Lighting the Knight – An Interview with Randy Littlejohn, Director of Photography on The Beast Within

Gabriel Knight 2’s director of photography goes into detail on the challenges of shooting big-budget game and television productions, constructing castles out of nothing but photographs and computer magic, and how to make real wolves snarl at him.

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Interview by David L. Craddock

Directing a movie is hardly a one-person job. There are actors to guide, props to gather and/or build, locations to scout and/or build, scenes to block, and postproduction edits to make. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. In the era of FMV (full-motion video) games, directing a blockbuster production such as Sierra’s The Beast Within—aka Gabriel Knight 2—was an equally momentous task. Bigger, in fact. On top of every consideration that must be accounted for on the set of a Hollywood film, directors who pulled together FMV games had to accumulate dozens upon dozens of hours of extra and vital footage, having to account for every possible action that players choose to take, or not take.

Will Binder had years of experience when he took the helm of The Beast Within, but he could hardly expect to pull off the whole production on his own. Enter Randy Littlejohn.

RLittlejohn1Randy was the director of photography on The Beast Within, a fancy term for “the person responsible for bringing the director’s cinematic vision to life.” Every actor, every prop, every mood or theme that had to be conveyed to immerse players in the game’s supernatural setting more fully—if it appeared on your screen and responded to the click of your dagger-shaped mouse cursor, Randy played a huge part in putting it there.

Oh, and he also happened to be the guy responsible for getting real, live wolves angry, all in the name of slaking your thirst for point-and-click entertainment.

I got the chance to talk to talk to Randy about his background in theater, how he got his start at Sierra On-Line, and the details involved in bringing (in)arguably the greatest FMV game ever made to life.

(Author’s note: read Hunting Shadows: The Making of Gabriel Knight for an in-depth look at the making of the Gabriel Knight trilogy of adventure games.)

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The bio on your website describes you as a creative kid with interests in art and music. Could you talk more about where those interests came from?

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Phantasmagoria, Sierra’s first FMV-based game. (Image: GamesLikeFinder.com.)

Who knows where that inclination comes from? But my mother had something to do with it. She was a pretty good artist-musician-composer and had an interest in theatre in high school. During her childhood in Los Angeles, her best friend’s mother was a professional movie extra, so the two of them often found themselves playing amongst the movie and TV sets at the various studios. Mom married and settled down to raise a family, but I think she often wondered what life might have been had she gone into the entertainment business instead. She had big screen looks and was pretty talented, so who knows how that would’ve turned out?

I showed some interest towards music and art early on, so naturally Mom was right there to nurture me along. On rainy days we’d do ink and watercolor or pastel drawings at the kitchen table together (that’s the only time I wasn’t outside). When I was in third grade she decided to start me on piano lessons. I wasn’t a great student. A few years later she wondered what other instrument I might like to try. I settled on the trumpet and played from grade school through high school. When I was a kid Mom use to direct skits at the Country Club, which inspired me to get my friends together to put on plays in our garage. In high school I picked up guitar and started singing. I wasn’t very good, but it was the times. How many people who grew up in the Sixties didn’t pick up the guitar?

When I was sixteen, Mom’s childhood best friend, who had become a professional extra like her mother, was working on the TV show Bonanza (1959–1973). She offered studio passes for me and a friend if I wanted to come down and look around. So a buddy of mine with a ’55 Chevy and I left Santa Maria where I grew up and about three hours later showed up at the Paramount Studios gate. The passes, which were signed by Lorne Greene who played Ben Cartwright, immediately got us into the studio. To our great surprise, there was no one waiting for us, so we wondered around the exterior standing sets for hours, amazed that no one wondered what the heck a couple of high school kids were doing there. It was great fun.

Tired of that, we started poking around sound stages and found an unlocked door. It was the soundstage where they had the exterior and interior sets for the Cartwright house. We snuck in and the place was busy. The cast and crew were shooting an episode. Somehow, no one payed any attention to us. We watched them shoot a couple of scenes and then snuck back out. It all made a big impression on me.

A year later I tried out for a part in a HS play and became the voice of God in the play “JB.” Not long after that I got the part of the character File in “The Rainmaker.”

I took a little time off for a stint in the Coast Guard, but by the time I got out I was ready to pursue the arts in college.

still_LudwigCarriage

“In this shot of King Ludwig of Bavaria in his coach, there is no coach in the studio. Everything is in the background still except the four actors. The coach was shot at a ranch in California and then digitally added to the background plate taken in Germany. The actor playing Ludwig is sitting on Ultimatte-blue apple boxes, and is partially in back of a piece of Ultimatte-blue foamcore. The coach driver and shotgun are sitting on stacks of blue apple boxes and platforms. We used a half-dissolve on a large studio monitor as a tool for positioning the props so that their edges would match edges in the photo.” – Randy Littlejohn. (Image used with permission.)

How did you discover computers? How did computers influence your love of creative expression?

I took an experimental psychology class in the early 70s. As part of that class we had to use punch cards to get a computer to do a simple pie chart. If you made one little mistake in the card stack, you had to start all over again. I was not impressed.

When I got out of college, my first real job was producer-director at a small television station. I wrote, produced, lit, directed, shot, edited and voiced 30 second commercials. It was great fun because I had the chance to get my hands on every part of the process. While I was working at the station we went from analogue effects to digital video effects. That was my first exposure to computers that you could do cool creative stuff with, so I immediately changed my mind about the worth of computers.

Not long after that my father gave me a I-99/4A home computer. With it was a text adventure game: Pirate Cove written by Scott Adams. That’s when it became clear to me that personal computers had potential as a storytelling platform.

What was your experience with video and computer games prior to joining the industry? Did you play much in your free time?

When I landed my job at Sierra On-Line, I’d played an early arcade racing game, a lot of Space Invaders and Pac-Man, and one text adventure game: Pirate Cove.

What fields of study did you pursue in college?

My first major was music. I soon realized that I wasn’t serious enough about it to succeed. I took a lot of psychology classes. I studied theatre and excelled there, but the allure of film and TV production pulled me in that direction. I graduated with a BA in Speech and Drama, but with a lot of credits in film and TV production classes.

GK2. Images known as photo plates were digitally inserted into the game.

GK2. Images known as photo plates were digitally inserted into the game.

Did you have your eye on any particular line of work after college, or were you still cultivating numerous creative skills?

By the time I ran out of money and was therefore forced to end my career as a student, I knew that I wanted to be in film or television production. I didn’t have much time to stress over it, because soon after I left my graduate studies behind, I got that job as a television producer-director.

What jobs did you perform prior to entering the games industry?

I was a television producer-director for five years and then produced infomercials for a year. It was a fun gig. I sold everything from miniature steam powered engines, to robotic vacuum cleaners dressed up as house pets, to glow in the dark underwear. That company went through hard times and I suddenly found myself jobless.

For a while I worked in a used and antiquarian bookstore and then sold used cars briefly. I loathed selling used cars, but there was that night when another salesman and I took a Vette and a Porsche out to see which was faster. It was four months after I started that job that I got a call that I’d landed the Sierra job. On my birthday. Nice present.

Sierra was the first games company you worked for, correct? How’d you get the opportunity to interview there?

Yes. My parents lived in Mariposa in the Nineties. I’d been away from them for a long time, so I moved there after I left the infomercial gig. The bookstore I mentioned earlier was in Oakhurst, not far from Mariposa. While at the bookstore, I discovered that Sierra was building a blue screen facility at their Oakhurst studio in preparation for a live-action adventure game. I started calling them. I was relentless. And had something to offer.

What made you decide to work in the games business as opposed to, say, movies, television, or theater?

There’s the plan and then there’s what happens. It wasn’t as if I decided on one over the other. It was simply a confluence of interest, opportunity, and qualifications.

What was your first project at Sierra?

Phantasmagoria.

What was your role on Phantasmagoria?

I was the Lighting-Camera person, working under a DP [director of photography]. I also helped with editing cutscenes.

 

"This is Grace jolted awake from a strange dream. The windows and moon in back of her are of course only an "artistically enhanced" photo. The lighting challenge was to get across the idea that it's night and that the full moon is back-lighting Grace - without exceeding the latitude of Beta SP. Often used Chimera lightbanks provide front illumination, while a small Fresnel stands in for the moon." - Randy Littlejohn (Image used with permission).

“This is Grace jolted awake from a strange dream. The windows and moon in back of her are of course only an “artistically enhanced” photo. The lighting challenge was to get across the idea that it’s night and that the full moon is back-lighting Grace – without exceeding the latitude of Beta SP. Often used Chimera lightbanks provide front illumination, while a small Fresnel stands in for the moon.” – Randy Littlejohn (Image used with permission).

 

How far along was Sierra’s Oakhurst-based, blue-screen studio when you joined? 

When I started at Sierra they hadn’t started building the studio yet. I worked with two other people in the old video production facility until the new space (in one half of the Oakhurst water company building) was ready. The three of us and Bill Crow built the blue screen studio under Bill’s direction. Bill was the studio head and quite an engineer.

There was a large space for the blue screen cove on the ground floor. Immediately adjoining, there was an area for construction and storage. The ground floor also included a kitchen, a greenroom, three (if I remember correctly, but don’t hold me to it) dressing rooms and a restroom. Upstairs was the control room with big windows that looked out over the bluescreen area. On the ground floor there was a large pair of doors leading out of the bluescreen area to a parking lot, which came in handy for bring in props, furniture, and such.

During the shoot for Phantasmagoria we were all learning. We didn’t have the lights we needed to do more than get proper exposures – nothing artful. The blue screen area was not large enough to keep blue reflection off of the actors, which causes technical issues, without resorting to heroic measures. The lighting grid wasn’t quite high enough to get proper lighting angles. The air conditioning system was noisy, so we had to shut it off for sound takes, but then it’d get hot in the studio.

The facility wasn’t a proper sound stage, so we also had to stop and wait for planes to fly over before continuing with a sound take. The blue screen walls were built facing each other (rather than off-angle), which caused echo problems when trying to record clean audio. The gear in the control room all worked well, despite the fact that we were still putting the final touches on the control room when we went into production. Kudos to Bill Crow.

Bottom line, we had the bare essentials needed to pull off Phantasmagoria, but there were issues we had to work around. We were far more ready for GK2, and it shows.

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Phantasmagoria.

What anecdotes from Phantasmagoria‘s production can you share with us?

Because I had a background in video and film production, I could see right away that while there was a game design document, pre-production for the FMV elements had not been properly considered. I spoke up, but it was like so much smoke in the wind. Consequently, each day the production crew and the actors did a lot of standing around, somewhere between bemused and embarrassed, whilst people above our pay grade argued about what to do next. A lot of money was wasted. Had preproduction been done properly, each minute of each production day would have been thoroughly mapped out. Preproduction is inexpensive. Production is expensive. It makes sense to put time into preproduction to make it possible to efficiently use expensive production time.

I believe that Phantasmagoria was the first FMV video game to use a computer controlled camera motion system. How it works: the physical camera motion is controlled by servo motors directed by code. That same code could be used to create the motion of the virtual camera capturing the computer generated background animation. This maintains all the correct relationships between the live action camera angles, subjects, and virtual backgrounds. The end effect is as if the entire composite was captured by a single camera. We had a crew with the computer controlled camera system come in for a day to cover a major scene. A very cool day.

Right before the first production day, I went to a little get together for cast and crew at one of the a-frame cabins around Bass Lake, not far from the Oakhurst studio. The place was full of people I didn’t know. I got a beer and sat in a couch. Movement caught my eye and I turned to look. Victoria Morsell was coming in from a little balcony outside wearing some gossamer thing and backlit by the sun. The rest of the world faded away. It was like a movie entrance. That moment is indelible in my mind. Beautiful woman.

What were some of the big and small ways that shooting an FMV game differed from shooting non-interactive cinema?

The major difference, of course, is the extra coverage needed for player choices. In a film or TV show the audience sees an efficient series of shots that tell a story. If it’s not essential, it isn’t there. In Phantasmagoria, the player discovered the story elements in a roundabout way, exploring much more material than would be shot for linear storytelling. An average feature film is 90-120 pages of script. The script for GK2 was something like 600 pages—the equivalent of five feature films.

In addition, the player controlled the motion of Adrienne—a live action character. The player could turn her left or right, walk right or left, or turn around and walk back. All of that had to be shot. We put Victoria in the middle of the blue screen area on a grid and had her stand in a neutral position. The camera was locked down. We taped her turning right, and then back to her neutral position. We did the same thing for every direction she could turn to without being awkward, with a return to the same neutral position after each movement. Then we taped her turning to the left and taking a few walking steps. We did that for all directions too.

We also taped “fidgets.” These were designed to keep Adrienne looking “alive” while she wasn’t being moved. Victoria started in her neutral position, and then did something like brushing hair from her face, or a big sigh, or just any little natural movement, and then back to her neutral position. We did several of these for variety. By putting each of these movements in a database, all starting and ending at a neutral position, code could call each up seamlessly as needed in real time as the player steered their avatar around the sets.

How did your work on Phantasmagoria lead to the opportunity to work on The Beast Within: A Gabriel Knight Mystery?

As production proceeded on Phantasmagoria, I quickly ended up doing all of the lighting and camera work. Once the DP contractor saw that I knew what I was doing, he just stood aside and let me go for it. GK2 was scheduled to start production pretty much the moment we wrapped Phantaz. I lobbied for the DP job and got it based on my Phantaz work and background.

"This is one of only a few setups that were not shot on the blue screen stage. The camera is inside a barn not far from the studio and was shot day-for-night. The idea is that there is full moon light (established in another shot) coming through a window and illuminating the scene from screen right. A dim incandescent light inside the barn (established in another shot) is shining from screen left." - Randy Littlejohn (Image used with permission).

“This is one of only a few setups that were not shot on the blue screen stage. The camera is inside a barn not far from the studio and was shot day-for-night. The idea is that there is full moon light (established in another shot) coming through a window and illuminating the scene from screen right. A dim incandescent light inside the barn (established in another shot) is shining from screen left.” – Randy Littlejohn (Image used with permission).

What was your specific role on GK2?

Director of photography.

Before we get into nitty-gritty, could you give an overview of your collaboration with other managers on the production? Will Binder and Darlou Gams, the art designer, for example?

The blue screen facility was on the other side of town from the studio main building. During the two FMV productions I rarely went into the main building. There just wasn’t time. The FMV crew was pulling 12-14 hour days six days a week. So every day I interacted with director Will Binder, assistant director Gil Neuman, production manager David Plaskett, studio head Bill Crow, two production assistants and an engineer in the control room. Other than makeup people, costumers and actors, I rarely saw anyone else, which was okay. As DP, there was no need to interact with anyone else.

Besides experience in lighting, you brought a wealth of other creative abilities on set with you. Did you get the opportunity to use them during GK2‘s production?

It’s kind of you to say so, but I was up to my ears in camera setups, lighting, and trying to figure out how to effectively wrap actors into a pre-shot background image. I had time for little else. I did, however, help out with editing cutscenes, and early on I created a Microsoft Access database to help organize preproduction. You could call up a scene number and list all of the actors, props, costumes, and setups needed. It’s how we produced the daily call sheets too.

neuCastle1How were Ludwig’s famous castles reconstructed in the game? What sorts of details did you need to make them look as true to life as possible?

Every setup started with an analysis of the background plates shot in Europe. Where are we? What is the nature of the light on the scene? How high or low was the camera that took the background image (plate)? Was the background plate camera tilted up or down or was it shooting from the side? What focal length was used? I asked for that information to be recorded so that we could replicate it with the studio camera. I only got some of this information, so often it was process of eyeballing and adjustments. If we didn’t try to replicate the circumstances of the background plate camera, the live action elements would look off when composted with the plate.

If the background plate is an interior, what props and furniture do we need to bring into the studio for the actors to interact with? Furniture and props were brought up from a place that services film and TV production in Los Angeles. What were the sources of light? What was the nature and color of the light? Etcetera.

Sometimes we tried to make the background plate “3D” by matching bluescreen-painted foamcore or a bluescreen-painted apple boxes or flats to elements in the background plate so that an actor would appear to walk in back of or sit on an element in the plate. I often used a big monitor in the bluescreen area with a half-dissolve between the background plate and the studio camera as an aid in lining things up. It also gave the actors an idea of the environment their characters were in.

In one shot, Grace wakes up from a dream in Gabe’s castle. Joanne Takahashi (Grace) was in a real bed. In the background plate, a full moon shines through windows. I tried to light Joanne softly from the camera side with just enough exposure to capture detail. The light was filtered to simulate a cool nighttime light. I edge-lit her with bright, white specular light from as close as I could get to the angle of the moon shining through the background plate behind her. The final composite appears to be grace in a darkened room with moonlight shining on her.

Occasionally, we needed to build flats to replicate something in the background plate we wanted the actors to interact with, such as the front door of Gabriel’s castle.

Let’s talk about specific scenes. The intro to Chapter 1 did a great job setting the scene: Gabriel is struggling with his latest novel, and a mob of villagers sporting flashlights (“Shouldn’t those be torches?”) arrives at his door to request help solving a murder believed to have been committed by a werewolf. You posted a photograph from this scene on your website. Could you describe the equipment and props seen in the picture, and how they came together to create the cinematic players watched when they got their hands on the game?

A production still from GK2. The still comes from the opening of GK2, when a pack of villagers trundle up to Gabriel's castle and ask the Schattenjager for help. (Photo credit: Randy Littlejohn, director of photography, GK2.)

“In this setup the towns folk arrive at Gabe’s castle front door to ask for help. Nearly everything was shot on this little blue screen stage. I tried to shoot the actors at the very front lip of the blue screen cove to get them as far away as possible from blue bounce light, and then lit them separately to reduce compositing problems. C-stands held up shipping blankets to reduce echo.” – Randy Littlejohn (Image used with permission).

I took this shot from a catwalk outside the control room. That’s why I’m not standing by the camera. In this setup, we needed the actors to be able to interact with the front door to the castle, so we built a flat with a door to replicate the doorway in the location plate.

Dave Plaskett can be seen standing in front of the camera with headphones on. Gill Neuman is standing to the right of the crowd at the door in a white shirt. Around the periphery of the setup are sound blankets hung on c-stands to soak up the audio brightness and echo of the blue screen cove.

I don’t remember for sure, but the camera might have been a Sony Betacam SP BVW-D600P. It’s sitting on a Vinten tripod with a fluid head. There’s a c-stand holding a flag over the camera to eliminate lens flairs. You can see a boom hanging over the scene with a mike at the end for capturing dialogue.

I lit most everything with Fresnel instruments of various sizes and Chimera soft boxes, like the one just to the left of the camera. The light in the foreground to the right is a Fresnel, which is a focusable instrument that gets its name from French physicist Augustin-Jean Fresnel, who originally invented this instruments lens type for lighthouses. The blue screen was lit from the lighting grid above and from instruments on the floor, the idea being to light it as evenly as possible.

To keep blue reflection off of the actors (which can cause technical issues), I moved them as far away from the blue screen as possible. To control light on the actors I often lit them from the floor, rather than using lights on the grid above, but not always. I had a lot more instruments to play with during GK2 production than when we shot Phantaz, which gave me a lot of flexibility.

The lights you see have various jobs from simple illumination to causing effects to match the lighting in the background plate.

In the lower right hand corner is a table that held monitors and equipment for analyzing the light on the scene. I needed to make sure that highlights, shadows and blacks were with our technical specifications. The equipment helped me keep the highlights from blowing out and losing detail and to make sure that I was capturing usable detail in the shadows. I pushed the envelope, trying to use every possible bit of latitude the Beta SP format and studio camera would allow.

The ideal outcome was a seamless composite of live action elements wrapped into the background plate.

neuCastle3What challenges did GK2‘s location shoots pose?

There are always little challenges, but that’s part of the fun. Almost everything we shot was blue screen, so I looked forward to discovering that a real world with a real sun existed somewhere beyond the studio walls. If memory serves, there were just three location shoots. We shot a dream sequence in the snow up in the mountains above Oakhurst, shot at a ranch out in the Central Valley to capture what would become Ludwig’s carriage, and shot in a barn outside of Coarsegold.

For the snow shoot we had to make sure that Joanne Takahashi [Grace] didn’t break a leg as she ran past the camera or end up with hypothermia. At the barn we had limited access to electricity, so I had to be frugal with lighting. We were shooting day for night, which was a little problematic, since outside light had many ways to sneak in and had to be controlled. We shot with a very talkative horse in the background, so we had to work around that. I think the horse vocalized at the end of the take we put in the game and Dean played off of that without missing a beat.

Conversely, was there a particular location where you enjoyed filming due to it being more conducive to getting work done smoothly?

The fact that no matter how well prepared one is, stuff happens. Whether or not work gets done smoothly is all about preparation. All of our locations were scouted ahead of time and served their purposes very well.

What was involved in shooting outdoor scenes set at night, such as Gabriel and von Glower hunting the werewolf near the hunting lodge?

The scene you’re referring to was shot inside the bluescreen facility. The background plates were of a forest night. My lighting had to match that. I used an instrument that projects a pattern to simulate moonlight filtering through branches and leaves and used cool filters to match the color in the background plates. The bushes and branches Gabriel has to come through were hastily harvested from right outside the studio, brought in, and tied to c-stands so that they stuck into the frame from the sides. Smoke and mirrors.

As the director of photography, what was your goal in preparing for a scene? What elements did you need to keep in mind, and how do you go about capturing those elements?

The goal was always to seamlessly wrap the live action elements into the background plate. So it became a matter of analyzing the background plate for original camera position, height, angle, lens used, etc. and for the nature, source(s) and color of the light on the scene. Then my job was to consider what I had to work with in terms of lighting instruments, props, furniture, and tricks of the trade to create live action elements that could be composited into the background plate and look completely natural. What would best be lit from the lighting grid? What would best be lit from light stands on the studio floor? What instruments would give me the effect I was looking for? How could I make it look as interesting and 3D as possible?

Beyond that, it was my job to make the actors look good. I often used soft boxes for both fill and key light. That means that the general light used for proper exposure, plus the light made to look like the primary light source, was all coming from soft boxes. This created a soft, flattering, and romantic quality of light. I edge-lit and backlit with more specular light from Fresnels to add attractive highlights and to separate the actors from the background to make the scene more 3D. In dramatically edgy scenes, I used all Fresnels for a more specular, gritty look.

"In this shot the actors are supposed to be standing just inside the front doorway of Gabriel's castle facing the night sky. There is a light just outside the doorway, established in another shot. Of course, the actors are standing in front of a blue screen. My challenge was to show off these great character faces while capturing the idea of standing in a doorway at night, with an unseen light playing across their features from the screen left. This is the reverse for a shot of Grace standing at the front door." - Randy Littlejohn (Image used with permission).

“In this shot the actors are supposed to be standing just inside the front doorway of Gabriel’s castle facing the night sky. There is a light just outside the doorway, established in another shot. Of course, the actors are standing in front of a blue screen. My challenge was to show off these great character faces while capturing the idea of standing in a doorway at night, with an unseen light playing across their features from the screen left. This is the reverse for a shot of Grace standing at the front door.” – Randy Littlejohn (Image used with permission).

How much of the Oakhurst studio did you have to work with? Did you find yourself having to tear down scenes and prep for new ones hastily, or was the crew able to spread out a little?

We didn’t have the space or available crew to have folks working on the next setup while we were shooting the preceding one on the day’s schedule. On GK2, it was just me and one or two assistants doing the setups, with Bill and an engineer above in the control room, plus a contract audio guy coming in to set up audio when we had the shot ready. Because of the tight schedule, we had to do our setups as quickly as possible and go. As soon as we got the shot, it was time to hastily break everything down and start on the next setup. Since we did most of the shooting on the bluescreen stage, with all our gear gathered around us, we could really move. If we’d been shooting at various locations, we couldn’t have kept up with the schedule without hiring more crew.

GK2_1

What were some of the most difficult blue-screen scenes to shoot?

Sometimes the background plates demanded the camera to be farther away from the actors than was possible within the confines of the studio, so I had to improvise.

One time the camera was supposed to be far above the characters below. The ceiling of the studio was only two stories high, and was covered by the lighting grid. I put the camera on the top of a rolling ladder and placed it between lights on the lighting grid for a little more height and pointed it straight down towards the actors below using a special mount. I faked the extra distance by using an extremely wide lens.

Another time I had to put the studio camera in the adjoining construction area and shoot across the bluescreen cove to the opposite corner to get the camera far enough away from the actors to match the background plate.

There’s a scene where Grace walks across a bridge towards the front door of Gabriel’s castle. That was another time I had to place the camera in the construction and storage room to make enough room for Joanne to cover the distance needed to match the background plate. Of course, then I had to figure out how to evenly light her entire path so that she wasn’t moving in and out of light, since shadows weren’t indicated in the background plate.

One time we had to fake an exterior shot of Ludwig in his coach sitting on a village street. The background plate was a composite of a village street and the coach we shot at a ranch in the Central Valley. Our job was to somehow put the actor playing Ludwig into the coach and the actor’s playing the driver and assistant on the seat at the front of the coach. We sat the Ludwig actor on blue apple boxes and lined up a large piece of blue foamcore with the coach window to partially obscure him, as was called for by the angle of the camera that shot the coach.

I controlled the light falling on him to indicate that he was inside the coach. I used a shadow caused by the foamcore, which worked perfectly. We built a platform of blue apple boxes and boards for the other two actors to sit on, carefully matching edges with the coach in the background plate. The finished composite was pretty convincing.

What are some factors that can cause a scene to become more or less difficult to film than expected? (e.g., actors needing more direction.)

As the person responsible for capturing the images (not someone worried about performances), the main gotcha that cropped up was being presented with a background plate that I’d never seen before, which seemingly called for something that would be impossible within the confines of the bluescreen cove. We really had to think on our feet a few times. There are always little things that come up, but that’s normal for film and video production. Stuff happens. The job is to know your stuff so that quick adjustments can be made.

I will add that our GK2 actors were pros, capable, and prepared for their scenes. Will worked with them while we were setting up. We seldom did more than a couple of takes.

"In this shot, King Ludwig is supposed to be inside his coach. The background is just a photo. The challenge was to light him for an attractive close-up and capture the feeling of him being inside the coach and softly lit from the window he is facing." - Randy Littlejohn (Image used with permission).

“In this shot, King Ludwig is supposed to be inside his coach. The background is just a photo. The challenge was to light him for an attractive close-up and capture the feeling of him being inside the coach and softly lit from the window he is facing.” – Randy Littlejohn (Image used with permission).

Could you describe a typical (or perhaps an atypical) day during the three-month production? How many responsibilities were you juggling, and how’d you manage them?

I’d drive down to Oakhurst from Bass Lake Heights where I lived at the time early in the morning and meet the team at the production studio. We get the control room up and running, get the studio camera going, drink some coffee and pow wow about the plan for the day and begin working on the first setup. Will and the actors would show up a bit later. We’d work like crazed worker bees until lunch. Often times cast and crew would go off to eat somewhere together. Lunches were great fun. We all come back and work like crazed worker bees until long after the sun went down. After the actors left for the day, for they were protected by SAG rules, the studio crew would stay and get some other things done, like editing cutscenes. Twelve to fourteen hours after we first showed up in the morning, we’d head for home – or the occasional party, or poker, or in my case the gym.

I was responsible for camera setup, lighting, and for coming up with novel ways to make the actors, set pieces, etc. wrap nicely into the background image. Every day offered different challenges. It was a great experience. There were tense times, but the work was very, very satisfying.

What anecdotes from GK2‘s production can you share?

One time we had part of a day set aside for wolves. On that day a trainer showed up with four or five trained wolves. He set up an invisible electric barrier that the wolves understood to stay within. My job was to get the best shots of them I could. At one point I had the camera mounted on a hi hat, a mount for setting up the camera very near the floor. I was lying on my stomach shooting up at the wolves, who happened to be pretty interested in what I was doing. We were separated by just a few feet at one point. It was very cool to be so close to wolves. There was another time we needed a wolf to snarl. That was exciting.

Another time a car was brought into the bluescreen cove. We needed to composite it and Dean with an exterior background plate. The challenge was that cars are shiny. Since it was supposed to be outside, there could be only one apparent source of light – the sun. Of course, the car was under a lighting grid with numerous lights fired up to light the blue screen. So it was a real pain trying to make sure it didn’t look like it was sitting on a planet with multiple suns. Plus, the bluescreen cove reflected across the surfaces of the car, which made for technical issues. It was a matter of using dulling spray, getting the car as far away from the bluescreen cove as possible, using large silks to break up reflections from individual lights and the use of a powerful magical spell.

One day we had a tiger paw bathtub on the set complete with sudsy water and a semi-naked actor. The problem was that the water reflected the bluescreen, and that caused technical issues. We thought we’d solved the problem by making more bubbles, but the bubbles were reflecting the bluescreen too. We moved the tub as far from the bluescreen cove as possible, used some flags, and once again invoked a powerful magical spell.

I’ve unfortunately been sworn to secrecy about the juiciest anecdotes.

What was the process of editing a scene in post? What were you looking for? What elements needed to be added?

It was a matter of calling up all of the background plates for a scene, cuing up the video tape for each shot in the scene, and then trying to get a good, clean composite for each setup. Once we had the raw footage composited with the background images, we did a color pass to make sure that all of the shots looked like they belonged together. Once we had all of the composited and color balanced shots for the scene, we began constructing the scene for good flow and timing. Once a scene was edited, it was digitized, compressed and sent off to the art department where the scene files were further processed to achieve a certain look.

Did elements sometimes need to be scrubbed out, either because they were of poor quality, or broke continuity?

During GK2, all of the scenes were planned out ahead of time. We knew which shots we needed, and that’s all we shot. We couldn’t just come up with stuff, because the background images we had to match were pre-shot. They predetermined what setups we had to shoot, so we didn’t end up with problems like that. I’m not sure how much the art department changed the files in post.

Which scenes stand out as your favorites?

From the point of view of a DP, I guess it would be the scene with Dean (Gabriel), Peter Lucas (Baron Friedrich von Glower), Melanie Good (Detta) and Dave Plaskett (Günther). In the scene, Gabriel is loosening up, enjoying himself after a good deal of wine with Von Glower in his house, when suddenly a female friend of Von Glower shows up, Detta. She’s quickly all over Von Glower and Gabe offers to leave, but Von Glower says nonsense. He whispers into Detta’s ear, and before Gabriel knows what hit him, she’s on his lap. Soon she leads him off to a bedroom.

I like the scene because it was a complex setup and had a little of everything – good actors, good dialogue, furniture on the set and props. Von Glower’s living room is sunken, so there are stairs that come down into it from a hallway above that leads to the front door. Of course, the stairs were only in the background plate, so we had to build the stairs with blue boxes and match their height to the top edges of the stairs in the background plate. The hallway at the top of the stairs had to be faked with a blue platform the actors could walk on. At the top of the stairs, there was a wall. Of course the wall was only in the background plate, but the actors had to make entrances from in back of that wall, so it was necessary to match the edge of the wall with a blue flat that the actors could make their entrances from behind.

The blue elements had to be lit well so that they would disappear into the background plate without difficulty. On the other hand, I needed to make the rest of the lighting appropriate for a comfortable living room scene. It was a nice challenge and a lot of fun to set up. It turned out pretty well.

I also liked the bedroom scenes, first with Detta and Gabe, then with Von Glower and Gabe. In the background plate, the bedroom was lit by light coming in from a door that opened to a lit hallway. I wanted to light for a night scene in the bedroom and get the feeling of light coming in from the hallway, providing the only illumination. I also wanted people entering or exiting the bedroom into the hallway to become silhouettes. Mission accomplished.

Real wolves brought on to the set of GK2.

Real wolves brought on to the set of GK2.

If you had to pick a favorite project between Phantasmagoria and Gabriel Knight 2, which would you choose?

Gabriel Knight 2, easily. The story was great. Setups were much more complex than in Phantaz. Good preproduction made for a fairly efficient shoot. I had more lights to play with, which meant I could set up some artful lighting. There were lots of cool actors, all very nice people. It was a very friendly set. (Thanks, Will). We were overworked, tired and crazed, but it was a ton of fun and very satisfying.

 


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Choose Your Destiny

“Hunting Shadows” (Chapter 1 – 2 – 3 – 45)

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