“It’s not 1985 anymore…it’s 1986, and Chuck Steel is ‘the best God damn cop on the force’ according to his long suffering boss, Captain Jack Schitt. But even this maverick, renegade, loose cannon, lone wolf, cop on the edge, who doesn’t play by the rules has his work cut out when the Governor of LA decides to reduce the licensing hours for clubs and bars triggering a sudden, inexplicable spate of high profile disappearances in the city.”
Creating a look
A few years ago I shot a film called ‘Chuck Steel: Night at the Trampires’. It is an independent and fairly low budget film that harks back to the practical effects of the action and horror movies of the eighties. It was a really interesting project to DoP as it allowed for the development of a distinctive cinematography style. This involved maintaining the feel of a live action movie while taking the same approach to filmmaking as those earlier filmmakers through the use of practical and in camera effects. While many of the effects involve light effects or animation effects such as melting puppets, more traditional stop motion effects were also used in the camerawork.
A traditional technique
In one shot Chuck Steel is running along a hospital corridor. As he runs he turns corners, travels through a doorway, jumps over obstacles and punches random background characters as he goes. The camera keeps just ahead of him. A move of this type would usually require an elaborate motion control rig, but shooting Trampires was a constant balance between aiming much higher than the budget we had, while also working within our means. We didn’t have the budget, or the kit, that this move would require, but we also didn’t want to compromise the shot. We decided to use a very traditional stop motion technique and to have the move animated
I had used this technique to create moves before. It can be used to create whip pans or to allow for small pans or tilts on shots that are all in-camera. I had also helped set up some of the shots in Fantastic Mr. Fox that were shot by attaching the camera to a piece of wood and letting the camera chase after the beagles. For Trampires I was interested in using it to allow us to move freely around the set while also creating a live action look that could follow Chuck’s actions.
This technique fitted with my approach to the cinematography of the film as I liked to shoot everything from where it would be possible to shoot in a live action film, and therefore have the camera within the set as much as possible. For the animator, Gareth Love, it gave him a bit more ownership of the shot and allowed him to be more organic with his animation. For the film’s Director, Mike Mort, this technique fitted with the traditional way he had always loved to make films.
Planning it out
Although this technique allows flexibility in the camera move while shooting, it does require planning. The first thing I did was to work out the framing on Chuck. The camera is traveling with him so this would stay fairly consistent. A jack was used to allow us to adjust the height and a Manfrotto 410 junior head was used so that the tilt could be adjusted in small increments. The camera needed to be underslung so that we could get a low and dramatic angle on Chuck. Once the framing was agreed with Mike, it was secured with some wood creating a small wooden box. I worked out the travel distance according to an average character running speed. I marked this out with tape on the floor of the set.
When this was done I shot a couple of push-throughs with the puppet, where I moved him at the expected speed but without worrying about posing or actions. I could use these to check the speed, but also to allow set dressing to add just enough extra set to fill any gaps while still giving us animator access. The small dimensions of the camera setup meant that it was able to go through the doorway which was a big help. It also meant the camera could be enclosed within the set so that for a small area where we couldn’t hide the gap, we were able to remove a wall for access and then replace it, using registration points, while shooting. I was able to work out certain parameters for the shot, such as how far we could tilt, and the last possible moment we could turn, so that we didn’t see anything by accident.
One take wonder
Normally a stop motion camera move will need to be repeatable so that we can shoot plates for rig removal or for any walls that are shot separately. Choosing this method meant we also had to work out how to shoot everything in one take. For Gareth this meant he was going to have to hide his rigs while shooting.
It also meant we had to shoot with the ceiling in. In stop motion ceilings are quite often removed for lighting, shot as a plate, and comped back in. The enclosed set meant that most of the light had to come from within the set.
The hospital was to have overhead panel lights and these needed to do most of the lighting while also looking good in frame. There were holes cut in the ceiling and panel lights that Alan Barr, the chief lighting technician, found. I covered the gaps with diffusion gel and then tilted the panels slightly so that the light was always slightly behind Chuck. I did shoot an extra exposure in case the lights got caught at a certain angle, and burnt out, but I don’t think this was needed in the end.
Everything comes together
Once everything was set up it was over to Gareth who could then work out his increments and rehearse his animation. He could then move the camera frame by frame along the line of tape, knowing that he could adapt it as required throughout his shot. Choreographing a shot with so much action requires a lot of going back and forwards. By having the basic parameters of the shot, and then letting Gareth work freely within that, we were able to get a much more elaborate move than might otherwise have been possible. The end result is a carefully constructed camera move, designed to look like a steadycam shot, but filmed by using a small wooden box and some tape.