Category Archives: Inspiration

Two Magical Videos, and a Question…

Land of Talk


Just wanted to share a couple of beautiful things I’ve seen recently.

Also, I’m searching around for a good way to show video on this blog.  I’m checking out the paid version of Vimeo, which apparently shows better quality HD…  So far I’m not totally convinced that the regular (“basic” free service) quality is better than YouTube.  I’ve looked around for wordpress plugins, and nothing’s worked so far.  Continuing to experiment…

The advantages to YouTube and Vimeo are of course their social aspect.  And it’s nice to have albums and ways to sort videos, and to have them all in one place.  Anyone have any preferences / recommendations for ways to embed video in WordPress, while linking to a more social video site?  With good quality HD footage?  (I feel like that’s asking a lot!  But there must be a way…)

Chris Landreth Talks about Character Animation

NFB ryan

I went to a talk on Friday featuring Chris Landreth, the writer / director of the 2005 Academy Award-winning animated short film Ryan.  I’ve mentioned this film here before, and how much I love it.  Chris had some interesting things to say about character animation, which, to me, summed up all the reasons why Ryan was so brilliant.  (He also showed us his new short, The Spine, which you can see glimpses of along with some behind-the-scenes footage here.)

Chris talked about his preferred visual style, which he calls “psycho-realism.”   This is where a character’s inner psychological state is represented by their outward reality.  If you’ve seen Ryan then you will immediately understand what he’s talking about here.  If a character is feeling broken and disheveled, he will look broken and disheveled.  Parts of his skull will be missing, and his hair will actively tangle, all by itself.  If a character is psychologically dependent on alcohol, the bottle will reach out to him with little arms.

There was a bit of a eureka moment for me when Chris brought up images of Francis Bacon paintings in his presentation.  I am a huge fan of Francis Bacon as well, and can’t believe I’d never made the connection before. Bacon also imposes his psychological state onto his subjects.  He could have certainly painted “realistically,” but his inner reality spoke far louder to him.

The reason Chris’ psycho-realism works so effectively is that there still IS such a strong sense of realism there.  The animation is so natural, so precise, so detailed (especially in The Spine) that the effects are completely believable, as opposed to being cartoony.  There is a fine line here.  Once you distort the human body, exaggerating features, or playing around with anatomy (taking out someone’s spine, for example), there is the risk of losing this “Francis Bacon” effect.  The reason why Bacon’s paintings, and Chris’ characters, are so effective in communicating their inner states is that there is still a solid hold on something we all know about humans.  The characters are realistic enough, in their appearance and/or movements that we can still relate to them.  (For a terrific explanation of this phenomenon see Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics.)

However, he also was careful not to get too realistic with the character design.  If you take out someone’s spine or the chunk of someone’s head, and that character is designed in a photo-real style, you run the risk of shocking the audience too much, or making the film impossible to watch.  (Anyone who’s in Toronto who has been to the AGO recently has probably been shocked by the Evan Penny sculpture.  Yikes.)  This, Chris explained, is commonly known as the uncanny valley phenomenon.

Now, I am not a “trained” animator, so many of the issues he raised were new to me.  I approach animation as a practice in observation of outer and inner worlds: the study of movements, and the study of mind.  This requires both meticulous planning and hypersensitive improvising:  the animator needs to take in some detailed observations on the real world, how things move, how people move, but she also needs to breathe some spontenaiety and aliveness into the character, which takes a particular clarity of mind to achieve.  Chris said the animators on his team never work from dope sheets — ever — but as a stop motion animator you don’t get endless amounts of keyframe tweaking, so I feel there needs to be some sort of dope sheet planning.  There are not unlimited chances to refine the movements.  So to me there’s an art — a definite challenge — to this quality of being both “in the moment” and to being tediously obsessed with well-researched details.

Chris described three common pitfalls for character animators.  The first was pose-to-pose acting.  As a practice, he sets up visual clues for his team in attempt to rid them of the pose-to-pose method of animating, favouring more of a method acting style.  Early animation, pre-Disney, used to do this:  the character goes into one distinct pose, then another, then another.  He showed us a juxtaposition of two clips that he typically shows his animation team:  one from a 70s production of The Merchant of Venice, starring Laurence Olivier; the other a 2004 version of the same scene, with Al Pacino.  Laurence’s acting seems a little cheesy in comparison — sorry, I don’t know how else to describe it — very blocky and staccato and exaggerated.  The contrast is so extreme — Al flows effortlessly through his movements as he speaks and somehow this just translates as being more modern, more naturalistic.  It doesn’t seem like he’s acting, though his movements are just as expressive as Laurence’s.  There’s a casual quality to it that makes it more believable as a non-staged event.  So, while pose-to-pose animation may have its place, Chris prefers the smooth natural flow of a method acting approach.

To achieve this sense of flow, the animators filmed themselves acting out the characters movements, over and over again.  And studied them.  In mind-boggling detail.  (Check out some behind-the-scenes footage of The Spine to see some of what went on here… very interesting!)

The second thing the animators had to watch out for was what he called “twitching meat.”  This is perhaps something more applicable to CG animators, since stop motion is plenty twitchy enough — but generally he was talking about the easing in and out of moves, and motion curves on a graph, that should never be perfectly smooth — we all move with synapses firing off left and right, and so our moves are not mechanical or direct.  Sometimes we hesitate, waver, and twitch.

And finally the third detail for the animators to think about was saccade, or tiny eye movements.  When in conversation with someone, our eyes are always flitting about, never just focusing on one spot, but examining a whole scene, or a whole face.  Our eyes, too, reflect an unease, in the mental disturbances which ebb and flow.  Our minds are rarely perfectly still.  The more nervous and unfocused a person’s mental state, the more their eyes flit about.

The Spine will apparently premiere at the Toronto World Wide Short Film Festival, and will be travelling around to various international festivals this summer.  Be sure to check it out — I don’t have any comments on it, because I only saw it once, and on a tiny screen; all I can say is that it is complex.  And that it’s difficult to watch, as Chris freely admits.


I received two very special pieces of paper this past week.  One was an animated card (a Phenakistoscope) from Shelley Noble — it’s so impressive to see a little card that animates like that!  So well done.  Thanks Shelley!

The second little piece of card was an advance screening pass for Coraline.  I was SO EXCITED to see this show last night that I waited in line an hour and a quarter before it started… and it was a very full house, so I’m glad I did. Chris Landreth (writer / director of Ryan) was there to introduce Neil Gaiman, who in turn introduced the movie and did a Q&A at the end.  I wish there could have been a whole second Q&A for Chris Landreth, but oh well.

I can’t really even describe how much I loved this movie.  So I won’t.  It’s very rare that there’s such delight in the visuals of a movie that tears come to my eyes while watching, and though it’s incredibly cheesy to say, that’s just what happened.  Several times.

The story was amazing, the visuals absolutely magical, and the animation, well…  I feel partly depressed and partly inspired, I guess.  The only thing is, if anyone is reading this, you MUST go see it at a theatre in 3D.  The 3D just adds so much to the experience, and the film is really designed to be seen that way.  Apparently here in TO it is only on 3D screens for the next 3 weeks, as some other silly 3D movie is coming out to take its place.  It’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen before (stop motion in 3D!)  Go see it!!!


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

Dinner at Susie’s

I had dinner at my friend Susie’s last week.  What is the significance of this, you ask?  Well, I’ll tell you.

Sometimes I feel like I was meant to make this film.  There have been many, many magical moments when things fly out of the universe towards me in a way that make me stand back in awe.  An example of this would be my friend Susie’s latest revelation.

The film, as you may know, is based on a Galician poem.  So I’ve been trying to incorporate Galician elements, here and there.   Until reading the poems from the book Little Theatres I had never even heard of Galicia before.  So I don’t know much about the culture, other than the brief glimpses given in Little Theatres.  Susie heard about this important aspect of the film — its language — and suddenly came out with the fact that she herself is Galician, even though all along she has been saying that she’s Spanish.  As far as I had always known, she spoke Spanish, and grew up there… but all this time she had sneakily been born in Galicia and not told me.  Or “Galithia,” as she pronounces it.

So, we were both thrilled at this discovery — she at the fact that I’m making a film in her parents’ native tongue, and I at the fact that she still visits there, and brings back beautiful Galician ceramic artwork and craftspieces.  Last week she offered to cook me a (semi-)traditional meal, introduce me to her kids (whom I’d never met before) and show me her lovely ceramics.

The relevance of this dinner, and the ceramic pottery, to the film will become apparent soon.  I will (later this week) show pictures of my dining room set, which is looking smashing, if I do say so myself.  More pictures from Dinner at Susie’s behind the cut…

Continue reading


I’m guessing most of you have seen this, but I’m embarrassed to say I finally saw it just this past weekend for the first time, after hearing so much about it.  So maybe some of you haven’t seen it either.  Worth seeing again, anyhow.  I can’t stop thinking about it — it is incredible.  Not stop motion — but just beautiful animation.

(NFB / YouTube Link Here)

Moleskine Art & Radiohead

Here’s some interesting artwork done using photo transfers in a moleskine book.  I enjoy his architectural stuff, and the technique he uses to transfer images, sometimes leaving elements blank:

Hollis Brown Thornton & How He Does This.

Also, this Radiohead video is kinda old news, but somehow these images haven’t left my mind… it’s pretty amazing to hear how they created House of Cards without a camera, and I love how they intentionally interfered with the laser signals.  I would like to do something like this WITH a camera, using stop motion, somehow…  To come up with this kind of ethereal, mutable sense of space.  It’s magical.

Radiohead:  House of Cards

Two Hands, Two Font Finds

One day I want to make a robotic syle of puppet, just so I can use these hands as they are here.  I love how the wires look like tendons.

Next these’ll get dipped in liquid latex and painted.

Also, I don’t know how many of you stopmotioners get excited about fonts, but I do.  These guys fell into my inbox in the past week or so:

Compendium at

Handmade, by Misprinted Type, at MyFonts

Aren’t they luscious?

Puppet #2

I’ve sculpted Puppet #2.  Don’t have a name for him yet.  (Click to enlargeth.)

I’m really fond of that ear.  The other one isn’t as good.  They’re hard to duplicate exactly, and I did this one first.

I used Medium-density plastecine, simply because when I first started doing these puppet sculpts, I didn’t know the advantages of working with hard clay, and just figured I’d make things easier on myself by not having to knead rock-hard clay for 4 hours before being able to sculpt it.  I’m new to the moldmaking process, so I’ve since heard the theory (from Ron Cole in his excellent mold-making tutorial) that the rock hard stuff is the way to go.  So when I run out of this stuff, I’ll try his advice.  But for now I really like the looseness and ease of modelling with the Medium.

Anyhoo…  I thought I’d mention my thought process behind creating these characters.  I don’t sketch my characters before sculpting them, which may be a mistake, but I just find I think better in 3 dimensions.  I start out with an idea for the character, i.e. all my characters will have these tiny pouty lips and some kind of exaggerated aspect to their features.  For this guy, it’s his nose.  I like the elongation and the knobbiness of it.  I wanted him to look friendly, so angled his eyes down a bit at their outer corners.  I wanted him to look a little awkward, so stuck his ears out a little.  Basically I work away at the shapes until they just feel right.

I’m not too influenced (consciously anyway) by stop motion characters that already exist.  For the characters I’ve sculpted so far, Sabela and #2, I’ve looked to illustration and sculpture.  Specifically, I like the illustrations of James Jean, Jonathan Viner, Sam Weber, and the sculptures of Scott Radke.  I think you can see a little of Jonathan Viner’s male characters in #2 here.  Perhaps.

Next, I need to make his plaster mold.  I’m juggling 5 different things at the moment.  One of which is letting the latex skin dry on a backup Sabela head — I should be posting the next stage of that casting, the urethane foam stage, in the next couple of days.  Then the legs, hands, and hair.