I'm preparing for a shoot in a few months that presents a
problem I haven't yet dealt with : compositing elements of
vastly different scale.
To explain briefly, there is a character in the film that
is just six inches tall, and he needs to interact with a real
world environment and characters that are normal-sized. None
of what we've planned is too complicated (characters never
touch one another, for example). Basically we just need to
have the small man running around the kitchen table, and the
floor, and in a shoebox. The logistics of each shot I'm enjoying
figuring out on my own, but the overall process of how to
go about doing it is what is stumping me.
In a nutshell, I'm concerned about some things that I just
can't be sure of, like matching camera angle and focal length
My thoughts so far :
1/. I should use the same focal length lens
for both shots of a composite and simply move the camera back
until the actor is small enough in frame to match when shooting
the "little man" in the studio.
2/. I should compose each shot with the actor
(playing the "little man") as large in frame as
I can afford to make him, as we can always shrink him down
3/. I should have a protractor on set and
measure every angle I can think of (and then some), and be
sure to replicate each exactly when we go to the studio to
shoot "the little man."
4/. All shots must be locked-down, sans movement,
because we have no access to motion control.
Am I right in these lines of thought? Any advice on efficient,
practical ways to match angles, particularly the tilt angle?
We're shooting, processing, and transferring all of the "real
world" footage before we shoot any of "the little
man" so that we can make comparisons on set with regards
to lighting, angles, etc. We'll be sure to take meticulous
notes regarding angles and heights and focal lengths etc.
and follow these religiously. We'll be shooting 16 (or perhaps
Super16) but finishing on BetaSP or DigitBeta, with perhaps
the possibility of a 35 blowup from DI (but that's mainly
a pipe dream).
Sorry for the long post. Am I correct in any of these assumptions,
or am I looking at this all wrong?
Radio-TV-Film Senior, Northwestern University
To explain briefly, there is
a character in the film that is just six inches >tall, and
he needs to interact with a real world environment
>In a nutshell, I'm concerned
about some things that I just can't be sure >of, like matching
camera angle and focal length characteristics.
All the stuff Mark "analog inclinometer " W. said,
plus this :
Get yourself a doll which stands up by itself and is very
close in size to the ratio you will want in your final composites,
and use it liberally while shooting your backgrounds. Always
squeeze off a few seconds with the doll in the shot in position
for every setup. You will be amazed at how much this helps
with your line up issues later.
I recommend the Barbie line; her new spring fashion and accessories
collection is to die for.
I vaguely remember an article in (I think) American Cinematographer
several years back about the film "Indian in the Cupboard".
If memory serves, the article went into great detail about
how the filmmakers dealt with the very issue you're having.
There is even a description of how they recreated a semi-circle
dolly move that in the "normal" sized plate shot
was 10 feet or so, but in the "little man" shot
would have been a 100 foot or more move in just a few seconds.
They did this by putting the actor on a turntable and using
a ring of lights around him controlled with shutters to fade
them up and down to make the direction of the source appear
stationary in relation to the actor as he turned. Not sure
if you're interested in anything so complicated, but it might
Maybe some on this list has a box of old AC's that they might
be able to dig out. Or maybe the AC has an archive of old
Hope you can locate the article.
I vaguely remember an article
in (I think) American Cinematographer >several years back about
the film "Indian in the Cupboard".
August 1995 issue.
David Mullen ASC
Cinematographer / L.A.
1/. I should
use the same focal length lens for both shots of a composite
>and simply move the camera back until the actor is small enough
in >frame to match when shooting the "little man"
in the studio.
Focal lengths and angles match, distances scale, so in a sense,
if your 6' tall man is supposed to be 1 foot tall, for instance,
(making him 1/6th scale) you could measure the distance that
he should have been at in the background plate, and multiply
it by six when you line up the shot in the studio which should
get him the right size...but remember, you have to multiply
ALL the measurements by 6, so, for instance, if the camera
was3 ft off the ground and at horizontal, you would want to
raise the camera to 18 ft off the ground to put your little
guy in the right place in frame. Now, if your little guy is
standing on a table, for instance, and the table is 21/2 ft
off the ground and the camera is 3 feet off the ground for
the room element, then when you shoot your "little guy"
element on the stage floor, the camera would want to be3 feet
off the ground (which would be 6" off the table times
6x for the scale.)
With me so far?
>2/. I should
compose each shot with the actor (playing the "little
man") >as large in frame as I can afford to make him,
as we can always shrink >him down in post.
Well, yes and no.
If this is your first time doing this, you should start by
figuring it all out as I have outlined above which would get
your little guy the right size and in the right place on the
film. Perspective is determined by position, not by focal
length, so once you have the camera in the right place so
that everything matches, you could MAGNIFY the image with
a longer focal length lens to have a bigger neg to work with,
but it will make the post end more complicated - by making
him bigger, you also make his translational movement in frame
bigger - two steps makes him move further across the smaller
magnified frame than it would with the "right" lens.
While this is all fixable, it is more complicated - you should
talk this over with whoever is going to do your post compositing
to make sure they can handle it. It might be simpler to shoot
the right size and know that it will all fit together. Spending
the time to get the lighting right and the bluescreen or greenscreen
lit as evenly as possible might do you more good than magnifying
the little guy...if he has to be "tracked in" to
position in post because of the size change, it might look
more fake, even if the edges are better. It is hard to make
a strong specific recommendation on this without knowing more
about the specific shots.
Bear in mind that in the imperfect real world of lenses, changing
to a longer lens to magnify the image may also make for superimposing
two images shot with different kinds of lens distortion causing
another mis-match issue.
I should have a protractor on set and measure every angle
I can >think of (and then some), and be sure to replicate each
exactly when we >go to the studio to shoot "the little
Most critical is the camera height and tilt angle and distance
to subject - making the little man floor plane match the plane
of whatever he is walking on in the background plate is critical
- if he is walking around, for instance, you really don't
want him to start floating or sinking through the background
plate floor. Pan line up can be by eye
All shots must be locked-down, sans movement, because we have
>no access to motion control.
Safest way to go unless you build yourself some "poor
man’s motion control" stuff, but consider what
sort of difficulties you would be adding to your life and
how much production value you would be adding to the shot...simple
is better, especially if you are of limited resources.
Most of my colleagues use digital levels to find tilt angle,
but in my perverse, analog way, I use a Suunto clinometer
(approx $100 in the US, slightly more in "high VAT countries.").
The clinometer allows you to interpolate to a quarter of a
degree or so which is close enough and as accurate as the
digital levels, and the clinometer itself is small enough
to keep in a shirt pocket and small enough to go on a flat
spot on the camera (I like the matte box rods for this). Harder
to read - you have to get your eye right up to it, but it
also never runs out of batteries...It's also good for sun
angle, shadow length, height estimation etc. The model I use
is a PM-5 360 PC. High end camping/climbing stores sell them,
but I bought my last one at http://www.forestry-suppliers.com
Record your video tap and use a small cheapo mixer with wipe
and dissolve capabilities to match your "little man"
element shot as accurately as possible to you background plates.
Note that if you do not use the same camera with the same
tap, or if the tap has been adjusted or moved, you will not
be able to line up accurately without repositioning one image
and/or resizing it slightly. Using the telecine dailies won't
work because their scale will be off - use the tap image from
the first shoot with the live tap image in the studio.
Remember depth of field!
If your little guy walks 6 real feet towards camera it is
only 1 foot on the background plate - if your depth of field
would keep that whole 1 foot in focus , then to be perfectly
righteous about it, you should be working at a stop that lets
him stay in focus on the stage for his full 6 foot walk. You
can cheat here if you have to by pulling focus on the "little
man" element, but do keep the issue of "what would
be in focus and what wouldn't be in focus" in mind as
you design the shots
Disclaimers - others on this list may disagree about the magnification
issue, and etc Your mileage may vary.
Good luck, and tell us how it works out...
VFX Super/DP LA based
(and ex NU faculty brat)
Bob Kertesz writes :
>I recommend the Barbie line;
her new spring fashion and accessories >collections to die
Definitely falls into the "too much information"
Randy "put away my dolls years ago" Miller, DP in
Well Mark has basically said it all...
The only area I'd disagree with is about pulling focus, it
can work but a lot of lenses shift image size/position as
you focus and this will cause you horrendous problems later.
I use a Suunto as well, the dual one that include a compass
in my case.
we were shooting on what was effectively 8 sets on 3 stages,
to match the lighting I made a drawing with all the angles
of the lights on it together with their intensity in FC and
their colour temperature.
To make sure that the key was exactly the same in every set
I put a pointer at the top of this drawing that had to be
matched to a set reference point, there was then a position
that a piece of dowel had to be placed and the light adjusted
until the shadow of the dowel filled the shadow that was drawn
on the paper.
This was a remarkably crude technique but worked extremely
well, this drawing was mass duplicated and every member of
the 3 lighting crews had one as did all the camera crew and
there were dozens of spares pinned to the studio wall!
We also did rough drawings of what each level of the shot
was supposed to be and pinned a Polaroid to them as we did
each one, just to make sure we didn't miss anything.
>The only area I'd disagree with
is about pulling focus, it can work but a >lot of lenses shift
image size/position as you focus and this will cause >you horrendous
I don't disagree with Geoff at all on this : if you can make
the stop to avoid having to pull focus on the "little
man" element, you will be in much better shape...the
fewer cheats and adjustments you have to make in making the
two elements work together, the fewer little things might
creep in to give away the gag.
If, for instance, you start cheating the lens height or the
tilt angle "just a teeny bit" you may find that
the floor plane doesn't quite line up, and while you can look
at the video tap images mixed together and talk yourself into
saying "it's close enough" and when you are looking
at the shot on a monitor while it is being composited it might
look "not too bad" when it is blown up and projected,
it might end up with the perspective mismatch becoming much
more obvious and painful.
As Geoff has pointed out, a lot of lenses breathe and shift
as you rack focus, and since the object of the game is to
have the "little man" element and the "room"
element look like they were captured as a single element on
one piece of film, there is danger that ANY breathing of the
"little man" element with respect to the room element
will be visually jarring - much more jarring than if the whole
image were breathing or shifting together.
Knowing ahead of time that you have the depth of field issue
to deal with, you can design the shots to minimize the challenge.