Category Archives: Animating

Locking It Down

There are so many little things to keep track of for a successful animation shoot. Paper that doesn’t want to lay flat must be controlled. Things that could move when they shouldn’t must be locked down. Hands that won’t hold things need to be firmly attached to them. And a puppet that needs to leap or carry something too heavy for its foot magnets to support must be rigged.

Here are some of the ways I have secured my props and puppet recently:


The star map was too heavy and slick for my puppet to hold, so I sewed his hands to it. On the reverse side from the camera, you can see where the thread stretches between his hands.


The map is made of heavy paper and would not lay flat so it is held down with magnets placed out of frame. The set has a metal sheet under the paper mache.


Strong magnets hold the map in place as the puppet unrolls it. Without them the roll would be very loose and uncontrolled.


Sometimes the puppet has trouble standing up on one magnetic foot so I tuck a few tiny magnets under his raised foot to balance. In this shot, it could not be seen from the camera angle used. If I have to do this for an angle where they show, I can mask them out using Adobe After Effects.


In preparation for rigging my puppet for his leap between rocks, I sewed a T-nut to his side that will be away from the camera. I ended up sewing a T-nut to the bag too because it is so heavy it was making him tip on the rig.


The wire rig is attached to the T-nut.


The first of three rigs used in this shot is placed behind the rock the puppet jumps from. The second rig is suspended from the ceiling and the third is on the rock that he is leaping to. He needed the rig for walking on the rock because the bag is too heavy for him to stay upright on his foot magnets. It was designed to be dragged but I chose to have it slung over his shoulder for the jump.


Here you see the overhead rig holding him up and a line of tiny magnets attached to a screw on the rock to keep him from spinning. If you click this link you can see the partially completed rig removal. The first 42 frames have had the rig masked out using Adobe After Effects and the rest of the shot is still in progress.


Giving Life and Emotion to Puppets

I’ve had a really successful summer working in my Oregon studio, completing two and a half minutes of new animation for Seed in the Sand! The goals with this sequence are to show the excitement and emotional ties of the group and the romantic affection between The One and his Mate as the sprouted seed grows into a tree.

Screen Shot 2016-07-29 at 1.55.52 PM

So, how do I go about bringing my puppets to life and making them appear to emote in a way that the audience can feel?


A snapshot of the creatures on set.

Sometimes the greatest emotional impact can be achieved with the smallest of movements like a subtle tilt of the head, or simply a long pause with no movement at all. Many of the shots I have been working on don’t involve very complex movements. The pair may only move slightly as they look at each other fondly. In some ways this can be more complicated than a walk or big movement. The subtle tilt of a head may need to continue for a second or more. At 24 frames per second shot on twos, that makes 12 movements per second. Each frame requires a movement so small that I can only tell I have moved the character by checking it against the previous frame in DragonFrame and if I move the character just a little too much it can be a real challenge to get back to the correct pose.

While long shots where the characters are barely moving are a normal part of live action filmmaking, in animation the impulse to keep the puppets in constant motion must be held in check if you want to create an emotive or contemplative scene. This level of restraint took me a long time to learn. Even now it may take a few times watching a shot to see how long the pause really needs to be. If I haven’t made it long enough when shooting I will repeat frames in Adobe Premiere until the pause is long enough but not so long that it feels like a freeze frame. The action can usually be paused for at least a half second before it starts to seem unnatural and sometimes even a second can work.


Tiny eyelids made of clay and the tools I use to apply them to the puppets.

Well timed blinks add an important element to a character’s reaction to events or suggest that they are considering what is happening at the moment. Also an occasional blink helps them to seem to be alive. Most basic blinks that I animate are four frames long.

The Story Continues: New Life and Impending Starvation

Now that summer is here again I’ve got a nice, long break from my faculty position at Kansas City Art Institute to make as much progress on Seed and the Sand’s meadow scene as I can manage. This set is still in Oregon at the family farm due to its enormousness and fragility! A few weeks ago I set off for the west coast with dog and child. Our first stop was Los Angeles for a little fun with friends and then up to Oregon to deliver my daughter to summer camp and get to work animating!


The first job when we arrived was to reclaim my meadow set from the mice and spiders! The spiders still remain in the margins watching from above, beside and behind. The mice keep out of sight.

My puppets needed some maintenance too. I washed their little hands and brushed their messy fur.


Gently cleaning with a paste of baking soda and a soft brush.


Rinsing in cold water.


Grooming and primping.

The storyboard cards are pinned up. I don’t always follow the cards precisely, but they help to guide my animation. I get a lot of inspiration as I work. New shots get added, and some get cut or changed.


This set of cards tells a story of new life and impending starvation.

The first day animating, I managed seven seconds in 6 and a half hours. I hope I can keep up that pace. I’ve got a month here to get as much done as possible. I plan to be finished with this set by the end of next summer. When I get back to Kansas City in the fall I’ll be building a new set and bringing on a couple of interns to help with background animation!

Adding the Final Touches to Dream of Dolls Dancing

All of the animation for Dream of Dolls Dancing, my short film project made out of the dreams from Seed in the Sand, is complete. I am now adding the subtle touches that give depth to the composited shots by incorporating stock footage from Pond5 into my After Effects compositions. Here are a couple of examples.

In the shot of The One sinking as the mermaid watches I have added upscaled underwater footage with a camera lens blur effect as a base layer that is obscured with two layers of low opacity blue haze. The first layer is between the mermaid and The One and the other is the topmost layer. The underwater rays of light shift slowly.

Here is a still of the composition without the stock footage:


And here it is with the stock footage:

comp sinking_00333

Here is a still image of the original stock footage with a link to


My second example is showing the addition of a a sunrise glow and a fog layer that gradually obscures the composition of The One as he rushes toward the dancing dolls in his paper boat:

Here is a still of the composition without the stock footage:


And here it is with the stock footage:


Here is a still image of the original stock footage of the fog layer with a link to


Soon I will start building the soundscape!


Multiplane Downshooter

The final shot of the Dream of Dolls Dancing sequence takes place under water. The mermaid is floating and the One is sinking. I shot each character separately over a greenscreen, created bubbles in Cinema 4D, and assembled everything in After Effects.

comp sinking v3 (0-00-08-22)

Since I am only doing one shot with a downshooter, I put together a temporary set up with my existing materials instead of constructing something more permanent.

The acrylic sheet is clamped to the animation tables above the greenscreen backdrop paper on the floor.

The acrylic sheet is clamped to the two animation tables to suspend the puppets above the greenscreen backdrop paper on the floor.


To set up the camera for this shot, I removed the central piece of the tripod and attached it to the arm of the c-stand.


The mermaid has magnets built into her derriere. A second pair of magnets under the acrylic sheet keeps her securely in position.


I shot the mermaid sideways so I could get the camera closer to her in order to have as many pixels as possible to work with.

Once the two characters were animated I brought them together in my After Effects composition and rendered the partially completed piece as a JPG still image sequence. To create the bubble effect in Cinema 4D, I imported the image sequence for use as a backdrop and constructed an invisible model of the sinking creature to displace the bubbles made by the particle emitter. Then I rendered the C4D bubbles as a transparent PNG sequence and put it together with the other elements in After Effects. A still image of the final result is at the top of this post.

Screen Shot 2016-01-03 at 9.03.00 AM

In this screen capture of the Cinema 4D viewport window you can see the rendered frame at the top left. The bubbles and the puppet in the background frame are visible, but the CG character model is not.

The next step for this project within a project is to work on the sound design……

Animating Bubbles in Cinema 4D

Work continues on the dancing doll dream sequences. I am creating elemental effects in Cinema 4D, a computer graphics program, and have just completed an animation of bubbles for the sequence done from the creature’s eye view as he sinks into the dream ocean. I achieved the really nice stretchy bubbles by making them into metaball objects. Then, I rendered the bubbles with an alpha channel so I could combine it with my After Effects composition as the top layer.

Here’s a low resolution test render I did to see how the timing is working. I’ve still got endless adjustments to make and some work to do with lighting the background and creating surface ripple. Also, the final animation of the bubbles will be rendered in Cinema 4D again with the background so they will have the correct reflection and refraction.

Screen Shot 2015-10-11 at 9.24.33 PM


The final render of the bubbles is finished and now I’ll add it to the rest of the layers in Adobe After Effects. Here is a transparent still image from the bubble render. Notice the reflection and refraction of the dolls in the bubbles.


Animating in Oregon for the Summer

I completed my first year as Visiting Assistant Professor at Kansas City Art Institute and have signed on to teach for another year! As far as my personal art practice goes, one of the great things about having a nine month teaching contract is the summer break that gives me the time to focus on Seed in the Sand. After a long drive through Kansas, Colorado, Utah, Arizona, Nevada and California, I am back in Oregon working on the scenes in the meadow set that I did not to bring with me to Kansas City due to its size and fragility. I expect it will take me a minimum of three summers to complete the shots on this set as I have over 90 storyboard cards prepared for it.

To get the needed angle for this shot of the dance, two of the legs of the tripod rest on the set.

To get the needed angle for this shot of the dance, two of the legs of the tripod rest on the set.

Right now, I am working on elements of a song and dance piece. I don’t have the music for it yet, but have established the basic rhythm. Realizing I needed a drummer was a really important part of bringing the dance ideas into focus. The drum is made from part of a steel can covered in black Sculpey to make it look like a piece of hollowed out tree trunk. The drum skin is made from part of a damaged pair of vintage kid skin opera gloves. What sadly turned the gloves into craft material is the same thing that made them perfect for this use. Namely, water shrinkage. After stretching the skin over the drum, I dampened the ruffly edge with water to make it shrink up tight around the shell. The drum sticks each have a 3/16th inch rare earth magnet in the head. The magnet helps the drum stick to make firm contact with the steel bottom of the can just under the drum skin.

Working out how to approach this sequence was very challenging. How does one choreograph a dance with no music? I drew out so many dance moves that ended up in the trash and felt lost until deciding to create loops. Many of the elements will be shot as 40 frame loops that can be repeated and manipulated to blend well with the music when it is created. This allows for flexibility. Moves, rhythm and look are established to guide the musician but the final form the music will take is still very open.

Here is a short clip of the drummer loop setting the rhythm:

Drummer Video

Animating the Mermaid and the Sea

I’ve nearly finished the mermaid dream sequence. The green screen elements are all assembled in Adobe After Effects and I am at the stage of endless tinkering. Getting the subtle glow of sunrise and the perfect tilt of the stars takes time.

Mermaid looking into her mirror with green screen.

The mermaid looking into her mirror with green screen in the background. Once I had finished sculpting the foam rock, I painted it with acrylic paint and attached it to the set with long drywall screws. The mermaid has two strong magnets in her posterior that match up with two washers screwed into her seat on the rock.

Before finally getting this shot to work, I had a very bad first try. The hair gel I purchased from the Dollar Tree smelled really terrible. I poured eight bottles of the stuff over the black plastic covering the animation table and was very quickly overwhelmed with its strong odor. To make matters worse, I hadn’t thought about how to make the sea foam in advance and got the “bright” idea to use baking soda. It looked fine until it started to turn the gel into liquid. After shooting only 10 frames I started to feel very bad and had to open some windows and get out of the basement. Once refreshed, I cleaned up the nasty hair gel mess and went online to order a gallon of fragrance free gel from Bulk Apothecary. It was worth the wait. The new gel worked wonderfully and had no smell. Plus I came up with a great idea for the sea foam. Toilet tissue! It’s sculptable once saturated with gel and not chemically reactive.

Messy mermaid set. Hair Gel is spilling off of the table and bits of toilet tissue are spread all over.

Messy mermaid set. Hair Gel is spilling off of the table and bits of toilet tissue are spread all over. I’m using the red spatula to move the gel and the small pallet knife to sculpt the saturated toilet tissue.

To watch a 4 second clip on Vimeo, click this picture:

Screen Shot 2015-04-21 at 8.23.34 PM

This post is patron supported. If you’d like to contribute to the production of Seed in the Sand by becoming a patron, please visit Patreon to learn more.

Dancing Dolls

I am happy to be animating again. My new space is working well for me but, seriously, what was I thinking with all of those dolls dancing!!!! The suffering is all worth it though. The dolls dance with wild abandon. The dreams live!

Dancing Dolls

I’m mostly winning the battle with gravity, but the puppets fling themselves to the floor just as I am pressing the shoot frame button with unfortunate regularity. My production time for these dancing scenes averages two hours per second. Yesterday, at the four second mark I was so exhausted I decided to risk shutting down for the night. When I started back up this morning I was glad to see that my light level was the same and the camera hadn’t sagged. It is always risky to shut down in the middle of a shot because things can shift too much to adjust for, but if I am going to make progress with this production amidst all of my other responsibilities I’ll have to do it once in a while.

Animation in Progress

Here is a clip to show you how the dreams begin:

Rough Edit Dreams Mix

If you’d like to participate in a monthly Google Hangout where you can talk with me about animation, ask anything you may be wondering about Seed in the Sand and get advice on your own projects, support my film production by becoming a patron on Patreon at the $5 level. Hangouts are scheduled for first Sundays at noon Pacific Time, 2 pm Central.

Setting Up My New Studio

We’re finally getting settled here in Kansas City. The meadow set is still in Oregon and I plan to work on finishing the meadow scenes next summer when I visit. Upon arriving at this house I had rented sight unseen based only on its location and a couple of photos, I was delighted to find a spacious basement! The house description only mentioned laundry hookups in an unfinished basement, so I didn’t know what to expect. The garage I had been planning to use as my animation studio is very small and subject to temperature extremes and I’ve heard that the hail gets pretty big around here so keeping my car in the garage seems like a better use of that space.

I’ve documented my steps to preparing the basement for shooting the dancing doll dream scenes. They will be dancing in a blank black space so the set is very simple. To get the space ready, I needed to build an animation table and cover four basement windows with duvetyne curtains.

This is the corner of the basement I'll be using for animation. My familiar shadow is staring back at me.

This is the corner of the basement I’ll be using for animation. My familiar shadow is staring back at me.

The basement is large, but the ceilings are not as high as I am used to. My first thought was to build a table that measured four feet by four feet, but I realized I didn’t need a table that big for this scene and decided to build two smaller tables so that I can use one for animation and have a second to use as a workbench until it is needed for expanding the animation space. My first step was to draw a plan for the table and make a list of supplies.

You see that I have listed the prices of some of the supplies and the Lowes product code for the metal sheet.

You see that I have listed the prices of some of the supplies and the Lowes product code for the metal sheet.

No work bench and no chop saw? No problem. I've got a big box and a miter saw. A little wobbly and slow, but it worked.

No workbench and no chop saw? No problem. I’ve got a big box and a miter saw. A little wobbly and slow, but it worked. Who needs a workbench to build a workbench!

I started by assemble the short sides of the table. My shadow keeps me company.

I assembled the short sides of the table first. My shadow kept me company.

Here is where it would have been handy to have a little help, but I managed to get the first long side attached to the short sides on my own and nearly square.

Here is where it would have been handy to have a little help, but I managed to get the long sides attached to the short sides on my own and nearly square.

Done! The table top is made with a 48" x 27" sheet of 19/32" plywood. covered with galvanized steel sheets. These sheets were easy to find at Lowes. I prefer the metal sheet I used for the meadow set because it was much thicker. This sheeting is thin and flexible. It'll work okay, but may not be as stable as the other. It was easier to attach to the table though, because I could just nail it on.

Done! The table top is made with a 48″ x 27″ sheet of 19/32″ plywood. covered with two galvanized steel sheets that I found at Lowes. I prefer the metal sheet from Umpqua Sheet Metal that I used for the meadow set because it was much thicker. This sheeting is thin and flexible and will work okay, but may not be as stable as the other. It was easier to attach to the table though, because I could just nail it on.

NOTE 12/30/14: These steel sheets are too thin! They don’t lay totally flat and they flex while animating. Moving one doll wiggles others! Also, I found an article explaining that magnetic attraction is weaker on thinner metal surfaces. That helps to explain why they are not standing as well as usual. Here’s the article on Steel Thickness and Magnetism. I’ve made it through the first major dance scene on the thin sheets, wobbles and all, but will be replacing them with a thicker gauge stainless steel back splash I found at Lowes. The thicker metal will work much better.

Once the table was complete, I turned my attention to blocking out the light. The basement had four windows to cover so I made curtains out of duvetyne, a very thick black fabric, and hung them with tension rods.

The Window

Duvetyne is used to cover the animation table and as the back drop.

My little corner of the basement is ready to go! The light blocking curtains are tucked into the rough stone windowsills and the animation table is covered in duvetyne fabric. The rest of the roll is hung as a back drop. A shim is placed under the right front table leg to compensate for the uneven floor. One of the doll puppets tests the table. The magnets in her feet hold securely to the metal sheet under the fabric.

Next step: Lights! Camera! Action!