British born Jon Woolf has gripped for the motion picture industry for nearly 40 years. His work as key grip, miniatures unit, for Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy put him on the radar of cinematographer Frank Passingham and gaffer Michel Amado Carpio for Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio. After relocating to the U.S., Portland-based, Woolf was the perfect fit to connect the European and Mexican department heads with Hollywood vendors that could meet the equipment needs for the Oregon shoot. Woolf describes his work on Pinocchio and choosing Matthews Studio Equipment to meet the big needs of the stop-motion retelling of the classic story.
To support their award-winning production, the studio used over 500 Matthews stands, including C-Stands, Hi Rollers, Hihi Rollers, and Mombo Combos, as well as a sea of grip heads, apple boxes, flags, scrims, arms, clamps and other hardware.
How did you get involved in Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio?
Woolf: Most of my career experiences have been live action, but I did a little project back in New Zealand called Lord of the Rings for three years as the key grip on the miniatures unit. That was my real first long-term exposure to working with tiny sets and tiny people, but still large equipment. Cameras don't get smaller when you're shooting miniatures.
I spent three years learning how incredibly important it is to have sets level and rigid. Sets have to be bolted to concrete and even have to account for temperature control in the room because if you build a wooden stage, and you have a hot day, suddenly you don't have characters lining up.
Years later, after I’d returned to the United States, I got a call from the gaffer and the DP on Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio, Frank Passingham and Michel Amado Carpio. One of the very first questions that they put to me was that they intended to purchase their gear package rather than renting and could I help with a supplier. I said, yes, yes and yes, and thanks for the lunch.
What made you come to Matthews for the gear package?
When I agreed to the job, at that point hadn't seen an equipment list. When I did, I fell off my chair. First item on the list 160 C-stands, second item 160 low stands, third item 160 tall stands. You remember the nightmare of material supply shortage at the time? People were struggling to buy six C-stands. A substantial reason I went with Matthews was that they could deliver that quantity. It was the biggest order I've ever seen by far, close on 500 C-stands and who knows how many arms and flags.
There was about the same time as CineGear Expo 2019 and one of Matthews’ garage sales was going on, so I came down to meet with Ed Phillips (Matthews CEO, pictured below hugging Jon) and we shook hands on it. Linda Swope and I had a conference call and we worked it out beautifully to everyone’s satisfaction. Then the trucks started rumbling in.
Because of the length of the project, it was decided to purchase all the equipment rather than rent it for obvious reasons. The company working for Netflix that produced Pinocchio was ShadowMachine, which is Portland-based. I think that at the end of production they purchased a lot of the equipment, if not all.
Why did you choose Matthews?
The gaffer had said to me he had bad experiences and he'd heard bad things about different brands of C-stands. I said, "I'll tell you what, I will set up a demo for you with a Matthews stand, an American stand and a Norms stand.” And that sold them. It’s hard to argue with the quality if you see it for yourself.
Precision is such a critical thing. Far more so with animation and motion control stuff than it is for live action. I don't know if manufacturers realize how precision has to be a part of it. If you introduce a flag to the set, it can't drift even a sixteenth of an inch. It's easy to blame a C-stand when you've done a lefty-loosey, or you've just overcome the capacity of any C-stand.
Even the stages have to be temperature controlled. You can't just take some 4x4s and put them out in a corner with a bit of plywood on top. The entire building has to be temperature controlled if you're doing moves with motion control.
On Lord of the Rings, we would start with surveying equipment inside a concrete floored warehouse. You would set up all the stuff with a laser beam, etcetera, etcetera. Then you would measure, come in with a bubble level, and you'd recheck, and recheck, and recheck.
Since you have been a Gaffer for 40 years, any tricks of the trade you can share?
Well, for example, a camera tripod is a very nice piece of equipment, and it's generally stable enough when you're hand-operating a camera to shoot live action, but it's not rigid enough to support a camera that's making minute movements, which have to be repeatable.
This is a little-known secret, known only to the brotherhood of grip, but if you take three C-stands, with three suitable clamps on the tops, you don't open the C-stands but instead leave the legs folded, like you're building a tent. Then you take multiple sandbags, bag the bases of the C-Stands, attached the three clamps, which have baby pins on them, to the base of the camera head, and you attach the C-stand heads, one to each of those three clamps. You've now got to triangulate it, but you can grab that camera and it will be almost impossible to shake it.
It's a trick I learned a long time ago, and it works very well if you're out in a remote location and you need to safeguard a camera from the wind or whatever.
What other tricks did you use on Pinocchio?
A lot of things were hot glued down on the set. C-stands get glued to the floor. I don't know how many gallons of hot glue we used, but it was a lot. And of course, as soon as you do that and get it all set up, then it's like, "Oops, I've got to move it over an inch." That's why it takes two or three years to shoot.
We glued C-Stands to Velcro which was glued to the concrete in the stages. That's great until you spend 20 minutes setting up an intricate array of four C-Stands, and then someone says, "Well, actually we're going to have to move it over an inch." Then you have to un-glue everything. Playing with little stuff is harder than playing with real-size stuff.
Was the gear you purchased dictated by the size of the sets?
The gear we used was based around the set. Lighting miniatures becomes more critical and more difficult because standard lighting instruments are manufactured to work in a human-sized set. When you miniaturize a set, lighting needs change too, but our support equipment, the grip equipment, only comes in the size it comes in.
Say you need to put a light in an unusual place, and it needs to be rigidly supported, not flapping around in the breeze. We had to construct small but very stable rigs. Whereas in a live action set, you might use one arm to hold a flag off a piece of furniture, that would not be sufficient support in a miniature set, because you absolutely have to keep the flag rigid. Just the breeze from somebody walking past the flag could ruin the shot. To that end, instead of using one magic arm, you might triangulate it with three, for example.
What other challengers were unique to working in stop-motion for Pinocchio?
There are a number of animators who were almost a crossover between part of the crew and part of the cast. They move the models one iota at a time, and they need to get into the set to manipulate the creatures. Getting stable access for them is very critical because humans are kind of clumsy animals generally. You get people standing on a set and tripping over things and suddenly it becomes a total re-shoot.
Take the church set. It was built on a steel scaffold platform because there was so much activity around it. Access on sets like that becomes a very important thing when you've got to have set decorators, and animators, and puppeteers all walking onto the set. That can easily lead to things getting bumped. To counter that, we rigged catwalks so that the crew can get out onto the set, maybe touch up a little paint, or move things around prior to a shot, without disturbing the rigidity of the whole set.
Do you have any other examples?
On a model of a great big field, I'd look at it and I’d think, "This is a fairly long sequence. There should be clouds crossing." Nothing is being shot at 24 frames a second, so a camera pass might take two hours to shoot. The clouds have to move that slowly as well.
Obviously, you can't walk into the set with a cloud, you have to use something to cast a shadow, that moves across the set. That movement also has to be synced so that it can be re-shot over and over and over again. It has to be in exactly the same place each time. We hook that into the computer responsible for the motion control equipment for the camera, then the cloud will move across, blocking the light at a known, adjustable speed.
That required a very intricate rig because the motor to move the cloud can’t just plug into the motion control computer. The motion control computer can only drive a motor that's up to a certain size. Consequently, I had to rig it with counterweights, so that the cloud itself was 20 feet by 20 feet, on a frame. Then to enable a motor to pull something that big and heavy required a counterbalance hanging, rigged off a pulley, going up high and down, and so on.
That’s just one example of intricate rigging that the grip equipment made possible. You build and you invent as you go along. The crew has to be more than people who pick up apple boxes and sandbags, definitely more so than in live action. They have to be creative in how they fix things in place and how they adjust gear so that people can get into the set and ensure that there's room for the camera. And there can’t be a camera shadow or any rigging shadows.
What did you shoot with?
The whole thing was shot with DSLRs. The software that we used for Pinocchio is state of the art software that incorporates camera movement, lighting and everything else. It's all done from one keyboard, one monitor in each stage. The production’s main shooting location was a big industrial building, a huge open space that got divided up by black curtains. We used drapes to make areas anywhere from a telephone booth size up to something big enough to handle the church set (about 20’ by 30’). That was a big undertaking, rigging all of that.
Normally, drapes would've been suspended from a grid up above, but we couldn't put in the grid up above because the city wanted an engineering report first, and they couldn't do that till we got the permit sorted–you get the picture. The gaffer said, "Let's get some high stands in here." And I said, "That's a lot of high stands." And he went, "Yeah, well, let's do it anyway." And I said, "How many do you want?" And we ended up using, I think, 36 HiHi rollers.
What defines working with Motion Control in stop motion, as a grip?
It's just a super creative thing to be on. People who haven't been around grips in general, and specifically grips working in motion control, don't realize how creative you have to be to support things and keep them rigid and not have oopsies. When you're compositing shots and the camera move is precisely computer controlled, anything within the line of sight of that camera has to be absolutely rigid and can't flutter around when somebody walks by it or anything like that. To keep that stability is essential. For multiple exposures, it must be rigid, consistent, and easy to work around.
Any closing thoughts?
I think my main contribution to the film was putting Netflix together with Matthews and getting first-rate equipment that did the job. I don't think anything got sent back because it was faulty. I don't remember anything breaking. I don't remember any complaints and I didn't see anything waggling in any of the shots. [laughter] The ultimate test. Nothing waggled. It’s not just a case of the people who are operating the equipment, it's also the quality of the equipment.
Pinocchio was an amazing project to work on. Being on the crew, it was absolutely like family. Netflix were kind, the production people were kind. The crew were extremely talented. Everybody worked so damned hard and with so much heart. And the producers really cared about their crew and looked after us. I can only say good things.
Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio is available to watch online with Netflix.