The Advanced Art of Stop-Motion Animation: An Interview with Pete Kozachik, ASC
KEN: Is there any particular shot you’ve worked on that stands out, in terms of capturing the magic of stop-motion with brilliant effects work?
PETE: There is a sequence with the Corpse Bride, starting with her coming out of the ground, all the way to when she and Victor are on the bridge surrounded by a flock of crows. There are a lot of shots in that sequence with complex composites (comps) in them, and some of the most painstaking animation ever done, in particular on her clothing. There were a couple of shots where we had to throw in the towel and use computer animation on her veil. It was still supposed to look like stop-motion, and luckily the animators pulled it off. Some of the shots don’t even look like they needed post work to begin with, but in some instances we had to add extra background just because we couldn’t practically fit it into the stage. Overall I love everything about that sequence, and when I signed on to the movie, that scene was the one I was thinking about. I was envisioning an image that might have been in old horror comics, part spooky, part sexy, pretty much everything that parents didn’t want us to spend our allowance on.
KEN: What were the challenges you faced using digital SLR cameras for the first time on Corpse Bride?
PETE: I think the biggest challenge was taking this new technology that wasn’t really designed for that purpose, and very quickly adapting it to professional work. We had challenges with everything, even including stringing the images together and looking at them.
There are all kinds of agreed-on standards to the century-old film technology, including how sensitive it is, in terms of its ISO rating. We got into a pickle early on in Corpse Bride, shooting test images with these cameras. When we viewed the images on stage in Photoshop, it would show us a better image than what we were capturing. So unbeknownst to us for several shots in the movie, we were drastically underexposing them and had to ask the visual effects crew to tweak them into usable shots. To establish a safe standard, we had to pretend we were shooting on relatively slow film and not plan on enhancing it in post. This made it feel like we were going backwards, but ultimately it made life a whole lot sweeter in the color grade, since the shots did cut together without much tweaking.
Another problem was dust falling on the unprotected image sensor, which wouldn’t be there when we started, but each time the mirror flipped, chances were that some dust mote would get in there to drift down on the sensor.
So there were minor issues like that, but on the other hand, the SLRs allowed for things that were unheard of back when we used those 30-pound Mitchell cameras. With those, you really had to consider how much the camera weighed, how you were going to support it, and how the animator would get their head around it. Suddenly, when the cameras were tiny, we were more on par with what live-action could do. If live-action film had to mimic how stop-motion used to be shot, the camera would be the size of a Volkswagen.
KEN: So what kinds of things should a stop-motion filmmaker shooting with their own SLR camera keep in mind, or watch out for?
PETE: There are a few things which now seem rather obvious. First of all, turn off everything that is automatic: iris, exposure, focus, ISO, white balance, everything, and dumb the camera down to the point where you are manually in control. But much more important than the technical stuff, is that people seem to be losing time waiting for the ultimate perfect camera to show up, and it hasn’t happened yet. The closest thing right now is probably the Canon 5D, which will be valuable for a few years until something better comes along. There is a lot of hot air wasted on the minutia of how much better photography can get, or how much more resolution you need. As filmmakers, we should help the audience focus on the story, the drama, and the characters. That’s what they buy tickets for. If you’re only sitting there admiring the image sharpness, then somebody didn’t do their job. So my most heartfelt advice is simply to get off the Internet and start shooting with what you’ve got.