4 Cunning Substitution Effects in Labyrinth

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?

"Where did she learn that rubbish? It doesn't even start with 'I wish'!"
“Where did she learn that rubbish? It doesn’t even start with ‘I wish’!”

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.

Sir Didymus

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.

"I can't live within you." Not at all creepy, Dave.
“I can’t live within you.” Not at all creepy, Dave.

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.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

The 10 Greatest Movie Puppets of All Time – including the aforementioned Humongous

Double Vision – five ways of having one actor play two characters in the same scene

Top Five Low Tech Effects – tipping my hat to the cheekiest in-camera effects used in big Hollywood movies

Five Simple But Effective Camera Tricks – revealing some simple camera tricks I’ve used in my own films

4 Cunning Substitution Effects in Labyrinth

5 Ways to Use LED Panels

LED technology is transforming the way cinematographers can light. Running off batteries and not getting hot are two of their biggest advantages over other sources, making them much more flexible. I tend to avoid keying with them, because even the most expensive brands don’t render skintones as accurately as incandescent sources, but there are many other uses they can be put to. Here are a few of my favourite.

1. Eye-light on overcast day exteriors

If it’s one of those dark days when reflectors just don’t seem to do anything, or you’re under the tree canopy of a forest, an LED panel can give you a bit of fill and eye-light.

An LED panel over camera provides fill in this shot from Ren © 2015 Mythica Entertainment
An LED panel over camera provides fill and eye-light in this shot from Ren © 2015 Mythica Entertainment

Visit rentheseries.com to learn more about Ren, or read my blog post about lighting the above scene.

2. Background spots on night exteriors

So you’ve spent a while lighting the master shot of your big night exterior scene, and everyone’s ready to shoot. Then you notice that there’s an area in the background of frame which looks dark and empty, and you’d love a bit of extra light in there. Just slap a battery on your LED panel and run over there with it. No need to run power cables!

The orange backlight on Faith (Haruka Abe) and the fence, although apparently from the streetlamp in the background, is actually from an Arrilite 650 out of frame right, gelled with Urban Sodium. A daylight-balanced LED panel, also out of frame right but closer to camera, keys Faith. A second panel hidden behind the end of the fence lights the van and the rest of the deep background.
An LED panel lights the van and grass in the background of this shot from Forever Alone (dir. Jordan Morris)

Read my blog post about lighting the above scene.

3. Off-screen TV set

An LED panel makes a good “TV” source because during the take your spark can mess with not only the brightness control but the colour balance as well, to suggest changing images on the screen.

An LED panel simulates an off-screen TV set in this frame from The Gong Fu Connection © 2015 Cannon Fist Pictures
An LED panel simulates an off-screen TV set in this frame from The Gong Fu Connection © 2015 Cannon Fist Pictures. The panel was gelled green to match reverse shots in which the TV screen is shown to be dominated by the green grass of a racecourse.

Browse the blog posts about my cinematography on The Gong Fu Connection.

4. Mobile fill

If you’re shooting a long scene with your talent on the move and you need to maintain a little fill when they’re between lamps, an LED panel is easy for your spark to hand bash as they walk with the actors.

Under the black bag is an LED panel to keep some consistency to the light on the actors as the car moves.
Under the black bag is an LED panel to keep some consistency to the light on the actors as the car moves, in a scene from The Gong Fu Connection (dir. Ted Duran)
In a scene from Synced (dir. Devon Avery), we tracked the actors from the back of a pick-up truck, using the LED panel above me as fill.
In a scene from Synced (dir. Devon Avery), we tracked the actors from the back of a pick-up truck, using the LED panel above me as fill.

Read my blog post about the above scene from Synced.

5. Hidden sources

Because they don’t get hot, and you don’t need power cables to them, it’s easy to hide LED panels behind bits of furniture or set dressing, to give interesting pools of light or punch up practicals.

In this frame from Ren, Hunter's face is lit by a small LED reporter light hidden behind the bucket to suggest a reflection off the water.
In this frame from Ren, Hunter’s face is lit by a small LED reporter light hidden behind the bucket to suggest a reflection off the water.

Read my blog post about lighting the above scene from Ren.

What interesting uses have you found for LED panels?

5 Ways to Use LED Panels

The First Musketeer: Lighting the Barracks

Creator Harriet Sams and some of The First Musketeer cast presented a panel at ExiliCon, a gaming and genre convention, last weekend, and their discussion of the Fumel scenes brought back some memories of lighting it which I’d like to share. The Chateau de Fumel stood in for the musketeers’ barracks, appearing most prominently at the end of episode three from 8:32 onwards. (Click here for a playlist of the whole season.)

The walkway by day
The walkway by day

Set at night, like most of the show, the scene involved two major steadicam shots tracking up and down a covered walkway. This walkway was essentially a corridor which, save for pillars, was open along one side.

One of the steadicam shots was a walk-and-talk dialogue scene, the other an epic single shot fight scene. Tracking shots in corridors are always a pain to light because there’s never anywhere to put backlight without it coming into frame. Ideally you use practicals in the ceiling, but despite scratching our heads over it for a while, gaffer (and Steadicam op) Richard “Squish” Roberts and I couldn’t figure out any way to rig lights to the ceiling without damaging the historical building or getting some part of the rigging in shot.

In fact, the only possible place to hide lights – except behind camera, which would have made for a flat, boring image – was in the garden outside the walkway. So all the light would be side-light, broken up the pillars and the bushes between those pillars.

Here’s the lighting scheme I arrived at:


I decided to fire in “moonlight” from our 2.5K HMI, positioned on the far side of the garden. Shooting at a white balance of 3,200K, this would appear blue on camera. (We were shooting on Squish’s Blackmagic Cinema Camera, using a Tokina 11-16mm f2.8 zoom or a Sigma 20mm f1.8 for wide shots.)

The 2.5K HMI on the far side of the garden

Then I had Squish set up two or three 800W open-face tungsten lamps as 3/4 backlights, spaced evenly along the run. We gelled these with CTO so that they’d appear orange on camera, suggesting firelight sources of some kind. (The First Musketeer is full of implied firelight sources, because we were never able to have naked flames in the locations!)

The 800W tungsten lamps hidden behind the pillars
The 800W tungsten lamps hidden behind the pillars

The final touch was to light the far end of the corridor, to give the shot some deep background. We tucked a 2′ 4-bank Kinoflo (with tungsten tubes) into a little alcove and shone it at the back wall. To provide a third layer of colour to the image, while still staying within the palette of firelight, I gelled this with Straw. When the smoke catches the light, it gives a nice bright patch in the background which is great for the depth of the image.

Toby Lorde as the Duke de Luyne in the walkway, lit for shooting. Photo: Jessica Ozlo
The walkway, lit for shooting. Photo: Jessica Ozlo
A frame grab from the walk-and-talk scene
A frame grab from the walk-and-talk scene

Toby Lorde (the Duke de Luyne) on the steps, backlight by a half-CTB-gelled 800 and keyed by the 2.5K HMI, way off left
Toby Lord (the Duke de Luynes) on the steps, backlit by a half-CTB-gelled 800 and keyed by the 2.5K HMI, way off left. A Kino off right provides fill. Photo: Jessica Ozlo

Later in the scene we moved out to the far side of the garden, shooting back towards the building as the Duke de Luynes thanks Athos and friends for their help.

The 2.5K stayed in the the same place, 3/4 backlighting the heroes, side-lighting the duke and 3/4 front-lighting the building. The 800s were moved inside the walkway and hidden behind pillars.

Another source was required to rake the heroes’ profiles and backlight the duke. This was another 800, gelled with half CTB for a vaguely starlight look, placed at the top of the steps. When I have stairs in a shot I always like to put a lamp at the top and fire it down so that it catches the top of every step, as it does here.

We were all set up and ready to turn over on this wide shot, when suddenly the building’s automatic floodlights came on. We hunted high and low, but couldn’t find the switch to turn them off. Instead, I placed a piece of CTO over each of the floodlights and assigned members of the crew to hold their hands over the lights, wiggling their fingers. The result is that the front of the building appears to be uplit by brazieres. It works beautifully and adds another layer of depth which we couldn’t have created otherwise, because all our film lamps were already in use.

You should always be ready to improvise like this when shoots throw you a curve ball.

This illustrates the directions the various lamps were coming in from. Click the image to enlarge.
This illustrates the directions the various lamps were coming in from. Click the image to enlarge.

Visit The First Musketeer’s YouTube channel to view the whole series for free. The show is © First Musketeer Ltd 2014.

The First Musketeer: Lighting the Barracks

Why Make Films?

Shooting Mini-DV in 2003

When I went freelance at the end of the last century, it felt like anything was possible.  If you had the talent, you could go out there and make a great short that could win awards at festivals and get you a good agent, or you could go out and make a feature which made the industry sit up and take notice and hire you on a fully-budgeted production. Call me old and cynical, but that now feels like a ridiculous pipe-dream.

15 years ago, the Mini-DV revolution was just kicking off. Since then we’ve had the DSLR revolution, not to mention the collapse of expensive celluloid as the only accepted acquisition and distribution format for “proper” movies. The technology has removed every barrier to entry, and now the world is swamped with filmmakers.

This is great, but it has had two highly destructive side effects.

Firstly, as a filmmaker, it’s virtually impossible to stand out any more amongst the thousands of micro-budget movies that get made every year, short-form and long. Would I get coverage in The Guardian today for making a fantasy feature on £20,000? I think not.

Shooting on a DSLR in 2013
Shooting on a DSLR in 2013

And although there is now a huge number of film festivals around the world, there are so many people entering them, that the odds of getting in are tiny, and the odds of winning awards even smaller. So once you’ve made a film, what do you do with it? Putting it online is the only option left. Except there are so many films, and other forms of video content, on the internet that you have to be incredibly lucky to get any reasonable number of people to watch yours.

Secondly, as jobbing crew, though there are plenty of productions to work on, most of them are unpaid. Because there’s no more money to go around than there was 15 years ago – it’s just more thinly spread. When I started out, unpaid work was something you did for a couple of years until you could get enough paid work to live on. Now it’s entirely possible to do unpaid gigs for decades without it ever leading to enough paid work to quit your day job.

In a nutshell, the industry has become a farce.

Which brings me back to my question, “Why make films?”

The only answer left, and perhaps the only one that ever truly mattered, is, “Because I love it.”

Do not become a filmmaker because you think you can break into Hollywood. Don’t do it because you want to get rich. Don’t expect to see your work on cinema release, to win Oscars, or to work with the stars. Don’t even expect to reach wide audiences or make a good living.

Just do it because it’s the only thing you want to do with your life, and be happy with that. I know I am.

Why Make Films?