Magazine article American Cinematographer

Putting a Dog's Point of View on Film

Magazine article American Cinematographer

Putting a Dog's Point of View on Film

Article excerpt

In filming "BENJI", cinematographer does gymnastics to capture the point-of-view of lead character who stands only a foot-and-a-half tall

"BENJI" is indeed a unique film. Unique to watch (thank goodness) but even more unique to help create ... especially from a photographic standpoint.

Most dog movies are films about dogs from a people's point-of-view, but "BENJI" is a film about people from a dog's point-of-view... all played entirely "for real" without any gimmicky talking dogs or voice-over narration.

This posed all sorts of strange problems, especially when you consider that the dog in question only stands about a foot-and-a-half tall. My assistant, Jim Etheridge, and I spent the better part of three months lying on floors, crunched up in corners, and in general learning how things looked (and felt) from a dog's eye level.

We had to start by designing new kinds of camera support equipment since there's not much on the market designed to put a lens a mere foot-and-a-half off the floor. This was important, not only to see things from the dog's point-of-view, but because photographic intimacy with the dog was important to audience involvement in the story. With the guidance of director Joe Camp and trainer Frank Inn, the dog did some unbelievable acting, expressing feelings and emotions with his face and eyes, so we had to be down low and in tight to get the right "feel".

The first piece of equipment we designed was an offset rig that, when attached to the base plate of an O'Connor 100 head on a High-Hat, actually put the bottom of an Arri H-C about three inches off the ground. This rig gave full tilt capability, but because the rig placed the camera off to the side of the head it limited our panning capability, because the camera would "swing" rather than pivot on an axis.

Another item that assistant Jim Etheridge designed and built was a sort of skateboard dolly ... a heavy rtwoinch board on casters with a built-jrx, mounting for the O'Connor 100 head. This put our Arri lens about two feet off the floor and gave us incredibly smooth dolly capability in cramped areas. When we needed to get lower and look up at the dog, we'd use this rig in conjunction with the offset rig. We also used the Fisher crab dolly to great advantage because its boom arm and offset plate got us down to a lens height of about two feet. .. but because of its size it was limited to our more spacious locations.

There were many times when we had to truck with the dog-at his eye levelas he trotted and, in some cases, ran full-tilt down city streets, up back alleys and across rough ground. We handled these assignments in two ways depending upon the terrain.

On relatively smooth streets, we worked off a platform attached to the underside of a car with bolted clamps. The platform itself was only a matter of inches off the pavement and a bump in the road often resulted in the platform "hitting bottom" (its own and mine). When the platform wouldn't work, we laid up to three hundred feet of Dallas Dolly track (metal tubing that connects together much like railroad track) and a Dallas Dolly, which is a low-slung platform dolly with an ingenious wheel setup that conforms to the track. This is an extremely fast setup and leveling job and gives glass-smooth dollies. We generally used this rig in conjunction with our offset rig to get lower.

But one of our most valuable pieces of equipment was a $1.98 "lazy susan" from the local dime store. It gave us no tilt capability but, when used with a wedge and a little gaffer's tape, gave us 360° panning capability with an Arri lens height of one foot off the ground. …

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