“I love the fact that you can use the cinematography to tell the tale. It’s always nice when you can also use it in concise ways. I call it Poetic lighting. As in poetry you can hone things down to just the keywords that give the most description. We were able to do a lot of that visually in this film.”
Dave Alex talks to stop motion cinematographer about poetic lighting and the unique opportunities that were available through the cinematography of Robin Robin.
‘Robin Robin’ is a magical, musical, Christmas fairytale from Aardman Animations. Directed by Dan Ojari and Mikey Please, and with Dave Alex Riddett BSC as Director of Photography, it tells the story of a little robin, voiced by Bronte Carmichael, and the family of mice she is adopted by. In a move away from Aardman’s usual plasticine, the characters are all needle felted. This gave Dave Alex a unique opportunity to explore new visual styles in a film that was not only Aardman’s first musical but also a world in which the textures are all soft and woolly. The light transforms the environments as the characters sing and dance their way through their many adventures.
Bringing Hope and Magic through Light
The light in Robin Robin is both a threat and a sign of hope. The shadows are places of safety but the morning light brings hope and magic. The artificial lights of the human houses are both alluring and dangerous. Fireworks illuminate the night sky as Robin watches on in wonder, oblivious to the chaos she has caused. Light chases Robin and her family across kitchen surfaces as the anonymous humans, with their thundering footsteps and exaggerated movements, push open doors, moments away from possible discovery. The humans appear as silhouettes and distant shadows, a constant threat but rarely seen.
“I love the fact that you can use the cinematography to tell the tale. It’s always nice when you can also use it in concise ways. I call it Poetic lighting. As in poetry you can hone things down to just the keywords that give the most description. We were able to do a lot of that visually in this film.”
“We didn’t want to show the ‘hoomans’ so we generally played them in silhouette. The threat of the humans is symbolised by light shining in to the shadows. The mice family are on the ‘sneak’ in the kitchen, it’s semi-dark , they can go and steal stuff, but there’s a light shining through from the room where the humans are. that light becomes a challenge in itself, it’s a threat to them. There’s a scene where the door opens up and the light is chasing them as they sneak across the tabletop. they have to disguise themselves as they go over lit areas. We used that motif a few times in the film, this ‘beware of the light’, the light became a character in itself.”
Confronting Fears Through Shadow and Motion
The more immediate threat to Robin and her family is the cat voiced by Gillian Anderson. Constantly on the prowl, and ready to pounce at any moment, she is a constant threat that takes delight in playing with her prey. She corners the characters and teases them, forcing them to confront their fears while telling them stories of greater threats to come. When she confronts Robin in her shed she twists and turns around her, creating shadows of monsters on the wall, while creating a glitter ball effect by spinning sharp tools on a wheel.
“In the cat’s shed, there’s the interplay of shadows on the wall, signifying a threat. It’s like those Indonesian shadow play puppets made out of found objects. The directors were also quite keen on having an orange light source in the shed, which is very blue and green with stark colours, very dusty looking, but they wanted this intense sort of orange to appear in there. I do try to motivate the light source, but sometimes you have to contrive it. Originally I was thinking maybe it’s a bottle on the wall with the moonlight shining through and that’s casting this orange light. In the end, we had a torch fall from a shelf . So there is a little motivation for it. There’s lots of glass and mirrors in the shed so you could put the light where you wanted to. I don’t think you always have to show the motivation for the light, but it does help in the initial lighting stage to have some logic to where you place the light sources”.
Using Colour and Texture to bring sparkle to the iridescent Magpie
Every frame of ‘Robin Robin’ is full of colour and texture. The human houses are full of decorations and Christmas lights. An oil slick in the shed reflects the purple and green colour scheme. The soft wool feathers absorb the light while the sets are peppered with shiny objects that bring contrast and iridescence. This contrast of textures is seen most clearly in the home of the magpie, voiced by Richard E. Grant, who encourages Robin to wish for more than just crumbs. The magpie lives within a tree trunk and looks out longingly at the shining wishing star “All twinkly and beautiful”, that sits atop the nearby human’s christmas tree. The soft tactile texture of his feathers sit in contrast to the shiny objects that fill his home. The treehouse is illuminated with purples and greens as light reflects off the Keys and buttons, bike reflectors, bottle tops and shiny spoons that surround him.
“I’m a big fan of magpies, beautiful looking birds, cheeky buggers.That iridescence you get in the feathers, that’s a lovely feature, and I thought what a pity we can’t really capture that in a wool character. But there was an opportunity to use that iridescence in his tree house. The directors wanted it to look a bit show bizzy at this point, it’s a musical number, he bursts into song, spreads his wings and you can see the wonder of his home, with all the hanging bits of metal and shiny objects and CDs swinging around. I thought, this is the moment to put the colour in there. So it was slightly dictated by this song interlude that I was able to get the iridescent purples and greens in a showbiz musical way.
Painting with Light
“I just love playing with colours. It’s said that cinematography is painting with light. Well, it was almost literally like that, especially as these characters absorb the light like a canvas. I enjoy mixing colours actually on the set. Quite often you have a set of gels and you can’t quite get the colour you’re looking for, so I use two colours together, sometimes three, to get the right tone. Certainly with the greeny blue of the kitchen, which I wanted to play against the orange. I saw some of those colours in the illustrations originally, but I’ve always loved those complementary colours. I spent quite a while getting that mix just right and I was very pleased with what we got.”
“I think it’s a liberation really, it being a fairy tale. You could take it to extremes with the colour, I adore theatricality. I sometimes get away with a bit in ‘Wallace and Gromit’, in the Gothic scenes, but this was a real opportunity to take it to another level. We had some colourways done at the start which gave us an idea of what the directors wanted. I remember in my little office, just sticking all these pictures on the walls every morning, I would just absorb different things, and I’d stick up my version of it. And gradually you build up a colour pallette. In the original colourways there’s lots of strong greens and reds and oranges, which I tried to replicate.”
Creating a Sense of Home
“There’s a strong sense of home in the film, of what home is. Whether it’s the humans home, which has to be warm, but is also slightly threatening to the mice and the robin, and then their true home, which is a little hole in the ground that also has to have that warmth. That’s really what you want to get back to at the end of the day. When they’re outside it’s cold and it’s bleak, so you go for the blues and greens. You can see the way it goes up and down through the scenes that are cold, then the scenes that are warm but threatening and then the scenes that are warm but welcoming. It’s not just one colour that defines a scene, I find that it’s the interplay of colours as well. It is rewarding, like painting a picture, and actually makes you feel part of the process again, because I think, in general, this is one film where the lighting has played a substantial part in the storytelling.”
There’s a scene in the film where Robin, the mice and the magpie run from the cat and hide within the magpie’s treehouse home. They think they are safe but the cat circles around them, forcing her paws through the doorway and any gaps in the wall. Beams of light shine through each of the gaps and the cat dramatically blocks them as she circles. The hopeful sunlight is disrupted by the menacing cat.
“Early on I saw an illustration of the inside of the magpies tree, of all these cracks and the light coming in and it reminded me of a favourite film of mine, the Coen brothers film ‘Blood Simple’, where they shoot a bullets through the bathroom wall and shafts of light are coming from all directions. I thought that would be lovely to have in the tree house. There are lots of little cracks in the set so we had that as a motivation. As the cat circles the tree house, it crosses over these beams. These shafts of light going everywhere. Our heroes are trapped inside as the light goes on and off.”
“We had a lot of moving light sources. We knew there would be a lot of sunrises, a lot of reveals in the light. In some shots, a whole mood change takes place. It starts off bright and cheerful, the sun’s out, but then the sun starts going down within the shot and this takes you into a melancholy mood.”
Moving the Lights with the Story Arc
“There’s a scene where the robin is disappointed. It is early morning, the magic of the star hasn’t happened, but then the sun starts coming up. I literally had a moving light source creating shadows that move and reveal the trees so that when you’re looking at the treehouse that they’re in, you see the light gradually spreading over it. It’s part of the story arc, that moving light source.”
“The moving lights did mean there were a few occasions where I was shining light straight into the camera, I love the flare you can get from it. There’s one scene where we are looking through the brambles that surround the tree, we see the sun coming up and the mice, dressed up in tin cans that are like Christmas presents, suddenly appear over the horizon. I wanted to try to do that for real so I pointed a bright profile lamp through a hole in a piece of silver board and straight into the camera and then had the bushes in front of it. We had a massive flare and these objects actually got burnt out as they came through it. Normally I get admonished by the post effects people as it makes rig removal difficult, however in this instance we managed to get away with it.”
A Constantly Moving Camera
The camera is constantly on the move in Robin Robin. The opening sequence has the camera pulling back through a rainy, mushroom filled landscape, finding Robin, as an egg, in her nest and following her as she falls to the ground. It continues to follow her throughout the film, backwards and forwards, as she and her adopted mouse family sneak around, between brambles and along the top of fences, singing and dancing as they go.
“We actually built some of the sets around the camera moves on this film. The first shot we did was one of Robin when she first goes out on her own and the camera tracks across the snow. Myself and Linda Hamblyn, the moco operator, we put down a basic tracking move. We had to go across the landscape and up a slight hill so we just built one very roughly and animated a puppet going across it. We had a big net behind the set which was backlit rather than frontlit. This gave us a look we could show to the directors and say ‘this is what we can do, this is the amount of time you’ve got to get this character from here to here’. And we gradually built on that. Now, I say gradually, that actually took several months to get this one shot down but it was another way of determining the look of the film. we put a rough move down, the set dressers came in and I’d relight it for that, then we’d try it again, and gradually over the months it got whittled down. This was during the development period so it was at the same time as the characters were being developed and being tested. So we’re actually testing on a live shot. It’s probably the longest shot in the making but it informed a lot of the moves later on.”
“We had several of these tracking moves in the film, particularly as it’s a musical. It was an opportunity to work to the music and actually choreograph something to it within a continuous move. We did have to take the timing of the music into consideration on those long moves.When there is a song attached to it, it actually took the weight off of me, because I didn’t have to worry about the editing of it. It was down to the timing of what the animator did within that move, but it was also where the props were placed within that move, because Robin at a certain point would go under a little plant pot or come out, or drop down, and that would time up nicely to the beat of the music.”
Working with the Directors
The directors, Daniel Ojari and Michael Please, were both new to Aardman. They had been working together for many years but this was their first collaboration with Aardman as well as many of the crew. For Dave Alex it was an exciting opportunity to experiment with a new visual style.
“I got on very well with Mikey and Dan. I felt like a kindred spirit to them in that I’d started out, not solely as a cinematographer, but making my own films. In my early days I would be involved in the animation, the set building, and basically, because we had no money, we just made things with whatever we had. Mikey and Dan had a lot more experience than that by the time they came to us but that’s sort of how it had worked for the two of them. Just playing with ideas. When you start a project, you have a certain idea, but as you play with it, it changes. On a big project you can’t do that but Robin Robin was a lot looser in that respect. We got along like a house on fire, really.”
Developing the Look
“One of the first things we had to supply was the publicity still. we had to envisage what the film was going to look like with this one image, and that actually became a good basis for the look of the film.”
“We looked at the environment first, and the colours, the general feel of things. We had no characters to start with as the characters were fairly late to the development. They had the drawings and the design of them, but they were quite complex to make really, a totally new material. The Aardman style is based on plasticine, and then later silicone and latex. Here we had sort of fuzzy characters made of wool fibre which proved to be quite inspiring. They made some little 3D cut out shapes of the mice sneaking, and they had them flocked, so you had that felt finish and that’s all we had to start with.”
“We had these flocked mice walking on the horizon, and I heavily backlit them. Soon I was getting used to working with that material, the felt. It was literally a new canvas to work with,, the way the light would shape itself around this texture. You had to backlight it. I’ve always used a lot of backlight. We’re always doing that in stop frame because we have simplified character shapes. To get detail out of them you invariably have to work with back kickers, emphasizing their shapes, with the way the light picks up on the contours. This was nice to have a new contour, a fuzzy contour, which reacts very well and picks up colour quite nicely as well, quite subtly. For the background, to try and keep that soft fuzzy felt look, rather than have a painted background, I used a net stretched over a frame. we found this old net that somebody had been painting on, it was quite dirty. It was almost like someone had done an abstract painting on it. I loved the random pattern, once it was backlit, it gave a very nice textured look, almost like a children’s book illustration. There was to be a moon behind them as well and rather than just superimpose it, I projected the profile of a big moon shape, slightly out of focus, onto the net.That became another feature of things we did later on.”
“The characters were on a little snowy landscape and the heavy backlighting meant they had nice long shadows stretching out in front of them, and again, as you’ll see in the film, the use of shadows became quite a dominant thing. it was something the directors had always wanted, it was in the storyboarding, this use of shadow play. so from this little publicity still, we actually had learnt a lot about what the look was going to be, which is a very nice way of doing it.”
A New Look for Aardman
“It is a very different look for Aardman. It was actually set up like a children’s book and in fact the first person to influence the look of it was a guy called Matt Forsythe. He’s a Children’s Illustrator. He did some marvellous books with a wonderful style and wonderful choice of colours. He did the initial designs of the characters and worked a little bit on some colourways. It was very much thought of as being a children’s illustrated book. It’s a fairy tale, and we wanted that sort of dynamic to it. That was my first encounter with the style of the project, working with Matt, and I compiled a lot of colourways, chose a lot of coloured gels which I thought were appropriate to his illustrative style, and discussed those with him. He then led the art team on the style of the environment. The development time on ‘Robin Robin’ was educating. It was like starting from scratch. Everything we normally do is created from scratch, but this was a whole new look. the shape of the flowers, the plants, the mushrooms, the curve of the hillsides, all of that. He spent a fair bit of time with the art department and as they were making objects and bits and pieces, I would put them in front of the camera and see what I could do with them.”
“It was a much more in depth development period than we normally get on an Aardman production, in terms of total involvement. The lighting was a big part of the process. Particularly when we had the characters built as well. The felt was a fabulous material to work with and the environment had to fit in with the characters. It was quite a small team so I was involved with what the art department were doing from a very early stage and they were seeing what I was doing, which I think is very beneficial. I think it took the art department a little while to get used to that idea of experimenting, you know, throwing something in front of the camera to see what you got. Personally, that’s the way I’ve always worked. I really like to go from the ground upwards. Give me an object or a set and I’ll feel it, I’ll shine light across the surface of it and see what it does, because I always feel it’s like you should react to things rather than have something too strongly in your head that you’re stuck with.”
“I was constantly being brought these objects, and this is before we had any character designs, we were just talking about the environment, and I put them in front of the camera. I’d backlight them, try different coloured gels on them, front light them, side light them, film them in almost darkness, all one frame at a time. If you played it as continuous piece it looked like a psychedelic movie, changing shapes and changing lighting, tracking around all the objects. It was quite exciting in itself. “Do what you like and see what works”. But from all of that, the directors could get to look at individual things and give us feedback “this sort of works with that” or “this texture works when it’s back lit”. It was very very much like playing but in the best way. It was a bit like being back at art college, which was the thing I liked about it.”
Choreographing the Scene
Each shot of an animation can take anything from a few hours to a few weeks to animate. While there is the time to test animation techniques, to block shots and to set things up carefully, there isn’t the time for multiple takes or overshooting. This means that everything needs to be carefully planned in advance. Most animations will work from a carefully worked out animatic (a storyboard edited with timings).
“We are very reliant on that animatic to give us an idea of what’s needed, but I find you always refine it and you always improve on it as your shooting . I always do spend a fair amount of time blocking out shots. When I’m setting up a shot, I like to just block it out myself, just partly because it helps with the lighting, but I think it also helps with the continuity of a cut or how these things are going to cut together. But then we have the time to do that, and we don’t have the time to do multiple takes so we have to go in there really knowing that it’s going to work, what we’re about to shoot.”
“We did quite a few blocks on Robin Robin. Most shots would be blocked out and quite often the directors would do a little bit themselves, because they are also animators, and this would help to sort out ideas in their own mind. A very interesting technique that Mikey and Dan used was that they would keep adding to the animatic. You’d have the drawings to start with, slightly animated, but then they’d start acting things out and cutting themselves out and putting themselves into the animatic. Their animatics would be a joy to watch. It would be just the pair of them playing all the characters, multi-layered, an art piece in itself.”
Working at Scale
When you are working in stop motion you are usually working at scale. While some projects will use life sized objects placed within a real environment, most will require the puppets to be built at a scale that allows them to be animated to the level required, while also fitting multiple units within one studio space. This can be further complicated if the characters are of very different scales. The smallest characters would be too intricate while the largest would be physically challenging. Robin Robin needed to balance the scale of tiny mice with human characters so many shots required the comping of different scaled puppets.
“Scale was an issue. Initially, because obviously a robin, an actual size robin, would be too small for the animators to work with. So they built the Robin, Mice and Magpie to 175% scale , that became our standard scale, but then the protagonist – the cat, if we’d done the cat to the same scale, it would have been enormous. With animation you want something not too small and certainly not too big because it is impossible to wrangle what would have been a giant cat. So we never actually built a whole cat to full scale, we built some giant paws of the cat, and I think we did a bit of a head and a tail, but never a full size cat in that 175% scale. The cat was eventually built at 50% of our standard scale. So we have our normal scale, which is bigger than life, which is interesting , our cat had to be 50%. So we had some sets which were 50% scale. Very interesting – we had a kitchen, which is where most of the activity of the first sneak for the mice and Robin at 175% scale, we built a whole kitchen, or the whole side of a kitchen, on that scale. I mean, it’s crazy. I felt physically like a seven year old in there because if I stood by the side of the cooker unit I felt small. It’s like when you’re a little kid trying to reach something in your Mum’s kitchen “.
“Then also we had a third scale as well because you have a full sized room when they break in to steal the star from the Christmas tree, that had to be a whole room. Now we couldn’t make that 175% scale, that would be bigger than our studio. And so that was what we called our C scale, which is probably the scale I’m mostly used to working with, Wallace and Gromit scale .Even after working on that scale for most of my working life the C scale sets suddenly felt very small compared to the oversized sets. .We built the robin in the 50% scale as well, although you couldn’t do much animation with that unless it was distant stuff. We even built a C scale Robin, in fact a C scale of all the characters, which is incredibly small, robin was about the size of a thumbnail.. We actually animated them in some of the shots, this was something the directors were very keen on. Obviously we could shoot a full sized robin and shrink it down in post and put it into the C scale set, but this can look a bit odd sometimes, there’s too much detail so you can tell it’s been artificially reduced.. So quite often we used a 50% scale Robin , and we would animate that and shrink that down and that actually looked better. we certainly made full use of all the different scales. This meant we were occasionally shooting with a green screen background,and matching the lighting between scales but the effects guys did an superb job of comping these things together.”
“There’s a scene at the end of the film where the cat is stalking them just before they set fire to the shed. We had a 50% scale shed so we could shoot the 50% cat in the shed. We then had to replicate that corner of the room with certain shapes of green screen for Magpie and Robin coming in. You have to think ahead quite a lot of course for this, because we’re comping lots of other things, like the flames, in the shed as well. So we have to put lights in the 50% shed and while we were shooting the cat pass, we would also do a pass with fire lights on it and the match lighting as well. So there were quite a lot of passes compared to our more traditional shoots”.
The Tactile World of Stop Motion
Robin Robin has a very physical and tactile feel and it was important for the creators that this would be maintained within all aspects of the film. The snowflakes, the snow drifts, the flames and the smoke are all created using the same needle felt technique. Robin even creates little woollen wisps of motion blur as she flaps her wings.
“Everything in the film is generated on the studio floor, which is something I’ve always had a strong feeling about, not that I’m anti CGI, but I rarely like mixing it because quite often you can tell it’s come from a different world. Everything in this film was generated on the studio floor, so all the flames, the snow, the snow drift etc. are done in wool fibre, which is basically what the puppets are made of, needle felt.”
“The snow fall is shot on glass against a green screen background and the visual effects team layered it back into the scene. Likewise the flames. Beautiful flame work from Maria, one of our animators. She spent a few months making flame shapes. Another of our animators, Marnek did an amazing job creating the explosion for the shed . We actually did that physically in front of the camera. Wool fibre is used for the smoke. It’s all animated on rigs with little lights inside. So the whole explosion was done frame by frame , in wool, with just a few extra layers of lighting effects.”
While the elements were all shot in camera, it wasn’t always possible to shoot everything at the same time. Dave Alex used stereo steppers (small trackers), in a technique used for shooting stereo in stop motion, to gather the depth information needed to embed the effects into different places within the sets.
“This was the first time I had used this technique. We have done this effect in previous films where you superimpose a fog effect over the top of the film, but you want to feel like it’s actually part of the set itself. Jon (Biggins), our effects supervisor, had worked out a system so that whenever we were doing any scene where we wanted to layer stuff in there, we should shoot it in stereo, and from that stereo information he could actually construct a depth map of the whole scene. you can see where the layers such as trees or contours in the landscape are and you can choose any point and lay your effects into that. In the end it was quite a few layers worth of elements, especially in the snow storm. All the effects generated are actually hand animated on glass with a green screen, but then they’re dropped in layer by layer, at different depths into the scene, which is remarkable, really, to actually have that facility. In the old days, I suppose, you could do it, but you would have to rotoscope around objects and things, having a stereo image allowed the FX team to do that very effectively.”
Experimenting with Light to Create a New and Distinctive Look
Robin Robin uses new techniques to enhance the traditional hand crafted style of stop motion. This fits perfectly with the way Dave Alex likes to light his sets. His style has a natural feel that has been developed over many years of experimentation. He likes to light organically and to feel his way around a set until he finds the perfect combination of colour and light.
“I like to play, running lights across the textures, the walls, and quite often I might have a rough idea of where I might place the lights, which is always a good starting point. Sometimes I walk into a set and my gaffer would have brought some lights in and I say “stick them roughly there , there and there,” and later I come along and think well that’s not exactly where I was imagining, but I’ll stand back to look at it and say “actually well that’s probably better and I d refine that ”. I do find that mostly it’s to be …reaction, to react to things is more important than to think you know exactly what is going to happen and how it should happen. Happy accidents should be to play with, and work on. Otherwise you end up looking the same all the while and you need to allow for those gifts from the gods. Just, stand back and look at it and think is that working. If not, try something else. you’ll find there’s a whole cornucopia of shapes and light sources on our little sets.”
“Going back historically, when I first started up, we used a lot of theatrical lights because film lights were a bit too cumbersome and not really subtle enough. certainly for the scales we would be working on. And so historically profile lights have always been important. Which is more of a theatre lamp really. You can change the shape of it, you can shutter it, you can put gobos in it, you can project shapes onto the set. A long time back, back in the eighties, my father , a photographer, discovered these shop lights, what they call architectural lights now, which were the forerunner of the micro ellipses, which we now use. They were basically miniature profile lamps. It was really designed for lighting a window display but I found it ideal for our work, in fact I think I first used it on some of the early Wallace and Gromits, these little micro ellipses. Now we use them continuously, we have hundreds of them”.
“As cinematographers there are the basic rules you start with, a key light, maybe a bit of fill light, a bit of backlight to bring the shape out but it’s great just to play around a bit and come up with something better than you first thought of. i ‘Robin Robin’ was a gift, an absolute gift in that respect. Throughout the whole production I felt I was part of the development, part of taking it in different directions and seeing how the directors reacted. They would watch how I reacted to something, and then we’d see how the art department reacted to it. It was the sum total of all that team work, I think, that actually gave it quite a distinctive look.”
Dave Alex Riddett BSC is Known for:
Features: Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget, Early Man, Shaun the Sheep: Farmageddon, Shaun the Sheep Movie, The Pirates! in an Adventure with Scientists, Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-rabbit, Chicken Run