Tobyhowell

"It's always better to keep
working, experimenting and
perfecting as you go."

interview by Jamie Caliri for dragonframe
Dragon Frame Stop Motion Software
 


"I rented a VCR player and became obsessed with watching films - all-the-time. The more obscure, and arty, and weird it was, the better."

JC - So it was kind of verging on the fine arts side?

TH - Yes, it was painting, and also, this was just before the huge boom in computers. Two years later it was all computer based. I was doing illustration, but there was a graphic design element using hand drawn type or using rub down type. We used these very unwieldy ways to do slick graphics.

Around the second year-when I was 20-21 years old, I just started watching films. I rented a VCR player and became obsessed with watching films - all-the-time. The more obscure, and arty, and weird it was, the better. I also mixed it up with classic films I wanted to watch again like Kubrick, Coppola and just whatever weird films I came across late at night. I did my thesis on Jim Jarmusch.

Then there were the late night animations shown on (BBC) Channel 4. I would tape all of those as well. I think it was called 4mations. They were showing Jan Svankmeyer, which is a very art school kind of thing to get your head into, but that was quite high profile work really. The 4mations stuff had a lot of pieces by UK animators... There were Aardman films like "Adam" and the Conversation Pieces , and there were things like "Ident" by Richard Goleszowski - which was a great film. There was also a beautiful stop frame film called "Next" by Barry Purves, A Grand Day Out by Nick Park and the Bill Plympton stuff. I taped them all and built a library up.

JC - What did you feel about Street of Crocodiles by the Quay brothers?

TH - I really loved that stuff. I was well up for any little dolls' heads with candles in them, re-animated dead crows - good stuff. There was a bit of a yawning chasm between the quality of those films and what you could accomplish when you were on your own at school; the equipment was really, really bad, and we simply had very limited access - to very little. We had one Sony Umatic tape recorder. There was this way of capturing animation on them that was really clunky. You hit record, it would spool the tape up and if you were lucky it captured a tiny little burst at the end of the sequence.

JC - So you made films on video with this crazy machine that basically would do an indeterminate insert edit at whichever was the last end point? How did you animate?

TH - Well I did some cell animation. I bought a pegboard, built a light box and worked with acrylic paint on the cel. One of my films was the most insanely labor intensive ways of doing a film - now days you'd just put it through a computer. I filmed myself doing what I needed and then I rotoscoped myself - I made this sort of 'death rig' out of scaff bars with a big CRT TV, and mounted an enlarger lens pointing down from the TV onto my light box under a black cloth. Then I basically drew these projections (and again I was using a VHS player, so frame advance was pretty wanky), I was painting the backs of them with acrylics, and going through buckets of acrylic paint, then I'd lay them all over my student room to dry.

This had come from these very heavy line drawings I was doing at the time that were just ready-to-be-animated. It seemed like a natural progression to do this, so I slowly started carving these drawn films out, but let's be blunt, they weren't great films. Importantly though - I got a good degree, and I got to understand most of the processes involved in making a film.

When I graduated I said, "My actual animation wasn't that great, but I really enjoyed the process of making the films, and editing them and finishing them" It took me a little time to get my head straight after that, because I basically had an Illustration Degree, specializing in animation, but I didn't really want to be an animator. I wanted to do some thing technical.


 

E4 idents- Hotel Room and Beach huts
Brother 141 - Cafe, Business
DirecTV Chicken and Egg

"We thought, 'If we're going to do it, than let's completely own it. So that nobody feels like they can do it again or better.' I guess, theoretically, you should approach every job like that."

JC - Tell me about the Talk-Talk (phone company) Commercial?

TH - What Noah and I talked about was as many light painting styles as we could think of and then we tried to make some more up too. We essentially wanted to do a spot that drew a line under light painting. That meant that somebody would really feel that there was nothing left to do basically-because we'd done it. We thought, 'If we're going to do it, than let's completely own it. So that nobody feels like they can do it again or better.' I guess, theoretically, you should approach every job like that.

JC - When you and Noah set out to "push the limits" of light painting, what was the most successful product you used in that process?

TH - We sat down and talked it through, we looked at examples of stop frame using light painting and we both decided we didn't really like the constant 'boiling' that usually has- you know, a twitchy ball moving around, that sort of thing. The whole idea of not being able to control the animation frame-by-frame irked me, and I wanted much more control over the light on a frame by frame basis. This was the start of my heavy us of 'Dragon', as I was convinced I needed to be able to assess the long exposures together in a movie properly- as we were shooting. Dragon could do that in Hi-Res Mode so when an animator grew a flower up - frame-by-frame, he could see if his animation was tight.

We worked with the light artists Lichtfaktor as well, who brought in some of their own techniques. They used a variety of custom made torches to paint, but I really loved the laser cut stencils on flash heads they introduced me to- a crisp way of generating sequential images which animated well.

At the start of the job I had been testing the EOS 5D and trying to capture an event from start-to-end. Usually, a TimeSlice rig captures a single moment - as in the Matrix bullet time sequence. I knew we could use a long exposure to capture a large light drawing and look around it using multiple cameras. I also knew using the 5D on a tripod, I could 'hold' the light as it was burned into the image on each frame by holding it in Post using the echo effect; (You can set a threshold so that only the bright areas are held, so if you draw your name with a sparkler the word is drawn and held in the air whilst your dark shape moves behind it), this was best with a small a shutter refresh as possible. For example, shooting 30fps at 29.99th of a second. What I was trying to achieve was the combination of these two ideas, and had been in discussions with Glassworks (our Post house) to construct a 5D video TimeSlice rig to do this. Unfortunately the 5D rig wasn't going to work; triggering was a nightmare, not to mention speed restrictions because of the width of the 5D body. Thankfully, I got in touch with Dayton Taylor at Digital Air. Dayton used the job as a springboard to build a new camera rig based around 80 lipstick cameras capturing RAW, and we built the shoot up from there. It opened up all kinds of concepts. We now could shoot stop frame, live action, progressive and frozen moments and camera moves-all in camera, using the rig.

JC - It sounds like Dayton Taylor was an important part of this process?

TH - He was critically important to the process. He had his head deep into all the math I needed to nail to correctly expose the different layers ranging from live action to stop frame, some of which was faked by layering up exposures, while factoring in the camera's trigger offsets. He also controlled the massive data management. There was no MoCo on the shoot. All the camera moves were virtual, and purely the result of cameras being triggered sequentially and giving the illusion of movement.

Ironically, the final look turned out almost too clean and pure; the camera was drifting around these columns of translucent light in a way nobody had seen really- so everybody just assumed it was CGI!

JC - So, it seems like I see all this work that's come out now that you are helming as a DOP, like you've become the go-to-guy for complex shoots. How do you feel about where you are now, what you want to do, and what you've done?

TH - With animation, you constantly feel like it's on its way out and people are going to want it done on computers. Why shoot it for real? Yet, we are all still here doing these projects, and you know, I hope it continues. Ten years ago, I thought it was all going to die out and I think certain trends have changed in literally, the last year or two. That's to do with budgets and a lot of jobs that were going to be stop frame that are now being thought of as 'live-action puppeteer jobs' to get the same kind of hand-made/craft feel. Thankfully, I'm able to pick up some of that work, which is good. And you know, I'm very happy mining a mixed-media kind of scene.

I think the thing is, because I do a lot of commercial work, I do feel dictated by the only part of my career I can't control - the nature of the budgets.

JC - Do you mean what the agencies are going to be interested in and what they're going to want to pay for it?

TH - Yes, what they feel is kind of 'in vogue' in a particular year. There's a downside to doing a light painting job and dusting your hands off at the end of it, saying, "Yeah, I think we've 'done' that" (laughs) - because you don't get to go back.

JC - I know you do some short films too, like the Into the Cosmos film with Chopsy ( Darren Robbie ). Did that begin as a side-project completely, sort of a labor of love project?

TH - It was done because both of us really wanted to do it. Darren wanted to work outside of the Aardman's house style, I wanted to experiment with some hybrid stop frame and time-lapse location work. The job was done ostensibly as a music promo, but structurally and in terms of production we just thought of it as a little short film.
We thought we would shoot it in two weeks, and...

JC - ...and then 3 months later.

TH - That's right, we started it in November of '08 and finished it in the spring of '09. It was weeks and weeks and weeks of work, because each shot was a day set-up and we had night shots. It was bitter cold, but we did really well with Dragonframe on my laptop and a little leisure battery for the field. We made a small portable workstation out of a trolley and charged up this heavy-duty caravan battery overnight. Then we could run the laptop and the EOS all day, for a really long day, and even plug in another couple of things if needed.

JC - Now when you say "caravan battery" is that like a car battery?

TH - Yeah, it's a heavy-duty car battery, but as a leisure battery it's designed to hold its power and deliver steadily. It's much better for what we were doing because it would sit at a higher level of charge all day and we would trundle around on this little [trolley] and it was completely guerilla - guerilla shooting with no permissions, which is hilarious when you're doing such a slow process!

There's a sideways track and there are a couple of tracking shots with various techniques. One of them was just a tripod and drawing three lines for the feet with string, then marking them off with chalk. That has to be the simplest stop frame tracker you can make. Another was using a very large non-functioning radio controlled car as a dolly and just hot-gluing the head onto the car.

I'm a big believer in just going and doing it. Cosmos was a fun film. Though it took a long time to shoot, It wasn't very long from concept to actually getting going - there weren't a lot of filters before we were able to get our hands into it. I think it was just a really good experience to have. You just go, 'hang on now, we can just do it like this, we can just use an old radio control car or whatever is available.'

JC - Yeah, that's great.

TH - It's always better to keep working, experimenting and perfecting as you go, isn't it?

See more of Toby's work.

A FEW WORDS WITH toby

Cinematographer Toby Howell has established himself as an in-demand point man for high pressure, artistically and technically challenging mixed media shoots. He has successfully traversed the scenes of animation and live action, participating in groundbreaking, standard setting work. His bold approach raises the bar for both high profile commercial and independent projects. He speaks with Dragonframe Creative Director Jamie Caliri, about how he's managed to carve this exacting and rewarding niche in animation:

Jamie Caliri - Let's start at the beginning Toby, where are you from?

Toby Howell - I'm from an area of North London called High Barnet, right at the end of the Northern Line on the Tube. I grew up in quite a creative household, really. My father was a 70ss marketing man, he marketed the Sunday Times and the BFI , and he was also a keen photographer. We had a utility room that he converted into a darkroom.

JC - Did you get to work in the darkroom?

TH - No, not at that age. I hung out with him, he would turn the safelight on and I'd see some pictures coming through. I didn't get into it- taking and developing my own film, not until later at college. I'd always drawn though, and was an avid painter. My grandfather painted oil landscapes, my uncle is a commercial photographer, so I was helped and encouraged.

JC - So what was your entry into this field? Was it through photography or film?

TH - It was illustration. I did a one year 'Art Foundation Course' and from there I went to Bath College of Higher Education in the West of England for a Degree in Illustration. I was into the New York thing; Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf - graffiti influenced art, that late 80's, early 90's stuff - Jenny Holzer and Cindy Sherman. That's what I was doing on my course, very bold graphic stuff.

Ford Fiesta This is Now

Architeq Into the cosmos

Talk Talk Brighter

JC - But you'd spent those years studying how to look at color and shape and composition...

TH - Well that's it. I knew that I had some ability as a photographer and illustrator, so visually I knew I had something, but I didn't necessarily know where to go with it. So, I got a job in a camera shop while I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do. I was pretty good at that, I enjoyed it, and I could take kit away. Because we developed film through the shop, I could buy rolls for very cheap and could just chuck them through the D&P (developing and processing). I would basically just shoot and shoot. I could take a camera out, any kind - (we sold a lot of second hand cameras and lenses, so I could take interesting bodies and lenses out), I was sort of 'hobbying' and obviously becoming more and more aware of lenses and light.

"One of the mixed blessings about being in college is you believe you can do everything. You don't really think 'I'm going to leave here and I'm going to become an assistant for somebody else..' You really believe you are going to do it all!"

JC - So how did you realize that Camera work was what you wanted to do?"

TH - There was an animator - Peter Peake, who was in the year above me. He'd also come on the course to do illustration and then specialized in making films. He's quite a successful freelance director now. He did an early version of a film that he later remade at Aardman's called Pib n' Pob, - I helped him on that film. During his final year he got a placement helping on "Not without my Handbag", a short film that was directed by Boris Kossmehl. Through Peter I got a set visit to meet the Camera Man, Andy Mac, who had shot lots of stop frame films, commercials and short films. At that time Andy was a fantastic ambassador and a great person for me to meet. I had seen cameramen in live action and all the rest of it, but he was a busy 'animation' cameraman. We talked about loads of techniques...and it caught my interest.

I basically said to Andy, "what would I need to do to become you?" and he said, "Well, we have assistants- you'd have to become an assistant." so I realised that a job existed that I could use as a way in. One of the mixed blessings about being in college is you believe you can do everything. You don't really think 'I'm going to leave here and I'm going to become an assistant for somebody else...' You really believe you are going to do it all!

So later I finished at the camera shop because I got a job at Aardman's as a runner for a few months. I wanted to be a camera assistant and said I would work for free. I went in to 'do one day for free' as a camera assistant trainee, on this film called Stage Fright directed by Steve Box and shot by Tristan Oliver. They also had an assistant who was programming the MoCo named Jason Marshall. I went in to help Jason for one day, and came back the next day... I basically just kept coming back! I think I was on it for five months as a camera trainee. That was a first; finally I wasn't just a runner working across the whole building- I was on the crew.

JC - You really got to see it all go down.

TH - Yes, and that was all shot on film, it was a short film about the death of Music Hall due to the advent of early cinema. So Tristan was using as many old in-camera techniques as he could to make the film have a complete vision. It was all shot on Mitchell BNC film cameras, which is what Aardman's used at that time- these were refurbished movie cameras from the 1930' and 40's. Reliable flicker-free camera movements which are essential for animation or effects work. There was lots and lots of multi-pass work shot on the same piece of film. I remember there was a big crowd scene that was shot with enough puppets to do about an eighth of the old Music Hall Auditorium. So we'd set it up, animate them, (which was a big group scene), for two or three days, and then we'd wind the film back, reposition the puppets, then do that again for two or three days - all on the same piece of film, counting the frames to ensure nothing was out.

JC - Did you do the compositing, in camera, like with a matte box and blocking off parts on a sheet of glass?

TH - That's exactly right. It would get blocked off- it was all done in camera. As moco was involved it was really important that it all lined up, there's zero margin for error.

JC - You really got to see people pushing the medium and pushing themselves...

TH - Right, Tristan demands a high level of efficiency from the camera team. I liked that very much - that completely uncompromising approach to the technical and camera side. I'd actually found a combination or creativity and extreme accuracy that I loved. So, that was a key job. I carried on assisting at Aardman's for a while. I was doing commercials and then the first feature-Chicken Run. I was Head Assistant on that. We ran 25 Mitchells across 30 units for 18 months and didn't lose a single frame.

Then I started to move into lighting. I was friends with an Animator at Aards called Darren Robbie. He wanted to direct and I wanted to light, so we shot a film called "Ernest" together through Aardman's, I got a few other small jobs, then I began working on Creature Comforts which was a big break. I managed to get on there initially as a Lighting Cameraman. We did two long series for the UK which were quite successful. By the time we did the third series, which was for the US- Creature Comforts USA, I was DOP.

From a cameraperson's point of view, Creature Comforts was a dream job in stop frame. Everyday there was a different scenario, a different environment; 'now we're in a desert, now we're in the arctic, now it is night time in the forest, it's night time in a house...' All establishing shots- getting to do hundreds of them, hundreds of different environments, all the time trying to learn from each one and make it better and better.

We had time on that production as well. You might have a day and a half or, if it was a complicated set, you usually had a couple days to think of how you wanted it to be lit; like underwater effects, or something that needed a bit more building or solving like moving light sources. I'd do things like that because I had the time. There was a sunset shot where a character was doing a monologue for a very long time and I wanted the sun to do that squidge where it started to meet the horizon, stretch out like a big blob of color; I wanted it to change during the shot. I had time to set up some MoCo, adjust the levels and the color. Stuff like that. That's very luxuriant, really.

I left Aardman's to do the re-brand for E4 with Olly Reed and Noah Harris. That was a fairly important job because it was a complete hybrid of stop frame and live action. Highly art directed, with many techniques, they were incredibly dense spots which won a D&AD pencil. What came out of that job is Noah and I developed a good working relationship, so when he got the Ford Fiesta Zeitgeist job, he called me for that. We went out to Berlin and I worked with another cameraman called Alex Barber who shot the 'beauty shots' of the car. We shot a load of light box TV's being animated around the streets of Berlin. That was a great on-location shoot, very technical.

JC - It was quite elaborate. Was there any pre-vis involved?

TH - It was completely pre-vised. We had sequences in which the TV's moved and then kind of morphed and replicated themselves - which had all been tested and worked out in the UK before going on location. You could almost shoot it completely blind, in terms of the animation, because it had already been set out and print-outs made. But, it had been pre-animated creatively by a key animator in the UK, using little boxes to try and get the feel, to try and bring it to life properly. It wasn't like it had all been done in AfterEffects; it was pre-shot at a small scale so that Noah could feel the animation out.

JC - So at this point it seems like - especially after the E4 spots and the Ford Fiesta spots, you're getting known as kind of an on-set, high demand, 'when-things have-to-go-right,' mixed-medium guy.

TH - Yeah, a little bit, the thing about the E4 and Ford spots was that they were large scale as well, well not large scale, but full-scale, you know - human sized. This is great, but it puts you more into the realms of live action, with your lamps and crew, etc.

JC - Can you describe the shooting process for the Ford Commercial, including some of the location challenges etc.?

TH - Ford Fiesta was a large night shoot on location, so I had to work out shot lengths and shoot time per frame. We only had very small windows of true darkness in June, maybe 5 hours per night. So you can't decide to just "go a bit late" as you would in the studio, you have to run the whole shoot like a machine. It was because of this I pushed to have the shots pre-vised and pre-tested before we flew out to Berlin. Every action was timed out completely. It also rained - a lot - all over Germany that week, but luckily we were 'charmed'. In every location we kept just missing the rain - it was eerie.

Grant Maisey had done tests in the offices at Blink in London, to nail the animation style. He created master shots with small wooden blocks to represent the TVs. These were then used to make numbered reference frames for each full size TV (which were in reality custom made light boxes) so that a team of animators could grab the correct TV and move it to the correct position during the 2 or 3 minutes allotted for each frame.

Likewise, all the camera moves were based on Previs moves, adjusted in Berlin by TKL who ran the Milo. TKL programmed moves based on distances provided by us during the location recces.

JC - What challenges did you encounter when you transitioned from shooting Creature Comforts to working on the E4 and Ford Commercials? Can you describe studio vs. location and stop motion vs. live action?

TH - Those 2 jobs were both full scale, which is very different from normal miniature stop frame. It's refreshing being able to choose or buy full size items without having to design or wait for them to be made, there's a freedom in the sight loss of control that entails, and delight in finding an object which can surprise you. I loved shooting on location for Ford and Talk Talk, driving around and finding places that looked right, and responding to a location - instead of the hyper control in a miniature set.

I mean primarily, from a camera point of view, the difference is in the scale of the lighting. It's a lot harder to create global fill on a low budget when your set is 40' across. At the time, all I knew how to do were larger versions of stop motion lighting. But I wasn't too far off. I used large overhead bounce instead of the traditional Aardman's side bounce for example. Some things go back in your favor, like the stop can lighter; I think I shot E4 at around f4, whereas I would usually be around f11 on miniature stop frame for depth of field.

I also started to learn about the fixed nature of live action exposure, as these were the first of many jobs where I mixed live action and stop frame, so I had to light to a 50th second to make sure my live action was covered. It's quite luxurious on miniature stop frame, as usually you can expose down to a very long exposure quite happily.

Of course live action is fast to shoot, which has it's own massive advantages, you have time to experiment and test things. On stop frame it's frustrating having to step through MoCo tests or blocks in order to establish if a shot will work. Plus, of course, there are much tighter schedules on those jobs when you have a large expensive crew on a locked off street. A series like Creature Comforts takes 9-10 months to shoot. We worked across twenty units, so if a set wasn't quite ready you just move on to the next one, and if somebody slips a day on their shot it's not an issue, it's absorbed in the huge overall schedule. But 6 x 5hr nights in a foreign country when it's forecast to rain and you have no contingency...