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Legend of the Guardians: Previs/lensing director David Scott

Previs and lensing director David Scott explains how director Zack Snyder wanted all camera work in Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole to look like it had been shot by a real owl-sized camera crew.

I was told that director Zack Snyder is not a big fan of having the backgrounds in his films in focus. Was this a challenge, working in 3D?

Shooting shallow focus in 3D was difficult, but it was essential to have in the film because it’s about owls and most of the film is set at night. Zack wanted to make sure all of the camera work in the film looked as though it was operated and photographed by a real owl-sized camera crew, and if you were to shoot owls at night the aperture needs to be wide open.

Backgrounds out-of-focus weren’t so much a problem as foregrounds. Rack focuses were also difficult; just before the Tassie Devil attack, there’s a two-shot where we rack focus from Kludd to Soren. When it was locked off, the rack focus was hard to watch in 3D, because it took a beat to register what was going on and you had to make a conscious decision to look towards Soren. The way we got around it was by doing a small but quick pan adjustment that helped lead the eye through the rack focus from the left of screen to the right, so your eye naturally goes from Kludd to Soren.

How was your area impacted by the 3D component?

In terms of cameras and blocking, we just had to make sure it worked compositionally in three dimensions instead of two. For example, a shot on Soren with out-of-focus leaves in the foreground is nice in 2D because the leaves help lead your eye to Soren, but in 3D your eye naturally goes to whatever is closest, making it hard to look beyond the leaves, especially if they are out of focus, which can frustrate an audience. Over shoulder shots are difficult for the same reason.

We tried to combat this by thinking about the stereo frame as a window which everything sits behind.  We pushed back our characters into the screen, leaving a gap between the window and the closest object so the closest thing to the audience actually became the window itself.  This approach made our shots comfortable without compromising the shooting style of the film.

Zack has quite a dynamic blocking style, preferring longer takes and wider lenses, so his directing style naturally complements 3D.  If he liked to shoot long lens with fast quick cuts then there may have been more compromise, but I think the shooting principles we based the show on worked well for both 2D and 3D.

We initially looked at a lot of wildlife documentaries, and realised that out of necessity most footage of birds in flight is shot really long lens from far away, creating backgrounds that are compressed and characters that are flattened out.  Dramatically, this isolates the audience from the birds making them feel like an observer rather than a participant.

Our approach instead was to use wide lenses and get close to the birds, creating the feeling we are part of the group flying alongside them.  We let the takes run long and block it as if the camera is another bird flying with our characters. We have the camera glide around them as they talk, rather than cutting from close up to close up.  This approach translated well into 3D as it allows your eyes to settle on a shot and get comfortable.  Instead of having a hard cut from a two-two shot to a close up, we’ll have a character fly into the close up without cutting away.

What was interesting about the 3D process to me was how closely lens choice relates to how much depth you’d want in a scene, and actually how similar that is to a decision you’d make shooting 2D.  Longer lenses are traditionally used for drama to flatten things out and decrease the dimension and perspective, while wider lenses are used in action to give greater perspective and dimension.  The same logic can apply to shooting 3D, it’s just amplified.

What were the challenges of working long-distance with Zack Snyder?

Because we weren’t going to have him here on the floor every day, we made sure to get as much of his vision in terms of style and approach right up front.  On one of his early visits to Sydney, I spent a lot of time with Zack going through film references and quizzing him about his filmmaking style, lens choices, how he likes to block a scene, editing, everything.  Zack was incredibly open and honest about his filmmaking approach, and based on those sessions I put together a “lensing bible” which outlined the core staging, blocking and camera principles for the show.

Consequently, even though we had limited access to him, we were able to hit pretty close to the mark approval-wise because he clearly outlined our key principles to work from right at the beginning, and we followed those throughout the show.

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