On Little Characters, Big Lights, and 50 Units Shooting at Once

Director of photography Tristan Oliver is one of a handful of cinematographers who have shot the tiny characters and small sets in stop-frame animated films. His recent work at Laika on ParaNorman contributed to that film’s Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature Film, Annie Award for Best Animated Feature, and BAFTA nomination for animated film. Prior to ParaNorman, Oliver was director of photography for the Oscar-nominated Fantastic Mr. Fox; Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, which won an Oscar for Best Animated Feature, a BAFTA children’s award for Best Feature Film and the Alexander Korda award for Best British Film; and Chicken Run, which received a BAFTA nomination. Oliver is also known for his cinematography on Aardman Studio’s award-winning short films.  In addition to the BAFTA and Oscar nominations and Annie award, Focus Features’ ParaNorman has received another 10 wins and 18 nominations from film critics and festivals, and grossed more than $100 million at the box office.

StudioDaily: Have you worked solely on stop-frame animation projects?

Tristan Oliver: No. In the beginning of my career I did live-action, and intermittently between big animation projects I do television and other projects. I do mixed media – live-action with stop-motion elements. Motion control. Green screen.

How is working stop-frame animation different from live-action?

We have to work across 30, 40, maybe 50 units in one go. And you can’t have a “take two.” You have to be absolutely prepared before shooting. You can’t expect an animator to re-do a shot.

But I like to think there is not much of a difference at all in terms of aesthetic. For too long, stop-motion looked like kids’ TV. I try to make it look like a proper movie. I set out to achieve the most beautiful and appropriate feeling in the lighting.

I know Norman is only nine inches tall. Does that mean you used little tiny lights?

[laughs] We do use some fittings that are small, some LEDs. But we will work with substantial lights — 10, 12, 20K, especially when shooting daytime exteriors, because we need them to look real. We want the realistic shadows. We can light a fairly substantial set with one light. And the bigger the lens on the light, the better we can emulate the sun. If the lights are too small, the shadows fan out. We want more shadows running in the same direction.

Isn’t working one frame at a time an excruciatingly slow way to work?

Actually, we work as fast as we can. Everyone does. The key to thinking about this is to separate everyone’s work from that of the animators. The animators start when everything is done on set. Everything is automated for them. There is no crew on set. The animators are alone. The crew works as fast as, if not faster than, in a live-action environment because there is so much to do.

These films typically take 78 to 84 weeks, but it’s not about having patience. There is so much that goes into every frame that everyone works flat out — 12 hours a day, 6 days a week, for 18 months.

What is the process?

The way it works is kind of a rolling process. No set is ever completed at the same time as another set, and shots take different lengths of time to animate. The camera, set, lighting, everything is worked out and ready for animation. When an animator comes out, the crew moves onto the next set. I divided the camera crew into four or five crews that were constantly moving through the stage from set to set to set. I had a top-down view of everything on the floor. I lit 15 or 16 sets myself, but I saw test shots from all the other sets and made sure everything looked coherent.

The number of units seems to grow with every film. On Chicken Run and Were Rabbit we had a maximum of 35, but Laika has so much space we had 50 cameras up and were shooting 50 units.

If a shot looks two ways on a set, we were probably looking at two sets that we’d shoot separately at different places in the studio. [The figures] wouldn’t be in the same environment, but the shots must look as if they were.

Did you use precise measurements to keep the look coherent?

The best instrument we have is our eyes. You can tell a lot by comparing one shot with another visually. If you measure and calibrate too hard, you can come up with something sterile and mechanical. You have to use your eye and your aesthetic judgment. But, having said that, we did have constraints in terms of color.

Did you work from color scripts, layouts, and lighting scripts?

We didn’t have layouts as you would have in flat or CG animation. What we have are full storyboards for the entire movie that are useful in placing the camera and choosing the lens angle. You have to make these movies before you make them. You can’t afford to over-shoot. We can’t say, "We might use this shot or not." We have to know where the cuts would come. Otherwise, we’re wasting the animators’ time.

We also do mood boards, spectrum boards. We knew Norman’s town would be bright and sunny and have a level of New England desaturation about the way the houses look. We did this for every significant scene in the movie and for the stereo 3D.

We looked at various references from movies and still photographs to get some idea of the feel of the movie. I did what I always do – prepared a mood reel for the directors, and they came back to me with adjustments.

So, we start the movie with a sensibility. But, in terms of lighting and how that manifests itself on the floor, that depends on what the sets look like.

What was your most difficult shot in ParaNorman?

I never look at things as hard or easy. You either nail it the first time or you don’t. Stuff that’s simple is hard to simply nail. A close-up might be harder than an effects shot that takes weeks to shoot. It’s kind of a mojo thing. If you have a good day, the most complicated things can come together easily.

We had shots that were difficult from a mechanical point of view. In one, Norman walks down the street and the camera swings around his head 180 degrees and then follows him down the street, cranes up, and reveals the town. The sheer number of passes and the ways we had to shoot meant the shot ran on for weeks and weeks. We had the street fully dressed. Then we took the road away. Then replaced the road. Then animated Norman walking down the road. It became a bit of a headache from a lighting point of view, but it was not arduous.

Do you have any shots in ParaNorman that you particularly like?

I’m very fond of the meadow, the field where the children pitch up near the end of the movie. It’s a beautiful country scene with grass, trees, butterflies. The sun is shining. It’s a relief from the frenetic, high-action mood we’ve come from. It was nice to create that subtle palette and naturalistic look. I was very pleased with how that came about.

I also like the house interiors — Norman’s bedroom [and] Mr. Prenderghast’s house.

Did stereo make life more difficult for you?

Stereo brings issues with it, but it doesn’t affect how you light. There were a lot of problems. We were shooting Scope, 2:35 aspect ratio, which is difficult. The sheer framing of stuff was tricky. We decided we would use a shallow stereo and punctuate when we needed something different. Stereo adds a bit of depth, but it’s not a substitute for a good script, and it can hogtie you if you do it too hard. People get distracted by the stereo and aren’t watching the movie. You have to be subtle and plan very carefully.

Why did you choose to do cinematography for stop-motion animation?

I fell into it by accident. I was just out of film school in Bristol and was shooting a film. But I didn’t have any money. I rang Aardman, which was about five people in those days working out of a garage, and asked if I could borrow some lights. They said yes, and asked if I could come in and shoot a commercial. I went along and shot the commercial and didn’t leave for six months. So, it was a coincidence really. The funny thing is that Aardman weren’t quite famous. It was still a time when you’d ask, “Does anyone know someone who can do this?” I know a producer who started out as a cleaner. There was so much commercial work in those days, you could work 52 weeks a year. So, that’s how I started. It was a good time.

You must be a big fan of stop-frame animation now.

Absolutely. I prefer it over any other kind of animation. The handcraftedness of it. The fact that it’s real filmmaking, just with small characters. I don’t understand why it doesn’t make big box office. Laika is the only studio shooting right now. 

As far as working on the features, I have very mixed feelings. Every time I finish a film, I say I’ll never do one again. It eats you alive. You don’t go out. On Sunday, you do laundry and buy food. Month after month after month.

When I finished Fantastic Mr. Fox, someone wrote about me, “What the hell does he know? He’s only done three features.” But those three features took six years of my life.

Any advice for other cinematographers who might want to shoot stop-frame animation?

If someone is doing stop frame, my advice is to make no concessions. Work as naturally and realistically as possible. You do the material a disservice if you don’t. Make it as beautiful as you can.