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 senior lighting camera on ‘Chicken Run 2: Dawn of the Nugget’ and as lighting camera on ‘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 have been working as a cinematographer for almost 15 years now. I’ve been a part of the camera department for over two decades. I have worked predominantly as a stop motion cinematographer in the roles of Lighting Camera and Director of Photography. While most of my work has been on feature films, I have also worked on short films, tv series and commercials. A lot of my work has been with Aardman Animations but I also think it’s important to explore other places and to work with different directors and styles. I was Senior Lighting Camera on ‘Chicken Run 2: Dawn of the Nugget’ and also on the latest ‘Wallace & Gromit’ feature. I was Lighting Camera on ‘Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio’, which was shot in Portland, Oregon, and I was Director of Photography on ‘Chuck Steel: Night of the Trampires’, series 6 of ‘Shaun the Sheep: Adventures from Mossy Bottom’, and on commercials including Compare the Meerkat and Woolmark, and idents for BBC and Channel Four.
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 so we tend to work in teams. There will be a Director of Photography who is in overall charge of the look, but there will also be several teams working on sequences. each will be led by a lighting camera operator with their own sparks and camera assistants. We will also work closely with motion control operators for any camera moves.
Working in teams means you can build up a really good working relationship with people and it is such a small industry that we will often work with the same people on multiple projects. Even when you move between cities and countries you will often be working with people you have known for a while. At Aardman there is a core group of us who have been working there for years. We are really familiar with each other’s styles and techniques and this allows us to work quickly and to cover each other’s units when needed. It also means you get to spend a lot of time working with people you like and respect.
How did you get started in stop motion cinematography?
I always had a strong interest in stop motion animation and I knew from a young age that I wanted to make films. I studied ‘Photography, Film and Television, at Napier University and I did some animation as part of that. However, I don’t think I realised at that point that it would be possible to have a career in stop motion, certainly not within the camera department. I had always really liked trick photography and optical illusions, I loved the magic of cinema and the creation of worlds, but it wasn’t really until I had started at Aardman that I realised I would be able to put all those things together and work as a Stop Motion Cinematographer.
It was serendipitous that those two interests came together at the same time. I had been working in a cinema when I saw an advert for a camera trainee position at Aardman. I went for an interview and work placement and then moved to Bristol to start as a camera trainee. I completed the trainee programme and was soon working as a camera assistant on my first stop motion feature. That was on “Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit”.
I remember being so excited when I walked into the studio. I had watched all the Wallace and Gromit films when I was younger, I had written my dissertation on Aardman, and now I was actually working there. I was also very lucky to be starting in the department while animation was still shot on film. As soon as I started working at Aardman I knew stop motion was something I wanted to do longer term.
What are your influences?
I have a number of influences in terms of getting into film. My dad did a lot of photography so that was always part of my life. He grew up in a village cinema that was run by my grandfather and great grandfather before that. I never knew them but the stories of the kinema were always there. As a teenager I used to go to the cinema once a week with my mum. It was during this period that films such as ‘Delicatessen’ and ‘Barton Fink’ made me really aware of cinematography and what could be done with it. My favourite film has always been ‘The Night of the Hunter‘ which I find just magical and I think resonates with a lot of people in stop motion.
I loved all the early Aardman shorts. I really liked that the stories could be serious and interesting. They weren’t made for kids, It was just a way of telling a story. I’m from Edinburgh and I would try to see as many of the animations at the Edinburgh International Film Festival as I could. There was also a lot of animation on tv with tv slots such as Four-Mations, although it was usually on at 2 or 3 in the morning. You had to set your VCR but you’d get about 3 hours of shorts. There weren’t a lot of stop motion features being made at the time but ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ is still a favourite.
My biggest influences have always been the people I work with. I was fortunate to work on some very well made and iconic 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?
The beauty of stop motion is that it exists in a real physical space. It is a tactile world that reacts to light the same way our own world does. The surfaces might be different textures but there is a sense of magical realism about stop motion worlds that make them fantasy but also something you could reach out and touch. I have quite a naturalistic approach to lighting in that I am lighting as though it is our world. I am looking at it from a cinematography point of view rather than a stop motion view in that I am lighting a story rather than a set.
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?
One of the biggest differences with stop motion cinematography is the number of units. The animation takes time so we can’t have the crew waiting while that happens. On a feature each team will look after about 15 to 20 units. This means you can be working on quite a lot of sequences simultaneously. As soon as you have got an animator started you may have to run straight to the next unit and set up a shot for a different sequence, with a completely different lighting setup, matching to shots that you lit as much as a year ago. Prioritising and balancing the needs of each unit with the availability of your crew is an important part of the job.
Another big difference is that we are almost always working at scale. Some animations will use very large scale objects and some animations will be animating real objects, but most will have puppets that are a much smaller scale than their real life equivalent. A lot of human puppets will be about 1:6 scale but it can depend on the other characters. The puppet needs to be large enough to allow subtly but small enough to allow manoeuvrability. Sometimes you will also be working with multiple scales within the same shot. The implications of scale are that we are usually working with puppets that are much smaller than our kit. Cameras that are as big as your characters can block out a lot of light. It also means we have much less depth of field to play with and focus pulls need to be planned out as there is no time for retakes if an animator doesn’t hit their mark.
In animation we are shooting frame by frame and this means everything needs to be planned. Any light effects or camera moves need to be broken down into increments. However, it also means we can shoot multiple exposures. Dragonframe software lets us shoot multiple lighting setups and camera positions. We can shoot day and night, with stereo and a camera move, perhaps some moving lights and gobos and a silhouette pass, all within the one shot. They can all be automated for the animator so they only have to press one button. We are not restricted by 24 fps shutter speed so we can shoot with lower light levels and longer exposures. This does all need done with care though. I try to lower the exposure time as much as possible to limit the impact on the animator’s creativity.
We do have some kit that works particularly well for animation. While most of the lights we use are standard film lights, we also use a lot of Altman Ellipses. They are a really nice light for animation as they have a fairly small profile and can be shuttered down to a small pool of light. They are discontinued now and it’s proving hard to find something that works as well. I also like to use Dragoneye lights. They can be rigged on aluminium wire and then hidden within the set. They are a simple way to have light coming from within the environment and they can be controlled by DMX. We also use a lot of little LEDS for practical lights.
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. We are always trying to work out new ways to bring inanimate objects to life. The challenge is to get the image that the director has in their head onto the screen and to give them the film they want. 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.
Some areas that can be unexpectedly challenging are the puppets themselves. Stop motion cinematography usually involves lighting characters that have human emotions alongside anthropomorphic or exaggerated features. 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.
We also 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 your biggest achievements?
My biggest achievement is that I have been able to make a career out of something I love. I get to come into work every day and be surrounded by all these magical creatures and fantastical worlds. I get to solve puzzles and work out problems and make magic. I love being on set and working in collaboration with groups of creative and talented people, coming together to create something that’s much bigger than the whole. I like sharing my work and I hope that I have managed to inspire some people along the way.
What are your plans for the future?
I hope to keep lighting interesting projects and finding creative and inspiring stories to tell. Hopefully I will get to see many more amazing places and meet lots more interesting people along the way.
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 cinematography showreel
Laura’s Director of Photography showreel