How does cinematography work on a stop-motion film?

‘Pinocchio’ DOP Frank Passingham breaks down his extensive lighting, camera, motion control and lens choices on the Guillermo del Toro movie.

In the second part of befores & afters’ extensive Pinocchio coverage, we talk to cinematographer Frank Passingham. He was responsible for overseeing the approach to lighting and camera on multiple set-ups run by multiple animators on the production.

This meant making key choices on motion-control, camera and lens equipment, as well as setting mood and feeling with light. An interesting aspect also involved anticipating what director Guillermo del Toro would want in terms of those choices by considering his earlier films.

b&a: I’ve always wanted to ask a DOP on a stop-motion feature, what are some of the first things that you tend to do when you are first brought on board a project like this?

Frank Passingham: Well, on the one hand, you have a very naturalistic setup because we have puppets and we want people to believe in these puppets as living, breathing entities. That means I think first about having naturalistic lighting.

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Credit: Jason Schmidt/NETFLIX © 2022

But because of our special world of stop frame animation, we are able to enhance that naturalistic lighting. When you see the very first shot and we go past the pine cone, I’m tracking a key light, which is meant to be the sun rising. I’m probably moving it seven or eight feet, which would be hundreds of feet in reality over the course of about 10 seconds. But it doesn’t look like it. However, if I did it less, people wouldn’t see it at all.

There are times during the film, because natural light is always in movement, there are either clouds coming in front of the sun or the light is always changing. I always like to have a little bit of movement of light. I tend to keep that quite subtle because it’s something that I want the audience to feel, rather than to see. So I want a very complete world with naturalistic lighting, but I want it to just be enhanced enough so that I can enhance the drama and certain scenes.

There are certain things that I do, say in the early life of Geppetto with Carlo, I wanted that always to be very warm and rosy, and that’s like his memory of Carlo. We do see that later on, too. I reflect that same warm light later when Pinocchio is actually getting on well with Geppetto and he’s in the church just prior to the first day that he’s going to go to school. So I match that lighting and use the same colored gels there.

The times when I reverse that is the first time, after Geppetto has created him, Pinocchio goes into the town on his own. So, I reverse the key light and the fill light so that I have a very blue and cool key light, but I have a warm fill light, because I wanted it to be very austere when he walks into the church. It’s something that is really very effective. But it’s a very simple thing to do. It’s very effective and it’s amazing how that can really charge the scene with emotion and drama.

Then when it comes to the more stylized scenes, when Pinocchio dies for the first time and he goes into limbo, here is a situation where I can really amp up the way I use the light and the way I can use it in a much more stylized way. On set, it was basically a black sand arena, and a black plinth that death is on. That is all visual effects of all the hourglasses in the cabinets, on the edge of this arena.

So just in terms of thinking about this, it is all about time and the way the sand is running through the hourglasses while Pinocchio is there. I thought time is constantly in movement. So I wanted to have that movement of light continuous so that it will ripple over the sand, ripple over death and over Pinocchio. We also raked light like magenta and cyan light over the sand. There’s an oscillation in those two colors on the sand as well.

The way I defined that pattern was, several years ago I visited the Alhambra in Spain and I was looking at the patterns from these Moorish designs. I was really intrigued on how they made those patterns. I read up on it and they were made out of numerology and using systems of numbers. So I found out about this and so I thought I can make some of my own patterns. I’ve manufactured some of my own patterns. What I thought was the most interesting one, I printed it out on a couple of sheets of acetate.

So I had a transparent and a black pattern. Then I had a contra movement of these two gobos, which I ran in front of my key light, which had this blue gel, quite a royal blue color. We thought it was a color that would totally work with death. So on the one hand you have very naturalistic lighting in the real world so that you can really believe in those characters as human characters, then the more stylized limbo.

b&a: These scenes are built on multiple sets with different animators working, how do you get around to all the sets? I’m sure it’s in one big studio, but how do you maintain that consistency? What are the challenges there?

Frank Passingham: Well, we were going to have 34 units and 17 animators. Those 17 animators, they would always have a bounce unit, a unit that was lit, it would have the puppets in there so that when they finished one shot, they would just hop in and carry on animating in another unit.

Image credit: Michel Amado Carpio.

However, this didn’t really happen like that, so I knew that I had to have a lot more lights. I was in a unique position because I’ve always walked into a studio which has got all the kit, all the cameras, all the mo-co equipment. This time I had an empty studio, so I was going to build it from the ground up, deciding on what the cameras were, what cameras I was going to get, what lighting I was going to get, where I was going to get the mo-co, what mo-co I was going to get.

I knew I’d have to stretch my budget out as much as possible. A lot of the studios were selling off their tungsten lights and I was able to buy them up. I decided I was going to use tungsten light just for my key light. Then some of those tungsten lights I converted into LED, replacing the tungsten bulbs with LEDs. Then I used all my indirect light, my fill light, all the bounce light was LED. Then I needed to have four lighting camera people and I needed three mo-co operators. It was great because I was able to choose all the best people that I could get.

I cast them and I gave them each certain sequences to work on based on the script. I’d already worked out a very complete color script, so I know pretty much all the colors and I’d tested the colors. They have the freedom to try different color fill light, or to modify those colors a little bit. That is the only way that I could do it so that they are controlling certain sequences.

b&a: What camera choices did you make?

Frank Passingham: I was looking into mirrorless DSLRs, but I was a little bit worried about the mirrorless cameras because of dust getting to the center. Some of these shots take up to three weeks to do, so dust getting into the camera could be a problem. The 5D is an absolute workhorse. It’s a pretty fantastic camera and that’s why I decided to go again with the 5D which I had used before.

Image credit: Michel Amado Carpio / Netflix 2022

b&a: What about lenses?

Frank Passingham: It was one of the things I talked to Guillermo about right away. I had a pretty good idea of the lenses that he used on his live action features. Out of all the films I’d seen of Guillermo’s, he never seems to go for really wide angles. So, one of my first conversations about lenses with him was, ‘Well, you never seem to use really wide lenses and seem to use between 85mm to 28mm, but nothing much wider than that.’ He said, ‘Yeah, that’s right.’

But because of our animation world, I was able to stretch that a bit. I knew that I would have to use a lot wider lenses. I needed to go to a 15mm. There were some great macro lenses I discovered–I have a friend in the UK who does a lot of natural history filming and he’d been using these Laowa lenses and he told me how he was really impressed with the quality of them. So I decided to go with some of the Laowa lenses for my wider end of the spectrum. Most of the time I was working with Nikons.

With some of the macros or close focus 25mm work, I was going with the Zeiss lenses to get that really good quality. If you look between a shot that was done on a Zeiss, maybe the next shot is done on a Nikon, we looked at that closely and you really couldn’t spot any difference in the quality. So once we knew that, we felt pretty comfortable just concentrating on how wide we were going to go and what focal lengths we would use for a particular shot.

b&a: I really love the camera work in the film, and you’ve mentioned it a little bit especially in terms of mo-co stuff, but I wondered if you could just impart some knowledge about camera work in terms of motion control, dollying along with characters, little push-ins, they work so well in the film.

Frank Passingham: After looking at Guillermo’s films, like The Shape of Water or Pacific Rim, I knew the camera doesn’t stop moving in any of those pictures. So initially, I was shitting myself a bit because I thought I’m not going to be able to move every single shot because I’m just not going to have enough mo-co.. I was lucky that there was a guy selling off a lot of his studio gear, so there was a lot of tracking equipment. He had some really big rotators, which I got, because some of the shots were circular shots.

Image credit: Michel Amado Carpio / Netflix 2021

So if you take the shot when Geppetto is having a meal with Carlo at the table, that would’ve been really difficult to do with a regular mo-co rig. I decided I was going to use this big rotator, stick the whole set on it, connect all the lights, which is meant to be a candlelit interior, and just rotate the whole set, which made it easier for the animator to work on it. It was just very effective to get this lovely circular shot. I did that on a few shots. The other shot is with the song Ciao Papa where Pinocchio is singing the song in the theater, and we did another circular movement from coming around to the back of Pinocchio and seeing the audience beyond him.

There were some other considerations that we had to make because this was the first film that I’d shot 4K on. Shooting in 4K with that resolution means one of the other dangers is going to be strobing, especially when you do lateral tracking shots with the characters. So with anyone walking laterally, we’d have to ask the animators–who were normally animating on 2s–to animate on 1s throughout those shots.

The whole thing with the moving camera and keeping the camera moving, it lent a nice lyrical quality almost to the film. It just seemed to me to really support the storytelling. At times we had a moving camera, we had moving lights, and if you take the re-education camp shots, there were sometimes several moving search lights, moving camera and explosions and everything going off. We needed a lot of kit for that stuff.

b&a: I just wanted to say one quick thing. I’m so glad I saw this film on a big screen. It was really powerful. I’m curious now to check it out on my TV also.

Frank Passingham: Okay, well, you will notice there’s going to be a little difference. I was talking to Guillermo about, did he want anything different in terms of the color grade for the streaming version? He said, ‘I want it exactly like the theatrical release.’ I said, ‘Look, can I try one thing?’

With HDR you’ve got fantastic latitude. So one of the things I wanted to show him was to go in and take the HDR, say when the Wood Sprite appears to Pinocchio in the workshop after he’s built Pinocchio, I wanted her to really glow a lot more just because I was able to do it easily.

So, there are just two changes. You’ll notice that the Wood Sprite, both in that workshop sequence and then on the seashore towards the end of the movie, we just glow up the Wood Sprite a bit more. I showed it to Guillermo he said, ‘Yeah, it’s great, let’s go with that.’

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