Lighting Club #13 – Stop Motion

Hullo everybody ! 

Sorry to tell you that but yeah, summer is almost done. BUT good news : new Lighting Club article ! We always try to share with you different approach of lighting, we talked about 2D lighting, 3D lighting, lookdev, DMP, live action, full cg and more (and this is only the beginning… Obviously we had to talk about stop motion too isn’t ? 

So we decided to ask questions to Tim Ledburry – VFX supervisor on stop motion’s productions such as Fantastic Mr Fox, Frankenweenie or Isle of Dog… Tim did the Bournemouth Academy and then CG artist at MPC to finally be VFX supervisor on different both stop motion and CG projects, but let’s leave him tell us more about everything ! 

Hullo Tim ! Thanks for answering our questions, first, tell us more about you. Could you describe a bit your carriere between vfx and stop motion industries. You worked on lovely Wallace & Gromit show as CG modeler, was it the project that give you the idea to switch to stop motion ?

Thanks, hopefully it will be interesting to you !

I have been working in the film industry for almost 20 years with the majority of that time in VFX on live action and stop motion projects. I have never really viewed the stop motion films as part of a separate industry from my live action work. It is of course animation, but as with live action you manipulate moving footage photographed with a camera, so it’s actually the same vfx workflow re-creating and simulating a physical reality.

The work created at MPC for ‘Wallace and Gromit curse of the were rabbit’ is a good example of this. My main task was to build and rig CG rabbits to float around in the ‘BunVac 600’. When you look at an Aardman character  such as the rabbits the core design is relatively simple, however the challenge comes from needing to recreate things like the imperfections, surface detail and lighting in the plasticine, also that included animated textures to recreate the fingerprints of animators touching the puppets.

To answer your question; Wallace and Gromit was a lovely project to be a part of, but I wouldn’t say it was something that lead to a conscious plan to work on other stop motion films. It was more that I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity at MPC to contribute in a small way to what in 2005 was a relatively rare type of feature project.

You worked as VFX supervisor on Fantastic Mister Fox, which is one of our favourite movie in the Lighting Club ! Could you share with us this experience ? Did you work closely with Wes Anderson ? How your work impacted the lighting onset ?

I’m glad you enjoyed the film it was certainly a very interesting film to be a part of. My first involvement in the project wasn’t actually for visual effects as I was originally employed as a concept designer that then slowly evolved in to VFX Supervision.

Wes Anderson is somebody who likes to be involved in every aspect of the productions, so I had a lot of communication throughout. With his style being so detailed with specific framing and lighting it was very helpful to be in the Art department before I moved to the VFX to get in tune with is ascetic.

Art research from Tim
Art research from Tim
Art research from Tim
Art research from Tim
Art research from Tim
Art research from Tim

This concept design stage was the most direct way of me impacting the lighting as we were aiming for a very particular storybook studio shot feel. When it came to the VFX really by that stage it was a matter of keeping consistency to the concepts and onset lighting.

The film was a very hard process over 2 and a half years; as what initially appears as a relatively naive simple look took a huge amount of design and organisation from all departments, and was a brave choice for Wes to make…. Luckily it  seemed to have paid off !

Then you worked on Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie, as VFX supervisor as well. This is – artistically speaking – really different from Wes Anderson universe. What were the challenges ? Does the black and white final output impacted the lighting on set ? How was it different between Fantastic Mister Fox ?

 Absolutely, the design ascetic is very different between the two films; Mr Fox’s  use of multiple scales and deliberate ‘table top’ animation look was in contrast with Frankenweenie‘s  more traditional cinematic horror film influence.

The fact that it was a black & white production was significant as a lot of the film takes place at night and it was all too easy to run out of range in the low end of the image,  this making characters and sets blend together in dark scenes. Avoiding this was a constant challenge for the onset lighting crew and the large amount of CG work, and was much harder than I anticipated at the start of the production making this a very different challenge to Mr Fox.

Art research from Tim
Art research from Tim

I would recommend anybody to work on a B&W project as its forces you to think about creating depth without relying on colour. I would recommend as I did looking at ‘David Lean’s 1948 Oliver twist’ as an example of in my opinion one of the best example B&W cinematography ever.

Here is a Frankeenwinie vfx breakdown from Tim vimeo channel.

Frankenweenie Tim’s VFX Reel

One of your recent project is the latest Wes Anderson’s feature animation : The Isle of Dog. We were lucky enough to enjoy the STORE x Isle Of Dog exhibition in London. We have seen all the sets/characters/puppets etc. How the lighting has been done for this project ? Was is more shot by shot or more set by set ? 

Isle of dogs I am told had the most sets and puppets built ever for a stop motion feature with 1000 puppets and 250 sets, to put it in context Mr Fox and Frankeweenie had around 75 sets each. So yes, this effectively made it shot for shot for lighting; with each set only lasting onscreen for  around 3 shots on average.

Generally Wes Anderson doesn’t worry too much about continuity including lighting. He will focus on getting the right mood in the frame to communicate the story at that point. It’s an approach that works well with his style live action or animation and demonstrates just how far you can push things.

Here is an Isle Of Dogs vfx behind the scene from Tim’s vimeo channel.

You recently published a behind the scene video with some breakdown of Isle Of Dog, and thus we can see that they are a lot of different passes to create one shot. Lighting-wise was is not too tricky ? What was your workflow ?

One huge advantage of model photography is the ability to be able to shoot multiple passes per frame this is known as ‘Checker boarding’.  It’s a process that has been around for decades and was used on animated takes throughout the shoot. Typically, while capturing each element a number of different lighting states were shot allowing for finer control in compositing, a similar process as CG rendered passes. An example of this was is a scene set in the laboratory where 20 light passes per frame of animation allowed control and integration of 2D hand animated electrical effects and monitor screens.

You also worked on Castello Cavalcanti, a Wes Anderson’s short which is beautiful with an awesome direction of photography, could you tell us more about it ?

Not too much to say as my involvement in the film was pretty minimal as it was a relatively small job, some DMP set top-ups , added smoke, eyeline corrections and re-times/fixes. So what you see in the final film is as Darius Khondji shot, but is always fun to work on these smaller jobs.

You did Bournemouth academy, and you worked in studios such as MPC or Dneg as modeler or environment artist. Even if you started in 3D industry you was able to switch to stop motion world. How did you do and was it complicated ?

This is a tricky question as I don’t consider myself to have switched to anything as it’s all just been part of my vfx and design work, so the boring answer is it wasn’t  really complicated at all.

 Thus do you think this is something possible for a Lighting TD working in vfx to switch for a “director of photography” or “on-set lighting artist” in stop motion industry ?

Where there is some similarity between a Lighting TD and DOP, they are very different disciplines. I have been fortunate to have seen some great cinematographers working in live action and stop motion and it’s their command over the technical aspects and their crew that allow then the opportunity to light beautiful scenes.

So, to be able to switch from TD to DOP comes down to a lot of practical experience shooting as much material as possible, and to get comfortable with the craft and communication with crew under pressure.

What could be you best advices for people who dreamed to work in stop motion industry ? And especially in lighting ? 

The good news is there is a lot of stop motion being shot these days , so there is a lot of opportunities around the world to gain experience in commercials and kids TV productions. Also its increasingly cheaper and easier to work on your own stop motion projects to show what you can do, but should always be quality over quantity ! 

Thanks a lot for sharing your experience with us Tim, and as we said usually : Welcome in the Lighting Club ! A last word ?

Thank you

______________________________________

A huge thanks to Tim to share with us his vision and his experience. It is always really interesting to get this sort of sharing. We hope you are agree. See you soon for the next Lighting Club, stay tuned !

Wesmo

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