The Pirates marks the first feature length film shot on DSLR by Oscar-winning British animation house Aardman, moving from specially adapted film cameras after successful trials in animated shorts and television advertising.
With over one million frames shot for The Pirates, around 50 cameras were used on sets which were shot simultaneously. The resulting film, which also features CGI elements, was released earlier in the year.
We spoke with Aardman's technical director, Tom Barnes, to understand more about the process of using DSLRs to create a film as complicated as this, and to see which equipment was favoured during production.
TechRadar: Which camera(s) and lens combinations did you use to film The Pirates?
Tom Barnes: We used the Canon 1D Mark III. We chose that camera for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it proved very reliable when we used it within the company for other short films and television commercials, and it also has a small[er] sensor [than full-frame].
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We use an area of the sensor that is exactly the same size as a frame of movie film, to capture the image, we didn't use the full camera sensor, because that then gave us a similar photographic situation to the one we'd experienced on previous films, so it allowed us to use a lens and know that we would get the same depth of field or depth of focus.
We needed to achieve as much depth of field as possible, in order to make those characters that were around 8 inches tall appear life size on the cinema screen.
We use a large variety of lenses, we took stills camera lenses and we then kept the glass and rebuilt the focusing mechanism and everything else in order to make something which behaved as similarly as possible to a cine lens.
It can be anything that you can get to fit on a camera, but we couldn't use Cine lenses on the camera because a lot of cine lenses have very large glass elements a long way back because they're not designed to work with a flip-up reflex mirror as you have on an SLR camera, so they would physically interfere with a camera.
What are the advantages and drawbacks of using a Digital SLR to create your films?
We moved to digital SLRs because the quality of digital photography had improved enough to make capturing film frames possible, and also because this film was so complicated we wanted to reach a situation where the director could have immediate feedback as soon as we'd finished a shot.
We developed a pipeline for processing and moving the images from the camera so that within a few seconds of finishing the shot in a studio, the director could walk into a digital cinema and could see the finished shot projected on a large screen.
You have to be quite selective about which cameras you use. There are not very many cameras that have a reliable enough live view system to allow constant use. The cameras were sitting there with a live picture coming out of them for, in some cases, over two years, because we did a lot of development work on the film before we actually started shooting it.
What kind of camera settings do you use?
We typically shoot from about f/5.6 or 8 through to f/16 or even f/22 possibly. We'll try and hit an awkward compromise between stopping down as much as possible for depth of field, and not losing the quality of the lens altogether.
We do a lot of testing before we start the film itself so we can decide on an optimum setting for all of the cameras, so we will set up a common ISO speed, a common white balance, the setup of all the cameras will be identical at the beginning of the shoot, and the Canon cameras and the Canon sensors were incredibly consistent in that if you took any one camera into a given situation and took a shot, if you then removed it and substituted another camera, with the same lens, the shot would be identical.
How do you create 3D imagery using DSLRs?
We have the huge advantage that you can create 3D with a single camera. We have a small motion control tracking system that sits underneath the camera. For each second of animation, we take 24 right frames and 24 left frames, so the camera shuttles left to right 24 times for each second of animation.
It does it automatically, we decide on the interocular distance between the centre of the left eye and the centre of the right eye. Once we've done that, when the animator takes each shot, the camera will automatically capture a left eye position and a right eye position and then go back to the start again.
What's happened to the cameras?
We're trying to figure out what to do with them. They probably worked hard enough on this film that we won't use them on another one, and they've now been superseded. They're currently sitting in a cupboard while we decide what to do next.
Do newer cameras, such as the Canon 1DX or Nikon D4 appeal to you?
At the moment we're biding our time. We're in a very difficult position because we have to select a camera that's been around long enough that we have a chance to try it properly.
We have to know it's reliable above anything else, we have to know that the quality's good, and that it represents colours as we expect, but we also want to take advantage of the latest technology so we're in a difficult position where we know we have to commit to something.
Once we get a green light for another film, once we get a script approved, then we will have to review what's available and commit to something. As the 1DX has a larger [full-frame] sensor it may well be that we have to take a camera like that and decide that with a higher pixel density we still crop a small amount from the centre of a larger sensor, and as long as the quality is better than what we're currently getting then that may be a good solution.
It seems a shame to waste all that resolving power, but at the same time, if we use a substantially larger sensor area, we can't get the depth of field we need.
Do cameras with smaller sensors appeal?
They may or may not do in the future, but what is probably more important is the quality of the Live View of the camera, because you can't underestimate the quality of image that you can give to the animator as a reference picture. The camera has to run all day without overheating, in a warm studio environment, we have to have a camera which is built to a fairly good professional standard so we don't have any focus shift as the camera changes or anything like that, all of those factors are very very important so we're really looking for quite an unusual combination of attributes.
I think we would generally be looking for a professional level camera, because apart from anything else we're going to be taking a lot of exposures, and we would never want to risk losing a shot because we had shutter failure in the middle of a shot.
What features would you like to see for future cameras to make your job easier?
Our ideal wouldn't exactly be a DSLR, because the SLR bit it isn't actually necessary. If it was good enough quality, an interchangeable lens compact camera might be appropriate, but at the moment, none of those quite come up to a suitable level.
I don't think the camera we need has been made yet. The market's changing quite quickly at the moment, digital SLRs are growing up, the quality has improved quite dramatically, the software in the camera has got substantially better, but we also need to be able to control the camera remotely. We need a manufacturer who is collaborative enough to allow free access to camera control systems, or, who has an open enough system, or an open enough philosophy to allow us to be able to control their cameras remotely to the degree that we require.
The Pirates! In An Adventure with Scientists is still available to view on general release at UK cinemas nationwide, and is scheduled for US release from 27 April.