Making More Out of Stop Motion on the Giant Screen

by Mark Osborne

Download a Quicktime of Mark Osborne's More. 618 K. ©Bad Clams Productions.

All images © Bad Clams Productions.

When I embarked on my new film More, I approached it from a very basic and unassuming angle: I wanted to tell a story. What ultimately made this film a different type of journey to embark upon, was that we were breaking ground by telling a stop motion story on the Giant Screen, 70mm/15perf, or IMAX format as it commonly known, for the first time.

My original plan for More was to shoot it as a 35mm follow up to my first short Greener. I had faculty access to equipment and space at CalArts, and private funding lined up from a longtime family friend Steve Kalafer, but then some amazing luck came my way. I received a call from some old CalArts chums Debra Callabresi and Kelly Moren. They called on behalf of their involvement with the Large Format Cinema Association's (LFCA) animation and experimental film task force to see if I was interested in the Giant Screen. They wanted to blow up some stop motion to the 70mm/15perf format. After telling them of my plans to shoot More over the summer on 35mm they decided to approach Christopher Reyna, president of the LFCA and general manager of IMAGICA USA, a large format post-production company. He valued the project and called in enough favors and donated services from LFCA members to allow us to shoot on the Giant Screen format. What a truly amazing opportunity.

Mark Osborne.

Going to 70mm
When everything was lining up and it was becoming a reality to shoot in this enormous medium, I had to take a step back and decide if my film idea was fitting to the format. I looked at my storyboard and animatic to decide if my concept was appropriate. Would my style of filmmaking work on this enormous screen? Would I just be converting my 35mm film idea? I found I was actually able to expand and elaborate on my original themes and tailor fit my subject comfortably to this gigantic 70-foot screen. I was intrigued and excited at the idea of taking a ten-inch puppet made out of clay, wire and latex and bringing it to life on a screen six and a half stories tall. I also realized that the type of immersion offered by the Giant Screen would help lend to the emotional involvement needed to pull off my highly dramatic and involving story. Much to my surprise, stop motion in all of its organic and handmade beauty was truly breathtaking and amazing on this scale. Many people consider stop motion a dying art form, so what better way to keep it alive then to bring it into this new format, and celebrate its uniqueness by immersing the audience in all of its beauty like never before.

With the Herculean task before us the days got much longer and the crew doubled overnight. Line Producer Shannon Lowry organized Production Designer Rick Orner and the model department/assistant animators David J. Candelaria and Nick Peterson. Keith Lowry, a.k.a. the Camera Department, and I scrambled to get all the donated equipment coordinated so that we could begin shooting ASAP. The Pioneer x-15 camera (donated by Graphic Films) and CalArts' motion control rig (donated by alumnus Thomas Barron of Image G) were unfortunately incompatible. It took a lot of chewing gum, paper clips and spit to get all of it working together. Special lenses converted from large format still photography Hasablad lenses were needed to shoot our models. We lucked out and got a 50mm lens, which is roughly similar to an 18mm lens in 35mm film shooting, that could focus 12 and 1/2 inches from the film plane (three inches away from the end of the lens). This was perfect because the camera needed to get inside the rooms and locations or the audience would never feel any depth from the miniatures. As much as possible we used the 50mm lens and close proximity to make the viewer feel as though they were inside this world.

Keith Lowry, head of the Camera Department, on the CalArts More production set.

Once I began to shoot I needed to consider the different way larger format films composed their images. In a Giant Screen theater when one looks straight ahead one is looking at the lower center of the screen. This area of the screen that the viewer is able to focus on without turning the head is about 20% of the whole screen and is called the "sweet spot." This is the area most easily viewed by the entire theater. Compositions tend to have a lot of headroom on character shots and landscapes have a lot of sky and filler for the top 25% of the screen. Extreme close-ups that fill the entire screen are a problem, because one really can't focus on the whole screen at once. I challenged this by using some really dramatic close-ups to envelop the viewer and force them deeper into this miniature world.

Since we needed the film to exist in 35mm for festival and traditional viewing, we decided early on to create a 35mm version in post-production from the large format camera negative. This being the case, as I set up all of my shots while filming, I had the task of thinking in two formats simultaneously. This didn't prove to be too difficult but needed constant monitoring to ensure that all of the pieces would work.

Special Obstacles
There were a number of concerns early on to make the sets and puppets as clean and minutely detailed as possible, so they would hold up on the Giant Screen. We poured tons of tiny detail into the sets before finding out that we didn't have to be as perfect as we had first assumed. The level of perceivable detail is so great in this format one can see every texture and speck. When we started seeing footage projected we noticed that the near macro photography of the models and sets brought the textures out and abstracted them somewhat. Fingerprints in the clay became alien skin textures that were so organic they looked amazingly detailed. The fudge factor, my best friend on set in the past, was still at my side and helping out greatly.

Director/animator Mark Osborne works in front of the 70mm camera system mounted on the motion control rig for More.

One considerable hurdle for the duration of the intense 15-week shoot was the fact that since we were dealing with donated services, sometimes we couldn't get everything done as quickly as needed. It usually took five to seven days to see our footage once it was turned into the lab. Film scanning of 65mm camera negative for output to 3/4" videotape usually costs US $5 a frame and since we were getting it free, we didn't complain too much. It was very stressful though to shootout entire sets and move on before seeing any footage back. Elaborate set-ups would be torn down minutes after a shot was completed because there was no point in waiting for dailies. We were on such a strict time constraint that we had to pull off up to three shots a day to stay on schedule.

I think probably the craziest aspect of shooting this way was that we didn't have the luxury of through-the-lens viewing. The camera on loan to us was specially designed for single frame shooting of miniature sets, but not stop motion animation. The usual viewing system was sacrificed to make the camera smaller. In order to look through the lens to set up or check a shot, we had to dismantle the magazine from the camera, take out the ground glass, install a prism and mirror, and look through the top of the camera or a video tap to see what we were shooting. This was very time consuming and frustrating because when shooting stop motion, one needs to check the positions of the characters and set, and the movement of the camera, directly through the lens. It was like shooting blind with a brief peek at the beginning and end of a shot -- we could never view in the middle. This was the most demanding obstacle and the main cause for most of the re-shoots needed.

Another obstacle we had to watch out for in this format was strobing. This phenomenon occurs when prominent verticals move across the screen; they skip and appear to strobe. Since this is a problem in live-action Large Format films, I knew that I had to keep the animation very controlled and smooth, more so than ever before. I relied heavily on the Video Lunchbox frame grabber. With it, I was able to monitor every frame very carefully. Our intense schedule originally had no time for re-shoots so everything had to be right the first time. We eventually found room in the schedule to re-shoot some disastrous shots that were heartbreaking to see a week after the set was taken down.

The Final, If Rushed, Touches
In the end, we got down to the wire and managed to get everything in the can, minus a bunch of minor re-shoots I wish we had gotten. We had already shot into the school year by two weeks and I begged my students not to kick me out of the studio. After inspiring me to make the film, they were all down for the cause and very understanding. The last six weeks of shooting were intense and around the clock, finishing with a 30-hour marathon of animation and clearing out the stage.

After an even more grueling post-production process which included digital composites and fixing sixty seconds of footage, the film was nearing completion. We test screened the film continuously in a small preview theater as we checked sound sync, effect shots, cel animation insert shots and color timing. We finished the print an hour before the premiere event. It wasn't until that first screening that everyone involved saw the film projected at its intended scale in the IMAX Theater. It was unbelievable to see my story transformed to the huge screen after nine months of intense concentration and focused work on tiny miniatures. It was the ultimate thrill; I don't know how I will ever be able to lower myself to slum it on any other format again.

Mark Osborne has been directing and animating for nine years after discovering mixed-media stop motion filmmaking as a student at CalArts. Now he teaches there while he tries to stay independent without workin' for the man

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