Small Problems: The Challenge Of Lighting A Miniature Set For A Live Show


In the recent film "Downsizing," Matt Damon's character seeks to save money and simplify his life by having scientists shrink him down to five inches tall. 

We're here to tell you, it really doesn't work that way.

Having just finished collaborating on the most ambitious project (that we're aware of) involving live talent on a miniature set, we've learned that just shrinking the scale of your production doesn't shrink its complexity.

In fact, as you go down in size you encounter the kinds of problems Gulliver must have faced in the land of the Lilliputians.

The 5 Hour Show Starring A Cute Little Robot
Cozmo is a five inch high, remote control robot, equipped with tractor treads for moving around, lifting arms for manipulating objects, and a little LED face for expressing what's going on in his mischievous AI brain.

He not only responds to your commands, but Cozmo develops a personality as he interacts with you. And in some ways takes on a mind of his own. You can watch Cozmo go about his business like a traditional toy, as well as seeing the world from his POV through his onboard B&W video camera. 

Anki, the creators of Cozmo, thought this extraordinary little robot deserved an extraordinary introduction before the holiday shopping season. So they teamed up with W+K Lodge, Bent Image Lab, Uncle Toad's Media Group, and a small army of top production people to create a live, interactive broadcast of Cozmo moving through seven elaborate, miniature sets, representing seven of the most popular sections of Reddit. 

Each set would be a fully functioning escape room that the little robot would navigate with direction from millions of live viewers, crowd-sourcing the solution to each puzzle.

The production would involve 21 cameras and the entire live program was expected to take up to six hours to complete.

What could be more simple, right?

Our suggestion: Just get seven of U-Haul's largest moving boxes. Cut a little doorway for the robot to roll in. And boom, where's the craft services table?

Fortunately, the client and creatives knew that the Reddit community is one of the toughest audiences in existence. Cheesy was not going to cut it.

So they tasked Bent Image Labs with building the tiny, intricate sets. And then to rig and light them, planned for weeks of pre-production here at Cine Rent West. (Get more details on the production team here.) 

To make the sets come alive, they brought in veteran miniature DP Mark Eifert. To be clear, Eifert is a full-size human. But he's built a reputation for working wonders in the diminutive world of stop motion animation, where his list of production credits longer than your arm. He's worked with Will Vinton, Jim Blashfield, and Walt Disney (the company not the man). He currently splits his time between Portland and LA, where he works for clients like Screen Novelties and Shadow Machine.

The Lighting Challenge
A few days before the production went live, we asked Eifert if he and his team were facing any significant challenges in bringing the director's vision to life. He said there were just two.

First, there was the challenge of embedding the sets with hundreds of miniature practicals, many as small as single LEDs. All of which had to be wired by hand. On one set alone he had to install 30 miniature lights, each controlled by its own DMX channel.

Second, he would need to light each set without knowing exactly where the cameras and "puppets" would be.

Eifert explained that in animation (and in production in general) you first position your camera to frame the scene. Then you block your puppet. And THEN you set your lighting to eliminate unwanted shadows and make the scene look its best. But for the Cozmo "Lost In Reddit" production he would need to set the lighting without knowing exactly where the camera or puppet would be. 

The plan was for Cozmo to move freely around the sets, covered by locked down cameras but also followed closely by small hand-held cameras on gimbal sticks (to keep them smooth and level). So Eifert set up the lighting accordingly.

By putting many of his little lights on DMX controls, he made it possible to adjust the lighting as the little robot moved through. Eifert explained that they didn't want to have the look of a sitcom set where the actors are always well-lit no matter where they go, but the effect is bland. 

So he gave each of the seven sets a distinctive feel--from a basement to an exterior at night to a gameshow set.

Then We Went Live
The result of Eifert and the whole team's hard work was that during the live webcast Cozmo looked terrific. The little robot made it through all seven rooms in half an hour less than the estimated time. And the Reddit audience experienced a live-action game with Hollywood production values. 

The project achieved many firsts and proved to be an effective way to immerse the audience into the fun of actually playing with Cozmo.

What Can We Learn
If a scientist offers to shrink you down to 1/14th your original size as a way of simplifying your life, tell him, "No, thank you."

Smaller doesn't always mean easier.

However, the bigger lesson here is that even the most veteran production people are often challenged. There are times when they don't immediately have all the answers. But they do have a reliable process for solving those problems. And no matter how many projects they've worked on, they never outgrow the need to plan ahead.