Thursday, December 24, 2009

Sheridan Film on Cartoon Brew

So if you're a serious fan/student/practitioner of animation, you know about Jerry Beck's site, Cartoon Brew. It's a real "go to" place for what is up in the medium.

So it's a very nice thing to see a recent Sheridan group film front and center on that blog.

You can read the entry, watch the film and read the very interesting (and passionate) comments by clicking here.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Meow and Amy Lee

Here's something kinda fun I came across the other day, and decided to post it on youtube. This was before I learned stop motion, but still had ideas that were animated (in a way).

It was imagined as a pilot, as a segment that might be dropped into a larger show, or aired on its own as a little filler/bumper.

The premise is based on a fun little girl character I imagined, named Amy Lee.

She loves to learn (about anything), and to present what she's learn to classmates and teachers. So each episode would be essentially a slideshow of drawings she'd done, and a voice over (her presentation) to go with it. And her stuffed cat, Meow, helps her (in strange and rather surreal ways).

It's fun to think about how much storytelling you can do in this format- still images, with voices and music over top...

I never had the chance to develop it further (life took me in different directions). I still quite like the rich crayon colours- crayons are so pretty and fun. I hadn't watched it in a long time, and I was taken aback by its warped sense of humour. She's a weird kid. I like that.

Oddly enough, all the "Bigfoot facts" are just that- if you research Bigfoot lore, all this stuff is true! Well, as true as can be.

Apparently Amy Lee takes her research seriously, even in the realms of cryptozoology.

Hope you like it.

Go Nerdland!!!

So the pilot episode of Nerdland (which was created by many, many people that are near and dear to my heart) is doing very well in the voting. In fact, it's in the lead. This is extremely exciting, because if it wins, it is a huge boost to landing more funding to make MORE episodes.

But it still needs MORE votes. You can vote as often as you like, apparently.

So here are directions from the show's creator, Ted:

1. Go to
2. On the right-hand side you’ll see a schedule of shows each with the word vote against it (I’m telling you this because it’s really not obvious not because I think you need help with simple instructions)
3. Click the “Vote” beside Nerdland
4. Do this 5,000 times

Help support stop motion productions! Go and vote!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Some Thoughts On "Improv Animation"

This long post might be more enjoyable to read if you open the blog in a second window, so you can watch the clip and pause it, as you read the piece. Essentially, what follows below is a detailed critique and though-process thing, essentially frame by frame for the above clip.

This clip is some test work I did in the classroom today, while students were doing the "Puppet Walk" assignment. If you want to know what the tests were, you can read the notes on youtube.

In brief, this animation was done to test puppet parts. And so all I really wanted to do was move the parts- a lot, and in big, dramatic moves, with lots of rotation and force, to see what would break. That meant in terms of performance or a specific action, I had nothing in mind.

But as you start a test like this, you can't HELP but start to perform through the puppet. A personality starts to emerge, and that personality starts to drive the animation.

At the start of the piece, he "sort of" bows, "sort of" stretches... then goes into a confident turning walk. The bow or stretch or whatever it is doesn't read as an action very clearly, especially when compared to the walk. The reason it doesn't read clearly as an action? The animation didn't know what action he was animating! At that point in the test, I was simply moving the puppet, trying to keep it smooth, and worrying about simply moving parts. And since I had no specific action (or even pose) in mind, it reads as... well... nothing.

Then the walk starts, and THAT reads fine. Because as I started that, I certainly knew I was about to turn and walk the puppet around. But how was it going to walk? Upright, slow, proud, elegant? Or squat, cramped, silly? Again, I didn't know, and just let it be fun. This works better than the bow/stretch, cause a walk is a walk is a walk- it's a forward movement of the puppet using its legs and feet. So on that basic level, it "reads". So not knowing how the puppet would walk till I literally did it results in animation that is still clear and fun to watch.

Then the leg kicks up and holds. That was the essence of improv, in that I had intended to keep walking the puppet, but as his leg came up and the puppet drifted backwards, I thought- "hey, that's fun looking- he stops walking and just kicks his leg up." I made sure I could pull it off smoothly and convincingly from where the puppet was currently posed, and then went for it. I aimed for a specific pose (now that I knew he was going to kick his leg up), and animated into that pose. But the fact that I didn't know I would do the held kick until I started to do it adds fun to the animation, and helps it feel like it's a living character who is capable of that sort of unpredictable behaviour/performance.

Then he goes into a stomping, chicken walking, tribal dance thing. Didn't know what it was, didn't care, just went with it and let it be fun, smoothly animated, carefully controlled, generally believable in terms of structure and anatomy... I was just rolling along now, cutting loose. Into the "head down" pose... and his head started to slide off its stem.

Again, it's improv time. I could have gotten some sticky tack and held the head on... but who cares, go with it. So his head falls off. Thump.

Now what? Improv again...

And here's where I cheated. I originally animated his arms coming up in alarm. From that I intended to have him search for his head. But I got bored with that instantly, and didn't know where I'd go from there. It just seemed predictable, for the puppet to reach for his head. So I deleted those frames, back to the point where his head fell off. And then I thought a bit...

So improv in animation can appear fast on screen, but of course the animator has some time (all the time!) to think a bit. So I figured his head has fallen off, what would that mean to a living creature? And of course it meant- instant death. And that, I knew, would be fun to animate. I love animating impacts. I love to dial up the gravity, so an impact feels hugely heavy. It's fun to animate, looks good, and gives really believable weight to the animated world.

So off he goes, tumbling to the ground. The foot thumping to a rest at the end is a nice touch, I think, and I always try to create some visual texture with big impacts, to layer things up.

The gag of the hand coming in was just something fun, again thought of in the moment. He picks the puppet up (I was careful to pose its legs "loose" to make it feel like a real creature rather than a stiff puppet), and takes it offscreen.

Now, in the infinitely creative realm known as "off screen space", anything can happen. In class I always have tonnes of semi-broken body parts lying around, and so screwing in an arm where he head was was a pretty easy gag.

As the hand puts the puppet back in to place, I was careful to cover the "new design" with my hand, to hold off on the reveal as long as possible, to get a nice "ta da!" moment for the audience as the realize he has an arm instead of a head.

The ball of clay was added as something for that new arm to deal with. I didn't know how yet, but I knew it would work out somehow. The first place I left the clay wasn't on screen enough, and so instead of deleting the frames and trying again, I just left it, and animated my hand in again, nudging it into a better part of the frame. It ends up feeling like a nice little bit of performance but it wasn't planned- again, improv is going with the flow, but also instinctively knowing that the way you are going with it will get you something good. Remember the murky bow/stretch pose at the start? Things can get messy and hard to read very quickly, if your instincts get foggy.

As the creature comes to life, I had no idea what kind of personality it would have, so I just animated in search of a nice pose. The proud, elegant "look at me" pose was reached just by animating around a bit (and deleting some frames) until something started to make sense, and would read nicely. He could have come off as scary, shy, dumb... but proud and elegant is what happened, so fine by me. It reads nice, and was intriguing in terms of what I might be able to do with it.

I was getting tired/bored now. The thoughts of having the puppet slowly and carefully pick up the clay wasn't to my liking- it would require too much finicky, fine animation. I just wanted it done. So a splat it was! Nice and energetic, big moves, strong lines of action...

Having the ball roll away was again, thought of in the frame before the hand smashed down. It seemed fun, and added a surprise the audience wouldn't see coming (let alone the puppet).

So it rolls away. There is a beat. And in a time-honoured tradition of animators getting tired and wanting to end their work somehow, the hand comes back in again- this time to flatten the puppet like a pancake.

I very much enjoyed the follow-through on that impact. The actual hand coming in is only 2 or 3 frames, but the puppets legs and arm flying up is what completely sells the force of the impact.

Then the hand lifts to limp puppet away, and we're left with the clay. It was yet another turning point. How do I end this thing?! I considered animating my hand again, this time dropping off a smaller piece of clay, and letting them duke it out somehow. But that would open yet another chapter of animation, and I was DONE.

So the hand comes in, and the ball crawls on. The hand retreats, the end.

What I like is that it suggests some fun/interesting/thought-provoking metaphysical concerns, about creators and their creations... masters who punish, then reward... the unpredictable nature of creators, be they Gods or gods or parents... or animators.

Whew. I guess that's partly why stop motion constantly engages me- with each frame you're moving through vast realms of the possible, making things concrete out of nothing, riding your instincts and gut impulses in an effort to communicate clearly with the audience.

That never seems to get boring.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Get Some Clay- Animate It!

Something through the Sheridan stop motion channel I maintain at youtube.

It's very easy to get yourself set up at home for stop motion. And once you're set up, you can let your imagination (and animation skills) go wild...

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Pepper's Ghost

I'm a sucker for physical effects. If it can be done "on-set", or "in-camera," it just gives me such a kick.

One such tried and true effect is Pepper's Ghost. It essentially hinges on the transmission and reflection of light. Wikipedia does a better job of explaining, so for that you can click here.

It's simple, elegant, and when done well- beautifully effective. You just can't beat an effect that literally happens before your eyes. It feels real... because it IS. Real beams of light, being directed and controlled, for effect.

The effect has been used by many large amusement park shows (Disney's, for example), but I think its use in low budget traveling sideshows is more interesting. I love the idea of something so mystifying and effective happening in an otherwise rag-tag setting.

A classic example is the "Girl To Gorilla" attraction.

I've embedded a video below that is a charming home made version of the "Girl To Gorilla" trick.

It's wonderfully effective, and the creepy night-vision quality only heightens the excitement!

It warms my heart to see physical effects still wowing the crowds (and freaking out little kids)...

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Tis The Season

Christmas is a time to build lasting memories.

Just ask any of the kids in these Santa photos.

Stop Motion's Rising Popularity

I did an interview a few weeks ago for a Canadian daily paper. I was asked my professional opinion, essentially regarding why stop motion seems to be rising in popularity these days.

Anyway, it's a decent article, with a nice overview of some major moments in the medium. He did his research. He must be a real fan.

You can read it here.

I'll point out one critical thing, though- the article takes the angle that drawn animation is "dead". That's the angle of the article, not ME. I see the vibrancy of drawn animation every day in the program at Sheridan.

Other than that, it's a nice little piece.

Good On Ya, Stop Mo

Cartoon Brew has recently done a bit of a summary of stop motion features for this year. There's been several, and all of them very solid (at the very least).

You can read the piece, and the comment threads, here.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Remarkable Paper Animation Ad

This is simply remarkable. Big thanks to 3rd yr Sheridan Animation student Aminder Dhaliwal for the link.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009


You just can't go wrong with Morph. Some of Aardman's first stuff. The clips are little gems of acting and clever premises. Super charming, and just so well done. There's a bunch of them you'll find near this particular youtube link, so enjoy.

And- I love the voices.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Tour of Stop Mo Class

Here's a video that gives a little overview of how the stop motion class at Sheridan works. I'm pretty proud of it, since it sees 120 students learning an intro to stop motion every year. It's required a lot of planning, organizing, and energy from me, and lots of support from Sheridan to see it happen.

We've also had the great people at Cuppa Coffee Animation help us with puppet armatures. Without their help, we wouldn't have such a great course.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Update on Nerdland Premiere

Regarding my friend's show that needs your votes... if you follow the link in the posting below, you'll find the film. You can easily watch it, and make a comment.

But what you might not notice is that there is ALSO a vote button. The web page has a very bad design, in that you can barely see the vote button. It is beside the name of the show, in a column of show names, on the right side of the page. It's a very light grey button, that says "vote" right beside "Nerdland".

I think it's terrible that a poor web design might reduce the show's chance to succeed, especially since so many fine people have worked so hard on it.

So if you've already watched it, go back and find the vote button. If you haven't watched it, watch it.. and vote for it!

Robert Zemeckis Must Be Stopped

Short of inflicting personal physical violence on the man, please help the world of motion picture storytelling and humanity in general by stopping Robert Zemeckis.

His most recent mess is a mo-cap monstrosity that pillages a classic holiday tale- Charles Dicken's A Christmas Carol. I've seen the trailer, and that is more than enough. It's WRONG.

Stop Zemeckis by not seeing this film. Ever. And by telling all your friends to not see this film. He is not making movies, he is making atrocities, and trying to pass them off as "the future of film making". If it bombs, he might not get to make another.

I have never used this blog as a place to call people to action, but I can't stop myself now.

The fate of motion pictures is in YOUR ticket-buy, DVD renting, PVR-clicking, and downloading hands.

I have had it with this guy. Please stop Robert Zemeckis.

Thank you.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

24 Hour Stop Motion Student Film!

I love it when students have the guts to go for something on their own. When a student doesn't wait for a class to catch up, or to be given official "permission" to make something... he or she just goes for it. That act of "going for it" is always inspirational.

Recently in the Animation Program at Sheridan, the students initiated a "24 Hour Film Challenge". It wasn't for marks. It wasn't for credit. It was because they love animation, and want to become better at it. Those that accepted the challenge locked themselves in a room for 24 hours, and animated. Most did drawn animation. Above is a stop motion effort.

This was created by 3rd year animation student Jen Bamford, who seems to have been officially bit by the stop motion bug. The animation isn't perfectly smooth, and of course the trial version software has a watermark on it (student budgets). But you see through those things immediately. The film has a character in a great situation, one we can all relate to. And the creative use of materials (wire, tinfoil, papertowel), with simple but effective lighting, is great to see. So often students get tied to the idea that a puppet MUST look a certain way (ala Coraline, or NBC), when in reality a puppet can be anything. And an animated world can be anything (in this case, paper towel!)

This student's animation will get smoother. Her overall tech will only improve. But what is already there in this animation is a sense of story and development between characters, and a sense of tone and atmosphere that's instinctively very solid.

AND- it was done in 24 hours.

I think this idea of making an animated film under this time constraint is a fantastic learning experience. The final product won't be polished, but that can actually mean there's a manic, primal energy to the piece. It's so easy to take that energy and life and see it stamped out through the careful work of refining an animated concept. It's encouraging to see something raw, and lovely.

As a teacher part of your job is to (hopefully) inspired students. It's a great payback when on their own, students return the favour to their teacher.

Coraline Script

Well, I think the title of this posting says it all.

If you want to download the script to the film, click here.

Thanks to Mark Mayerson for the tip...

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Nerdland Premiere- Help It Succeed

A friend of mine has created a pilot, through Cuppa Coffee Animation.

Cuppa Coffee is Canada's mega stop motion studio.

The show is called Nerdland, and the time has come to support it online. With online support, votes, comments, and so on,the show just might make it into full series production. That's an incredibly difficult thing to achieve.

Please do your part to help! Go here, and watch it. Then comment, and vote.

This is from Ted, the creator:

"... Nerdland, an animated pilot I created and codeveloped with the fine people at Cuppa Coffee Animation is set to premiere on line at on Friday the 13th of November.

It will run for the week,and will be open to comments and votes. As far as I know, Nerdland is the only stop motion show against a sea of primarily flash-animated pilots, so we stand out from the crowd right out of the gate, so I hope that adds to our appeal.

Nerdland is the strange adventures of a group of twenty-something nerds (Kevin, Jarhead, Patty and the Beast)trying to survive in a decidedly nerd un-friendly world. The message of the series is that we are all Nerds, each in his/her own way.

Any comments you make or votes you cast would be greatly appreciated. Many talented people worked very hard to make Nerdland, (and the other pilots too for that matter) and developing the show from the ground up with Cuppa's guidance was a lot of challenging fun for me as well. I hope you like it. Given Nerdland will be premiering on the internet, positive comments would be refreshing, since most will just be insults a curses from angry loners.

We could use your support, so write in and let them know what you think! Unless you hate it, then write in and lie like crazy! Seriously, I hope you enjoy it.

Also, if you could pass this email along to friends a coworkers as you see fit, the more comments on each show the better for everybody. The pilot project offers a great opportunity for the public to voice an opinion on what we watch.

Thanks in advance for your help in this

Ted Heeley
Creator/co developer

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Potter Puppet Pals

These clips are all pretty killer. I don't know much about who is making them, and posting them. But I love how they are essentially puppet shows, that use some camera editing to make it a bit more punchy.

They are all darn funny. This one really tickles me.

And I don't really even like Harry Potter.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Where The Wild Things Are- Some Further Thoughts

I was sick over the weekend, and couldn't see it then, as I wanted to.

But I played hooky from school this afternoon, and got to see it. For me, it really delivered. I loved its particular pace, its distinctive and unusual pacing, and how determined the film was to keep the drama down at "kid level". Essentially, much of the drama that unfolds is schoolyard in nature. There are relationships established, then broken, then mended. There are alliances and factions that struggle and pull apart... then collide together again.

When I was a kid, in the course of one school day I would go from being mortal enemies with certain classmates at morning recess, to being on the same team in a game of football at lunch, to happily recounting an episode of Airwolf from the night before during afternoon recess, then back to enemies by home time. Then the same drama, the NEXT day (only different).

This films builds its drama from this perspective. Its the story of kids (albeit most of them monsters), playing and living with each other, and learning (to certain degrees) about themselves and the world, through this interaction.

The drama never goes epic in a typical Hollywood sense, and I found that so refreshing. There's no alien menace. No 80 foot tall hamster... no overt, mindless spectacle. The drama is all about emotional states of being, and feelings.

There's no wise-cracking, no catch phrases. No one gets hit in the crotch, and there's no fart jokes. There's no Cuba Gooding Jr., either. It's a terribly honest, earnest, heartfelt film, thank God.

The complexity to the characters and their relationships is another facet of the film that deeply impressed me.

For example the main monster, Carol, doesn't fit any simple mould. He's not the "tough guy". He's not "the wimpy but smart guy". He's not the "bad guy." He ranges from being an equal of Max (the main character) in terms of intellect, to being a loyal subject of Max a few minutes later. In time, he reveals father-figure aspects, particularly in a wonderful scene when he reveals to Max his "hobby", a miniature world of tiny sticks and mud (shades of any Dad's basement train set).

Carol is also father-like in his physical size and strength, and temper. And so within this one character, we find facet after facet that continues to build his complexity throughout the story.

We later find outright rage and jealousy in Carol, stemming from a refusal to accept that things in life change. Carol behaves like a frustrated child (bringing back to the forefront his childlike nature that we first found him exhibiting), but now it carries with it a truly frightening potential for harm from powerful teeth and claws.

Carol is manic: he is a crying child, he is a raging adult, he is truly a "wild thing"... and he is utterly fascinating as a result.

This character complexity is carried onward to each of the monsters, and it was with deep pleasure that I found myself getting to know them (for better and for worse) over the course of the film.

There's much more I could say about what I loved (since I loved everything). But a few other thoughts, in particular:

- the GUTS this film has, to be so honest, and straightforward, and to NOT pander (to studio expectation and the expectation of a dumbed- down multiplex audience) for SPECTACLE. for BOMBAST. for EXPLOSIONS, AND WISECRACKS AND FLIPPPANT, TOSSAWAY CONTENT (all the caps are very much meant to be obnoxious. blame Hollywood).

-the character design, fabrication, and blending of physical effects and cg. It's hands down the best I've ever seen. It's shocking, terrifying, and wonderful, all at the same time. There's a play with scale in terms of facial features that makes you feel like what a baby must see adults as- all eyes and noses and teeth.

- the character animation. More effective, in terms of drawing an emotional response from the audience, than any similar efforts I've witnessed. I fell in love with each character, and stayed in love, for every scene.

- the devotion to bringing Sendak's world to feature-film richness, as opposed to a "Jonze and Eggers" world. The production did its homework, in terms of knowing larger themes, imagery, and concepts that run throughout Sendak's work (not just WTWTA), concepts such as playful scale, and oral obsessions (eating, being eaten). I bet the Lindbergh baby's even in there somewhere (I'll find it eventually). Would Terry Gilliam have been so respectful? Robert Rodriguez? Or would they have taken the slim original story and inflated it with their own personal imagery/obsessions.

I'm not truly satisfied at the movies very often. Hardly at all, in fact. By "satisfied" I mean that when I hope and hope and hope that a new release will GET me, will really move me, deeply, it almost never delivers.

For me, this film proves that it's OK to still have a little hope that movies still matter.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

More on Wild Things

Wow, I hadn't read this before posting what I just posted. It's also from, and it's actually very funny. It largely points out what this film is NOT (meaning, how Hollywood's slime-dripping machine has been kept at bay). It nails things wonderfully.

Anyway, there's a theme running in what people are saying: the film transports them back to childhood... and that the film is remarkable.

Where The Wild Things Are- Opening This Weekend

I've written before about my excitement for this film. You can find it under the label "Movies".

But now it's coming up on opening weekend, and I'm getting nervous. I want it to be everything I hope it will be, but mainstream movies so rarely deliver perfection (or near perfection). So maybe it won't live up. I'll write a review and/or insights after I see it, which I hope will be this weekend.

I plan to see it alone, so I can simply experience the film for myself.

There's tonnes of stuff in print and online about the production, there's a nice little behind-the-scenes thing as well, through Apple trailers. Then there's the trailer itself.

That trailer is why I am hoping so highly. Every time I watch it (and I've watched it approximately four times now), I choke up. And I don't know why. It's too beautiful, too powerful, too much emotion to NOT choke up, I guess. It has something to do with how confidently and honestly the trailer seems tapped in to childhood experience.

As a new Dad, I often see my son (who is 17 months) looking up at my while I'm doing dishes or making a meal, and think to myself "Wow. I can remember seeing my Mom from that same angle. And I can remember how wonderful and safe that felt." So as a new Dad I'm constantly reminded of childhood, but it's just incredibly rare for a work of art to hit it so strongly.

I suppose it's a bit like when a beautiful piece of music moves you to tears. You could try to break the music down into its component parts to figure out why its effect you that way. But all that really matters is that something you've come across has had the power to move you deeply and profoundly.

When I watch the trailer, I feel like I'm a kid again. It's as simple as that. And I don't mean in a Robert Rodriguez sort of way- "Cool explosions! Monsters! Fun! Better than math homework!" Those films are made by well- intentioned adults to make simple entertainment for kids.

I mean this trailer feels, sounds, and for all I know, smells like childhood. I'm transported, and it touches me so much. The trailer makes me want to scream and laugh and cry and hide and throw things all at the same time. It scares me, and it enthralls me and it amazes me, all at once.

It's not just me. Read this. It's a review from

I need to stress, I think this website is far from critical when it comes to films. It likes everything, it seems. But this review is written from such a personal, touching place. I think this movie is doing that to people. It's making adults see and live like kids again (if only for a few hours of screen time).

So I'm going to keep hoping, and see it as soon as I can.

If I can't hope, why keep making or watching movies?

Update to follow...

Friday, October 9, 2009

TFS-GreenScreen Part1

Boy am I glad I video taped a lot of stuff back in the spring when I was in production. Now, I can just upload videos, and still feel like I'm keeping my blog alive (when I don't have much time to actually write postings).

Anyway, about this video- green screening (or bluescreening) are pretty common practice in stop motion. You use it for all sorts of reasons. In this example, I am using green screen because the final shot would be too complex to shoot all in front of the camera at one time. The shot entails 4 characters, separately entering the frame, spinning down down down into a vortex of insanity... then, a flood of rabies cells grows from the centre of the vortex, and eventually swarm the whole frame. Try THAT all at once, in front of the camera. And have fun in HELL.

So instead I shot the vortex as a cycle of animation. It was just a card painted to look like a vortex, that I did about 20 frames of animation on, until I had a nice cycle. That would be the background element.

Working towards the camera from the background, the next layer of elements is 4 different puppets. I shot them all on their own, on a green background. I had them posed and animated imagining that later, they would be digitally brought into the frame in the extreme FG, and rotated and scaled down (as if falling away into a vortex).

The final element was a whole bunch of clay rabies cells, each animated this time on bluescreen. They would all be composited together and scaled accordingly, to create the swarm effect.

They were shot on BLUE instead of green, simply because the rabies cells were green themselves. If they were shot on a green background, it would be nearly impossible to crop them out from the background. So that is often why green is used, or blue is used- if the characters have a colour that's the same as the bg, trouble will ensue in post.

I guess an important thing to realize is- sometimes camera/lighting people lose themselves in setting up a green or blue screen. They get really picky, and overly insane about the light on the screen. There are some important things, covered in the video, but it can also be VERY simple and easy. Compositing software makes the cropping process very easy. In the past I've had very impressive results with just some iMovie plugins, a table lamp, and a piece of blue construction paper!

That being said- working smart at the production stage is what makes it "easy" in post. So hopefully this video will help in that sense.

I'll post a "Part 2" another time...

Friday, October 2, 2009

Balance- Completely Humbling

This film just blows me away. It's so insightful, and so character-based.

And its central concepts are so perfect, and clean, and simple. Remarkable.

TFS- Camera,Lighting and Puppets Video

Here's a little behind the scenes video from my film, dealing with cameras, camera moves, lighting, and puppets.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Teaching Is Tuff

It's been a very busy to start to the school year.

I've got a great combination of things I'm doing this semester: lectures on story and layout for 1st year students (all 120 of them), a 3rd year stop motion class (all 120 of them), and the mentoring of a great group of 4th year students as they work on their graduation film projects (4 of which are stop mo, and the other 7 are traditionally animated).

The flip side being, I don't have much time for flogging the ol' blog, what with a family to tend to!

As soon as I can breath a bit, I will be back with updates as regularly as I can. I hope you keep checking back, I'm really looking forward to getting back in action, blog wise.


Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Puppet Making Part 5- Feet and Legs

One of the most important things you need to consider is, quite simply, how will your puppet stand up?! The battle against gravity is a huge factor in stop mo (a fact that becomes very apparent when you try to walk a puppet). You have to ensure that your creation will stay on its feet, while it performs.

The easier way to achieve this is tried and true. You embed a "rare earth" magnet in the foot of the puppet. Then you build a set that has a thin surface, which you can access from underneath. From underneath, you apply a second rare earth magnet, and shaboom- your puppet is standing up.

These rare earth magnets are not your typical fridge magnet. Go get them at specialty stores. In Canada, look to Lee Valley Tools.

Often, the magnet from underneath is dropped into a metal cup, which intensifies its powers, and is also secured on to a short piece of dowel. This is what's known as a "magnet wand" (in the biz), and it just makes it easier to manipulate the magnet from under the set.

To embed the magnet in puppet's foot, you first go from your trusty scale drawing. You create a loop of armature wire that is ever-so-slightly bigger than the magnet (they magnets come in different sizes, find the right one for the size of your puppet). Then you braid your wire upward, as you would with an arm. Make sure you've used lots of armature wire, so you can trim the excess to the length you need for the leg.

Then angle the foot's loop at 90 degrees. You now have the foot armature, and the leg armature. "But I want a toe, too!" you say? Go for it. But this method gets you a nice foot/leg combo, and you have a heel joint, and you can do great animation. If having a floppy toe is essential, then do it. But in general, if your audience is focused on the toe flapping in what should be an overall engaging animated story, you've got problems. The last thing Joe or Jane average will be paying attention to is whether you have an animated toe. But, if you NEED that toe, you can fabricate a foot that has a magnet in the rear and a toe that can be animated. Design it, test it, and build it, you'll be fine. But I recommend doing it this way, first.

You will use epoxy (see earlier postings) to embed the magnet into this loop. Be sure to keep the ankle part of the wire free and clear of epoxy, so it can move. Another tip- be sure to keep the base of the magnet that will rest on the set level and smooth, and free from epoxy "gunk". You want a perfect surface between set and bottom of foot, so the magnets can do their thing. If there's gunk on the sole of the foot, you'll get wibble-wobble in your puppet. Not good.

After you've embedded the magnet, you can continue to build up the foot into the shape of the shoe you want. Of course, this technique (of embedding a big magnet) leads to, you guessed it, BIG shoes. If that offends your design senses, there's other options.

But back to the leg/foot at hand. With the foot done, just use your scale drawing to figure out where the leg bones will go, and where the square brass stock will go.

As with the other parts that have brass at their ends, that can slide in and out of armature blocks (hips, torsos), the fit will be a bit loose. That means as you walk that puppet, a leg will want to actually fall out! Eeek. So use a thin layer of contact cement to bond the leg into the hip block. Not too much, or you'll never get it out if it breaks.

For legs that will have pants or long skirts, you just need to bulk it up with some foam. If you will actually see skin, you need to use the latex build up process, as discussed earlier. Again, costume means a great deal to puppet making. A long skirt means easy legs to make. A short skirt means a lot of skin that needs to be made (tricky). Below is an image of the Mom puppet's legs. She has a fairly long skirt, tha shows a bit of skin at the bottom. As you can see, there's latex skin built up to where the skirt will, but not much further.

So let's say you want dainty, "Tintin" style feet. Feet that are far too tiny to embed a big honking magnet. You can use tie-downs.

This entails embedding a tiny nut instead of a magnet in the foot. Then you put holes in your set where you need them, and feed a bolt of the right size up and into the nut. There you go, a sturdy puppet with tiny feet. The trick is that it's now tough to move that puppet around, as you must drill holes in the set for each step that puppet takes.

Good with the bad- magnet feet are pretty easy to make, and easy to move around on the set, but your design might suffer.

Tie-down feet look elegant and beautiful. But they are trickier to make (those tiny nuts are tricky to embed) and are trickier to move around on the set.

You get to choose, lucky puppet-maker.

As with all these approaches, you will have worked hard to create a part that just might break. So since legs/feet take time to make, I recommend a story that doesn't involve millions of shots of puppets walking. The less stress you put on the legs/feet, the less chance they will break.

If your story insists on lots of walking, so be it, but go into your production planning knowing you need to take time to make extra legs, cause odds are they will break.

Also, extreme animation in terms of lots of jumping, deep bending will stress your leg/feet wires a lot. So again, either create a story that doesn't require this (and you won't break your legs) or if it's essential to the story, make yourself extra legs.

It's much easier to make extra parts in advance of shooting so that during animation, if you break a part, you can just swap in a new one. If you have to stop everything, pull out all the puppet making materials, start working with epoxy, latex... it really slow things down. Have extra pieces made during the puppet making stage of things... you'll thank yourself during animation.

How many extra parts to make- spines, arms, legs, feet, necks?... it completely depends on your story, and on YOU as an animator. Some animators are tough on puppets, they stress the puppet a lot to get a performance, and thus break a lot of parts.

Other animators have a lighter touch, and puppet parts last longer for them.

I didn't break a single puppet part on TFS, but I had extras of parts standing by. The animation was fairly limited to some walking, running, (each puppet only have to do a bit of each), then facial animation, basic weight shifts... some throwing, general hand acting... so nothing MASSIVE in terms of stresses.

Plus, I made the parts well. And I am an experienced animator that can get a performance out of the puppet without snapping things. I also animated in what you'd generally call a "Good Enough For TV" style. It's pretty limited, abbreviated, conservative. It let me get lots of shots done quickly, got the point of the story across, but didn't take super long, since I didn't have much time scheduled to animate. All these factors worked together so that I didn't break any parts.

Only experience will really tell you how many extra parts you need. So get making puppets and puppet films... it's the only way to learn.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Amnon Buchbinder- Relaunch

A former prof of mine from my Grad School days, Ammon Buchbinder approaches story with a dedication and devotion that is truly inspirational.

He's a film maker, teacher, writer, story editor, and has a LOT to reveal regarding story.

He's just overhauled his site, so be sure to check it out.

Montreal Stop Motion Festival!

Wowee. It's finally happened. A fairly local film festival devoted to the medium of stop motion.

And in the coolest city in Canada. I must be dreaming...

There's NO time to waste though (entry deadline is end of September) so send your flick in now!

Festival runs October 24th-25th, 2009.

Here's the official site.

Nick Craine

The above pic is "R. Crumb" by Nick Craine. A bigger scan is to be found on Nick's blog.

Memory lane time: as a Grade 9 (or was it 10? 11?) high school punk, arts-oriented, growing up in the sticks of Southern Ontario, I didn't exactly have direct inspiration in terms of peers. I had to look for it. And so I turned to the local comic book scene in the nearest biggish city- Guelph. That's where Nick Craine was, a comic artist with his very own title- The Cheese Heads.

Nick was kind enough to introduce me to the "urban" lifestyle: coffee, edgy comics like RAW, more coffee. Some more coffee.

He took a look at my modest sketch book with lots of crazy monsters and weird little comics, and simply encouraged me. Nothing fancy, he just said "This is good. Keep going". Proof-positive of how easy it is to influence someone (for their own growth) by simply taking a minute.

Today, Nick has widened his world of art into music, illustration, and film making. His official site is here.

And he's recently started a blog, which is here.

His blog is crafted in a personal and honest writing style, with thought-provoking insights. Not to mention the visual art work (which is wonderful).

Go check it out.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Eyebeam by Sam Hurt

A few years ago, I was lucky enough to inherit 3 collections of a very special comic strip- Eyebeam, by Sam Hurt.

Part of what I love about these strips (which are all from the 80s) is how deceptive they are. You might pass them by... unless you stop and really look.

Their visual style is not flashy. In fact, at times (in the early strips), it's a bit laboured. But that's part of what I like. They have the look of someone who NEEDED to make the comics, whether he was a great visual artist or not. As he went on, Hurt got more polished, but not in the early ones. Today, you see a lot of strips that are drawn by very practiced, trained artists- but that are simply not entertaining in any way. Yawn.

These strips are very honest, visually... and in time, as you keep reading, the rough style itself actually adds to the humour and enjoyment. Things look funny in this world.

But the main attraction is how creative the story lines are. They aren't really like anything else. Essentially, it's a bit of a sit com style, with recurring college-aged kids that inhabit a decidedly surreal landscape. But it's quietly surreal, nothing flashy. It's just... strange, with twists off into pretty crazy fantasy realms. It's nuts, but in a very controlled, funny, mature fashion.

Best of all- the characters are likable, and are sustainable over the long format. They use big, smart words (gasp!), have functioning brains, and spend time pondering the bigger things in life (but never at the expense of a good smile by panel 4).

Super charming, super entertaining... and very much under the radar.

It's also set near Austin, Texas, so it has to be cool.

Here's the archive. It seems Hurt is still working the title, but I haven't really checked the more recent entries out. I recommend starting at the beginning.

It's a lot more fun to read it in print. If you ever come across the collections, grab em all up.


Monday, August 31, 2009

TFS- Studio Tour

Here's a vid that gives an overview of how I organized the shoot, in terms paperwork and studio space:

Saturday, August 29, 2009

No Festival. No Fear.

Colour me naive, I guess. I got to the convention around 1pm, and the line was... how shall I put it... ridicularious. It stretched. And stretched. And stretched. And this was to just buy a ticket (implying the madness of packed fans that would await inside). From what I could figure, it seemed like it would easily by at least an hour wait.

I had truly figured I'd simply walk into the centre, mosey up to the ticket booth and say "one, please"... and stroll into a wonderful world of spooky goodness.

Next year, I'll either go on a Friday (which I hear is more mellow), buy a ticket in advance, go earlier, or find a victim/sucker/pal who will line up like this, so I have someone to complain to.

Instead, I went to see the new Halloween, Rob Zombie's latest flick.

House of 1,000 Corpses? Very interesting. He really announced himself as a filmmaker. The flick had some serious problems, though, in a dozen ways. But...

Devil's Rejects? A really wicked surprise, in a good way. Intense, uncompromising, brutal, but charming, funny, exciting, tasteless... I was pretty impressed. Mr. Zombie was no hack (no pun intended).

The first Halloween remake. Interesting take seeing Michael Myers as a kid, etc... some great casting... amusing. Mildly entertaining. Not being a huge fan of this horror franchise, it didn't do much for me. Was not looking forward to Zombie's Halloween 2. Would be boring and a lame cash grab. I figured I'd wait till his next original film came out.

Was I surprised. Maybe it's cause I was eager to get my horror on (but was denied at the convention), or maybe it was cause I saw it on the big screen (saw the first one on dvd), but this film kicked some pretty serious slasher film ass.

If you're not a fan of slasher style horror (I was the perfect age in the 80s for the birth of the genre), skip it (obviously). If you're a fan of intense, nasty, brutal horror with some touches of amazingly spooky stuff (the Pumpkin Court scene is amazing) you really should see this. For my money, this film has really set itself apart from other recent slasher- style flicks. It's pretty smart, great casting, excellent visual effects, with a tonne of seriously powerhouse scenes, all of which are strung together in a very effective way (in terms of story structure).

And as I said earlier, I have never been a fan of the Halloween franchise. I've always found the William Shatner mask thing to be not only NOT scary but a little... well... silly.

But this film's converted me.

It's SOLID. And Rob Zombie not only directs these things, he writes them, and handles the music. Yowza.

Anyway, if you are in the mood for a sizzling hardcore slasher horror flick, go for it.

If not, then avoid, at all costs. Nasty stuff.


Thursday, August 27, 2009

Festival of Fear

I'm going in order to schmooze horror film producers and distributors, pick some people's brains (mmmm, brains), buy some indie horror dvds, and nerd out a bit.

In short, it's 70% business (which is a form of pleasure), 20% flat-out nerd pleasure, and 10% curiousity, as I've never gone to any conventions except a couple of low-rent comic cons over the years and some flea market type things as a kid to buy comics (which was the best of the experiences, cause I was really young, and finding ANY cool comics when you're little is a blast- I remember an awesome bound collection of Creepy comics that blew my mind.)

Anyway... why not come out and count all the male virgins, dressed in black.

TFS-Finished Puppets

After all these puppet making entries, here's the finished deal. I will probably do a costume entry at some point (which is an obviously huge part of any visual appeal these puppets have). Arlen Gruszczynski makes my costumes, she's amazing.

Anyway, I thought I'd post these so you could get a sense of the whole deal.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

TFS- Puppet Making Part 5- Arms and Hands

Some of these pics are big, sorry. Too lazy to resize...

Arms and hands are (like all the other parts) a world unto themselves. So here we go...

The above pic is based on that good ol' scale drawing you've created a while ago (see why it's so important to have that life-sized drawing?) You need to use that scale drawing to figure out the exactly size, shape, length, and overall look of the arm and hand for your character. As you might expect, it needs to be to scale, once again. To arrive at this drawing, I "light tabled" from the original scale drawing to get the arm and hand figured out... then from that drew in what the armature would look like.

You'll notice there's some square brass stock at the end of the arm. That's to slot into the chest armature. Further, you'll see the length of the arm is braided 1/16" armature wire, with some epoxy for the arm bones, and epoxy for the hand (into which is embedded pieces of thin floral wire for fingers). The skin over top is liquid latex (which I haven't talked much about yet, but will).

Floral wire is nice for fingers. It's strong, will stand up to the animation fingers need to do (detailed, precise movements) but is still easy to animate. You don't want really thick wire for fingers, as it will be hard to animate.

Since both of the characters arms were the same, this one scale drawing will serve. Just keep referring back to your scale drawing of the arm armature as you cut pieces and mix epoxy, so that you are making the arm JUST the right size. It's easy to drift, so use that drawing to check. After you make this basic arm and hand, you can simply bend the fingers which ever way you want, to craft it into a "right" arm/hand or a "left" arm/hand.

The above pic is the puppet arms in progress. It's darn handy to use clothes pegs to hold the arms up safely as each coat of latex dries. And another tip- don't apply the brass stock till the arm is 100% done. If you put it on earlier, it's quite tricky to figure out the exact arm length. Leave yourself extra wire at the end of the arm, make the arm, apply all the latex, then snip the wires to length, then glue on the brass stock.

Gluing tip for armature wire when attaching it to brass stock- use "gap filling glue". It's very strong, and will expand as it dries, hence the name. Regular Krazy Glue is super strong, but will only bond surface-to-surface through direct contact. Gap filling glue is the way to go (in this case).

The process for putting on the latex is TRICKY (notice all the caps. I must be SERIOUS). I've practiced a lot, on various projects, to get to a pretty good point. It takes lots of practice. You'll notice with these arms/hands they need to be smooth from the finger tips right up to the shoulders, (smooth, as in like real human arms/hands) since the whole arm would be exposed. If the puppet had long sleeves, you'd only have to make smooth hands and maybe wrists (and not worry about the arms).

Costume REALLY effects puppet making, in this sense.

It was also a challenge because of the visual style I wanted. The puppet heads were smooth and cleanly sculpted. So the arms and hands had to match. If I had made the heads "rough" in their finish, the arms/hands could have been "rough" as well. "Roughly" applied latex is much easier to achieve, and you can get some wonderful textures by using make-up sponges or bits of foam (thanks to Ted Heeley for that tip). You can get a really nice "smooth but pebbly" finish that looks great under camera. And it has a really warm "Muppet" vibe, like a very dense foam. Really appealing, great texture (and we all know stop mo is all about the textures). BUT my visual style was smooth, so the arms had to be smooth.

A HUGE tip I give students- create a visual style that allows your puppet to have a rough finish, and you will be MUCH happier. But- smooth is possible, if you are brave enough. Or stupid.

Here's the finished arms (pre-brass stock). Note their smoothness. Hard-earned, right Carla? And another tip- once you are 100% done applying latex, dump some baby powder on the arms. Rub it in, and it takes any unwanted stickiness away from the latex, and gives it a very pleasant matte finish (latex errs towards shiny- baby powder it away). And besides, you get a sweet-smelling puppet. Win-win.

Here's how I got them smooth. I used a small, cheap brush to get the first layers of latex on. A coat of latex... let it get pretty much dry... then another coat... it takes time. There's lots of tricks and tips for using liquid latex, you can find heaps at

I used this process to get the arms basically "on their way". By that, I mean at the joints (elbow, wrist) I used this process to add lots of layers of latex, so I had a nice smooth tube. In other words, if you ran your finger from the wrist all the way up the arm, it was flat- no dip inward at the joints. Now, with that basic "tube" of an arm, I switched techniques. I now started "dipping".

You can only get so smooth a finish by brushing. The bristles ALWAYS leave a path as you draw the brush up the arm, leaving grooves and streaks. But dipping means no brush is used, so there's nothing to leave a mark.

To dip, I found a bottle (baby food) that was deeper than the arms were long. I filled the jar with latex, tinted it with the skin colour (acrylic paint), held the arm by the end wire, and dunked it, fingers first, into the latex. Then I pulled it out, fast, being careful not to bang the arm or fingers on the jar mouth.

I quickly flipped the arms around so the fingers were point up, and used a small brush (and often a toothpick) to carefully "urge" the latex downward in the spaces betweens the fingers. Without doing this, you'd get really stubby, web-like fingers. A toothpick works well, cause right after you dip there is SO much latex it can be moved around without leaving streaks. And with the fingers pointing up, you let gravity help.

The next step (once you're sure you aren't going to get stubby fingers), is to rest the arms. This is when a pair of "helping hands" is, well, helpful. Because you want to be able to tweak the angle at which the arms are drying, as they dry. This way, if you see the latex is "sagging" to the underside, you can flip the arm to balance that out. Helping hands are fantastic for this. As the pic below illustrates:

And here's how the finished arm fits into the armature:

Finally, this is a REALLY important aspect of using latex for arms and hands. The brand makes a HUGE difference. I've used other types of mould maker's latex (which is what this material is usually called at the art store), and they suck. They are too thick, too "chunky". You CAN water latex down, with (duh) water, but still... The best brand is this:

Burma Brand latex. End of story. It's lovely and thin, paints on really easy, absorbs acrylic paint (for tinting) really easily, and is great for dipping. It's THIN, and that's how you get SMOOTH. Only use this brand.

Other brands are ok for rougher finishes. Only use this for smooth (or another brand that's equally thin, but I haven't found one).

After all this, here's my two cents of puppet making for those that are serious: come up with a design that is "rough"- a creature of some sort, an alien, a monster, it can be cute, scary, sad, silly, whatever, but let it rough in its design. You can then make some MARVELOUS puppets (I see students do it every year), if you keep it rough in it's finish. That way, you wind up with an awesome looking puppet, and learn about the materials (specifically latex) as you go... then attempt smooth with the next puppet.

On the other hand, now that you know about dipping (after this entry), maybe you'll be smooth right away.

Good for you! But you owe me 5 bucks now.

Friday, August 21, 2009

TFS- Puppet Making Part 4- Armatures

A quickie, since I'm pressed for time.

Using that scale (life-sized) drawing of your character, the next step is to design and fabricate your armature. What's an armature? Find out on your own, I'm in a hurry!

Tape that scale drawing to a window, or use a light table if you have one. Lay another piece of paper over top, and draw out how the armature should look. Imagine you're drawing the skeleton for the character.

It's pretty safe to assume (if you making a human) that you'll have a hard chest piece (epoxy), and a hard pelvis (epoxy), into which braided 1/16" armature will go into, for the movable parts.

Sorry this pic is a bit crooked...

In this picture, there's some things to note. See how every limb ends with a small square piece? That is square brass stock.

The ends of all body parts will be covered in the male size (5/32"), and embedded in the armature blocks (the chest, and pelvis) will be the female size (3/16"). This allows the body parts, should they break during animation, to be replaced. You break an arm? No problem, just slide it out of the chest block, and slide in a new one!

BUT- this isn't so easy. I tried it this way, on this film, to test-drive the technique so as to be able to advise students. If it HAD worked, it would be a fairly easy, cheap way to make an armature that can have parts replaced (as opposed to making or buying an aluminum armature, or a steel ball-and-socket armature).

Why it DIDN'T work very well is that the removable body parts tended to shift and slide out of the armature blocks. The solution? I covered the male stock on each part with a thin layer of CONTACT CEMENT. Not rubber cement, not Krazy Glue... contact cement.

The cement dried quite well, keeping the part in place, BUT would probably have allowed me to yank the broken part out without damaging the armature. I never had to find out, as I never broke a body part (blush).

The OTHER option (instead of all this brass stock) is to simply directly embed the armature wire limbs into the epoxy. This works very well, and you'll get a pretty darn solid armature.

The drawback is that all the parts are committed. So if ONE little part breaks, the whole armature has to be scrapped. That's why you aim to have replaceable parts.

You'll also know from that picture there's a neck-type piece. It's a bit confusing, but a puppet neck is made up of a piece of brass stock for the base, then some armature wire, then another piece of brass stock (that will slide into the head). The thick part is actually a latex tube, tinted the colour of the puppet's skin, slid over the neck so it actually LOOKS like a neck.

Where's the arms? Again, arms are a separate thing (for another entry, that will come as soon as I can)...

And- the feet look like lumps of epoxy. That's true, but what you can't see is that embedded in those lumps are rare-earth magnets, which are super strong.

As you're figuring out, it's ALL custom designed, built and assembled pieces. So if it's confusing and unclear, well- that's why it's taken me years to start to get a good handle on it all. I animated professionally for years, and observed the puppet makers. And I started to adapt techniques and approaches for what I myself could handle at home. I had others help me, I showed pros my work, I kept making more puppets... It's just not a quick thing to learn or figure out (just like all good things in life). I'm still very far from a master at it, but I'm pretty good.

My puppets work.

The only real way (after reading this mess of an entry) to start getting good at armature wire and epoxy armatures is to start practicing. Get some epoxy, braid some 1/16" armature wire (you braid it to make it stronger, but it's still easy to use), some basic tools (Olfa cutter, pliers, wire snips) and start learning the materials.

Use some tight fitting rubber gloves when using the epoxy, too. It's not particularly nasty, but over time it could cause health concerns, and no matter what sticks to your fingers, so the gloves make life easy.

All these materials are CHEAP, so get them, and start playing. You'll learn heaps...

Be Advised- Slow Blogging Ahead

Ah, for those summer days, long gone. Changing diapers, putting baby down for a nap... then running to the computer to post blog updates about my film. Those were the days, huh?

Now, I'm back to work at school, and surprise surprise, find myself with much prep work on my hands for my Fall classes...

Blogging will continue at whatever pace life allows, I promise.

Monday, August 10, 2009

TFS- Puppet Making Part 3- Puppet Heads

As the previous Puppet Making posting says, it's now time to think of the puppet head as something distinct from the body.

All these examples are from TFS.

So to begin, I've resolved some important design issues already: most importantly, how is the facial animation is going to be created. This is essential to know BEFORE you make the head. The answer (for this project) is- sculpted heads that will have applied on to them animatable features (eyelids, pupils, eyebrows, and mouths). Again, I certainly didn't invent this approach, it's used all the time, mostly cause it WORKS.

The sculpted head will keep its form and volume perfectly (unlike a clay head, that would have to be resculpted constantly), but will still "be alive" cause of the features that will animate. Those features will be a mix of coloured Sculpy, mixed with a soft wax (which helps keep the features from smearing on to the puppet head, which makes a big mess and screws with the paint job on the head).

Next step is to figure out how to actually craft the head, from the core, outward. And that's what this image shows you:

At the core is BRASS STOCK. You can get it at hobby stores, call around. It comes in all sizes. For puppet heads, I use " square, 3/16" ". You can also buy it round, which is why I specify.

The purpose of this brass stock is that it gives a sleeve for the neck of the puppet to slide into. The neck (when you make it) will ALSO have brass stock on it, but a slightly smaller gauge- I use "square, 5/32" ". You want an easily removable head because at times (while animating) you will want to do some detailed work on the features, or you might need to retouch the paint job. Being able to actually take the head off the puppet makes this very easy (even in mid shot!)

Again, you need to be working at scale now, drawing the head out (based on the original scale drawing), and figuring out just how long you need to make the brass stock so that it embeds nicely, and won't be sticking out at its bottom. This takes practice, no two ways about it.

Cutting the brass stock is a bit tricky. It CAN be done with a hack saw and a vise, but it sort of sucks that way. Much easier and faster is with a rotary tool (often called a "Dremel" which is one brand), that you attach a cutting disk to. It cuts the brass like butter. Remember though- the brass will get VERY hot, so hold it with pliers, and wear safely goggles and a mask (there will be brass dust kicking around).

Often, I do this part for students, since it's a bit tricky and potentially dangerous if you're unsure of yourself. So be careful...

You CAN make the puppet with its head as part of the body. That's a faster, easier way. But this process (using brass stock) is a pretty pro way to go, and that's what we're aiming for, isn't it.

With your brass stock for your head cut, the next step is this:

I've molded plumber's epoxy (a two part compound, available at Home Depot in Canada) around the stock. Again, I've used the scale drawing to make sure I don't put too much on. This epoxy is so that the foil (which is the next step) has something to grab on to. You'll note all the weird pointy bits on the epoxy. If I had done it smooth, the foil would just spin on the epoxy, and your final head would ALSO just spin around loosely- driving you insane while animating (and ruining your film).

Plumber's epoxy is an amazing material. You can use it for anything hard in a puppet's armature- arm bones, leg bones, pelvis, chest... it dries very fast, and is very hard (giving you a really strong armature). There's lots of tips and tricks to using this material, but that's not for THIS posting. Just be sure to practice with it first to get a feel for the material (before putting it to REAL use), and wear tight rubber gloves (the epoxy will stick to your fingers over time, and it's not really healthy). It also doesn't hurt to have a fan and open window, as the fumes are stinky.

You'll ALSO note (this is vital), that I left a wee bit of space at the bottom of the epoxy. This is so that when I apply the Super Sculpy (which is the final layer of the head), there is brass stock for me to sculpt the Sculpy on to. This way, the final layer will be very strongly attached to the brass stock, AND the foil, and the epoxy. If the epoxy covered all the stock, the final layer of Sculpy would only be attached to the epoxy, and that increases your chance that the whole head will spin on the stock, again- driving your insane. This is a bit confusing, but practice is the only way to get it. Nothing about puppet making is "easy", or perfect on the first shot. It's very much a learned skill, and that comes through practice. C'est la vie!

Next comes the foil. Nothing fancy, just good ol' fashion tin foil. The purpose of the foil is to "bulk up" the head, while keeping it light. That's why the final layer of Sculpy is actually so thin- it keeps it light. And a LIGHT head is very important for a puppet. A heavy head will weigh the puppet down, and make balance an issue.

Pack the foil on tight, but not TOO tight, or it gets heavy. Refer always to your scale drawing to keep on size...

Finally, it's time to sculpt. I use Super Sculpy cause it's tough, and I use the grey kind cause it's easier on the eyes and (I'm convinced) sculpts more smoothly. It doesn't drag in the way the flesh-coloured (if your flesh is "white") Super Sculpy does.

A sculpting tip- use a length of 5/32" brass stock (if you used 3/16" in the head) to put your head on to while sculpting. It makes it easier to rotate and keeps your hands off the actual head.

Rotate the head all the time you're sculpting, checking all angles, making sure it's balanced and pleasant and looking "right" in all dimensions... it takes me ages to sculpt (well, hours- a puppet head probably takes me about 6 hours in total to sculpt). But I really enjoy it. I love the process of building the head up, trying things out, starting over... I listen to talk radio, zone out... I love finding the planes and angles that are right... letting the character rise up out of the clay... I'm self-taught, and whatever skills I have it's really just through practice. Take your time, get good. If you're already good, get better.

My basic tools. The weird little wire thing is just some stiff floral wire (covered in plastic) wrapped around into a sort of "mini-scooper" thing, for digging out small spaces..

Here's another tip, for when you're done sculpting for the day, and for when you actually bake this head. Use a wire curled like this:

It keeps your soft head up off the table, cause the wire is sitting inside the brass stock. And when you bake, you can just set the head on this wire base, and place the whole thing on a baking pan. Just make sure as you make the curly base, you keep it flat and level, not wobbly.

When you're ready, bake the head according to the instructions. Baking Sculpy is a bit of an art, keep an eye on it, don't let it burn... and practice.

A baking tip- when it's done baking, turn off the oven, open the oven door, and let it cool. Don't try to take the head out while it's hot. It's now VERY fragile, so leave it alone. I've wept tears of pain from taking a head out too soon... Once it's cool, it's rock hard. But let it cool!

Also- be sure to use the joke "I'm going to put my head in the oven" as much as possible at this stage. My wife tells me that one never gets old...

Now with a cool, hard head, you should have something like this (when viewed from the bottom):

Notice how the brass stock is flush with the base of the head. That's what you want (or even the brass stock up inside a bit). The main thing is that you don't want the stock sticking out (it will look terrible on camera), and you want the square of stock clean and free of Sculpy. If there's any gunking the stock up, you can easily pick it out.

Now it's time to paint. Painting Sculpy is easy, AND tricky. It's easy to apply the paint, but it's tricky to ensure the paint is strongly adhered to the Sculpy. You're going to be putting your hands (and pressure) on this head for every frame, and paint can easily scrape/chip/smear off, if you don't take precautions.

The best way to get a solid paint job is to use a primer on the head. I use automotive primer, grey. It's flat and thin. You just need a thin layer, on all of the head. It dries fast, and from THERE, you can paint on acrylic paint with a brush (or air brush).

Be careful when spraying the paint. Do it somewhere that a bit of mess is OK (like a garage). I use a cardboard box as a "spray booth" to catch the excess paint. And I use a base of wood with skewers glued in to hold the heads, for painting.

Well, now you've got a puppet head. Apply your paint job. Be sure to keep a little bottle of the skin tone paint, for touch ups!

When you're done painting the head, let it dry well, then SEAL the paint by using either a spray fixative (available at art stores), or a paint-on version. This just helps keep the paint on better, and prevents little things like a random fingernail from causing trouble. Be sure to use a flat (or matte) finish, not gloss. Unless you're making a puppet that's glossy (perhaps a fish man?)

The paint WILL chip off, or peel. Not a lot, but it's still likely to happen. Eyebrows are notorious, as they are animated across the head. They stick, they smear, they can pull paint right off. Just be very careful (no kidding), have touch up paint ready, and all will be well!

This process is tested and true, and although it's not perfect, it gives excellent results in a fairly straight- forward, DIY fashion...

Friday, August 7, 2009

Sorry I'm Late

Very cool "in-camera" movie. You can watch it here.

Loving it...

TFS- Puppet Making Part 2- Full Sized Drawings

This and basically every puppet making entry will describe a process for making a HUMANOID puppet- two arms, two legs, standing upright, head on top. From this basic structure, you can modify your heart out...

Now that you know specifically what your puppet has to do, draw your whole character from the front, AT FULL SIZE.

Regular computer paper works just fine for drawing the character out (and you can putit on a light table or against a window to trace through, for designing armatures later on). Do rotational drawing if you want to, but a lot of the 3d aspect will come out in the actual sculpting/crafting of the puppet...I personally like to get the size right on paper, then let the character fill out as I sculpt/craft him/her/it.

An adult male is approximately 30 cm tall (this gives you an adult puppet that is big enough to easily animate, but small enough to keep your sets and props that will go with this puppet small enough to be manageable). This is basically working at 1/6th scale, if you are wondering. It's pretty standard.

The bigger your puppet, the bigger the sets and props have to be, and that can take up space and material very quickly!

Kid puppets are obviously smaller than the adults, but you need to actually keep kids bigger than they really would be in relation to a 30 cm adult. Think of making a kid puppet (compared to an adult) as making a very short adult. If you make a kid puppet too small, it will be almost impossible to animate, because its parts will be so tiny.

Draw out all of your characters (if you have more than one) like this, so you can check them all against each other for size relationships. Since you are now working at FULL SIZE, if your storyboard shows lots of shots featuring character A in a medium shot along side character B, both characters had better be approximately the same height for composing those shots, or your going to go mad trying to find a camera angle that allows you to get your shot! In other words, a giraffe and a mouse would have a hard time sharing the same frame. To get your shot, you could lie the giraffe down, or put the mouse on a ladder (both of which are possibly valid staging options), but you then need a giraffe puppet that can lie down, or you need to craft a ladder! And if so, do either of these options really WORK for your story? Or do they distract from the real intent of the scene?

As you can see, size relationships have a lot of impact on production. Drawing your characters at full size at this early stage will let you see these sorts of issues early, and let you redesign or reboard...

Now that you have a SCALE drawing (meaning you have a drawing the is the same size as the puppet is going to be), this scale drawing will also be used for creating the puppet's armature, and to help with framing, sets, props... but before that happens, you should make the puppet's head.

Yep, take it from me: get your puppet designed on paper, to scale. Then start with the head, not the body. At this point, you should be almost thinking of them as two separate (but connected) production issues: the head, and then the rest of the puppet.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

TFS- Puppet Making Part 1- Designing Characters

Click on pic to make it big, although not much bigger, sorry.

So now that I've beaten to death the process of the story development, the next stage I thought I'd explore is Puppets. As with story, everyone has his or her own process of development. This is mine.

Also, I'm writing this for a reader that is eager, generally talented, but not very experienced in stop mo production (in short, my students!) At points I discourage approaching puppet-making in certain ways. That's based on the assumption that you (faithful reader) are not already practiced at this medium, and that you do not have a workshop full of power tools and mould-making materials and chemicals.

From teaching stop mo for a few years now, I've really come to approach the medium from the pov of "what can the average but very passionate person achieve?" So I don't tend to promote methods that require special machines (although sometimes there's no way around using a jigsaw, for some set building stuff), tricky chemicals, foam ovens, mould fabrication, metal lathing, and so on.

So please bear that in mind as you read all these puppet-making entries...I am always trying to get talented and passionate people excellent results, as opposed to miring them in financial debt to buy expensive stuff, so they can achieve poor results cause they weren't focusing on the important fundamentals.

As I now step down off my soapbox, ahem...

I first look at the finished boards, to confirm what the puppet in question has to do, specifically. This is an extremely important aspect of design. As a very basic example, imagine a scene in which the puppet has to reach up and grab an apple from a tree branch. But you've designed (and built!) a puppet with very short stubby arms. When you come to shoot that "grabbing the apple" shot, guess what? Your puppet simply cannot do the action.

So if your character has to (for example) balance on tip toes, then leap into the air, hover for 5 seconds, then suddenly stretch its neck out like a giraffe, you've got a lot of serious design issues to consider. Conversely, if your character has to basically stand in one place, make some facial expressions, be capable of solid but not particularly complex animation, move his arms around, and basically LOOK good, that's a far more straightforward issue. And that's the case with the puppet above. He's the Dad puppet for my film.

In the interest of moving along, I'll just say this about designing and constructing puppets: it's as much mechanical design as it is artistic design. This holds true especially when you are designing AND making the puppet yourself. Puppets take a VERY long time to design and build, even simple ones. All the puppets in my film are fairly straightforward, and the story was in part designed to allow for that fairly simple puppet making. Again, when you are doing it mostly yourself (even with a massively talented and helpful assistant like I had), all aspects of the production are really intertwined as you move forward.

And when they start getting tricky (puppets, that is), having to do very particular actions, it gets very complex and very NOT possible for a do-it-yourself-er. But the specifics of complex puppet making is not only for another posting, its for an entire lifetime of practice and craft...

As you are designing a character, here are a few very basic things to consider. You'll notice most of them concern how to get the puppet to stay still while you are animating he/she/it!!

Does the puppet have to have all its feet off the ground at any point? If so, that means you will somehow have to "rig" that puppet with a wire (that is secured to something out of camera) for those frames of animation. Later, you will have to digitally "clean up" those frames, removing the wire. Rig shots can be very simple (a ball landing in a glove), or very complex (10 witch puppets, all floating on broomsticks while juggling jack-o-lanterns). If a puppet needs a rig, it has to have that rigging point (where the wire will go) incorporated into the design.

In my story, there's a scene with two puppets sitting on a park bench. How to get them to stay still while they are being animated? My solution was to design very strong magnets (called "rare-earth" magnets) into their butts! So when the sit down, I can put another magnet under the bench, and they will stay put. But I only knew to install these magnets cause I carefully consulted the finished boards. Always refer to your boards before designing.

Here's a good example of functionality versus design. If you design a character with lovely, tiny feet, she will look beautiful. But she will be very tricky to stand up. And standing up is the one thing your puppet REALLY needs to do well. If a puppet won't stand up securely, you are going to go bonkers trying to animate this wibbly-wobbly creature. Since this puppet in question has tiny feet, you'll need to use little nuts in her feet, that you can screw a bolt into from under your set. This is the "tie down" method of puppet making. An easier solution is embedding a rare-earth magnet in her feet. Now she will stand very easily, just by placing another magnet under your set. But now, since the magnets are big, she has clunky clown feet. Which is more important, that she is easy to move, or that she looks lovely?

A complex area of puppet making, this. Is your character a human? If you look at the Dad puppet, he has long pants, and a short sleeved shirt. Pretty "normal" attire. The long pants are good, cause they cover a lot of skin. Under the pants can just be armature, and foam (for bulk). But the short sleeve shirt is tricky, cause it leaves exposed a lot of arm flesh. And since I was making the puppet parts from building up with liquid latex, getting a "smooth" look over all that area was going to be tricky. If he had long sleeves, that would be much easier. I'd only have to worry about smooth hands (as his arms would be under fabric). But the story was very much set in the summer, so he HAD to have short sleeves. So I HAD to pick up the challenge of geting smooth arms. See how costume hugely effects puppet making?!

Further, what if instead of a human Dad, he was a cat Dad? Imagine he still had these cloths, but was also covered in fur. What is that fur made from? How do you apply it to the puppet? Will it stay still during animation?

How about if instead of a cat Dad, he was a lizard Dad? Now you have smooth shiny scales to create. How do you do that?

There's no way I can really go into detail on this here! But suffice it to say (for now) that just cause you can imagine it, and draw it, DOESN'T mean you can build it. Sure, SOMEONE could build it (for you). There are hugely talented pros out there. But it will cost you quite possibly thousands. What can YOU make?

Personally, I can't even make the simple costume depicted! I know my weak areas, and constructing costumes is one of them. I can design, if it's simple, but I can't make. I PAY to get my costumes made. And they are beautiful, and done quickly, and function properly. It's worth it to me, to get nice puppets. So I always budget for costume fabrication. Simple as that.

I'll write more on the topic of puppet heads specifically, later. But in short, as you design, think about what your puppet head and face has to do. Let's say you have a tiger, and you design a character that will have a moving jaw. And he has lots of lip sync. You've just designed yourself into hell. The basic shape of that head (assuming it's fairly realistic) is enough of a challenge. Then a hinged jaw is very complex to design and fabricate (assuming you are working very indie). And all that lip sync will mean the very delicate structure of that jaw will be maxed out by all the detailed animation. The wires in there will break, and be very hard to replace. I always steer students away from this structural design for mouths. Again, it's about mechanical realities JUST as much as it about designing a pretty character.

In the example of the Dad puppet above, you can see he has a very simply little mouth. His character only has minor changes in mouth shapes, and in mouth positions. So for him, I designed a head that would be sculpted and hard (and stand up to frame-by-frame abuse by my hands), and that had NO mouth. Just a smooth space where the mouth would go. Then I used clay that was the right colour to match the head, that I simply pressed gently on to head. It could be moved and replaced and animated. This method of "hard head, soft mouth" puppet making is nothing new, it's used all over. It's slick and fast and effective in terms of conveying what you want, in a fairly simply technical way. It's the method I point most students towards.

Again, search your boards, see specifically what your puppet has to do, and go from there. If the Dad had tonnes of lip sync, using soft clay mouths that I whip up on set would not be practical. Instead, I'd make a "mouth kit" of mouth shapes that would be hard, and that could be tacked on with a tiny bit of wax. But still, it's the same basic concept- a hard hard, with external mouth pieces that get applied frame by frame.

Not saying this is the only way. Just saying it's a slick way that works.

Whew. I have a very strong feeling these puppet making postings are going to be rather technical, as opposed to philosophical. It's hard to resist falling into a "how to" approach, because with stop mo, there really IS a lot of practical stuff to learn.

Of course, in all aspects of the creation of art, there's room for philosophical considerations. It's just that production needs tend to take over (ie, deadlines) and now that story is locked in, it's usually a case now of "get it done".