Why I Love The Pencil

Chris Schwarz over at Lost Art Press contacted me back in February to see if I would be interested in doing a hand drawing in a late 19th / early 20th century style for a limited-edition poster to commemorate the 5th anniversary of his excellent book, The Anarchist Tool Chest. I was more than happy to agree to the assignment not only because I consider the book to be a classic, (Schwarz has been a leader in not only creating a hand tool renaissance among woodworkers but creating a whole new philosophy in the way we look at furniture and the process of creating it) but I was also excited to do a drawing entirely in pencil., something I hadn’t done for quite a while.

Except for the occasional quick sketch, it’s rare I don’t do a drawing now on anything except the computer. After digging out my good pencils and tools and some good vellum from storage, (the new stuff is made for plotters not pencils and gives horrible results when you try to erase something), I made a test drafting just to refresh my pencil skills as well as brush up on my hand lettering technique.

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As I began to layout the drawing I suddenly began to realize both the differences and advantages of hand drafting over CAD:

1 – There are no in-your-face interruptions such as email, instant messaging, software update notices, news alerts, etc.

The process of creating a working drawing has been hi-jacked by software. There is this fallacy, particularly among those who don’t draw, that the computer is doing the bulk of the work. This is patently false. The computer is just a fancy pencil. It can give the veneer of respectability to a drawing if you don’t know what you are looking at, but the document is worthless if the operator does not understand the basics of creating a working drawing. Also, the process of creating a construction drawing happens to a great extent in your head, not in the computer. A lot of the work on the screen is preceded by a good deal of mental gymnastics, which is why set designers hate to be interrupted. Stop us in process and it will take 10 to 15 minutes to return to the zone where the true work gets done.

When you are drawing with a pencil you are in a completely different mental space that requires you to constantly visualize the object in your mind. This not only makes you work in a much deeper state of concentration but forces you to think many more steps ahead in the process of breaking the object down into what needs to be drawn to communicate its complexities.

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2 – You have to think differently about the drawing.

The draftsperson is no longer spending brain power on software or hardware concerns. There is also the endless-zoom mentality where the operator does not have a realistic idea of the scale of the elements. The ability to zoom it 10,000 percent on a document is what leads to prints in which the dimensions and notes are virtually unreadable unless you’re using a magnifying glass. There is also an economy in a hand drawing that is absent from a CAD drawing. You only show what is important for that sheet.

Also a line is what you say it is. With CAD and 3D modeling there is this expectation of perfect scalability throughout the model. That may be a good thing if you are designing a high-rise where there are dozens of other engineers and companies involved but for set design it adds a layer of unnecessary work.

Where you were once chastised for drawing too many brick details on a facade, I’ll regularly get a digital model where every fastener is completely detailed with threads. This is why during the pre computer days it was considered that a good working rate for a draftsperson was a sheet a day, while the rate for most modern computerized Art Departments is calculated at 3 to 7 days per sheet. We used to fear that the computer would make things so much more efficient that less people would be needed. Just the opposite happened. Where a typical feature film used to have 4 to 10 Set Designers, on bigger shows now, there will  be as many as 30.

Proof for final offset prints. photo by Chris Schwarz

Proof for final offset prints. photo by Chris Schwarz

Detail of nice crisp detail of the poster by Steamwhistle Press. Photo by Chris Schwarz

Detail of nice crisp detail of the poster by Steamwhistle Letterpress. Photo by Chris Schwarz

The print is being offset printed by Steamwhistle Letterpress in Newport, KY. Only 1000 of the prints will be made and copies will be available on the Lost Art Press website.

Here is a video Chris made at the shop while the first prints were coming off the Vandercooke press.

 

Letterpress Print Run from Christopher Schwarz on Vimeo.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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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

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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

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

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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

MagnaTip

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

Tape tip

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

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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

smartphone projector

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

Geometrigraph set

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

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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.

Log onto the Apple or Android store and gift your so-important-you-forgot-about-them friend one of these apps and your reputation will be saved:

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

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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.

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

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

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.

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.

 

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.

Angle Of View Comparison Chart

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