The Big Climb, and Some Underlighting

Last week I shot the next scene on the list, scene 19.  I picked a relatively easy one to start with, because I need to ease my way back into the project slowly… How easy it is to forget everything and lose momentum.

Anyway, in case you have also forgotten what scene 19 was all about, I’m filling in the shots outlined in this previous post.  I decided to go with version one of this sequence, in which Sabela examines the cabbage, and takes it over to the stove.  A simple enough set of actions… but how do we make it interesting?

So, after all the anxiety (and fun) that has gone into this project so far, I somehow decided to approach these sequences a little differently.  The previous shots here and here were very thoroughly planned… and they had to be, I think.  There was a lot happening, and because of the rig removal, I needed a repeatable sequence, so that I could create a backplate to paint out the puppet’s rigging.  Not yet sure if that idea will even work… but I got the feeling at the end of that shoot that there was a little something missing.  Maybe it lacked spontaneity?  Or could it have benefited from more walk cycle practice?  Yes, and yes.

There’s always a fine line between improvisation and practiced effort.  The balance is fine in any art form, but it seems to be particularly difficult in stop motion, because things happen so slooowwwly.  I imagine improvising music, for instance, might be a very different experience than improvising animation.  When it takes an entire day to contemplate the motions that, when played out, will eventually happen in a few seconds… well, the spontaneity takes on a different flavour.

Someone once explained the physical power inherent in Tai Chi by comparing the practice to the stretching of a rubber band.  If you stretch the rubber band to its limit, and colour it with a black marker, and then release the stretch, the black ink becomes much more concentrated.  Similarly, if you practice a martial art in slow motion, with greater attention to detail of each motion, and then speed up these movements, your movements will contain more force and precision.

It’s the same with stop motion, I think.  We are slowing down each movement, studying it in its smallest, 1/24-of-a-second detail, and practicing this kind of awareness of the world.

So, to just go into a movement without much thought… well it becomes difficult.  I experimented a little with this clip (and, after all this pontification, I should remind you that I am not the best character animator in the world… usually I feel like I am just practicing) by just winging it.  I knew I wanted the little girl to end up kneeling on the stool, and I kind of knew how she might get there, but I didn’t practice it beforehand, or do much planning (other than pretending that I was climbing a stool myself, to see how I would do it.)  One step followed the next, and somehow she ended up on top of the stool.  Whew!

I had a couple of problems with the animation — one of course is that she is supported from above, so there was nothing grounding her feet as she climbed.  The foot that her body is supposed to be weighted on was sliding all over the bar stool lower rung, and the only way I could really make it still was by toggling between frames until it lined up (more or less) with the previous frame.  This made her movements rather imperfect… But these days I am embracing imperfection, and just going with the flow.  She managed to go from A to B, and I find the pause in between kind of cute.

In the name of spontaneous animation, I am 95% resolved to do only one take for the remaining shots left of the film.  We’ll see how that goes.

Anyway, here is the (very short) clip:

Another thing I did last week was set up the lighting and camera for the next shot.  I’m quite proud of the way this turned out, because, though I’m using Marcus’ previous lighting setup, I modified it to suit the camera angle myself.  I put together a little animated clip of all the test shots, so you can see the progression.  Hopefully I can remember more or less the thought process that went into these decisions:

Unfortunately a lot of the nice details are lost here in the YouTube compression…  I’m still in the process of figuring out what to do about this, but I’ll probably switch everything over to vimeo soon…

Anyway, the breakdown:

  1. Here the lights are pretty much as they were in the previous shot, which was taken from an angle perpendicular to this.  Therefore the fridge behind her is in shadow, and the front of the cabinets aren’t lit very well.  She is being blasted by a single light — the overhead Dedo with the projection lens.  This light seems bright, but I’m not sure what to do with it yet.
  2. She is also looking a little scary when lit this way.  I try repositioning her, and moving the camera a bit, to see where she is framed best, and what her best angle is.  Do I shoot from above slightly?  Or below?  Just figuring this out.
  3. Trying a different position for the Dedo that is lighting her from the front.
  4. More of the same.  Also playing around with the softbox that is lighting the cabinets — it doesn’t seem to be reaching the front doors very well.
  5. Trying a more symmetrical camera framing.  Also moving the small softbox that was lighting the side of the fridge over, so that it lights the face of the fridge a little better.
  6. Now playing around with the background lights, catching the highlights of the fridge handle.
  7. Here I try lighting Sabela from below, using those LEDs that were lighting the back stage wall before.  Interesting?  Spooky?  Not quite sure yet.  But the light is creating a little glint in her eye, which I like.
  8. Moving around the LEDs, and the puppet…
  9. Trying a far-away fresnel, heavily scrimmed and gelled, to light the fridge and countertop doors.  I feel like this washes everything in light too evenly.
  10. Nix that light.  Now it’s just the overhead softboxes (one over the counter, one over the fridge), the LEDs shining up onto the puppet, and the overhead Dedo with projection lens, which I have now tilted down so it’s just hitting the cabbage.
  11. Now we’re getting somewhere… more moving around these lights…
  12. – 18.  More of the same…

19.  I pull the two LED lights a bit further away, to make the light less dramatic

20.  I turn the overhead Dedo off, just to see what it looks like with MORE dramatic underlighting…  Also add another LED in the background, with some diffusion paper, to add a bit of interest and contrast there…

Final — voilà!  I’m liking this effect.  I have moved the cabbage lower so that it’s not creating harsh shadows on her face.  She has a nice glimmer in her eye from the reflection of these lights, and the cabbage looks good.  The background details can be picked up, but are not too prominent.  I like the shadow of her that now appears on the fridge.

I’m shooting this (purposefully) with a really shallow depth of field.  The camera is set up with a macro lens, a 100mm, set wide open — to f/4.5.

Here are some shots of the lighting and camera setup:

Here you can see the low camera angle, and the fact that it’s upside down!  Luckily Stop Motion Pro flips the image right-side-up for me 🙂

Of course, I have to set her up with proper rigging…  the clothespeg / clamp setup is just temporary.  Since we can’t see her feet in the shot, I’ll have to come up with something sturdy that will hold her legs and clamp down to the set somehow.

Here’s the overall setup.  Some lights are not really being used in this shot, but I’ve left them there for future shots in this sequence where we might see more of the set.  I’m basically just using the two overhead Dedos — one at the far right, and one at the far left of the overhead grid — as well as the two softboxes — one over the fridge, one over the countertops.

The adventure continues… thanks for reading!

7 thoughts on “The Big Climb, and Some Underlighting

  1. Shelley Noble

    This post is freakishly genius!! You operate on a whole other level! The lighting looks incredible! I love those little floor strips. What a difference that make as fill/key lights. I had to comment before seeing the clips. Too excited. The observation/insight about concentrated detail and movement of a martial art vis a vis stop motion is so profound and illuminating! Perfect! Thank you for documenting your process.

  2. stephanie dudley

    Shelley — holy smokes, thanks! Those are quite the accolades…
    I’m really happy with those little LED lights. I think I’ll be using them a lot more in upcoming scenes. I got them at a dollhouse store… You have to warm them up with orange gels, as LEDs are always on the cool side, but it’s not a big deal.

    Justin, I appreciate that, thanks 🙂

  3. Sven Bonnichsen

    Shooting with the camera upside down…! I’m going to have to experiment with this concept — if I can get it to work on my own stage, it would save a whole lot of hassle!

    Thank you for documenting!

  4. stephanie dudley

    Hey Sven, Yeah it’s a pretty nifty way to get into tight spaces, or if you need to shoot from a low angle. The only downside (whcih I’m discovering on my current shot) is that you can’t see the #s on the focus ring. But there’s no other way I could have gotten the camera into that position. Hope the idea turns out to be useful to you!

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