Brad Blackbourn of DreamWorks Animation and Frank Passingham of Aardman Features describe how they met the challenges of layout/cinematography in marrying their two worlds on Flushed Away.
Flushed Away brought together the dream team of virtual dps, Brad Blackbourn and Frank Passingham, to meld the worlds of CG and stop motion cinematography. All images © 2006 DreamWorks Animation Llc. and Aardman Animations Ltd. Flushed Away DreamWorks Animation Llc.
When it came to melding the worlds of CG and stop motion cinematography for Flushed Away, DreamWorks Animation assembled the dream team of virtual dps Brad Blackbourn and Frank Passingham. From the very first cinematography pitch to Jeffrey Katzenberg and Peter Lord, they insisted that it would be different from other animated features. It would combine Aardmans hand crafted look and style with DreamWorks bright and shiny 3D wizardry to forge a new hybrid.
In the Beginning
Brad Blackbourn: Initially, a few months after I started on Flushed Away, once I had the layout pipeline up and running and we were exploring the first sequence in layout, you came over from Bristol for a few months to help us incorporate Aardman filmmaking techniques and signature look. From the beginning, the two of us had a fantastic time bouncing ideas off each other and talking about film influences we had eerily similar tastes. In fact, the layout artists began calling us the Franks or the Brads because we finished each others sentences when talking about creative ideas. I also recall many discussions at this point about our shared desire to have a better approach to cinematography in CG-animated features. So later on, when the chance came up to get you back from Aardman for the remainder of the film, I was thrilled and we had a brilliant time over the next year or so.
Frank Passingham: Coming to work at DreamWorks Animation was somewhat daunting at first because of my lack of experience in CGI. Apart from lighting a Polo commercial several years ago in CG, my experience has been limited to stop frame. The biggest difference in working practice is how the lighting and camera are two completely separate departments in the CG pipeline. I guess this was the hardest thing to get used to. On the camera side, there was a certain liberation in being able to set up motion control shots that would have been very difficult to do in the stop frame studio.
The Goal of the Virtual Cinematography
BB: From the very beginning, we wanted the cinematography of Flushed Away to be different from other animated films; it would have an Aardman style film with influences from live-action staging and camera movement. So in the initial cinematography pitch to Jeffrey and Pete (in addition to the influences of Wallace & Gromit and Chicken Run), I pitched some dynamic dialog staging and deep space staging/shooting techniques commonly used by Robert Zemeckis and Gore Verbinski. In fact, we were lucky enough to have Gore come in and discuss a few of these ideas over lunch one day! Both Jeffrey and Pete were very enthusiastic about these ideas and we incorporated them throughout the film. There are great examples in sequences like Roddy & Rita Below Deck or Meeting the Toad.
FP: One key way we incorporated the Aardman feel was by using the prime lenses most commonly used in the stop-motion studio the 35mm prime lens is the most widely used lens followed by the 24mm lens. Probably 50% of Flushed Away was shot with these two lenses. Also, getting camera moves to conform to those produced with the studio-based tracking and motion control systems. This was to give all the shots a sense of gravity. We wanted to avoid the kind of flying shot that can often look too complex and weightless. It wasnt a restriction in any way, but helped to keep the look of an Aardman feature, especially when combining these camera techniques with the plasticine textures given to the characters: the Aardman style of animation using mouth replacement and other animation techniques in common with stop frame.
The Cinematography Process
BB: The set designs for Flushed Away were stunning and we wanted to make sure we maximized the shooting possibilities for the film, so we tried to get everyone thinking about shooting our CG puppets on the actual CG sets as early as possible in the pre-production process. As a result, on many of the key sequences, we had on-set scouting sessions with production designer David James and the story artists. It helped flesh out story possibilities by going into the rough sets and scouting staging ideas by looking through a shot camera with our set of prime lenses at the layout puppets in various poses and locations within the evolving sets. It also gave us a chance to change things about the set that would enable better story or shooting opportunities. These scouting sessions became a key part of both visual & story development.
FP: It was also a great chance for the layout artists to pitch ideas and many of the great shots in the film came from ideas that the layout team came up with. This was especially true in sequences like Roddys Trip Down the Sewer Pipes and The Boat Chase. For both of those sequences there was no actual set when we started layout. Instead, we began with a library of the predefined pipe and tunnel segments, so that as the layout artists created a sequence (incorporating the story beats and adding other business) they also built the rough set around the action.
BB: Once the directors decided that a sequence was working from a story perspective, it moved from story animatic into Rough Layout (RLO) and production began. First, we would do a quick pass of the complete sequence in a couple of days, pretty rough blocking, where (now that the sequence was working from a story perspective) we tried to get the whole thing working from a cinematic perspective. At this stage, we would combine some shots, would restage some of the action and consolidate similar shots into same as shots. Another thing we did from the get-go to increase the cinematic value of the layout was introduce rough key/mood lighting into the openGL playblasts. Ever since I directed a CG series in Europe, Ive been doing this and it was a process I then introduced to DreamWorks on Father of the Pride. Id work closely with the art director to roughly key light a set in openGL most times wed have a magic hour and night-time light rig for exteriors (that we could toggle on or off in the layout) and just a night-time light rig for interiors. It really helped the directors and producers connect better to the final feel of the sequences at the layout stage. That way they could be convinced that the sequence really worked before it was sent off to animation on the CG TV series schedules theres no time for redos!
On Flushed Away, it was the first time lighting was used so extensively in layout on a feature at DreamWorks. We didnt bother with it on full daylight sequences, but with so much of our film taking place below ground and with each location and set having a very specific ambience, mood and feel, we thought it contributed immensely to the kinds of decisions that the directors could make about the effective emotional and cinematic value of a given sequence at this point of production. Again, we worked closely with David James to incorporate his color keys of each set into the rough hardware lighting in the layout movies. What we focused on essentially were the key directional light sources, mood, color temperature and areas of light & dark basically the dramatic elements of the lighting that can help drive the story, not the finer details or qualities that would be explored later). It really helped to define the mood and feel and it helped us explore the camera and staging opportunities in scenes like Meeting the Toad and The Ice Room. It was very effective and its now been adopted into the layout process on the other films at DreamWorks. It means you can finally produce a true cinematic blueprint for the film that everyone is happy with before going into full-on production and opening the money faucet!
FP: I know previously this process was thought to be unnecessary at RLO stage of the features, with concerns that it only added to render times and might hold up the pipeline, but that didnt happen at all. The practice was certainly more in keeping with the approach to shooting in the stop-motion studio where sets are lit just as soon as they arrive on the studio floor, then following as soon as possible, block-throughs with the characters involved in that particular sequence are done. These initial block-throughs enable stop motion directors to see how their characters are interacting with the set and each other and also how they are modeled by the light as they move about in this environment. Once this block-through has been committed to film, it gives the director a very good idea what the feel of that scene is going to be and the degree of drama that can be expected once the scene is fully animated. Lighting the RLO proved to be very helpful to the directors on Flushed Away for these same reasons. On occasions when shots were delivered in RLO without lighting the directors found they really missed it as it gave them such a good idea about how that scene would ultimately communicate.
BB: Similar to the rough posing in those block-throughs, another idea I carried over from my directing experience in CG was much greater use of key posing of characters/puppets in layout. In the past, CG layout has traditionally consisted of gray character models with arms outstretched drifting around gray sets. That limits tremendously the filmmaking decisions that can be made from the layout footage. I made sure when I set up the layout pipeline for Flushed Away that the RLO characters were well and consistently rigged so that we could very efficiently pose them and then save, retrieve and transfer body and hand poses via a pose library. That made it very fast to block out a sequence and explore alternative actions, staging, camerawork, and when you combined the keyed characters with the fully shaded sets and rough lighting, it produced a very informative result. As you said, when we pitched the layout version of the sequence back to the directors & producers it made a big difference.
The final basic cinematic element we were missing in the layout was depth of field, so during the production I developed a depth of field (DOF) preview tool inside Maya so layout artists could visualize the DOF through the camera according to the current lens, focal distance & aperture of course as these values changed the DOF altered accordingly. It was great to finally see rack-focuses in camera! We could output a QuickTime playblast of the shot with the DOF preview or alternatively do a local Maya render of the shot with rendered DOF (incredibly fast with low-res characters, sets, simple lights and no anti-aliasing), which was then converted back to QuickTime. The results were wonderful; it looked filmic straight away and you could immediately see what elements would be isolated in the shot by the DOF background details suddenly dropped away & the characters popped. All in the layout! Again, it was very useful in a creative sense but also allowed us to see (before animation began) how much background information would be seen; how detailed the background animation would need to be in crowd shots, what cheats could we get away with to speed up lighting & rendering, etc.
FP: Another useful tool that proved very helpful to the directors on Flushed Away was the introduction of a process where the animated RLO characters were installed in the Final Layout (FLO) scenes. At this point, before beginning animation, the directors could view the final sets with finessed camera moves and have a much better idea how their characters would roughly look, rather than looking at final sets with final character models installed in a static pose. This certainly sped up the approval process for final camera.
Final Results and Looking Ahead
BB: It was really exciting when we finally started working with the lighting/rendering team on fine-tuning DOF. The camerawork had been tweaked during animation to accommodate and accentuate some of the acting. So seeing for the first time the beautiful lighting subtleties that they bring to the film, combined with the wonderful animation everything came to life. We had a really creative bunch of filmmakers on the camerawork in RLO and everyone contributed a lot of original ideas that ended up in the film. So kudos to: Matt Lee, Robert Crawford, Pam Stefan, David Hofmann, Lorenzo Martinez, Mick de Falco, Nathan Warner, James Keefer and Damon OBeirne thanks for your creative ideas and support when the pressure was on!
FP: It was a great pleasure for me to work closely with both the RLO and FLO artists on Flushed Away, who were all very talented and experienced virtual camera operators. We always tried to nail our camera moves down as much as possible before animation began, but there were times when either because of changes in the staging of the animation or new ideas being introduced that it was necessary to go back and finalize the camera once animation was completed. This is something impossible to do in stop frame. There are certainly advantages to being able to do this, but there is also a disadvantage purely in the knowledge that you have this facility and you can keep changing the shot up until late stages in the process. I prefer to have shots locked down earlier rather than later, but when we did need to change or tweak cameras later it was great to have such a talented FLO team led by JC Alvarez. Id like to thank all the team for their great work: James Bird, Stuart Campbell, Alan Cheney, James Keefer, Valerie Lettera-Spletzer and Hez McMurray.
BB: Looking back, prior to Flushed Away, I think both you and I have been frustrated with the way, in the traditional CG pipeline, that the key elements of cinematography have been fragmented over different departments that may be months apart on the schedule. It means that as a director or cinematographer you cant maximize the use of the visual elements in your storytelling. In the past you were composing scenes in camera without being able to see the basic color composition or even the areas/degrees of light & dark through your camera let alone see the effect of the depth of field!
All of the effort we both put into the different areas of lighting, shading, character posing, camera movement and depth of field in layout were with the goal of re-uniting the various elements of cinematography to strengthen the visual narrative. I know it was something we both strongly believed in, and for me it was great to have such a fantastic partner in you, your experience in stop motion cinematography at Aardman, to help push things in this direction. It really was a great partnership both creatively and technically.
I think we significantly advanced the concept of CG cinematography on Flushed Away and weve still got a ways to go. Looking ahead, Im very excited about continuing to improve and enhance the process further. Im also looking forward to working together with you again, Frank!
Brad Blackbourn is a director and CG cinematography consultant based in Los Angeles and was recently head of layout/previs at DreamWorks Animation SKG, where he has worked on Flushed Away, Kung Fu Panda, Shark Tale and Father of the Pride. He has more than 15 years experience in CG production consisting of directing, supervising (animation and previs/cinematography) and outsource consulting for film/TV in the U.S., U.K., Germany, Italy, South-East Asia and Australia.
Frank Passingham has worked extensively at Aardman, where hes played key roles as cinematographer or camera operator on Chicken Run, Wallace & Gromit in a Close Shave and Rex the Runt. Hes also been behind the camera for other stop motion projects such as The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb and Hamilton Mattress.