Escape from Planet Earth

Fri 22nd Feb 2013, by Paul Hellard | Production

CGSociety :: Production Focus

22 February 2013, by Paul Hellard

CGSociety talks to Matthew Ward about a common passion: Cinematography in animation.

Escape from Planet Earth, [EFPE] is The Weinstein Company’s first animated feature under their new animation division banner: ‘Kaleidoscope TWC’. The deal was made with animation house, Rainmaker Entertainment in Vancouver, BC, marking EFPE as the Rainmaker's first animated film made for feature release. Rainmaker's established pipeline for animated DVD features combined with TWC's brilliance in casting and marketing certainly helped place the picture in theaters, but a lot of key decisions made by the film's supervising artists are subtly glaring you in the face when watching the 90-minute spectacular.

The Rainmaker production kicked off with a fresh, green-lit script by screen-writing duo Cal Brunker (also the film's director) and Bob Barlen along with several other new key crew members, including Director of Photography, Matthew Ward. Ward had previously been working with director Robert Zemeckis for nearly eight years, supervising the pre-visualization and layout departments of the Zemeckis/Disney studio, Imagemovers Digital (IMD), which closed it's doors late 2010. Upon word of the studio closure, Ward was contacted with the opportunity to come up and meet the production team on EFPE. A week after meeting Brunker in Vancouver, Ward took the job.

personal personal personal personal personal

Though clearly an animated film, Ward and Brunker approached the film by creating the film's CG/virtual camera based on a Panavision Panaflex, using a full aperture film-back and a lens kit that matched Panavision's Primo lenses. “We shot like we were using the Primo spherical-based lenses, composing for a 2.40 crop. To ground the camera even further, we made sure to operate the camera as if we had it mounted on a rig whenever possible, giving it weight and slack for a more natural, tamed, operator-driven look in a world where it's all too easy to un-hinge the camera in space.” says Ward.

"I had come from years of working with Robert Zemeckis, trained in a style of shooting which had been labeled as 'Formal-Cinema,' in which the camerawork is meant to be unseen, natural, unnoticeable," Ward explains. "It's a classic style used by many directors and DP's today, hiding the zoom instead of featuring it, shooting on primes because they're faster with light, placing the camera where the characters and action exist, usually resembling a witness, resting at head-height. Its more about bringing the audience into the scene rather than shooting it from a number of unmotivated angles." This ‘Formal-Cinema’ style gave Brunker and Ward a focus on how they wanted to shoot Escape from Planet Earth.

personal personal personal personal personal personal

"The biggest challenge we have in the animated medium is limiting ourselves, because anything is possible. But we didn't want to go crazy with the camerawork and staging, trying to do anything ground-breaking. We wanted the camerawork to complement the story and animated performances with strong compositions, making it easy for the audience to follow along," notes Ward. This required the fusing of minds and departments with animation director, Adam Wood, and modeling supervisor, James Wallace. "We had to dance together, with little time to practice. We'd ask Adam to tone down a performance or he'd ask up to go a little wider to accommodate. We'd work with James on getting more balance in each shot with set-dec, or he'd ask us to go tighter to hide a low-detail hallway. The collaboration was exceptional."

The collaboration was something director Brunker introduced from the start. With both having on-set, practical filmmaking experience, the attraction between Ward as the film's cinematographer and Brunker was that they spoke the same language; They spoke film, not computer. They didn't use terms like orbit or translate, they spoke with pan, tilt, and dolly. "It was clear the first day we met that Cal and I would work well together," Ward recalls. "We loved many of the same films and cinematographers and had similar experiences in our professional careers. We knew what Escape could truly be if the right people were in place to support it."


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."

personal personal personal personal personal personal

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."

personal personal personal personal personal personal personal

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.”

personal personal personal personal personal personal personal personal


"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."



blog comments powered by Disqus