The latest episode of Lighting I Like is out, analysing how the “Splinter Chamber” set is lit in time travel thriller 12 Monkeys. This adaptation of the Terry Gilliam movie can be seen on Netflix in the UK.
After countless viewings on VHS and DVD over my lifetime, I finally got to see Labyrinth on the big screen today. The imagination and detail in this film are just astonishing. Every scene has little puppet creatures wandering or flying about in the background to bring the sets to life. In today’s screening I noticed, for the first time, that there are two bottles of milk – presumably delivered by the Goblin Milkman – outside the door of Jareth’s castle. How brilliant is that?
Anyway, while there are many awesome things about Labyrinth, one of the techniques that I think is put to particularly good effect in the film is in-camera substitution. Typically this involves one type of puppet leaving frame briefly, and a second puppet – of the same character – reappearing in its place. Puppets are often limited in the actions that they can perform, and while scenes will commonly use different versions of the puppet in different shots to cover the full range of actions, Henson sometimes uses different versions of the puppet in the same shot to sell the illusion of a single, living creature. And though many of these effects are fairly obvious to a modern audience, you can still admire their ingenious design and perfect timing.
Skip through the movie to the timecodes listed below to see some of the best substitution effects.
1. Goblin Under the Bedclothes – 11:40
In the film’s first puppet scene, Sarah’s parent’s bedroom becomes infested with goblins, building up to David Bowie’s big oh-so-eighties entrance. One goblin crawls along the bed, under the sheets, before emerging. It looks like the initial crawling is achieved by pulling a rough goblin shape along on a wire under the sheets. The shape then drops out of the end of the bedclothes, behind a chest, and a moment later a puppet pops up from behind the same chest. This substitution effect obviates the need for a custom-built or chopped-up bed, which would have been necessary to permit the passage of the proper puppet and its puppeteer under the bedclothes.
2. Sir Didymus’ Acrobatics – 58:35
This shot appears to employ three different models of Sir Didymus, the honourable but fighting-crazed guardian of the bridge over the Bog of Eternal Stench. The first is a floppy version which is thrown behind some rocks by Ludo. After a practical puff of dusk, a second Sir Didymus – this one in a more rigid, leaping position – is launched from some kind of catapult hidden behind the rocks. He flies out of frame, to be replaced a moment later by the Muppet-style hand- and rod-puppet which is used for the majority of Sir Didymus’ shots.
3. Cowardly Ambrosius – 1:16:25
To his infinite chagrin, Sir Didymus’ bravery is not matched by that of his canine steed, Ambrosius. During the battle with Humongous, the petrified pooch rears up, throwing off his valiant rider, and retires shamelessly into hiding. The rearing up is accomplished with a rather unconvincing puppet dog. After he drops back down out of frame (aided by a slight zoom in to help lose him), a real dog enters in the background, running into hiding.
4. Double David – 1:27:53
In the film’s finale number, “Within You”, David Bowie’s Goblin King messes with our sense of direction as he jumps and flips around the disorientating Escher artwork brought to life. Early in the sequence he jumps off a ledge, only to reappear simultaneously in a background doorway, now seemingly obeying a pull of gravity at 90° to that which acted on his leap. A shot of Bowie jumping off the ledge cuts to another of him coming through the doorway. The doorway is filmed with the camera on its side, and to finish the action of the first Bowie’s leap, a body double is pulled across frame on a dolly. This can be seen at 25:36 in the behind-the-scenes documentary:
This kind of low-tech but ingenious filmmaking is in danger of dying, as CGI is perceived as the only tool to create illusions. But with a little thought, a little planning, cunning framing, and a knowledge of how to use editing (or lack thereof) to your advantage, very effective illusions can still be created in camera.
In amongst all the terrible CGI, The Beacon did feature the odd moment of low-tech triumph. As a damaged helicopter dives towards the Hollywood hills, the famous sign is reflected in the sunglasses of the injured pilot, played by my friend and fellow filmmaker Rick Goldsmith. The letters were actually 2″ high cardboard cut-outs stuck to a black piece of card, and Rick himself is holding it at arm’s length and moving it slowly towards his face.
While most of this fight sequence was shot under the downpour created by an industrial hosepipe fired into the air, this wasn’t available when extra close-ups were required later. Instead a watering can was used.
It’s not uncommon for close-ups in a scene to be achieved much more simply than their corresponding wide shots. NASA allowed Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck to be filmed in their training tank for Michael Bay’s Armageddon, but CUs of the other actors had to be shot dry-for-wet with a fishtank in front of the lens and someone blowing bubbles through it.
Getting the puppet to genuinely catch his sword was likely to require a prohibitive number of takes. (We were shooting on 35mm short ends.) So instead we ran the action in reverse, ending with with the sword being pulled up out of the puppet’s hand. When the film is run backwards, he appears to be catching it.
Backwards shots have been used throughout the history of cinema for all kinds of reasons. Examples can be seen in the Face Hugger sequence in Aliens (the creature’s leaps are actually falls in reverse) and in John Carpenter’s The Thing (tentacles grabbing their victims). At the climax of Back to the Future Part III, the insurers refused to allow Michael J. Fox to sit in the DeLorean while it was pushed by the train, in case it crushed him, so instead the train pulled the car backwards and the film was reversed.
At a crucial point in this fantasy-drama about a tape recorder that can stop and rewind time, I needed to show the tape getting worn out and images of the past distorting. I combined two techniques to create a distorted image of Dan (Oliver Park) without any manipulation in post. One was lens whacking, whereby the lens is detached from the camera and held in front of it, moving it around slightly to distort the focal plane. (See this episode of Indy Mogul and this article by Philip Bloom for more on lens whacking.) The other was to shake the camera (and lens) rapidly, to deliberately enhance the rolling shutter “jello” effect which DSLRs suffer from.
Flaws in camera technology can often lead to interesting effects if used appropriately. Let’s not forget that lens flares, which many filmmakers love the look of, are actually side-effects of the optics which lens manufacturers have worked for decades to try to reduce or eliminate. And in the early days of Doctor Who, the crew realised that greatly over-exposing their Marconi TV cameras caused the image to become a negative, and they put this effect to use on the victims of Dalek extermination.
Using an artificial light to represent the sun is extremely common in cinematography, but showing that lamp in shot is less common. For another example, see the opening Arctic sequence of Captain America: The First Avenger, in which a large HMI stands in for a low sun at the back of the mist-shrouded set.
In this 2005 featurette I break down many of the visual effects in my feature film Soul Searcher, revealing how they were created using old school techniques, like pouring milk into a fishtank for apocalyptic clouds. Watch the shots being built up layer by layer, starting with mundane elements like the water from a kitchen tap or drinking straws stuck to a piece of cardboard.
How do you create nice, thick, artificial rain for a dramatic fight scene, with no budget to speak of? Here’s how we did it on Soul Searcher.
This is a clip from the feature-length documentary Going to Hell: The Making of Soul Searcher. You can rent the whole doc digitally from the Distrify player below for a small charge, and you can watch Soul Searcher itself for free at neiloseman.com/soulsearcher
The clip shows how we created a fake downpour for a fight between the outgoing Grim Reaper, Ezekiel (Jonny Lewis, doubled by Simon Wyndham), and his replacement, Joe (Ray Bullock Jnr.). Ironically it was actually raining for real, but not heavily enough to show up on camera with the impact we needed. We’d had some rain bars made (lengths of hosepipe with holes drilled in them, strapped to bamboo canes) but we found the water squirted out in unrealistic jets. Luckily the location – Westons Cider in Much Marcle, Herefordshire – had a high pressure hose and we found that by pointing it upwards the water back down looking like rain.
The WidthScribe promotional video I recently completed for Astute Graphics involved the actress driving a car – except we ended up casting an actress who can’t drive. We got around this in a few different ways, including the obvious substitution of a qualified driver in the wide shots, complete with appropriate wig.
Perhaps the most interesting technique we used, and one which I might well have used even if she could drive, was Poor Man’s Process. Nowadays, most fake driving shots in films and TV shows are achieved by shooting against a greenscreen and replacing that screen in post with a moving background plate. A more traditional technique is to film against a rear projection screen – a screen onto which previously-shot footage of a moving background is projected in real time behind the actors. This was known as Process Photography.
Poor Man’s Process leaves out the screen altogether, shooting against a plain, ambiguous background that doesn’t reveal the lack of movement – typically empty sky. Careful use of camera movement and dynamic lighting create the illusion of movement.
Here is the set-up we used on the WidthScribe promo.
The car is parked on Nick’s drive, which is conveniently sloped so that – from the camera’s point of view – only sky and a bit of a distant tree are visible in the background.
A light behind the car represents the sun, and Nick chops a piece of cardboard up and down in front of it to represent the shadows of passing trees.
Sophie operates a hairdryer to blow Laura’s hair around.
Col shines a reporter light into the lens, moving it around to create the impression of the sun changing position relative to the camera.
And I dolly the camera side-to-side while vibrating it ever so slightly.
When intercut with wide shots of Nick’s wife driving the car for real, you’d never know the close-ups were cheated. (An additional trick we employed was to sit Laura in the passenger seat of the moving car then flop the image in post, for the over-the-shoulder shot of the pylon passing by.)
Poor Man’s Process works best at night, but with the shallow depth of field provided by DSLRs it’s now possible to get away with it in daylight too, so long as the shot is kept fairly tight and the road you’re meant to be driving on is fairly open.
You’ll want to vary the lighting effects you use according to the surroundings the car is supposed to be in. You can use spinning mirrors to sweep “headlights” or “streetlights” over your actors, or move a keylight representing the sun or moon slowly side-to-side, or even place two out-of-focus bulbs in the background of your shot to represent another car behind.
I’ll leave you with an example of Poor Man’s Process in use on a big-budget Hollywood film, Michael Bay’s 1997 Alcatraz actioner, The Rock. All the close-ups in the cars were shot static in a car park.
Production of the insanely ambitious British fantasy adventure movie The Dark Side of the Earth begins with a single pilot scene, featuring a Victorian swordfighting robot. Director Neil Oseman and Sword Master A. J. Nicol put the puppet robot through its paces. Filmed by Gerard Giorgi-Coll and Simon Willcox.
Production of the insanely ambitious British fantasy adventure movie The Dark Side of the Earth begins with a single pilot scene, featuring a Victorian swordfighting robot. Model Unit Supervisor Mike Tucker (Atonement, Doctor Who, Red Dwarf) explains how the full-size puppet will work.