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Match a Move: Jason Snell
Unlocking the Camera
A century ago, filmmaker George Méličs wowed the earliest movie audiences with bold visual effects. He understood the malleability of filmed imagery, and by locking down his camera and recranking partially exposed film through the gate, he was able to achieve startling double-exposures and in-camera composites. Visual effects were born, but so was an annoying limitation on filmmakers: in order to combine the real and virtual, filmmakers had to lock down their cameras to provide maximum stability and control for visual effects.
A hundred years later, the digital breakthroughs pioneered by George Lucas and Industrial Light & Magic have changed everything. Filmmakers are free to move their cameras about, and a visual effects shot can look just as spontaneous as a handheld cinéma verité shot.
Facilitating George Lucas’ roaming camera moves in Episode II was 3-D Matchmove Supervisor Jason Snell, a five-year veteran of matchmoving at ILM. He has worked on Space Cowboys, Sleepy Hollow and Galaxy Quest.
Matchmoving is essential in today’s effects-heavy motion pictures, which require the melding of live action plate photography and digitally created virtual elements. “Matchmoving is the digital recreation of an environment or a set in the computer, including recreating the original camera and camera moves for every shot that a digital effect is applied to,” describes Snell.
Even though digital environments like the Geonosian droid factory, digital characters like Yoda, or digital props, like Count Dooku’s speeder bike, only exist within a computer, they are treated as real objects when it comes to incorporating them into a finished frame. They are illuminated by virtual lights, affected by virtual winds, and photographed by virtual cameras. Because these digital objects have to cohabitate a frame with real objects and actors, it is important to record as much real world data as possible so that they blend together seamlessly.
“I take measurements on every shot and every take of the movie,” says Snell. “I have to measure the camera height, tilt, the lens-size, the distance to the subject in addition to the camera placement within the set for every environment.”
Supreme Chancellor Palpatine’s office is an example of a set that required extensive measurements. Not only would the environment be extended with a digital matte painting of a panoramic view of Coruscant, it would also be occupied by digital characters, Yoda and Jar Jar Binks. When ILM animators create Binks and Yoda, they need to know precisely where the characters are standing, and what the camera is doing in the scene. Snell provides that information.
“Once the set is built and there are blueprints available, I try to get those,” he says. “Then I verify that what the production crew built works with what the blueprints say. I use those blueprints and build the environment back in the computer for everyone to work off of.”
During the hectic pace of shooting a film, downtime equals lost money, so Snell has to work quickly to gather his data. The nature of set construction means that Snell could never get a head start on his measurements. “The problem with sets is that they change right up to the very last minute,” he describes. “You don’t want to get in there a week before and measure out the set because they’ll move a table or they can even move walls right before shooting. I try to wait until at least the day that they’re going to shoot to verify the sets are true.”
Snell would take advantage of whatever downtime there was to gather his data, often measuring during lunch breaks, or recording information on one part of the set while the shoot proceeded on another. “You have to be creative with your time,” he says, which became all the more apparent given the quick pace afforded by the use of HD video cameras instead of film.
“With tape, they could change the camera within seconds,” recalls Snell. “They don’t have to reload; they have the freedom to shoot whenever they want and as much as they want without costing a fortune. That made everything go really fast, which made me have to go really fast as well. That was probably the most difficult thing.”