Director of Photography / Lighting Camera
Laura Howie is a Director of Photography and Lighting Camerawoman with over a decade of experience as a professional cinematographer and almost 2 decades of experience within the camera department. She has worked as a Director of Photography on ‘Chuck Steel Night of the Trampires’, ‘Shaun the Sheep: Adventures from Mossy Bottom’, commercials, promos and short films and has worked as lighting camera on ‘Chicken Run 2: Dawn of the Nugget’, ‘Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio’, ‘Shaun the Sheep Movie’, Shaun the Sheep sequel ‘Farmageddon’ and ‘The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists’.
Who are you and what do you do?
I’m Laura and I’m a stop motion cinematographer. I have worked in the camera department for over twenty years and have been a cinematographer since 2010. I mainly work on stop motion features and my role is director of photography or lighting camera. I am currently working on my sixth stop motion feature in a lighting role. There aren’t many stop motion features made, and they can take a few years each to shoot, so this has added up pretty quickly. I am currently working as senior lighting camera on ‘Chicken Run 2: Dawn of the Nugget’. Before that I was a lighting camera operator on ‘Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio’ which is now on Netflix. I was also Director of Photography on ‘Chuck Steel: Night of the Trampires’. I have worked on animated TV series, short films and commercials as well as working on a couple of features as a camera assistant when I was starting out.
Animated features are a pretty large scale operation. It can take a while for each shot to be animated and this means the film needs to be shot over a large number of units. Most features will have between 30 and 50 units. Each unit will have its own camera setup. The large number of setups means that you need a large camera crew. The camera crew will often work in teams, with each team having a lighting camera operator as well as a camera assistant and an electrician / spark. Each team will work on a number of sequences from the film. The director of photography, who also usually has their own team, will then oversee the work of all the teams and make sure there is one clear cinematic vision for the film.
How did you get started in stop motion cinematography?
I always had a strong interest in both stop motion and camerawork. I did a lot of photography growing up and there were always cameras around as my dad was a keen photographer. I knew from a pretty young age that I wanted to be involved in filmmaking so I studied film and photography at university. I did work on some stop frame projects while I was there but at that point I don’t think I realized that it would be possible to have a career in stop motion cinematography. There was a lot of exposure for animation at the time with programmes such as four-mations. I loved all the Aardman shorts and ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ is still a favourite. I enjoyed animation but, career wise, I saw myself working in the camera department. A couple of years after I finished university I saw an advert for a camera trainee position at Aardman. This position turned out to be on ‘Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were-rabbit’. I completed the trainee programme and was soon working as a camera assistant on my first stop motion feature. This was such an amazing experience and I remember being so excited each morning when I walked into the studio. I was also very lucky to be starting while animation was still shot on film. As soon as I started working at Aardman I knew it was something I wanted to do longer term.
What are your influences?
I grew up around cameras through my dad’s love of photography, so that was obviously a big influence. As a teenager I used to go to the cinema once a week with my mum. It was during this period that I would have watched films such as ‘Delicatessen’ and ‘Barton Fink’ and I think those were some of the first films that made me really aware of cinematography. My favourite film has always been ‘Night of the Hunter’ which I find just magical. My biggest influences have been the people I have worked with. I was fortunate to work on some very well made films and to learn my craft from some of the best stop motion cinematographers in the industry. I worked with Dave Alex Riddett and Tristan Oliver on ‘Curse of the Were-rabbit’ and then Tristan let me light tests and a couple of shots on ‘Fantastic Mr Fox’. Frank Passingham gave me my first lighting position on ‘Pirates! in an Adventure with Scientists’.
What is your approach to lighting?
My main approach to lighting is that I like to start from a cinematography approach rather than a stop motion approach. The beauty of stop motion is that it exists in a real physical world and light reacts to the surfaces of this world in the same way it does to the world we live in. I like to base my cinematography around what is best for telling the story and what I feel is the best way to convey the emotions of the sequence. This means allowing it to be as bright or as dark as is needed. The story should always be the most important thing and a lot of the drama and the story is often in the shadows. I think what you hide can be as important as what you reveal. I use the same approach for lensing and composition. I like to position the camera within the set as much as possible. I like to be in the set with the characters. Not so close that it’s in the way, I will always be considering animator access when placing the camera, but I like the audience to be within the characters world. I do like when stop motion looks like stop motion, so I like seeing the occasional bits of set shift, but I also think that one of the nicest things about stop motion is that it exists in real physical space.
Over the years there are certain cinematic styles that I have developed but for me the most important thing is translating the director’s vision and making sure that it appears in the film. I want to take the image the director has in their head and present that on the screen. Interpretation is a big part of the job. You want the director to have everything they imagined but you also want to enhance that with your lighting. A common motif of my work is to have shafts of light hitting the characters, such as through wooden slatted walls or in attic spaces. I like this light to fall naturalistically, to catch the characters where the light would naturally fall. I do the same with window shots. The light comes through and will maybe create hotter spots on hands or desks, the character will interact with that light but not be directly lit by it. I lit two very different shots on two different films with this same lighting. It is important to see the action and the characters’ expressions but you don’t want it to look like a studio setup. Unless that’s the desired look of course. The cinematography always has to fit with the stylistic aims of the project and to work within the time and budget. As a director of photography you are working on a style for the whole film and you are making sure that the director’s vision can be seen throughout. As lighting camera you are working with both the director and the director of photography to make sure your scenes portray the emotion of the story and fit stylistically within the whole film, while retaining the cinematic visions of both the director and the director of photography.
What are the unique aspects of cinematography for stop motion?
If you’re working on features, it’s a large scale project and you can’t have the whole crew waiting around while an animator carefully creates their beautiful performances, so we have multiple units. This means that as soon as you have finished setting up a shot you are straight onto the next unit and setting up another shot that could be from a completely different sequence. Suddenly you’re thinking about a whole different part of the film and a whole different set of lights. You could be matching to something you shot more than a year ago. You will often be working on 15 to 20 units at a time and it is important to get your priorities right and to balance the needs of each unit without compromising the look of the film. Sometimes you will be getting your spark to set up lights in 2 or 3 units while instructing a camera assistant and moco operator in other units and simultaneously setting your lights in another few units. You’re never really switching off so you have to be thinking about all those shots and sequences continuously. You might be lighting four or five completely different shots from completely different sequences in the same half hour. And it’s a marathon not a sprint because you are going to have to keep that up for possibly 2 years or more.
Another aspect that is very specific to animation is that we are working at scale. A lot of people think everything is just smaller in animation but, while we do use some of the smaller lights that are available, we are still working with cameras and lights that are often much larger than the character they are lighting. We are also often working with differently scaled puppets. We are shooting a lot of the characters at minimum focus but trying to create a depth of field that makes them look a part of our world instead of being models. We do have certain bits of kit that we keep returning to because they are so useful for animation. Altman ellipses are a great light for animation because you can fit them within a set but you can also use the blades to shape the light down to small areas. I also use dragoneye lights which I find very useful for interiors. They are small enough to hide in the set and light enough to rig with ali wire.When you are working in stop motion you have to create a whole world from scratch, there is no natural light, but this does mean that when you add those lights, you have complete control of them.
We are also usually lighting characters that have human emotions but either have exaggerated characteristics or are anthropomorphic. We often have to light characters in a certain way to avoid eyeball shadows, which I don’t think comes up very often in live action. Stop motion is shot frame by frame and we can’t shoot any organic elements, such as rain or water, so these all have to be created. Rain on windows can be animated in separate passes. Sometimes a character will be pouring a cup of tea and the tea is made from cling film that has been covered in paint so you need to let that catch the light to give it translucence and fluidity when the animator animates it.
What are the biggest challenges or the hardest things to film?
Every project has its own unique set of challenges but problem solving is part of the job and it’s also one of the parts I enjoy most. I like working out complex shots with sweeping camera moves, moving lights and multiple exposures, but I also like working out how to light 14 units in a morning while juggling kit and still maintaining an ambitious cinematic vision. It always has to be about what’s right for the film and the time and budget.
If you are on a lower budget film that brings its own challenges. When I was working on ‘Trampires’ we needed to keep the camera constantly moving to create the look of an eighties action film. We didn’t have as much kit as I would have liked for a film that required so many camera moves, but sometimes this can lead to more interesting shots. There is a shot of Chuck Steel running through a hospital corridor. It needed to look like a steadicam shot but we didn’t have a rig that could move through the set in the way we wanted so we went old school and put the camera on a junior head and attached it to a piece of wood. It’s stop motion and everything still needs planning so I worked with the animator to find the parameters of the shot and to discuss the way I would like the camera to move. We worked out the bits of the set that could and couldn’t be seen. The animator was then able to animate the camera but also to improvise the move a little and match it to his characters actions as he animated. This meant it wasnt repeatable, and there couldn’t be any plates, so we had to keep the ceiling on the set and all the rigs had to be hidden. Keeping the ceiling on can make it much more complicated to light in animation due to the lack of space but I had decided from the start of the sequence that it was what was needed so everything was set up that way. It was a very basic old-school set up but we ended up with this very intricate move.
One of the first films that I was lighting on was ‘Pirates!’, which was in stereo. This brought its own challenges. The technique isn’t new but it was new to Aardman. I was lighting a very dark scene that also had action taking place. It was a fight scene so the action was fast. I had to work out the balance where it looked dark enough for the mood but with enough light to see the 3D. The speed of the action also meant there weren’t always enough frames in the shot for your brain to process the stereo and we had to work all of that out.
What are your biggest achievements?
I like to look at projects separately and see the achievements I’ve made on each of them. I like to learn new things and I like each project to bring something new to my career. I loved when I was able to start lighting test shots on Fantastic Mr Fox and then getting sequences on ‘Pirates!’. On ‘Trampires’ the animation was all sculpted through and on singles so we had to turn everything around really fast to give the animators the time they needed for this. Each project has its own challenges and in the end, if it looks good, and your lighting adds to the story, then you’ve achieved something. One of my biggest achievements in this industry though is that I’ve got to the position I’m in while being one of only a few women working in the industry at this level. I hope that by having done this I can inspire a few people.
What are your plans for the future?
I would like to keep lighting and I hope that I can keep finding interesting projects to do that on.
Features: Chicken run2: Dawn of the Nugget (lighting camera), Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio (lighting camera), Chuck steel: Night of the Trampires (director of photography), Shaun the Sheep: Farmageddon (lighting camera), Shaun the Sheep Movie (lighting camera), The Pirates! in an Adventure with Scientists (lighting camera) TV: Shaun the Sheep: Adventures from Mossy Bottom (director of photography)
Laura’s Director of Photography showreel