Written by Giles Turnbull
Lizzie Oxby is a London-based filmmaker, photographer and illustrator. Her recent work includes Late Noon Sun for the UK Arts Council, and the Daydreams series of animated shorts. One of these, Manhattan 4.33pm, was recently selected as a finalist in Raindance‘s Welcome to the Extraordinary short film competition.
PCN got in touch to ask Lizzie about her journey through photography, into filmmaking, and eventual transition to DSLR techniques using a Canon 500D, and more recently a 5D. We started off asking Lizzie to explain her choices of filmmaking equipment, and to our surprise and delight got a detailed history of her changing creative techniques.
My route into using DSLRs has been quite a long journey, using different cameras along the way.
I always had a very strong interest in photography before I started making films. On my first degree course, an illustration course, I would often make 3 dimensional models and photographic images to answer briefs. I then progressed into wanting to make the images move, so I started exploring animation. I always knew the look of the world I wanted to make – and part of the joy of animation was having the ability to create it. I would light my own stop-frame sets and planned the shots on a dope sheet (a plotting chart for animation), pretty much frame by frame. All effects were created in-camera without the use of post-production.
When I first started making stop-motion films, I used a clockwork H16 16mm Bolex (using a range of Switar prime lenses and a zoom lens. I also had a C-mount adapter to take a Zuiko Olympus 50mm (f1.8-f16) manual lens) and shot without the aid of a video assist. I then moved onto using a Super 16mm Bolex with the same lens kit, operating the shutter speed from an Aardmotor for my Channel 4 film Extn.21. This was a somewhat unwieldy set-up.
The main character in Extn.21 had a live action head composited on a stop-frame puppet body. Whilst the entire stop frame was shot on the S16mm Bolex, the live action was shot against blue screen on a DigiBeta camera. Despite reservations about shooting the footage from two very different sources, the end result looked very pleasing, thanks also to a very talented compositor, John Taylor who seamlessly blended the two together and also added digital effects to the film. I have continued collaborating with John on all my films.
Extn.21 really opened my eyes to digital work; mixing and blending media from different sources. When I completely shifted to using digital stills for stop frame work, I remember how exciting it was to get instant feedback on what I was animating, or setting up. I no longer had to wait anxiously for rushes to come back from the lab. And this also had the added benefit of eliminating of lab costs, which cost around £80 for 100ft of 16mm stock and a print.
At first I didn’t have a DSLR, they were still quite pricey for me at the time, but I did have smaller digital cameras like a Camedia Olympus C-6050 wide zoom, and even my K800i Sony mobile phone. I actually shot my first Daydream film Peckham Rye 08.15am with stills taken on my mobile phone…(more later)
Soon after came a call from Ear Cinema, inviting me to create a four-screen film, Late Noon Sun which was to premier at the ICA, and then go onto the Arnolfini and tour nationally. The project combined film with ambisonic sound, and the performers in the film also appeared live on stage to interact with the film. It was a highly choreographed piece. The audience would stand in the centre of the four-screens (arranged to form a cube), whilst the story played out around them.
The live action for the film was shot on location at Area 10 in Peckham, London; an old disused sawmill, which has now sadly closed down. It was a beautiful, cavernous space with extremely high ceilings. I took the Olympus with me to the recce and took some shots, then graded them to give a flavour of the stylised black and white look I was after. I also wanted the four screens to create a set, so everything was shot front on to create the form of a 3 dimensional space. (In one scene, performers would sit opposite one another, on opposing screens for a deadly game of scissors paper stone). Archways and window frames were also shot at Area 10 as photographic plates, again on the Olympus, and layered up in post-production to give an added sense of depth to the ‘sets’. Other details were also photographed to be later animated in post. Additionally I used the same camera to shoot the stop-frame elements against blue screen in my studio, to also be composited into scenes later. There’s a short making of which demonstrates how all the elements were put together for the screen, and it shows how it worked with the live stage performance too.
I’ve been so impressed at how digital photography can produce a filmic look, I’ve since got a Canon 500D which came with a Canon EF-S 18-55 mm (f/3.5-f5.6) lens. It was great to get that 35mm camera, shallow depth of field back. It was something I had dearly missed on the compact digital camera. It’s a joy too because it’s so light and portable. I can shoot stills and movie clips with it because of its HD capacity – so if go on a recce, I now have two cameras in one. I bought an adapter for the Canon so it could take the Zuiko Olympus 50mm manual lens (f1.8-f16) I used on the Bolex, and also bought a very reasonably priced Olympus 28-48mm zoom lens (f/4-f22) off ebay for it too.
The last shoot I was on used a Canon EOS 5D MK II to shoot miniature scale puppets in stop-motion. The same camera was used to shoot them as ‘live’ puppetry. The depth of field from the Canon 5D worked beautifully – you felt like you were in that space and the sets were less than a metre deep. I intend to shoot future work on a 5D because I was so impressed with the images.
I love the Daydreams series. Can you describe the creative / production process you use to get one of those made? Are they spontaneously filmed, then edited? Or more planned than that?
The Daydreams series is a continuation of the enjoyment I got from subtly manipulating photography with live-action. Everything you see in the Daydream films are constructed from photographic stills, which are then manipulated to appear as if shot as live action. Even the flying birds and characters are extracted from the stills. The only real live action element is the passing train in Peckham Rye 8.15am. Location photography gives you a feeling that something is real (as opposed to animation which is an obvious construct) so the technique gave me the scope to play around with creating something special happening in an everyday setting.
The Daydreams series came about from stills I had already taken. These stills weren’t originally shot with the intention to make films with, but they triggered thoughts and scenarios when I viewed them at a later date. For Daydream no.2 Coney Island 11am I borrowed my brother’s Canon EOS Rebel XTi/400D and took it with me on a bitterly cold day to visit Coney Island in late November. It had a distilled sense of abandonment. The fairground had closed down for good that year, which heightened the nostalgic quality and melancholy… and that feeling stayed with me when I looked back at the stills when I returned to the UK.
The latest Daydream Manhattan 4.33pm was an attempt to reclaim the beauty and joy of the New York skyline for myself. (Since the tragic event of 9-11, the plane footage seemed to have taken a foothold in my mind).
The process of creating the Daydreams is similar to creating a photomontage. All the photos are cut up in After Effects and then separated into planes, (like a Pollock Theatre). Then the cut up elements are animated.
Because the stills were not taken with the intention of making films, the trickiest Daydream I created was Manhattan 4.33pm. This was made with just three stills shot on the top of the Rockafella Centre. Lining up the day and night stills of the buildings, presented some challenges as they were taken from different angles. There was a lot of cut and pasting to re-align the stills to make them appear they were shot from the same spot before anything could be animated. This took some time to get right. However, people have commented that the piece looks live action, or shot as time lapse, so I think all that attention to detail paid off.