The design team at Cosgrove Hall

Ken Clark.

The Design Team prepare layouts and experiment with light, shade and colour. Ken Clark investigates.

Layouts show the field of view and the movement of camera and characters, while exercising a strong measure of control, unifying the separate pieces of the picture and guiding the team towards a common goal. It could be said that layouts are the construction lines, the skeleton outline on which they hang action, colour and sound. And it all begins in the Design Team’s studio. Here I met John Geering.

John Geering, Head of the Design Team

The front cover featured a picture from this article. Click the pic to see a larger version.

John is an experienced freelance illustrator working on the Dandy and Beezer comics, and in particular he helped introduce and establish the BananaMan character. He is Head of the Design Team.

KC: How do you approach a new production?

JG: At the start of our work on The BFG Brian Cosgrove discussed the style of the film with us, deciding on a realistic, rather than unrealistic approach to the settings. At first we tried a variety of different mediums, gouache, air brush technique and water colour. As soon as Brian saw the experiment with water colours he said, “That’s it. That is the style. I want all the backgrounds to have that feel.”

None of us are, strictly speaking, background artists, we are designers. The Design Team for The BFG work on characters and sets. As well as designing Dreamland and Giantland we had to determine such things as why a character lived in a volcano, everything had to be rationalised. Establishing colours, styles, constructional details, graphic embellishments, and solving all the other pictorial problems throughout the film, took about 18 months. Then with the script completed and the track recorded, we were able to get down to painting the backgrounds and making the film.

Duckula’s castle. ©Cosgrove HaIl 1986.

Painting backgrounds for feature films is an art in itself, isn’t it. The expertise required is comparable to that of a good landscape artist.

Yes, but there is more to it than that. The length of time it will appear on the screen is an important consideration, because an audience needs time to take in all the visual information. If a background is on screen for a short time, all you require is suggestive detail. The sets must never overshadow the performers acting within them. They must compliment the action. The exception to this is when you are establishing a scene, or an atmosphere, before the actors enter the picture.

We have introduced an ‘out of focus’ effect to foreground details, background details, or both, which has been very exciting and pleasing to do. It is ‘suggestive’ painting, in the sense that you are not required to slavishly attend to every tiny detail in each and every scene. For example, if a character is in close-up, a street light can be suggested by a blob of light colour applied with an airbrush, which takes a short time to complete. There is a perfect example of what I mean in Disney’s Bambi, it is a long pan strip from Bambi’s first walk in the forest with Thumper and his little friends. The acting areas were carefully drawn but as they ran from one working area to another, detail virtually vanished into airbrushed patches of greens with isolated clumps of feathery grass which helped to convey an impression of speed.

When I do a background I am painting for the camera. If I were painting a picture to hang on a wall, I would use a different technique, there would be a lot more detail throughout. For film, sharp detail is kept on the level containing the actors while the foreground and far-background detail is softened. It is the same as the live-action technique where the cameraman has the performers in focus while the remainder of the scene drops out of focus. They deliberately open the lens stop to reduce the depth of sharp focus.

You can also draw the audiences’ attention to the action by painting the acting areas in a lighter colour. In some scenes you may want the picture to convey a sense of distance and there are ways of painting that will achieve this effect on film.

If you are establishing a scene, say of a town, and it is going to be onscreen for longer than ten seconds, then you will want something quite detailed while not forgetting to keep the close foreground a little out of focus, to fool the eye with an illusion of depth. The trick is knowing when to put in the detail and when to leave it alone.

In the end it comes down to style – the ‘look’ you are trying to achieve and maintain throughout the production. It may be realistic, or magic, or a graphic style, whichever it is you have to understand the use of colour, perspective is important, unless the style dictates otherwise, and you have to remember the acting areas.

Are you restricted in any way by the colour reproduction of the film-stock?

Not at all. Our present stock is so sensitive we know that what we paint – we get. If we are worried about a particular background, for example a night scene may look too dark, a test is shot before a decision is made on any changes.

At the moment I am working on a short film in my own time. I have been given permission to use studio facilities to put a few of my ideas on film. Brian and Mark encourage experimentation, and the very healthy atmosphere in their studio is the direct result of that. They want people to be happy and relaxed because they realise they will then give of their best.

We must not stop learning, or playing, or having dreams and ideas, it is the only way we will advance. What I like about animation is you can create your own worlds. You can do anything you like, because there are no hard and fast parameters.

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