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Q&A with Director of Photography Tristan Oliver

Part 1 of a four part interview series with ParaNorman's Creators

CinematographerTristan Oliver

A cinematographer for over 20 years, Tristan Oliver's stop-motion animation credits as cinematographer include the Academy Award-winning short films "The Wrong Trousers" and "A Close Shave," as well as the features "Chicken Run", Wes Anderson's Academy Award-nominated "Fantastic Mr. Fox," and the Academy Award-winning "Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit."

Q: Working in stop-motion over the years, what are some of the lessons learned that you apply now as a matter of course?

A: When lensing a stop-motion movie, you should be able to achieve in-camera most of what you need to do. Post-production digital effects hold an important place, but what they should not be doing is fixing what was failed to have been done earlier. They are there to enhance the movie.

Since a stop-motion movie requires a lot of labor, pre-visualization - especially for set pieces - is important; I have to figure out the right lens sizes so that the art department doesn't build more than they absolutely have to.

One thing to learn is how to apply old-school theatrical tricks - a layer of white netting which throws the background into a further distance, or a scrim behind a row of 'trees.'


Q: In terms of lighting, is less more?

A: Given the medium, people think we're using very small lights. We do, but because of the collapsed scale, you're constantly trying to make lights look farther away than they are - so we're often using the biggest lights possible!


Q: What drew you to ParaNorman?

A: For me to shoot a feature, I have to have a top-down vision so that it's coherent, as well as a collaboration with directors. This movie is bigger than any I've ever done, but I'm at the point in my career where I'm looking for something different with every feature. The concept artwork that I was shown for ParaNorman impressed me. I've known [director] Sam Fell for over 20 years, and I liked [director/writer] Chris Butler's enthusiasm instantly; his script was the most sound of any movie that I'd worked on - the third act in particular.

Q: When and how did you know for certain that this would be a viable collaboration?

A: When I sat down with Chris and Sam early on. We discussed what the essential ParaNorman look would be, as well as movie inspirations and references; I put together"mood reels" of film clips and stills for us to look at, and they were on board. We're all from England - so we speak much the same language!

Q: Did you have any concerns about working with two directors at once?

A: No. It's not unusual to have two directors in animation; I've worked on projects where that's been done, and it worked very well on ParaNorman. Chris and Sam would fill in the gaps in each other's process.

I had a real dialogue going with Sam and Chris. They know when they don't like something, which was good.

Q: Can you take us through a typical day of filming on ParaNorman?

A: On a busy morning - and there are many! - you would have 15-20 stages to shoot on, and you learn to prioritize. There are four cameramen that I was supervising, and I had first and last looks at whatever frame they are shooting. I prepare them for each shot. Lighting is a big part of what cinematography is, and I love to do it, so I am a presence all over the studio floor.

Q: What was different for you, then, on ParaNorman?

A: For me, the big challenge on this was to go stereoscopic - to shoot in 3D for the first time - while using a wider screen aspect ratio [e.g., 2:35/1]. The exciting part - for myself, Sam and Chris - was to try to make the puppets naturalistic, as if we are capturing them on-screen in their environment, in a live-action way. We decided we weren't always going to see their faces.

Q: On that basis, how did you find the lead character, Norman, as fitting in?

A: He's beautiful; he works classically well in silhouette, which is the mark of a good animation character.

Q: You mentioned movie inspirations and references. What were some on this movie - horror films, probably?

A: Zombie movies have their conventions - crash scenes, chiaroscuro lighting - and we observe them. But the zombie elements of our narrative are more subtle than the norm. To shoot our movie's ghosts, I referenced early Russian photographs taken on glass panes. I also looked to the work of [feature film cinematographers] Conrad Hall and Roger Deakins, and at movies that use light and dark in a particular way to give a sculpted look. I was very fond of Seamus McGarvey's work on "Atonement," and it influenced my work on a sequence in ParaNorman which dramatizes one character's remembrance. The forest scenes were influenced by martial arts movies, such as "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and "Hero."

Q: This all sounds very eclectic and adventurous...

A: Yes. Working with a shallower depth of field and shooting widescreen and using long lenses, I got to try lots of things I'd always wanted to on previous movies but hadn't been able to until ParaNorman. LAIKA made the first stop-motion feature in 3D with "Coraline," so they invented a method for that and we have reinvented it for ParaNorman.

Q: How so, and using what exactly?

A: Well, you need to have an on-screen environment that justifies going stereoscopic. Wider lenses were used for characters farther away from the camera, not in close-up. We establish Norman's world in Blithe Hollow with a nice wide frame that encourages people to go 'Oooh,' rather than feel sick; we're careful to take into account length and distance and atmosphere, rather than having stuff come out of the screen.

I believe that motion control has transformed stop-motion, with the camera being able to move so fluidly through the environment that is being created. About 80% of ParaNorman is motion control in some way - there are some handheld shots, referencing Sam Raimi's ["Evil Dead"] movies. And it's easy to control the camera, especially since you can now use the same one to take both shots. As stop-motion is a frame-by-frame shoot, the lightweight and compact Canon 5D worked very well.

If you're shooting in 3D, it's incumbent upon you to be making a good movie from a good script - which we had. We didn't ever want to take the audience out of the ParaNorman narrative.

Q: So how do you hope people respond to this movie?

A: After the first five minutes of ParaNorman, you might even forget that it's animated; we hope that you will be immersed!

To read Part 2 (Q&A with Visual Effects Supervisor Brian Van't Hul) click here.

To read Part 3 (Q&A with Animation Supervisor Brad Schiff) click here.

To read Part 3 (Q&A with Creative Supervisor of Replacement Animation & Engineering Brian McLean) click here.

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Related Keywords:ParaNorman, Stop Motion, Digital Filmmaking, Motion Control, Cinematography, Film Production,Tristan Oliver, Canon 5D

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  • Q&A with Director of Photography Tristan Oliver by DMN Editorial at Aug. 10, 2012 3:05 pm gmt

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