The History of Forced Perspective

A miniature ship with a real camel, people and helicopters in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”

“These are small,” Father Ted once tried to explain to Father Dougal, holding up toy cows, “but the ones out there are far away.” We may laugh at the gormless sitcom priest, but the chances are that we’ve all confounded size and distance, on screen at least.

The ship marooned in the desert in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the cliff at the end of Tremors, the runways and planes visible through the windows of Die Hard 2’s control tower, the helicopter on the boat in The Wolf of Wall Street, even the beached whale in Mega Shark Versus Giant Octopus – all are small, not far away.

The most familiar forced perspective effect is the holiday snap of a friend or family member picking up the Eiffel Tower between thumb and forefinger, or trying to right the Leaning Tower of Pisa. By composing the image so that a close subject (the person) appears to be in physical contact with a distant subject (the landmark), the latter appears to be as close as the former, and therefore much smaller than it really is.

Building Moon's forced perspective corridor
Building the forced perspective corridor for “Moon”

Architects have been playing tricks with perspective for centuries. Italy’s Palazzo Spada, for example, uses diminishing columns and a ramped floor to make a 26ft corridor look 100ft long. Many film sets – such as the basement of clones in Moon – have used the exact same technique to squeeze extra depth out of limited studio space or construction resources.

Even a set that is entirely miniature can benefit from forced perspective, with a larger scale being used in the foreground and a smaller one in the background, increasing the perceived depth. For example, The Terminator’s “Future War” scenes employ skulls of varying size, with background ruins on an even smaller scale.

“Princess Nicotine”

An early cinematic display of forced perspective was the 1908 short Princess Nicotine, in which a fairy who appears to be cavorting on a man’s tabletop is actually a reflection in a distant mirror. “The little fairy moves so realistically that she cannot be explained away by assuming that she is a doll,” remarked a Scientific American article of the time, “and yet it is impossible to understand how she can be a living being, because of her small stature.”

During the 1950s, B movies featuring fantastically shrunk or enlarged characters made full use of forced perspective, as did the Disney musical Darby O’Gill and the Little People. VFX supervisor Peter Ellenshaw, interviewed for a 1994 episode of Movie Magic, remembered the challenges of creating sufficient depth of field to sell the illusion: “You had to focus both on the background and the foreground [simultaneously]. It was very difficult. We had to use so much light on set that eventually we blew the circuit-breakers in the Burbank power station.”

One of many ingenious forced perspective shots in “The Gate”
This behind-the-scenes angle reveals how the above shot was done.

Randall William Cook was inspired years later by Ellenshaw’s work when he was called upon to realise quarter-scale demonic minions for the 1987 horror movie The Gate. Faced with a tiny budget, Cook devised in-camera solutions with human characters on raised foreground platforms, and costumed minions on giant set-pieces further back, all carefully designed so that the join was undetectable. As the contemporary coverage in Cinefex magazine noted, “One of the advantages of a well-executed forced perspective shot is that the final product requires no optical work and can therefore be viewed along with the next day’s rushes.”

A subgroup of forced perspective effects is the hanging miniature – a small-scale model suspended in front of camera, typically as a set extension. The 1925 version of Ben Hur used this technique for wide shots of the iconic chariot race. The arena of the Circus Maximus was full size, but in front of and above it was hung a miniature spectators’ gallery containing 10,000 tiny puppets which could stand and wave as required.

Setting up a foreground miniature for a later Who story, Inferno (1970)
Setting up a foreground miniature for the 1970 “Doctor Who” story “Inferno”

Doctor Who used foreground miniatures throughout its classic run, often more successfully than it used the yellow-fringed chromakey of the time. Earthly miniatures like radar dishes, missile launchers and big tops were captured on location, in camera, with real skies and landscapes behind them. The heroes convincingly disembark from an alien spaceship in the Tom Baker classic “Terror of the Zygons” by means of a foreground miniature and the actors jumping off the back of a van in the distance. A third-scale Tardis was employed in a similar way when the production wanted to save shipping costs on a 1984 location shoot on Lanzarote.

Even 60 years on from Ben Hur, Aliens employed the same technique to show the xenomorph-encrusted roof in the power plant nest scene. The shot – which fooled studio executives so utterly that they complained about extravagant spending on huge sets – required small lights to be moved across the miniature in sync with the actors’ head-torches.

The red line shows the division between hanging miniature and full-scale set in “Aliens”.

The Aliens shot also featured a tilt-down, something only possible with forced perspective if the camera pivots around its nodal point – the point within the lens where the light focuses. Any other type of camera movement gives the game away due to parallax, the optical phenomenon which makes closer objects move through a field of view more quickly than distant ones.

The 1993 remake of Attack of the 50ft Woman made use of a nodal pan to follow Daniel Baldwin to the edge of an outdoor swimming pool which a giant Daryl Hannah is using as a bath. A 1/8th-scale pool with Hannah in was mounted on a raised platform to perfectly align on camera with the real poolside beyond, where Baldwin stood.

The immediacy of forced perspective, allowing actors of different scales to riff off each other in real time, made it the perfect choice for the seasonal comedy Elf. The technique is not without its disadvantages, however. “The first day of trying, the production lost a whole day setting up one shot and never captured it,” recalls VFX supervisor Joe Bauer in the recent documentary Holiday Movies That Made Us.

This shot from “Elf” was accomplished with an extended tricycle allowing Papa Elf to sit much further behind young Buddy than he appears. Tiny puppet hands on Buddy’s shoulders complete the illusion.

Elf’s studio, New Line, was reportedly concerned that the forced perspective shots would never work, but given what a certain Peter Jackson was doing for that same studio at the same time, they probably shouldn’t have worried.

The Lord of the Rings employed a variety of techniques to sell the hobbits and dwarves as smaller than their human friends, but it was in the field of forced perspective that the trilogy was truly groundbreaking. One example was an extended cart built to accommodate Ian McKellen’s Gandalf and Elijah Wood’s supposedly-diminutive Frodo. “You could get Gandalf and Frodo sitting side by side apparently, although in fact Elijah Wood was sitting much further back from the camera than Gandalf,” explains producer Barrie Osborne in the trilogy’s extensive DVD extras.

Jackson insisted on the freedom to move his camera, so his team developed a computer-controlled system that would correct the tell-tale parallax. “You have the camera on a motion-controlled dolly, making it move in and out or side to side,” reveals VFX DP Brian Van’t Hul, “but you have another, smaller dolly [with one of the actors on] that’s electronically hooked to it and does the exact same motion but sort of in a counter movement.”

Forced perspective is still alive and kicking today. For Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker, production designer Kevin Jenkins built a 5ft sand-crawler for shooting in the Jordan Desert. “It was placed on a dressed table at height,” he explained on Twitter, “and the Jawa extras were shot at the same time a calculated distance back from the mini. A very fine powdery sand was dressed around for scale. We even made a roller to make mini track prints! Love miniatures :)”

Filming the Jawa sand-crawler for “Rise of the Skywalker”
The History of Forced Perspective

“Terminator 2: Judgment Day” Retrospective

Next month, Terminator 2: Judgment Day turns 30. Made by a director and star at the peaks of their powers, T2 was the most expensive film ever at the time, and remains both the highest-grossing movie of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career and the sequel which furthest out-performed its progenitor. It is also one of a handful of films that changed the world of visual effects forever, signalling as it did – to borrow the subtitle from its woeful follow-up – the rise of the machines.

No fate but what we make: Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor

The original Terminator, a low-budget surprise hit in 1984, launched director James Cameron’s career and cemented Schwarzenegger’s stardom, but it wasn’t until 1990 that the sequel was green-lit, mainly due to rights issues. At the Cannes Film Festival that year, Cameron handed executive producer Mario Kassar his script.

Today it’s easy to forget how risky it was to turn the Terminator, an iconic villain, an unstoppable, merciless death machine from an apocalyptic future, into a good guy who doesn’t kill anyone, stands on one leg when ordered, and looks like a horse when he attempts to smile. But Kassar didn’t balk, granting Cameron a budget ten times what he had had for the original, while stipulating that the film had to be in cinemas just 14 months later.

Even with some expensive sequences cut – including John Connor sending Kyle Reese back through time in the heart of Skynet HQ, a scene that would ultimately materialise in Terminator Genisys – the script was lengthy and extremely ambitious. Beginning on October 8th, 1990, the shooting schedule was front-loaded with effects shots to give the maximum time for CGI pioneers Industrial Light and Magic to realise the liquid metal T-1000 (Robert Patrick).

Rather than CGI, the T-1000’s head in this shot is a chrome model lifted into frame by a crew member.

To further ease ILM’s burden, every trick in the book was employed to get T-1000 shots in camera wherever possible: quick shots of the villain’s fight with the T-800 (Schwarzenegger) in the steel mill finale were done with a stuntman in a foil suit; a chrome bust of Patrick was hand-raised into frame for a helicopter pilot’s reaction shot; the reforming of the shattered T-1000 was achieved by blowing mercury around with a hair dryer; bullet hits on the character’s torso were represented by spring-loaded silver “flowers” that burst out of a pre-scored shirt on cue.

One of the chilling full-size T-800 endoskeleton puppets created by Stan Winston Studio for the Future War sequence

Stan Winston Studio also constructed a number of cable-controlled puppets to show more extensive damage to the morphing menace. These included “Splash Head”, a bust of Patrick with the head split in two by a shotgun blast, and “Pretzel Man”, the nightmarish result of a grenade hit moments before the T-1000 falls to its doom in the molten steel.

Traditional models and rear projection are used throughout the film. A few instances are all too obvious to a modern audience, but most still look great and some are virtually undetectable. Did you know that the roll-over and crash of the cryo-tanker were shot with miniatures? Or that the T-800 plucking John off his bike in the drainage channel was filmed against a rear projection screen?

Plenty of the action was accomplished without such trickery. The production added a third storey to a disused office building near Silicon Valley, then blew it up with 100 gallons of petrol, to show the demise of Cyberdyne Systems. DP Adam Greenberg lit 5.5 miles of freeway for the car chase, and pilot Chuck Tamburro really did fly the T-1000’s police helicopter under a 20ft underpass.

Chaotic, confusing action scenes are the norm today, but it is notable that T2’s action is thrilling yet never unclear. The film sends somewhat mixed messages though, with its horrific images of nuclear annihilation and the T-800’s morality lessons from John juxtaposed with indulgent violence and a reverence for firearms. “I think of T2 as a violent movie about world peace,” Cameron paradoxically stated. “It’s an action movie about the value of human life.”

More Stan Winston puppets were used to depict Sarah’s death by nuclear blast in her nightmare.

Meanwhile, 25 person-years of human life were being devoted by ILM to the T-1000’s metallic morphing abilities. Assistant VFX supervisor Mark Dippé noted: “We were pushing the limits of everything – the amount of disc space we had, the amount of memory we had in the computers, the amount of CPUs we had. Each shot, even though it only lasted about five seconds on the screen, typically would take about eight weeks to complete.”

Robert Patrick shooting reference footage for ILM’s animators

The team began by painting a 2×2” grid on a near-naked Patrick and shooting reference footage of him walking, before laser-scanning his head at the appropriately-named Cyberware Laboratory. Four separate computer models of the T-1000 were built on Silicon Graphics Iris 4Ds, from an amorphous blob to a fully-detailed chrome replica of Patrick, each with corresponding points in 3D space so that the custom software Model Interp could morph between them.

Other custom applications included Body Sock, a solution to gaps that initially appeared when the models flexed their joints, Polyalloy Shader, which gave the T-1000 its chrome appearance, and Make Sticky, with which images of Patrick were texture-mapped onto the distorting 3D model, as when he melts through a barred gate at the mental hospital.

The film’s legacy in visual effects – for which it won the 1992 Oscar – cannot be understated. A straight line can be drawn from the water tendril in Cameron’s The Abyss, through T2 to Jurassic Park and all the way on to Avatar, with which Cameron again broke the record for the highest-grossing film of all time. The Avatar sequels will undoubtedly push the technology even further, but for many Cameron fans his greatest achievement will always be Terminator 2: Judgment Day, with its perfect blend of huge stunts, traditional effects and groundbreaking CGI.

“Terminator 2: Judgment Day” Retrospective

Undisclosed Project: Iteration

I continue to saturate myself in the script for the yet-to-be-announced Shakespearian film. Some other little projects I had going on have now wrapped up, leaving me free to concentrate purely on this production, which is due to start shooting a month from now.

I spent the best part of last Monday reading a new draft of the screenplay and updating my spreadsheet of notes to reflect the changes. Going back over this spreadsheet and the script and re-evaluating them from different angles formed a signficant part of the rest of the week. On Thursday, for example, I focused on the swordfight (narrows it down, Shakespeare fans!), scouring YouTube for reference videos and noting which camera angles seem most dangerous and engaging. In fact, watching references was another big part of the week. I worked my way through the whole Godfather trilogy (above), some more episodes of Servant, bits of several action movies that have a specific type of night exterior, and a couple of the lead actor’s recent films, to see how other DPs have lit and lensed him.

At the end of the week I went back over the spreadsheet and filled in at least one idea for every scene that did not yet have an entry in its “camera” or “lighting” column. Sometimes this would be an idea for a specific shot – e.g. “angle from outside the window looking in”; sometimes it would be a general vibe for the camerawork – e.g. “close, handheld, intimate”; sometimes a specific source – e.g. “soft top-light rigged to ladder”; sometimes a more general lighting note – e.g. “group in a patch of light, surroundings dark”.

Production sent over the quotes they have received for my camera list. At least one of them was within the budget, so that’s good! This week I’ll discuss that with the producers and hopefully decide which rental house we’re going with.

Speaking of equipment, a cheap novelty optical item arrived from eBay. I used this and my iPad to shoot a very rough demonstration of how we might achieve a special effect in camera, sending the video to the director for his feedback. He liked it, and wants to add in a few more instances of it throughout the film.

Another idea I proposed was a lighting effect, for which I sent the director this video I’d found online (below). I don’t intend to do something exactly like this in the film, but I saw a way it could be modified to our story. I ended up shooting my own rough test that is closer to how I see it working in our film.

Less exciting than any of the above, but very important, was taking an online Screenskills course in Covid awareness. I’d done the Basic Awareness course already, which takes about 30 minutes including a brief quiz, but Screenskills were offering free places for HoDs on a more in-depth course, so I signed up. This consisted of a three-hour presentation about the virus, how it can spread on set and what can be done to mitigate it in various departments, followed by another quiz. I learnt a few new things and my awareness was indeed raised.

Undisclosed Project: Iteration

5 Ways to Fake Firelight

Real SFX run a fishtail on the set of “Heretiks”

Firelight adds colour and dynamism to any lighting set-up, not to mention being essential for period and fantasy films. But often it’s not practical to use real firelight as your source. Even if you could do it safely, continuity could be a problem.

A production that can afford an experienced SFX crew might be able to employ fishtails, V-shaped gas outlets that produce a highly controllable bar of flame, as we did on Heretiks. If such luxuries are beyond your budget, however, you might need to think about simulating firelight. As my gaffer friend Richard Roberts once said while operating an array of flickering tungsten globes (method no. 3), “There’s nothing like a real fire… and this is nothing like a real fire.”

 

1. Waving Hands

The simplest way to fake firelight is to wave your hands in front of a light source. This will work for any kind of source, hard or soft; just experiment with movements and distances and find out what works best for you. A layer of diffusion on the lamp, another in a frame, and the waving hands in between, perhaps?

Visit my Instagram feed for loads more diagrams like this.

One of my favourite lighting stories involves a big night exterior shot from The First Musketeer which was done at the Chateau de Fumel in the Lot Valley, France. We were just about to turnover when a bunch of automatic floodlights came on, illuminating the front of the chateau and destroying the period illusion of our scene. We all ran around for a while, looking for the off switch, but couldn’t find it. In the end I put orange gel on the floodlights and had someone crouch next to each one, wiggling their hands like a magician, and suddenly the chateau appeared to be lit by burning braziers.

 

2. Wobbling Reflector

This is my go-to technique – quick, easy and effective. It’s demonstrated in my Cinematic Lighting course on Udemy and also in this episode of Lensing Ren:

All you need is a collapsible reflector with a gold side, and an open-face tungsten fixture. Simply point the latter at the former and wobble the reflector during the take to create the flickering effect.

 

3. Tungsten Array

If you want to get more sophisticated, you can create a rig of tungsten units hooked up to a dimmer board. Electronic boxes exist to create a flame-like dimming pattern, but you can also just do it by pushing the sliders up and down randomly. I’ve done this a lot with 100W tungsten globes in simple pendant fittings, clipped to parts of the set or to wooden battens. You can add more dynamics by gelling the individual lamps with different colours – yellows, oranges and reds.

John Higgins’ 2MW firelight rig from “1917”

Larger productions tend to use Brutes, a.k.a. Dinos, a.k.a. 9-lights, which are banks of 1K pars. The zenith of this technique is the two megawatt rig built by gaffer John Higgins for Roger Deakins, CBE, BSC, ASC on 1917.

 

4. Programmed L.E.D.

Technological advances in recent years have provided a couple of new methods of simulating firelight. One of these is the emergence of LED fixtures with built-in effects programmes like police lights, lightning and flames. These units come in all shapes, sizes and price-ranges.

Philip Bloom’s budget fire-effect rig on location for “Filmmaking for Photographers”

On War of the Worlds: The Attack last year, gaffer Callum Begley introduced me to Astera tubes, and we used their flame effect for a campfire scene in the woods when we were having continuity problems with the real fire. For the more financially challenged, domestic fire-effect LED bulbs are cheap and screw into standard sockets. Philip Bloom had a few of these on goose-neck fittings which we used extensively in the fireplaces of Devizes Castle when shooting a filmmaking course for Mzed.

 

5. L.e.D. Screen

A logical extension of an LED panel or bulb that crudely represents the pattern of flames is an LED screen that actually plays video footage of a fire. The oil rig disaster docu-drama Deep Horizon and Christoper Nolan’s Dunkirk are just two films that have used giant screens to create the interactive light of off-camera fires. There are many other uses for LED screens in lighting, which I’ve covered in detail before, with the ultimate evolution being Mandalorian-style virtual volumes.

You don’t necessarily need a huge budget to try this technique. What about playing one of those festive YouTube videos of a crackling log fire on your home TV? For certain shots, especially given the high native ISOs of some cameras today, this might make a pretty convincing firelight effect. For a while now I’ve been meaning to try fire footage on an iPad as a surrogate candle. There is much here to explore.

So remember, there may be no smoke without fire, but there can be firelight without fire.

5 Ways to Fake Firelight

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”

The Long Lenses of the 90s

Lately, having run out of interesting series, I’ve found myself watching a lot of nineties blockbusters: Outbreak, Twister, Dante’s Peak, Backdraft, Daylight. Whilst eighties movies were the background to my childhood, and will always have a place in my heart, it was the cinema of the nineties that I was immersed in as I began my own amateur filmmaking. So, looking back on those movies now, while certain clichés stand out like sore thumbs, they still feel to me like solid examples of how to make a summer crowd-pleaser.

Let’s get those clichés out of the way first. The lead character always has a failed marriage. There’s usually an opening scene in which they witness the death of a spouse or close relative, before the legend “X years later” fades up. The dog will be saved, but the crotchety elderly character will die nobly. Buildings instantly explode towards camera when touched by lava, hurricanes, floods or fires. A stubborn senior authority figure will refuse to listen to the disgraced lead character who will ultimately be proven correct, to no-one’s surprise.

Practical effects in action on “Twister”

There’s an intensity to nineties action scenes, born of the largely practical approach to creating them. The decade was punctuated by historic advances in digital effects: the liquid metal T-1000 in Terminator 2 (1991), digital dinosaurs in Jurassic Park (1993), motion-captured passengers aboard the miniature Titanic (1997), Bullet Time in The Matrix (1999). Yet these techniques remained expensive and time-consuming, and could not match traditional methods of creating explosions, floods, fire or debris. The result was that the characters in jeopardy were generally surrounded by real set-pieces and practical effects, a far more nerve-wracking experience for the viewer than today, when we can tell that our heroes are merely imagining their peril on a green-screen stage.

One thing I was looking out for during these movie meanders down memory lane was lens selection. A few weeks back, a director friend had asked me to suggest examples of films that preferred long lenses. He had mentioned that such lenses were more in vogue in the nineties, which I’d never thought about before.

As soon as I started to consider it, I realised how right my friend was. And how much that long-lens looked had influenced me. When I started out making films, I was working with the tiny sensors of Mini-DV cameras. I would often try to make my shots look more cinematic by shooting on the long end of the zoom. This was partly to reduce the depth of field, but also because I instinctively felt that the compressed perspective was more in keeping with what I saw at the cinema.

I remember being surprised by something that James Cameron said in his commentary on the Aliens DVD:

I went to school on Ridley [Scott]’s style of photography, which was actually quite a bit different from mine, because he used a lot of long lenses, much more so than I was used to working with.

I had assumed that Cameron used long lenses too, because I felt his films looked incredibly cinematic, and because I was so sure that cinematic meant telephoto. I’ve discussed in the past what I think people tend to mean by the term “cinematic”, and there’s hardly a definitive answer, but I’m now sure that lens length has little to do with it.

“Above the Clouds” (dir. Leon Chambers)

And yet… are those nineties films influencing me still? I have to confess, I struggle with short lenses to this day. I find it hard to make wide-angle shots look as good. On Above the Clouds, to take just one example, I frequently found that I preferred the wide shots on a 32mm than a 24mm. Director Leon Chambers agreed; perhaps those same films influenced him?

A deleted scene from Ren: The Girl with the Mark ends with some great close-ups shot on my old Sigma 105mm still lens, complete with the slight wobble of wind buffeting the camera, which to my mind only adds to the cinematic look! On a more recent project, War of the Worlds: The Attack, I definitely got a kick from scenes where we shot the heroes walking towards us down the middle of the street on a 135mm.

Apart from the nice bokeh, what does a long lens do for an image? I’ve already mentioned that it compresses perspective, and because this is such a different look to human vision, it arguably provides a pleasing unreality. You could describe it as doing for the image spatially what the flicker of 24fps (versus high frame rates) does for it temporally. Perhaps I shy away from short lenses because they look too much like real life, they’re too unforgiving, like many people find 48fps to be.

The compression applies to people’s faces too. Dustin Hoffman is not known for his small nose, yet it appears positively petite in the close-up below from Outbreak. While this look flatters many actors, others benefit from the rounding of their features caused by a shorter lens.

Perhaps the chief reason to be cautious of long lenses is that they necessitate placing the camera further from the action, and the viewer will sense this, if only on a subconscious level. A long lens, if misused, can rob a scene of intimacy, and if overused could even cause the viewer to disengage with the characters and story.

I’ll leave you with some examples of long-lens shots from the nineties classics I mentioned at the start of this post. Make no mistake, these films employed shorter lenses too, but it certainly looks to me like they used longer lenses on average than contemporary movies.

 

Outbreak

DP: Michael Ballhaus, ASC

 

Twister

DP: Jack N. Green, ASC

 

Daylight

DP: David Eggby, ACS

 

Dante’s Peak

DP: Andrzej Bartkowiak, ASC

 

Backdraft

DP: Mikael Salomon, ASC

For more on this topic, see my article about “The Normal Lens”.

The Long Lenses of the 90s

Lighting I Like: “12 Monkeys”

The latest episode of Lighting I Like is out, analysing how the “Splinter Chamber” set is lit in time travel thriller 12 Monkeys. This adaptation of the Terry Gilliam movie can be seen on Netflix in the UK.

I found out lots about the lighting of this scene from this article on the American Society of Cinematographers website. It didn’t mention the source inside the time machine though, but my guess is that it’s a Panibeam 70, as used in the Cine Reflect Lighting System.

New episodes of Lighting I Like are released at 8pm BST every Wednesday. Next week I’ll look at two scenes from PreacherClick here to see the playlist of all Lighting I Like episodes.

Lighting I Like: “12 Monkeys”

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

Five Simple But Effective Camera Tricks

Today I’m running down the five simplest yet most effective camera tricks I’ve used in my films. These are all techniques that have been used on the biggest Hollywood productions as well.

1. Looming Hollywood Sign (The Beacon)

Building Moon's forced perspective corridor
Building Moon’s forced perspective corridor

In amongst all the terrible CGI, The Beacon did feature the odd moment of low-tech triumph. As a damaged helicopter dives towards the Hollywood hills, the famous sign is reflected in the sunglasses of the injured pilot, played by my friend and fellow filmmaker Rick Goldsmith. The letters were actually 2″ high cardboard cut-outs stuck to a black piece of card, and Rick himself is holding it at arm’s length and moving it slowly towards his face.

This is a type of forced perspective shot, which I covered in my previous post. Die Hard 2’s airport control tower set was surrounded by a forced perspective miniature of the runways, complete with model planes, and more recently Duncan Jones and his team used the technique to create an endless corridor of clone drawers in Moon.

Colin Smith readies the watering can for Jonny Lewis's close-up, while Chris Mayall steadies the ladder.
Colin Smith readies the watering can for Jonny Lewis’s close-up, while Chris Mayall steadies the ladder. Photo: Simon Ball

2. Rain Fight Close-ups (Soul Searcher)

While most of this fight sequence was shot under the downpour created by an industrial hosepipe fired into the air, this wasn’t available when extra close-ups were required later. Instead a watering can was used.

It’s not uncommon for close-ups in a scene to be achieved much more simply than their corresponding wide shots. NASA allowed Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck to be filmed in their training tank for Michael Bay’s Armageddon, but CUs of the other actors had to be shot dry-for-wet with a fishtank in front of the lens and someone blowing bubbles through it.

3. The Wooden Swordsman Catches His Sword (The Dark Side of the Earth)

Getting the puppet to genuinely catch his sword was likely to require a prohibitive number of takes. (We were shooting on 35mm short ends.) So instead we ran the action in reverse, ending with with the sword being pulled up out of the puppet’s hand. When the film is run backwards, he appears to be catching it.

Backwards shots have been used throughout the history of cinema for all kinds of reasons. Examples can be seen in the Face Hugger sequence in Aliens (the creature’s leaps are actually falls in reverse) and in John Carpenter’s The Thing (tentacles grabbing their victims). At the climax of Back to the Future Part III, the insurers refused to allow Michael J. Fox to sit in the DeLorean while it was pushed by the train, in case it crushed him, so instead the train pulled the car backwards and the film was reversed.

4. Distortion of Tape and Time (Stop/Eject)

A classic Who extermination
A classic Who extermination

At a crucial point in this fantasy-drama about a tape recorder that can stop and rewind time, I needed to show the tape getting worn out and images of the past distorting. I combined two techniques to create a distorted image of Dan (Oliver Park) without any manipulation in post. One was lens whacking, whereby the lens is detached from the camera and held in front of it, moving it around slightly to distort the focal plane. (See this episode of Indy Mogul and this article by Philip Bloom for more on lens whacking.) The other was to shake the camera (and lens) rapidly, to deliberately enhance the rolling shutter “jello” effect which DSLRs suffer from.

Flaws in camera technology can often lead to interesting effects if used appropriately. Let’s not forget that lens flares, which many filmmakers love the look of, are actually side-effects of the optics which lens manufacturers have worked for decades to try to reduce or eliminate. And in the early days of Doctor Who, the crew realised that greatly over-exposing their Marconi TV cameras caused the image to become a negative, and they put this effect to use on the victims of Dalek extermination.

Shooting The One That Got Away. A row of 100W bulbs can be seen on the right.
Shooting The One That Got Away. A row of 100W bulbs can be seen on the right.

5. Sunset (The One That Got Away)

A painted sunset would have been in keeping with the style of this puppet fairy tale, but it was quicker and more effective to peek an ordinary 100W tungsten bulb above the background waves. Click here for a complete breakdown of the lighting in The One That Got Away.

Using an artificial light to represent the sun is extremely common in cinematography, but showing that lamp in shot is less common. For another example, see the opening Arctic sequence of Captain America: The First Avenger, in which a large HMI stands in for a low sun at the back of the mist-shrouded set.

Click here for my rundown of the top five low-tech effects in Hollywood blockbusters.

Five Simple But Effective Camera Tricks

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