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Technical challenges of Skyborn

Skyborn (NFTS 2012). Director Jamie Stone talks about the technical challenges of making the film.
The design on this project also encompassed a large miniatures build. So we had the special effects student, Cat Harris, who also sort of oversaw all of this. But we had had this large flying sequence at the end that reads extremely expensive on the page. We wanted to figure out how to do it in a way that was practical, and also fitted in aesthetically with the kind of rough and organic and dirty kind of world that the live action part of the film was going to look like. So I had always been a fan of miniatures, and had done them a little bit in some other projects. But I want to try doing miniatures on this one, as well.
So we did. And it was good fun. So we built a little miniature flyer, about this big– or rather Cat did. It was great, because the same set of designs that John had made served for the full scale miniature and the little one, as well. It had little motorised legs for Blue, the character that sits in the front. And his legs went around four times as fast as they should, so we shot it– I think 120 frames a second, or something like that. And by the time we slowed it back down, it looked very sort of graceful.
We got some advice from Richard Conway, who is an effect specialist who did that marvellous sequence in Brazil– in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, with the dreamscapes and the flying. And he told us all of his little secrets about– which I’m not going to tell you– about how to make cumulonimbus clouds by making Dacron, which is like sofa stuffing, bodies of the clouds, and then and then putting a steamer into dry ice. So you get this sort of bubbling cumulonimbus shapes that sort of bubble through and dissipate. But it behaves very differently to smoke. And then your flyer goes across the top and is able to interact with the set of atmospherics realistically.
So the sound animation sequence at the start was quite good fun, actually. From early versions of the script, the same questions kept on coming up again and again. Which I thought I didn’t have to deal with, really, but if people you trust keep on saying the same thing, it’s probably worth listening to them. So questions about sort of, how did the world get the way it was, and what happened to the mother, and things. So I wanted to try and sort of answer some of those questions. But in a way that would also tell you about something about the relationship of the main father and son characters at the same time.
So I thought it would be fun if they’re the last two people in the really sort of a bleak muggy, foggy world– you know, what do they do for entertainment? Well, maybe they tell stories. And particularly the father really loves telling stories. And how would he do that? How could he illustrate it when you don’t even have paper? But you’ve got dirt. So you could do this. And I used to do a little bit of sand animation years ago. When I lived in Scotland, a career is really too much to call it, but I used do quite a lot. So I thought, well I could crack that out and try that again.
So I made a sequence, which is the father telling his version of what he believes in and what he thinks has happened to the world, and who he thinks they are, and where the mother went. But because he’s telling the son the story, rather than just the audience, I think we get away with it without it being too boring or expositional. But I did this animation straight after we finished the main shooting. So I went up to Scotland and set myself up in my little sister’s bedroom at my parents’ house and came out a few weeks later with the sand animation.
The first day of almost everything that I’ve worked on is always– you have kind of teething problems, or you’re finding your feet as a team and working out how to communicate with each other. And it was quite nice on this, because we got to really sort of bond on the miniatures, and it was largely the same crew. So we got to do that first. So by the time it came to the live action shooting, which is actually much more pressurised with time, we hit the ground running. And I think we shot it across about a week– maybe slightly less, maybe six days– all in Beaconsfield in a little wooded area nearby the studio.
In order to maximise the studio space that we had, we built the house first. So John made this really sort of beautiful, beautiful cottage for them to live in. So we shot all of the cottage scenes initially. So them arriving, coming home– all the stuff that happens in the interior. And then petrifyingly, after three days of that, we had to completely strike the set then to maximise our space, so that we could do the things that need a bit more open space. So it was always, always a little nail-biting when you have to go, right, yes, OK I think we definitely have these scenes. Please knock it all down. Which is very tricky, but we had to do it.
So we then went away and did our horrible two days trying to film in a rainy forest outside. And while we were doing that, John was striking the cottage set and rebuilding it all as grassland, so we could do the larger field stuff, and all the flying attempt take offs and things.

Skyborn uses a lot of what is known as ‘in camera’ effects, in this case- sand animation, fog and miniatures.

Viewers often assume that all effects these days are done digitally, but this film shows that a lot can be done in front of the camera rather than on a computer afterwards.

How far do these ‘old school’ effects surprise you?

Before we watch Skyborn in full, we’ll introduce you to some useful resources in the next few steps.

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