Brad Blackbourn - CG Cinematographer

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  12 December 2006
Great work!!!

Looks like it's going to be a great movie, I like how you discribed your creative process. I just graduated from college and can't wait to be a part of a major film. Any tips on how to really impress employers.
  12 December 2006
hi Brad Blackbourn, i'm a great fan of ur stuff. i have some few questions here:

1) Since your in the cinematography/layout area!! what are the things you usually consider about when trying to give the mood and feel of a scene?

2) Do you have an active part when the story undergoes the stage of storyboarding?

3) Does one need to have a background in animation and illustration iin order to get into the job of layouts and cinematography?

thank you
  12 December 2006

sorry for the delay, yesterday was crazy!

Back to it......
Wow, great job with the film. Lovely art direction & feel for the emotions. Well done! I don't know how many people that could stay focused for that period of time.

I think you've done a lovely job & I think it's more a question of taste at this point. Some things I might have explored are:
1) more asymmetric framing - there's quite a lot of single shots of the boys that have them dead centre rather than off-centre, which means when you cut between them there's not much of a visual difference between the shots.
2) break it up more - at 11 mins, it's a pretty long film & it seems to feel like the same pacing most of the way - like one long sequence, despite the temporal transitions.
It might have been interesting to try to break up the visual pacing more, & find more "sub-sequences" to allow slowing down, resting, then ramping up again. Then varying the types of framing & movement/speed of camera & the pace of the cutting in those different areas.

To me you've got 5 sections:
Prologue: history of the boys birth
Act 1: set up the growing conflict, climax with rooftop
Act 2: retreat of brother & meeting his mentor/friend, climax with approach to cemetery
Act 3: confrontation in cemetery & resolution of differences
Epilogue: End-story of the other brothers.

For each one of the sections, you could work out the arcs that runs through it & how to vary the pacing/intensity/colour temperature/framing etc compared to the others.
I think in a 2 min short film you can tend to keep a consistent tempo, but at 11 mins you might find it useful to treat it more like a mini-feature. At the moment it feels like several camera moves are repeated quite often throughout the film (eg crane-down-tilt-up) & I'm not sure if they are visual callback to other shots or there's a thematic connection between the specific shots? Again it might have been interesting to remove virtually all camera movement in one section & shoot much wider longer shots, then bring it back the movement & tighter shots later to connect or contrast against the beginning...

It's a good film, so really these are just a few thoughts that may or may not improve an already enjoyable story. In fact you might have already tried them & found them not appropriate. Again, congratulations, nice work!

The way it tends to work with TV commercials is like this:
Most clients that are wanting a TV commercial have a specific advertising agency that handles there complete marketing campaign in the various media (print, radio, TV, billboards etc), so that everything is integrated & consistent. The angency generally comes up wiht the basic idea for the TV commercial (let's say a set of 10-20 story boards for a 30sec commercial) & gets bids from the production companies & post production house/studios. If it's all CG it might go direct to a post house, but if there's any live action shots it usually goes to the successful production house, they refine the idea & may choose the post house/studio to supply the CG elements & do the compositing etc. Depending on the content of the commercial, the agency creatives & the production house creatives, the artist/creatives at the post house/studio may or may not get to have much creative input - it all depends. I hope that answers your question.

It's eally hard fo rme to say the path to producing, some artists turn producers, but most producers (in animation/commercials) tend to have started in the area of production management/coordination etc. The role of the producer can range from very creative to mostly admin & management to make sure the project can be finished.
I have considered working in games, as that side of the industry is ina very exciting place right now & should be doing amazing work over the next few years. However right now I'm enjoying doing feature films, as I like the focus on storytelling & filmls potential to tell (relatively) long, complex & compelling stories. I like the work of many different directors: Orson Welles, Sergio Leone, Frederico Fellini, David Lynch, Luc Besson, Martin Scorcese, Ridley Scott, Ron Howard...the list goes on.

I think (roughly) that Flushed Away took about 18 months in the production phase & probably another 18 months in pre-production(???)

I'm not sure on the exact numbers of animators & modellers, as they are different departments & I didn't meet all of the artists in these areas. I'd guess overall (could be totally wrong on this!) there'd be 20-30 modellers who work on it at different times & maybe a similar number of animators.

I think the most difficult (& rewarding) shots were in "Meeting the Toad". Technically they weren't difficult but from a creative perspective they were extremely importnat in setting the tone for the rest of the film as our "hero" meets the "villian" for the first time. we put a lot of thought into these & did a lot of restaging of the scene to get it more dynamic & interesting.

1. It's very dependent on the specific project & the studio. Sometimes you're doing exactly the same thing, other times very different. As a rule of thumb, a lot of previs work (in Live-action VFX films) is more focussed on how to acheive the shot, what CG will be needed versus what will be fabricated set/props, how it needs to be shot, how the set design will have to go etc. Again, as a rule of thumb, in layout (for animated features) it's more focused on the characters: how the character is framed, the basic posing, the cuts during dialogue, how the characters should be restaged, the camera movement to support the narrative & how the camerawork flows across the sequence & the whole film (remember in layout for animated films, you layout every single shot, not just the complex VFX/action sequences). Also previs tends to be about producing reference & material prior to production whereas layout nurses the shots all the way through until final render, fixing, changing things, adjusting cameras post animation etc along the way. In the past, previs has tended to be more about action, layout everything. These days however the lines are very blurred, what one place calls previs another calls layout. The basic talent you look for for both is good filmaking.

2. Tough question. Maybe, Three colours:Red (every shot seems to framed/lit etc for specific reasons, so much subtext - genius)

3. Hmmmmm. Perhaps Dr Zhivago (about as epic as it gets)

4. See above somewhere..

5. At DreamWorks there is a layout department (Rough & Final layout) of about 20 people. Although I've worked with people from most of the previs companies, at the moment I like to setup & supervise the layout departments & cinematography for feature animation studios.

6. I loved Monster House. As I understand it, the "wheels" system at Sony is used to layer hand camera movement over the top of the animated layout cameras. It looks wonderful on the trailer for Surf's Up. I can definitely see a lot more of that kind of camera work as the genre of animated films expands & more contemporary or edgy projects demand different styles of camerawork & cinematography. Exciting times eh!!

7. I do very rough, sketchy boards - just simple figures & eyelines to work out basic framing & graphic properties for key shots, then I quickly rough in the basic movement of the sequence as a master scene & then I put in shot cameras to work out all the individual shots. I keep it *real* loose at this point - just snap poses on characters etc - stuff you can delete & redo in minutes without thinking about it. Something like Hamish McKenzie's "zooShots" (check is a great publicly available tool to do this kind of thing.

I can only speak for myself when I say the best thing after a good reel is a positive attitude. Things usually go wrong in CG production & I'd much rather have a decent artist with a can-do, no problems attitude than a great artist who huffs & puffs & seems reluctant to change or redo anything when the request comes in.

1) Stealing from my other reply....

As a film-maker, always ask yourself these questions:
a) What is the purpose of this shot/sequence in my story? (Why is it in the film?)
b) How do I best convey that to my audience through the acting, dialogue, lighting, camerawork, colour scheme, framing, music etc etc

Different people make totally opposite choices. Maybe warm light, long lenses & tight framing means safety, happiness or maybe those same things mean heat, discomfort, danger. As long as you're consistent about it, it means what it means in your story. Sometimes you may have to look beyond the dialogue when working out the message of a scene. Sometimes characters lie or even unconsciously say things that are different to what they are feeling - sometimes you want the audience to be aware of that, sometimes not.

2) Depending on the show & the sequence I may be at the launch to story (to get invovled in discussion before the boarding starts). Mostly I don't get involved in the first pass of boarding, but once there's a rough pass I'll be involved in dicussing it, putting forward ideas, improvements, pointing out potential problems or what might look good on boards but won't work too well in 3D etc etc

3) Those things help, but aren't pre-requisites. I just look for good film-makers. I think it's much easier to find a good animator, good modeller, good lighter etc than it is to find a good CG film-maker as unfortunately most CG schools don't teach good film-making. Just good camera skills are very difficult to find in 99% of reels. That's why a good short film counts - even if it's 10 shots long. The film-making shows through. If just the camera work & editing shows motivation & thought then I'll be telling HR to put the person on the must contact list.

__________________________________________________ __

a domani, a demain, bis morgen, hasta manana....
  12 December 2006
(Doh! I think I got missed out as my last post got stuck at the tail end of the last page - LOL - Anyhow, here it is again with some more questions - This is ending soon, isn't it?)

Thank you again, Brad for your considerate and thorough answers. By asking so many questions, I kind of feel like the guy at the wedding who eats all the snacks and cakes. Still, it's great to be able to dicuss something that's interested me for a long time. Brilliant.

Originally Posted by bblackbourn: SIOUXFIRE:
I think "The Proposition" is that Australian film written by Nick Cave (from the band - Nick Cave & the bad seeds), right? I haven't seen it yet but have been looking forward to it. I love Wong Kar Wai's work too - wonderful!

That's right. "The Proposition" is the Nick Cave-written film. There are a couple nods to Delli Colli in there. (I thought it was pretty unlikely that you hadn't seen Wong Kar Wai's work - he really knows how to use colour)

Originally Posted by bblackbourn: Most times, on the projects I've worked on, I tend to avoid techniques that are exclusive to CG, mainly because we are working in an artificial environment & the audience is familiar with live-action cinematic limitations. That's why camera moves that we do with cameras constrained into "crane rigs" feel so much more "cinematic" that when we just translate & rotate the camera around it's nodal point. Like the way George Lucas insisted on a traditional orchestral (rather than synthesised) score for the original Star Wars - he wanted to ground it in some familiar or traditional approaches. Also I guess it's partly to do with people having been put off by a lot of "CG", "floaty", "unreal" or just plain unmotivated CG cameras flying around in the past.

I see what you mean. In my own project, I was considering making use of saturation/desaturation to subtly emphasize elements along with light and shadow. Do you think that might work without being overly distracting?

You mentioned earlier, the difficulties in pinning down the subtleties of an emotional scene. Can you give some examples of problems and possibilities when working on these scenes?

Which scene are you most proud of from a cinematographer's standpoint and why?

What cinematographic techniques do you use to emphasise crowds? Obviously it's best to keep the number of models to a minimum when working in this medium and I was wondering if you had any tips on how to exaggerate a crowd of people, swarm of ships, or busy traffic. Is it simply down to clever blocking and clever camera angles? Is it creating sets that hint at distant "layers"?

And that reminds me, is blocking within your control? And on Flushed Away, was the blocking planned in storyboards, some kind of topographic plan like stage productions, or was this the part of of previs?

Can you tell us anything at all about your future projects?
(siouxWIRE Blog)
  12 December 2006

this may be the last chance to reply to anything, so I wanted to take this chance to thank everyone for the fascinating questions. They were a lot of fun to answer. Good luck with your own projects & success in the industry - I look forward to working with some of you, someday, somewhere in the world!


Sorry I missed your last!

I think saturation/desaturation would work very well. It used all the time in live action via production design & costume design palette control & also grading in post.

Emotional scenes are mostly carried by the subtle acting. So, during layout on a mostly high-energy action-comedy, you're trying to serve 2 purposes:
1) you want to make sure you're not doing too much with staging & camera to distract from the acting (which doesn't exist yet!)
2) you want to do just enough with the staging, camera & rough posing of the characters to show the value of the shots. Otherwise there's a danger that when surrounded by much higher energy sequences, the emotional sequence will be perceived to be "too flat", "too slow", "too long", "needs tightening" etc. These are the situations where I tend to cast my most subtle animator, to help protect the sequence by clearly communicating (in very simple form) the emotions of the scene & therefore motivate the camerawork, cutting, staging etc.

BTW this brings up a good point about why I like to hire artists who can animate as well as have a good sense of timing, camerawork, editing etc. Somtimes layout functions as 3D story artists, camera operators, editors all in one. Different artists tend to have different strengths, some are great at action seqeunces others at intimate, emotional ones, a few are great at both, so that's where casting of the particular artists to particular sequences works much better creatively & budgetarily. Also, the more artists thrown onto a sequence the bigger the mess you have to clean up. I try to minimise the number of artists to help them keep a consistent cinematic vision running through the sequence.

I think two of the sequences that I'm most proud of are "Meeting the Toad" & "The Ice Room" that follows it. Both of these had a lot of key character moments & exposition, as well as set up the stakes of the film, establish the villian & the dangers to Roddy in this new world.
We did a lot of work with the board artists scouting for ways to stage the sequences & we used a lot of rough lighting in layout to motivate the staging & movement and add to the narrative. They came out very dynamic in general & I was very pleased by the marriage of the camera & light in the final renders.

For crowd work, the first thing to see is what you can get away with by using long lenses (75mm plus) & very little depth of field. That way you can narrow the framing to just a few characters/ships/cars etc & stick cards in the FG & BG to suggest more. Out of focus objects moving across the foreground do wonders to sell "crowds" of whatever.

Blocking: We did scout the sets with the story artists if the sets existed at that stage. Most blocking however is done in layout as many sequences are boarded before the sets exist, are drawn without much background info or are cobbled together out of many different versions of the boards, so that that the screen direction is constantly changing, characters are coming through doors that don't exist, walking around props that are way out of scale etc etc. So a lot of times on our first "blocking" pass we "fix" everything & work out better ways to stage the beats from the boards within the real set.

In the future I'll be going back to directing and I have 2 projects I'm developing in that area. But right now, my next immediate project that I'm very excited about is setting up and supervising a layout/cinematography department for "The Tales of Despereaux" at Framestore Animation in London. I've been working with Gary Ross (writer/director of Seabiscuit, Pleasantville etc). He & Allison Thomas are producing the film for Universal. Framestore Animation have got a wonderful bunch of really talented & super nice people there that I'm looking forward to working with. The book that the film is adapted from is *really* cool - so I'm pretty jazzed. Framestore Animation also have other very cool projects following Despereaux that will be announced in the next few months, so keep your eyes peeled!


That's it from me, time to sign off. Thanks again to Paul Hellard for organising this & to everyone who contributed their stimulating questions. My brain aches, you've given me a real mentla workout! I hope the answers make some sense & are more useful than confusing. Good luck on your own journeys. I look forward to seeing your films!

Must dash, I think I hear London calling....

cheers & beers,
  12 December 2006
Thank you

Thank you for your answers and have a nice time ....

I love London too :-)
  12 December 2006
Thanks for doing this, it really helps me.

Anyway back to my questiosn:

1. Do you find being a cg artist and spending time with your family hard, or do you have a more relaxed schedule than most?

2. Do you think that being a cg artist or being a film director/producer is more time consuming and demanding?

3. Aside from the obvious different parts,is working in the film industry doing CG effects or 3D films very different from game 3d design or enviornmental design for video games?

Thanks in advance.
  12 December 2006
Not too sure if you'll see this, but thank you so much, Brad. This has clarified so many things for me and I'm really looking forward to seeing your new work as well as (hopefully) getting the chance to work with you someday.

And thanks to Paul Hellard and the CGSociety for organising this as well - absolutely brilliant.
(siouxWIRE Blog)
  12 December 2006
Time, Gentlemen!

Thank you so much everyone for your questions. A solid round of applause for Brad Blackbourn, for answering the incoming questions so well.
Fmr Editor and features writer, CGSociety; Global Artist Liaison, Ballistic Publishing. Freelance writer, media consultant & digital producer.
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