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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 illusion is what making a film or a television programme is all about – what the audience sees on the screen isn’t altogether real!

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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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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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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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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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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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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