Allen Daviau – An Artist And A Gentleman

hqdefault  Allen Daviau, the five-time Academy Award-nominated cinematographer of films such as E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Empire Of The Sun, Avalon, Bugsy, and The Color Purple, passed away on Wednesday from complications of COVID-19.  In 2007 he was given a Lifetime Achievement award by the American Society Of Cinematographers.

His professional film career began in the 1960s where he started out shooting documentaries, music videos and working as a still photographer. He met a young Steven Spielberg in 1967 and helped him shoot his short film, Amblin’. Years later Spielberg was in pre-production for ET when he saw a reel of a TV movie Allen had shot and hired him immediately.

Whenever I saw him, Allen was always personable and kind but it would be a mistake to take him for a pushover. He and a number of others were frustrated when they were denied membership to the cinematographer’ union. Universal had tried to sign him to a contract but the union was a closed-shop in all but name at that time and refused to allow it. Daviau and a number of other cinematographers including Caleb Deschanel filed suit to join the union and were finally admitted.

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I only got to work on one picture with Allen, A feature called The Astronaut’s Wife, production designed by Jan Roelfs. He was outgoing and approachable, always eager to talk shop. There are times when you work with individuals that you hold in such professional esteem that the initial interactions are awkward but that was never the case with Allen. I didn’t get to ask him all of the questions I had buzzing in my head about his other films. I refrained from ‘interrogating’ him the way I had once done to Werner Herzog when I ran into him on the backlot at Warner Bros Studios in an embarrassing ‘fan-boy’ moment.

I never got to ask him about some of the shots in Empire Of The Sun that I had analyzed but I did learn two things: he didn’t like multi-camera shoots and he didn’t particularly like translites. “They’re too sharp”, he told me. Unlike the traditional handpainted backings, they had a crisp photo-quality that defied being able to create a realistic depth-of-field. Even the painted backings often had black or white bobbinet stretched in front of them to create an atmospheric softening effect. It’s ironic that now, years later, a number of companies will custom print backings to create different degrees of softness to simulate an out-of-focus image due to depth-of-field.

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The multi-camera shoots were something he accepted as necessary at times but he felt that they diluted the quality of the lighting. He felt that being able to concentrate on just one composition at a time resulted in a superior product. There were lighting effects that became impossible to do effectively if you had to take other camera positions into account.  He was as technically adept as he was artistic and relied on both his eye and his light meter. He knew that the audience will only see what you let them see. And being able to shoot with a single camera allows you to get away with tricks that are harder to pull off when you have to light for multiple angles at once.

A camera-lover, he told me as part of his endowment to UCLA, each year he would buy a top-of-the-line Leica and leave it unopened in its original packaging.

When he was in Shanghai on Empire, they were unable to get dailies until a week later and playback technology was a long way off.  He had to rely on his light meter and his experience with the film stock to know if he had a proper exposure.

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One thing I learned from him is, there are times when you have to let the details go. We were doing pick-up shots and only had a few days to recreate several parts of the sets from the main shoot. Recreating a portion of the main characters’ apartment was complicated by the fact that the backing we had used outside the huge glass window wall was unavailable.

We found a cityscape backing that was close, but overall the values and details didn’t come close enough to really match the original. I hoped that the shot would be tight enough that the DOF would hide the mismatch, but was dismayed when the director asked for a wider shot. With so many elements to consider, the backing issue was the last thing on most people’s mind . Allan was behind the camera, lining up the shot and I finally called out to him, “But Allen, the backing.” He just looked over at me and raised his hands. He could have just ignored me, or been dismissive or irritated. He just gave a little smile and said, “It’s OK, it’ll be fine.” And it was.

There is an excellent interview with Allen in the 1992 documentary film, Visions Of Light, about the art of cinematography.

R.D. Wilkins

 

 

 

P.S. – Your Rendering Software Is Obsolete

An article at PC Magazine.com last November talked about how real-time rendering is changing the movies, mainly in terms of how it affects the workflow and the time involved in creating animated films. Because of the advances in processor speeds and the continuing evolution of software programming, animators are beginning to be able to animate in real time. The giant rendering farms of the Far East may soon be a thing of the past.

Creating renders, at least for me, is a tedious affair that ends up eating hours of time while processing images, and renders ( pun intended ) my computer a slave to the rendering engine, useless for working on anything else.

The new wave in rendering software is for real-time execution with full motion and lighting effects as well as physical atmospheric effects like water, fog, etc.

While not cheap, there are a number of real-time, full motion options that cut the normal still-image render time from hours to seconds.

LumenRT

The least expensive option I’m aware of is LumenRT. This is a real-time rendering engine designed for use with Sketchup, but is currently being developed for use with other modeling software. Unlike the other programs I’ll discuss, there is a calculation process involved that does take more time but the advantage of this is that you can output what is called a LiveCube, which is an executable file you can send to anyone that they can navigate in and explore the model without the need for any software. Pretty neat. The downside is that once this is done, if you make any changes you need to recompute everything.

The program boast very accurate lighting and reflection effects and this affects the render speed. The company’s site advises that you may experience slower processing speeds if your model exceeds 40,000 square feet or 500,000 polys.

Normally price at $295, the program is currently on sale for $195 at their site. You can watch a promo film below, and read a review of it here.

 

 

Lumion

The next option is a program called Lumion, which was designed based on the object-oriented analysis approach of Quest 3D, a virtual reality program designed for 3D fly-throughs and simulations.

Lumion’s interface

Lumion is a true real-time rendering engine that can import nearly any 3D model. Instead of using ray-tracing technology like most other renderers, it uses a system more like those found in gaming systems to simulate light effects. This would seem to suggest that the specular effects and reflections are not accurate but a viewing of several sample videos of the product seems to suggest otherwise. Because of the way the program operates, objects in the background are rendered at lesser resolutions meaning it can handle models with millions of polys without bogging down.

The program is touted as having a short learning curve and is able to generate full motion renders in a fraction of the time it once took to do them in programs like Maya.

Lumion isn’t cheap by any means. The price of the basic program is about $1,900 with the pro version running about $3,700. There is a free version, which is limited and there is a trial version as well. It also runs only on the Windows operating system. Check out the amazing promo videos below and read the reviews here and here.

Lumion quick overview from Lumion on Vimeo.

Waterfall Lumion techpreview from Lumion on Vimeo.

Lumion demonstration from Lumion on Vimeo.

Twinmotion 2

Twinmotion 2 bills itself as “the render killer”. It was developed by an architectural film as an in-house application but was made available to the public. Like Lumion it is capable of handling huge models because of its Level Of Detail technology that renders distant objects with less detail and increases the poly count as you move closer to them.

Twinmotion 2 interface

Twinmotion seems to have more accurate geo-locating controls as well as sun controls, but Lumion is constantly changing so that may no longer be the case. Twinmotion does create excellent renders as seen below in this side-by-side comparison of a render to actual film of the location.

At $2900, Twinmotion 2 is in the same range as Lumion. Plus, there is a $850 annual subscription fee, similar to Revit. It’s hardly a purchase one could take lightly.

So what does this mean for the Art Department? Do we need full-motion renders? Considering that renders are becoming more and more common at each step of the design process, creating full-motion renders that can be done in a fraction of the time of traditional renders might become the norm.

Maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Maybe they could provide a good transistion step into the pre-viz process. Or maybe they’ll bring some of the pre-viz work back into the Art Department.

What do you think?