Brad Blackbourn - CG Cinematographer


[b]  Brad Blackbourn[/b]
  CG Cinematographer
  Brad Blackbourn is a Director & CG Cinematographer who has been working in the CG industry for over ten years.  Brad started out in Australia in the early nineties as a self taught CG artist, earning a living doing graphic design during the day & learning 3D at night.  His first taste of 3D was a copy of 3D Studio (the old DOS version) that a CAD magazine loaned him on the condition he did reviews of related plug-ins & updates.  Knowing he wanted to focus on character animation, he then spent a year cold-calling post-production houses & small studios volunteering his services in return for access to an SGI & a copy of Softimage|3D.  He finally convinced a software reseller to let him use their system at night & a few months later got his first paying job in CG - a CG butterfly for a TV commercial.  A lot more TV commercial work in Australia followed.
  Since then he has set-up and supervised an animation department in Malaysia, pre-visualised & animated on several live-action feature films in Australia, consulted on cinematography/animation pipelines for a number of feature animation studios around the world.  He directed CG commercials in Italy, directed animation & camera for a stereoscopic ride film and prior to moving to the USA he directed a CG series in Germany.
  For the last few years he has been based in Los Angeles where recently he was Head of Layout/Pre-vis at DreamWorks Animation SKG where he worked on the animated features "Sharktale", "Flushed Away" & "Kung Fu Panda" as well as the CG series "Father of the Pride".
  Brad's focus for the last few years has been on directing CG projects or supervising the cinematography/layout/pre-visualisation. "It's all about focusing on the cinematic story-telling," he says.  "When I'm directing, the layout process is my visual blue-print for the film.  It's like having a rough-cut of a live-action film without having finalised any sets, got the actors on-site or in fact spent any of the production budget! Once a good 3D layout (with rough lighting/acting information) is edited and it works, the film is kinda done.  You know it will work as a cinematic story.  The visual structure is set and any potential audience member should be able to watch the layout version of the film and understand it without any caveats except that it will get better.  From this point forward, you are exploring acting choices and fleshing the film out.  The film evolves and improves as new ideas are incorporated, the real acting is incorporated and subtle (or dramatic) lighting enhances the mood (and hopefully some happy accidents happen along the way!), but it is all built on the cinematic foundations of the layout."
  Please make welcome, Brad Blackbourn.

[left] ‘Lego Racers’ - stereoscopic ride film. Brad directed animation & camera.


         'Flushed Away'.    Images © Dreamworks Animation 2006
        Brad was Head of Layout during the production of this feature.
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Hello Brad,

A very warm welcome to the ‘Meet the Artists’ feature…

  • It would be great to receive some suggestions, tips for students beginning work on their short film.

  • On finalising an idea for the short

  • On the amount of time to be spent on layout, previs before jumping on to the pc

  • Things lacking in today’s student films

  • And any general tips for people wanting to do their own shorts.

Thanks a ton for taking time out to answer our questions. Wish you a Merry Christmas and a great New Year in advance…



Hi Brad.

  • Being self taught, do you have an opinion on the current topic of Being Self Taught Vs CG Schools?. Many new people into the Cg World today seem to be wondering if Going to a CG School is worth the investment.

did this issue ever come into your thoughts while you were learning in the early days?




hi Brad
-do the rules of traditional cinematography play much of a role in cg cinematography?,while your obviously not bound by the same rules(you can make a cg camera do things a real one could never) …I wonder if you still try & restrain yourself from going overboard with all that cg can offer?



Welcome Brad, and thanks for doing the Q&A.

I’m interested in hearing more about your work on ‘Flushed Away’, was it easier or more difficult working with the Aardman crew, and was there as much collaboration on cinematography as there obviously was in modeling / sculpting?


hi braD =)

I currently am on a film directing school, and teachers say that the more actors you have on set, the more difficult it is to direct and make Cinematography. I believe the same applies to cg, right?

And what was the most difficult scene you had to plan for a cg movie?



hey there,

I’m checking out from the screen shots that flushed away was cg??? i thought that it was stop motion all this time…

How big was the team that worked on it?

 Hi Brad, 

I quoted Icarus question because my question is related...
- which do you think is more important in landing a job in the CG industry (especially feature films) having a degree, or having a portfolio / show reel that shows what you can do??

Just in case it makes any difference:
-I have a degree in architecture and I have some lighting in production experience (which I'm not quite proud of) 

thanks in advance Brad


hey brad!
its a pleasure having the ability to talk to you. I’m also interested in your view on this topic cause i’m trying to get admitted into graduate school to study computer graphics, interactive design to be specific, and i keep wondering if the $37,000:00 i need to fund my first of two years in school should not be used to start up my own studio… he he.


Hi Brad, thanks for taking the time to do this. I only have one question at the moment and here it is. :slight_smile:

  1. Is there any training material out there that you feel are great for improving my layout/cinematography skills? (books, training dvd’s, etc…)




Hello, Brad. Thank you for taking your time to answer questions.

  1. I’m working on a small project, but I’m at a point where I can see that my initial design sketches are going to make the cinematography something of a nightmare with cramped spaces. What techniques have you used to overcome obstacles in the set design? And have you ever used your influence to redesign sets to suit your vision of how the scene should be setup?

  2. How often do you stray from the storyboards or experiment with ideas that occur further on in production?


hellow sir,
can you answer a very little question of mine, its kinda killing me as i can see you have revolved around, most of the earths globe and i also wanna do so, but can you tell us your big secret that, how can a persone like me can go from nowhere to somewhere and somewhere to where you are right now,

one technical question : like i have directed two clay animated shorts and in both of them the story board was something else and our film was something else, most of the time. so the question is , what is the proffetional way to do things, like should we go with the storyboard strictly or take new ideas ,that feels great at the time of taking footage


Hi Everyone,

First up thanks to Paul for inviting me on here - I’ve enjoyed reading these these Q&A sessions in the past.

And thanks everyone for the interesting questions - let’s get started!

(I’ll break the answers into chunks!)

If you’re looking to make a mainstream narrative film (most people are, as it usually connects best with the widest possible audience) - it’s all about story.
Not wanting to sound trite, but basically there’s two parts to successfully making a great film,

  1. create, adapt or obtain a great story
  2. turn the great story into into a great film

For a student film it’s fantatstic to have both of these, but unless you’re expecting to be a writer/director in your first job it’s more than enough to just have part two. That part shows your filmaking ability. Maybe the animation is funny, subtle, emotional - it connects to the viewers. Maybe the lighting is beautiful, moody, dramatic, subtle, clever. Maybe the art direction or modelling is wonderful. Maybe the camerawork & editing is clever, subtle or dramatic and above all is strongly supporting the narrative or point of view.

As I’ve suggested before, I think the film is made in layout/animatic (not the story mind - you should be convinced that working before beginning the animatic/layout/previs). Spend as much time as necessary until it works as a film - but keep it rough, don’t fuss the details at this point. BTW a lot of this layout process will be in the editing of the shots.

Out of interest, one of the things that is rarely seen in student films is good camerawork & editing. I think that may be due to a lot of students learning how to “do CG” rather than film-making.

As a film-maker, always ask yourself these questions:

  1. What is the purpose of this shot/sequence in my story? (Why is it in the film?)
  2. How do I best convey that to my audience through the acting, dialogue, lighting, camerawork, colour scheme, framing, music etc etc

In summary, if someone was to ask you (about any facet of your film) “Why did you do that?”, you should be able to anwer with the motivation or intention. Maybe the intention suceeds or not, but even having a clear intention is rare in most student films.

Here’s some film-making homework for everyone:

  1. Listen to some free podcasts of “This Amercian Life” at Every epsiode contains incredible real-life stories that beg to be made into short films. It’s inspires you to find your own stories from life.

  2. Watch good movies with the sound MUTED! See how the story is supported by the visuals - the camera movement, framing, lens choice, staging, light, shadow, colours, acting, production design & editing. Why not start with “Casablanca” or “Citizen Kane”?

  3. Check out material on what filmakers were trying to achieve in their films & how they went about it: American Cinematographer Magazine, commentaries on movie DVDs, Documentaries about film - Visions of Light, Cinematographer Style etc

  4. Go to the library & read up on film & story theory (you don’t have to agree with any or all of it!): Bruce Block “The Visual Story”, Robert McKee’s “Story”, Christopher Vogler’s “The Writer’s Journey” etc

It’s hard to say about schooling, it gets back to your goals, timeframe & financial resources.

If you want to be a film-maker & can commit to a multi-year degree, a well recognised film school gives you a great base to work from and if you can obtain some practical CG abilities either at home or from the same (or different) school then you should be in killer shape to make wonderful short films.

If you are more focused on being a CG artist, then I think you can gain a lot from graduating from a well recognised CG course.

I can’t recommend any specifically because I haven’t done either, but I think it’s an expectation from most employer’s these days. The reel still gets you the job, but a well recognised school helps connect you & get you noticed. Back in the days I started (early nineties) there wasn’t that expectation in Australia certainly, because there were virtually no courses in CG & any that did exist weren’t very industry focused (more focused on “Multimedia”) - I know because I spoke to virtually every educational institution in the country at the time before realising I had to do it on my own.

Definitely the conventions (rather than rules) apply in CG, you just have the freedom to break them more easily. But in the end it all comes down to the question - “How can the cinematography best support the narrative or intention of the shot/sequence?” If the answer is to break the conventions then go for it!

(More coming…)


It was really easy working with the Aardman guys, they are so laid back & enjoy making films. I collaborated very closely with one of the DPs from Aardman, Frank Passingham. It was a wonderful experience as we had a very similar taste in films & as I am a huge fan of the Aardman films I had a lot of fun adapting a specific type of cinematography that Aardman use as a result of their physical constraints & creative tastes to the CG world. In fact we used the same (virtual) lenses & similar apertures to what they would on the sets in Bristol, which resulted in similar depth of field in the renders to what you would see in an Aardman stop-motion film.

I don’t think it’s as difficult for the cinematography in CG as in live-action as our actors don’t get tired or bored or have to be constantly wrangled by the AD. Also you don’t have to do the shot over if one of the characers gets it wrong. It gets more complex & time-consuming (read expensive) though, the more characters are in a shot. On a big production it’s one of the budgetary advantages of doing layout/previs. It allows you to control & contain these sorts of complexities before putting the sequences/shots into production.

There are different types of challenges for different scenes/seqeunces. On one hand, for instance, the huge action sequences are very demanding & complex (eg The Boat Chase, Roddy Flushed). In layout we have to really flesh those out - most time defining the environment/set as we go. On the other hand intense character scenes with dramatic subtext require a lot of thought & subtlety (eg Meeting the Toad) where the devil is in the details - small & subtle changes in camera movement, framing, lens choices or lighting can enhance or change the meaning of a shot.

Definitely CG dude!

I don’t really know the whole crew count (I had about 6-8 in Rough Layout & 8-12 in Final Layout) but I think the it would be in the region of 200-300ish…? Don’t quote me on that though!

Salaam wa-laykum. (Sorry - I don’t know how to spell it best in the english alphabet.)
What an amazing city you live in!

Reel wins every time!

The point of the school is for you to learn the skills & get the support to produce a great reel. I’ve never heard of a person with a mediocre reel getting a job simply because of the school they went to and I’ve also never heard of someone with a great reel being passed over because they didn’t have a degree or whatever. One benefit of a really well recognised school is that it may help get your reel looked more quickly - especially if they have a relationship with specific studios.

I have many friends with architectural backgrounds who are doing or have done great work in CG .
Here’s a few:
Shane Acker,
Andrew Waisler,
Paul Westcott,

I can’t really give you advice for your specific situation. It’s something you’ll need to weigh up. As I mentioned to MINARAGAIE the reel gets you the job, but schooling never hurts your chances.

I mentioned some of my favourite references earlier, but another one that is great for staging & camerawork is Per Holmes’ “The Master Course In High-End Blocking And Staging” DVD set. You can check out some previews at his website & see what you think. I did a review of it some time ago for - you may be able to track it down if you’re interested.


  1. Another of the key benefits of layout/previs on a production is exploring your sets early on, when they’re rough, simple & still flexible with the final design. Rough in some super-simple versions of your sets & scout about, set up your keys shots for the sequences that will take place there (ideally in one scene file) and then manipulate the set to get something htat works for all (or most) of the shots. Minimise your one-off shots & cheats! We always do this with the production designer & director & quite often we change the set during the session in order to better accomdate different shots or even create more interesting opportunities for staging.

  2. We almost always explore ways to improve or “plus” the storyboards. Sometimes there’s been plenty of time in story & everyone is convinced the boards have nailed it - in which case we’re usually massaging things to work better as a cinematic sequence (board artists can’t draw every panel with a correct lens & perfectly accurate staging.) However in most cases the boards contain the basic structure, but the sequence has been put together with boards from different versions, some with no backgrounds, characters looking in different directions, coming through doors that no-longer exist, the scale of the characters is nowhere near accurate in relation to each other or the environment…the list goes on. In these cases we rebuild the sequence, on-set, through camera, into something that works cinematically (& complexity/budgetwise!) whilst retaining the story & acting beats from the boards. We also come up with new ideas/approaches to pitch to the directors on most seqeunces - some are big, but most are subtle enhancements.

Tricky question, a lot comes down to luck - being in the right place at the right time or perhaps more accurately in this industry, being known by the right person in the right place at the right time! On the other hand, I believe you make your own luck to a large degree. Be aware of what the industry demands are & where it’s going. What are your strengths? Are your strengths in demand or probably going to be in demand in the near future? Can you deevlop strength in areas that will be in demand? Do you want to go in that direction? If so, want it more than anyone else. Never stop learning. It may be obvious but workwise - be reliable, have a positive attitude & work well with others (this is a combination all studios love when combined with good skills as an artist!)

Re: your films, once you “get-on-set” & look through the camera things change. That’s what layout/previs is all about - you had an idea for a film, now you’re making a film.

Must dash, more later. I hope I didn’t overlook anyone - if so it was un-intentional!
Thanks again for the great questions everyone!!


Brad, thank you for the great replies. )I hope I’m not being presumptious or taking advantage by asking more questions.) I really love the craft and though I’ve read a lot on the subject and learned a lot by watching films (silent films like Metropolis are great/love Tonino Delli Colli), I’m still very much an amateur. Your insight is very much appreciated.

Leading on from my previous question and your response, what have been your most difficult pieces of cinematography? What stumbling blocks were faced and how did you resolve them?

And I noticed you mentioned Citizen Kane and Casablanca as some great examples of learning to tell the story through cinematography; what are some post millenium films that have impressed you in this regard and why?

What would say are the most common mistakes that you notice in cinematography?


hi bradley,
what can you tell us about the tv-show in germany that is mentioned above in the introductory; is it any good?



Hi Brad
Wa alykom al salam wa rahmat allah wa brakatoh (Peace be upon you, God’s mercy and blessings)
well… I’m Christian but it’s considerably rude not answer you in the same way (from the Egyptians culture point of view)

First of all thank allot for your reply, it really made my mind up about the school I was planning to join.

Since you’ve noticed where I live, I’d say Cairo is an amazing City for a CG artist to visit, But it’s definitely not the place for a CG artist to work.
There are too few companies in Cairo in the field of CG and even fewer doing high quality work. Not to mention there’s only one school teaching courses in CG (and I won’t call it a trusted course)
I’d say it sounds much like the early nineties in Australia (where you started)…
It’s difficult to get production experience.
I’ve noticed that you traveled allot and worked in Malaysia, Germany and USA…
and I was just wondering how difficult it is to get a job in another country.
Especially the first time you traveled for work…
where you invited by a company to travel for work? What about work permits? How in general does one apply for a job in another country, and not get left out for the sole reason of living in “Far Far Away”??

PS: I know my question is a bit off, if you consider it irrelevant just let me know :slight_smile:
and BTW great work for these friends of yours, I’m wondering how they landed a job in the CG industry.


I haven’t seen the movie yet, but certainly will ! For what I have already seen from small spots on TV, it must be worth watching.

OK, we have to see the penguins and Arthur AND your movie - what a tight schedule ! But we’ll make it !


Hi again everyone,

keep up these interesting questions!

No problems, keep it coming! BTW I’m a huge Delli Colli fan, his work was amazing.

I draw the distinction between challenging pieces of cinematography & difficult cinematography. The former is usually when the intent of the sequence or shot is clear & there are creative challenges in how to shoot it best whereas the latter is usually when the intent is unclear (this is virtually always a sign that there’s unresolved story issues to be dealt with) and you can go in circles trying to create motivated shooting.

Personally I find subtle, emotional sequences the most challenging. It’s easy to overdo things & distract from the interplay of the acting, but also easy to do nothing & leave it feeling flat. Especially when there’s a sub-text to the scene - maybe the characters are thinking/feeling things that are unsaid, but that the audience needs to be aware of, or maybe, even, the characters are thinking/feeling something different to what they’re verbalising.
For me, I like to kind of map the emotional arc of a sequence like this & find out the pivotal shot or moment where a character or a relationship turns in a new direction. Then I can visually ramp into & out of that moment. I like to look at the complete story of film like that - as a journey with a known starting point & a known destination. If you then identify the key landmarks & turning points (emotional or whatever) of your characters along the way, you end up with a detailed route plan of their journey. (Not unlike an online mapping/trip-planning function really!)
You can then look at your map & the key turning points on it & work out how you are going to use your visual story telling tools (angles, lenses, depth of field, framing, movement, light, shadow etc) to support the various stages & changes of direction during the journey.
BTW You can always deviate from the route plan & reconnect with it later!

Here’s just a few recent films that I think had very clear & excellent cinematography that’s easy to appreciate: Memoirs of a Giesha, Girl with a Pearl Earring, Three Colours:Red, Amelie, American Beauty, Gangs of New York…

It’s hard to say what “mistakes” are - to me it’s more like being distracted from the story or confused about the intent. Maybe I just don’t understand what is trying to be done. But usually, that’s the sign that something is not working well - when an audience member suddenly goes “huh?!”, when you don’t intend them to. Most times for me it’s when too much is being done in a scene that doesn’t seem to warrant it. Suddenly I notice the camera moving without any clear reason. Like salt it’s better to use less rather than more, unless you’re really clear about what you want to acheive. I suggest erring on the side of caution unless it’s a hectic, intense action scene. I love Michael Bay’s & J.J. Abrams’ action scenes - they’re intense!

The CG series was “The Adventures of Stevie Stardust”. I was directing on that back in 1999/2000 I think. It was a pretty cool show with a young kid, Stevie, with a video camera, who was a huge movie fan. So much so that when problems or challenges occurred in the life of he or his friends he’d imagine all of them in some movie & we’d transition from their real lives into a his movie fantasy with them playing the role of Indiana Jones, James Bond, a Bogart-style detective, or galactic pirates & then as they resolve the issue we’d transiton back out into the real-life solution with them on their skateboards wearing a plastic tub on their heads or whatever. I had a lot of fun & the CG was pretty advanced compared to what else was on kids TV at the time.

I know what you’re saying, it’s tough when you feel isolated from what’s going on in the industry. At least the internet helps these days - it was impossible to know what was going on in the old days, unless you were already employed on the inside.

It is tough getting a job overseas, not only in convincing a studio that they should bring you half way around the world (this is where the killer reel/short film helps), but (as you mention) also in the red tape of work permits/visas as well. The red tape is not usually a problem if a major studio wants you, but can be a major hurdle if a small place wants to hire you - they may not have the resources or knowledge to go through the necessary submissions, legal issues & wait times. Usually it helps to try to find outside work in your region and build from there (eg have you tried Rubicon in Amman, Jordan - I think they are doing a CG series or something like that?). In former times the easiest way was to work at one of the satellite branches of a big US studio eg Disney, Hanna Barbera, Amblimation etc. Then you could get transferred around to their other studios, but I don’t think those kind of places exist much any more (I could be wrong!).
Another way to get some internationl experience is being very good & fast at TV commercial work. It usually easier to pick up 1-2 month contract jobs doing this type of work in nearby countries. It’s usually easier with work visas & you don’t have to pack up your life - you just live in a hotel for 6-8 weeks or whatever.

Good luck with your endeavours!

There is certainly a feast of CG features around - enjoy them all!

Ciao for now…


Thank you once again, Brad. I am very grateful for you replies once more. This is brilliant of you. Pleased to hear you’re a Delli Colli fan as well. BTW - Last night I watched a brilliant film with some great cinematography called “The Proposition”, highly recommend it as well as Wong Kar Wai’s “In the Mood For Love” in which the cinematography plays a big part. You’ve probably seen these, but I thought I’d mention them if only to get a response.

Once again, leading on from your last response, you've touched on an area that can be difficult and that's action sequences. "Flushed Away" hasn't opened where I am, but it looks like there are some pretty frenetic sequences from what I've seen in the trailer and you've mentioned a boat sequence. How do you approach action scenes differently? And which cinematographic tools do you use to enhance the action?

There are some techniques in traditional cinematography like the dolly zoom in Vertigo/Jaws and other techniques that are created within the camera; are there any techniques which you’ve either considered or used that are exclusive to a CG environment?

How did you move into your current specialisation of cinematography?