Friday 29 November 2013

Project: Thunderbolt- shooting the pic

Well, after over a year of on-off work, I've finally managed to shoot a pic using the Project: Thunderbolt miniatures.

Quick recap for anybody coming across this now, and who hasn't read the previous blog entries on this project;  as a fan of the writings of Dan Abnett, particularly the fiction work he does for the Black Library, set in the Warhammer 40,000 (wargaming) universe, I decided I wanted to do some fan art.  And being as I was looking to do some experimental stuff with aircraft models, it seemed a good opportunity to combine a shoot with some work based on Mr Abnetts "Double Eagle" book (and its forthcoming sequel, "Interceptor City".

For the project, I built a model of an Imperial Thunderbolt jet fighter, which exists as a design in the Warhammer 40K universe, and an expensive model kit.  Being poor, I decided to build my own based on descriptions in the fiction side of the game, which is why its in 1/32nd scale and uses loads of leftovers from the Britannia Model Village project, bits of felt pen, etc.

I then built half a dozen other aircraft models, all freelance- an Imperial bomber built around a much buggered-about-with (technical term there) Airfix Stirling in roughly 1/72nd, and some generic baddy planes, cobbled together (another technical term) from bits of old broken model kits and toy planes.  Anyway there are some pictures below, also some older posts back through the blog with more info on their construction.

The point of the shoot was to experiment with doing a big, slightly chaotic picture with loads of movement and action, but which didn't need to resort to Photoshop too much- I got sick and tired of combining layers, lots of images of different planes with different lighting, etc, so wanted to try and see how much I could do in-camera.  The image needed to focus on the Thunderbolt, which is assumed to be flying top-cover for a bomber squadron which is being attacked.  Blame too much of a childhood watching films like "Memphis Belle" and "The Battle of Britain".

The effect I wanted was of the Thunderbolt (as the main subject of the picture) to be 'frozen' in the shot, whilst the rest of the battle blurs around it in the background.  The only way to achieve this was to have the model and camera mounted on the same rig, moving through the 'battle'.  However, given that I had made the model rather too heavy-duty, it ended up being far too weighty and bulky for any kind of camera rig.  So the only other option was to have the model and the camera stationary, and move everything else.

The pic above shows the first test.  The Thunderbolt was suspended with thin thread, and three boards were nailed together, and put on castor wheels recycled from a demolished piece of furniture at work.  The test shot shows the concept- the bomber miniature blurring as if it is a slower-moving aircraft being overtaken by the Imperial fighter.

Another major problem though was the need for lots of miniatures; having taken months to build the one Thunderbolt and the bomber, I didn't want to spend ages, and incur costs, making duplicates.  So I resorted to an old miniatures FX trick I read about, which used to crop up on shows like "Space 1999" and "UFO".  The planes were photographed from the sort of angles they would appear in during the shoot, printed out, stuck onto thick card, then cut out again.  They were stuck onto wooden sticks, which (for the sake of anything better) were mounted into the leftover espresso cups from the Dalek project last week.  A bit of cotton wool sprays up as smoke, and hey-presto, an aerial armada without having to make more miniatures.  As blurry background items, it shouldn't be too noticeable.

The above shows the scene partially set-up, with a mix of real miniatures and cardboard cut-outs.  The 'Bat' (as the baddies are called in the books) which is dogfighting with the Thunderbolt is quite prominent, and I spent a little longer on this miniature compared to the other enemy planes.  It also has no cardboard versions, as all those holes in the wings would have been a sod to cut out.  

Finally, ready to shoot- some extra effects were tried, with Christmas Tree lights as flak, some more cotton-wool fire effects, and a whole load of cotton wool and teddy bear stuffing as clouds.  Backdrops were improvised from sheets and blankets.  Oh for a properly-equipped studio rather than a spare room...

The shoot itself took around an hour, mainly because of the trial and error involved with moving the wheeled base around, things falling over, wires breaking, etc.  All the sorts of things which probably used to happen on "Thunderbirds" and the like, when they were doing miniature shoots.  Which is probably why they invented CGI, but I'd rather be doing this that boiling my eyeballs staring at a computer screen all day.

With then intention of not using Photoshop much, I limited myself to a few little touches per picture- some colour tweaks, sorting the background in the top-right corner to get rid of the folds in the blanket backgrounds, and cloning out the threads in a couple of them.  I also added lens flare (though more restrained than JJ Abrams, happily), and experimented with the odd gunfire/extra smoke effect.

I wanted to try something in monochrome, and actually I'm quite happy how it looks, a slightly more 'period' feel.

And finally, I couldn't resist mocking up a book cover/poster.  I know Dan Abnett hasn't finished writing "Interceptor City" yet, but being as this whole shoot has been a massive fan-nod to his work, and I'm really looking forward to the novel, I thought I'd try it.  Apologies if it treads on anyones toes or gets other fans hopes up, if they think this is a real cover/poster.

So what now?  Well, I only ended up doing little tweaks with Photoshop, which was the intention.  But on the other hand, the shoot has taken a bloody long time to come to fruition.  The shoot itself was very involved, messy, took ages to set up and dismantle, and was awfully time-consuming for a single pic shoot.  Add to that the miniatures are a bit too big and bulky to do any other pics with, and this will probably remain a one-off.  I'm tempted to do a smaller, lighter Thunderbolt for the Project:Spitfire pics in the new year, using a camera rig for mounting model planes to the camera for shots out in the real world (thus removing the need to build indoor sets), but we'll see.

The next big builds involve the remedial work for "Welsh Pony" to get that shoot ready; though I've learned some lessons with the motion blur/camera rig set ups here, to try in that project.  There's also a silly "Space Invaders" pic I want to try, if I get chance to build the miniatures…  Hopefully more on that next week.

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