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Interview with Gerald Thompson, Director of Photography and Motion Control Artist on Australian Stop Motion Short Film "Lost & Found"

Knitsune in Lost & Found. Photo courtesy of Andrew Goldsmith.



Early on, while growing up in Adelaide, South Australia, Gerald Thompson – motion control artist and director of photography on the beautiful and heartfelt Australian short film Lost & Found – developed an interest in photography, and it didn’t take very long for him to became enamored with making “epic” Super 8 films with his friends.

Knotjira (left) and Knitsune (right) in Lost & Found. Photo courtesy of Andrew Goldsmith.

An engineer at heart – having gone on to design numerous motion control rigs as well as an incredible robot that interacts in real time with a dancer and musician – the element of filmmaking that Thompson found the most ardor remains the technical side of film’s craft, especially in the realm of special effects, specifically practical effects (for when Thompson – now a veteran in the special effects industry – began, CGI was still only in early stages of development, and was then far from being the industry standard). During these formative years, Thompson recalls his early experiments with practical effects, saying, “I also made my own short films experimenting with timelapse and in-camera compositing systems like front projection.”



During that time, Thompson began to work with a local studio as a camera assistant, later filming commercials, short films, and documentaries. Thompson describes his first endeavor in feature films, saying, “When a local company in Adelaide developed motion control system in the nineties I also took an interest in that, which lead to work on early VFX films like Dark City. In Melbourne I also worked with a small company Glenart where we shot animated commercials in the days of 35mm Michell cameras, before CGI hit that industry too hard...”

Knotjira in Lost & Found. Photo courtesy of Andrew Goldsmith.

Thompson, although being affected – along with most people who worked in the practical effects industry – by the induction of CGI as a general stand-in for the way in which special effects are now accomplished where practical effects would have been utilized before the early 2000s, has nevertheless remained to sustain a career in the stop motion industry. After his early forays in commercial work, he worked on some of the last major blockbusters to utilize stop motion and miniatures in actualizing their special effects shots, such as Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings films (of which Thompson worked on the first two, The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers) – monumental achievements for both the practical and digital special effects industries – and Jackson’s 2005 epic King Kong, on which Thompson worked as a motion control operator on the films’ miniature units. Later on, Thompson also worked on the incredible 2009 stop motion feature film Mary and Max – his self-deemed “favorite gig as Director of Photography and Motion Control Supervisor.”

Knotjira in Lost & Found. Photo courtesy of Andrew Goldsmith.

Despite being someone who describes himself as loving “messing with motors and mechanics,” Thompson admits that he began to design Mantis – what has sense become an industry standard to program motion control into stop motion – in his pastime, admitting, “I was pretty much a novice with programming” when he began to design the software. However, Thompson was driven to continue to design Mantis when the need in the stop motion industry persisted for motion control software that was both affordable and had a user-friendly interface, eventually devising an end product – one that he continues to improve upon – that met both of those criteria, allowing Thompson “to implement pretty much everything that was previously possible, as well as a few more tricks…” Mantis has since been used on many productions, being most recently, next to Lost & Found, selected to craft the motion control work on Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs.

Lost & Found – a seven-and-a-half minute, gorgeously realized and heartfelt film, inside and out – tells the beautiful and bittersweet love story about knitted creatures designed in the style of the Japanese art of Amigurumi, one of whom is a clumsy dinosaur called Knotjira who unravels himself in sacrifice to save his lover, a nimble fox called Knitsune, telling a poignant story both in its literal and metaphorical readings, and one that rings true about the nature of sacrificial love in a world impermanent and imperfect.

Knitsune in Lost & Found. Photo courtesy of Andrew Goldsmith.

Lost & Found premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in Berlin, Germany this February, and has most recently won the Yoram Gross Award for Best Australian Animated Short Film at the Sydney Film Festival in Sydney, Australia.

This is the fifth and last of Stop Motion Geek’s interviews with the stupendously talented and affable team behind Lost & Found. You can read the other four interviews by going here.

Lost & Found poster. Photo courtesy of Andrew Goldsmith.

In our interview, Thompson discusses how he became interested in and eventually crafted a career for himself as a motion control engineer and director of photography, eventually working on prestigious films such as the 2009 stop motion feature film Mary & Max, Dark City, Peter Jackson’s King Kong, as well as the first two films in Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings series. Thompson also gives us an in-depth look at his work on Lost & Found, going so far as to give us a breakdown of everything that went into designing what he describes as “the most ambitious shot in the film.” He also discusses his motion control software Mantis, and the improvements he’s made to it over the years since its first iteration. He also gives us his thoughts on the role stop motion plays in today’s CGI-dominated special effects industry, as well as his perspective on the part The Lord of the Rings and King Kong played in the overall shift in the filmmaking industry from practical effects to CGI. To wrap up, he gives us his advice to motion control artists and directors of photography looking to break into the stop motion industry, and also tells us about his own career next steps he foresees. You can read our interview below in full.

A.H. Uriah: Hello, Gerald! Thank you so much for doing this interview! It’s an absolute pleasure to have the opportunity to pick your brain! To start off: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself, where you grew up, and how you came to work in motion control and as a director of photography?

Gerald Thompson:
I grew up in Adelaide, South Australia and developed an interest in photography quite early. From that base I started epic films with my school friends on Super 8. I began work in the local industry as a camera assistant and later shooting commercials, short films and documentaries. I also made my own short films experimenting with timelapse and in-camera compositing systems like front projection. When a local company in Adelaide developed motion control system in the nineties I also took an interest in that, which lead to work on early VFX films like Dark City. In Melbourne I also worked with a small company Glenart where we shot animated commercials in the days of 35mm Michell cameras, before CGI hit that industry too hard...

The set of Lost & Found. Photo courtesy of Andrew Goldsmith.

A.H.: Can you tell us about your motion control software Mantis? What was the catalyst that made you go about designing your own motion control software and how does your software stand up next to other motion control software?

GT: During the production of Mary and Max in 2006 I used two motion control systems: Kuper and Lynx Millenium. Kuper was DOS based and Millenium required Windows 3.1. They also required an ISA slot which is now obsolete. At the time these were the only practical options, since MRMC Flair was much too expensive. After that experience I decided there was a need for something that could run on a modern Windows Laptop and be more accessible for others without so much experience to get their heads around. I was pretty much a novice with programming but came across the Dynomotion KFLOP USB hardware card which was designed for CNC. I discovered it could be adapted for the requirements of cinema motion control, and there was good support from Tom Kerekes at Dynomotion, so I taught myself programming and gave it a shot. The first Mantis was very simple, but over some years I have managed to implement pretty much everything that was previously possible, as well as a few more tricks… Since then Dragonframe has added a motion control module which also fills much of the gap, though directed mainly at stop motion. There is a real time option but it is still more expensive than Mantis, and does not include some critical features necessary for live action cinematography. For the recent production of Isle of the Dogs, Mantis was chosen due to its clean interface, flexibility and features. I also added several new tools that were of particular benefit to the way they liked to work. Even though the typical moves in IoD are quite simple, the workflow for producing them is important. I believe that having a discrete system from the capture program Dragonframe also worked better for them. Certainly I prefer it myself.

Mantis set-up for a shot of Lost & Found. Photo courtesy of Andrew Goldsmith.

A.H.: As a broad question, when you’re both the director of photography (presumably responsible for the final “look” of the film) and the motion control artist on a stop motion film, how do you decide when to dedicate yourself to producing a very beautiful, artful shot using a lot of motion control versus settling for a more simplistic stationary shot, especially when you have a tight budget and schedule as well as many other shots you have to shoot on any particular film?

GT: I don’t think there is usually a conflict, though it will also depend on the preference of the director. Adam Elliot was quite new to camera moves, his previous work had always been static, and much of Mary and Max retains that feel, but as our equipment base expanded during the production he enjoyed exploring the use of moves to enhance some of the more melodramatic moments. It is true that time can be a constraint, but more often style is the decider and should be acknowledged from the outset if it is going to add to production time. Personally I try to keep any camera move in sympathy with the overall feel of the film and make sure it is motivated. I also like to emulate the way live action films are shot where possible.

Gerald Thompson on the set of Lost & Found. Photo courtesy of Andrew Goldsmith.

A.H.: How did you come to work as the director of photography and as the motion control artist on Lost & Found? Can you give us a basic overview of what your involvement with the project looked like on a day-to-day basis?

GT: Andrew had seen my work on Mary and Max and I liked the concept for his short film. More importantly, I lived near the studio and was able to devote myself to it part time over the 12 months or so it took to complete. Because of the small crew only an average of one or two shots a week was possible, so I would drop in when available and setup the next shot. I was doing pretty much everything from lighting to motion control and even a bit of rigging.

Gerald Thompson on the set of Lost & Found. Photo courtesy of Andrew Goldsmith.

A.H.: What was your workflow like on Lost & Found in relation to your collaborations with the film’s directors (Andrew Goldsmith and Bradley Slabe) and animator (Samuel Lewis) and the kind of result you were responsible to produce (i.e. Were you working closely with the directors to make storyboarded shots a reality or were you starting from a more ground-zero approach?)?

GT: Lost & Found was storyboarded from the start in detail. Andrew has a background in directing visual effects projects as well as hands on post production. Bradley as the writer was less technical, and more concerned with the feel and emotions. Together they made a good team. Sometimes new ideas or problems would come up, and we would always discuss options for each new shot.

Andrew Goldsmith (left) and Bradley Slabe (right) plan out the shoot for Lost & Found. Photo courtesy of Andrew Goldsmith.

Bradley Slabe on the set of Lost & Found. Photo courtesy of Andrew Goldsmith.

A.H.: Can you walk us through your approach to planning and producing, from start to finish, the shot seen in the trailer starting at 3:09 in the actual film where (and I’m going to speak in vague terms so as to refrain from spoiling anything) Knotjira runs along, unraveling, with the camera facing him? It’s a relatively long shot and one that’s returned to three times in the film, and it looks like a particularly complex one to produce, as it has an almost “handheld” feel to it (which is quite hard to achieve in stop motion).

GT: Yes, that was the most ambitious shot in the film and one I could easily have spent more time on. As it was, it took several days to light and prepare, plus all the thinking that went prior to that. I think for animator Sam Lewis it was also maybe his biggest challenge. I had to modify my crane arm rig to allow the camera to navigate quite a narrow path and added a roll motion as well as vertical and side to side movement to emulate the handheld feel. Initially I also used a motion sensor to record a base for the movement in real time, then edited and added this to the basic tracking movement. We did several move tests with the puppet at 10 frame increments to rough out the shot and further refine it. Amazingly once it was set, Sam managed to make it work, animating over a couple of days. The motion sensor was also utilised in a couple of other shots to create the feel of a human operator. I mounted the sensor on a small camera and Andrew operated it. Normally it’s quite hard to program a human feel into motion control, so this experimental system was quite valuable, and being able to code it myself so it could be integrated with Mantis was kind of fun…

Knotjira in the shot referenced in the above question from Lost & Found. Source: Vimeo.

Samuel Lewis fist-bumps with Knotjira on the set of Lost & Found after finishing the above shot. Photo courtesy of Andrew Goldsmith.

A.H.: Lost & Found is by no means your first foray into stop motion. One of your most prestigious past projects was the 2009 feature length stop motion film Mary & Max, on which you were the DoP and the motion control artist. On your website you denote it as being your “favorite gig as Director of Photography and Motion Control Supervisor.” Can you give us a broad overview of the work you did on Mary & Max that you are the most proud of? Why, above all of the other projects you’ve worked on, is Mary & Max your favorite?

GT: While I had worked on animated television commercials prior, the challenge was to create a coherent work that would stand up in a much longer format. The nice thing about it was that while Adam Elliot had a very definite vision, he also invited ideas and input from all the artists involved, so I felt I was allowed to do much more than be a technician. In a sense it was a kind of scary responsibility, but one which turned out to be a memorable and rewarding experience.


Samuel Lewis animates in Dragonframe on the set of Lost & Found. Photo courtesy of Andrew Goldsmith.

A.H.: As well as having worked extensively in stop motion, you have also worked on the miniature sets for several big budget live action feature films, namely The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and Peter Jackson’s King Kong.
Looking back at your motion control work on the miniature units on The Lord of the Rings franchise – made at the tail end of the ‘90s and the beginning of the 2000s – your work as well as that of the rest of the tremendously talented artists to work on the practical effects side of those films really marked a new benchmark in practical effects (in combination with the CG work done on those films) as well as the general end of one epoch in the special effects industry (and the film industry as whole) and the beginning of another: one dominated by CGI (which, of course, preyed upon the work available to artists who work in practical effects, in many cases replacing the special effects motion control work you do with the digital equivalent). In fact, I think that the argument could be made that The Lord of the Rings franchise along with a handful of other special effects-driven blockbusters released during that time progressed the industry as a whole towards utilizing CGI special effects more often than practical effects, eventually dramatically decreasing the supply of practical effects work.
What are your thoughts on what The Lord of the Rings meant to the special effects industry as a whole, now looking at it as the special effects landscape has now panned out? Moreover, what do you think blockbuster special effects-heavy films could learn from looking at the practical effects work done on The Lord of the Rings?

GT:
Working on the blockbuster films certainly taught me a lot about shooting miniatures and the use of motion control. In that sense it was good background. But CGI techniques have developed a long way even since then, so practical miniatures are less necessary. At the time of LoTR and King Kong, Peter Jackson was determined to make organic things look as real as possible. In addition to miniatures he used a lot of in-camera live action techniques, often requiring motion control. But it does now feel like stop motion is the last bastion for the handmade look. Even then the work of studios like Laika seems to be moving away further by integrating CGI extras and 3D printing combined with post massaging of replacement edges, to the point that any distinction from pure 3D is less clear. Wes Anderson would be the standout example who still embraces the subtleties of physical props and puppets.

Samuel Lewis animating on the set of Lost & Found. Photo courtesy of Andrew Goldsmith.

Samuel Lewis hydrates while on the set of Lost & Found. Source: Instagram.

A.H.: What personality traits, skills, resources, and/or connections does it take to become successful at your job(s) – “director of photography” and “motion control artist” in the stop motion industry? What advice would you give to aspiring motion control artists and DoPs of stop motion productions looking to break into the industry?

GT: For anything connected with animation you need patience, but also to appreciate its special characteristics. Puppets can be difficult to light and photograph, and sometimes require extra effort to reveal their character. In particular they often don’t have nice skin textures that can soak up and interact with light the way humans do. In most films, motion control is a separate department, but still needs to work sympathetically with drama, in the way that grips do on live action set. In my case I happen to have the skills for both disciplines, mainly because I happen to like messing with motors and mechanics, as well as having a background in cinematography.

A Knotjira double looks down at a Knotjira puppet in the midst of being animated. Source: Instagram.

Knotjira being animated on the set of Lost & Found. Photo courtesy of Andrew Goldsmith.

A.H.: What’s next for you?

GT: Hard question. I hope that stop motion and miniature photography continues to find applications, even as technology advances. Meantime I will continue with Mantis R&D and making even better hardware...

Gerald Thompson (left), Andrew Goldsmith (middle), and Bradley Slabe (right) on the set of Lost & Found. Photo courtesy of Andrew Goldsmith.

You can explore more of Gerald’s work and you can learn more about Mantis, his motion control software, by visiting his website, Vimeo, LinkedIn, and his two IMDb pages, the first of which includes his work on Mary & Max and the second of which includes his work on the first two The Lord of the Rings films as well as Peter Jackson’s King Kong.

You can watch Lost & Found in full – released online as of December 6th, 2018 – by going here. You can watch the trailer for the film by going here. You can learn more about the film by visiting its brilliantly adorable and incredibly insightful Instagram profile, as well its Facebook and website. You can watch the film’s behind-the-scenes featurette by going here.



This article is the fifth and last in a series of articles featuring Stop Motion Geek’s interviews with the team behind Lost & Found. You can read the first article in the series – an interview with Bradley Slabe, the writer of Lost & Found as well as one half of the film’s director duo – by going here. You can read the second article in the series – an interview with Andrew Goldsmith, the second half of the film’s director duo as well as the co-editor of the film and VFX creative director – by going here. You can read the third article in the series – an interview with Samuel Lewis, the sole animator of the film as well as the film’s character designer and sculptor – by going here. You can read the fourth article in the series – an interview with Lucy J. Hayes, the film’s producer – by going here.

You can stay tuned for upcoming interviews and articles by subscribing to Stop Motion Geek via the “subscribe” button at the top right corner of our homepage, or by following us on Facebook @StopMotionGeek, or by visiting https://www.facebook.com/StopMotionGeek/. You can also stay up-to-date with the blog by following us on Instagram or @stop.motion.geek.blog.

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