Australian Cinematographer Magazine sits down with cinematographer Pablo Plaisted to talk about his work on The Lego Movie.
Interview by Dick Marks OAM.
AC – Your credit on The Lego Movie was cinematographer, and I’m very aware of the fact that it’s a computer animated film, so how does your role on The Lego Movie equate to a that of a traditional cinematographer?
PP – I was responsible for making sure the director’s vision was realised on screen through the use of camera and choreography. That includes scouting virtual sets, defining the composition and staging of each shot in the film, selecting lenses and creating the camera performance as well as being responsible for the call sheets that define all the characters, assets and sets. This is probably a bit of a departure from the traditional role of the cinematographer.
Then we develop those shots, which means creating both character and camera performance to the point where they are approved for production. Deliver that to the animation department and once animation is completed, we create the final nuanced camera performance, the focus pulling and the stereo.
Where it’s very different to traditional cinematography is that the lighting of the scenes generally occurs after all of this is done and is handled by a different department, with a different supervisor and their own schedule. So that’s one of the big differences when it comes to animated films. Different phases of production overlap in different ways and are not tied in the same way as they would be on a live-action film where everything’s happening on a specific day.
AC – So your lighting department would be doing lighting on a scene at the same time as you’re shooting another, very different scene.
PP – That’s right, yes. On any given day the directors would be reviewing the lensing on one scene, the animation on another and the lighting on another. All of these individual steps are so labour and cost intensive that they need to be staggered throughout the production, though that is starting to change, but they often remain fairly isolated from one another.
AC – I gather there’s a serious amount of pre-production on a film of this kind?
PP – A large part of what we do would be considered pre-production; everything, I guess, before animation. That means around 1500 realised shots, the entire film, sometimes more than once before we roll into production.
AC – Your role as a cinematographer of an animated film is taking you more into the traditional cinematographer’s areas of responsibility. I was listening to John Seale AM ACS ASC and David Burr ACS talk about their work on Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), they spoke a lot about the amount of computer-generated imagery being done around their cinematography. So, while you’re heading in the direction of traditional cinematography it seems to me that the traditional cinematographer is heading into your territory.
PP – Absolutely. I think to go one step further than that, there are films like Gravity (2013, cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki AMC ASC) where the final image is produced almost entirely in the digital medium, so a lot of the planning, a lot of the camera and development work, a lot of the scene development is happening in 3D, so there’s huge overlap happening in the industry right now.
AC – Would you say that Gravity and The Lego Movie are not dissimilar in the way that they were made?
PP – From the creative point-of-view they are not dissimilar. The film was shot and planned on a rough stage, which I guess you’d traditionally call pre-visualisation; on The Lego Movie we called that process ‘layout’. That encompassed some other departmental roles that we handled as well, such as stereo and focus pulling. But the way they made Gravity is to plan the entire movie, shoot it all in 3D with rough models, rough characters, and refine and refine and refine up to the point where they could lock off the shots that they needed to shoot and set up lighting accordingly. Obviously there’s a lot of free-floating 360s, cameras with no gravity, characters with no gravity, objects moving around that need to be very, very carefully planned. Essentially what you end up with is a rough version of the film. The director watches, signs off and says this is what we’re going to shoot. Then they take that to the set with the actors and get the performances they want.
AC – They do all of that during the pre-visualisationstage?
PP – Yes. One of the big reasons they did that was because in Gravity you have this huge light source, which is the earth, and you’ve got characters spinning in 360, so they needed a way to simulate that. They wanted to simulate light on the actors’ faces. So they had big screens in front that had been rendered for the pre-visualistaion, which would show the earth spinning and get the light bounce off them. It was insanely complicated.
Luckily on The Lego Movie, being an animated film, we didn’t need to do that translation back to live action, but what we did have which was the same as Gravity was a rough version of the film that the directors would sign off on and say this is what we want to make, send this down to animation, let’s get the performance in there, and then it would come back to us and we’d do the final editing on that. Then later go to lighting.
AC – So you would be fairly comfortable with the fact that Gravity earned the Academy Award for Best Cinematography, then?
PP – I’m comfortable with that, yes. I’m a huge fan of Emmanuel Lubezki’s work. Tree of Life (2011) was one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he shot Gravity and Tree of Life. They’re both incredibly gorgeous pieces of work with great visual storytelling.
AC – Tell me about your introduction into the industry. Did you start in Australia?
PP – I did start in Australia. I started on a television series called Stevie Stardust (1999-2000) for a company called Ambience Entertainment. I worked there for about the first nine months of my career and then I moved over to do some commercial work as an animator and 3D generalist at Garner McLennan Design. From there I moved over to work with George Miller AO on Happy Feet (2006, cinematography by David Peers), which was my first film, my introduction to real cinema, from a professional point-of-view anyway.
AC – Then you worked with Miller again didn’t you, on Happy Feet Two (2011, cinematography by David Peers and David Dulac)?
PP – That’s right, so after Happy Feet I went to London for a couple of years before coming back to work at Kennedy Miller on Happy Feet Two and Mad Max: Fury Road.
AC – How different is what you do now to what you were doing say seven years ago
PP – Seven years ago I was an animator. I was responsible for the performance of the characters in a single shot. Now I’m responsible for 1500 shots in the film, a whole team of artists and I’m working closely with the directors. I’ve been lucky; Miller is an exceptionally smart filmmaker and a fantastic teacher. I was lucky enough to spend a lot of time with him and learn an incredible amount about cinema from him, but also about the pursuit of excellence. I’d like to think that to the best of my ability, I’m applying that knowledge to tell great stories.
AC – What challenged you the most on The Lego Movie?
PP – The greatest challenges, and there were several, came from within the brief. Chief among them was creating something that was cinematic but also, at the same time, quaint, which can be two opposing ideas. But also, we were asking the audience to believe in something; believe that something digital was something real, and an incredible amount of effort goes into that. Especially when you’re talking about something on the scale of LEGO, because there are so many particulars about the way cameras move.There’s also an amount of visual zeitgeist that comes with stop-motion brick films which doesn’t necessarily scale to ninety-minutes on a cinema screen. It’s trying to be true to all of these kinds of things whilst also creating something that people are comfortable paying to go and see at the cinema.
AC – LEGO is a really powerful brand. Were you ever concerned that it might end up looking like an animated film rather than an animated LEGO film, that the LEGO pieces had to look like LEGO pieces?
PP – The short answer is no, not really. I think pretty early on I was very comfortable that we were going to have something that was pretty special. There’s an incredible amount of talented people involved on all sides of this film and a lot of credit needs to go to Animal Logic for putting this group together. Especially Aidan Sarsfield (CG Supervisor). It was obvious early on that we were going to have something that was unique and that, hopefully, people were going to react well to.
There were nerves, definitely moments of nerves when the trailer first came out. I was nervous about the amount of detail we put into some specific things and how people would react, but it was very positive. In fact, the first comments on YouTube were things like, “I’m so glad they didn’t make this a computer-generated movie and that they shot it as a real stop-motion LEGO.” That was fantastic. For a while people hadn’t caught onto the fact that it was computer-generated. That was really special.
AC – If you said to me, “I’m going to make a LEGO movie,” I would say, “It’s going to be stop-motion, right?” That would be daunting.
PP – Exactly. I’ll just say that from an aesthetic point-of-view, The Lego Movie was a really challenging film because of the proportions of the characters. Everything that you know about how to frame a close-up or a mid-shot or a wide-shot… it doesn’t quite hold true when you’re shooting these very wide squat shapes. We really had to spend a lot of time making sure that we understood the rules of how you divide the frame to make something aesthetically pleasing. It was reinventing the wheel on almost every type of shot, so from that point-of-view it was very challenging.
AC – Was that the hardest thing, or was there a more difficult part of your role in making the film?
PP – I think the hardest thing for me was the jump in scale from being responsible for fifty or sixty shots to being responsible for an entire film. It’s a huge leap and there’s nothing really that prepares you for it. It was fun. It was a good challenge.
AC – A lot of cinematographers nominate their favourite focal length at around 40mm. Now this might be a stupid question, but what was your favourite lens for The Lego Movie? Or, maybe a smarter question would be do you have an actual set of lenses for an animated film?
PP – Absolutely, yes. I designed a lens kit for the film which we used almost exclusively. There isn’t really any true difference between a prime and a zoom in the virtual world but we had a set of defined focal lengths that we would rarely move away from. My favourite lens, that’s a tough question. Prior to The Lego Movie I would have said a 32mm but the co-director on The Lego Movie was very keen for us to try and create a more modern aesthetic for the film. He was always pushing us to go wider. Where I would previously be trying to shoot action shots on an 18mm, on The Lego Movie that would become a 16mm or a 14mm. We also used a 10mm for a couple of scenes in the film, which was great fun. So yeah, it’s hard to say.
AC – You’re talking about a virtual lens kit?
PP – Yes, that’s right.
AC – Anything else in the kit? I mean, do you have the toys that you find on the average film set, like a Steadicam or a crane? I presume they would be in your domain, or does someone else provide those?
PP – Absolutely, yes. We had camera rigs for our virtual cameras. We had cranes and dollies. We had a Steadicam rig.
As you’d know, film has an aesthetic that’s a hundred years old and people understand what a crane should feel like, or what the emotional impact of using a Steadicam is over having a static camera. Even the way that a camera pivots gives you so much reality, the way you mount it to a car, how it shakes, all these things; so we had virtual equivalents for all these. They can be just like any camera rig; using it is its own specific art.We had an interrogation scene which we really wanted to feel like something out of The Dark Knight (2008, cinematography by Walter C. Pfister ASC); it was pretty much all shot with the Steadicam and we were just trying to get that emotional reaction from the audience on a subconscious level, to amplify what was happening to the characters.
AC – Did you have any input into the design of the rigs?
PP – I designed almost all of the camera rigs on The Lego Movie, and provided them as a tool kit for the crew.
AC – Do you own the copyright on the equipment you designed and can you sell it as a kit to someone else, or is that just packed up and put away?
PP – It’s all packed up. Animal Logic would own that stuff, I’m assuming. But there’s no magic to it. It’s just setting up the rig in a specific way that imitates or approximates, as best as it can, the real world. The added difficulty is that once you have the rig you then have to animate it to a degree where the audience isn’t questioning whether it’s real or not, they are just going with it.
Obviously a virtual camera doesn’t move, it doesn’t shake, it doesn’t bounce, it doesn’t do any of those kind of things. Somebody has to define the way that a camera’s going to shake at a specific speed. I set up all the camera shake for all different kinds of the cameras that were mounted on cars, for cameras that were applied to Steadicams or cranes. We had to define the level of shake, and we could change the amplitude if we wanted to, but those shakes have a very specific aesthetic.
You don’t get any of that for free in 3D. You have to define it all. I had to do that as well. This I learnt from referencing other films, or I would go out and shoot tests myself. I looked a lot at the work of Aardman Animations, with vehicles for example. They have a lot of great action shots with cameras mounted on cars and that sort of thing. I watched a lot of their work. I referenced anything with stop-motion. The directors’ had pitched The Lego Movie to us as a sixteen-year-old Michael Bay making a stop-motion film in his basement with an unlimited budget.
AC – That’s just a wonderful analogy.
PP – The reference would be a lot of stop-motion work, a lot of really high-end The Dark Knight and Michael Bay action work and trying to find a way to mix those two aesthetics together, which was, as I was saying before, a bit of a challenge.
AC – Where this is going to take you? What would be the ultimate for you now? Where are you headed?
PP – I’m hoping to continue shooting films but I’m also interested in direction. I’d like to move into that as well.
In terms of the language of cinema and visual storytelling, these are the things that I’ve spent a lot of time being taught by fantastic directors. Definitely that’s something that I feel confident about. At the very least, in terms of story, composition and clarity, I’m sure it would be fine. Now whether it would be the most beautifully lit film in the world, that I’m not so sure about. But how to tell a story visually, I’m confident about that for sure.
AC – Finally, where do you think cinematography is heading?
PP – I think it’s a really good question. What becomes the real currency then is craft and creativity. That’s what I have learnt from George Miller: the importance of craft in telling a story is really what separates an exceptional artist or storyteller from someone who’s making a clip on YouTube that nobody watches.
Something I should mention is I think people need to embrace change and embrace the modern aesthetic, and that’s something I really learnt from Chris McKay (animation co-director, animation supervisor and co-film editor) on The Lego Movie. Roger Deakins CBE BSC ASC is an interesting example, because he consults a lot on the animated films of DreamWorks. I think he’s also done a couple of Pixar movies as well and whilst I’m not sure of his level of involvement, he definitely has his toe in the modern, animated world.There’s so much classical knowledge out there, but there’s also a modern world and we’re really trying to make our film accessible to people who are living and breathing that every day. That’s a real challenge, because sometimes you need to struggle a little bit more to find the merit of what’s in the material. There’s no wasted time when it comes to trying to educate yourself.
Pablo Plaisted is a cinematographer and visual effects technician.
Dick Marks OAM is a former-editor of Australian Cinematographer Magazine.