One of the things that I love about being a DP is how you are constantly using and adapting what you know to find solutions to questions you haven’t been asked before. Does that make any sense? I’m not sure, however I do know that recently I was asked to shoot some models (as in miniatures, not people!) and make them look like models but to keep a real world feel to the atmosphere within the model. I have shot miniatures before as second unit DoP on some of the features but the aim was obviously to pass them off as real world, this was very different as the aim was to keep both the real world elements and the model elements.  Our model shots had to cut into tilt and shift time-lapses taken in Dubai by Nic Cornwall of Little Big Fish Films. His brief to me was to keep the essence of the environment but not compromise the charm of the models. Here’s a couple of frame-grabs of the tilt and shift material that we were asked to match.

As you can see the scale of the tilt and shift was quite extreme and with this in mind the model maker and Nic decided to use a very small (or big – depending on what way you look at it?!) scale of model, the scale was 1:87 so our figures were barely 2 cm tall. This helped keep the detail down on the figures also which was part of the charm. We used the same tool that they had shot the time-lapses on, a Canon 5D but a very different lens. Whereas the time-lapses were shot using ultra wide lenses we opted for a 100mm macro, with a couple of the wider shots made on a 50mm. Many of the tilt shift sequences were shot as physical time lapse with an intervelometer but we decided that our shots suited being shot in standard 25fps motion. The time-lapse motion combined with the raw feel of the models felt like an unnecessary distraction.

So what did we do to set the tone of the models in the real world? Firstly, whenever possible we used practical effects such as water sprayers to simulate grass sprinklers and mini projectors in the classroom. I treated these as if they were in the real world, so for the sprinklers, I back-lit heavily and for the classroom I darkened off the main space and used the projection to partially light the classroom. We did cheat heavily with the projection as we back projected in the wide shots so that the light from the projector played on the pupils faces but we also front projected for a different angle so that the projector would flare down the lens. This worked very well as the flares from the projector actually took on the shape and colours of the animation we were projecting.

We also tried to create as much depth as possible by adding in foreground detail. This helped give the model a feeling of space and distance that was more in line with how a real location would exist. Again we used flares to add to the atmosphere and texture and help sell the shots. Finally, the lighting,  2 of the sets were exteriors, one was day time interior and one was night time interior. I choose lights that would give very clean shadows and were in scale for the models, namely dedos. We also had light panels to give a general ambience. The dedo light was about the right size to approximate the sun when scaled up and can give a very crisp light as it is so focusable.

These worked really well and once again my basic premise was to light as if the locations were real so for example in the classroom all the ambience comes from the window and the key light for the pupils from the projector. We had one scene on the solar farm where we needed to see the sun go down. To achieve this we cut a hole in the background which was just smaller than a dedo. We shone a dedo through this and moved the whole backing down through shot creating the feeling of the sun going down as the flare moved across the lens. We then dimmed up a cool light panel to create the moon ambiance.  All we were doing was trying to replicate what would happen if we scaled everything up by 87 times and it proved very effective.

It really is this kind of problem solving that I love, where you use and adapt the experience you already have to extend its purpose to new scenarios. I can’t ever imagine getting bored of this job! Thanks again to Nic at Little Big Fish Films for bringing this project to me and allowing the use of the stills.