“Time Bandits” Retrospective

Released 40 years ago, Terry Gilliam’s surreal sci-fi adventure Time Bandits remains a supremely imaginative film, defying conventions of plot and never talking down to its target audience of children. Let’s take a time portal back to 1981 and find out how it was made.

“I was broke. I had to write something fast,” Gilliam once said of the film’s origins. By other accounts he conceived Time Bandits when Brazil’s development stalled due to financier Denis O’Brien “not getting it”. (O’Brien was George Harrison’s partner at Handmade Films, which had originally been set up to fund the Monty Python feature Life of Brian.)

After dreaming up the idea of a knight on horseback bursting out of a child’s wardrobe, Gilliam jotted down a mere two sides of notes under the characteristically whimsical heading, “The film that dares not speak its name: a treatment… not a cure”. After describing the opening sequence, in which ten-year-old Kevin is whisked through a time portal by a rabble of robber dwarves while pursued by God, the treatment brazenly states: “And so starts this terrific attempt to get the movie moneybags to part with a few million bucks.”

The moneybags were not convinced, however. O’Brien took Gilliam’s script, co-written with Michael Palin, around LA and returned empty-handed. It was then that O’Brien and Harrison decided to put up the film’s $5 million budget themselves, with the ex-Beatle even mortgaging his office building to do so.

The script was ambitious, featuring as it did a tour of historical settings from the Napoleonic Wars, through Sherwood Forest and ancient Greece, to the deck of the Titanic, and from there into the “Time of Legends”. This last sequence finds the protagonists aboard a boat which turns out to be a hat worn by a giant. Although this might seem a classic product of a Python’s imagination, Gilliam in fact admits to stealing the idea from a book by fantasy artist Brian Froud, who would go on to be a conceptual designer on Time Bandits’ nearest thematic neighbour, the Terry Jones-scripted Labyrinth (1986).

Palin wrote the part of Robin Hood for himself, but O’Brien insisted on casting John Cleese to improve the film’s box office prospects. Palin instead took the role of Vincent, hapless lover of Shelley Duvall’s Pansy. It was Duvall who was hapless, however, when Gilliam climbed some scaffolding to demonstrate to his cast how to fall correctly and ended up landing on her.

Amongst the actors playing the eponymous Time Bandits were Kenny Baker, best known as R2-D2 in the first six Star Wars films, Jack Purvis, who played a number of Jawas and Ewoks in the same franchise, and David Rappaport, whose extensive credits include episodes of The Young Ones, The Goodies and Not the Nine O’Clock News. A seventh bandit, Horseflesh, was cut over fears that Disney might perceive a Snow White rip-off and sue.

“I always thought of it like the mini Pythons,” said Gilliam of the bandit gang. “There was the leader, then there was the second one who really thought he could do it better…”

Meanwhile, the screenplay specifically called for the Greek king Agamemnon to be “none other than Sean Connery, or an actor of equal but cheaper stature”. O’Brien, who played golf with Connery, simply offered the part to the man himself. The cheeky Pythons accordingly updated the stage direction to read: “none other than Sean Connery, who it turns out we can afford”.

Nonetheless, creativity was in much greater supply than money, and Gilliam employed clever editing, reverse shots and miniatures to capture his vision within the budget. “I don’t think that there was anyone in American who believed that film cost less than 15 if not 20 million dollars,” O’Brien opined in a 1989 documentary.

O’Brien was not always supportive, however. He wanted to cut certain controversial moments like Vermin (Tiny Ross) eating rats, but Gilliam fought him. “There was a point where I threatened to burn the negative,” the director admitted in the same documentary.

O’Brien particularly hated the famously downbeat ending. Kevin wakes up in his own bed during a house fire, and is rescued by none other than Sean Connery. Connery himself suggested this second role after he proved unavailable to film Agamemnon’s scripted reappearance (and death) in the showdown at the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness.

The controversial moment comes after Connery’s firefighter departs; Kevin’s parents touch a piece of concentrated evil and immediately explode. O’Brien was forced to withdraw his objections to this shocking twist, however, when a test-screening audience chose the ending as their favourite part of the movie. While many fans of Time Bandits might agree, Gilliam believed that the test audience were simply trying to say that they were glad the movie was over!

“Time Bandits” Retrospective

“The Little Mermaid”: A Tale of Two Cameras

As The Little Mermaid is leaving Netflix next week, I decided to go back to my production diary from 2016 and see if there were any more extracts that might be of interest. Tying in with my recent post about shooting with two cameras, here are a number of extracts demonstrating how we used our Alexa Plus XR (operated by me) and Alexa Studio XR (operated by Tim Gill). I definitely won’t say that we made the most effective and efficient use of two cameras the whole time, but I certainly learnt a lot about the pros and cons of having a B-cam.

 

Day 1

We start in a third floor bedroom… After we get the main coverage, we head out to the garden for the next scene, while the B-camera team steps in to pick up a couple of inserts.

As soon as we’re outside, the sun starts to dick around. Those clouds are scudding in and out faster than we can swap ND filters and fly in Ultrabounce to fill the shadows. Eventually we get the three-channel Preston (which only arrived this morning) hooked up so I can pull the iris remotely for our big jib shot. B-camera arrives and picks up alternate angles, and using the two cameras we’re able to wrap out the scenes by lunchtime.

Now we’re inside, on the first floor this time, in a beautiful little circular study. The electrical department have already set up the lamps, so it doesn’t take much tweaking to get us ready to go. Over the course of the afternoon we shoot out our scenes in the study, while B-camera gets various POVs out of windows and establishers of the house exterior. Although the G&E (grip and electric) crew are thinly stretched to support both camera crews, having that second camera is incredibly useful.

 

Day 2

This morning we’re in a church, shooting a montage scene in which Cam interviews a number of locals. We use two cameras to capture a locked-off wide of the interviewee (which can be jump-cut between characters) and a roaming CU simultaneously. Since Tim’s B-camera is doing the roaming shot, I spend the morning at the monitors, keeping an eye on both feeds…

 

Day 3

The forecast says cloudy all week, and we dearly want our exteriors at Lorene’s House to be sunny and beautiful. But actually the dark, overcast skies work in our favour when the AD has us spend the morning shooting a “sunset” exterior. Our 12K HMI, gelled with full CTS, has enough power to cut through the dim natural light and give the impression of a gentle sunset. Working with both cameras, we get a great tracking shot, a jib shot and some other coverage. Then we leave the B-camera team behind, under the direction of VFX supervisor Rich (for the above green-screen shot), while we move back inside to block and light other scenes…

 

Day 8

… We have planned our day to maximise our two cameras. We’ve only been getting about eight set-ups a day, and we knew that with the stunts and effects we have today we would be pushed to even get that many. So we planned six two-camera set-ups and an insert, and we stick closely to this plan. A-camera lives on the crane with the (Angenieux 19.5-94mm Optimo) zoom most of the day, getting the most out of the scale and height of the big top and the action, while B-camera – using the (Cooke S4/i) primes for a change – gets the closer shots. This leaves me free to look at the monitors, which is useful but often boring. (All the material from this day sadly hit the cutting room floor.)

 

Day 12

Our last day at the circus… For most of the day the B-camera is nearby shooting different stuff. This is great in principle, but in practice we tend to get in each others’ way, our lighting affecting their shots and vice versa.

 

Day 24

… After lunch we have a big fight scene to shoot, and the pace of work kicks up several gears. I light a small clearing so we can shoot 180 degrees with two cameras simultaneously. Some directions look better than others, but in an action scene no shot will be held for very long, so it’s not necessary to get every angle perfect.

Normally I open the Cooke S4s no wider than 2 and two thirds, as no lens performs at its best when wide open, but my resolve on this is slipping, and it’s really hard to get a decent amount of light through the dense trees at this location, so I go wide open (T2) for this sequence.

 

Day 25

Our last day on Tybee Island. We start with pick-ups in the woods for various scenes shot over the last few days, then move to the beach, a portion of which we’re cheating as a “river marsh” location. This is a night scene, so we have to go through the slow process of moving the condor (cherry-picker) around from the woods. This involves a police escort to get it across the highway…

Meanwhile B-camera are shooting a shot of a car driving along the road behind the beach. Since the G&E crew are all tied up, at (co-director) Chris Bouchard’s suggestion they use the location work-light and have to fiddle with the white balance to render it a reasonable colour on camera. More and more micro-budget cheats are being employed as the production goes on, and to most of the crew, who are used to big-budget stuff, it’s ridiculous. I don’t mind so much, but I feel bad for the B-camera team.

 

Day 26

We are back on the stage, in three different sets. I’ve lit them all before, but most of the lamps are gone and some require a new look because the time of day is different. Towards the end of the night we leap-frog from set to set, sending G&E and the B-camera ahead to set up while we’re still shooting. To my surprise it works. The sets are small enough that we have enough G&E crew to split up like that.

Top row: A-cam 1st AC Jonathan Klepfer, A-cam 2nd AC Kane Pearson, me, B-cam 1st AC Geran Daniels; bottom row: B-cam 2nd AC Matt Bradford Dixon, digital loader Alex Dubois, B-cam operator/2nd unit DP Tim Gill

For more extracts from my Little Mermaid diary, visit these links:

The Little Mermaid is currently available on Netflix in the UK – but hurry because it leaves on November 30th – and Showtime in the US.

“The Little Mermaid”: A Tale of Two Cameras

Al’s 10 Best “Quantum Leap” Episodes

It was with great sadness last week that I read the news of Dean Stockwell’s passing. The actor had a long and varied career, but to me he will always be Admiral Al Calavicci, the holographic observer from the cult 80s/90s sci-fi show Quantum Leap. Only the other week I wrote about how I was such a big fan of this series as a teenager that my friend David Abbott and I made our own version of it.

With Scott Bakula’s time-travelling Doctor Sam Beckett very much the protagonist of the show, the intangible Al was often relegated to exposition and comic relief, both of which Stockwell handled expertly. But every now and then Al would come to the fore and really demonstrate the actor’s range and talent. In tribute to him, here are ten of Al’s best episodes across Quantum Leap‘s five seasons.

 

1. “Pilot”

When you’re familiar with Quantum Leap you know that Sam and Al’s friendship is one of the series’ few constants. No matter how “Swiss-cheesed” Sam’s memory gets, he always remembers his best buddy Al. So it’s quite strange when you go back and watch the pilot and Sam’s first leap has scrambled his memory so much that he doesn’t even recognise Al, let alone realise that he’s a holographic projection from the future. The uninitiated viewer is similarly in the dark to begin with, watching Al shouting at an unseen character named Gooshie (Project Quantum Leap’s head programmer) and then disappearing through an invisible door. Al would never be an enigma like this again, and it’s a fun way to start a classic buddy relationship.

 

2. “HoneyMoon Express”

Al and the team at Project Quantum Leap constantly monitor Sam’s time-travelling adventures from their top-secret Stallion Springs, New Mexico base in the future. For the most part this all happens off screen, but the Season Two opener “Honeymoon Express” is one of the few occasions when we get a glimpse behind the curtain. The US Senate is threatening to withdraw the Project’s funding, so Al must attend a hearing to justify the continued expense of staying in touch with Sam. Resplendent in his dress uniform, Admiral Calavicci argues passionately on behalf of his friend, though the funding is ultimately secured when Sam changes history and a new senator is suddenly in charge.

 

3. “Jimmy”

Prejudice versus tolerance is a recurring theme in Quantum Leap, appropriately enough for a show about walking a mile in another man’s shoes. The classic episode “Jimmy” tackles this theme head-on as Sam leaps into the body of a man with learning difficulties. Al pressures Sam not to screw up his mission, which is to ensure that Jimmy holds down a job so that he doesn’t die in a state home. Eventually it comes out that Al’s beloved younger sister Trudy had Down’s Syndrome and died in an institution at the age of 16, hence the hologram’s desperation to stop the same happening to Jimmy.

 

4. “M.I.A.”

Al’s most heart-wrenching episode is the Season Two finale. His first wife, Beth, remarried while Al was a missing, presumed dead POW in Vietnam. Al never got over losing the love of his life, and a string of failed marriages followed. In “M.I.A.” Sam meets Beth during the Vietnam War and has the chance to tell her that her husband is still alive – a chance he refuses to take, on the grounds that time travel should not be used for personal gain. Al is understandably upset with Sam, a rare case of serious friction between the two friends. The episode ends with an incredibly moving scene – very reminiscent of the movie Ghost, although Quantum Leap did it first – as the holographic Al dances to Ray Charles’ “Georgia” with the unknowing Beth.

 

5. “The Leap Home, Part II: Vietnam”

The hypocritical Sam spends the opening two-parter of Season Three trying to change his own family’s past for the better, first at his childhood home in Indiana, then in the jungles of Vietnam alongside his older brother Tom. Out of respect for his fellow soldiers, Al spends the episode in his dress uniform again, spotlessly white amidst the mud and greenery. At one point in the story, a war photographer snaps a band of American POWs being led away by the Viet Cong. The episode’s final scene shows us that photo, revealing that one of the prisoners is none other than a young Al. Stockwell was nominated for an Emmy for this episode (having won a Golden Globe for the series the previous year).

 

6. “The Leap Back”

This is my all-time favourite episode of Quantum Leap, because after three years we finally got to visit the Project in the future and meet Al’s colleagues who have been helping Sam behind the scenes all this time, including the supercomputer Ziggy. The reason is that Sam has been catapulted into the holographic imaging chamber in place of Al, who has quantum-leaped. The story is really about Sam and how he deals with being reunited with his wife Donna (whose existence Al has been keeping from his Swiss-cheesed friend), but that’s intercut with hilarious scenes in which Al gets to experience for himself how difficult it is to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes – including having his own memory Swiss-cheesed. Perhaps a little cruelly, Sam revels in being a hologram and giving unhelpful advice while his buddy is floundering, but Dr Beckett soon sees the serious side of the Observer’s job when he must helplessly watch his friend in danger.

 

7. “Running for Honor”

Another episode that confronts prejudice, “Running for Honnor” was extremely controversial for American television at the time (1992) as it portrayed homosexuality in the military. In fact, some advertisers threatened to pull out when they learnt of the content. Their narrow-mindedness was shared by Al, who is openly homophobic until the ever-tolerant Sam teaches him the error of his ways. Quantum Leap‘s regulars rarely got to have their own character arcs, so it’s nice to see Al go through a process of change in this episode.

 

8. “A Leap for Lisa”

After dancing close to Al’s past life in both “M.I.A.” and “The Leap Home, Part II”, the Season Four finale goes all out and has Sam actually leap into his buddy in 1957. At this time, Al is a young ensign falsely accused of murder by a naval court, an accusation Al easily refuted before Sam accidentally changes history. Now the odds of Al being executed for the crime are rising, finally reaching 100%, at which point old Al is spontaneously replaced by a different hologram. Stuffy and English, Edward St John V couldn’t be more different from his cigar-chomping, womanising, wise-cracking counterpart. Needless to say, Sam saves the day and Al is restored. Elsewhere in the episode, Admiral Calavicci is forced to emotionally relive the death of his girlfriend Lisa Sherman.

 

9. “Killin’ Time”

By Season Five, scenes taking place in the future at Project Quantum Leap were more common, and this episode has them in spades. Sam has leapt into a serial killer, and like all of Sam’s “leapees”, the criminal is temporarily displaced into the Project’s Waiting Room. When he get holds of a gun and escapes to a nearby city, Al must track him down and bring him back. Apart from his brief experience as a leaper in “The Leap Back”, this is the only time we get to see Al in the role of action hero.

 

10. “Dr. Ruth”

The Waiting Room again plays a key role as it hosts Sam’s latest leapee, celebrity sex therapist Dr Ruth Westheimer. While Sam works to fix the tumultuous relationship of two of Ruth’s colleagues, Al takes advantage of the therapist’s presence in the future to get some advice on his own romantic woes. In fact, this turns out to be the real purpose of Sam’s leap. A highlight of Al’s therapy is when Ruth gets him to use the word “breasts”, but only after he’s hilariously avoided it with every euphemism under the sun.

Al’s 10 Best “Quantum Leap” Episodes

Zoetrope Update

During Lockdown 1.0 I made a zoetrope and shot a number of time-lapses and animations with my 35mm SLR to go in it. Below is an update on this project, but first here are the links to the earlier posts about it, in case you missed them:

Although the zoetrope itself turned out very nicely – all the more surprising because I’m terrible at DIY – the content did not. I concluded that any future efforts needed to be very simple, bold and high-contrast.

Recently I got around to shooting a couple of new animations. This time, instead of detailed, complex or subtle efforts like sunlight moving across rotting apples or Lego minifigs passing each other in the street, I went back to basics. Inspired by typical animations supplied with zoetropes in the Victorian era, I created loops of a figure walking and running.

First of all I drew out the 18 frames of each cycle using online reference material. I wanted to shoot in natural light so I rigged a black backdrop outside on the patio. Dressed in my lightest-toned clothes, I adopted the 18 positions of the walk cycle one by one as my flatmate clicked my Pentax P30t’s shutter. Then I went through the run cycle in the same way to complete the roll of 36 exposures. We used Ilford Delta 3200 film, one second of exposure time and a pinhole (purely so I could say I had made and exhibited a motion picture without ever using a lens). By the time we finished, the light had fallen off a stop or two.

When I got the material into the darkroom I under-exposed the contact prints (making them lighter) because I had learnt that a spinning zoetrope darkens the image considerably. After all, you are only viewing it through tiny slots; what you’re mostly looking at is the opaque outside of the drum. I always print on multigrade paper which means that the contrast can be adjusted using a special set of colour filters. In this case I used the 4½ filter (on a scale where 0 produces the softest contrast and 5 the hardest) to get the boldest possible look. The resulting prints still looked very milky, especially the running one which I’d had to brighten more to compensate for the light falling off, but that was what I knew I needed.

When I got home and tried them in the zoetrope, the running animation just didn’t have enough contrast in it to work. The walking animation works better but still isn’t as good as I’d hoped. I think that what’s really required is strong studio lighting absolutely blasting the subject, a completely white outfit, and a backdrop with all light flagged off it.

The learning process continues!

The results look better in this video than they actually are, because the phone I shot it on conducted its own process of reducing the motion into discrete frames for your device and brain to reassemble.

Zoetrope Update

Why “No Time to Die” and Other Productions Still Shoot on Film

After many delays, No Time to Die hit UK cinemas a month ago, and has already made half a billion dollars around the world. The 25th James Bond movie was shot on celluloid, making it part of a small group of productions that choose to keep using the traditional medium despite digital becoming the dominant acquisition format in 2013.

Skyfall made headlines the year before that when it became the first Bond film to shoot digitally, captured on the Arri Alexa by the legendary Roger Deakins. But when director Sam Mendes returned to helm the next instalment, 2015’s Spectre, he opted to shoot on 35mm. 

“With the Alexa, I missed the routine of film and the dailies,” Mendes told American Cinematographer. “Watching dailies on the big screen for the first time is kind of like Christmas. Film is difficult, it’s imprecise, but that’s also the glory of it. It had romance, a slight nostalgia… and that’s not inappropriate when dealing with a classic Bond movie.”

Early rumours suggested that Bond’s next outing, No Time to Die, would return to digital capture, but film won out again. Variety reported last year: “[Director Cary Joji] Fukunaga and cinematographer Linus Sandgren pushed to have No Time to Die shot on film instead of digital, believing it enhanced the look of the picture.”

Charlotte Bruus Christensen believed the same when she photographed the horror film A Quiet Place on 35mm. “Film captures the natural warmth, colour and beauty of the daylight,” she told British Cinematographer, “but it’s also wonderful in the dark, the way it renders the light on a face from a candle, before falling off into deep detailed blacks. It is quite simply beautiful and uniquely atmospheric.”

The Bond filmmakers went one step further, making No Time to Die the franchise’s first instalment to utilise IMAX 65mm (reportedly for action sequences only). In this respect they follow in the footsteps of film’s most passionate advocate, Christopher Nolan, who mixed 35mm and IMAX for The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar.

“I think IMAX is the best film format that was ever invented,” said the celebrated director in a DGA interview. “It’s the gold standard and what any other technology has to match up to, but none have, in my opinion.” For his most recent films, Dunkirk and Tenet, Nolan eschewed 35mm altogether, mixing IMAX with standard 65mm.

Nolan’s brother Jonathan brought the same passion for celluloid to his TV series Westworld. “Jonathan told me that he had already made up his mind about film,” said pilot DP Paul Cameron in an Indiewire interview. “We wanted the western town to feel classy and elegant… There’s something tactile and formidable [about film] that’s very real.”

Cameron and another of the show’s DPs, John Grillo, both felt that film worked perfectly for the timeless, minimalist look of the desert, but when the story moved to a futuristic city for its third season Grillo expected a corresponding switch in formats. “I thought we might go digital, shooting in 4K or 6K. But it never got past my own head. Jonathan would never go for it. So we stuck with film. We’re still telling the same story, we’re just in a different place.”

One series that did recently transition from film to digital is The Walking Dead. For nine and a half seasons the zombie thriller was shot on Super 16, a decision first made for the 2010 pilot after also testing a Red, a Panavision Genesis and 35mm. “When the images came back, everyone realised that Super 16 was the format that made everything look right,” reported DP David Boyd. “With the smaller gauge and the grain, suddenly the images seemed to derive from the graphic novel itself. Every image is a step removed from reality and a step deeper into cinema.”

“You really are in there with the characters,” added producer Gale Anne Hurd during a Producers Guild of America panel. “The grain itself, it somehow makes it feel much more personal.” Creator Frank Darabont also noted that the lightweight cameras can be squeezed guerilla-style into small spaces for a more intimate feel.

The team were forced to switch to digital capture during season ten when the COVID-19 pandemic struck. “The decision came about because there are fewer ‘touch points’ with digital than 16mm,” showrunner Angela Kang explained to the press. “We don’t have to swap out film every few minutes, for example.”

The pandemic also hit No Time to Die, pushing its release date back by 18 months and triggering the closure of the Cineworld chain, putting 45,000 jobs in jeopardy. But its reception so far has proved that there’s life yet in both celluloid capture and cinema as a whole.

Why “No Time to Die” and Other Productions Still Shoot on Film

Why You Shouldn’t Shoot the Rehearsal

We’ve all been there. Schedules are tight. Sooner or later the 1st AD, a producer or even the director is going to want to save time by “shooting the rehearsal”. I strongly disagree with this and here’s why.

No matter how great an actor is, they have only a finite amount of performance energy. They can only do so many takes before the results start to go downhill. In my experience, most actors deliver their best performance on take one or two.

So those first takes need to be useable. They need to be in focus. The timing of the camera movement needs to be right. The boom needs to be out of frame. The prop in the drawer that the talent has to take out halfway through the scene needs to be in position, not still in the standby props person’s hand because they didn’t realise we were going that far. The view out of the door that the talent opens at the very end needs to have been dressed and lit. What, you didn’t know they were opening the door because they skipped that in the block-through and you didn’t get a rehearsal? Bummer.

The purpose of a camera rehearsal is to find all these problems without burning the actors’ performance energy. If you roll the camera on the “rehearsal” – and I use quote marks because it isn’t a rehearsal any more – the cast have to deliver a full performance. Maybe a great, spontaneous performance that can’t be repeated. The last thing you want is for a boom shadow to be hovering over their forehead for half the scene.

Things like boom positions and focus pulling especially can only be properly rehearsed with the camera up and the cast moving through their actual positions. And you can talk about a scene all you want, but a moving picture is worth a million words. There’s no substitute for everyone watching the monitor during that rehearsal and seeing exactly what’s required.

Is a camera rehearsal always necessary on every set-up? No, especially if the scene has already been shot from several other angles, or if everyone’s confident that they know how it’s going to unfold, or if the scene demands little emotional commitment from the cast. But it should be the default practice.

Will a camera rehearsal always throw up problems? Of course not. And if it goes perfectly, people will curse that you didn’t roll, and start asking why we bother with camera rehearsals anyway. That’s life.

Why You Shouldn’t Shoot the Rehearsal

“Who Framed Roger Rabbit” Retrospective

With the recent releases of Tom and Jerry and Space Jam: A New Legacy, it’s clear that there’s an appetite for traditional cartoon characters in live-action movies. While this mash-up of techniques goes back at least as far as 1964’s Mary Poppins, perhaps no film has done it quite as well as Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

The 1988 movie was loosely based on a Gary K. Wolf novel published seven years earlier, Who Censored Roger Rabbit? However, most of the plot was jettisoned, keeping only the central characters: Eddie Valiant, a private detective; his client, the titular Roger Rabbit; Roger’s wife and femme fatale Jessica; and Roger’s colleague, the libidinous, cigar-smoking Baby Herman. The original villain, a genie of the lamp, was replaced in early script drafts by the hunter who killed Bambi’s mother in the 1942 Disney classic, and finally by Christopher Lloyd’s pop-eyed Judge Doom.

Ditching the contemporary setting of its source material, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? takes place in Hollywood, 1947, where cartoon characters (“toons”) co-exist with humans. Bob Hoskins plays the toon-hating Valiant, who reluctantly teams up with Roger after the latter is implicated in the murder of Marvin Acme. The unlikely pair’s investigations lead them to Toontown, where they uncover a conspiracy to demolish this animated region and build a freeway in its place. Screenwriters Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman found inspiration for this plot in Roman Polanski’s 1974 thriller Chinatown. Several film noirs of the 1940s were also referenced, with Hoskins modelling his character on Humphrey Bogart.

Numerous famous cartoon characters make cameos, including Mickey Mouse, Daffy Duck, Donald Duck, Tweetie Pie and Betty Boop, with executive producer Steven Spielberg pulling his weight behind the scenes to accomplish the historic meeting of competing studios’ properties.

Robert Zemeckis pitched to direct Roger Rabbit in 1982, but his films’ poor box office up to that point put him out of the running. Terry Gilliam was in the frame for a time, while the likes of Harrison Ford, Chevvy Chase and Bill Murray were considered for the lead. Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment joined the project in 1985, but the projected budget of $50 million was deemed too big to green-light. Meanwhile, Zemeckis’s Back to the Future made him far more bankable with the result that he signed on to direct Roger Rabbit that same year, albeit with a reduced budget of $30 million. Ironically, the film would go over schedule and wind up costing just over its original price tag.

The animation was directed by Richard Williams, otherwise best known for his title sequences for the Pink Panther films. Williams refused to work in LA, forcing the production to shoot primarily in England. While Williams and his 326-strong team set up in Camden Town, Zemeckis and company filmed the interiors at Elstree, with warehouses and bus depots in Shepherd’s Bush standing in for exteriors of Hollywood studios and backlots.

Some of the sets, including the Ink & Paint Club where Jessica is memorably introduced, were raised 10ft off the floor to accommodate puppeteers. Although no puppets are seen in the finished film, whenever a toon had to hold a real object it was either mounted on a rod coming up through the floor, marionetted on wires from above, or manipulated by a robotic arm.

Rehearsals were conducted using a dummy of Roger, or with voice artist Charles Fleischer bedecked in a rabbit suit – standing in. Hoskins even studied his three-year-old daughter’s antics with an imaginary friend to prepare for the challenge of acting to nothing.

Creating the film’s 55 minutes of animation took two years. The live-action footage was printed as a series of enlarged black-and-white frames over which a cel (sheet of transparent acetate) could be placed for the animator to draw on. 82,080 frames were generated in this way, every single one by hand.

To better blend the animated characters with the live backgrounds, Industrial Light and Magic composited layers of shading and shadows. The sparkling sequins on Jessica’s dress were achieved by shining a light through a plastic bag which had holes scratched in it.

The finished film attracted a degree of controversy, not least from the top brass at Disney. It’s easy to see why the family-friendly company would object to the over-sexualisation of Jessica, or to Valiant’s constant drinking and even bumming a cigarette off children at one point. But Zemeckis’s deal gave him final cut, so the compromise was to release the unaltered film under Disney’s Touchstone label.

The result was the second highest grossing film of 1988 and critical acclaim, with an impressive 97% on Rotten Tomatoes and four Academy Awards.

Like many articles on my blog, this one first appeared on RedShark News.

“Who Framed Roger Rabbit” Retrospective

How to Shoot Drama with Two Cameras

Shooting on one camera, getting the lighting and framing perfect for just one angle at a time, used to be a hallmark of quality in film and television. Nowadays many drama DPs are expected to achieve comparable quality while photographing two or more angles simultaneously, with all the attendant problems of framing out booms, lights and other cameras.

So what is the best way to tackle multi-camera shooting? Let’s consider a few approaches.

Photo: Brooks Patrick Allen

 

1. Two sizes

The most straightforward use of a B camera is to put it close to the A camera and point it in the same direction, just with a different lens. One disadvantage is that you’re sacrificing the ability to massage the lighting for the closer shot, perhaps bringing in a bounce board or diffusion frame that would flatter the actor a little more, but which would encroach on the wider frame.

Another limitation is that the talent’s eye-line will necessarily be further off axis on one of the shots. Typically this will be the wider camera, perhaps on a mid-shot including the shoulder of the foreground actor, while the other camera is tighter in terms of both framing and eye-line, lensing a close-up through the gap between the shoulder and the first camera.

The sound department must also be considered, especially if one camera is very wide and another is tight. Can the boom get close enough to capture the kind of close-miked audio required for the tight shot without entering the wide frame?

Some TV series are solving this problem by routinely painting out the boom in the wider shots. This is usually easy enough in a lock-off, but camera movement will complicate things. It’s an approach that needs to be signed off by all the major players beforehand, otherwise you’re going to get some panicked calls from a producer viewing the dailies.

 

2. Cross-shooting

This means filming a shot-reverse simultaneously: over character A’s shoulder onto character B, and over character B’s shoulder onto character A. This approach is an editor’s delight because there is no danger that the performance energies will be different when they cut from one person to the other, nor that arm or head positions will throw up continuity errors.

Keeping the cameras out of each other’s frames is of course an issue, one usually handled by backing them off and choosing tighter lenses. (Long lenses are an unavoidable side effect of multi-camera cinematography.) Two booms are required, and keeping their shadows out is four times as difficult.

Lighting can take twice as long too, since you now have two cast members who need to look their best, and you need to maintain mood, shape and contrast in the light in both directions simultaneously. Softer and toppier light is usually called for.

The performances in certain types of scene – comedy with a degree of improvisation, for example – really benefit from cross-shooting, but it’s by far the most technically challenging approach.

 

3. Inserts

Grabbing inserts, like close-ups of people’s hands dealing with props, is a quick and simple way of getting some use out of a second camera. Lighting on such shots is often not so critical, they don’t need to be close-miked, and it’s no hassle to shoot them at the same time as a two-shot or single.

There is a limit to how many inserts a scene needs though, so sooner or later you’ll have to find something else to do with the camera before the producer starts wondering what they’re paying all that extra money for.

 

4. Splinter unit

The idea of sending B camera off to get something completely separate from what A camera is doing can often appeal. This is fine for GVs (general views), establishing shots of the outside of buildings, cutaways of sunsets and so on, but anything much more complicated is really getting into the realm of a second unit.

Does the set or location in front of camera need to be dressed? Then someone from the art department needs to be present. Is it a pick-up of an actor? Well, then you’re talking about hair, make-up, costume, continuity, sound…

Photo: Brooks Patrick Allen

With the extra problems that a second camera throws up, it’s a fallacy to think it will always speed up your shoot; the opposite can easily happen. An experienced crew and a clear plan worked out by the director, DP, operators and gaffer is definitely required. However, when it’s done well, it’s a great way to increase your coverage and give your editor more options.

How to Shoot Drama with Two Cameras

6 Tips for Virtual Production

Part of the volume at ARRI Rental in Uxbridge, with the ceiling panel temporarily lowered

Virtual production technically covers a number of things, but what people normally mean by it is shooting on an LED volume. This is a stage where the walls are giant LED screens displaying real-time backgrounds for photographing the talent in front of. The background may be a simple 2D plate shot from a moving vehicle, for a scene inside a car, or a more elaborate set of plates shot with a 360° rig.

The most advanced set-ups do not use filmed backgrounds at all, but instead use 3D virtual environments rendered in real time by a gaming engine like Unreal. A motion-tracking system monitors the position of the camera within the volume and ensures that the proper perspective and parallax is displayed on the screens. Furthermore, the screens are bright enough that they provide most or all of the illumination needed on the talent in a very realistic way.

I have never done any virtual production myself, but earlier this year I was fortunate enough to interview some DPs who have, for British Cinematographer article. Here are some tips about VP shooting which I learnt from these pioneers.

 

1. Shoot large format

An ARRI Alexa Mini LF rigged with Mo-Sys for tracking its position within the volume

To prevent a moiré effect from the LED pixels, the screens need to be out of focus. Choosing an LF camera, with their shallower depth of field, makes this easier to accomplish. The Alexa Mini LF seems to be a popular choice, but the Sony Venice evidently works well too.

 

2. Keep your distance

To maintain the illusion, neither the talent nor the camera should get too close to the screens. A rule of thumb is that the minimum distance in metres should be no less than the pixel pitch of the screens. (The pixel pitch is the distance in millimetres between the centre of one pixel and the centre of the next.) So for a screen of 2.3mm pixel pitch, keep everything at least 2.3m away.

 

3. Tie it all together

Several DPs have found that the real foreground and the virtual background fit together more seamlessly if haze or a diffusion filter are used. This makes sense because both soften the image, blending light from nearby elements of the frame together. Other in-camera effects like rain (if the screens are rated weatherproof) and lens flares would also help.

 

4. Surround yourself

The back of ARRI’s main screen, composed of ROE LED panels

The most convincing LED volumes have screens surrounding the talent, perhaps 270° worth, and an overhead screen as well. Although typically only one of these screens will be of a high enough resolution to shoot towards, the others are important because they shed interactive light on the talent, making them really seem like they’re in the correct environment.

 

5. Match the lighting

If you need to supplement the light, use a colour meter to measure the ambience coming from the screens, then dial that temperature into an LED fixture. If you don’t have a colour meter you should conduct tests beforehand, as what matches to the eye may not necessarily match on camera.

 

6. Avoid fast camera moves

Behind the scenes at the ARRI volume, built in partnership with Creative Technology

It takes a huge amount of processing power to render a virtual background in real time, so there will always be a lag. The Mandalorian works around this by shooting in a very classical style (which fits the Star Wars universe perfectly), with dolly moves and jibs rather than a lot of handheld shots. The faster the camera moves, the more the delay in the background will be noticeable. For the same reason, high frame rates are not recommended, but as processing power increases, these restrictions will undoubtedly fall away.

6 Tips for Virtual Production

“Quantum Leaper”

This week issue 40 of Infinity magazine comes out, featuring a couple of articles I wrote, including one about the cult sci-fi series Quantum Leap. The show saw Dr. Sam Beckett (Scott Bakula) bouncing around time into other people’s bodies and striving to put right what once went wrong, while his holographic friend Al (Dean Stockwell) smoked cigars, letched, and relayed exposition from Ziggy the computer.

I end the article by wondering whether it’s time for someone like Netflix to bring the show back (it definitely is). What I don’t mention in the magazine is that – unbeknownst to almost everyone – Quantum Leap has already been rebooted once.

This, my loyal readers, is the story of Quantum Leaper.

 

Season One (1995)

As teenagers, my friend David Abbott and I were huge Quantum Leap fans, and were bereft when the show was axed in 1993. I was developing an interest in filmmaking, having dabbled in 2D computer animation on my Atari ST and borrowed my grandfather’s Video-8 camcorder on a couple of occasions. When I was given that camcorder for my 15th birthday, David and I decided that we would make our own version of Quantum Leap, which we imaginatively titled Quantum Leaper.

The first episode was called “Just What the Doctor Ordered” and saw my character – named, again with great imagination, Neil – leaping into a doctor just as his patient is flatlining. I don’t remember much about the plot, but I do remember that we climbed the nearby Malvern Hills to film a fight scene.

Dave played Albert, my holographic helper, communicating with Project Quantum Leap’s supercomputer Ziggy by means of a special hand-link, just like Dean Stockwell did. Unlike Dean Stockwell’s, this hand-link was a calculator.

The two of us also played all the supporting characters (often with the judicious addition of a hat or jacket) and operated the camera, unless we were both in shot, in which case it was locked off. Much of the the editing was done in camera – rewinding the 8mm videotape, cueing it up to the exact moment the last piece of action ended, then hitting record and calling action simultaneously – and the rest I did tape-to-tape with two VCRs connected together. A cheap four-track disco mixer enabled the addition of music (badly composed by me) and sound effects (many of which were sampled from Quantum Leap itself). As YouTube was still years away, the only viewers for the series were our parents and friends, forced to sit down in front of the TV and watch it off VHS.

Episode two, “Boom!”, saw the fictional Neil as a bomb disposal expert supposedly in Northern Ireland in 1980, though like the first episode it was all shot in and around my house. My sister Kate was drafted in to play a journalist whose life Neil has to save.

“A Leap into the Blue” was the next episode, with Neil in the body of a parachutist. Scenes of characters in free-fall were shot with us standing in front of a white wall; I digitised the footage on my ST with a Videomaster cartridge and composited scrolling clouds into the background. The resolution of the Videomaster was very limited – maybe 320×240 – the frame rate was very low too, and it could only do black and white.

A digitised visual effect using a shot of a plane stolen from some TV programme or other

Next we shot a “pilot” episode explaining how Neil and Albert switched places with Sam and Al. I remember digitising shots of Scott Bakula and Dean Stockwell from Quantum Leap and compositing them atrociously into our own footage. At about 30 minutes long, the pilot was double the length of our other episodes.

Then we continued the series where we’d left off. Dave’s script “One Giant Leap” has Neil on a space shuttle mission, an episode that included NASA footage taped off the TV. We made almost no attempt to create sets; the space shuttle cockpit was a plain wall, a computer keyboard and a piece of card to cover an incongruous bookcase.

The space shuttle cockpit “set”

The next two episodes find Neil meeting (and shooting) an evil future version of himself, then leaping into the crazy future space year of 2017. The latter involves a flying car – my mum’s Citroen AX with the wheels framed out, intercut with an extremely crude CGI model.

Dave’s episodes “Virtual Leaping” and “Bullets Over Leaping” see Neil become a VR programmer (with a headset made of Lego) and then an actor (in a studio suspiciously like Dave’s shed).

The VR headset “prop”

My next episode has Neil leaping into himself and saving his father’s life. (My actual dad provided some splendidly wooden acting.) But doing this causes a paradox, and the season finale sees Neil and Albert swap places (as Sam and Al do in a classic Quantum Leap episode) and Neil having to restore the timeline to prevent the destruction of the universe.

We were ambitious. You can say that much for us.

 

Season Two (1996)

The following year, while doing our GCSEs, we began work on a second season. In between I’d made a bad 40-minute comedy, Bob the Barbarian, and an appalling feature-length sci-fi film, The Dark Side of the Earth, and I’d learnt a few things that would lift the production values of Season Two very slightly. I’d also nagged my parents into buying me a genlock which would let me superimpose CGI over analogue video, meaning I didn’t have to digitise footage and suffer the horrendous image degradation any more.

The holographic Albert enters the Imaging Chamber, an effect enabled by my new genlock.

The actual Quantum Leaping effect from this era of the show is surprisingly decent given the equipment we were working with. We would lock the camera off and jump-cut to a blue filter being over the lens, then a white glow would creep over me – an animation I achieved in software called Deluxe Paint – followed by tendrils of electricity. The screen would then fade to white and a similar effect would play out in reverse to show the leap in.

Leaping from life to life, striving to put right what once went wrong…

Another improvement was that we managed to convince a few other friends to act in the series, including fellow Quantum Leap fan Lee Richardson, as well as Chris Jenkins, Conrad Allen, Matt Hodges, Si Timbrell and Jim McKelvie. Recognising my lack of musical talent at last, I abandoned composing and instead used soundtrack CDs from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (Dennis McCarthy), the John Woo film Broken Arrow (Hans Zimmer), and the Doctor Who story “The Curse of Fenric” (Mark Ayres). Albert’s hand-link prop got an upgrade too, from a calculator to a custom Lego build with flashing lights.

Lee Richardson “acting” in the control room “set”

Season Two opens with Dave’s episodes “Project Hijacked” and “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?” which focus on events at Project Quantum Leap, supposedly a high-tech facility in the New Mexico desert in 2005. In reality it was a living room with a control console made out of painted cardboard boxes and Christmas lights. In an early manifestation of my cinematography leanings, I snooted the ceiling light with a rolled-up piece of silver card, lending a little bit of mood to the look.

At the time, Dave’s family were training a hearing dog, Louis, so I wrote an episode to feature him; “Silence is Golden” sees Neil leap into a deaf man, and was followed by the morbid “Ashes to Ashes” where he leaps into a corpse.

The next episode, Dave’s “Driven to Distraction”, is probably the best of the lot. For once there were few enough characters that no-one needed to confusingly play dual roles, and there is plenty of action to boot. (I uploaded this episode to YouTube so long ago that the ten-minute time limit still applied.)

The X-Files-inspired “Close Encounters of the Leaping Kind” comes next, with Neil as a ufologist bothered by a shadowy government agent. Then Neil becomes a teenager who must prevent a drugs overdose, then a one-armed man who must overcome prejudice to hold down a job. Cringingly entitled “Not So Armless”, this latter was shot in a newsagent’s owned by a friend’s parents, one of the series’ few non-domestic locations.

Like Quantum Leap we had a mirror shot in every episode where Neil would see the leapee’s reflection looking back at him. Sometimes Dave would track the camera behind my back and we’d hide a cut in the darkness to swap me with whoever was playing the reflection. Another time we pretended the serving hatch in Dave’s house was a mirror and the two of us synchronised our movements. For a fight scene in “Not So Armless” Chris hid one arm inside his t-shirt so that Neil’s mirror image could appear to punch the antagonist with an invisible fist!

Facing mirror images that were not his own…

The penultimate episode of the season features several brief leaps, ending with one to Hiroshima in 1945, where the A-bomb detonation (more footage off the TV) causes both Neil and Albert to leap simultaneously. In the finale, Albert becomes a mountaineer caught in an avalanche, while Neil is a member of the rescue team – a premise thieved from the Quantum Leap novel “Search and Rescue”. We started shooting it during snowy weather, but the snow thawed and the episode was never completed. The friends who had been appearing as supporting characters now had part-time jobs and couldn’t spare the time for filming.

 

Legacy

We wrote all six episodes of a third season which would have explained how Neil became the evil future version of himself seen in an earlier episode, but nothing was ever filmed.

In 1997 we began a remake of the pilot using the experience we had gained since shooting the original, but again it was never completed. One part we did film was an action sequence with me on the roof rack of a car while the driver swerves around trying to throw me off. We shot this on Malvern’s Castlemorton Common and used a dummy of me for some of the wider and more dangerous shots. Its acting was probably better than mine. We remade the scene four years later as part of my Mini-DV feature The Beacon.

Today only five of the 20 Quantum Leaper episodes that we made survive, the rest having been callously taped over at some point in my late teens. That’s probably for the best, as most of it was hilariously bad, but making it taught me a hell of a lot about filmmaking. Without it, I doubt I’d have a career in cinematography today.

His only guide on these journeys is Al, an observer from his own time…
“Quantum Leaper”