Wes Anderson's new stop motion film, Isle of Dogs, has already received critical acclaim for its Japanese cinema-inspired look and feel. That's in no small part down to the creative vision of Tristan Oliver, the film's Director of Photography, who chose to shoot the entire film on Canon EOS-1D X bodies.
Having worked on Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr Fox – as well as other stop motion successes including ParaNorman and Chicken Run – Tristan was well-placed to bring to life this futuristic story about a group of exiled dogs on a Japanese garbage island. But working for the director meant that the photography team faced a unique challenge.
Wes Anderson wants his animations to look like his live action movies, which are filmed with "super-wide lenses," Tristan says. Because the puppets and scenery in a stop motion film are much smaller than human actors – or even real dogs – they have to be much closer to the camera than in a live action film. This makes it difficult to achieve the depth of field that would be expected in wide-angle shots.
"If you're doing a close up, instead of your actor being six feet from the camera, your puppet could be six inches from it. This means you're working right down at the minimum focus end, or even into the macro end, of a lens. When I've got a puppet right up to the minimum point of the lens, if I'm at f/16 or f/22, I might just about have full focus from nose to ear and everything else is mush," Tristan says.
His solution was to shoot the puppet and its foreground on a green screen, then take the puppet away and reshoot the background. He then put the two shots together, doubling the already eye-watering quantity of images required (24 still photographs per second) to put together a feature-length stop motion film.
"We do occasionally use the lens much further back, which gives you better depth of field because the puppet is further from the lens. Then we can punch in on that digitally because the high resolution of the Canon EOS-1D X allows us to do that," says Tristan.
Some might expect a stop motion film to have been shot with cinema cameras but, for Isle of Dogs, the Canon EOS-1D X was an ideal choice.
"The problem with using a cinema camera is that if you bought as many as we needed, you'd bankrupt yourself. So instead, we went through a rigorous process of testing DSLRs thoroughly before choosing the Canon EOS-1D X."
This testing process involved putting the DSLR through some considerable trials. The animators – who move the puppets in a stop motion film – use the camera's Live View to ensure that puppets are in the right place. That means the camera needed to cope with having Live View on constantly – a challenge for many other DSLRs that the team tested.
"The cameras that we used up until this point did tend to suffer from heat on the chip if they were kept open for too long. We'd have to cover them with fans to keep them cool. But the EOS-1D X was a significant improvement," Tristan says.
On a cold morning, your image can look very different from one taken on a hot afternoon.
Another challenge was ambient air temperature. "On a cold morning, your image can look very different from one taken on a hot afternoon. Of course, we're looking for consistency, so in the past we have often spent hours waiting for the camera to get to the appropriate temperature for the shot to look right. But the chip in the Canon EOS-1D X was super stable despite the temperature variation, and the camera didn't suffer from being forced into Live View all the time. That was the reason we picked it. It's super solid, which is so important for us."
During the making of Isle of Dogs, Tristan presided over no less than 80 Canon EOS-1D X bodies. "We shot on 44 stages simultaneously, which meant that we needed 44 cameras on the studio floor at any one time, but we had about 80 cameras in total because they had to be kept pristine," he says.
Because stop motion films consist of multiple stills shown in quick succession, one tiny speck of dust on a lens can cause mayhem and add hours of editing to an already long process. "The camera moves across a scene, so a piece of dirt would track across the image and might go across a character's face. [Because of that we put a large number of] cameras through a cleaning process after every shot to make sure they were absolutely as clean as could be," Tristan explains.
Tristan worked on Isle of Dogs for two years and three months. Before the shooting of a stop motion film begins, an elaborate storyboard is drawn up. And from that, a cartoon-style version, known as an animatic, is made. This gives the creators of the film a sense of what the characters will look like when they move, and a chance to make changes if, say, a child looks too small in relation to a dog, before puppets with movable joints, changeable mouths and specially made costumes are produced.
Then all dialogue is recorded, and the animators move the puppets to create a perfect lip sync for the cinematographer. "If you say, 'Hello,' which could take six frames, the animators will know where the H starts and how many frames the H holds for," says Tristan.
Tristan also keeps track of the lighting on all the sets that are being filmed at a time. Before shooting, he creates a breakdown of what the lighting needs to look like at all points throughout the film. His decisions depend on a number of factors. "What time of day is it supposed to be? What colour is the light? Are there special spooky effects? What is the tone of the emotion within that shot?"
They typically shoot when sets and puppets are ready, so if one puppet is finished by the puppet shop, that goes onto set and the team starts shooting its scenes. "We're completely out of sequence all the time, so just keeping a top-down track of that is actually the biggest part of the job. It's a relief to get on set and just put some lights up sometimes." he says.
"I'll physically light 15 sets. I can't conceivably light all 50 [sets that are being filmed on a given day], so I have another two or three guys who are lighting to my brief, but I see every frame that comes off every unit, and I see every lighting test because I need to make sure that the movie looks like one person's hand has made it – my hand."
Tristan's career in stop motion started in 2005 and was a complete accident. "I had been at a film school for a couple of years and knew some people at Aardman (the creators of Wallace and Gromit), and I rang them to borrow some lights. Aardman, at that point, was just three men, a woman and a dog. They were intensely laid back, and they said, 'by the way, are you doing anything next week?' I replied, 'no,' and they said, 'do you want to come and shoot a commercial?' There was money sloshing around in advertising in those days, and it was a small group of people with a lot of great ideas trying to make exciting things. I was in there at ground level, and they just kept offering me work. Within three years I was shooting The Wrong Trousers."
Tristan first worked with Wes Anderson on Fantastic Mr Fox, which came out in 2009. "I actually approached the producer before I really knew Wes at all. I was strangely ignorant of his works at that point. But I had heard that they were setting up a stop frame production in London, so I went to see the producer and showed him my reel, which he showed to Wes."
Wes works in an "unconventional" way to communicate his distinctive and uncompromising vision, explains Tristan: "I think he likes to be physically remote from the animation process because he's not particularly interested in whether it's difficult or not. He just wants to say, 'I want you to do this,' and have you find a way of doing it.
"Socially, we'll go out, we'll have dinner, we'll talk about other things. But at work, he is there, and we are here. We send him stuff, and he sends us comments," Tristan says. "He trusts me to do what he wants, and that's very important for both of us. I'm his backstop in terms of visuals."
For aspiring stop motion photographers, Tristan thinks there may be opportunities in the industry – at least in part because he believes there are only five people doing what he does. And he is optimistic about the future of stop motion film. "I think it's as healthy as it's ever been at the moment. Aardman is still there, producing feature films. Laika [the animation studios behind Coraline, ParaNorman and The Boxtrolls] has come onto the scene, which is a great game-changer in terms of stop motion. It can run two movies at once, and I think it's made as many features in the last eight years as Aardman has made in the last 20 years – it's huge."
As with any type of photography, a good stop motion photographer needs both practical expertise and creative vision. "In order to use your innate artistry, you need a huge amount of technical knowledge. Unless you know how the camera works, unless you know the physical characteristics of the lenses you're using, you will not have access to the full box of paints," he says.
"It's all about what you see. It's not always about making things look right – it's about making things look beautiful."