Daniel Bird Interview

Daniel left the cutting rooms of the British film industry in his early twenties for Prague. Over the next decade he worked as editor and animator on commercial and personal film projects. In 2008 he spent a year working for Greenpeace International in Amsterdam, creating short films for internet release. Since 2009 he has been working as a freelancer. Daniel just completed and released Greenpeace's new film "Give Earth a Hand". In less than one week, over half a million people saw it.

Alex Maragos:

• Ok Daniel, first of all I would like to congratulate you for your remarkable work on Greenpeace’s Give Earth a Hand film for Earth Day 2010. What was your inspiration?

Daniel Bird:

Thank you! Greenpeace asked me to make a film for release on the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, emphasising their push for public mobilisation. They also suggested I use this (veteran Greenpeace activist Brian Fitzgerald's email signature) as a starting point:

Preserve 2 pristine polar seas

Add equatorial rainforests (intact)

Set aside 4/10ths of the world's oceans

Sprinkle with reallocated military spending

Whisk in 1 energy revolution

Season with sustainable agriculture

Add fresh, clean drinking water

Let cool.

Trying to mix a recipe theme with mass engagement sounded interesting, but I soon found that everything I was coming up with was far too corny. I realised that there were too many ideas in the mix... and in the name of simplicity the recipe had to go. I started thinking about the manifesto underneath the poem, a kind of unwritten one for Greenpeace, and its obvious appeal. Who really wouldn't want any of the things it campaigns for? Who wants oceans without fish or no rainforests? When I'm trying (and usually failing) to write I go on long 'thinking' walks... and was out walking past a local school with big, high up windows where I could only see the raised hands of the pupils at their lessons. I was struck by an image of the entire human population in a vast classroom being asked to choose about their environment, and the hundreds of millions of hands that would rise if asked, say, 'Who wants clean air?' Then I was struck by the image of those millions of hands forming the environments they dreamed of protecting - firstly by the idea of a human wheat field - and the idea developed from there.

• What was your preproduction preparation? Did you storyboarded the hand sequences?

I first turned to my friend Bedrich Glaser, Jan Svankmajer's lead animator, who's also a superb painter and sculptor. He drew up some simple concept boards to show Greenpeace the initial idea, which I cut into my first animatic. Once I had the structure and timing, I also cut an animatic using stock footage to show the actual environments (wheat fields, streams, ocean etc) I wanted to depict, and the type of camera moves I wanted over them. I put the two together to make a kind of ultra-widescreen stereoscopic animatic, one side with hands, the other side with real environments. Later on, after Stillking films got involved, I spent a day with a young artist / animator called Jarda Mrazek, photographing our own hands against a greenscreen with a couple of redheads. He did a good job, and we mostly stuck to the images we created that day.

• What cameras did you use?

We used an Arri D21 - but as a second unit I asked for a Canon 5D. We were shooting each set of hands against greenscreen, and the compositors wanted the highest resolution and the quickest, cleanest key, given how many elements we were shooting and the very tight deadline, and the Arri was perfect for that. The shoot was more data input than classical cinematography, since we'd established all the different hands we'd need in all the different poses and sizes. We either shot them one by one (for example the arms in the ocean), or as groups (the stream and 'hand trees'). We lit the hands according to the environmental lighting (golden dawn for the field, sunny with water reflections for the polar sea, etc), making sure there were plenty of shadows falling on them so they would sit happily in the composite. There was absolutely no indication on set what the final picture would look like (so the final version came as a surprise to performers and crew).

However, the Arri is huge and unwieldy, and I'd wanted a more personal aspect to the film than these big wide shots - to get the idea that the hand landscapes were made out of real people, individuals. So I had a 5D operator acting as a second unit to go in and get close-ups, with the hand-held, shallow depth-of-field that everyone loves the 5D for. However, I'm a bit of a novice with greenscreens and compositing, and I soon was told back in post that shallow depths-of-field and greenscreen don't go together easily, especially with the amount of time we had (a week for postproduction). So there's probably one shot left from the 5D (the first eagle shot).

• What were your camera settings for the D21 and the 5D? What lenses did you use?

All the Arri material was shot at 50 fps, to give more control over the speed of the action when necessary, it being easier to speed up than slow down footage, whilst the 5D was shooting at 25 fps. Klaus (the DoP) always uses Cooke lenses.

• Where did you edit the footage? What about the Fx you used?

I had cut all my animatics on FCP, and when we started to get the effects shots in we cut them to match my timing on an Avid. The Fx work was completed at Avion Film using mostly Fusion, and the Grading and final On line were done on a Quantel Pablo system at Avion, the post-production house in Prague.

The most complicated part of the Fx work was creating particle systems using 2D Sprites. When we entered post-production we had hundreds of shots of actors' hands against green screen. Once those hands were keyed or masked out, they were entered into particle systems created in Fusion to multiply them. For the particle systems, the chaps at Avion wrote programming scripts for Fusion which gave them control over the timing and placement of the hands, creating offsets in time and space which generally gave a more organic look. This gave us complete control over the final composites in post production.

Although we mostly had a solid idea as to what the composites would look like before we shot, there were still a lot of grey areas (how do you make a river out of hands?) so we did quite a bit of testing, both at Avion on a 5D and at Prague's HAMU dance academy. It was really useful to have that control in the final stages. A few of our original ideas didn't work as well cinematically when composited, so the ability to manipulate the composites was essential.

The grading process was complicated. Because it was essential to have an idea of what the hands would look like while compositing, we took very rough early composites of each shot (in some cases just a few hands replicated) and went into the pablo Grading system and did pregrades - trying to get close to what we thought the final look would be for each type of hand. We did multiple grades for the rainforest, to help create variation, and a few other things. These pregrades we exported as LUTs (Look Up Tables) back to Fusion which the compositors were able to apply those to the hands they were working on. This showed them how everything looked without actually effecting the original material. For final output from Fusion, we rendered both the composited with ungraded hands, as well as the hands with the grade "burnt in." We took both of these back to Pablo and used them to create the final look of each shot. Of course there were many more secondary corrections added, highlights pushed etc. It seems the Ocean was the only shot we absolutely nailed in the pregrading. but all of the shots helped us get close to the final result before we even began the final grading.

• Tell me a few things about the Score & the Sound Design.

Simply: I love Ben Lukas Boysen! He was busy working on a Cartier commercial whilst I was doing the animatic, but he sent me a great piece to try out called Nulla Desiderata by The Dead Sea. I cut the animatic to this - in fact, I structured the whole piece and wrote the copy directly on to it (the first script was written directly as an animatic on FCP). I got in touch with The Dead Sea, who were happy to let Greenpeace use the track, but at a certain point I decided to change the beginning of the film to a darker feeling. By that time, Ben was free again. Although it would have been great for Ben to collaborate with The Dead Sea (and I hope he will in the future - it'd be a great mix) by then there wasn't time. I asked him for something really simple, and he composed by working to the timing of the animatic, but getting the atmosphere from the photoshopped storyboards. I love the lullaby feeling of his main theme.

The one problem was that he went to do a gig in Athens over the last weekend before we had to complete the film. That would ordinarily have been fine, since we were planning to do a final revision and mix on the Monday and Tuesday (deadline was Wednesday). Then the volcano struck. Poor Ben was stuck in Athens, well away from the project in his Berlin studio, and was forced to revise and mix using his laptop and the mp3 working copy he'd previously sent me. He's since got back, and did a fully-fledged mix for me a few days ago.

• We often see 5Ds & 7Ds to be used as B-Roll cams and lately as main cams for various film & tv projects. What is your opinion about the HDSLR Filmmaking / Cinematography?

I've grown up with film and always hated anything even faintly with a video feel. The 5D is the first real step of putting film quality back literally into film-maker's hands. I've cut a few pieces for Greenpeace that have been shot on the 5D, and as long as the DoP uses the right lenses (I've been disappointed by material shot with the normal Canon zoom lens, whereas Philip Bloom has an incredible array - the Dehli shoot rushes were like being a child in a sweet shop) the results are really nice. My next project will be a piece about the Rainbow Warrior shot on a 5D...

Visit: greenpeace.com/me2

Thanks to Geoffrey Case for the additional information.