The first animation camera was suspended from a wooden frame so it would point straight down at the drawings on a table. There was nothing fancy about it and most filmmakers built their own. Since the drawings had to be held in register so each always would be in the same place, various methods were tried, with holes punched in the paper that matched little metal pegs becoming the most successful. To hold the drawings absolutely flat while photographing, a large piece of heavy glass, called a platen, was placed over them. This was even more important when eels were involved. since they had a tendency to curl and reflect light back up into the camera lens.
Before the button is pushed to shoot a single frame of film, the whole set-up of drawings and background must be checked visually to see if it looks right and is completely free of foreign matter. A speck of dustora curious fly can ruin an expensive scene, so an air hose is kept handy to blow off anything that should not be there.
In the twenties, two cameramen were needed to shoot a scene since the camera had to be turned by hand. One man stayed up on top and carefully turned the crank one turn, trying to keep a consistent speed and rhythm throughout; the other arranged the drawings on the pegs. At Disney's, it was the ubiquitous Ub Iwerks who rigged up an automatic switch so even-thing could be done by one man seated at the camera table.
As filmmakers' ideas expanded, they found a need to move the camera up and down so they could come in closer on a scene or pull farther back during the: action. A calibrated post replaced the wooden frame, j A short time later, they wanted to move the camera either to one side or the other, and then they also j needed to twist the camera as much as ninety degrees j for special shots, and to move the drawings through.it: right angles to their normal position. This was called* j vertical pan even though the art work remained per-fcctly flat. The pegs at both top and bottom were | placed on bars that could slide, and then auxiliary pegs were introduced, and then a contraption that would move the pegs in any direction.
According to Bill Cottrell, who was the whole cam-1
era department in 1930, Walt had constant ideas for improvements on the camera and kept asking for additions that would allow more flexibility. His ideas continued on into the film itself and what effects were possible there. Bill said. "He asked me to experiment with color on film—to put silver nitrate on the film and see what happened. The picture Night was printed on blue stock, and we had a fire sequence that was printed on red."
By the sixties, the cameras and animation stands could do almost more than most animators knew how to make use of. These giants were expensive, and few of their fancy gadgets were used very often, but when needed they were wonderful to have. It was always a question of whether it was cheaper to have the cameraman shoot the scene six times (each time with a different exposure, and different material, until a very special effect was achieved) or have an enterprising young artist draw it all by hand. Sometimes there was no question since the effect could be obtained only by the camera work, but now and then an enthusiastic and competent cameraman could talk the producer into more expense than really was necessary.
There was a period in the mid-thirties when every new employee in the creative fields had to work in the Camera Department six weeks to learn how the pictures were put together physically. It sounded like a great idea because it educated everyone in the major tools they would be using in putting their ideas on the screen, but in truth it was a fiasco. The need for an unusually sharp eye and complete concentration, combined with the almost unlimited potential for error after error, was more than most artistic temperaments could tolerate. Expenses soared and the productivity of the department itself dropped to an all-time low. The idea was abandoned, but for years cameramen seemed to cast a baleful eye at any animator who came visiting. It was unfortunate, because animators must have some technical knowledge just to animate well and should know what assistance the camera can give them in achieving their results.
This all led inevitably to the huge, shiny, mysterious monster that was kept hidden behind signs saying, "No Admittance" and "KEEP OUT": the multiplane camera. Solidly engineered, it was built to withstand every kind of ill treatment, but it was awkward to get around and unbelievably heavy. The light-weight metals were hardly known at that time, and four strong men were needed just to lift the frame that held a single animation level. As many as eight 500 watt bulbs were in a bank of lights for one level, and when all levels were lit the heat was oppressive.
Somehow this camera captured the imaginations of both artists and the public, either because of its overwhelming size or its impenetrable workings or the possibilities of what it could do. The principle of its operation is simple and easy to explain, but making it work is quite another matter. The complications are suggested by the fact that less than two years after its initial use. a manual had to be prepared that began: "The Multiplane Planning Board is a body headed by the Direction Unit and Camera Coordinator and a representative of the Engineering Department. The function of this board is to work out the ways and means of accomplishing Multiplane shots. ..."
Basically, the multiplane apparatus makes use of several layers of glass, each with some scenic material on it and placed at a varying distance from the camera. For an average shot, the background itself would be eight feet away, the first level six feet, the second five feet, then another at four feet, and maybe a fourth level at only two-and-a-half feet. As many as six levels have been used and shot from a distance of 14 feet, but that is not an average set-up. Assume the scene called for the camera to move in through the artwork and progress to the right slowly. The amount of the move on each part would have been very carefully calculated by an engineer, and all that is left would be to run through the scene to see if everything works as planned. On the regular camera, there is no run through. If a scene has been checked and approved, it will work on the camera, and it does. The cameraman shoots it just as the exposure sheet is marked. On the multiplane camera, it is necessary to test the markings.
The lights are turned on. the first eels are placed in position, and the technicians take their places beside each of the levels. Up on top the cameraman is peering through the lens, but there is no film in the camera. First, the level with the featured artwork is lit with the proper intensity, then the other levels are lit separately, so that each gives the best artistic appearance to the whole scene. Two big problems plague the crew end lessly: first, reflections that bounce off the shiny eels into the camera lens, and, second, light from a lower level that occasionally shows through the paint on the back of the eels.
The reflections took all kinds of ingenuity to conquer, from adding neutral density glasses under the camera lens at a forty-five degree angle (to "reflect the reflection away") to leaving the offending level dark for one shooting, then lighting it by itself for a second run-through. Expensive and tedious, but as the crew said. "We were shooting most of the stuff with multiple exposure anyway."
Conquering the light leaks was easier—for the cameramen. This involved sending all the eels in that level back to the painters for another coat of paint, this time in heavy black. (Later white paint was used for this backing.) The painters were annoyed at having to do this extra work, because only one frame had a light leak, and a piece of black paper slid underneath the eel would have stopped that in a hurry. After years of protest from the painters it finally was agreed that this was a good idea.
Work in camera completely stopped while the painters fumed and painted the back of every last eel on that level. When work resumed later that day, or maybe even the next, the camera crew started over again to make sure everything would work smoothly with this new correction. They could not check every frame of a scene but did have to run down to all the critical points, checking the camera moves, the appearance of the scene at that point in the camera finder, the light leaks on other levels, and the constant reflections. In spile
of the most careful planning, sometimes they would find that they were overshooting a painted area or removing a level before all of its parts were out of the camera field.
As the camera was lowered closer to the artwork, new problems appeared because of the change of angle from camera to lights. Alterations that corrected a condition at one point always seemed to create a second problem at another. So hour after hour the camera crew backed up, changed the equipment, started forward. backed up, started over, changed something else, until all parts of the scene were working flawlessly. This literally took days, even with a full crew of five or six men. but eventually they were ready to shoot the scene.
It is easy to sec why operating the multiplane cam era was so expensive and why it was used less in later years. Just to set up for a held position with the background out of focus took longer than on the regular camera, but the results were unsurpassed. There was also a time factor in just shooting the film: to get the depth of field in the focus for such a distance, a time exposure of some eight or nine seconds was required for every frame of film. In addition, there were 22 possible adjustments that could be made before each frame was shot; not all were used on every frame, but all had to be calculated and written up and checked for each frame. The exposure sheets were so complicated that only highly trained technical men could write them—or read them.
In spite of the complications, there were three separate multiplane cameras working around the clock for
many months. One cameraman said. "I worked almost a year on Fantasia. 12 hours a day. I had the night shift. I'd come in about 6 o'clock and I'd never get home till 8 or 9 in the morning." He remembered the special problems of shooting a little scene that would be on the screen for a mere three seconds, yet it had to be shot 12 separate times to get the subtle effects that came only from multiple exposure. "You'd do one
and then you'd do another, then a distortion; you'd do a diffusion, you'd do mist; if you'd make one mistake after you start. . . ." He shook his head at the painful memory. "You had to absolutely duplicate every move. With four or five guys—you've got a guy there, and a guy there—and a—you'd never make that film today, 1 guess."'
Few inventions have made such a difference in the appearance of the product as the old multiplane camera. When it was First used it was very special, and the public heard enough about it to know that it meant quality in production and visual excitement. It was good publicity, a great advertising item, and the name appeared prominently in our ads. We were amazed one day to see an ad for a Warner Bros, live-action feature, laid in the wooded hills of magnificent mountains, that claimed the whole picture had been shot with the "Glorious Multiplane Camera!" A good publicist cannot seem to pass up anything that is hot at the time!
In later years, when the most often heard question is, "How can we gel the same effect for less money?" layout men increasingly have gone to the optical printer for their answers. Assorted wonders daily come out of this device: among them a combining of different strips of film that in many ways duplicates the work of the antiquated multiplane camera, long since priced out of existence. In this process, called bi-pack, the character is shot on one piece of film and the background is shot on another. In the printer, the two pieces of film are combined—sometimes revealing a bit of telltale rim-lighting, but usually producing a surprising feeling of depth to the scene. For a character racing straight toward the camera, or going away, or for the camera to pan with the character through certain landscapes, bi-pack gives the best illusion.
The men in Special Effects operate the process lab. and it is not in their makeup to do anything over and over without asking questions. When head layout man Don Griffith went over to ask about the best way to plan a scene he had for bi-pack, he was told, "Why do you want bi-pack? Why don't you use two-strip?"
Don asked, "What's two-strip?"
He is not sure that he understood the answer, but, as he says, "The main thing is that they can do it!" The master peg that used to slip and cause the annoying
The Multiplane Camera
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