Lighting 101

Well, the shooting hasn’t begun yet… but we have all the lights now, which is good.  There are two worlds of lighting in the film; the lights you can see in the set, and the lights you can’t.  Practical and external.

I’m learning what I can about both, though there is obviously a lot to learn.  I’ve been lucky to have help in all lighting matters so far.  The practical lights are done — Brian Parkinson (a.k.a. Parki) has spent many an evening and Saturday working away on these darned things.  Here’s the results…

Parki assembling the lights while his girlfriend Kim assembles tiny fingers…  (Note size of coffee cups — this was a Saturday morning.)

To the left, the diagram that Parki’s coworker John, an electrical engineer, made to map out the dimmers for the lights.  Whew!  To the right, the diagram Parki made for me to explain how to attach the wires together for my platform…

And, here it is!  The platform, all cleaned up.  This is the result of my first ever soldering project…

Platform from below.  The wires are so tidy now; I wish I’d taken a before picture — they were a mess.

… and now we’re plugged in.

With candles!  These are on a dimmer, so they’ll be able to flicker…

Here’s what’s behind the scenes of what Parki put together for me — I’ll be labeling these soon…

Here are the inner workings of the candle lights.

And here are the lights and grip things, waiting for the first shot to be set up…  I’m hoping to learn a few things about lighting from Marcus when he’s able to stop by, but there’s so much to do and he’s a busy guy…  I’m also hoping to get this first shot set up in the next couple of days, and start shooting this week.  We’ll see!

In the meantime, back to soldering…


Just wanted to show off the awesome animation Pohádky, by talented friends Pat and Marek of Tin Can Forest…  Beautiful designs, drawings, and animation here, animated to a Ukrainian folk song.  The characters and designs are inspired by traditional Czech and Ukrainian folk tales.  It’s so nice to see these characters come to life — congrats, guys!

Watch the animation here; visit their blog here

Animatic: Part 1

This past week or so has been a busy one.  I did a quick stop mo job at YTV, building and animating a stop motion gingerbread man.  Now I’m back to the film, putting together a new live action animatic.  Last Sunday I went to a friend’s (Susie’s) house to shoot her and her kids playing the parts of all the puppet characters.  I’ve also taken pictures of the set, with puppets for placement, to experiment with camera angles.  These pictures will create the backdrop for the final version of my animatic, while the footage from Sunday’s shoot will be roughly composited over top.

My mom reads this blog — hi mom — and she asked me to explain in more detail what an animatic is.  So I’m going to try and post bits of my animatic progress this week as it all unfolds.  The first 1/2 of the film is pretty abstract, so really all the character stuff takes place in the last half.  I need to figure out about 1.5 minutes of character animation.  The animatic is a VERY ROUGH representation of what the animation could look like.  It gives me an idea how long each individual move will take, and lets me work through the many questions that come up about timing, lighting, composition, continuity, etc.  It’s also a way to communicate and discuss ideas with others who are involved with this stage of the film…  i.e. DOP Marcus Elliott, who’ll be working his lighting magic on Friday.

I’ll show the part I’m currently working on:  the introduction of Sabela.  In the even rougher animatic, made several months ago, I used still frames from the storyboard to work out some rough timing.  One of those frames was stolen from Amelie, where Little Amelie is looking out the window.  Then we cut to an over-the-shoulder shot, where Sabela is looking out the window still, but she blows on it, steaming it up, and draws a line in the fog with her finger.  (This whole film pretty much bloomed out of this one image:  a puppet with breath, blowing fog on a window and then drawing into it.  I later found out that it’s been done, but this version will be so different… and hasn’t everything been done before?)

This is the first background plate image I took for Scene 13, the introduction of Sabela.  I realized later that the kitchen set shouldn’t be there yet in behind the window, so had to retake the shot:

So here’s Sabela in her Amelie moment, looking out the window with the empty set behind her.  I faked the lighting in Photoshop to try and simulate a dim glow coming from the base of the stage.

Here’s the background plate for Scene 14.  Sabela’s looking out the same window; now we’re looking at her from within the set.  We’ll probably use some semi-reflective mylar or something to get a stronger reflection, though she should be looking out into the darkness of the theatre audience, with the empty-glowy-theatre reflecting behind her.  I’d like to be able to control the reflection, so shooting with reflective material saves me from animating her twice and attempting to match the puppet to her reflection in post.

And here’s the 2 scenes put together in my animatic.  The number in the corner is the frame count, for reference.  I seamed together the footage of Molly (Susie’s 6-year-old) to attempt a sequence of movements that didn’t actually happen in the footage I shot.  It’s pretty abrupt splicing, but as long as it gives me the idea of what that movement is (it’s when she backs away from the window and lowers her arms) then it’s fine.  Music and voice are temporary scratch tracks, text is for timing only.

Two scenes down, many more to go!

Sponaneity vs. Careful Planning

I’ve been planning the animatic for the film these last few days.  I had done a VERY rough animatic using drawings from my storyboard already, which was finished off months ago.  But when talking with Marcus Elliott, DOP extraordinaire, he had some questions for me that I couldn’t answer yet.  Questions like:  how do we transition the set between certain scenes as set elements come on or offstage; what’s the distance some of these set pieces will need to travel; will the follow spotlight on the main character need to dim at any point; how much of the set do we see in certain scenes; etc.  My animatic and storyboards didn’t have enough info, and it’s quite hard for me to visualize some of these specifics until I really think it through and plan.

So, I’m planning all the details of timing, action, and characterization — all important things to do before a shoot.  I’ve also learned, though, that in general, it’s a good thing to be open to new things while in the process of creating.  The film would be awfully boring to work on if there were no new things to think about — if the animatic answered ALL creative questions down to the last blink.  Yawn.

The first step for me is taking pictures of the set.  These will provide the basis for a rough edit, as I move from scene to scene, using Erín‘s MP3 read of her poem as a scratch track to determine timing, and some past QAT recordings to use as placeholder mood-music.  Then I’ll be shooting some live action of the people, to superimpose over these plates.  Now, this is probably something that many stop motion animators don’t like doing… I feel like it’s similar to rotoscoping live action, which is a “cheat” that a lot of 2D animators I know would disapprove of.  But for this it seems essential.  I have a certain type of character in mind, and I’d like to get inside the head of that character, and find out how they would act within the situations of the film.  I happen to know a 7-year-old little girl who would be a perfect Sabela, so we’ll set up a small shoot with her, acting out the character’s movements, scene by scene.  Her sister, mom, and dad will play the family of the film, so very little acting is involved.

I’d like to think through possible angles for my background plates, without locking it down too firmly, so I know how to direct the action for the animatic.  Then I’ll piece it all together, overlaying the live action footage into the photo plates of the animatic.  I’ll have a guide to each character’s personalities and movements, and hopefully save a little room for some spontaneity as new ideas may arise.

The thing is, I think new ideas are more likely to spark if there’s a comfortable foundation to what’s happening in the day to day work of the film.  I had a pleasant surprise, for example, while working on the dining room set — which I had previously planned pretty precisely (oooh, alliteration!), right down to the details of colour palette, style of furniture, and overall design layout.  Somewhere towards finishing the dining room elements, I decided that the whole scene needed a lit-from-below gridded platform, which I then quickly built.  In the end, I think the new platform makes the room.  (I should take pictures of it, I’m really happy with how it turned out.)  I followed my plans, then my instincts, and ran with a new idea.

So it was being open enough to trust that new direction that allowed me to even go there, and it was the solid foundation I had in the planning that gave me the comfort level to arrive at a slightly new direction.  As in all things, I’m finding that there needs to be a balance between two opposing approaches, and that when spontaneity and structure work together harmoniously, the creative process can be a wondrous thing.

On a mildly related note, Keri Smith talks about a new movement of creative non-doing and the wisdom of farming philosopher Masanobu Fukuoka on her blog, The Wish Jar.

From the link about Masanobu Fukuoka, in his words:

To become one with nature — agriculture is an occupation in which a farmer adapts himself to nature. To do that, you have to gaze at a rice plant and listen to the words from the plant. If you understand what the rice says, you just adjust your heart to that of the rice plants and raise them. In reality, we do not have to raise them. They will grow. We just serve nature. A piece of advice I need to give you here. When I say gaze at a rice plant or stare at its true form, it does not mean to make an observation or to contemplate the rice plant, which makes it an object different from yourself. It is very difficult to explain in words. In a sense, it is important that you become the rice plant. Just as you, as the subject of gazing, have to disappear. If you do not understand what you should do or what I am talking about, you should be absorbed in taking care of the rice without looking aside. If you could work wholeheartedly without yourself, that is enough. Giving up your ego is the shortest way to unification with nature.

True, too, about making little cabbages out of rice paper…  Here’s where all the plans have to melt away into an open mind.

Final Touches, and a Start Date — Whew!

So, things are winding down, and it’s feeling like the calm before the storm right now.  The set is pretty much done — there needs to be some practical lighting wired up to dimmers, and some making room for magnets below the stage, but that’s about it!  I can’t believe it.

Now the real fun and frustrations begin!

The very last thing to build is the cabbage, which I kept putting off thinking about, for some reason.  There are going to be two cabbages in the film; one which is suspended from the set, floating in the middle of the stage… and one that gets cut up and made into a soup.  They’re supposed to be the same cabbage, but they require different practicalities in the way they’re built.

I’m using my favourite mediums to make the leaves… two layers of rice paper, coated in clear acrylic gloss medium, with a layer of aluminum mesh sandwiched in between.  The mesh is made for sculpting — it’s some sort of armature medium — but it’s also great for allowing things to be moldable for animation.

I started out with a balsa wood ball — these are layers of balsa wood sheets laminated together, then sawed and filed into a ball.  Balsa wood works great for what I want to do, because it’s nice and light, but can still hold hardware such as screws and screw eyelets, which will allow it to be suspended within the set.

I had some inspirational postcards and photos strewn about, so as I was photographing the cabbage, I discovered an interesting backdrop…

The calligraphic cards are from two postcards I got at the Getty Museum years ago…  they’re images from a book from the 16th century called Model Book of Calligraphy.  The other photo is an old favourite — it’s a building in Toronto that used to be the Ontario Hydro Building.  It’s really cool because it’s curved, and reflects the sky in a huge, distorted grid.  I’ve taken many photos of that building!

Somehow this sums up well the visual themes of the film:  there will be calligraphy, grids, and cabbage!

On to the next stage…  animatics, planning, and trial animations.

(The Start Date:  November 28th, 2008…)

Music & Plans


I want to announce, publicly, so you can all hold me to it, my intentions with what’s going to happen when the film is done.  That moment is so far away, but I have to think about these things; these thoughts and plans keep me motivated.

First, I need to describe the band who’ll be scoring the film.  They’re called QAT, and they’re based in Montreal.  They’re a group of 4 talented young musicians, who like to collaborate with other artists working in different media.  They also like to improvise… and they’re very good at it.  So, when the film is done, I’ll be taking the train to Montreal to meet up with them, and let them watch the film, jam, and come up with something great, on the spot, in a recording studio!

It’s a little daring, but I know they’ll do a fantastic job…

Listening to songs like Monts et Merveilles, or Improv4 Birds, on their Myspace page, I can’t help but picture little animations in my head.

And here’s a video (taken from their myspace) of part of a performance, which I really like:

OK.  So my plan is this:  When the film is done, I would love to organize a live performance somewhere (I guess Montreal would be the most practical place) where the film can be projected on a large screen, accompanied by a live performance by the band, and a live reading by the poet, Erín Moure.  Now, I haven’t actually run this idea by either the band or Erín, so I don’t know how open they’d be to it… the band I’m pretty sure would be totally into it, so I just have to ask Erín.  But this is many many months away, anyway.  It’s all just a dream right now.  At the moment, it’s nice to dream!

Ideally I’d love to do a performance like this in Montreal AND Toronto, but that’s the super-extra-special dream.  🙂

In the cherry-on-top version of the dream, the first live performance would take place on World Cabbage Day 2010 (because there’s no way the film will be done by Feb 2009.)

So, that’s the plan!  What do you think?