Trying something new: A 1:6 scale miniature set, with 3D tracking and digital extensions…

Having worked exclusively in digital formats for the past 15 years, I have recently been making a concerted effort to resurrect some of my practical design skills. Around five years ago, I started to sketch more frequently, as I began to take on more of a design lead on projects. It proved a great complement to pixels.

More recently, I have looked to expand upon this positive experience and started to explore the use of miniatures in filmmaking. The shots below are of a miniature I have been developing for a sequence of shots based on a snowy environment I have designed. Two faces of a section of a building have been constructed, and set within a snow covered landscape. This miniature set design will ultimately be extended through the use of digital set extensions and 3D tracking.

Shot of the in-progress, 1:6 scale, miniature set, featuring snow and ice effects
A shot of the miniature including snow and ice effects.

The shell of the building was made out of foamcore, which was then clad in balsa. The balsa was ridiculously pristine when first applied, but has since been aged and weathered with heavily diluted ink washes. The snow is a combination of polystyrene base, on top of which, model railway snow effects and marble dust (to add sparkle) have been applied. The icicles are made by applying model railway water effect gel to waxed paper. Once dried, they are glued to the eaves of the building. It’s not finished yet, but so far, it’s proved to be a hugely, enjoyable indulgence.

Detail shot of 1:6 scale miniature set, featuring snow and ice effects
Detail of the miniature in it’s current stage of development.

As with any miniature, depth of field has proved problematic. The only way to counter this, has been to dramatically stop down. Testing has shown f16 to be the absolute maximum, but to achieve optimum results, I am going to need to reduce the aperture even further. The direct consequence of this, is that I then need ridiculous levels of light.

I’m currently looking at stop motion techniques to achieve small apertures, with less light and longer exposures. This approach will allow for better digital environments through better depth of field and improved image quality and resolution compared to video capture.

I wanted to post these before Fortitude is screened tomorrow, as I started work on this last Autumn but business has been very busy and limited the opportunities to work on these kinds of personal projects.

Work schedules permitting, I’m hoping to have the first sequence completed by the Spring

An earlier shot of the miniature set, prior to adding snow and ice effects.
Shot of the miniature prior to the application of snow and ice effects.

 

Sky News sports bulletin space backdrops

Sky News Sports Bulleting Area backdrops 1 Sky News Sports Bulleting Area backdrops 3 Sky News Sports Bulleting Area backdrops 4  Sky News Sports Bulleting Area backdrops 6

Photographs showing one of the projects for Sky News/Sky Sports that I worked on during the summer. This is a new studio that hosts the Sky News sports bulletins and is located within newsroom/office space within the Sky Sports building. The set would have been backed by a series of core walls comprised of white walls and glass partitions, but I prepared a set of studio backdrops based on the earlier Sky Sports News studio designs to create visual depth and to align the bulletins with the Sky Sports News visual identity. The backdrops are fitted to a set of LED lightboxes fixed to the core walls visible behind the set.

Set Design: Toby Kalitowski
Photography: Jaap Oepkes

Newsroom Backdrops for Al Jazeera Arabic News Channel

Al Jazeera Arabic new set featuring newsroom backdrop designed by Jim Mann at Lightwell

Al Jazeera Arabic news channel recently upgraded their studios for HD broadcasts. I was delighted to be asked to provide the animated newsroom backdrops for the screens behind the presenters on the night-time bulletins. Other project committment meant that I hadn’t been able to take this project on initially, but when a window opened in my schedule I seized the opportunity to work with one of the worlds biggest broadcasters. By this stage, the deadline wasn’t far off, so I set about designing and preparing these set extensions in record-breaking time.

The final design comprises a double height space backed by office and control room spaces with views through to an atrium space beyond.

Al Jazeera Arabic News digital set designed by Jim Mann at Lightwell

Update April 12, 2013 – This project has now been added to the Lightwell website

BBC Ten O’Clock News studio backdrops – A quick review before they’re gone.

BBC News output underwent a comprehensive re-brand by Lambie Nairn in the spring of 2008. My contributions to this were the animated studio backdrops that played out in the Barco screens along three sides of the two studios. Working on the designs through my company, Lightwell and in collaboration with Jago Design (now BDA Set Design), we developed a digital environment comprising a newsroom backed by offices, galleries, control rooms and various ancillary spaces. The scene, along with animated characters, lifts and monitors was delivered in kit form and assembled by BBC News Graphics who applied the final blur effect along with the etched glass graphic effect.

BBC Ten O'Clock News - The left side corner of Studio N6
BBC Ten O’Clock News – The left side corner of Studio N6

The space depicted in the backdrops is almost entirely self-enclosed apart from views through to small exterior courtyard and atrium spaces on each of the three sides. We had planned to use similar lighting for both the day and night-time versions of the scene. Different times of day would be indicated by changes to the lighting in those exterior zones and by switching off lighting in parts of the interior. Studio tests immediately revealed that this only produced dark patches from certain camera angles within the studio. We also soon realised (though it seems blatantly obvious with hindsight) that our scene could never go darker than the material surface of the screens, which in turn were being hit by quantities of diffuse spill light from the ceiling light boxes and lighting grid that resulted in a grey tone in place of blacks. I was stuck for ideas and with the re-launch fast approaching, set about experimenting with different lighting levels and different coloured lighting. Nothing was working as we had planned.

By late February 2008, we were short of time and in need of inspiration when, one morning during the school half term holiday my son started watching Lord of The Rings: The Two Towers. I walked into the room just as the scenes of the night battle were beginning. There on the screen was the solution I had been searching for.

The Two Towers Battle of Helms Deep Scene
The Two Towers scene featuring the night-time Battle of Helms Deep.

Studying this particular scene revealed a tightly controlled, silver-blue monochrome palette. The only exceptions to this came from the yellow/gold accents of the flaming torches. Borrowing this idea, I applied a similar lighting palette to the newsroom backdrops – it worked. We achieved a sufficiently well-lit interior, maintained similar levels of detail and texture to the daytime scene, but described a night-time condition throughout. Studio tests resulted in a sequence of refinements to the hue and contrast levels, but ultimately we had arrived at the final solution for our lighting design through a chance viewing of a scene from a movie being watched by a kid on his school holidays. I am a huge fan of serendipity.

The final night-time version of this digital set is below. The blue hue acquired a shade more red, whilst being slightly more saturated. The yellow/gold accents are similarly more saturated and bold.

BBC_News_ten_key
BBC Ten O’clock News – Centre Panel

The designs I prepared were only ever expected to last a couple of years and were to be superseded, not by an updated design, but by a whole new building, studios and headquarters at Broadcasting House in central London. In the event, this stop-gap design has, in various incarnations been in use for five years. Reports on the web suggest that on Monday 18th March,  all BBC News will come from the new studios at Broadcasting House.

Lucky for me that it has lasted this long, it meant that I got a design on-screen in a James Bond film as some BBC news footage appears in a scene from Skyfall! I wrote a little more on this in an earlier post, BBC News makes an appearance in a Bond film

BBC TenO'clock News backdrops appear in Skyfall
BBC Ten O’clock News backdrops as they appear in a scene from Skyfall

For more information, visit my company’s website – lightwell

ITV News VR Newsroom

Earlier today, ITV launched an entire re-brand of its channels and programmes which included ITV News from ITN.  I worked with ITN’s in-house computer graphics department to create the virtual newsroom space that can be seen beyond the glazing of the virtual set. Although I have produced designs for VR sets before, these digital sets are probably the most integrated project that I have worked on to date and it’s been quite inspiring to explore the possibilities offered by this kind of technology.

The whole design package is very much a team effort. The VR studio/set was produced in-house by ITN, based upon designs by BDA. The VR newsroom was produced by me and designed in conjunction with BDA who produced the initial design concepts. The overall brand re-design is by Lambie Nairn.

The version shown here is for day time bulletins, there’s an alternate version for use on night time broadcasts.

 

Dredd 3D – Building Blocks in need of a few real world constraints

 

A short, behind the scenes piece on the design and VFX work done by Prime Focus to create Mega City One for Dredd 3D. The filmmakers chose to build their fictional city by adding to the existing fabric of Johannesburg. The realism appears grimier, lived in and more tangible as a result.

If I have one reservation about the designs in these digital set extensions, it would be that the blocks are treated purely as forms without reference to their function or environment. Specifically, the floor plates on the blocks are really massive, which would make the cores deep within these buildings oppressively dark in a way that would make Hong Kong’s Chung King Mansion seem generously light and airy in comparison. Even a slum needs light, and the struggle to introduce this light would lead to a different footprint and therefore an alternate form for the towers – time spent studying architecture does have its benefits.

As much as I like the look of these visuals, I would like to have seen the design extended further through the application of some real world constraints.