Schoolchildren generally have more imaginative ideas for videomaking than grown-ups. Uninhibited by the limitations of a tiny camcorder or the conventions of electronic recording they suggest all sorts of wonderful scenarios for Dad to record.
The Gulliver’s Travels theme often proves most popular, with kids playing the giants and parents the terrified Lilliputians! In this instance, however, parents soon learn they can’t always apply film techniques to video.
But don’t despair. A number of creative video techniques will help you get around these limitations.
Compare and Contrast
Movies like The Incredible Shrinking Man and Honey, I Blew Up the Kid! juxtapose large and small characters with a variety of processes. Most are unavailable to the average videomaker, particularly those involving post-production optical techniques. For example, “traveling matte” runs two negatives together through a printer; a specially defined area on one negative automatically blocks out the identical area on the other.
Pro-video achieves a similar effect using blue screen or chromakey. Again, defined areas of one picture block out parts of another. Both systems will place “giants” with “little people” so that both appear to be in the same frame at the same time.
But you won’t find equipment that mixes and matches to that extent available to you as a budget accessory.
Until you do, it is, you’ll have to adopt more prosaic tactics.
Try a New Angle
First, acquire an adaptable script permitting practical, achievable techniques.
It’s no good thinking how great tiny people climbing over giant boots will look if you can’t create the boots.
So figure out what can be done and what looks most convincing.
The high- and low-angle method of shooting shows small people from above and large people from floor level. The distortion helps get the message across. When cross-cutting between eye lines of large and small characters, it’s wise to maintain these viewpoints whenever possible.
Remember that shooting adults from a sufficient height demands a lot of head room-seldom available in the average home.
Where there’s a staircase, you can sometimes mount the camera out from the landing. Commercial studios offer better conditions, but even these often can’t provide enough ceiling height.
Enhance high- and low-angle effects with an add-on lens. If you have a wide-angle take a series of test pictures of your cast. These shots show distortion effects that, provided you don’t over-use them, make things appear shorter or taller than they really are.
Shoot from eye-level down the front of your body, taking in the legs and feet; notice how the wide-angle lengthens the body for a “giant’s-eye view” of the torso.
The least critical viewer of a Gulliver movie knows that some items are props built to appear large or small-the long darning needle, the huge spoon, the tiny chair. Without them the chances of pulling off this sort of movie are slim.
Here Pop may start doubting his ability-how can he produce things like these with no workshop or prop- making experience? He’ll be wise to keep these doubts to himself, however; the kids won’t see a problem.
“It’s easy!” they’ll insist. “We made lots of things like that in grade school.”
They’re right. Props can be built for this wacky kind of video. And the results can look nearly as good as those on TV.
The secret: Choose props that translate easily from small to big and vice versa. Avoid detailed pieces and those with a patterned finish. Dull items recorded in partial shadow convince better than polished articles in full light.
Existing items won’t translate well-differences in finish, texture and performance invariably give you away. If a book must appear both life- and giant-size, make both books. They’ll have the same color and the same characteristics.
And then there’s a simple chair.
Junior sits, talking things over with his sister.
“Where are Mom and Dad hiding?” he wonders. “We have to find them!”
His sister, still reeling from Seeing her tiny parents chased by the neighbor dog, looks more worried than ever.
“Maybe they’re in the tool shed,” she says. “Let’s look for them there.” They move off. We cut to a closeup of the chair back.
Mom comes into shot and reaches up to this back to steady herself. She is joined by Dad.
The large back must be as simple as possible-say, a plain piece of white-painted wood with two straight supports. Now it’s a simple matter to create a smaller version and attach it to an old chair. You don’t have to build the entire item since only the back is featured.
Photographs, large and small, can be lifesavers in this sort of project. Snapshots and blow-ups will simulate all sorts of three-dimensional articles.
Props don’t always have to correspond to life-size originals. Mom and Dad ending up in the tool shed gives you a wonderful opportunity to create a special set. Paint the walls as large boards (overlapping plywood panels might look even better), and strew the floor with some dirt. A large packing case might provide the main prop; the tips of a garden fork can appear to hang from the wall above.
Mom stands with her back to the shed door while Dad surveys the scene outside through a knot-hole.
A long strip of bright light shows under the door, suggesting daylight.
Properly illuminating Pop’s face suggests light coming through the hole.
So far we’ve explored only what might happen when parents become little people while the kids remain normal size.
The alternative scenario-in which the kids become small and grown-ups remain life-size-works better, since the size differential is on your side.
A third scenario has adults remaining the same while the kids become gigantic. The techniques remain the same, but now you can shoot outdoors.
It’s Done With Mirrors
This is a great place to try out the mirror technique. Reflect certain areas of the picture and shoot the rest normally.
You can incorporate the family car, the roof of a house, a Street or anything with a semi-straight edge alignable with one edge of the mirror. Nearer the camera, this edge is sufficiently out of focus to escape notice.
We see a building where everything’s normal. People go about their usual chores-perhaps someone looks out a window. No reason to suspect that anything’s about to happen.
With a bang and a crash, Junior, now 50 feet tall, appears above the rooftop. His massive hands grip the ridge and his thick fingers cover the shingles.
Record the scene using an unframed mirror positioned so it reflects the house, aligning the rooftop with the edge of the glass and showing an area of sky above it.
On cue, Junior comes up from behind and puts his hands over the mirror-without even disturbing it! (Some C-clamps and heavy lumber are needed here.)
This kind of sequence can really stun, and it doesn’t, like many others, have to be subliminal. Remember, though-the house’s reflection will be backward! Viewers unfamiliar with the particular house or building are unlikely to realize this, though. Reflecting the child against the house emphasizes the reversal, so don’t.
Flat, neutral lighting works best for this trick since the lighting for house and actor comes from different directions. An overcast sky is ideal.
Some camcorders are still tricked by bright skies so choose a well-lit building if you don’t have manual overrides.
Aligning a distant platform with a table top and your diminutive characters can walk behind cups and coffee-pots and the like. Enhance the effect by building a large item (a simple jar?) on the platform.
Lighting plays an enormous part in these effects. Dark scenes permit all sorts of things that prove impractical in daylight. Casting shadows of “large” objects across the set implies the characters are small; a black-painted cut-out placed between camera and action simulates a solid object’s silhouette.
This sort of videomaking involves much more work than ordinary shooting, but if it intrigues young minds and stimulates imagination it’s worth it. Who knows-your kids might even grow up to be famous film directors.
Bernard Wilkie, a Videomaker contributing editor, designed special effects for the BBC for over 25 years.