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Cinematography And Choregraphy
As a live-action director who has operated cameras throughout his career, Snyder is very hands-on and very in-tune with the camera. But with "Legends of the Guardians…” there was no camera he could pick up. In an animated movie, filmmakers have to work with virtual cameras, just as they have to generate the animated characters that populate the story.

Previz & lensing director David Scott, whose team determined the camera work for the film, was thrilled to work with someone with Snyder's background. "Zack brought an entire live-action aesthetic to filmmaking that you don't often see in animation. He's all about camerawork. I spent a long time talking to him about his filmmaking style, lens choices, the way he likes to block a scene, basically just downloading from him. Based on that, I ended up putting together a ‘lensing bible,' which was essentially a how-to on making a Zack Snyder movie.”

Scott reveals his playbook emphasized that "the cameras needed to feel like live-action cameras: if we had a dolly shot, it needed to feel like someone was pushing the dolly; if we had a handheld shot, we needed to make the same kind of adjustments you'd make with a handheld camera. Same goes for crane shots. And Zack was very specific about when he wanted to slow things down to give you an awe-inspiring look at the action in detail.”

"In lensing this movie, we were really trying to create a different experience for an animated film,” Deborah Snyder shares. "Zack wanted the camera—which in animation, you can place wherever you choose—to be placed where it would normally be if we were actually shooting the film. That, along with giving the film a short depth of field since most scenes take place in the moonlight, stylistically gives it a different flavor.”

The director's preference for a shallow depth of field challenged the animators, who weren't always accustomed to taking the beautiful backgrounds they've created and knocking them out of focus in order to draw the viewer's attention to what is most critical in the scene. "We played around with the literal eye of the movie,” Zack Snyder says. "Though it's counterintuitive for computer animation, we really tried to manipulate the tools of 3D to make it work…to stretch those concepts.”

In order to achieve everything that their director envisioned, Scott and the team spent a day at the Australian Film and Television School. "With a virtual camera, you can do anything,” he says. "You can put it anywhere and make it go as fast or slow as you want. There's a lot of freedom in that. But the mandate from Zack was to make it look like we actually went out and photographed these owls. In order to accomplish that, we needed to have that live-action feeling of weight. If you've got a push in, you don't want to just go ‘whoosh,' you want to make sure you get the sense someone is there pushing a heavy camera forward. We trained with real handheld 35mm cameras, went up on the cranes, did everything we could to experience what it's like physically to move these heavy cameras around.”

Scott felt that the schooling helped immensely in the end, as did the filmmakers' decision to play with the speed of the film. "Because owls move quickly and are lightweight, from the outset we decided that the movie should look like it was shot at 48 frames per second to slow things down and lend extra weight to the performances. Also, when you see a character land, or crash and hit the ground, we put a little camera shake in there to give things a bit more gravity, even thought that would never happen in the real world.”

Another way in which Snyder wanted to stretch the traditional sensibilities of animation was by enlisting an "owl stunt team” to perform choreographed battle sequences that the animators could then translate in the computer as the skirmishes between the characters.

Film editor David Burrows illustrates, "For example, there's a lot of martial arts-style action going on in the scene where Nyra and Grimble fight in the St. Aggie's library. So what Zack did was to stage it on a soundstage, with people dressed up as owls. No motion or performance capture, just stunt fighters and cameras. It was actually quite amusing to watch, but all the moves were there, blocked and edited and given to the previz department to realize, shot for shot. We refined it, but the actual choreography and camera work are intact, and it translated to the screen beautifully.”

Scott recalls, "They were all wearing cardboard, and I think in some cases they were even on roller skates, which was really hilarious. It was great fun to watch but, to be honest, the entire shot structure was really well-developed. The energy and the intent of that footage were there, and we were able to convert the human performance into owl behavior and get the camera rig to reflect that handheld quality and timing perfectly.”

"I loved the idea of getting real stunt guys to show the animators the body language of an actual fight,” Snyder says. "As a result, I think they rendered it really well in the movie.”

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