“Jurassic Park” Retrospective

With the temporary closure of Cineworlds around the UK, the future of theatrical exhibition once more hangs in the balance. But just a couple of months ago cinemas were reopening and people were positive that the industry would recover. One of the classic blockbusters that was re-released to plug the gaps in the release schedule ahead of Christopher Nolan’s Tenet was a certain quite popular film about dinosaurs. I described my trip to see it recently, but let’s put that hideous experience behind us and concentrate on the film itself.

Thanks in no small part to the excellent “making of” book by Don Shay and Jody Duncan, Jurassic Park was a formative experience for the 13-year-old Neil Oseman, setting me irrevocably on the path to filmmaking as a career. So let me take you back in time and behind the scenes of an iconic piece of popcorn fodder.

 

Man creates dinosaurs

Even before author Michael Crichton delivered the manuscript of his new novel in May 1990, Steven Spielberg had expressed an interest in adapting it. A brief bidding war between studios saw Joe Dante (Gremlins), Tim Burton (Batman) and Richard Donner (Superman) in the frame to direct, but Spielberg and Universal Pictures were the victors.

Storyboards by David Lowery. Lots of the film’s storyboards are reproduced in “The Making of Jurassic Park” by Don Shay and Jody Duncan.

The screenplay went through several drafts, first by Crichton himself, then by Malio Scotch Marmo and finally by David Koepp, who would go on to script Mission: Impossible, Spider-Man and Panic Room. Pre-production began long before Koepp finished writing, with Spielberg generating storyboards based directly on scenes from the book so that his team could figure out how they were going to bring the dinosaurs to life.

Inspired by a life-size theme park animatronic of King Kong, Spielberg initially wanted all the dinsoaurs to be full-scale physical creatures throughout. This was quickly recognised as impractical, and instead Stan Winston Studio, creators of the Terminator endoskeleton, the Predator make-up and the fifteen-foot-tall Alien queen, focused on building full-scale hydraulically-actuated dinosaurs that would serve primarily for close-ups and mids.

Stan Winston’s crew with their hydraulic behemoth

Meanwhile, to accomplish the wider shots, Spielberg hired veteran stop-motion animator Phil Tippett, whose prior work included ED-209 in RoboCop, the tauntaun and AT-AT walkers in The Empire Strikes Back, and perhaps most relevantly, the titular creature from Dragonslayer. After producing some beautiful animatics – to give the crew a clearer previsualisation of the action than storyboards could provide – Tippett shot test footage of the “go-motion” process he intended to employ for the real scenes. Whilst this footage greatly improved on traditional stop-motion by incorporating motion blur, it failed to convince Spielberg.

At this point, Dennis Muren of Industrial Light and Magic stepped in. Muren was the visual effects supervisor behind the most significant milestones in computer-generated imagery up to that point: the stained-glass knight in Young Sherlock Holmes (1986), the water tendril in The Abyss (1989) and the liquid metal T-1000 in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). When Spielberg saw his test footage – initially just skeletons running in a black void – the fluidity of the movement immediately grabbed the director’s attention. Further tests, culminating in a fully-skinned tyrannosaur stalking a herd of gallimimuses, had Spielberg completely convinced. On seeing the tests himself, Tippett famously quipped: “I think I’m extinct.”

The first CGI test

Tippett continued to work on Jurassic Park, however, ultimately earning a credit as dinosaur supervisor. Manipulating a custom-built armature named the Dinosaur Input Device, Tippett and his team were able to have their hands-on techniques recorded by computer and used to drive the CG models.

Building on his experiences working with the E.T. puppet, Spielberg pushed for realistic animal behaviours, visible breathing, and bird-like movements reflecting the latest paleontological theories, all of which would lend credibility to the dinosaurs. Effects co-supervisor Mark Dippe stated: “We used to go outdoors and run around and pretend we were gallimisuses or T-Rexes hunting each other, and shoot [reference] film.”

 

Dinosaurs eat man

Stan Winston’s triceratops was the first dinosaur to go before the cameras, and the only one to be filmed on location.

Production began in August 1992 with three weeks on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. Filming progressed smoothly until the final day on location, which had to be scrubbed due to Hurrican Iniki (although shots of the storm made it into the finished film). After a brief stint in the Mojave Desert, the crew settled into the stages at Universal Studios and Warner Brothers to record the bulk of the picture.

The most challenging sequence to film would also prove to be the movie’s most memorable: the T-Rex attack on the jeeps containing Sam Neill’s Dr. Grant, Jeff Goldblum’s Ian Malcolm, lawyer Gennaro and the children, Lex and Tim. It was the ultimate test for Stan Winston’s full-scale dinosaurs.

The T-Rex mounted on its motion simulator base on Stage 16 at Warner Brothers

The main T-Rex puppet weighed over six tonnes and was mounted on a flight simulator-style platform that had to be anchored into the bedrock under the soundstage. Although its actions were occasionally pre-programmed, the animal was mostly puppeteered live using something similar to the Dinosaur Input Device.

But the torrential rain in which the scene takes place was anathema to the finely tuned mechanics and electronics of the tyrannosaur. “As [the T-Rex] would get rained on,” Winston explained, “his skin would soak up water, his weight would change, and in the middle of the day he would start having the shakes and we would have to dry him down.”

Although hints of this shaking can be detected by an eagle-eyed viewer, the thrilling impact of the overall sequence was clear to Spielberg, who recognised that the T-Rex was the star of his picture. He hastily rewrote the ending to bring the mighty creature back, relying entirely on CGI for the new climax in which it battles raptors in the visitor centre’s rotunda.

The CGI T-Rex in the rewritten finale

 

Woman inherits the earth

After wrapping 12 days ahead of schedule, Jurassic Park hit US cinemas on June 11th, 1993. It became the highest-grossing film of all time, a title which it would hold until Titanic’s release four years later. 1994’s Oscar ceremony saw the prehistoric blockbuster awarded not only Best Visual Effects but also Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing. Indeed, Gary Rydstrom’s contribution to the film – using everything from a dolphin/walrus combination for the raptors’ calls, to the sound of his own dog playing with a rope toy for the T-Rex – cannot be overstated.

Jurassic Park has spawned four sequels to date (with a fifth on the way), and its impact on visual effects was enormous. For many years afterwards, blockbusters were filled with CGI that was unable to equal, let along surpass, the quality of Jurassic Park’s. Watching it today, the CGI is still impressive if a little plasticky in texture, but I believe that the full-size animatronics which form the lion’s share of the dinosaurs’ screen time are what truly give the creatures their memorable verisimilitude. The film may be 27 years old, but it’s still every bit as entertaining as it was in 1993.

This article first appeared on RedShark News.

Director of photography Dean Cundey, ASC with the brachiosaur head puppet
“Jurassic Park” Retrospective

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”

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.

Sirdidymus
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

The 10 Greatest Movie Puppets of All Time

In today’s films, if a character is not human, chances are it will be created digitally. But in the latter half of the 20th century, as increasingly sophisticated audiences demanded more than a man in a suit, the art of puppetry blossomed in Hollywood. Artists like Stan Winston and Rob Bottin brought this art to its peak in the 80s and early 90s, before being usurped by computers. Today I’ve compiled a list of what I consider the ten greatest achievements of movie puppeteering. Some of them hold special places in my childhood memories; somehow, I can’t imagine that the digital creatures of today’s cinema will be cherished so fondly by the next generation.

10. E.T. (E.T. the Extra-terrestrial, 1982)

et-extra-terrestrial-behind-the-scenes

Evolved out of an abandoned sequel to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T. was the highest-grossing film of all time until it was outdone by another Spielberg movie which can be found later on in this list. Like those in Close Encounters, E.T.’s alien was designed and built by Carlo Rambaldi, who also brought H. R. Giger’s eponymous Alien design to life for the 1979 sci-fi classic. Although he may appear to be a cross between a pretzel and a dog turd, the inexplicably cute E.T. was actually based on the faces of Albert Einstein and writers Ernest Hemingway and Carl Sandburg. While the head was animatronic, the body was generally occupied by one of two little people, or by Matthew DeMeritt, a twelve-year-old with no legs who walked around with his hands inside the creature’s feet. A miniature puppet was employed for at least one shot, as seen above being adjusted by ILM’s Dennis Muren.

9. Humongous (Labyrinth, 1986)

goblingiant1

I don’t have enough fingers to count how many times I’ve seen this movie, and I love it every time. The imaginations of Brian Froud, Jim Henson and Terry Jones make for a potent combination of fantasy, wit, invention and silliness. Not to mention David Bowie in obscenely tight trousers, a treat for all the family. There are brilliant puppets throughout – the helpful worm, the brave canine Sir Didymus, the Wise Man’s mouthy hat, sundry goblins, and the mischievous Fireys (choreographed by Star Trek: TNG’s Gates McFadden and partly voiced by Red Dwarf’s Danny John-Jules, fact fans). But my favourite is Humongous. Having finally reached the Goblin City, Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) and her friends are faced by huge metal doors which slam together to form a hulking, axe-wielding, giant robot. Special effects supervisor George Gibbs designed a hydraulically actuated skeleton mounted on a boom arm on a dolly track hidden behind the creature. The limbs and head were operated by a single puppeteer in a telemetry rig that translated his movements to the puppet. A bit like Avatar, only the avatar in question was a real, 15ft tall character. James Cameron’s film seems pretty lame by comparison, huh?

Ghostbusters198416_zps626ab9868. The library ghost (Ghostbusters, 1984)

Despite only getting three seconds of screentime – the majority of the sequence using actress Ruth Oliver as the ghost – this puppet makes a big impact. As a kid I loved Ghostbusters for its sci-fi/horror elements; as an adult I love it equally for its comedy. The first act library sequence perfectly sets up both aspects, building up the suspense even amongst great lines like “You’re right. No human being would stack books like this.” Richard Edlund and his team at ILM built a waist-up puppet which could transform from a likeness of Oliver to a monstrously distorted apparition. It’s the movie’s first big scare and is quickly followed by one of its biggest laughs, as the proto-busters leg it unceremoniously. “That was your whole plan, ‘Get her’?”

the-thing-prtical-effects7. Spider-head (The Thing, 1982)

When making his sci-fi horror classic, John Carpenter was determined to avoid the “man in a suit” approach which had marred the movies of his childhood. To design and build the myriad puppets which would depict the titular thing in all its many guises, Carpenter hired Rob Bottin, who would go on to make the iconic Robocop suit and various exploding Arnold Schwarzeneggers for Paul Verhoeven. In The Thing’s most iconic – and most revolting – scene, the chameolonic alien is disguised as the prone form of Norris (Charles Hallahan). After munching off the arms of the doctor trying to revive him, the Norris creature’s head splits off from the body and falls to the floor. It then sprouts eight arachnid legs and two extra eyes on stalks and scuttles off across the room. In one of cinema’s great understatements, David Clennon’s Palmer deadpans, “You’ve got to be fucking kidding.”

6. The giant squid (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, 1954)

tumblr_mtfmpdEz5Z1r4r13xo1_500

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is a much-loved Disney classic from that era when every Jules Verne adaptation seemed to star James Mason. Probably the largest puppet ever made for a film at the time, the giant squid still impresses today. Its climactic attack on the Nautilus was originally shot at sunset with a calm sea, but the wires holding up the tentacles were too obviously visible. Walt Disney himself allegedly suggested the reshoot in dark, stormy conditions and the result was a much more dramatic and convincing sequence.

5. The alien queen (Aliens, 1986)

Say what you like about James Cameron, his understanding of and invention in the field of special effects is remarkable. Above is the proof-of-concept footage for the alien queen in his all-out-action sequel. As per Cameron’s idea, two stuntmen are hung from a crane, each operating one extended outer arm and one vestigial inner arm. The legs are moved externally by rods and the head of the finished creature would be hydraulic, operated via steering wheels from a nearby operators’ station. Built by Stan Winston Studio, and also directed in second unit photography by Winston himself, the queen takes the Alien mythos to a whole new level. What blows my mind is how Cameron and Winston were able to hide or frame out the rods, rigs and cables in an era before digital wire removal. Certain wide shots, notably in the egg chamber and the climactic battle with Ripley’s power loader, were realised as quarter-scale miniatures. These were puppeteered by a combination of rods from beneath the model sets and cables running to a bank of levers off camera. (I also love the miniature alien puppet that was used in Alien 3 which moved beautifully but was ruined by terrible compositing.)

4. The T-rex (Jurassic Park, 1993)

Inspired by the 40ft hydraulic ape built for John Guillermin’s 1976 King Kong remake (which would probably be on this list if I’d ever seen the film), Steven Spielberg embarked on Jurassic Park hoping to use full-size animatronics to realise all of his dinosaur shots. This of course proved impractical, and we all know about the ground-breaking CGI that ultimately supplied the wide shots of the animals. But the majority of the dinosaur shots in the movie were indeed full-size animatronics built and operated by Stan Winston and co. The main T-rex puppet weighed over six tonnes and was mounted on a flight simulator-style platform that had to be anchored into the bedrock under the soundstage. Although its actions were occasionally preprogrammed, the prehistoric monster was generally puppeteered live. Winston and his crew built a three-foot T-rex armature packed with sensors; when this armature was moved, the full-size Rex would duplicate the movement in real time.

3. Yoda (The Empire Strikes Back, 1980)

Yoda-PuppetRanks so highly in this list Yoda does, because of his cultural impact. Terrified that audiences would reject a muppet character in a live action film, George Lucas, producer Gary Kurtz and director Irvin Kershner were. Brave enough to try it had they not been, attempted The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth might never have been. (Go on to produce The Dark Crystal, Kurtz would, while exec produce Labyrinth, Lucas would.) Sculpted by makeup artist Stuart Freeborn, Yoda was, and bears a distinct resemblance to him, the puppet does. Help build the puppet, the Jim Henson Company did, around a cast of performer Frank Oz’s arm. The puppetry to accommodate, built four feet above the floor, the Dagobah set was. For voicing and performing Miss Piggy, most famous Frank Oz was. Intend to replace Oz’s voice Lucas did, but work so well with his puppetry it did, that remain Oz’s voice did.

2. Audrey II (Little Shop of Horrors, 1986)

audreyiibackcontrol

Aside from E.T., Audrey II is the only puppet on this list that properly lip-syncs – not just flapping its jaw, but actually forming the correct mouth shapes for each syllable – a fiendishly difficult task for a puppet. Animatronics expert Lyle Conway, a veteran of The Dark Crystal and the Muppets franchise, came on board to design and build the five iterations of Audrey II, ranging in size from a few inches to over twelve feet. Conway then hired a trio of lip-sync puppeteers fresh from Return to Oz (another great puppet movie which narrowly missed this list) who rehearsed for three months. They were joined by additional crew – as many as 70 for the largest plant – to manipulate the vines and control the gross body movements. One of those puppeteers was concealed inside the head, but the rest worked via five-foot-tall levers hooked to cable controls in a sweaty space beneath the set that resembled a manic convention of railway signalmen. So exhausting was the operation of the larger puppets that a physical therapist was hired by the production, and only a few lines of a song could be shot each day. Check out the film’s awesome original ending below.

1. Everything (The Dark Crystal, 1982)

960_dark_crystal_blu-ray4x

For me, filmmaking is all about imagination, and by that measure The Dark Crystal must be the greatest film ever made. In recent years there have been horrifying rumours of a 3D sequel mixing puppets and CGI, but mercifully this abomination seems trapped in development hell. There is something so very satisfying about a world which has been realised entirely through hands-on, physical means – you can feel the blood, sweat and tears. The performers of the creepy Garthim, for example, had to be hung on racks to rest at regular intervals, so heavy were their costumes. Skesis puppeteers went around all day with one arm extended above their heads (inside the puppet head and neck) and video monitors strapped to their chests so they could see what they were doing. A Swiss mime was brought in to choreograph certain characters, and to train the team of performers before the shoot, building up the physical stamina they would need. Directed by the two greatest movie puppeteers in the world, Jim Henson and Frank Oz, The Dark Crystal is a monument to the art of puppetry and remains to this day one of the most unique films in cinematic history.

The 10 Greatest Movie Puppets of All Time

Polymath: Behind the Scenes

I always enjoy a good behind-the-scenes video, and there’s often much to be learnt from them too. My friends at Polymathematics have just released a series of ‘making of’ videos for their recent music promos, all of which are exquisitely designed and shot (my own involvement in Droplets notwithstanding!). Check out Polymath’s Vimeo channel for more behind-the-scenes videos and of course the promos themselves.

Droplets

We Were Here

The Last Human / I Do (Come True)

Hands Up if You’re Lost

And here’s an equally fascinating look at a live puppetry project they did as part of the Olympic Torch Relay celebrations…

 

Polymath: Behind the Scenes

Lighting Droplets

The tarsier puppet in Droplets
The tarsier puppet in Droplets

Lighting in the controlled environment of a studio should theoretically be much easier than lighting a location, but I found recently that it doesn’t come without its challenges.

Last month I had the pleasure of working on a music promo for Droplets by Lewis Watson and Gabrielle Aplin. Directed by Tom Walsh and designed by First Musketeer veteran Amy Nicholson, this magical, handmade puppet fest was only the second or third studio-bound production of my career. Tom had secured the use of Giltbrook Studios, an impressively equipped 1,300 sq ft soundstage in Nottingham, complete with manager Andy Swain as gaffer.

Apart from the exclusion of pesky natural light, the biggest advantage offered by a stage over a location is the lighting grid; no more wondering if that polecat or K-clamp will take the paint off the wall, and no more compromising your backlight position to keep the stand out of frame. The downside of the grid is the time it takes to rig or adjust a light, particularly if the grid, like Giltbrook’s, has no catwalks, and every adjustment must be made by bringing in and scaling a huge ladder. In fact it may be impossible to rig or adjust lights once there is a finished set underneath. All of which means you’re going to need a pre-rig day.

Some of the ill-fated space lights can be seen here, as well as the cucoloris rigged beneath the 650W fresnel key light. At the top left is the 2K fresnel backlight.
Some of the ill-fated space lights can be seen here, as well as the cucoloris rigged beneath the 650W fresnel key light. At the top left is the 2K fresnel backlight.

In the case of Droplets, the pre-rig day was also used to assemble the set, a tree on top of a cave, which must have measured about fifteen feet in height. As soon as it had been erected we realised that the six space lights Andy had spent all morning rigging were going to be in frame, as the top of the tree reached above the bottoms of these lights. (A space light is a circular arrangement of six tungsten tubes inside a cylinder of white diffusion cloth. They’re typically used in large numbers to simulate daylight in a studio.)

Some of the par cans that supplied the colour wash on the backdrop.
Some of the par cans that supplied the colour wash on the backdrop.

In fact my options on where I could put lights were very narrow, because of the lack of space around the set, both vertically and horizontally. We shot against the studio’s white infinity cove, and Tom wanted colour washes over this to suggest various times of day. Andy achieved this with gelled par cans off to either side of the set, but then it was crucial that no other light spilled onto the backdrop or it would ruin the effect.

We rigged a 2K tungsten fresnel immediately behind and above the set, for backlight, but it was hard to put anything in from the sides or the front without contaminating the backdrop. The 650W key light had to be rigged almost directly above the set, and even then its shadow can be seen on the floor in the wide shots if you look carefully. We hung a cucoloris (sheet of wood with random shapes cut in it) below the 650 to created the dappled effect of woodland light, taking care that a patch of light fell on the tarsier puppet’s main position.

For fill I used an LED panel off to the right of the set, dimming it to find a balance between its light being barely visible on the backdrop while still lifting the set and the puppets enough. I placed a smaller LED panel inside the cave, with a turquoise gel to suggest phosphorescence.

The final day/sunset look. From each side an orange-gelled and a pink-gelled par can light the backdrop. A 2K tungsten fresnel provides backlight, while a 650W fresnel with a cucoloris provides dappled light on the tree and tarsier. An LED panel off right supplies fill, and a second panel is inside the cave with a turquoise gel.
The final day/sunset look. From each side an orange-gelled and a pink-gelled par can light the backdrop. A 2K tungsten fresnel provides backlight, while a 650W fresnel with a cucoloris provides dappled light on the tree and tarsier. An LED panel off right supplies fill, and a second panel is inside the cave with a turquoise gel.
For closer shots, a reflector below frame and/or a Dedolight behind camera were used to fill in unwanted shadows.
For closer shots, a reflector below frame and/or a Dedolight behind camera were used to fill in unwanted shadows.

Another advantage of a studio is that you can easily run all the lamps into a dimmer board. This was very handy for Droplets because in addition to the day/sunset look, we had nighttime scenes and a storm to light for, and some on-screen transitions between the states. We were able to set these all up in advance and switch between them pretty much by just pushing a few sliders up and a few others down.

The night state involved a yellow-gelled redhead on the floor behind the cave, pointed straight at the backdrop. With its barn doors removed, this created a circle of light which reminded me strongly of the huge yellow moon in the posters for The Nightmare Before Christmas. I hadn’t been intending to create such a defined circle, but when I saw it I immediately loved its stylised look.

A second 650W fresnel was rigged, close to the first, and with ulcered black wrap in front of it to again created a dappled look, but with a purple gel on it. This took us away from the more traditional blue of nighttime scenes, adding to the stylised look again, and contrasting nicely in colour with the yellow “moon”.

The 2K backlight remained on for the night scenes, but the sunset colour wash on the backdrop was switched off, as was the fill.

Nighttime in puppet land: the 2K backlight remains on, a yellow-gelled redhead lights the backdrop from behind the set, and a purple-gelled 650W fresnel in the grid pushes through a cucoloris to highlight the tarsier.
Nighttime in puppet land: the 2K backlight remains on, a yellow-gelled redhead lights the backdrop from behind the set, and a purple-gelled 650W fresnel in the grid pushes through a cucoloris to highlight the tarsier.

For the storm scene we experimented with strobes, but they caused unpleasant rolling shutter artefacts. Instead I used the flash button on the 2K’s dimmer box to create lightning. Both 650W fresnels were turned off for this state, but the fill was turned back on. While the pink colour wash remained off, we brought up the orange wash just a little bit to suggest an angry sky in the background.

Stormy weather. The orange colour wash coming from the par cans, originally set up for the sunset look, is used here much more dimly to suggest an angry sky. The LED panel off right supplies fill while the 2K backlight is flashed periodically.
Stormy weather. The orange colour wash coming from the par cans, originally set up for the sunset look, is used here much more dimly to suggest an angry sky. The LED panel off right supplies fill while the 2K backlight is flashed periodically.

Copious smoke was used throughout (another advantage of studios – your smoke stays put!) to generate god rays as the backlight streamed through the tree. It also helped soften the backdrop and render the colour washes more convincing as a sky.

Watch the video here. Shot on a Red Epic operated by Chris Wetton. Big thanks to Andy and Giltbrook Studios for all their help. Visit www.polymathematics.co.uk to find out more about the amazing work of Tom Walsh and Amy Nicholson.

Lighting Droplets

Soul Searcher: Low Tech FX

In this 2005 featurette I break down many of the visual effects in my feature film Soul Searcher, revealing how they were created using old school techniques, like pouring milk into a fishtank for apocalyptic clouds. Watch the shots being built up layer by layer, starting with mundane elements like the water from a kitchen tap or drinking straws stuck to a piece of cardboard.

Soul Searcher: Low Tech FX

Lighting The One That Got Away

Lighting plan for the daylight scenes
Lighting plan for the daylight scenes

Here’s a breakdown of the lighting choices made on my little puppet film, The One That Got Away. You can watch the film over at the Virgin Media Shorts website. If you enjoy it, please use the tweet button to register your vote and help us get a place on the shortlist.

Conventional wisdom with marionettes is probably to go for very flat lighting with no backlight, to make it as difficult as possible to see the strings. But on TOTGA I wanted to embrace and celebrate the tactile, handmade look of the puppets and sets, so I chose a traditional three-point lighting scheme that imparted depth and made no effort to hide the strings.

Normally I shoot wide open – typically f1.8 – on my DSLR, but as the puppets were small the depth of field would have been ridiculously shallow at that aperture. Instead I lit the set very brightly (about 3KW of tungsten horsepower in our cramped living room – not very pleasant during a heatwave!) and stopped down to around f4.

Daylight

The clouds cast shadows on the sky, but I think that adds to the charm.
The clouds cast shadows on the sky, but I think that adds to the charm.

For the daylight scenes I used my three open-face tungsten Arrilites: a 1K poking over the top of the backdrop for backlight, another 1K with tough-spun diffuser off camera left for key, and an 800W bouncing off the ceiling for fill. This last lamp was gelled blue to suggest ambient skylight.

I tried to simulate the camerawork that would have been used had this been shot at sea with real actors, so:

  • the camera bobs up and down in wide shots, as if Henry’s boat is being shot from another vessel;
  • the camera and boat are fixed in close-ups, with the background bobbing up and down, as if we’re now shooting on a tripod in Henry’s boat.

Underwater

A cool white balance and blue gels help to give an underwater look.
A cool white balance and blue gels help to give an underwater look.

The underwater dream sequence was all shot dry-for-wet at 50fps for a watery slow motion. Using Magic Lantern I dialled in a cool white balance of around 2500K, and pumped in smoke to add diffusion and suggest currents. (I wished I’d use a lot more smoke, but we would have all choked to death.)

I used just two light sources: the 1K backlight, now gelled blue, and the other 1K, bounced off sheets of silver wrapping paper tacked loosely to the ceiling. This is exactly the same method I used for a scene in Ashes – flapping a piece of card at the wrapping paper makes the light ripple in a very watery way.

Shallow depth of field working nicely in the romantic underwater dream sequence
Shallow depth of field working nicely in the romantic underwater dream sequence

The underwater lighting scheme was a lot darker than the daylight one, so I opened up to around f2, giving a crazily shallow depth of field that worked nicely for this dream sequence. The mermaid’s close-ups were all shot through a CD case for an old-school soft-focus look.

I would have liked to have shot this sequence handheld, but a lack of crew meant I had to lock the camera off so I could operate the smoke machine, fan the wrapping paper and move little fish through frame.

Sunset

When Henry awakens from his dream, the fish escapes and he gives chase. Orange gels and lens flare were used to suggest the sun getting lower in the sky, until finally Henry and his quarry are silhouetted against the solar disc itself. This is a domestic 100W tungsten bulb peeking over the back wave. The only other light source is a row of six more such bulbs under a sheet of orange gel, just behind and below the first one.

The sun is an ordinary 100W tungsten lightbulb.
The sun is an ordinary 100W tungsten lightbulb.

As the scene moves into twilight, the first bulb is removed and the orange gel over the other six is replaced with a purple one. The 1K backlight is turned back on (possibly it would have been more realistic without, but I’m just a sucker for backlight) and some pink fill is provided by placing a sheet of Minus Green gel on the other 1K and bouncing it off a reflector.

Pink and purple gels are used to give a post-sunset tinge to the final scene.
Pink and purple gels are used to give a post-sunset tinge to the final scene.

That’s all folks. Please do tweet about the film (being sure to include the title The One That Got Away and the hashtag #VMShortsVote for it to count as a vote) and click here to watch the behind-the-scenes featurette if you missed it.

Lighting The One That Got Away

The Making of Henry

Guest blogger Katie Lake tells the story of how Henry Otto, the marionette star of The One That Got Away, came into this world. Click here to watch the film and please tweet about it to help us make the competition shortlist.

1. The head
1. The head

It started as a whim, a crazy idea. I have wanted to do a puppet film with Neil for a while. But if I couldn’t make a puppet, there would be no puppet film. No pressure.

I started with his head. I wound newspaper around metal wire that would become his controls, then covered the newspaper ball with a layer of air-drying clay, shaping his head, and face. I did a test with lights to see if I liked the shape I got (1). 

2. Body, hands, arms and legs
2. Body, hands, arms and legs

I then made his body. This started out as a toilet roll tube, covered in papier-mâché, and his arms and legs were rolled up newspaper “beads”. I then painted them beige, and sculpted hands using more clay over wire. I fit the legs and arms with wire, and before I put him together this was how he was looking (2). I liked the big head, spindly legs and long arms. So together he went. 

I made the start of a neck, and then painted his face. He now had an expression, a look, a character. I (hesitantly) fell in love with Henry when I first sculpted his head and face, but was really worried that I wouldn’t be able to do him justice with paint. Thankfully I was pleased with the results. And this is when I knew the name swirling around in my head, was the name he was going to be. There is something about him that reminds me of my maternal grandfather’s side of the family, so Henry is sort of an homage.

3. Strung up, with trousers
3. Strung up, with trousers

He then needed some clothes. Despite, or maybe because of my costume background, deciding what clothes to make for him was by far the hardest bit. In the end we decided jeans were a good place to start. I drafted a pattern in cloth, then altered it, and cut them out of an old charity shop skirt. I also gave him some hand stitched details around the waist. I temporarily strung him up, and tested out what we could get him to do. This was also his first camera test (3).

4. Hat
4. Hat and sweater

It was now that we realised he needed lateral head controls (one on either side of his head so we could make him look left and right). Oops. I attached lateral controls to the outside of his head as I didn’t want to risk drilling, so he now needed a hat or wisps of hair to hide the wire. He also needed a top, and boots.

4. Boots
5. Boots

Enter Jo Henshaw, who kindly offered to come and help out. She helped finalize costume design decisions, and made him his cute beanie (out of an old sleeve) and started his sweater (out of an old sweater) (4).

I made boots (out of more toilet roll tubes cut and bent, glued into shape and then papier-mâchéd, and then painted black) (5). I should also mention stop-motion animator Emily Currie, another helpful volunteer, who used her expertise to ensure the lateral controls stayed put.

6. The finished puppet
6. The finished puppet

Henry’s sweater was then sewn onto him, covering the multiple pieces. I kept the arms separate for greater movement. I finished him off with braces made out of old shoe laces, made buttons out of clay which I painted brown, sewed a patch onto his arm from an old scrap and aged his costume with some brown and black paint.

Lastly I strung him up using extra strong navy thread. The T bar I made using a piece of flat doweling, some screw eyes (upcycled from old curtain rings) and nails to make the cross bars removable. And Henry was ready for his debut (6).

You can visit Katie’s blog at www.katiedidonline.com. To find out what Henry’s up to, why not befriend him on Facebook?

Tomorrow I’ll look at the camera and lighting techniques used to shoot the film.

The Making of Henry

Pulling Strings – Behind the Scenes of “The One That Got Away”

Here’s a behind-the-scenes featurette looking at the making of my little puppet film.

This featurette was an experiment in shooting and editing entirely on my iPad, so please excuse the poor sound and clunky cutting.

Click here to watch The One That Got Away itself. Please help the film make the shortlist of the Virgin Media Shorts competition by visiting that link and using the tweet button underneath the video. The entry with the most tweets between now and July 28th will be shown in cinemas nationally.

Pulling Strings – Behind the Scenes of “The One That Got Away”