Max Williams (no relation) was cinematographer on The Bigger Picture (2014) which claimed Best British Short Animation at the BAFTAs, and went on to claim over 40 film industry awards. Not only that, the team missed out on an Oscar by a whisker, beaten only by Disney. I caught up with Max after the Academy Awards, back in 2015.
From family beginnings to the National Film and Television School
FF: What made you want to become a film maker?
MW: I started out wanting to be in the RAF actually, but soon realised a life in the military wasn’t for me. Whilst I was at university I remember watching a film called The Ninth Gate (1999), a Roman Polanski film, and thought I wish I could do that. Incidentally, both my dad and grandad were DOPs and my mother (Pam Rhodes) also works in television. I didn’t want to follow that pathway exactly, though, as I wanted to be a director. My family warned me that it would be incredibly hard work. I started off in post production just to get a taste for the industry, and then I went to the London Film Academy and trained to be a director. After that, people kept asking me to shoot music videos! I was initially a little reluctant but sort of fell into cinematography from that. I realised I just love being on set and that I don’t actually enjoy working with scripts! I don’t much like the editing process either! I then worked on National Geographic and Discovery a lot, doing documentaries. It was a lot of fun but involved so much travelling. I eventually managed to claim a much sought-after place at the National Film and Television School, which is really hard to get into. Following a difficult selection process, once you’re there, it’s the best training in the world. It was at NFTS that we filmed The Bigger Picture (2014).
What does a cinematographer or DOP actually to do?
FF: You are a cinematographer or director of photography (DOP), but what does that actually mean?
MW: A cinematographer is someone who turns the vision of the director into something tangible that can then be put onto the big or small screen. There are differences between how you would shoot for the two formats. For example, Lawrence of Arabia (1962), with its epic wide shots, especially with figures on the horizon in the distance, is a great example of cinematography intended purely for a big screen. It just wouldn’t look right on the small screen.
FF: So, that would be something that the cinematographer would guide rather than the director?
MW: The director has overall say regarding the storytelling; they have overall creative charge. There are various departments working together. The cinematographer, or the DOP (how some of us like to be credited – but it means the same thing) is in charge of the camera department. We are in charge of the visual aesthetics of the film such as camera movement, lens choices, colours of light and lighting shots. There would be a gaffer and an electrician supporting us who would be instructed to perform technical tasks (placement of lights, types of bulbs, which areas on the set the lighting should hit and when etc.).
As I say, the director has overall say though. Sometimes directors have no preconceived idea how they want to shoot a film and just want to work with their actors and concentrate on performance. Conversely, other directors will arrive with storyboards and have envisaged the concept already, giving very clear direction on precisely how scenes should be shot. You have to be adaptable.
Seeing the The Bigger Picture (2014)
FF: Briefly, what is BAFTA-winning and Oscar-nominated The Bigger Picture (2014) about and what inspired the idea?
MW: Daisy Jacobs, the director, is best placed to answer that question to be honest!
Daisy herself says: “The story is loosely based on my family because my gran had Parkinson’s and was very ill and in a wheelchair for the last two years of her life. So I wanted to look at a family and the problems there are with dealing with an elderly relative.” (taken from colchesterfilmfestival.com)
She wanted to make a film based around life-sized painted characters moving through a 2D space, coming into a 3D space, interacting with 3D objects, and then bringing them back into the 2D world. That’s the mechanism of the technique essentially. So, it was a film that grew out of a brand new technique for animated films.
FF: How long did it take to shoot and describe your involvement as the cinematographer?
MW: Well, Daisy and I began to do some work together in the first year at NFTS, doing a test film called “Rogue” which was a smaller scale test of this technique. Following this, Daisy invited me to her house for the day and we went through all of the storyboards. Being an animator, Daisy had storyboarded it quite traditionally with occasional close ups. I encouraged a more playful multi-angled approach. For example, in the scene where the grandmother has an unfortunate personal accident, I suggested a slower approach to the close up to emphasise the emotion of the moment – it had initially been storyboarded as just two shots: wide and then up close. Daisy reacted really well to that and liked it. I added quite a lot to the storyboarding which she signed off on.
When we were shooting… we were kind of making it up as we went along as it had never been done before! We would quite often come in and there would be a big blank white box with nothing painted. I would hook the camera up in the box so we could see the live video feed. Acetate would be put over the computer monitor; the production designer would then draw half the room in 2D directly onto the acetate. Using this, we would transfer the lines onto the set and then paint from there. I would put up the preliminary lights then, and then leave them to it for a day or so. Once the painting detail had been done I would come back in and touch up areas, maybe paint in shadows. There was a lot of trickery that we had to go through.
When we very first started this process it took us ages! The first set up took around 6 days to get right as we were just guessing and doing things the wrong way round (again, as this had never been done before). Each of us would realise step-by-step that perhaps we should have done “this” before doing “that” (lighting before painting, painting before lighting etc.). Once the set was painted and lit the animation could begin. In each location (kitchen, living room etc.) there was one big set up for it where we’d get the perspective right, painting and lighting, and then we’d usually start on the big wide shots. All the animation they needed to do would then begin. Sometimes I’d step away for a week whilst they got on with it (and I’d get on with other projects). I would then come back in and change them onto a different shot – a close up for example – involving more camera movement, lighting changes, focusing etc.). This would be the process all of the way through until we’d finished an area of the film. We’d then rip out the set and change the perspective, painting, lighting etc.
It took 5-6 months for the actual shoot. The scene where the room was hoovered up: that took 2 weeks with everyone working 10 hours or more per day (Daisy and co-animator Chris would sometimes do well over 12 hours).
FF: In terms of the set, are there any real pieces of furniture or furnishings?
MW: The furniture in The Bigger Picture (2014) was actually one of the really key components in the technique and the style. It was one of the things that really set the tone and era. A lot of work went into identifying the style and then sourcing the furniture. It was thoroughly researched. Daisy’s mum went round a lot of charity shops looking for pieces of old 1960s furniture. Sometimes we’d hire too. The furniture really “made” the 3D world.
Some of the furniture was made out of paper mache, as were some of the plants. The two chairs in the living room that the characters sit on were real chairs that had been literally cut in half. The bottom part of the chair was real and the back part was painted. Some of the furniture was painted too, to fit in with the style of the world we’d created. Actually, Daisy ended up giving me an art deco style lamp which we didn’t end up using.
Furthermore, Chris Wilder, the film’s co-animator, has one of the most extraordinary skills I have ever seen. Give him any object and ask him to replicate it in paper mache, and he will make you an almost-photorealistic copy of it. He made the teapots, cups and saucers…
FF: Who needs a 3D printer? Exactly! He’s like a walking-talking human 3D printer. The reason he had to do this was because when the real 3D teapot goes into the 2D world, you have to incrementally do it. When the (paper) teapot reaches the wall, you actually have to cut it… A slice is taken off, more video shot, another slice is then taken off etc. giving the effect of disappearing into the wall. He literally made hundreds of props. Chris would come in on the train and have bin bags full of dismembered paper mache arms!
This is what it’s really like to attend the Academy Awards and BAFTAs
FF: What was it like to attend the Oscars and BAFTAs?
MW: The BAFTAs was a lot of fun and such a lovely experience. The Oscars was much more intimidating. One of the things I found really nerve-racking was the idea of being there amongst lots of stars. I got really nervous, especially for the Oscars luncheon, what with being in a room full of movie stars. We didn’t know if we were going to be sat with anyone. What we’d been told is that they put you on lots of different tables, and so there was every chance of sitting next to someone really famous. You can’t help thinking: I hope I don’t end up sitting next to some hot shot movie star and I don’t know what to say to them!
The funny thing is that, when you get behind all the pomp and glamour, it’s really just a bunch of people standing around drinking champagne, catching up with their friends and talking to people about their latest project. They’re just normal people. However, it was kind of surreal seeing the veil of Hollywood lifted a bit. The press can’t get to them when they’re inside and they don’t want to be bothered which is totally understandable.
It was very nerve-racking being at the Oscars ceremony. I was so nervous.
FF: Did you meet anyone that you really wanted to meet?
MW: Funnily enough I did very briefly meet Rob Yeoman who was the cinematographer who shot The Grand Budapest Hotel [as well as Bridesmaids and Yes Man amongst others] at a party just after the Oscars. His daughter said she really liked The Bigger Picture which was nice.
FF: What difference will these awards make to your career and what’s next for you?
MW: It’s been quite striking the difference it’s made already, which is very interesting. Suddenly people are coming out of the woodwork and offering me, say, a script for a movie with a substantially higher budget than I’m used to. My agent is pushing me at the moment following the recent success. It feels like nothing has changed and yet everything has changed at the same time!
UPDATE: Max has since been involved with the Wes Anderson movie Isle of Dogs (2018).