# Calculating Reflections – No Computer Required

It doesn’t happen often, but you occasionally have to calculate reflections.  A scene will be staged in a way that the camera is seeing the action in a mirror and it’s immediately clear that the shot will determine how the set is staged and dressing placed.

On one production I was asked how long it would take me to render a digital model with true reflections so they could determine whether the character would be able to see the other person from where he was seated.

I told them it would probably take about  an hour to texture the model and do the render they wanted, or I could figure it out with a pencil and it would only take about 2 minutes. They thought I was kidding.

You’ll want to have the plan view and an elevation. Line them up so that the plane of the mirror is along an identical line. It doesn’t have to be in any certain scale as long as they are both the same size. It can be a printout or just a quick drawing on grid paper, as long as the mirror is correctly placed and sized.

Cover the drawing with trace, being sure to extend it twice as far over the line of the mirror plane.

Now draw lines from the vantage point through the edges of the mirror on both the plan and elevation.

Draw a heavy vertical line through the mirror plane. Then fold the trace along this line.

Since the angle of reflection is equal to the angle of incidence, the reflected view is easily seen once the trace is folded back over the drawing, and it’s clear the person in the chair would have no way to see the person standing at the door.

You can now pivot the ‘mirror plane’ down until the person is in view, although it will be clear that in plan the mirror would be at a strange angle from the wall.

# Google Earth Pro Price Drops From \$400 To \$0

Google announced last Friday that they were going to start offering their Pro version of Google Earth at no cost. The Pro version was meant mainly for developer, architects, contractors and real estate agencies who need both more advance measuring tools than the basic version offered plus higher resolution printouts.

Here is a table showing the differences between the two versions.

# The Superdome is 66.82 Smoots In Diameter

Unlike with the free version the Pro version allows you to measure diameters, heights and 3D paths and polygons.

# How Accurate Is It?

I decided I’d test the measuring tools on something small to test the accuracy. I zoomed over to Colonial Williamsburg Courthouse which I built the model of years ago based on HABS surveys. The footprint measured out to be accurate within 99% and the height to within 98% accuracy. That’s pretty amazing.

You can download the model here and check the results for yourself.

# 10 Design Reference Books You Should Have On Your Shelf

I think I’ve already made it clear that you just can’t have too many books, especially ones on design and architecture. But it’s also a real pain dragging a lot of them around with you from job to job and it becomes a bigger job to keep track of them once they’re out of your house. So, I try to only take books to my current workplace that I either don’t have a digital version of or just really need to have close at hand.

If I had to limit myself to just 10 books, these would be the books I’d take to start a job.

Here is my must-have list with sources:

1. Architectural Graphic Standards – 5th Edition – This was when the books were filled with great hand drawings and actually showed you in detail how things were built. Lots of period details as well. Out of print for over 50 years (at least in this edition) you can still find copies for anywhere from \$20 to \$200. The 3rd edition would be a suitable replacement. the first edition is also good to have and has been reprinted several times. Check Abebooks for copies. Not available digitally.

If you are in Great Britain, McKays is the closest equivalent, and is actually superior in a number of ways from our standpoint as set designers. On the Continent, an older copy of Neufert’s is a must. See this earlier post for details. Not available digitally.

In Germany, the best book on period construction I’ve found is Konstruction Und Form Im Bauen, by Friedrich Hess. There are lots of very nice drawings and measured details. Long out of print but you can still find copies second-hand. In Sweden, an excellent book on traditional construction is Stora Boken Om Byggnadsvård, by Göran Gudmundsson. This is a current book and still in print. Neither are available digitally.

2. Time-Saver Standards for Interior Design and Space Planning, 2nd Edition. This is the design complement to Architectural Graphic Standards and covers nearly every situation regarding building interiors. You can find used copies for around \$75. There is a digital version available but it’s not only difficult to navigate because of the size of the book but at the price you’d be better off getting a hardback edition.

3. Styles Of Ornament – Alexander Speltz.  Originally published in 1904, this book uses over 4000 drawings to illustrate 6000 years of historical design. As a general design reference I don’t think it has an equal. Architecture, furniture, text, carving, metalwork are all covered. A must-have. (Handbook Of Ornament by Franz Meyer would be a close second.) Available from a number of publishers for as little as \$10. A digital version is available.

4. The Stair Builder’s Handbook – T.W. Love – Not a design book per se, but a book of rise and run tables that make stair layout a breeze. Available from Contractor Resource for about \$18.

Low Budget Option – download the PDF Common Sense Stairbuilding and Hand-railing. Skip the mind bending section on handrail layout and skip to page 99. Also, Stair building, which has a nice section on ornamental ironwork.

Also, In April a new book will be out called  Simply Stairs – The Definitive Handbook for Stair Builders, by Mark Milner, published by Whittles Publishing in London for £25. Pre-release information on the book makes it look very promising.

5. Backstage Handbook – Paul Carter. Originally a technical manual for theatrical designers, the book is full of great information for film work as well. There are more details in this earlier post from several years ago. Available from Broadway Press for about \$22. No digital version is available.

6. American Cinematographers Manual – The new 10th edition will cost you about \$80 in hardback and almost the same in it’s digital version through the iTunes and Android sites. There’s a free pdf of the 7th edition here, but much of the latest technology isn’t in it. This is the go-to book for all things dealing with cameras and image capture. A lot of people will tell you you don’t need this. I’m sure you could also have a great career as a car designer without knowing anything about how cars work. Because when it comes down to it, all we’re really doing is designing big, pretty things to bounce light off of. Just remember, if the department names were based on physics we’d be the Light Reflector Design Department.

7. Building Construction Illustrated – Francis Ching. An excellent and thorough book about construction details including wood framing systems as well as masonry. About \$30. No digital version is available.

Low Budget Option – access the online PDF here.

8. The Classical Orders of Architecture – Robert Chitham. I think this is the best modern book around that deals with the classical architecture proportional system. This book was out of print for quite a while and fortunately is back in print. The new edition deals with the proportions for both metric and Imperial systems. Used copies can be found for about \$45.

Low Budget Option – Get the PDF American Vignola by William Ware and The Five Orders by Vignola. Also, download the very nice PDFs on classical architecture from the The Institute of Classical Architecture & Art.

9. Illustrated Cabinetmaking – Bill Hylton. I covered this book in an earlier post. If you want or need to know basic furniture design and how furniture goes together this is the book you’ll want to refer to. It’s been referred to as the Grey’s Anatomy of furniture building. Full of exploded drawings of many kinds of pieces. Available from Fox Chapel Publishing for \$24.95.

10. By Hand & Eye – George R. Walker & Jim Tolpin. Just because this is number 10 on the list doesn’t mean it’s the least important. In fact if you’re just starting out in set design this is the first one I’d tell you to buy. Most bad designs are caused by bad proportions. This book will give you a solid understanding of proportion and keep you from making simple mistakes. You can download a sample chapter here. Also, I wrote a longer post on the book earlier. Walker and Tolpin are promising a workbook that will come out later this year based on the book’s concepts so look for that. Available from Lost Art Press for \$38, hardbound.

Low Budget Option – Cut back on the Starbucks for a couple days and buy a digital version for \$18. The mental stimulation might be just as good as the caffeine and it’ll be a lot healthier too.

So what have I missed? There are other books I could list these are the best. What’s on your shelf? What books would you say are ‘Must Haves’?

Share your titles with the rest of us. Let me know the important titles I’ve missed here, I’m sure there are a lot. As an incentive, everyone who posts book suggestions goes into a drawing at the end of the week for a free digital version of By Hand & Eye.

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# Last Minute Holiday Gifts For Set Designers

Beware. This is what happens when you give a set designer a crappy holiday gift. source: Awkwardfamilyphotos.com

So, it’s just 12 days until Hanukkah and 13 until Christmas and you still haven’t gotten that special set designer in your life a gift. You could just give up in defeat and buy them that same aged cheddar cheese sampler you got them last year, ( which they carefully hid underneath your car seat and is the reason it smells like mold inside ) or you can get them something decent like one of the the items on the list below. At this point you’re probably going to have to resort to hideously expensive 2nd day air shipping, but who’s fault is that??

# Best Value  –  Spike GPS device for smartphones and tablets – \$299

The Spike GPS device for smartphones and tablets

That may sound like a lot of money but that’s 50% off the introductory price of \$619. I got one of these during their Kickstarter program in 2013 and have been thrilled with it. This device does everything my \$500 Bushnell rangefinder does and a lot more. Take a photo of a building up to 200 meters away and then take measurements off the screen, even after you’re back at the office, even weeks later. Easily get accurate heights, door and window sizes, measure billboards, estimate square footage. You can instantly send the photo to someone else with the measurements, GPS coordinates and square footage. Soon to come are the capability to turn your shots into a Sketchup model and point cloud scanning of irregular shapes. For iOS and Android devices.

This offer is only good until December 23 with the offer code FRIENDSOFIKE14.

# By Hand & Eye – \$16.00

Another gem from Lost Art Press, this is probably one of the best design books written in the last 100 years. It outlines the world of design without a rule and using only dividers and proportional methods. I covered this in a previous post and always recommend it. It’s so popular that it’s currently out of print and only a digital version is available. Buy them this and a good pair of second hand dividers from Ebay and you will completely change the way they think about design.

# Drafting Apron – \$25.95

Harkens back to the days of graphite dust, arm protectors and a time when you didn’t have to worry about hours of work disappearing from a computer failure. Hide a box of Tombow pencils in the pocket and watch them weep with joy.

# WE Wood Watches – \$75 to \$150

WE Wood watches are beautiful analogue timepieces made from a number of hardwoods and use precision movements. Each one is absolutely unique due to it’s wood case.They’ll have something nice to look at while they’re waiting for their render to finish or that endless production meeting to come to an end.

# FastCap ProCarpenter Lefty/Righty Tape Measure – \$8.99

Most measuring mistakes that occur while doing a survey come from misreading numbers upside down when you’re measuring from right to left. This tape solves that problem by having the numbers read correctly no matter which way you hold it. The same company also makes the Flatback tape which works like a flexible story pole, making it possible to easily measure round objects. You need this.

# Magna Tip – \$2.49

This little guy will save you when you’re surveying alone and have a metal surface to stick it to. It attaches to the end of most 1″ wide tape measure and becomes a third hand. Especially good if you’re trying to measure something overhead. A great stocking stuffer.

# Tape Tip – \$4.95

Another little device that’s a lifesaver when you’re trying to measure inside corners. Attaches to the ends of most tapes. Inexpensive enough you can buy one for your whole art department.

# GripTip – \$3.00 for two

OK, you’re saying, enough with the survey stuff. But this little gadget will save you someday when you’re trying to measure that stone or brick wall and the end of your tape keeps slipping off. The serrated edge will bite into just about anything and stop the cursing fast! At \$3.00 for two, you can afford to have several in your kit.

# Smartphone Projector – \$27

For the gadget lover, this is a low-tech projector option that works with palm-size smart phones, not the phablets. Made from cardboard, the device works with simple lens physics as the image and light from the phone is projected by way of a convex lens onto any white surface up to 6 feet away. You’ll need a dark room though, it won’t work in a brightly lit space. A great way to share when you don’t happen to have a 27″ monitor in your bag.

# Geometrigraph – \$14.95

First manufactured in the late 1800s, these two stainless-steel templates were designed to make it possible to create curved, parallel or perpendicular lines as well as circles, angles and a range of polygons from 3-sided to 20-sided. By using the inset shapes of various curvatures with the circles and polygons, you can create an unlimited variety of ornamental designs.  All this can be done without using any other drawing instruments; all that is needed is paper, a pin, and a sharp pencil or fine-tip ballpoint pen. Two nickel-plated steel T-head anchor pins are included.  The templates are suitable for designers of inlay in wood, graphic artists, quilters, sign-makers, innovative youngsters, etc. The set comes with a 16-page instruction booklet explaining the various uses as well as showing numerous examples of typical designs. Remember the Spirograph? Well this is it’s Granddad.

# Tape Measure Uniform – \$42.00

For those times when you need to stand out and let people know there’s a Art Department professional on the job. Or, more likely what it will be saying about you is, “Yes, I am a proud member of the Art Department and I have gone completely insane from breathing Spray77 and Zip Kicker fumes, living on stale coffee, doing endless revisions and dealing with constant software issues. So just stay away from me and no one will get hurt.”

# Really, Really Last Minute Gifts

When you realize you’ve really screwed up and forgotten someone and have no time to run to the store, much less order anything, you can always gift a good app.

I own and can recommend all these apps.

BuildCalc – construction calculator – \$19.99

Magic Plan – indoor mapping, survey tool – free, pay per use

Photo Measures – saving and sharing measurements – \$6.99

Artemis – professional director’s finder – \$29.99 *

pCAM – camera info calculator – \$29.95 *

Sun Surveyor – sun and moon calculator – \$6.99

Stereo Calc – 3D stereo film calculator – \$39.99 *

Moviola Pro Camera Guide – extensive database of camera info – \$3.99 *

I.D. Wood – samples and data for 200 kinds of wood – \$4.99

* iOS versions only

# Exhibition Of German Expressionist Film Artwork Now At LACMA

At the Los Angeles County Museum Of Art now until April is a special exhibition of artwork and posters from the German Expressionist period of the silent film era, 1919 to the mid 1930’s. Produced in association with  La Cinémathèque Française and the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences, the show features over 150 pieces of artwork from classic films of the German UFA studio.

Along with many posters are a large number of original set and costume design drawings which are seen together for the first time here. Most of which have not been on display here before and others only seen as small images in publications.

Of course artwork from the most well-known films are there; The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari, Metropolis, The Nibelungen, but there are many others from more obscure films as well including Robert Hearlth’s original schematic of the forced perspective backings from Der Letzte Mann which were such a sensation.

One of Ernst Stern’s drawings for Waxworks, which indicates the set design, platforming, camera position and lighting.

A watercolor and charcoal drawing for one of the sets for Dr. Caligari by Walter Röhrig

It was common during this period of German cinema for Art Directors to work in teams of two or three people, dividing the design duties among themselves as matched their individual abilities. A perfect example of this is the work of Otto Hunte and Erich Kettelhut on Fritz Lang’s The Nibelungen. Here is a drawing by Hunte of the dragon by the waterfall.

Gouache painting of the dragon for Die Nibelungen by Otto Hunte.

Being the more technically trained, Kettelhut elaborated on the design by drawing the technical requirements of the dragon to carry out the action called out in the script.

Technical drawing of the Dragon by Erich Kettelhut

Kettelhut carefully described how the giant action prop was to be built and operated both with stage requirements as well as the on-board personnel’s responsibilities.

Enlargement of Kettelhut’s drawing describing how each part of the dragon was to be operated by stagehands.

The size and depth of the recessed path required for the props operators.

Kettelhut called out the length of the neck as well as the eye detail, tension springs, framework, control cables and hoses required for the creatures fiery breath. He calls out “only rubber!” for the mouth area.

Here is the scene from the film where Siegfried finds and kills the dragon. The effect is quite crude by our modern film standards but must have been thrilling for a public new to such spectacles. Imagine the lot of the half dozen stagehands stuck inside the big, airless prop as it bellows smoke from inside it. Notice the large forest and mountain sets created for the film, truly epic efforts for the time.

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# The World’s Oldest Film Scenery?

The title ends in a question mark because I’m not sure I have a definitive answer yet on my search for the the oldest existing scenery from a film. So, I’m asking everyone out there to help me with this quest.

The stage of the oldest intact film studio in Sweden,  and maybe the world. photo by Reinhold Fryksmo

Let’s use this as a starting point: in Kristianstad, Sweden there is what is reported to be the oldest intact film studio from the silent period. Inside the studio museum (Kristianstad Filmmuseet) is a display in what was the original glass-walled studio space. It is dressed as a set from the 1909 film, Fänrik Ståls Sägner, one of three films made at the Kristianstad Biograf-Teater that year. The scenery appeared throughout the film apparently as the same space was used for a number of different scenes. The main element is a multi-panel theatrical style flat painted with a Trompe-l’œil design. If this is truly the original set piece then this is in excellent condition for a 105 year-old flat.

A closer look at the flats. photo by Lotten Bergman

So is this the oldest film scenery in existence? I’d love to hear from other Art Department people out there from around the world with older examples.

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# Painted Backings – Part II

A scenic lays out a backing at Ealing Studios in London in 1939 for the film “Young Man’s Fancy”. National Media Museum

In my last post on painted backings I mentioned that they had some definite advantages over photographic backings but I didn’t go into details.

Here’s some of the things they have in their favor:

1. “Softness” – Painted backings have a much more atmospheric feel to them visually. This could be enhanced by adding a “haze” to the canvas or hanging bobbinette, white or black, in front of them to soften them further. Many cinematographers hated the photographic backings when they were introduced because they were too sharp, which made it hard to try and have believable depth-of-field with a backing that was supposed to imply a distant object.

2. Canvas backings can be enhance with elements to simulate a more realistic setting: L.E.D. or miniature bulbs, cellophane strips that simulate light reflecting off water features, etc. You could do that to a Translite but it’s hard to repair the holes you’ll make in it.

3. Painted backings can be altered easily to reflect changing seasons. You can paint over a backing to create, snow, leaves, remove architectural elements and restore it back to it’s original form where you would need entirely different photographic backings in each case.

4. A painted backing has infinite possibilities, any angle, and location. There’s no need to have to get a camera at the point of view you want the scene to be shot from. No need to worry you’ll get strange perspective lines from a Photoshopped image.

And for those who don’t believe a painted backing could ever look as realistic as a photographic one, I’ll offer up this little story:

Years ago I was working on a feature that involve a 160′ long backing of a coastline and ocean view. It had to match a location which was a modern house with floor to ceiling glass panels. The designer suggested a painted backing would be better for many reasons.

One of the producers scoffed at the idea saying that since we would see so much of the backing he couldn’t believe it would look realistic enough. Because the painted backing was actually going to be cheaper he was overruled on the decision. He would walk on to the stage sometimes while it was being painted and just shake his head. “They’ll be sorry”, he said.

Several weeks later he walked into the Art Department with the writer and walked up to my drafting board, pointing to a photo on the wall of an ocean view, the sun glowed in the background and the light was glinting off the water.

“You see that. That’s what they’re trying to recreate with a painted backing!” he laughed.

I interrupted him. “That is the painted backing. I shot that yesterday after they hung and lit it.” I pointed out a studio light hanging just inside the top of the frame.

He got quiet and leaned in closer, studied the photo, and then just turned and left. He never mentioned it again.

Remember, it doesn’t matter what scenery looks like to your eye. It’s all about how the camera see it.

A painted backing seen outside the set windows

Here are some more photos from the JC Backings / ADG event:

Backing from the original Battlestar Gallactica TV show

# Painted Backings – Film’s Best Kept Secret

“In 1903, Pathé (the first Pathé studio in Vincennes) had two cameramen [who were] paid 55 francs a week. The designers/painters, much better paid, began at 90 francs a week. A week then was 60 hours and payment was made every Saturday in gold.”

Gaston Dusmenil, Bulletin de l’ A.F.I.T.E.C., no. 16  (1967)

“The scenery [ in early 1900‘s France ] was painted flat, like stage scenery. The canvas (about 20 x 30 feet) was tacked to the floor, and after applying a coat of glue size and whiting, the designer drew the design in charcoal. For complicated architectural sets a small sketch was made and squared for enlargement. Since the size paint was used hot, a scale of grays running from black to white was prepared in advance in small flameproof buckets. The scene painter worked standing, walking on the canvas (in rope shoes or socks) and using very long-handles brushes: straight lines were drawn with the aid of a long flat ruler, similarly attached to a handle. To judge the whole, in order to accentuate effects if needed or to remove unnecessary details, the artist had to mount a ladder. The completed canvases were attached either to wooden frames to form flats, or else, to vertical poles so they could be rolled up.”

Léon Barsacq, Caligari’s Cabinet and Other Grand Illusions

Mèliés’ Montreuil Studio

Painted backings have been a staple of filmwork since the very beginning. Georges Méliès was the first to recognixe the possiblilites of incorporating painted backings in his films which he realized could be a vehicle for creating a dramatic narrative and not just for recording real-life as the first short films had.

Even today, with the current trend of green screens and digital effects, audiences are often unaware that the view outside the windows of a set are actually hand-painted backings. While photographic backings, basically photographic images greatly enlarged and printed on heavy mylar or polyester fabric, are the norm in backings these days, the painted backing still has not only a definite place but even distinct advantages over their photographic competitor.

J. C. Backings, who make their home in the historic Scenic Painting Building on the old MGM lot in Culver City (now Sony Studio) recently hosted a Historic Backings event along with the Art Directors Guild here in Los Angeles. They pulled a number of backings from their collection of over 5000 backings, along with several from the Warner Bros. collection and displayed them on the six paint frames where the backings were painted originally.

The storage racks for backings at J.C. Backings

Along with the backings were displayed a collection of smaller scale studies, paint notes, research photographs and examples of the backing design process as well as numerous photos of backings from their archives.

Usually only seen in partial focus and in the background, it’s wonderful how realistic most of these backings are even when seen up close and out of context.

The Scenic Painting Building on the Sony Lot (formerly MGM)

Backing from The Sound Of Music

Backing from South Pacific. Notice the inset close-up of the brush work

Sample of photo reference for a backing along with notes and a small preliminary paint study for the final backing

small painted comp for a backing for a corridor of the first Star Trek film in 1978

Paint rack with Hudson sprayers and roller mandles

Art Directors Guild’s Associate Executive Director John Moffit in front of one of the many backings he painted while Head of the Scenic Department at Warner Bros. Studio

Large backing in progress on the large paint frame

Still from a Life Magazine article of the same space when it was the MGM scenic shop in the 1950’s.

1950’s photo of a backing layout in progress.

And finally, here’s a time-lapse video of a street scene backing being painted by scenic Donald MacDonald at J.C. Backings. Note how the canvas is back-painted so that it can be rear lit for a night shot.

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# Comparing Cinema Lenses To Still Camera Lenses

A lot of people take shots of sets and wonder how the focal length of their still camera lens compares to cinema lenses. Even if the capture format is 35mm film or a digital camera with a 35mm size sensor, the angles of view are not the same as with a 35mm still camera.

The reason is that the the film runs horizontally through a still camera instead of vertically as through a cinema camera, resulting in a larger frame in the still camera which in turn results in a wider angle of view with a similar focal length lens.

The lens angle chart below is similar to the traditional AOV acetates used in Art Departments for decades but this one has the equivalents for still lens focal lengths next to the cinema lens angles. (You can print out a pdf of this below, just have it printed on clear acetate.) Beside each cine focal length you’ll see the equivalent focal length with a full frame DSLR. If you are using a camera with a crop frame factor this will of course be closer to the cine focal length. In fact if you shoot with the Nikon D40 or similar, it will be almost identical in focal length numbers to the cine lenses.

On the chart I’ve drawn a full size outline of each sensor/frame size so that you can see the difference between the two mediums. You can use this chart on any size scale plan and it will give you a very close approximation to what you’ll see with a given lens. If you want to use it on elevations you’ll need to divide the angle by 1.33 to get the vertical angle.

For those of you who use iPhones for stills, you can download a AOV chart for the iPhone below, print it on acetate and compare in to the 35mm lenses.

Cinema_Super 35 AOV Comparison

iPhone Angle Of View

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# Your Next Phone May Be A Real-time 3D Scanner

In February Google launched what they call “Project Tango”. They have developed a smartphone which is also a 3D scanner that can map the surrounding area and build a visual map of it. Processing over 3 million reference points a second, the device can build a virtual, scalable model of a room in the time it takes to walk through it.

Schematic of how the Tango device works

They have currently hand-picked 200 developers to create applications for the device which as of now only runs on Android devices. Imagine what this would do to those never-ending time-consuming location surveys. Would you ditch your iPhone if you could have an Android phone that did this?

Can’t wait that long? If you’ve got \$4500 and want the latest in room scanners, go over to Matterport and watch their demonstration video of their room capture camera system.