The Winner Is . . .

The winner of the design book giveaway is Hogan Lee. His name was drawn from the correct answers, which is: Der Letzte Mann (The Last Man). Made by UFA Films, it was released here in 1925 as The Last Laugh. The American release version was re-edited to be less of a ‘downer’ that the original German version as well as having more cuts added. Proof that even then American audiences had shorter attention spans.

the-last-laugh

 

Beyond the film’s exclusion of the usual silent film title cards in exchange for a more visual storytelling style, it set a new standard for camera movement. The film caused quite a stir here in Hollywood as the studios were stymied as to where it was shot. The ‘city’ in the film was populated with building much taller than anything that existed in the world at that time and yet they were obviously physical buildings and not a glass shot. ( more on this later )

rain-scene

The picture’s Art Directors, Hearlth and Röhring , designed the street to be a giant forced perspective set, populated by progressively smaller cars and pedestrians.

The director, F.W. Murnau would come to Hollywood and make equally visually impressive films here. He died in Santa Barbara. The cinematographer, Karl Freund, would also find a new career in Hollywood and would revolutionize multi-camera filmmaking by creating the technique of “flat-lighting”, which became the standard of TV sitcoms.

the-setup

The VES Handbook of Visual Effects

Visual Effects are such a ubiquitous element of filmmaking that it’s rare to see a commercial or short film that doesn’t use them.

With the digital revolution changing the film production landscape on daily basis, from new cameras to capture formats, the field of visual effects is yet another part of the production process that is important to keep up with. As visual effects become more prevalent and take up a larger part of the pre-production decisions it’s vital to understand the basics of modern visual effects as designers.

The-VES-Handbook-of-Visual-Effects-post

Much as the ASC Cinematographers Manual has been considered an essential volume, the VES Handbook of Visual Effects fills the same need when it comes to gaining a working knowledge of today’s VFX processes. At over 1000 pages the book is even more comprehensive than the ASC manual and covers everything from pre-production to post-production considerations.

It covers green-screen work, front and rear projection systems, shot design, motion capture, stereoscopic 3-D work, compositing, game and animation projects and motion tracking as well as traditional in-camera effects work like glass shots, forced perspective and miniature photography.

For understanding the modern visual effects world you would find it hard to locate another book with this much practical information.

Available from Focal Press for $75 in paperback.

 

Se Vi Piacciono I Film Epici, Ringraziate Gli Italiani. ( If You Like Epic Films, Thank The Italians. )

Per E.M.A. Un’artista di talento e amica.

Traduzioni:  Sara Trofa

 

L’Inferno  (1911)

Original Poster for the film

Locandina originale del film. Original Poster for the film

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The American director D.W. Griffith is often credited as being the creator of the feature-length film. It was actually the Australians who made the first feature film in 1906 which was called The Story Of The Kelly Gang.

La creazione del lungometraggio viene spesso attribuita al regista americano D.W. Griffith ma di fatto furono gli australiani a realizzare il primo lungometraggio nel 1906 dal titolo The Story Of The Kelly Gang.

But in 1911 with the release of L’Inferno, the Italian industry created not only the first epic film but the first international blockbuster as well.

Nel 1911, con l’uscita de L’inferno, l’industria italiana creò non solo il primo film epico ma anche il primo film di successo internazionale.

Taking over three years to make, the film took in over 2 million dollars in the United States alone. As its extended length meant there could be less screenings per day, it gave the theater owners an excuse to raise the normal prices of admission. It remains the oldest feature film to still exist.

Esso richiese più di tre anni per la sua realizzazione ed incassò, solo negli Stati Uniti, più di due milioni di dollari. La lunghezza del film implicava meno proiezioni al giorno e i proprietari dei cinema ne approfittarono per aumentare il prezzo del normale biglietto. L’inferno resta il più vecchio lungometraggio esistente.

the-inferno-canto-15

L'Inferno - 1911 - Blasphemers - Balls of Fire

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Credited to three different directors, the film is a live action adaptation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. The sets and visuals were closely based on Gustave Dorè’s engravings from his 1857 edition of the poets work which was, and still is, the most iconic representation of the title. Using fantastical, extravagant sets and special effects, the film must have been as terrifying to audiences in 1911 as any horror film of present day. Winged devils, brimstone hail, choking fires, it’s likely there were at least a few trips to the hospital by cast members who spent much time on the production. L’Inferno  remains the oldest feature film to still exist.

Attribuito a tre registi, il film è un adattamento animato della Divina Commedia di Dante. Gli elementi scenici furono basati principalmente sulle incisioni di Gustave Doré dell’edizione del 1857, le quali ancora oggi sono la rappresentazione più iconica della Commedia. Considerati i fantastici e stravaganti set ed effetti speciali impiegati, il film dev’essere stato per il pubblico del 1911 tanto terrificante quanto lo è per noi oggi un qualunque film dell’orrore. Con diavoli alati, grandine di zolfo e fuochi soffocanti sul set, è probabile che i membri del cast impegnati nella produzione siano finiti all’ospedale almeno un paio di volte. L’Inferno resta il più vecchio lungometraggio esistente.     

the-inferno-canto-22winged devils

 

 

 

Left, one of Dorè's illustrations, on the right, Lucifer's depiction in the film.

A sinistra, una illustrazione di Doré. A destra, il ritratto di Lucifero nel film. Left, one of Dorè’s illustrations, on the right, Lucifer’s depiction in the film.

 

Cabiria  (1916)

800px-Cabiria_1914_poster_restored

It would be the feature Cabiria five years later that would be the most influential silent Italian film of the period. Directed by Giovanne Pastrone, the film was shot in Torino (Turin) and featured massive period sets as well as elaborate and imaginative miniatures which recreated the eruptions of Mt Etna in Sicily. It follows the story of a young girl, Cabiria, who is saved from the disaster caused by the eruption only to be captured by Phoenicians and  sold into slavery in Carthage.

Cinque anni dopo, il film Cabiria fu il più influente film muto del periodo. Diretto da Giovanni Pastrone, il film fu girato a Torino con imponenti scenografie d’epoca ed elaborate e immaginifiche miniature che ricreavano l’eruzione dell’Etna in Sicilia. Ne derivò la storia di una ragazza, Cabiria, che viene salvata dal disastro dell’eruzione solo dopo essere stata catturata dai Fenici e venduta come schiava a Cartagine.

Foreground miniature of the eruption of Mt. Etna

Primo piano della miniatura dell’eruzione dell’Etna. Foreground miniature of the eruption of Mt. Etna

The sets include a massive exterior and interior of the Temple of Moloch which includes a huge bronze statue of the god. During the sacrifice scene, the chest of the statue opens and dozens of children are thrown into its fiery belly one at a time, it’s mouth belching fire as the door swings shut on each sacrifice.

 

Il set includeva una riproduzione esterna ed interna del Tempio di Moloch con una enorme statua di bronzo raffigurante la divinità. Durante la scena del sacrificio, il petto della statua si apre, dozzine di bambini vengono gettati nella sua pancia infuocata tutti in una volta e un fuoco scoppia al richiudersi della porta dopo ogni sacrificio.

 

The exterior set of the Temple of Moloch

Set esterno del Tempio di Moloch. The exterior set of the Temple of Moloch

 

In one scene, the Roman navy assaults the city of Syracuse, a massive set and staged battle that would presage the scenes of the siege of Babylon years later in D.W. Griffiths’ Intolerance. While Pastrone’s film doesn’t have the same intercutting as Griffith’s, many of the lighting effects are much more dramatic than Grifffith’s.

In una scena, la flotta romana assalta la città di Siracusa, un imponente set con una battaglia di scena che presagisce le scene dell’assedio di Babilonia anni dopo in Intolerance di D.W. Griffith. Il film di Pastrone non ha lo stesso montaggio incrociato del film di Griffith, ma parecchi dei suoi effetti di luce sono molto più drammatici rispetto a quest’ultimo.

Syracuse set walls

 

scene from Cabiria

 

Pastrone would be the first to put a camera on a dolly and execute the long, slow tracking shots throughout the film that would be so influential to every feature afterwards. In fact for many years any dolly shot or one involving movement was known as a ‘Cabiria shot’. The film was also the first to incorporate flashbacks as a story device.

Pastrone fu il primo a mettere una videocamera su un dolly ed eseguire nel film quelle lunghe e lente carrellate che sarebbero poi state così rilevanti per ogni film successivo ed è per questo che per molti anni qualunque ripresa con un dolly o in movimento veniva chiamata ‘ripresa Cabiria’ (‘Cabiria shot’). Cabiria fu anche il primo film ad incorporare il flashback come espediente narrativo.

cabiria set

The film’s elephants made a huge visual impact on Griffith, and he would insist there be plaster elephant sculptures in the Babylon sets for Intolerance, despite the art department’s insistence that elephants did not exist in ancient Babylonia.

Gli elefanti nel film furono di così grande impatto visivo su Griffith che egli volle avere a tutti i costi degli elefanti di gesso sul set di Babilonia per Intolerance, nonostante l’insistenza del dipartimento artistico sul fatto che non esistessero elefanti nell’antica Babilonia.

 

French poster for the film

Locandina francese per il film. French poster for the film

Cabiria would be the first film to be screened at the White House by then President Woodrow Wilson in 1914.

Cabiria fu il primo film ad essere proiettato alla Casa Bianca dall’allora presidente Wilson Woodrow nel 1914.

 

While the films may be be very dated to our 21st century eyes, you can’t help but be impressed with the scale of the sets of these pre-computer age features.

Il film potrà essere datato ai nostri occhi del XXI secolo ma è ancora impossibile non restare impressionati dalla portata dei set di questo film precedente all’era dei computer.

 

 

 

 

 

The Original Pre-Viz Tool – A DIY Lens Angle Calculator

 

Some of my collection of traditional studio lens angle templates. The ones on the left are for long lenses while the ones on the right are wide-angle lens. The third from the left is a zoom lens template.

Some of my collection of traditional studio lens angle templates. The ones on the left are for long lenses while the ones on the right are wide-angle lens. The third from the left is a zoom lens template.

 

 

Pre-vis Before Previs

Before the term “Pre-visualization” ever existed, there was the lens angle template. These were a staple of any Hollywood studio Art Department and were used when laying out a set to determine camera angles, backing sizes needed, rear projection screens and planning back-projected set illustrations for the producer and director to approve sets long before there were 3D computer programs.

There was a time when a basic knowledge of optics and lenses was considered mandatory and was necessary not only because the Art Director would design the sets to be shot in a specific way but this information was needed when designing effects shots such as forced perspective sets, glass shots and the like.

Todd AO template

A template for a 100mm to 300mm zoom lens in the Todd AO format. Todd AO was an early 70mm film format with an aspect ratio of 2.20.

The templates were for a single lens, usually a prime lens, and were made using 1/8″ or 1/4″ thick plexiglas. The projection lines were scratched or engraved into the acrylic, sometimes by a Set Designer but other times they were made by the studio sign shop. Some of my examples are obviously done with a hand held engraving tool while others have been done with a lettering template and have inked letters.

Todd AO lens template

Each template had two sets of projection lines, one set for the horizontal plane (for use with a plan view) and another for the vertical plane, for use with scale room elevations. Most are made for use with 1/4″ scale drawings but they are accurate for any orthographic drawing because the angle is unaffected by the scale. Most will have markings to note the distances from the lens entrance pupil in 1/4″ scale.

angle of view

The “Quick View”

By the 1990’s, there were so many different formats and lens combinations most of us in the Art Department in Hollywood carried thick manila envelopes of acetates of the various focal lengths, but I always seemed to be missing one that I needed and I found some were inaccurate from being cloned so many times. In 1998 I designed a device that had all the available formats and prime lenses  so you could just dial up the one you needed. I redesigned it in 2008 to include the digital formats but sold out of them a year ago.

I stopped having them made since they were expensive but hated to see them become obsolete since they are still so useful. For a director, they are the perfect way to see if a shot is possible at a location or see the limitations of a particular lens on a set when you can’t rely on wild walls.

Making A Quick View

Yours won’t be on Lexan like the originals were but will be sturdy enough plus cheap enough to replace if it’s damaged or lost. Download the files below and take them to your nearest copy center and have both the dial and the nomen printed on clear acetate. They don’t have to be printed at exactly 100% but they should be at the same scale to each other. Then you just line up the center marks and use a compass point or push pin to pierce the centers, creating a pivot point in place of the brass rivet as in the photo above.

The diagrams from the original instruction manual will explain how to use them. You’ll note that I’ve added a feature that wasn’t on the originals, a protractor which will tell you the angle of a selected lens.

Quick View II User Manual_2

Quick View II User Manual_3

QuickViewII_nomen

QuickViewII_dial

Exhibition Of German Expressionist Film Artwork Now At LACMA

IMG_6069

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.

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

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.

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

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.

drawing describing how each part of the dragon was to be operated by stagehands.

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.

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 tension springs, framework, control cables and hoses required for the creatures fiery breath. He calls out "only rubber!" for the mouth area.

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.

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

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

A painted backing seen outside the set windows

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

Brigadoon

Backing from the film Brigadoon

Backing from the original Battlestar Gallactica TV show

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

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

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)

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

Backing from The Sound Of Music

Backing from The Sound Of Music

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

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.