This just came in from cameraman Brian Riley. I thought I'll post it right away as it responds to Michael's post. I hope Don Hertzfeld will come across this blog one day as he is one of the few animators I know of who still use real film.
Now, Brian Riley:
“Bumped into Paul Dilworth (literally) on the football pitch last week and he told me to check out your 'Thief Blog'. Nice job. As you know I spent 2 years in the camera room and it was an experience I wouldn't have missed for the world, bizarre as it was at times.
I don't know what prompted the explanation of the 'bipac' (I'd have spelled it 'bi-pack', but to be honest I've no idea what is the accepted spelling) but I can confirm that that was pretty much the process used on many shots, the memory of which I've suppressed to save myself the pain of re-living the endless re-shoots that some of these scenes necessarily required, rarely for operator errors it has to be said in the camera room's defense - more often for some perceived artistic imperfection. Normally I had no problem doing re-shoots on the Thief - it was completely Dick's film and in my eyes he had an absolute right to have it exactly how he wanted it and I always saw it as a bit of privilege to work on it anyway. However the bi-pack scenes were such buggers to get right from a technical standpoint it was a little frustrating at times to have to re-do them. From what I can remember, we cheated the process slightly by not running the high contrast negative through in a bi-pack when we shot the animation top lit on colour stock, possibly for reasons of time and convenience - remember we only had 2 cameras and we were often running them 24 hours a day in 3 x 8 hour shifts.
After we shot the high contrast footage, we off-loaded it and sent it off for processing then we loaded up colour stock and simply put the animation on a top-lit (pristine) black bg on the table. Arguably it would've been better to use the neg in a bi-pack but I don't think we did. Not using the neg meant we could get on and immediately shoot the colour animation and once that was done the camera would be freed up - it was obviously crucial that the camera and table etc was in exactly the same position for shooting the matte and colour versions of the animation. Although in theory with a computer controlling all the axes we could precisely duplicate positions, in practice the physical nature of the mechanics, cog wheels, worm drives, shafts, bearings etc meant there was always an infinitesimal amount of slack that could mean the difference between getting it right and seeing a matte line. So we always shot the colour character run immediately after shooting the mattes. Once we'd made the high contrast matte and got it back from labs, we used the positive (printed on neg perf stock) in the bi-pack with the raw colour stock with the character exposed on it, while we did the camera movement on the bg, exactly as described in the blog. Also vital was that the processed matte stock and the raw colour stock were synchronised for every run - we shot a cross at the start of the matte run and then had a set number of frames of clearance, slate etc we would run before shooting frame number 1 of the animation. The raw colour stock would be physically marked in the gate (usually with a good old indelible Sharpie) at the exact point when the film was down on the registration pins and the shutter would be open. These marks would be carefully aligned every time we ran the matte and colour stock together in the bi-pack.
Off the top of my head one scene that we did this with was 'The Balls Have Gone!' shot when the old king peers out through the window and then goes running about in a panic, while we pull back from his open mouth all the way to a 'God's Eye View' of the city using multiple takeovers on both animation and bg - another whole kettle of fish in itself, matching the speed and movement and so on.
(This scene was called Mouth to Mountain, see post from Jan.16)
I read a couple of the December 2007 bits. Thanks for the name check by the way. You were right to quote John's reminder to you regarding the tightrope we walked every day in the camera room. In those pre-digital, pre-render preview days it was in the nature of the cameraman's job that you had to be right every frame; one slip-up, one lapse of concentration, could often result in having to go right back to the beginning and mean hours or even days of lost work.
Sometimes shooting on 35mm, which is relatively easy to cut, you could put in a few blank cut-out frames, whiting out the error, then pick up where you left off. On the Thief though there was no such luxury or leeway, with virtually every scene having multiple exposures, so that characters, props, bg's etc could all be isolated and lit separately (much as they would on a live action set) it was impossible to do any sort of a cut back, except on the very first exposure and then you wouldn't do it, because you would have to remember that cut-back for every subsequent exposure and adjust your frame count accordingly, thus creating one more parameter to concentrate on.
On bi-pack scenes of course it was simply impossible to repair an error. One camera mistake was one too many and that was that - everything was in the bin, matte roll included. It all had to be done again. And Dick being a chap that was not particularly forgiving as to human frailty when it manifested itself in cock-ups on his film, meant that we were daily under as great a pressure as I've experienced on any film anywhere. But I think I can speak for all us when I say that it was still an exciting and inspiring situation to be in.
You were also right to underline the ground-breaking work John did in and under the camera and that us camera guys carried out under his supervision, we also contributed a bit of our own inspiraton here and there - but 99% of it was down to John interpreting Dick and Roy's artistic vision and putting it onto the screen using any number of innovative techniques as well as few 'old school' dodges that John had learned over the years.
All the above is dragged up out of my scarred and fading memory. I do get the odd message from Johnny Leathertrousers and I generally see him for a pint every time I'm in London so I'll send out the carrier pigeon and see if I can make contact - he obviously would be the man to speak to confirm my recollection. Though he's even more senile than me so don't bank on it!”