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What Do Cinematographers Do On Animated Movies?

What Do Cinematographers Do On Animated Movies?

Go through the process of cinematography in animated films.

In talking about this I’m going to be referring to larger 3D animated films. Also as a quick disclaimer, I’m not an animator so if anyone else has more insights on this topic please let me know in the comments. Even though their work occurs completely in the digital realm, the role of a DP on an animated film still follows the same principles as live-action DPs. They are responsible for creating and crafting the visual language of the film.

One difference between live-action and animated cinematography is that this role is often divided into two different positions:

  • With a layout
  • A lighting cinematographer

The director of photography layout comes first in the animation process.

They work with the director and the layout department and determine the depth and perspective of what is displayed on the screen. They take storyboards and oversee the shot creation using a camera in the virtual space by deciding what kind of lens is used, how shots are staged or blocked, and what kind of angles or movements work best for the story. For example, some animated films mimic the characteristics of anamorphic lenses, while others mimic spherical glass. Some shots use wide focal lengths and other use longer focal lengths.

The director of photography lighting comes in later in the animation process.

As the name suggests they are responsible for how the shots are lit, using the digital placement of light and shadow to enhance the telling of the story.

Are Mirrorless Cameras Good Enough For Indie Filmmakers?
The easy answer is yes, mirrorless cameras are good enough to be used for indie productions. Various so-called ‘consumer’ or ‘prosumer’ cameras have been used to photograph independent and even high-budget features. For example, cameras like the original Blackmagic Pocket and the Canon 5D have been used on Mad Max: Fury Road, which have codes that are even older and arguably inferior to some modern mirrorless cameras.

Last year I worked on an indie feature film which was shot entirely on the GH5, so yes people use them all the time. It always comes down to the cinematographer choosing what they see as the best camera for the job.

This could be based on many factors, such as
  • Ergonomics
  • Codec
  • The sensor
  • Availability
  • Price
  • or simply whether it’s the only camera you have access to.

If you only have the ability to choose one camera, whether that’s a phone or a professional production camera, then use that camera. Being able to capture an image at all is more important than the quality of the image when you are starting out. However, as a caveat, it should be mentioned that there is a reason most professional productions don’t elect to shoot on consumer mirrorless cameras if they have the option not to.

Although the codecs of mirrorless cameras are rapidly improving, high-end production cameras still tend to have better codecs which can be worked with and manipulated in the post or the grade much more effectively. 

Production cameras are also designed to be easily used in traditional cinema setups with standard professional components such as

  • A follow focus
  • PL mount
  • SDI output
  • Matte box

Explain The Workflow For Shooting On Film

The initial choice of a filmstock begins all the way in pre-production where a DP will decide which film stock or stocks they will use on the movie. Nowadays it's a matter of deciding which Kodak stock to use, as it's the last remaining brand of motion picture film. Production orders the film stock which is then loaded into either a 400’ or 1000’ magazine by the loader.

When a roll runs out the magazine is taken off the camera, unloaded, carefully labeled, and sent to a film lab. The lab develops the film photochemically based on the instructions of the DP. Once it has been developed and there is a negative it’s transported into the digital realm.

There are two options

A telecine

A telecine is cheaper and works in real-time, where the role of film is played back at normal speed, for example, 24 frames per second. As the film passes through the machine it is recorded into an HD file and stored digitally.

A scan

The other option is a scan, where each individual frame is scanned and saved digitally at either 2K or 4K resolution. As 24 frames need to be scanned for each second of footage this is much more time-consuming and more costly.

However, it results in a significantly higher quality digital file. These digital files are then edited with software as regular files from a digital camera would be edited. After a final cut has been locked the digital scans of the film will be tweaked in the color grade and any necessary VFX work will be done.

Very occasionally they’ll be a job where the director insists on being old school and has enough money to make that happen. Looking at Tarantino. He likes to have dailies printed onto 35mm film physically, rather than watching a digital scan, and may even opt to edit the film using the 35mm negatives rather than digital files.

This is very unusual now though as it’s expensive and a bit of a luxury. Finally, the edit will be delivered for cinema screenings as a DCP, which is like a hard drive, at 2K or 4K. Occasionally a physical 35mm print is made, however as there aren’t many cinemas with 35mm projectors anymore that’s also pretty rare now.

How To Balance Commercial Work & Passion Projects?

Starting a career in the film certainly isn’t easy, especially at the beginning. As all film work is freelance you have to create a network of contacts, who will all occasionally employ you on specific shoots. You have to find a way of being financially sustainable while working freelance so that you have the ability to accept jobs whenever they arise.

There are many ways to do this. In the case of Tarantino, which is the example the question mentions, he did this by working in a video shop for years to earn an income while making films on the side and writing scripts. In the beginning, at least in my case, I began by taking on almost every single project which I was offered to shoot. Whether the project was paid, for my reel, or just a fun passion project. I rarely declined anything when I started.

Ideally, as you build your career, and have a more consistent flow of job offers, you can start to be a bit more selective about the projects and collaborators which you choose to work with. Realistically, trying to create a career where all you do all day is shoot passion films is basically impossible. Even the top DPs in the world such as Emmanuel Lubezki or Hoyte Van Hoytema shoot commercials. Personally, I balance crew work with paid DP work, the occasional passion project, and now also making YouTube videos.

Everyone’s situation is different so it’s down to each individual to find a balance between financial stability and working on projects which you’re passionate about. If you’d like a chance for your questions about filmmaking, cinematography or the channel to be featured please comment below.

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