Dave Alex Riddett BSC is a cinematographer, and pioneer, in the world of stop motion animation who has been creating beautiful cinematic images since the earliest days of Aardman. From collaborating on the award winning sledgehammer music video to acting as senior Director of Photography on ‘Chicken Run’, Aardman’s first feature film, his work has been seen around the world. As Nick Park’s lead cinematographer he co-DOPed the Oscar winning films ‘Curse of the Were-Rabbit’ and The Wrong Trousers, with regular shooting partner Tristan Oliver, and was DOP on ‘A Close Shave’ and ‘A Matter of Loaf and Death’ as well as countless other Wallace and Gromit shorts, commercials, and Idents. His collaboration with Nick continued with ‘Early Man’ and Shaun the Sheep and he is currently working on the latest Wallace and Gromit film.
Stop motion cinematographer spoke to him about his inherent love of pictures and storytelling and the pure cinematography of stop motion animation. He tells us about his approach to lighting, how he got started, what inspires him and his hopes for the future of the tangible, physical, magical medium that is stop motion animation.
How did you get started in Stop Motion cinematography?
My father was a photographer so I was brought up with the smell of photographic chemicals, in his darkroom at the bottom of the garden. He taught me the rudiments of photography and he was also involved in the local theatre as Artistic Director. I would watch him designing sets and help him construct them at the weekend. I always had a great interest in theatre and photography, which is a great start for filmic storytelling. As a kid I was always putting on shows. I used to love puppets and I would put on little shows. After a while I tried to merge the photography and the storytelling. I would take photographs of my toy action figures. I’d pose them up, make little sets for them, take pictures, and then glue them into a book. Which I suppose, looking back on it, is like what we do now in terms of storyboarding.The first animated film I put together was with a friend using his dads movie camera and our Action Man figures. I was also into cartooning. That was another idea of drawing, illustrating, and making comic books. So that was there from the start, really, that inherent love of making pictures and storytelling.
A bit later on I got my own 8mm movie camera and started making some crude animated films. There wasn’t a lot of information about animation in the Sixties, most of it was about 2D animation. I came across people like George Méliès, the early pioneer of cinematography, and the trick effects he was doing with cameras to perform a sort of a magic show. There was a programme called ‘The Old Grey Whistle Test’ and quite often, if they didn’t have the visuals to go with the music, they put on little snippets of footage from the silent days, films by people like Ladislas Starevitch, which were very, very fascinating model animated films. I was used to animation as a kid but I was always intrigued by what further potential stop frame animation had to offer.
I was always amazed by Ray Harryhausen films. That was another great hero of stop frame and special effects in feature films at the time. When I was young I thought maybe that was an avenue I could get into, special effects. I didn’t want to get into children’s television but I was intrigued by programs like Fireball XL5, Stingray, and Thunderbirds, particularly the miniature model work on them, that’s what really fascinated me. The puppet element was interesting and the way of telling stories in quite a stylised manner. I always thought that was a great method because you didn’t have to stick to reality. You could create and enter a complete fantasy world.
I carried on making films at school. I almost got expelled for nearly ‘blowing up’ part of the 6th form annex ( creating a fire in the 6th form common room when an over enthusiastic special effects shot got out of hand). I somehow got away with it and was allowed to carry on making a movie for the school. Basically I ended up making a model of the school and I blew that up instead.
I went to art college, primarily to do a foundation course, which was very good grounding in drawing and painting. I think if I’d just gone straight into trying to get into filmmaking, I don’t know where it would have led me, sticking to the basics of image making grounded me. From that course I went to Leeds Art College, particularly because they had a great film department, and it was my chance to get my hands on some proper film gear. They had ArriFlex, Beaulieu cameras, Bolex cameras (most importantly for me), a rostrum camera, editing machines and even a sound mixing dept. I specialised in making films and later one of my tutors recommended going to Bristol to do the postgraduate Radio, Film and Television (RFT) course at Bristol University, which, as well as bringing me to Bristol, I suppose completed my formal education in filmmaking, but also left it quite loose for me to work out what I was going to do next.
After that I freelanced for a year or so as a camera assistant and occasionally as a lighting cameraman. I was always very, very keen to set up my own little studio, but I had no finances at the time. And so I went back to work for the RFT course, where I was in charge of all the equipment and in charge of supervising the student crews and showing them how to use all the equipment. I was doing that for about four years. The course itself was brilliant but by working with them for several years I covered a lot of ground in all aspects of filmmaking and I was just earning enough to be able to start building up a collection of Bolex cameras.
While I was on the RFT course I had teamed up with a friend, Dave Borthwick. We were kindred spirits and we both had a love of cinematography. We loved experimenting with the medium so we started making films together. Our first films utilised pixelation, because we had little money, we found some dancers who we could get to move one frame at a time and filmed them on various locations around Bristol. By the mid eighties I managed to get a mortgage and bought a house that had a basement so that was our first little studio.
We made a lot of animated films together, music videos for local bands, a title sequence for BBC Wales. Anything we could get really, whatever budget, and it was always a very low budget. We would make our own props with old toys or objects we had found and we’d build our own sets. They were quite experimental films, quite, quite eclectic looking. Eventually we were shooting a series of music videos for local band ‘Startled Insects’, financed by Island Records. I’m still proud of what we achieved in those early days…. Our film collective became known as the Bolex Brothers.
I’ve always loved cameras, particularly the Bolex camera. The Bolex camera was a great revelation to me, you could do stop frame on it, you could run it backwards, you could do slow motion, fast motion and you could backwind and superimpose images. You could do your own in-camera effects which I’ve always been intrigued by. That’s how we became the Bolex Brothers and that was sort of co-existing with my early work with Aardman. Throughout the eighties I was either doing commercials or short films at Aardman’s or making films with Dave B as the Bolex brothers.
How did you start working with Aardman?
I’ve known of Aardmans since the days before they started doing any commercial work. I’ve known Pete (Lord) and Dave (Sproxton) since 1979. They were doing a Morph series and I was working alongside them in their studio, doing a bit of paint and trace for somebody else’s project. Later they had hired all this equipment but weren’t too sure about checking it all out. As I had a bit more knowledge of film equipment I went to check it and collect it for them. It was delivered back to Bristol for a freelance crew to shoot their first TV commercial.
After that I was freelancing as a camera assistant but I still kept checking on what they were up to and they were starting to get some more commercials work. They had done a few short films for the BBC, ‘Animated Conversations’, in which they put some animated visuals to people talking in the style of vox pops, and were starting to get interest from the agencies in London. up to that point there were just the two of them, Pete and Dave. When I started regularly working with them they had taken on Director/ animator Golly ( Richard Starzak ) and had Sarah Mullock as producer. That was the entire staff of Aardmans at the time. Shortly after I started working alongside them Nick Park joined. He hadn’t finished his film he was making at the National Film School, which was ‘Grand Day Out’ and he had a few sequences to shoot, including the moon sequence. My first introduction to Nick was helping him put a few lights up on that, which I think was quite prolific for what was to come.
In those early days in Bristol, having met Pete and Dave, I thought “this is going to be great, this is something right up my street”, but even then I didn’t think it was a career option. back in the eighties stop frame animation wasn’t really a career choice. There wasn’t any work there. Maybe you could do a children’s television programme like “Trumpton’, Film effects work or perhaps advertising to a certain extent. Even into the mid-eighties, it was only starting to pick up. So I give credit to Pete and Dave. In forming Aardmans they probably started an industry. And I think, for the few like minded people like myself who joined up with them, we did feel like we were pioneers. It felt like the early days of Hollywood because there weren’t any particular rules really, for how we went about our business. There wasn’t a precedent for what we were doing. We made a lot of it up as we went along.
In the initial days, we didn’t have sparks as such. We didn’t have camera assistants. Quite often we’d load our own cameras, we’d fill in the forms at the end of the shoot, we’d light it, we’d get the lights ourselves out the cupboard and put them up. Certainly different to the freelance live action work I was doing. Gradually, as it got bigger and bigger, you appreciated the need for all these things and that’s something that developed as we went along. We did some quite adventurous short films, which were certainly not for children. One of them, ‘Going Equipped’ was a voiceover of a young offender talking about how he ends up in prison. And we lit it very grittily and very realistically for a stop frame film. Some of those early projects were very satisfying. I was very surprised that I could actually be earning money doing what I really enjoyed doing. And that was as much of a surprise to me as the people around us, that there was an avenue of work doing this sort of thing.
Aardmans was doing very, very well by the early nineties and they could actually move to a bigger studio. Their first studio, when I started working with them, was just a big one room space with an office and edit room built into it, but then they managed to get the place by the harbourside, Gas Ferry Road. This was about 1991 and they now actually had a custom studio we could work in. It was nice to be involved in that, actually doing up a place to our specific needs. By that point Aardman was a going concern and Nick Park had had this idea for another Wallace and Gromit Film. In fact I remember him first drawing it when we were in the original studios, as I used to sit next to him there, and he was drawing a picture of a penguin stuck in a bottle, in a milk bottle, which I thought was a hilarious image. I asked him what it was for and he said, “Oh, just some idea I’ve been thinking of, maybe another Wallace and Gromit”. It became quite an iconic image.
Having done ‘The Wrong Trousers’ we realised it was more popular than even we had anticipated. We knew we had this wonderful film but the response to it was enormous. And so very, very quickly it was decided to do another one, another half hour. I was taken on as a full time staff cinematographer / director. We had an eclectic collection of cameras at that point. It was all 35mm film, there was a Mitchell s35, a neuman sinclair ( lovingly christened “ The Biscuit Tin”), I think we had a Mitchell BNC, but it was an odd collection and not all of the lenses would fit all of the cameras, but we’d mend and make do. That’s how things started. We decided that for ‘close shave’ we would start training new animators and we’d start trying to get in more film equipment and we’d actually try to get this together. I think we had eight or nine full time animators on that as opposed to the two. I actually had lighting camera people working with me so we could take on different different units and different scenes. We had sparks, we had camera assistants, and it was getting to be a bit like regular filmmaking.
After Close Shave came out in ‘95 a lot of interest was coming in from America and there was a strong desire to make a full length feature film. This became Chicken Run and it was an exciting but daunting project because we weren’t quite sure what that would entail. It originally got backing from Pathé and the more they delved into it, even Pathé thought, well, this could be quite big. We need to get someone even bigger on board. Which is how DreamWorks got involved. So it was done between Pathé and DreamWorks, both of whom were incredibly helpful in getting this off the ground, certainly financially, but also in terms of how you go about doing something this big. It was a very steep learning curve. I think I’d started working on it in 97, 98, not just preparing for the film itself, but actually kitting out a studio. Aardmans had searched all over the place for a suitable place, which of course ended up being Aztec West.
The gestation period of Chicken Run was immense. It involved us not only building a studio, but all the preamble of working out what it was going to look like and what we could get away with, hiding rigs, digital clean up, incorporating special effects etc.. We didn’t know how well our puppets would stand up on a big screen. With the Wallace and Gromit films we’d always idealised that they would be theatrical release films, but it was a different ballgame doing a proper full on feature film that would be theatrically released around the world. It was quite daunting.
I remember doing test shots of Mrs. Tweedy’s head filling frame. We did a test screening at the Empire in Leicester Square, because they had a big screen there, and we were just looking at this enormous plasticine head. I used to go right up to the screen and look up at it, like looking at the Empire State Building, checking if it would hold up. We were actually probably overcautious in doing Chicken Run. As a consequence of this, later on, when we did ‘Curse of the Were-Rabbit’, I think we had a slightly looser approach. Which is to give it a bit more spontaneity, be a bit more adventurous without worrying about it. We felt like we were in command of the media a lot more with Wererabbit.
What are your influences?
My first influence was my dad. He was a painter/designer and a photographer and it just made the possibility of that world real to me. Ray Harryhausen, of course, the pioneer of stop frame in fantasy filmmaking. The early things like Fireball XL5 and the way they shot the miniatures used to fascinate me. Derek Meddings used to do the effects work on that. I didn’t know who he was when I was a kid, but if I had, I would have thought, that’s a job I want, I want to be Derek Medddings.
On the lighting side I have always been inspired by Jack Cardiff. I’ve always admired his cinematography and I was quite fortunate to get to get to know him a little bit later on, because surprisingly enough, he was a fan of Morph, and he actually came to the studio because he wanted to see how animated films are made. My Hero. I corresponded with him and was even able to attend a celebration of his 80 years in the film industry. I love the Ealing comedy films with cinematographers such as Otto Heller who went on to do another favourite of mine, The Ipcress Files. Such a visually inspiring movie that fostered a love of creative composition and unusual angles.
Another film I love is ‘The Night of the Hunter’. The simplicity of some of the images, such strong iconic images. What I would call the poetry of cinematography. I later found out that it’s all shot in the studio, presumably on quite a tight budget as well, but the sort of imagery he managed to get out of that. I mean it was black and white, which was a head start anyway. It has a fairy tale feel to it. You’re totally taken in by it and by the way the images are put together and tell you three different things at the same time. There’s the silhouette figure in the background or the framing in the foreground. It’s the composition of it. Some of the compositions are marvellous. This was a strong point in the Wallace and Gromit films, trying to get that use of composition. To economically tell a story within each frame.
I used to love Dougie Slocombe’s work on the Ealing comedies, and I think some of that inspired what I thought a film should look like. I applied a lot of that to some of the early Wallace and Gromits, that sort of Ealing comedy look. Dougie Slocombe used to do this lovely play of contrast, a slash of light in the background bringing out the textures and shapes without stealing the focus of the action in front. There’s a lot of things that go into how the shot is set up, and how it’s composed, and then how the balance works. Lighting is a matter of balance really, dark and light. I always feel that every frame should achieve a balance, not symmetry but playing with tones and placing colours together to create a picture that draws you in.
Two of my favourite films are A matter of life and death ( Pressburger and Powell ) and Performance ( Nic Roeg and Donald Cammel ), both films visually contrasting two very different worlds. The first showing Jack Cardiff’s masterful control of colour for the sequences on Earth and his bold Black and white depiction of Heaven. Nic Roeg’s stunning imagery in juxtaposing the world of gangsters against the world of a fading rock star has drawn me back to many viewings of ‘Performance’. I like that Roeg’s image making is as much about what forms in your imagination as to what you see on the screen. Good stuff.
What is your approach to lighting?
I tended, initially, to work a lot with the set designers and input things together. Once they’ve got something up I like to run my fingers across it, for the surface, and shine a light across it. The marvellous thing about all the Aardman films is that the sets are highly textured and they give you a lot of scope to get something out of the sets themselves, as well as trying to get something out of the characters. Once you put a character in, and Aardman’s characters are caricatures, they’re cartoon people really, they don’t have the features a human being would have, the skin tones to play with, they are shapes basically and that affects the way you light them as well, because you want to make them interesting. We use a lot of back lighting to pick out the shapes of the characters and try to get some differentiation of the tone within the faces. The problems are we’re not lighting human beings with normal faces, you don’t normally have eye shadows on a human being. we certainly get them with our characters, and big noses or big beaks. So you’re constantly trying to evaluate how you are going to shoot something. Observation is the key thing, reacting to the set, not just going in with preconceived ideas.
What are the unique aspects of cinematography for stop motion?
With stop frame cinematography you are dealing with quite a different environment to live action. You’re trying to make that world real. You have to look at that world for a while and live in it, figure out what it is. Positioning the camera is crucial, you have to feel that you are in that world, not just looking at a model. In Wallace and Gromits’ world the shape and scale of everything is important . Compared to humans, the puppets’ proportions are all wrong. Their hands are enormous so all the props are different. A phone would have to be five times the size of a normal phone to fit that hand and you have to have that same feeling with the lighting. If you were to light too realistically I think it could be quite monotonous. You can get quite theatrical and it’s still real to that world.
It also allows you to get into what I call genre hopping, especially in Nick’s films. We can have high key comedy, a bit of a hammer horror one minute, a bit of soft focus romance another, followed by a chase sequence that is almost choreographed like a Tom and Jerry cartoon. You can hop from things because you created that world. As long as you’re true to that world, and if you stick to your own rules, that you’ve made up, you’re winning. When you start stepping out of that, trying to put something too realistic into that stop frame world, you could lose the audience, they might think it doesn’t feel right. You’re constantly having to contain the image and nobody can tell you whether it’s right or wrong, you just have to judge it for yourself. By the end of the film, you’ll see if you have maintained that illusion.
One particular thing about stop frame, and I think it’s one of the reasons I’ve stayed with it, as a cinematographer, is that it contains the pure mechanics of cinematography. You’re making a film, one frame at a time, which actually does allow you a lot of things. You can use any exposure time you like. We try to keep our exposure times to about a second or two seconds but you can have a ten second exposure if you want. This allows you to do all sorts of things. You could light a set with just one practical light source. We’ve done it several times in films. When Lord Nooth goes into the caves in ‘Early Man’, he’s holding a fire stick, basically he’s holding a little small lamp and it’s actually lighting up the whole set. As he moves around, he’s making the shadows move around quite realistically.
In ‘Robin Robin’ as well, when he strikes a match, I wanted the ability to be in complete darkness. He strikes a match, and as he moves the match across, you see the shadows move across. This was done with just one light source, the small lamp in the match, until he lights the candle and the whole room lights up as you bring in the carefully placed external lights. You have to be careful in how you use things like exposure time as you can get into dangerous territory. For example, in a scene using long exposures an animator wearing a white shirt one day and a dark shirt the other day, it can suddenly change your whole lighting.
As well as conventional film lights I’ll use any sort of lighting I come across and adapt it. Just recently I found the Roscoe Image Spot. It’s not designed for filmmaking, It’s designed for window displays I’d imagine. Basically it’s a little tiny projector lamp and you can put gobo shapes in it. You can cut things out of thin metal to make gobos, which, when you’re working in miniature, is a godsend. So I’m always on the lookout for things like that. The Altman micro ellipse ( a small profile lamp that has become one of my most used lights ), again, they weren’t designed particularly for filmmaking, but are perfect for what we do, just because of the scale we work in. Sadly they are no longer made but Source Four minis have become a worthy replacement.
What are the biggest challenges or the hardest things to film?
Almost everything is a challenge in animation, but that’s the joy of it. In trying to work out a solution to a problem you quite often come up with a better picture. You come up with things that you wouldn’t normally have gone for in the first place, in terms of how you light something, or how you stage it. Saying that, I think, for me, coming off a starting point where we hardly used rigging, this can now be one of the biggest challenges of animation. In the early days, you were just lighting what was in front of the camera. But now you really have to take on a whole world of creative thinking to allow for the animator to have absolute control of the puppets.
We’ll have lots of characters and we have to have some way of supporting those characters so we have lots of rigs, then lots of shadows of rigs. You do have to compromise to a certain extent because it’s very difficult to remove them afterwards, even with modern technology. You have to start thinking in a different way and sometimes you have to do things that make it more difficult to get the effect you want. So it’s quite heartbreaking to get something that looks OK. But then if it’s not practical, can we do it a slightly different way? Can we move the light a little bit around? Can the rig come from a different angle?. Is it still going to give me what I want? So there are compromises to be made. So I’d say that was one of the difficult things.
What’s the best advice you’ve been given or would like to pass on?
The best advice I got was at art college. They used to say that “it’s all marks on paper, just make sure they’re the right marks”. Forget about shading, forget about decorating things, get down to the basics first of all. You don’t need to be over elaborate. If you can light with one light that’s better than lighting with 10 lights. Sometimes multiple light sources is the only way you can do it but try to keep it simple. Be very aware of the framing and what you can do within a frame before you start trying to get too cinematic. I think you have to be careful not to show off sometimes. Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you have to do it. It’s got to come from the heart of the film. Allow the audience to use their imagination, you don’t have to illuminate everything, It’s also important to react to the scene in front of you, don’t just go with a preconceived idea, react to what you see.
When you look at the set, think, well what can you do with that? Some things may have been explained in the script but there’s always different ways of telling the story. Be prepared to play around with it and stand back and look at it and make a lot of mistakes. Don’t be afraid to do that because quite often I find a lot of techniques that way. I’m notorious for coming up with seemingly eccentric ways of doing things, but they actually look alright. If I’ve been trying to do one thing that didn’t work, it could work for something else. I can call on it later if it doesn’t solve the problem at the time. So be flexible with it, always be flexible.
What are your biggest achievements?
I’m very, very proud of what we did in the early days, certainly with all my experimenting with the Bolex Brothers, with Dave, what we actually achieved with little resources. Also, with the early days of Aardmans and breaking out of that mould of stop frame being children’s television. We were making films for ourselves. We weren’t afraid to be our own judges, not knowing at the time whether it would be successful or not.
The train chase in ‘Wrong Trousers “ has led me to engineer many more chase sequences in subsequent films ….. however this still remains my favourite.
I was very chuffed at being invited to join the British Society of Cinematographers, the BSC. It’s an acknowledgement that the cinematography that we do in stop frame is actually valid. It’s a niche area, stop frame animation. There used to be a feeling that some people thought it wasn’t proper filmmaking, but we always approached our filmmaking with great passion. To actually get that recognition is great. The general public seems to like what we do, but to get it from your peers as well, from cinematographers, that was very pleasing.
What are your plans for the future?
Stop frame is very precious to me because it is a very tangible, physical thing and I don’t think you can ever change that part of it. I think people do sense that. You can embellish, you can add things to it, but it’s dealing with physical forms in front of a camera. It’s still magic.
I’m working on a Wallace and Gromit film at the moment but I feel, now that I’ve had a career as a cinematographer, I’d just like to pass that on. There are great cinematographers coming up. stop frame is going to carry on. There are people that are still doing interesting things and changing the look of films, but also keeping to the basics as well. Stop motion has still got a long way to go, it’s not going to die out.
Meanwhile, despite my love of playing with colour, I’m looking forward to an opportunity of shooting a Film in Black And White …..
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