Will “The Mandalorian” Revolutionise Filmmaking?

Last week, Greig Fraser, ASC, ACS and Baz Idoine were awarded the Emmy for Outstanding Cinematography for a Single-camera Series (Half-hour) for The Mandalorian. I haven’t yet seen this Star Wars TV series, but I’ve heard and read plenty about it, and to call it a revolution in filmmaking is not hyperbole.

Half of the series was not shot on location or on sets, but on something called a volume: a stage with walls and ceiling made of LED screens, 20ft tall, 75ft across and encompassing 270° of the space. I’ve written before about using large video screens to provide backgrounds in limited aways, outside of train windows for example, and using them as sources of interactive light, but the volume takes things to a whole new level.

In the past, the drawback of the technology has been one of perspective; it’s a flat, two-dimensional screen. Any camera movement revealed this immediately, because of the lack of parallax. So these screens tended to be kept to the deep background, with limited camera movement, or with plenty of real people and objects in the foreground to draw the eye. The footage shown on the screens was pre-filmed or pre-rendered, just video files being played back.

The Mandalorian‘s system, run by multiple computers simultaneously, is much cleverer. Rather than a video clip, everything is rendered in real time from a pre-built 3D environment known as a load, running on software developed for the gaming industry called Unreal Engine. Around the stage are a number of witness cameras which use infra-red to monitor the movements of the cinema camera in the same way that an actor is performance-captured for a film like Avatar. The data is fed into Unreal Engine, which generates the correct shifts in perspective and sends them to the video walls in real time. The result is that the flat screen appears, from the cinema camera’s point of view, to have all the depth and distance required for the scene.

The loads are created by CG arists working to the production designer’s instructions, and textured with photographs taken at real locations around the world. In at least one case, a miniature set was built by the art department and then digitised. The scene is lit with virtual lights by the DP – all this still during preproduction.

The volume’s 270° of screens, plus two supplementary, moveable screens in the 90° gap behind camera, are big enough and bright enough that they provide most or all of the illumination required to film under. The advantages are obvious. “We can create a perfect environment where you have two minutes to sunset frozen in time for an entire ten-hour day,” Idoine explains. “If we need to do a turnaround, we merely rotate the sky and background, and we’re ready to shoot!”

Traditional lighting fixtures are used minimally on the volume, usually for hard light, which the omni-directional pixels of an LED screen can never reproduce. If the DPs require soft sources beyond what is built into the load, the technicians can turn any off-camera part of the video screens into an area of whatever colour and brightness are required –  a virtual white poly-board or black solid, for example.

A key reason for choosing the volume technology was the reflective nature of the eponymous Mandalorian’s armour. Had the series been shot on a green-screen, reflections in his shiny helmet would have been a nightmare for the compositing team. The volume is also much more actor- and filmmaker-friendly; it’s better for everyone when you can capture things in-camera, rather than trying to imagine what they will look like after postproduction. “It gives the control of cinematography back to the cinematographer,” Idoine remarks. VR headsets mean that he and the director can even do a virtual recce.

The Mandalorian shoots on the Arri Alexa LF (large format), giving a shallow depth of field which helps to avoid moiré problems with the video wall. To ensure accurate chromatic reproduction, the wall was calibrated to the Alexa LF’s colour filter array.

Although the whole system was expensive to set up, once up and running it’s easy to imagine how quickly and cheaply the filmmakers can shoot on any given “set”. The volume has limitations, of course. If the cast need to get within a few feet of a wall, for example, or walk through a door, then that set-piece has to be real. If a scene calls for a lot of direct sunlight, then the crew move outside to the studio backlot. But undoubtedly this technology will improve rapidly, so that it won’t be long before we see films and TV episodes shot entirely on volumes. Perhaps one day it could overtake traditional production methods?

For much more detailed information on shooting The Mandalorian, see this American Cinematographer article.

Will “The Mandalorian” Revolutionise Filmmaking?

10 Clever Camera Tricks in “Aliens”

In 1983, up-and-coming director James Cameron was hired to script a sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1979 hit Alien. He had to pause halfway through to shoot The Terminator, but the subsequent success of that movie, along with the eventually completed Aliens screenplay, so impressed the powers that be at Fox that they greenlit the film with the relatively inexperienced 31-year-old at the helm.

Although the sequel was awarded a budget of $18.5 million – $7.5 million more than Scott’s original – that was still tight given the much more expansive and ambitious nature of Cameron’s script. Consequently, the director and his team had to come up with some clever tricks to put their vision on celluloid.

 

1. Mirror Image

When contact is lost with the Hadley’s Hope colony on LV-426, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is hired as a sort of alien-consultant to a team of crack marines. The hypersleep capsules from which the team emerge on reaching the planet were expensive to build. Production designer Peter Lamont’s solution was to make just half of them, and place a mirror at the end of the set to double them up.

 

2. Small Screens

Wide shots of Hadley’s Hope were accomplished with fifth-scale miniatures by Robert and Dennis Skotak of 4-Ward Productions. Although impressive, sprawling across two Pinewood stages, the models didn’t always convince. To help, the crew often downgraded the images by showing them on TV monitors, complete with analogue glitching, or by shooting through practical smoke and rain.

 

3. Big Screens

The filmmakers opted for rear projection to show views out of cockpit windscreens and colony windows. This worked out cheaper than blue-screen composites, and allowed for dirt and condensation on the glass, which would have been impossible to key optically. Rear projection was also employed for the crash of the dropship – the marines’ getaway vehicle – permitting camera dynamics that again were not possible with compositing technology of the time.

 

4. Back to Front

A highlight of Aliens is the terrifying scene in which Ripley and her young charge Newt (Carrie Henn) are trapped in a room with two facehuggers, deliberately set loose by sinister Company man Carter Burke (Paul Reiser). These nightmarish spider-hands were primarily puppets trailing cables to their operators. To portray them leaping onto a chair and then towards camera, a floppy facehugger was placed in its final position and then tugged to the floor with a fishing wire. The film was reversed to create the illusion of a jump.

 

5. Upside Down

Like Scott before him, Cameron was careful to obfuscate the man-in-a-suit nature of the alien drones wherever possible. One technique he used was to film the creatures crawling on the floor, with the camera upside-down so that they appeared to be hanging from the ceiling. This is seen when Michael Biehn’s Hicks peeks through the false ceiling to find out how the motion-tracked aliens can be “inside the room”.

 

6. Flash Frames

All hell (represented by stark red emergency lighting) breaks loose when the aliens drop through the false ceiling. To punch up the visual impact of the movie’s futuristic weapons, strobelights were aimed at the trigger-happy marines. Taking this effect even further, editor Ray Lovejoy spliced individual frames of white leader film into the shots. As a result, the negative cutter remarked that Aliens‘ 12th reel had more cuts than any complete movie he’d ever worked on.

 

7. Cotton Cloud

With most of the marines slaughtered, Ripley heads to the atmospheric processing plant to rescue Newt from the alien nest. Aided by the android Bishop (Lance Henriksen) they escape just before the plant’s nuclear reactor explodes. The ensuing mushroom cloud is a miniature sculpture made of cotton wool and fibreglass, illuminated by an internal lightbulb!

 

8. Hole in the floor

Returning to the orbiting Sulaco, Ripley and friends are ambushed by the stowaway queen, who rips Bishop in half. A pre-split, spring-loaded dummy of Henriksen was constructed for that moment, and was followed by the simple trick of concealing the actor’s legs beneath a hole in the floor. As in the first movie, android blood was represented by milk. This gradually soured as the filming progressed, much to Henriksen’s chagrin as the script required him to be coated in the stuff and even to spit it out of his mouth.

 

9. Big Battle

The alien queen was constructed and operated by Stan Winston Studios as a full-scale puppet. Two puppeteers were concealed inside, while others moved the legs with rods or controlled the crane from which the body hung. The iconic power loader was similar, with a body builder concealed inside and a counter-weighted support rig. This being before the advent of digital wire removal, all the cables and rods had to be obfuscated with smoke and shifting shadows, though they can still be seen on frame grabs like this one. (The queen is one of my Ten Greatest Movie Puppets of All Time.)

 

10. Little Battle

For wide shots of the final fight, both the queen and the power loader were duplicated as quarter scale puppets. Controlled from beneath the miniature set via rods and cables, the puppets could perform big movements, like falling into the airlock, which would have been very difficult with the full-size props. (When the airlock door opens, the starfield beyond is a black sheet with Christmas lights on it!) The two scales cut seamlessly together and produce a thrilling finale to this classic film.

For more on the visual effects of James Cameron movies, see my rundown of the top five low-tech effects in Hollywood films (featuring Titanic) and a breakdown of the submarine chase in The Abyss.

10 Clever Camera Tricks in “Aliens”

How to do Scenes on a Moving Train

Behind the scenes of “Last Passenger”

The publicity machine is ramping up for Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express remake, and it’s got me thinking about the challenges of a script set largely on a moving train. There are a number of ways of realising such scenes, and today I’m going to look at five movies that demonstrate different techniques. All of these methods are equally applicable to scenes in cars or any other moving vehicle.

1. For Real: “The Darjeeling limited”

Wes Anderson’s 2007 film The Darjeeling Limited sees three brothers embarking on a spiritual railway journey across India. Many of the usual Anderson tropes are present and correct – linear tracking shots, comical headgear, Jason Schwartzman – but surprisingly the moving train wasn’t done with some kind of cutesy stop-motion. Production designer Mark Friedberg explains:

The big creative decision Wes made was that we were going to shoot this movie on a moving train. And all that does is complicate life. It makes it more expensive, it makes the logistics impossible. It made it incredibly difficult to figure out how many crew, what crew, what gear… but what it did do is it made it real.

Kenneth Branagh has stated that at least some of Murder on the Orient Express was shot on a real moving train too:

They painstakingly built a fully functioning period authentic locomotive and carriages from the Orient Express during the golden, glamorous age of travel. It was a train that moved… All of our actors were passengers on the train down the leafy lanes of Surrey, pretending to be the former Yugoslavia.

 

2. Poor Man’s Process: “The Double”

Director Richard Ayoade

Although best known as The IT Crowd‘s Moss and the new host of the Crystal Maze, Richard Ayoade is also an accomplished director. His last feature was a darkly beautiful adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s classic identity-crisis novella The Double. 

Unlike the other movies on this list, The Double only has short sequences on a train, and that’s a key point. So named because it’s a cheap alternative to rear projection (a.k.a. process photography), Poor Man’s Process is a big cheat. In order to hide the lack of motion, you keep the view outside your vehicle’s windows blank and featureless – typically a night sky, but a black subway tunnel or a grey daytime sky can also work. Then you create the illusion of motion with dynamic lighting, a shaky camera, and grips rocking the carriage on its suspension. Used judiciously, this technique can be very convincing, but you would never get away with it for a whole movie.

Poor Man’s works particularly well in The Double, the black void outside the subway car playing into the oppressive and nightmarish tone of the whole film. In an interview with Pushing Pixels, production designer David Crank explains how the subway carriage set was built out of an old bus. He goes on to describe how the appearance of movement was created:

We put the forks of a forklift under the front of the bus, and shook it… For the effect of moving lights outside the train, it was a combination of some spinning lights on stands, as well as lights on small rolling platforms which tracked back and forth down the outside of the bus.

Part 2 of the Darjeeling Limited featurette above reveals that Poor Man’s Process was also used occasionally on that film, when the train was stuck in a siding due to heavy rail traffic. I used Poor Man’s myself for night-time train sequences in two no-budget features that I made in the early noughties – see the BTS clip below – and I’ve also written a couple of blog posts in the past about my use of the same technique on a promotional video and in a fantasy web series.

 

3. Green screen: “Source Code”

Duncan “Zowie Bowie” Jones followed up his low-budget masterpiece Moon with Hollywood sci-fi thriller Source Code, a sort of mash-up of Quantum Leap and Groundhog Day with a chilling twist. It takes place predominantly on a Chicago-bound commuter train, in reality a set surrounded by green screen. In the featurette above, Jones mentions that shooting on a real moving train was considered, but ultimately rejected in favour of the flexibility of working on stage:

Because we revisit an event multiple times, it was absolutely integral to making it work, and for the audience not to get bored, that we were able to vary the visuals. And in order to do that we had to be able to build platforms outside of the train and be able to really vary the camera angles.

In the DVD commentary, Jones also notes that the background plates were shot in post from a real train “loaded up with cameras”.

Director Duncan Jones on the set of “Source Code”

Cinematographer Don Burgess, ASC discusses lighting the fake train in a Panavision article:

It’s difficult to make it feel like natural light is coming in and still get the sense of movement on a train… We worked with computer programs where we actually move the light itself, and brighten and dim the lights so it feels as if you are travelling… The lights are never 100% constant.

When I shot The Little Mermaid last year we did some train material against green screen. To make the lighting dynamic, the grips built “branch-a-loris” rigs: windmills of tree branches which they would spin in front of the lamps to create passing shadows.

 

4. Rear projection: “Last Passenger”

Perhaps the most low-budget film on this list, Last Passenger is a 2013 independent thriller set aboard a runaway train. Director Omid Nooshin and DP Angus Hudson wanted a vintage look, choosing Cooke Xtal anamorphic lenses and a visual effects technique that had long since fallen out of favour: rear projection.

Before the advent of optical – and later digital – compositing, rear projection was commonly used to provide moving backgrounds for scenes in vehicles. The principle is simple: the pre-recorded backgrounds are projected onto a screen like this…

Rear projection in use on “River of no Return” (1954)

Hudson goes into further detail on the technique as used for the Last Passenger:

To capture [the backgrounds] within our limited means, we ended up shooting from a real train using six Canon 5D cameras, rigged in such a way that we got forward, sideways and rear-facing views out of the train at the same time. We captured a huge amount of footage, hours and hours of footage. That allowed us to essentially have 270 degrees of travelling shots, all of which were interlinked.

Because rear projection is an in-camera technique, Nooshin and Hudson were able to have dirt and water droplets on the windows without worrying about creating a compositing nightmare in postproduction. Hudson also notes that the cast loved being able to see the backgrounds and react to them in real time.

 

5. L.E.D. Panels: “Train to Busan”

Enabling the actors to see the background plates was also a concern for Yeon Sang-ho, director of the hit Korean zombie movie Train to Busan. He felt that green screen would make it “difficult to portray the reality”, so he turned to the latest technology: LED screens. This must have made life easier not just for the cast, but for the cinematographer as well.

You see, when you travel by train in the daytime, most of the light inside the carriage comes from outside. Some of it is toplight from the big, flat sky, and some of it is hard light from the sun – both of these can be faked, as we’ve seen – but a lot of the light is reflected, bouncing off trees, houses, fields and all the other things that are zipping by. This is very difficult to simulate with traditional means, but with big, bright LED screens you get this interactive lighting for free. Because of this, and the lack of postproduction work required, this technique is becoming very popular for car and train scenes throughout the film and TV industry.

This brings us back to Murder on the Orient Express, for which 2,000 LED screens were reportedly employed. In a Digital Spy article, Branagh notes that this simulated motion had an unintended side effect:

It was curious that on the first day we used our gimballed train sets and our LED screens with footage that we’d gone to great trouble to shoot for the various environments – the lowlands and then the Alps, etc… people really did feel quite sick.

I’ll leave you with one final point of interest: some of the above films designed custom camera tracks into their train carriage sets. On Last Passenger, for example, the camera hung from a dolly which straddled the overhead luggage racks, while The Darjeeling Limited had an I-beam track designed into the centre of the ceiling. Non-train movies like Speed have used the same technique to capture dolly shots in the confines of a moving vehicle.

“Last Passenger”s luggage rack dolly
How to do Scenes on a Moving Train

Black-screen & White-screen: The Best Kept Secrets in Compositing

Accessing the compositing modes in Final Cut Pro 7
Accessing the compositing modes in Final Cut Pro 7

When it comes to shooting elements for VFX, green-screen gets all the press. But certain kinds of elements can be tricky to key well, and sometimes it’s not the right look. In the last few days Kate Madison and I have needed to shoot last-minute elements for some shots in Ren: The Girl with the Mark, and we turned to monochromatic backgrounds.

Why? How does it work? Well certainly you can key out black or white just like you’d key out green, but the most powerful way to use these backgrounds is not with keying at all, but by a bit of basic maths. And don’t worry, the computer does the maths for you.

If you’ve ever used Photoshop, you’ll have noticed some layer modes called Screen and Multiply. Final Cut Pro has the same modes (it also has Add, which to most intents and purposes is the same as Screen) and so do all the major editing and FX packages.

Screen adds the brightness of each pixel of the layer to the layer underneath. Since black has a brightness of zero, your black screen disappears, and the element in front of it is blended seamlessly into the background image, with its apparent solidity determined by its brightness.

Multiply, as the name suggests, multiplies the brightness of each pixel with the layer underneath. Since white has a brightness of one, and any number multiplied by one is that same number, your white screen vanishes. Whatever element is in front of your screen is blended into the background image, with darker parts of the element showing up more than lighter parts.

One of the elements Kate and I needed to shoot was a flame, to be comped onto a torch. We lit a torch and clamped it to a stand, shooting at night with the pitch black garden in the background. It was the work of moments to comp this element into the shot using Screen mode.

The flame element, shot at night in the garden to ensure a seamless black background
The flame element, shot at night in the garden to ensure a seamless black background
I adjusted the flame's size and used Screen mode to composite it over the background.
I adjusted the flame’s size and used Screen mode to composite it over the background.

Fire is the perfect partner for black-screen shooting, because it generates its own light and it’s not solid. Solid objects composited using Screen/Add or Multiply take on a ghostly appearance – perfect for, er, ghost effects – but not ideal in other situations; because of the way Screen mode works, anything that’s not peak white will be transparent to some degree.

We shot some fast-moving leaves and debris against black, but only the high level of motion blur allowed us to get away with it. In fact, if you know you’re going to have a lot of motion blur, black-screen might be the ideal method, because it will be tricky to get a clean key off a green-screen.

A smoke element shot against a black drape and backlit so that the smoke is visible but the drape is not
A smoke element shot against a black drape and backlit so that the smoke is visible but the drape is not
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Shooting dirt in a vase of water against white

Other things that work well against black-screen are sparks, smoke and water/rain, again because they’re not solid. If you want to add rain or snow to a shot, black-screen is the way to go – check out my post about that here.

Yesterday Kate and I needed to shoot a whirlwind element. One of the VFX team suggested swirling sand in a vase of water. After a few experiments in the kitchen, we ended up using dirt from the garden. We used fluorescent softboxes for the background, ensuring we got a bright white background, and made weird arrangements of white paper to eliminate as many of the dark reflections in the vase as we could.

One of the tornado elements shot with the set-up pictured above. We let the dirt settle in the bottom of the water, then swirled the water with a spoon (which had to kept out of frame).
One of the tornado elements shot with the set-up pictured above. We let the dirt settle in the bottom of the water, then swirled the water with a spoon (which had to be kept out of frame).

A few weeks back we shot hosepipe water against black, inverted it and used Multiply to superimpose it as blowing dirt.

With a little thinking outside the box, you can shoot all kinds of elements against white or black to meet your VFX needs. I’ll leave you with this featurette I made in 2006, breaking down the various low-tech FX – many of them black-screen – that I employed on my feature film Soul Searcher.

Black-screen & White-screen: The Best Kept Secrets in Compositing

Practical Rain Effect

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.

See last week’s post for how to add rain (and snow) onto scenes after the fact.

Practical Rain Effect