Filmmaker revives old-school animation technique


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In the heart of Iowa City, University of Iowa film graduate student Tim Orme is building his own multiplane camera, revitalizing the rare technique pioneered by Walt Disney in the 1930s.

At first glance, the massive unit built into the corner of his home office looks nothing like a traditional camera.

The camera is made up of five plates of glass stacked vertically on a shelving unit, with the lens suspended above the plates on a rigging drilled into the wall. 

“One of the things that draws me to animation is the way you trick people,” Orme said. “This [technique] allows you to trick people by using 3D space to make 2D images look 3D.”

 Orme, a lifelong fan of the difficult multiplane animation style, said he was particularly inspired by the works of Russian animator Yuriy Norshteyn, has been long drawn to creating a film in that style.

Naturally then, when the time came to design his thesis project, Orme leaped at the opportunity to build his own multiplane camera and put the techniques into practice.

Because the process is so time-consuming, multiplane animation is rare, so building his own camera was the only option.

When he began researching multiplane cameras, Orme said, the only one he found was Disney’s original camera, on display at the Walt Disney Family Museum.

Mulitplane animation was the technique Disney used to create some of his earliest iconic movies, including Snow White and Pinocchio.

The multiplane technique allowed early artists to create the illusion of depth in animation. To achieve the 3D quality, drawings are placed on different layers of the camera, creating a sense of space between them when filmed.

Though the camera will be used to create Orme’s thesis project, its real purpose will be to shoot a project that he wrote last year, he said.

“I thought, if I’m already going to build a multiplane camera, to do [my thesis] and fulfill my university requirements, then I’m going to make a film that I really like,” he said.

That project is The Three Siblings, an animated fairy-tale short which follows three siblings on their quest to deal with the consequences of overconsumption.

“I feel that the story of The Three Siblings is taking on the concept of one’s own mortality and how life can change in a way that that feels natural,” said Jacob Kinch, the film’s sound designer.

Although working on many projects at once can be stressful, Orme said, he did not want to subject of the film to the sorts of pressure created in an academic environment.

“[Multiplane animation] just takes so much time,” he said. “If you’re pressed, you make decisions based on time instead of on what’s good for the project. I like animation because it’s something I can do whenever I want, without a crew.”

Such a unique project faces many challenges, and for now, Orme is focusing heavily on building the camera. He hopes to begin working on the filming in the fall and laying out character designs and art concepts.

The multiplane camera makes filming animations very difficult. Because the film must be created shot-by-shot, one mistake can mean starting over entirely.

“A lot of those aesthetics [of the film] depend on the dimensions of the camera and glass panes of the multiplane camera we’re using,” said Michael Sacco, the art director for The Three Siblings. “There haven’t been too many finalized pieces [yet], but I’ve been more involved in color testing and experimenting.”

Sacco created approximately 150 concept drawings for the film in the spring, but most of the construction of the characters will be done in the fall, he said.

For Orme, the chance to use such a unique art form is very exciting despite its challenges, he said, and he looks forward to animating with a small crew, because he usually works alone.

“This is a look that’s impossible to get any other way,” he said. “Space, money, and time have always been challenges, so it’s nice that it’s not just me [working on the project].”

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