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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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:
Here is a still image of the original stock footage with a link to Pond5.com:
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 Pond5.com:
Soon I will start building the soundscape!
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.
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 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.
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……
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.
UPDATE: OCTOBER 16, 2015
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.
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.
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: