Military maneuvers: Small Soldiers of the world are united by virtual and on-set lighting


Lighting and shooting animatronic dinosaurs and making a seamless look with digital versions of the same creatures may be a chore. Accomplishing a similar feat on foot-high characters who frequently share screen space with full-size humans is arguably harder. In Joe Dante's Small Soldiers, a DreamWorks presentation set for release July 10, opposing bands of toy action figures come to life and wreak havoc on an ordinary suburban block, catching the human inhabitants in their crossfire. Requiring about 250 three-dimensional digital shots to complete, Small Soldiers is one of the big summer movies going down to the wire at Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) computer workstations. Yet live-action production on the film, including work with the Stan Winston Studio's animatronic puppet versions of the action figures, was never that simple either.

"These tiny little characters have to be lit like a product shot," says DP Jamie Anderson, ASC, of the puppets. "You try to give them modeling and dappling and all of that, the way you would light a human being. But, them being so small, how do you do that? And then, in the background or across the room or in the other half of the two-shot, is a human or a set or backyard, which is regular-scale. It was the combination of those two that made my head spin sometimes. You find yourself bending down doing these little tabletop tricks, and then turning around and realizing you've got to move a Condor at the end of the street, because that house is a little dark. And it's the same shot."

The premise of the story is that as a result of a merger between the multinational conglomerate GloboTech Industries and the Heartland Toys Company, two new sets of action figures have been designed using the latest advancements in military technology. The Commando Elite, a human-appearing squadron of warmongers, are programmed to decimate their enemies; said foes, the Gorgonites, whose monstrous looks belie their sympathetic natures, are programmed to lose. Though the voices of the toys are provided by such actors as Tommy Lee Jones, cast as Commando leader Chip Hazard, this is no Toy Story with humans playing a peripheral role. The action-figure war plays out on the streets of Winslow Corners, OH, and involves such citizens as teenage next-door neighbors Alan Abernathy (Gregory Smith) and Christy Fimple (Kirsten Dunst).

Orange, CA, stood in for Winslow Corners in establishing shots, but the bulk of the neighborhood exteriors were completed at the Warner Ranch in Burbank. On the facility's backlot suburban street set, where Dante's Gremlins was also shot, production designer William Sandell built Alan's and Christy's homes side by side. Interiors were photographed on soundstages at Universal, while The Inner Child, a Winslow Corners toy store in which the Commandos and Gorgonites start their trouble, was constructed as a complete interior/exterior set on the Warner Bros. main lot's French Street, where it will remain.

It was important when preparing all of these sets to know to what extent the action figures would play a role in them, and what version of the marauding toys it would be. As Anderson explains, Winston's puppets came in two varieties. One was "self-contained, which meant they stood there and had fairly simple remote-controlled body functions: head turns, arm movements, maybe a torso movement or mouth movement for talking." For more complex movements of these areas in close-up, puppets with cable running out of their feet to operators were used. And "once any of the characters had to walk or scamper around, or do anything complex standing still, like bending over to pick up a pencil, they would have to do it with digital animation." Plates for those shots were sent to visual effects supervisors Stefen Fangmeier and David Andrews at ILM.

Of course, most scenes involve combinations of these methods, and Anderson says that in the best of all worlds, effects would be broken down in preproduction. He adds, "This wasn't the best of all worlds." The main problem was the script, which was still being rewritten when production on Small Soldiers started. It changed so much that after Christy's house was built next door to Alan's, the writers moved her character across town, only to move her back after other preparations were made. (Final screenplay credit on the movie was not available at press time.) Storyboards were drawn only to be rendered useless. When Anderson was interviewed in April, the ending, set in Yosemite National Park, had not yet been filmed, though the film had been in post-production for months. The production tried to schedule the effects-heavy sequences at the front end of filming, so ILM could get a head start, but Anderson and others spent valuable prep time spinning their wheels. As the DP puts it, "It's all in the details that the preparations are important, and those are the things that kept changing." Through it all, the July 10 release date loomed.

Anderson hastens to add, however, that the experience turned out remarkably well given the obstacles, and that "Joe Dante really kept the company going." A fellow alumnus of the Roger Corman school of filmmaking, the cinematographer shot Dante's first two low-budget features, Hollywood Boulevard and Piranha, in the 1970s. This is their first collaboration on a theatrical film since, though they have worked on broadcast and cable projects together. And Dante retains his anarchic sense of humor, even if the mayhem in Small Soldiers is more of the explosive rather than visceral variety that characterized Gremlins.

The DP says the director and he spoke of the movie opening with a natural look, "and as it goes along, when these guys spin out of control, becoming more horror-picture-like in its feel." One thing was clear to Anderson--"The way to light creatures like this is to keep them sketchy, not light them too much; otherwise, they look like hell, they look like what they are. So no matter what I was doing, it was stylized and contrasty, even in the beginning. Later on, when things got more horror-picture-like, it had as much to do with camera angles as with light, which did become more dramatic, but it's pretty subtle."

Anderson faced several challenges with the Winston Studio's puppets, most deriving in one way or another from their size, which did not go above 12" tall. "You can't really make an expression on something that small," says the DP. "It's all you can do to make the mouth move and the arms move and the elbows bend. And with that smallness, the cables can't go 15' across the room the way they can with a small dinosaur. They can only go about 3' from the creatures. So suddenly you have all these puppeteers right on top of the camera, right on top of the character, and in all the lights. We had to either hide them somehow, or bluescreen them out."

The cinematographer realized he would have to find some way to position lights between the puppeteers and the puppets, and the search for such a source led chief lighting technician Dave Morton and him to Glass Illuminations, a fiber-optics manufacturer specializing in architectural applications. " They had built or modified some fiber-optic units for Apollo 13," says Morton of the Burbank company. "Mike Orphis, the gaffer on that, clued me in to them. The problem with normal glass optics is, after about 3', they start getting a heavy green cast." Using 20'-long (6m) plastic optics, which don't have such a color shift, the company custom-made a 160W illuminator unit containing strands ranging from 1/16" to 1/4" in diameter. The optics could be bundled or separated, and moved into place to light up one or more of the puppets' faces. "You'd usually have a combination of three or more Gorgonites," says Morton, for example, "and you could use armature wire to hide different optics up the leg of a table or chair or somewhere else closer to the characters."

The fiber-optic unit "gave us the ability to put key light or eyelight or highlights on a puppet," says Anderson. "It made him look like he was lit by something his size, as opposed to his whole figure being washed with a Baby from across the room. It doesn't look phony, it looks realistic and natural. Once we'd done a couple tests, we used it all the time. We were mainly shooting indoors, or at night, and the light is pretty close to 3200K. Sometimes we'd just slap a gel over the end of the fiber, but more than likely we didn't."

Morton adds that Dedotec Dedolights were also used for top- or edge-lighting around the puppets, often bounced as fill from diffusion or bounce boards. The primary key lights for the human actors were Chimera Lightbanks with 90-degree honeycomb grids. Anderson also made common use of "Cronicones"--homemade cardboard snoots, named after their inventor, the late DP Jordan Cronenweth, of varying sizes for controlling light on small fresnels or HMI PARs. "It starts about the size of the barndoors of a lamp, but broadens out to two or three times that width," says the DP. "You can put diffusion down inside, and the rest of the tube keeps the now-softer light from flying all over the place." On both humans and puppets, Anderson employed an old trick, learned from DP John Alcott: small, high-intensity flashlights. "I'll just sneak in by the camera with my hand over it and squirt them with a little eyelight," he says of his subjects. "I put color on if I have to, I can follow them around. I did it with the puppets quite a bit, with a 3/4"-wide lens."

There were other shooting hurdles to get over involving the puppets. "Where do you put the camera so that the lens is low enough to be in the world of this character who's only 12" tall?" Anderson says. "One way to do it, of course, is to keep tearing up the floor, to build all the sets above ground. But if you're going to do that, you have to know ahead of time exactly the shots you're doing and where you're tearing the floor up, because you need to put it back and do a reverse. And we weren't going to know that because of the script changes all the time."

The situation was compounded by the director's and DP's decision to shoot with a 1:2.35 aspect ratio, in Super 35. "We thought it would be good to keep the soldier and the human in the same shot width-wise, without getting too wide length-wise," Anderson explains. "I right away brought up the issue of height, that if these guys are going to be on the floor all the time talking to human beings, that's going to be a problem. But Joe planned from the beginning to try to keep them off the floor. They climb around, they're on desks and chairs and tables, which both made our life easier and made the picture more interesting." Wide lenses were used in much of the movie. "When I did close-ups of the puppets, usually I did it with a 35, and just go in there about 3" from their faces," says the DP. "I didn't want to flatten them out too much. But in terms of getting on the ground, there were times we did have to open up the floor."

Anderson also used everything from a low-angle prism to get the lens low, to a Radcam(R), which is a radio-controlled toy car equipped with a camera. (This has been a standard tabletop tool with video camera, but last year Innovision Optics developed one with a film camera.) He also had the idea to use a Panavision Frazier lens system, which features a low-mode positioning for ground shots, among other versatile capabilities. "I used it on Odd Couple II quite a lot," says the cinematographer, "because I was doing so many car interiors with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, and it gave us a way to put the lens anywhere we wanted to without tearing the car apart or driving them crazy while we took all day to do it. I thought it might be very useful on these puppets--it was one way to get the camera right down there with them. I used it on a few scenes, but unfortunately, almost the entire picture takes place at night, and you need at least an f8 stop with that lens. Trying to light up a set to that is insane, so we didn't do it very often."

One place they did use it was a scene set in Alan's garage, as the Commandos move into battle formation. "Chip Hazard is walking towards three other guys in the foreground, and we're shooting over them," says Morton. "They were puppets, and he's animated. We shot that with a Frazier lens so we could get a depth of field and hold focus between the guys in the foreground, Chip walking across the floor, and all the stuff in the garage. We shot that at an 11, and it's all moonlight. We put Fomecor with half-CTB into the natural pitch of the roof, with a couple of 18k HMIs through the window. It was pretty bright and hot in there to the eye, but on film it's dark and sketchy."

Most of the rest of the film was shot at an f2.8 stop. "I got used to lighting to that level, unless I needed more depth of field," Anderson says. "So if I started in the background or started with a puppet it wouldn't matter, I would be setting it with that in mind." The film stock was 200ASA Kodak Vision 5274. "It's so beautiful in its grain structure," says the cinematographer. "I used it on the entire film. ILM did some tests with it, and they were happy with it, so we were able to do all of our effects stuff in regular four-perf format without having to do VistaVision, which they've been trying to get away from. This was the first time they didn't do it."

Since the effects action in the movie hadn't been as carefully thought out as it might have been, "A lot of times we got into something and realized that it had to be a digital shot," says Anderson. "Sometimes we thought we should do a plate version of a shot in case the puppet action wasn't quite good enough. Which is another reason why VistaVision would have been a nightmare--this allowed us to suddenly change a shot to a plate without having to change cameras."

In preparing a plate shot, the DP's procedure was to "light the scene, put stand-in puppets where they were going to be, light them pretty carefully, and shoot a reference plate for ILM. Then we'd take the puppets out and shoot the scene just as a plate. Sometimes we did a shot with a puppet and also a clean plate, just in case they wanted to add something that the puppets couldn't do. Then they go up to San Rafael and work away, send down stuff for Joe to look at, first rough animations, then more and more complete."

Fangmeier, who supervised a crew of about 80 ILM animators and technical directors on Small Soldiers (creating the 3D character shots as well as about 100 2D shots where "we're adding helicopters, taking out wires, adding flaming tennis balls and such"), describes the work from his end. "We take the information Jamie sends us, scan in the shot, match-move the camera, and bring in the frames of the puppets as a reference. Our main goal is to integrate the character into the plate, to make it look like it was really there when the film was shot."

Lighting is just one stage in the digital animation process. ILM's interactive software interfaces with Pixar's RenderMan(TM) software to provide such elements as shading (surface description, texture, color, and reflectivity) and illumination of an animated image, and to mimic the look of a live-action shot. "We have the ability to look at a shot and say, OK, just turn off all the lights except this one, and then render a frame to see what effect this light has," says Fangmeier, an Academy Award nominee for Twister. Because the Commandos and Gorgonites are so small, the visual effects supervisor feels that "we have much more control in our virtual lighting in terms of isolating certain elements than Jamie does. We can go in and just have a spotlight on the back of a character's head without affecting the rest of the plate. We can say, I only want this light to shine right on the eye, but not the rest of the face. For a DP, it's really impossible to have that control, especially when the character's moving around."

The downside mainly has to do with time. A single digital shot can take one to two weeks to create, with as many as eight people contributing textures, lighting, and shadows. And a major difference between lighting on-set and CG lighting is that on-set, "you move a light, and you see the effect as you're moving it," says Fangmeier. "We move a light, and then tell the computer to render it. It takes a couple of minutes, sometimes more, to get the result. Also, we don't quite have all the physicality light has on the set--how light falls off, how it bounces." Virtual lighting is also more of a generic craft than live-action lighting at this point. "We don't call up a 10k or whatever," Fangmeier says. "We call up a standard spotlight source or a distant light source with more parallel light rays. You can control the color, you can put in things to give the light structure. You can control within the spread angle of the cone how it falls off. We look at the reference and say, OK, I think there was a blue light over there, and then we try to match that. But it's an artistic interpretation of what went into the plate. You can get the exact location of the lights, and plug them in, but it doesn't look the same, because ours are not modeled. My philosophy is more to creatively make the character fit."

It did not escape Fangmeier's notice that Anderson was using a darker style than many DPs who work on effects-heavy movies. "Dean Cundey, on Spielberg films like Jurassic Park, really lights everything well," he says. "On this film, I think Jamie wanted things like half the face of the puppet to be in darkness. At first, we responded to that by filling things out more. But we have kind of come around to that spirit and say, OK, you don't have to see the complete face here. In general, we were matching the reference in spirit, and then maybe going in and filling out a little more light here and there. We wanted to light our little guys just as you would light an actor."

Fangmeier marvels at the lack of direct supervision Anderson needs to give his crews. "I have to be so specific with people I work with," he says. "We're still in the learning stages of lighting. When I watched Jamie light on-set, he wasn't really giving that much instruction. Actually, a lot of stuff seemed to be going on without obvious discussion of how to do it." Of course, Anderson has people like Morton, who has worked with the DP on several films, to rely on. The gaffer talks with particular enthusiasm about the complicated lighting effects that went into a nighttime sequence in Alan's house, when all of the lights go out and the attack begins.

"The soldiers start launching flaming tennis balls through the windows of the house with a jury-rigged tennis ball launcher, and spot fires start," he recalls. The flying tennis balls were digitally imposed, but the fires were created by a combination of Magic Gadgets flicker effects and tungsten lights with Lee full-CTO filters. Overall lighting in the darkened set was sourced to ambient blue moonlight as well as tungsten light spilling from street lamps and the house next door, and was created with a mixture of daylight and tungsten-balanced Kino Flos and Chimeras. In addition, fluorescent flashlight cooled with Lee quarter-CTB swept through the set.

Neighborhood night exteriors got the Musco Light 15x6kW HMI treatment, with a bit of a difference. "We wanted a soft moonlight source," says Morton. "The Musco has a gel frame that's usually used to color-correct. What we did was put bleached muslin on the frame, so it made a big softbox. We used that every day for five or six weeks. Then we used it during the day for the toy store. We were shooting through the winter; they wanted it to be bright and sunny, but El Nino made it overcast. For all the scenes inside the store, we came up over the building facades on the backlot and pounded those units through the windows to make it look like we had hard sunlight coming from a higher altitude than we could have gotten with stands or even with Condors."

Like a lot of the sets, the toy store was designed with removable ceiling panels for overhead lighting, particularly since Anderson was planning to use the Frazier lens. (A large proportion of low-angle shots from toy-to-human point of view meant hard ceilings were often a necessity.) Unlike, for example, the set for Alan's house, with its power outage and its lighting from the floor, the panels were actually used in the toy store. "They changed out to bleached muslin, with catwalks over the openings, and HMIs coming down through for a good fill level," Morton says. That took care of the day interiors. For night scenes, including the crucial one when the soldiers come to life, "there was display lighting, primarily single-tube Kino Flos, mounted in the cabinets." But the daytime fill lighting was also incorporated. "To use the daylight balance as a blue moonlight," the gaffer continues, "we used the same HMI lighting and pulled the 85 filter off the camera so it was blue, accented with the display lighting." Both large HMIs from LTM, and smaller Joker PAR and Bug-Lite kits from K5600, were employed.

In any set or situation that heavily involved the Commandos or Gorgonites, the lighting was usually driven by their needs. "They usually took most of our energy to begin with, and then we started lighting out from that," says Anderson. "Normally, I start by looking at the environment, and figuring out how I think it should look, what's lighting it, and how to translate that to the people." With the title creatures of Small Soldiers, the DP had already decided on contrast. "I would try to approach every set with that in mind, so by the time I got to the puppets, it would make sense that it was modeled and sketchy and dark. I don't mean that everything has to make sense in terms of where the light comes from. I mean, if you can believe these guys walk and talk, the light's not going to bother you. But it has to make enough sense so that I can do it."




VISUAL EFFECTS SUPERVISORS Stefen Fangmeier, David Andrews, Industrial Light & Magic (ILM)




LIGHTING EQUIPMENT LTM HMIs K5600 Joker PARs and BugLite kits Chimera Lightbanks with 90-degree honeycomb grids Kino Flo Mini-Flo kits Dedotec Dedolight kits Musco Lights Glass Illuminations fiber optics Lee Filters colors, 1/4-, 1/2-, and full-CTO, 1/4-, 1/2-, and full-CTB, 216 and 250 white diffusion Magic Gadgets flicker effects

VIRTUAL LIGHTING Pixar RenderMan and ILM interactive software