Artist Spotlight, Pro Tips

‘Isle of Dogs’ DP Tristan Oliver on Stop-Motion Cinematography

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If you’ve watched a stop-motion film recently, there’s a good chance you’ve seen cinematographer Tristan Oliver’s work. He’s been involved in some of the best stop-motion movies ever, including Chicken Run, Wallace and Gromit: The Cure of the Were-Rabbit,The Fantastic Mr.Fox, ParaNorman, and now Isle of Dogs, his second collaboration with Wes Anderson.

Stop-motion (also known as stop-frame) holds a special place in many a cinephile’s heart, but sometimes the process also holds an air of mystery. We spoke with Oliver about when cinematographers become involved with projects, what they do on set, and the logistical challenges they can face.

 

Picking a Project

A stop-motion cinematographer’s entry point into a project begins like any other DP’s: a good screenplay. They need to make sure the script is really, really good, because of the time commitment a stop-motion movie represents. “These projects are so long,” says Oliver. “The thought of wading through two years of your life making something that you’re ultimately a little uncomfortable with because it’s not good enough, that’s not a good prospect.”

Once a cinematographer finds a script worthy of their time, they work with production designers and directors to determine what a project will look like. A production company’s house style will have an influence on that (think of how different Laika and Aardman films look, for example). What materials the puppets are made of, whether clay or 3D-printed, also has an effect. “There’s quite a protracted testing process at the beginning of a movie, where we’ll look at colors, and textures of faces, and also at how costumes work,” explains Oliver.

The characters of Aardmans 'Chicken Run'
The characters of Aardman’s “Chicken Run”

Creating a look based on desired influences – existing TV shows or movies – and adapting them is also a key component of planning a project’s aesthetic. “You then have to find a new language, and embrace the philosophy of that earlier stuff, but actually make it your own and make it better,” Oliver says. In some cases, like with Wes Anderson, a cinematographer doesn’t contribute as much to a shared vision. “There is a rule book with Wes,” Oliver says. “One’s job is really to facilitate his entire vision, rather than to add input into that vision.”
 

The Logistics of Lighting Stop-Motion

Being a cinematographer on a stop-motion project is no easy logistical feat, because there isn’t just one set. “On an average day, we would have anything between 45 and 55 shooting units running,” reveals Oliver. “That’s 45 sets, 45 cameras, all turning over at the same time.” And for each set, a cinematographer and his crew need to set up lighting and cameras precisely, so they can leave animators to do the actual shooting — which involves them posing puppets, then hitting a button that actives the cameras as pre-set lighting. “The camera fires, the lighting changes, the camera moves. Whatever needs to happen, happens.”

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With that many sets, cameras, and pre-set programming, continuity is vital. “It has to look as if one hand-created the lighting and cinematography for that movie,” Oliver says. He ensures that partly by being hands-on himself. “I typically have up to 15 sets of my own running at the same time,” he says. But he also has three to four lighters who use light scripts that Oliver has created for a variety of lighting scenarios – day, night, mood, and more. He will also eventually review his crew’s work to guarantee consistency. “I will quite often sit down with my guys in the theater and look at what they’re doing.”

The characters of Wallace and Gromit
The characters of Wallace and Gromit
 

The Need for Accuracy

Accuracy is incredibly important on a stop-motion project, given all the variables and minutiae involved. For example, keeping track of so much equipment for so many sets requires diligent record taking.

But accuracy is also needed for actual shooting – getting lighting and cameras set-up just right – because of the time-consuming and meticulous nature of the medium. “You can’t ever go for a take 2, because your lighting is a little bit wrong,” explains Oliver. “You can’t say to the director, ‘Can I have another one please? I just want to move the key light,’ because it’s not 12 seconds of acting time you’ve wasted, it’s three weeks of animation time.”

And if you’re thinking “What about coverage,” that’s not a luxury someone like Oliver has. “You can’t really shoot more than you have to. You can’t cover a scene from multiple angles and only use one. Everything is very stuck down very early on.”

A medley of zombies from 'ParaNorman'
A medley of zombies from “ParaNorman”
 

In-Camera Challenges

Ultimately, Oliver believes shooting stop-motion is no different than any other kind of shooting, in that a cinematographer’s mission is to shoot things beautifully. But stop-motion does have unique challenges for a director of photography. Two big ones have to do with how small the puppets are, how big the cameras are, and how close the latter are to the former.

The first challenge is depth of field: “You’re fighting your depth of field all the time, because you’re working right up to the minimum focus of the lens,” says Oliver. “In order to make stuff look more realistic, you have to kind of bend physics. Because we’re not really governed by the amount of light we have, because we’re only taking one frame at a time, and because nothing’s moving in front of the camera, we can leave the shutter open for three or four seconds if we need to. Reducing our aperture in order to increase our depth of field is one way of doing it.”

Still from Fantastic Mr. Fox
A still from Wes Anderson’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox”

For Wes Anderson films, there’s another approach Oliver uses, too. “We quite often shoot the action in separate planes. We’ll shoot the foreground on green, and then we’ll shoot the mid-ground, and then we’ll shoot the background. Then we’ll plate the whole lot together, in order to give an illusion of infinite depth.”

The second camera challenge is making sure that objects can withstand the close scrutiny of the camera. “You have to ask the question, ‘Does what appears to my eye to be a very nice prop have the ability to bear magnification?’ That cup or that saucer is going to be projected at maybe 30 or 40 feet across. Will it look okay at that size?” That’s especially a concern because everything in stop motion is handmade and can have remnants of a human touch. “You might find that there’s a hair stuck in the paint, or there’s a thumbprint on something. It’s amazing what you see once you start blowing stuff up,” he says.
 

The Road to Success

Those looking to not just understand stop-motion cinematography, but aspire to it, should know a few things. For one, it’s a very small world. “The number of people who want to get into stop-frame is probably commensurate with how much stop-frame there is,” Oliver says. That means there can be a lot of competition in entering the field, as well as a need for a long-term commitment, given how long projects take. “People who do mess about, they don’t tend to last very long,” says Oliver.

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All that being said, when you do reach the level of someone like Oliver, the small stop-motion world can allow someone to truly shine. “The main thing we struggle against is that we’re Cinderella as an industry. We are given little or no consideration by the live-action world at all,” Oliver says. The flipside is that you get to work on more amazing projects more often. “There are 2,000 DPs out there, clawing for low-budget, live-action feature films,” he concludes. “There’s about two of me out there, and we get to do stuff that the entire world sees, everyone on Earth.”

Isle of Dogs opens in theaters in select cities on Friday, March 23. For more information, visit the film’s official website.

Top Image: Isle of Dogs, Photo Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures, © 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, All Rights Reserved