One of the pitfalls of having technology out the wazoo ( I mean I can make video calls from my cell phone now, for Bob’s sake) is that its easy to shove aside the old school way of doing some things. This really is a shame. Combining old school methods with modern technology can be a recipe for epic winning.
Here are 4 traditional (read: pre-digital) filmmaking effects methods that you can use to to score big “WOWs” on your next SciFi epic:
1. MATTE PAINTINGS. Matte paintings are still a staple of filmmaking today, but the technique has come a long way from the days artists painstakingly painted on large sheets of glass. Technically, the ‘Making a Starfield’ tutorial we posted last week was actually just a matte painting. Now with 3D environments and a bevy of slick visual software, ‘matte painting’ backgrounds are frequently in full motion rather than merely the still images filmmakers of past decades had to settle for. But then would you really call the beautiful reveal of Cloud City boring and lifeless?
HOW TO UPDATE IT FOR YOUR FILM: As small filmmakers, we don’t always have the time or the means to create the elaborately animated and rendered backgrounds of large budget films. So why try? Take a cue from the old school matte paintings and learn how to use still images as effectively as they did. When you’re making an establishing shot of your alien city, is it really necessary to zoom over the streets and through the buildings? What about a majestic still image from a distance, with perhaps just enough small moving elements composited in to give your composition life. Never be afraid to take a breath in the action.
2. ROTOSCOPING. Rotoscoping is tracing over a live action image to create some kind of animation. This has been used from everything from the mind-blowing Ralph Bakshi Lord of the Rings animated film to the lightsabers in the original Star Wars trilogy. More recently this technique was updated and used by Richard Linklater in his films A Scanner Darkly and Waking Life. Though the technique is old, its an essential bit of movie magic that can create some rather startling visuals.
HOW TO UPDATE IT FOR YOUR FILM: Adobe AfterEffects makes rotoscoping simple. All you need to is create a layer on top of your original footage and use AfterEffect’s bottomless bag of magic tricks to do pretty much anything you want to do to your image frame-by-frame. Make no mistake, even in the digital age rotoscoping frame-by-frame is painstaking and requires industrial strength patience. But that’s a small price to pay for provoking that “how exactly do you do that?” look in your audience, right?
3. MODEL MAKING. It doesn’t get more old school than this. Everything is CGI today, and its create almost anything to populate the environment of your frame. But I don’t have to tell you that its hardly the push-button age for creating perfect CGI for film. Its really hard work and requires a lot of time, computing power, and technical skill to pull it off convincingly. Building a physical model of a spaceship, space station, or cityscape isn’t exactly a cake walk, but its well within reach of most filmmakers today with a bit of liberally applied elbow grease and some imagination. After all, we’re trying to tell a story, and that’s worth some late nights, right? Right. I predict that physical models and miniatures in filmmaking hasn’t exactly disappeared into the mists of time just yet. Just ask Peter Jackson. There’s an art to shooting a real object that is hard to define but almost impossible to mimic digitally. Hell, compare the new Star Wars trilogy to the old one. There’s just..something…sort of missing, right?
HOW TO UPDATE IT FOR YOUR FILM: Learn how to make a decent model, the old school tricks that the masters would use to create a sense of believable scale. Figure out how to light it convincingly, and then shake and bake. AfterEffects makes compositing from a green screen pretty much primary-school easy. Think using models is passe? Go check out Duncan Jones’s Moon, and then decide for yourself if using models doesn’t just effin’ work.
4. FORCED PERSPECTIVE: Forced perspective is simply using clever camera placement and set & prop construction to make one object appear larger than the other. If you’ve ever taken a picture of your Aunt Minnie pushing over the Leaning Tower of Pisa, you already understand how this works. The most obvious example of how forced perspective shots can create a believable sense of scale, look no further than Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. When Fellowship of the Ring first premiered, a lot of people assumed it was all digital fakery that made Elijah Wood seem tiny next to Ian McKellen’s Gandalf, but more often than not it was merely clever placement of the camera and some practical set & prop construction wizardry.
HOW TO UPDATE IT FOR YOUR FILM: Creating convincing forced perspective shots requires serious planning and forethought. If you want to get really fancy, there could be actual math involved. Figure out exactly what the size different between your foreground object and your background object is and its possible to calculate how far away from the camera they should each be to achieve the look you want. I know: doesn’t sound as easy as positioning Aunt Minnie just right, does it? But the benefits can outweigh the pain.