envelope addressed to me. It was from Head of Films and it said … ” Charles Lagus please be informed that recent Kodak research advises use of reflectors.” … signed Jack Mewitt HD Television.  It was the only communication we ever received from the film department!’ … 

Charles Lagus BSC

Charles Lagus BSC

Charles Lagus was the first cameraman engaged by the BBC to shoot natural history footage. His filmmaking career began when he switched from studying medicine to photography in 1946. In 1986 he was awarded the “Lifetime Achievement Panda” for his services to wildlife film-making by the Wildscreen International Film Festival in Bristol, UK.

*Zoo Quest was a series of 30 minute nature documentaries broadcast on BBC Television between 1954 and 1963 and was the first major programme to feature David Attenborough. The series began as a joint venture with London Zoo and ended with millions of viewers seeing for themselves animals and locations which might otherwise have remained the stuff of myths and legends.

In each series, Attenborough travelled with staff from London Zoo to a tropical country to capture an animal for the zoo’s collection – which was the accepted practice at the time. Although the programme was structured around the quest for the animal, it also featured film of other wildlife in the area and of the local people and their customs. Attenborough introduced each programme from the studio and then narrated the film his team had shot on location. The series was the most popular wildlife programme of its time in Britain and established Attenborough’s career as a nature documentary presenter.

 

 
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Posted by on May 12, 2016 in Cinematography

 

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Working in Costume – not for the faint hearted! … by Iona Smith Oliver

Iona Headshot

Iona Smith Oliver

After completing a degree in Fine Art at University of the West of England and in the same year losing my Father to cancer, I worked – any job would do, I just wanted to work and keep busy. It wasn’t until about a year later that I had a chance to reflect on the fact that I was really stressed and exhausted, splitting my time between babysitting, pub work and a variety of unpaid internships. Even though I had put in a huge amount of effort, I still had no direction and no career plan for the long term.

I have always had an interest in sewing and alterations and have been adjusting and reconstructing charity shop clothing since I was very young – and I even used to make fur coats and Spice Girl shoes out of old corks, plaster and dental floss for my Barbie dolls. However, it never occurred to me in later life that ‘Costume’ could be a possible career path for me. By sheer coincidence I started babysitting for a Costume Designer who was incredibly supportive in my quest for work and got me onto my first Costume Assistant job, helping her out on an Argos commercial. It was a great first job as I got to experience lots of different elements of filming, not only to do with Costume but also working with green screen, working with a large group of people (what seemed like five Assistant Directors!) and working with puppets and puppeteers. I remember the first time I went into her studio to pull outfits and the excitement I felt at the realisation that this job really ticked all the boxes for me.

From then on I started to be proactive in my search for work and most importantly (seems rather obvious but top tip!) when asked – I told people that I worked in Costume. You would be surprised at the amount of people that are willing to put you in touch with their niece or old school friend or housemate and it is really, really worth following these contacts up! One of the main lessons I learned very quickly was that finding work is all about connecting with people and being present in a community – you never know where any conversation or email will take you. One particular example of this was a seemingly random phone call I got from a Supervisor asking if I could assist her and the Designer on a feature film up in Leeds. I was unable to do the job at the time but we got on so well on the phone that she asked me to assist her on a low budget feature later that year. We have since become great friends and have formed a strong team with the Designer from the Leeds job and have now worked together on several features.

Carey Mulligan as Maud in 'Suffragette' - 2015

Carey Mulligan as Maud in ‘Suffragette’ – 2015

Through the first women I worked with, I was fortunate enough to get a few dailies on ‘Suffragettes’ which was a period feature. It was unlike any experience I had had before. The sheer scale of the production was over whelming. To give you an idea, on one particular day I was one of 18 dailies who were responsible for dressing and assisting 200+ extras. A whole street was shut down in Central London and transformed into a busy working Victorian street, along with horse drawn buses and a hot chestnut stall. This is something I find especially exciting about working for Costume on screen as it is all about making the illusion believable. The attention to detail and the work that goes into these productions does make me feel really proud to be a part of it.

When I’m working on say a 4/5 week shoot my life tends to be dedicated to the process for the whole of the shoot. This is purely because the working day can be anywhere from 12-16 hours and Costume is usually the first to arrive and the last to leave at the end of the day.

There are many qualities I think you need to survive in the world of Costume and I use the word ‘survive’ as it can be an incredibly tough and competitive industry. First and foremost strong people skills are a must! Working with large groups of people for long hours and often under a time constraint, people will get stressed (you may too!) and I tend to have the policy that what happens at work stays at work and doesn’t affect my personal relationships. Problem solving and efficiency is another good quality, as things do and sometimes will go wrong. You need to be able to think fast and act quickly as time is always of the essence.

'Hi-Lo Joe' 2015

‘Hi-Lo Joe’ 2015

I have been working in the industry for just under a year now and, although I have had a wide and varied amount of experience though all sorts of budgets and roles I am now concentrating on being a hard working Costume Trainee. I think you learn and grow from experience on every job you do and in many ways I’m sure this will continue throughout my career. I’m still unsure if I want to be a Costume Designer per se but am very keen to improve my making and construction skills and feel that this may be a large part of my career in the future.

I have been fortunate enough this year to become a part of the 2015 Sara Putt Trainee Scheme and especially lucky, as this is their first year of taking on Costume Trainees. It is so amazing having the support not only from the agency but also from a close network of fellow Trainees. I would really recommend getting involved with a Trainee Scheme as they can be an invaluable resource when learning how to find work and network effectively. Check out my CV (resumé) on this website and contact me via my LinkedIn page.

Iona’s credits to date are: Suffragettes, Hi-Lo Joe, Writer’s Retreat, Foxes, Black Sea, Golden Years, Lady in the Van.

 

 

 
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Posted by on April 29, 2015 in Costume Department

 

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BEING A JUNIOR COLOURIST … by Aurora Shannon

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

Aurora Shannon

Aurora Shannon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aurora Shannon, Junior Colourist at Company 3 London

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

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

 

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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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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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