(read part 1 here)
A brief history of multi-plane photo-animation
Animation is as old as filmmaking itself. It is the same principle as motion picture photography — a series of stills captured or created, one frame at a time, and projected rapidly to creation motion. If fact, it’s much older. Even some prehistoric cave paintings hint at suggesting movement from stills.
Hand drawn animation thrived by the 1910s in the dawn of motion pictures. But as it grew more sophisticated, pioneers realized a basic problem with single drawings on a single layer. The feeling of depth so clearly discerned in live action was missing — the background (e.g. the moon in the sky) moves slowly compared to foreground objects (e.g. trees close to the camera) when camera is moved.
That led to the invention and development of the multi-plane camera — an animation camera using multiple layers of glass planes to allow animating foreground, midground and background elements individually, usually with three planes but sometimes as many as seven in later films by Walt Disney. Here’s the charming Disney explaining his multiplane animation in a short clip.
But this applied only to drawn animation and other non-photographic elements as creating photographs in layers was not attempted until computer processing of photographs became common.
The first times photo-animation with multi-plane camera techniques were used were in Liz Phair’s music video Down, directed by Rodney Ascher, and A Special Tree, directed by musician Giorgio Moroder, both made in 2001, more than a decade after the last mechanical multi-plane films.
Clearly they inspired the makers of The Kid Stays in the Picture, when Robert Evans provided access to his personal photographs but refused to be filmed. Adding multi-plane photo-animation to them allowed the filmmakers to create visually compelling footage instead of just a slide show.
The dirty Photoshop secret
There is a fundamental difference between drawn multi-plane animation and photography-based multi-plane animation: with the former you can simply draw in the overlapping parts of the image so that animating these layers at varying depths does not leave gaps or holes.
But with a photograph, even if you are careful to separate foreground, background, or even midground, into layers, even the slightest multi-plane depth will create holes where you have cut out the image, along with other problems. In those pioneering videos from the turn of this century, the artists made heavy liberal use of the clone and paint tools in Photoshop to fill out the layers to be able to mimic the beautiful moves in Disney’s glorious multi-plane masterpieces.
But due to the limits of a single photograph’s resolution, they could not create long moving shots like those in the Disney films or in In Saturn’s Rings.
Back to Saturn
I buried myself in everything on multi-plane animation techniques and quickly became adept at pulling off the best work I’d seen. I was ready to tackle Saturn. But as soon as I started I realized I had a giant problem with this gas giant.
It was simply impossible to use any known multi-plane animation techniques to capture those rings — the jewels of the Solar System. Saturn’s rings exist at right angles to the planet’s body and multiplane in both hand drawn and photographic multiplane has completely avoided photographs with objects like that or chose to leave them in single plane, breaking the illusion completely.
For a physical camera-based multiplane animations (e.g. Disney films), creating intersecting or steeply angles planes of glass introduced unsolvable mechanical and optical problems that would require bending the laws of physics to solve. For computer-based multiplane animations with photographs, the data in a single photograph (e.g. Kid Stays in the Picture) simply lacked the data from angled planes to create animations, inherent in taking a photograph.
For photographic multiplane, only flat planes in the same angle as the camera film or sensor could be animated. Saturn’s Rings could only be done in a limited fashion if completely flat towards the plane of the camera’s film or sensor. In other words, I would have to invent completely new techniques of multiplane to create compelling multiplane animations.
Which led to the existential crisis of the film. Do I make a film entirely from real photographs? And if I don’t use only photographs, why bother at all, given the huge amounts of labor involved in creating something using real photographs?
Multi-plane or bust
It was truly a crisis. It was clear now why no filmmakers had ever attempted to make an entire film from only photographs. It was one thing to make a music video with short takes of a few seconds each. But trying to create an entire film this way would be tedious for the audience after five or ten minutes. The Kid Stays in the Picture had lots of other footage — movie clips, interviews with other people, b-roll.
Plus multi-plane photo-animation simply did not work for something like Saturn, or for most complex scenes, or for compelling shots that you wanted to last ten or 20 seconds, or even longer. The only other animation technique that used only real photographs was time-lapse photography. Early on I realized I could use time-lapse for some Earthbound shots, but most space photography was not shot in time-lapse form. I could also use some other Ken Burns-style and collage-image techniques for a bit of variety.
At the end of the day, unless multi-plane animation of photographs could carry a whole film, my concept was a bust from the start. But I was so seized by the passion of photographs as real journeys through space and time that I felt there had to be away to make it work.
The film ultimately has been made on pure determination, faith in creativity, and passion for sharing the photographs with the world.
PART 3 is here!