Article by Marc Lougee
The point of this foray is to share the lay out a very basic DSLR/ shooting system that I had assembled for production of the stop motion animated short film, Ray Harryhausen Presents: The Pit and the Pendulum. in shooting the stop motion animation for the film, we utilized Digital Single Lens Reflex Camera’s in place of traditional film camera’s. In this, we’d found a high quality, cost effective digital alternative to 35mm film.
So, to help sort out the process a bit for those hopeful souls who want to know, I’ve laid out the basic system used to achieve a digital finish for theatrical presentation, festivals, broadcast & the DVD release for The Pit and the Pendulum (which is slated for a June/ July 2008). I don’t profess the following diatribe to be gospel, only reflective of what I feel were great results for a lower cost than we could expect with 35mm film cameras and the required lab & post production processes inherent with film. This sort of digital image capture system has been around for a few years, becoming widely known with the production of Tim Burton's The Corpse Bride. The Corpse Bride crew took the High Road (theirs was a pricey set up- the Canon camera’s were reportedly over $6K each). Alternatively, scores of filmmakers have trundled along the Low Road on their way to a less costly, high-resolution version of the system (think DIY vs. Disney). Hence, the popularity of Nikon’s D70s Digital Single Lens Reflex camera and it’s sub-$1000 price range among our budget -challenged crew.
Thankfully, I didn’t have to sell any internal organs or participate in drug tests to get hold of the equipment we needed. Total costs for the computer, monitor, camera, hard drives, lens, mini cameras, et al worked out to less than $2400 per system, ready to shoot. Considering the cost of a RED One camera and peripherals, that worked out to be a bargain. (Then again, the RED 'Scarlet' is due this summer, for a whopping $3K- and it's apparently single-frame friendly... more on that in another article).
Once you own (the DSLR package), you can rent or sell, recouping some of your production costs to throw a wrap party! Since we produced The Pit and the Pendulum, the D70s has dropped a few hundred dollars in price, new. Of course there are newer DSLR's with live video viewing, output to external monitors, etc, etc, making life alot easier for those shooting animation, so look around before diving in to an older camera. Personally, if you consider buying, I recommend highly getting new gear, with warranties intact. Though the camera’s are pretty hardy, they are not built for the rigors of stop-motion production and the warranty may be void with such use. There is info online concerning life expectancy of the DSLR shutters, body, etc., not holding up, but the argument remains fairly vague. Of course there is always that chance, but for my two cents, the DSLR's are pretty rugged. We shot a television series with 10 D70s camera’s running 10-15 hours a day, 5 days a week for 10 plus months with scant few problems. Our biggest problem was the power supply cables being crushed and frayed due to on-set traffic. The camera’s shot upward of 30-40,000 images apiece, with daily cleaning. Life expectancy of the camera's is apparently in the 100, 000 frame range, so you can fully expect to shoot a few shorts or a feature with the system before it's prime time to trade up. So, careful use ought to get you a long way with these things. My experience with this system has been positive, and the resolution just can’t be beat.
Newer camera's are sporting a live feed with Firewire output, and these things are due to change the DSLR / stop-motion landscape. I’ll stick with the D70s in this article, as it’s what I’ve the most experience with at this point. Here we go…
In The Beginning…
Basically, we started much the same way any animated project hits the ground; running wildly through the steeplechase of production, our hair on fire. Our take on Edgar Allan Poe’s classic story started with writer Matt Taylor and I discussing the script in April and Matt’s delivery of the final draft in May. Much kneeling & begging ensued as I pitched the project (and our need of favors) to our friends and vendors. Meanwhile, producer Susan Ma negotiated deals and finalized contracts as we lurched from pre-viz into production. Generous funding from Bravo!FACT and the National Film Board of Canada came in super-handy, allowing us to go about building sets and puppets in preparation for the looming first day of shooting.
‘Pre-viz’, or pre-visualization, proved a key aspect on our animated adventure. Everybody finds a process for pre-visualizing ideas and concepts to tell their story, and I’ve got mine, which goes something like this; I draw little thumbnail sketches in the script as I read, transcribing the text into images for reference later on. Here’s a sample from The Pit and the Pendulum (script by Matt Taylor):
Collecting the best thumbnails, then scanning and re-assembling them into my storyboard template, I add dialogue and shooting notes. By now, I’ve a rough version of the storyboards with which I can shoot from directly. If illustration is not your forte’, no worries. There are lots of alternatives and options, from simple stick figures to any number of storyboard software packages available (some even tout free ‘demo’ versions to try out). When I can afford the luxury (usually on series or commercial gigs), I have storyboard pro’s plow through my thumbs, cleaning them up for clarity. In this case we were shy on cash, so I scanned the thumbs and came up with my own version of the storyboards. As you can see, one need not be gifted to get the point across…
Once finished scanning the thumbs up for the storyboards, I drop the thumbnail images (as jpegs) into Final Cut Pro as a slideshow, adding a rough dialogue track I’d recorded to help sort out the timing for animation. This stuff is then edited, becoming our animatic or Leica reel (a version of the film in illustrated form). This is shared with the cinematographer, dialogue actor and animators. The purpose is to get everyone cognizant of the direction, look and feel for the film, in hope of saving us a lot of frustration while shooting. In my humble opinion, animation lives and dies in the storyboard stage, so be careful and strive for clarity in what you’re trying to achieve. The devil is in the details and you'll need the aspirin for other stuff.
Digital Image Capture and why we went there
From the outset, I wanted to shoot the film utilizing as high a resolution source as possible. My experience with digital capture for animation started while Animation Director on MTV’s Celebrity Deathmatch in New York, where we had used three-chip cameras built for medical operating theatres. The image resolution & color was great for standard definition television, but was untested for theatrical screening. In addition, the body of the camera was tethered to a control box, gamma scope and computer via cables, power cords and whatnot. This bundle of cords and cables greatly limited maneuverability and placement options for the camera. The necessary antics to work around this assortment of cabling and hardware (on an already cramped set) often landed folks on a chiropractor’s table.A smaller, more mobile digital image capture system was what I was keen to find. Problem was finding cameras that were affordable, yet would deliver very high resolution (at least 2K), full frame images. While in our research stages, The Corpse Bride folks made it known of they were looking to shoot with DSLR's as well. This nugget of info was a trumpet call, making me a believer. We were on the right track. (To Be Continued).
Part Two up in a couple of days- stay tuned!