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HomeCraftsPostproductionPP-Post supervisor series-Mike Solinger, VFX Wallace & Gromit

PP-Post supervisor series-Mike Solinger, VFX Wallace & Gromit

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By Sam MolineauxFive years in the making, Aardman’s Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit brings the art of stop-motion claymation to the very cutting edge of technology with a full DI and CGI visual effects. Its subtle marriage of craftsmanship and ingenuity is so seamless in its execution that none of the charm of the cheese-loving inventor and his long-suffering dog is diminished. In fact, the story—a plasticine pastiche of the horror movie genre complete with terrorizing rabbits and a full werewolf (were-rabbit) transformation—has every bit the virtue of any that has come out of the Aardman fold.The company, based in Bristol in the Southwest of England, altered very little between its last full-length feature Chicken Run and The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, with most of the animation team and key crew remaining the same. Once again, the company chose London’s The Moving Picture Company to handle the DI and visual effects, though this time their input was much greater.DP Dave Alex Riddett, who’s been with Aardman since 1990 when it numbered just four full-time staff, technical director Tom Barnes, a 10-year Aardman veteran, and postproduction supervisor Mike Solinger, who reprieved his “facilitator” role from Chicken Run for Were-Rabbit, talk to Below the Line about the film’s unconventional postproduction process.Below the Line: Dave, though your title is DP, your role is much more than a director of photography. Can you explain what you do?Dave Alex Riddett: It’s taking care of the photographic look of the film. There are two of us, myself and my colleague Tristan Oliver. There are so many sets (up to 35), it’s an enormous task. It’s much like live action, going through storyboards, looking at sets, working with directors. But they’re much smaller sets. The shots are one-take and everything has to be worked out—the camera moves, the position of the camera, the effects and what they’ll be, and liaising with the postproduction house. I’m also making sure the sets are locked down, and the lights aren’t going to move: some sets last for three weeks so your planning has to be meticulous and guaranteed not to move.BTL: Tom, can you describe your role and how your job evolves as the film progresses?Tom Barnes: My role was overseeing the technical process from beginning to end. So set-up of editorial, employment of camera and motion control crews, building film equipment, overseeing the picture quality through postproduction. It’s more of an administrative role than the DP.BTL: And Mike, what’s your role as post supervisor?Mike Solinger: My job was making sure the teams involved were working and communicating. It was more about making sure the lines of communication were open between Aardman and DreamWorks. I felt more like a facilitator. I was interfacing with The Motion Picture Company, the recording studio Sound Bytes, the sound editorial team, Aardman themselves and DreamWorks and Technicolor. My job is kind of like delivering a baby. I come in at the last month, to make sure everything goes through smoothly.BTL: What processes changed since making Chicken Run, five years ago?Riddett: On Chicken Run we knew we were going to digitize but we only digitized 100 or so shots. This time we digitized the whole film. It made it a seamless piece of work. Also grading-wise, when you have shots that last several weeks, lights blow, things move, the heat changes in the studios, it’s cold at night and warm during the day. So digital was a godsend. It let us grade extremely accurately.Barnes: I think Chicken Run was more painful because none of us had ever done [a feature-length] before. This film certainly went more smoothly because of the experience of the key crew members. Also post technology had progressed enormously since then. Chicken Run was one of the first films to go to DI. We were doing our DI at the same time as O Brother, Where Art Thou? were doing theirs at Cinesite in London. It was something we realized we had to do in order to assemble the film in that time. As soon as we did it we realized the advantages. Obviously five years later, everything was much slicker and easier, the whole DI process had progressed to a level where it was far more user friendly.BTL: Can you describe the shooting and posting process?Barnes: The shoot took place over a year and a half. It was shot on about 35 units simultaneously, with 35 cameras simultaneously. Everything was shot 35mm film, then processed normally so we’d see a rush print in the mornings and all negative shots and plates that were being used were scanned on a Northlight scanner. Whenever a sequence of the film was complete, we’d do a rough grade of the sequence, because some of the shots were shot on alternate sets—we might have five different sets on scenes shot simultaneously, or they might have been shot six months apart, by any one of the lighting or cameramen, so a pregrade was important to pull all shots into each other.We had a very short post schedule so we had to do everything we could to get ahead of ourselves before we did postproduction. When we were doing the master DI grade, as soon as we completed a reel we were grading that on film at Technicolor London, and also doing a check of the grade of film at Technicolor LA. We were also through Technicolor grading a digital master for digital theatrical release, and a digital master for TV, airline and DVD. So we were doing a large number of grades simultaneously. The post process was about two months, which was a very short period of time to get through that, plus music, plus sound mix, plus front-end title roles that had to be created at the same time.BTL: What were some of the decisions you made early on in the process which laid the foundations for what you would later be doing in post?Barnes: The most fundamental decision was that, even before the film was started we were all completely convinced that we had to use a full DI. Once we’d picked a postproduction company, then we discussed all the stages of postproduction and how we had to try and get as much post work completed as we possibly could while we were shooting the film, before we got to the rushed post phases in the end.Riddett: We start our post quite early on, on things that would normally be left to the end. We even start our grading while we’re filming. With animation there are lots of idiosyncrasies. You have to picture what you’re going to get at the end of it when you’re starting out. Before we started filming we got [The Moving Picture Company] involved. Their animators would come down and they’d take away bits of plasticine to examine. We would get feedback all the while. Towards the latter half of the film we’d see effects shots cut in, which helps as you can see what’s working and whether you need to spend a bit more time on something. MPC would do a nice comp shot, comping a background with one of our foregrounds, which gave the directors [Nick Park and Steve Box] some confidence. Nick likes to know what we’re getting. So it helps when you can see something working during the shoot.BTL: How do you walk the line between fantasy and reality? Do you even strive for realism?Riddett: We aim to replicate the look of live action. We do a lot of chase stuff, which involves a lot of motion control, hand movements, and blurring of frames to achieve a level of realism. If the moves are too smooth, it looks too staid. With the lighting, although they are model sets, we have to keep realism there. It requires a little bit of extra thought to keep that look of realism. At the same time we strive to keep a handcrafted look to it. There’s a certain joy in the fact that the characters are plasticine. When we did Chicken Run, we tried to make everything as perfect as possible, and we thought it lost a bit of its charm, so we tried this time to not make things too smooth in terms of the characters.BTL: Were there more visu
al effects in this film?Barnes: There were in total 1,500 shots in the film, of which 758 had some level of effects. It’s hugely more than Chicken Run. When we started shooting Chicken Run we were deliberately trying to avoid any effects shots and do as much as we possibly could in camera, so we were spending longer in set-up times to avoid model rigs, and to avoid composites if we could. Mainly because we couldn’t afford anything more than a basic level of visual effects. There were over 100 rig removal shots in this film. We didn’t worry as much about painting sky canvases for each shot; if we had a number of canvases with joins in between them we’d just paint in the joins later, rather than spending a lot of time on it. The only complete CG characters were the rabbits in the BunVac and the rabbits on the end title. The transformation sequence where Wallace changes into the Were-Rabbit was a combination of model work and CG, which was a good demonstration of getting the best from both mediums. We spent quite a long time with MPC, working with those characters, trying to get CG models with thumbprints on them, so they looked exactly the same as the real plasticine versions.BTL: It’s hard to tell when you watch the film what is a visual effect, and what isn’t. Can you describe some of the main effects scenes and why they were done in CG?Riddett: The bunnies for the Bunny Vac was the main CG effect. Originally we were trying to figure out a way of doing it ourselves, with a device and rabbits rotating. But there were so many rigs in there that would have had to be removed in post. At first we were quite reluctant to go to CG, as we weren’t sure they’d be able to match our plasticine. But MPC guys came down and talked to us about how we animated, and we gave them plasticine rabbits to analyze so they could mimic the texture complete with the little dents and remains of fingerprints. They did their wireframe versions, and it worked. We used to be quite purist, not wanting to use CG, but in that instance, they were figures floating around, which is actually very appropriate for CG.The other one was the scene where Gromit turns into the Were-Rabbit. That scene was deliberately cheesy; we were sending up An American Werewolf in London. Wallace starts to sprout fur, and we found it’s hard to animate a creature covered in fur because every time a character is touched the fur moves. We spent a lot of time researching the best fur to use that wouldn’t move so much, and finally came up with a particular type of mohair. There was a guy at MPC who’d done a lot of fur things, so we sent him the fur to see if it could be replicated. That was done as the transformation: taking it from clay to the fur look of the Were-Rabbit.There was a lot of comping, particularly at the end. Because they were such massive sets, some of the skies were in many pieces. Or sometimes just adding things in afterwards such as backgrounds and foreground details as well. For the car traveling along, we’d have a car and 30 foot of street on tracks moving behind it. Or sometimes we had a green screen behind the car, and we filmed the street behind it, then they had to be comped together. We used different techniques and it all looked seamless.BTL: What were some of your biggest challenges in terms of post?Riddett: A new thing for us was the fog. It’s one of the first things we experimented with in the preshooting. We shot live-action fog, hiring in smoke generators and dry ice machines and getting MPC to comp things together. It took a while to do. We set up a whole room for the vicarage graveyard scene and the forest scene, and sealed off the studio. We’d fill the room with smoke, and let it settle, then run some live action, shoot that, and clear the room. Then the the animator would go in and animate the character. We’d have to put a green screen behind the character, so every time they did a frame they’d have the character on the green screen to give the post guys something to key off. They could take the characters out of that set and superimpose them into the foggy set. We shot the fog against black so it could be superimposed, and then [the visual effects artists] superimposed some CG fog as well.We did a similar process with the rain effects. There’s a scene outside the vicarage where the character is in the rain. We’d have a character there, perhaps put some wetlook gloss on him and we’d animate gelatin raindrops on the wall, paint splashes of water on the wall, and cut-out raindrops on his jacket. Then later we’d shoot a plate of rain from a hose against black, and that would be added on top of the shot. Sometimes at MPC they generated their own rain, to make sure that what was happening in animation and post would give that heavy rain look.We also did a lot with candles because of the gothic look. We used little fiber-optic lights, which we rotated round the set to give a flicker effect. The candles would have a little light on them that would flicker. Then the post guys, when they finished that shot, they’d superimpose real flames. It was a nice marriage of live and CG and knowing what you can do in advance.Solinger: In terms of the DI work, that was probably a little bit more intense, just staying on top of the changes and schedules, because we were editing right up until the final mix, even when we were outputting to film. The detail work of ensuring that all the elements were going to arrive at the DI facility at the right time was a challenge.At first I thought that supervising post was going to be more involved than it was, but the team came from Aardman with a lot of experience. They had a very good line producer, Claire Jennings, and very good tech support in Tom Barnes, and between the two of them they’d really done the groundwork. So my role became less than I thought it was going to be. Everything was going to plan, and as soon as I knew it was going to be delivered, I actually left the project early.• The entire feature production crew consisted of 250 people.• From development to finish, the film took five years to make. Principal photography took about 18 months.• The studio held 30 filming units and two test areas, which were all filming at any given time.• At the height of production, 100 seconds of footage was shot and approved each week across all sets.• On average, a single animator usually completed about five seconds of film per week.• The largest unit was measured at 75’ x 40’, the smallest unit at 10’ x 8’.• 150 walkie-talkies were used on set. Up to 10,000 calls were made on walkie-talkie handsets to coordinate filming in the studio.• The crew used 44 pounds of glue every month to assist in sticking down the sets.• The directors’ daily walk around the studio would cover about 5 miles.• The production crew consumed at least 500 liters of water every week.

Written by Sam Molineaux

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