Supporting the efforts of Ward's camera crew was a fluctuating team of six to eight previz artists and two to four layout/final-camera artists. They studied specific movies and camerawork, lenses, depth-of-field, focus-pulling, staging, dollies, Steadicam rigs, cranes; the whole box and dice. After this training, these guys appreciated the effort of pushing a dolly loaded with a camera op, focus puller and a full Panaflex or RED kit on board.
"We didn't use a virtual camera that plugged into Maya that allowed any of us to walk around the room with and record through an input device," Ward says, having used a similar performance capture device on past films including Beowulf
and Disney's A Christmas Carol.
"Every operated camera move in Escape
was fully hand-key'd."
The camera team became pros at dampening their camera moves on their animations in Maya; creeping to speed, slowing to stop. "They called it, 'Sweetening the Curve'," adds Ward. "The more the camera moved and acted like a real camera, the 'sweeter' it was."
This philosophy continued through the lighting and comp stages of the film. Previz artist and Comp Supervisor Jasper Kidd had been fully invested with Ward's wishes to bring the Panavision look to the final images of the film, going as far to set up the NUKE with scripts based on the Primos' T-Stops and focus limitations. "Jasper and I took the ASC manual and had all the right numbers plugged into NUKE. We could see our depth of field with a precise mimicking of what the Primos would do with any given focus. Sure, we could adjust it more or less if we'd like, but having the ability to see it correctly, just like a Primo lens, was paramount."
Sometimes it's the illusion
of a perfect camera that ends up making a scene work...
"One of the challenges we had on Escape
was filming the in-air scenes to look like we were sky-dive instructors falling in mid-air with our characters." Ward recalls. "Toward the end of our film, we have a scene where we're falling with our heroes. Initially, we tried many different ways to 'sell' the idea we were plummeting alongside with them, but none seemed to work in which we could focus on the importance and (no pun intended) gravity of the scene. Any camera float or movement was too distracting."
More of that department collaboration came into play.
"After working with Cal and Adam on ideas, we came up with a successful solution; we simply took all hand-held and shake off the camera. The animation team added in the high-frequency flutter on the characters and their clothing, along with some subtle floating inside the frame. Then we reshot the scene with smooth cameras, adding a little shake here and there in the final comp once we were able to view it big in our theater. The final version of the scene delivers a sense of realism of falling through the sky, but doesn't distract from the story being told."
On 'Escape', Ward treated each set-up with a purpose, specifically working off the idea of the storyboards, the performance of the animation, and most importantly the story, placing each camera accordingly.
"Mostly, I had tried to use camerawork that complemented our heroes' stories throughout the film. In the first act, most of our cameras are up within Scorch's headspace, placed slightly higher, usually looking down on Gary making him feel smaller, weaker." Ward explains, "But as Gary's arch runs throughout the story, our cameras start to come down to his level and we start to shoot UP at him, making him feel more heroic."
A great example of this is the two times Gary and Scorch do their 'fist-bump-handshake.'
"The first time we see the shake, we're with the wildly confident Scorch, shooting on a wider lens, slightly higher, and framing the two brothers with a lot of air, selling some anticipation that Scorch could do something big at any moment. Then, near the end of the film, we flip it; we lower the camera down with Gary. Sure, we're still shooting up at him and Scorch, both, but the camera is at Gary's level now, longer lens, a bit tighter, more controlled - like Gary's character, but also humbling Scorch, addressing his arch, as well."
“We set a high standard with our camerawork on 'Escape' and its something I'm interested in seeing more animated productions do. I'm a big fan of solid cinematography in animation, or in any film for that matter. More productions could move their camera with more intent and reason, tell their story better and in the process, sacrifice a little animation and maybe save a ton of work. The cameras in "Escape" were handled very carefully to bring a hidden realism to the picture. Jeremy Lasky is doing it over at Pixar, Renato Falcao is doing it at BlueSky, and the more of this technique done by the other studios, the better.”
"Overall, my responsibility was to help Cal and Bob's story be presented in the best way possible without distracting the viewer or hindering the performances. I think we achieved that quite well. There's not a camera or composition in the entire film I can't get behind," Ward admits. "It's a great story, good fun, and easy entertainment for families and kids."