Toon camerawork spiffs up

Live-action shooting techniques add to 'layout'

Last year’s animated features took us flying through the skies in “How To Train Your Dragon” and “Legend of the Guardians” and vaulted us across rooftops in “Tangled.” Animated films’ camerawork is as dynamic as live action, and it’s making these movies more photographically sophisticated than ever before.

The process has evolved so noticeably that Pixar now awards a shared director of photography credit to the people who handle camera and lighting.

Jeremy Lasky, who oversaw the camerawork on “Toy Story 3” and “Wall-E,” explains the reasoning: “On a live action set, the d.p. is in charge of camera placement, motion, lighting and shot composition,” he says. “A camera d.p. on an animated film handles the camera composition, but also the staging, which is special to animation.”

Lasky’s department, he explains, handles much of the blocking that’s done by directors — in collaboration with the actors — on a live-action set.

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“(Animation) camera and staging people look around a half-realized 3D environment with our cameras and figure out where the characters should move,” he says. “Is this shot more interesting if Buzz walks to the end of the room and then turns and delivers his line? We’re doing more of the staging than you would normally attribute to a cinematographer.”

Advances in technology are enticing live action d.p.’s like Roger Deakins into animation. Deakins, who consulted with Lasky on “Wall-E” and more recently contributed to DreamWorks’ “How To Train Your Dragon” says, “There’s a camera room where you can walk around with a little monitor and see the set and the characters in virtual space. You can change the lenses and do tracking shots through a virtual world. It’s weird, but it’s illuminating in terms of finding camera angles and lens lengths. Somehow walking around with a camera on a virtual set is like shooting live action on the fly!”

Similar technology is being implemented at Disney, explains Scott Beattie, who worked on “Tangled” and “Bolt” after doing visual effects films like “Armageddon” and “Con Air.”

Disney still uses the traditional animation term “layout” to describe Beattie’s job, though he remarks, “We consider ourselves the cinematography department. ‘Layout’ was driven by the way 2D films were done, were you had to draw (or lay out) every option you wanted to try. People who come from 2D love the freedom as camerawork gets more like live action. We can tweak shots to make the camera feel alive, and follow the characters properly.”

Following the action was absolutely critical for the Animal Logic team behind Warner Bros.’ “Legend Of The Guardians.” David Scott, who handled the lensing for the picture, says, “Camera work in the computer is easy, which can be a problem because virtual cameras have no physical limitations. After years of watching films, audiences instantly sense if a camera feels ‘CG’.” To avoid this, the “Guardians” crew trained with real cameras to understand the weight and nuances of actual gear. They also studied WWII dogfight footage and nature documentaries to suggest exhilarating feelings of flight.

All of these animation cameramen urge restraint. “Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should,” says Lasky. “As more live action films use CG and computer cameras, they’re blurring the line with what the audience thinks is a real camera versus a virtual camera. As we make animated films, we’re always thinking ‘How would I get this shot if I was on a set?'”

More from Eye on the Oscars: Animation
Vfx spice up toon contenders | Toon camerawork spiffs up | Big talents, small packages | Character design tunes toons | ‘Tangled’ tresses tough task

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