Proof Of Concept – Anthropomorphism

My girlfriend returned from town on Friday with a handbag she had just bought as a present for a friend. The first thing I noticed about it was that it looked like a face when it was upside down. I thought “this might make a great little animation!”. As she was giving it to her friend the next morning, and this was late evening, I quickly inhaled my dinner and got to work.

I set up the same scene as the spiderman set-up, only this time I used a white background as I didn’t need to key out the background. I set up the same lights in a slightly different manner. The shade-less lamp was off to the right, while the large desk lamp was positioned in front of the scene pointing up. I suspended the small desk lamp above the scene. I was trying to create a more ominous sense lighting to compliment the creepy bag.

What I didn’t mention in the Colour Keying post is that I decided to shoot in large jpeg format as this would still produce a crisp picture without too much compression. As these are only test videos it doesn’t make sense to shoot any higher than that. Also shooting in a larger format would require a lot of disc space and processor power, both of which I don’t have. I set the camera to manual mode. I can’t remember the settings but I kept the ISO to 200 and an aperture of maybe F8 or F9. This way the images would be as sharp as possible. I also took the lens off auto-focus but I forgot to take the white balance off ‘auto’ and that’s why the colour gets slightly darker (I think) at the very end when the light changes.

Again, I shot the sequence without a storyboard and only a rough idea. I wanted the handbag’s mouth to unzip, show it feeling queasy and then have it vomit out various handbag items. I wanted to shoot it from both front and side angles but time was not on my side and I only managed to shoot from the front.

The big problem working with this type of material (real/faux leather – I never checked) is that I would use one hand to move the zip slightly and the other hand would have to counter the pulling by holding onto the side of the bag. This created unwanted movement of the material. Again this is not a huge problem here as this was only a test and I have learned that to use more rigid materials in my final animation will be more controllable.

Another problem I encountered was trying to keep objects such as the £5 note suspended in the air while I took a shot. I tried using thread to suspend it, but it just drooped and hung unbalanced. I then fashioned a pole out of toothpicks embedded in a white tack base but that didn’t work either. In the end I just angled the note to look like it was protruding out from the mouth and inserted only a couple of frames of it falling so hopefully the eye would assume it caught some air.

The shoot lasted 4 hours and I took 292 pictures to create 24 seconds of footage

I plan to add sound to it at a later date to practice syncing sound to video. I would also like to compensate for the lack of other angles by adjusting the framing throughout the animation using After Effects. Colour correction and other visual techniques may be explored during this time.

Here’s the animation so far…

Proof Of Concept – Colour Keying

I decided I would do a series of short test animations so I could identify and flag the problems that may arise during my short animation. As stop motion animation is a hands-on craft I wanted to test out the various techniques I have been reading about. Earlier in the week I purchased various coloured card and used the bright green one to try and key out and replace the background in a simple animation. The subject of the animation would be a spiderman toy that I found on the street some years ago. It’s an almost perfect subject as the toy has plenty of moveable parts.

Using white tack, I stuck the card to the wall and also the desk using a gentle curve to eliminate the corner. This will give me the best chance of integrating the action figure into a scene once the green card is keyed out. I then used a desk lamp and a smaller conventional lamp (with the shade removed) to light the green screen from either side. This would hopefully obliterate any shadows cast by spiderman. I used my larger, but slightly duller, desk lamp to illuminate the action figure. Both the large desk lamp and the shade-less lamp were wrapped in baking paper to help diffuse the harshness of the light.

I used Dragon Stop Motion to capture the frames for this animation. I tried various software and Dragon was the one I felt most comfortable using. Many of the others felt a bit cheap and didn’t seem to offer the same functions as Dragon does. After some research into it, it appears that Dragon is the choice of many professional stop motion animators, so I’m in good company. The camera is connected directly to the laptop and set up for remote shooting. The camera allows live view so it’s extremely easy to line up shots on a frame-by-frame basis.

I began shooting a simple sequence involving spiderman appearing to wait impatiently and then walking towards the camera and out of the shot. As this sequence was all about the process of keying, I didn’t bother with a storyboard, or even a script of any sort. I just made up the actions as I went along. It quickly became apparent that when I shoot a short animation for real that these elements will be key to the success as I was not sure of how the timing would be rendered. From my years of experience animating with Flash I understand the concept of movement and frames and how to make something move slower or faster over time, but to actually do it by hand is completely different when there is no reference to work from.

In total I spent about two hours shooting 106 images at 12fps, producing nine seconds of rendered footage. I learned more in those two hours of hands-on experience that I did in days of researching. I used the white tack to keep spiderman’s feet firmly stuck to the ground, which was fine for the first part of the animation but when it came to making him walk I found it really hard to unstick him without upsetting the other limbs and had to try match up the newly unstuck spiderman with the previous frame. When walking I couldn’t keep him balanced on one leg so you can see in some frames the piles of white tack under his lifted foot and I’m holding a screwdriver at his head to stop him from falling over. If this was my final important animation I would not have been so crude. Also, as it turns out, old spiderman was not the perfect subject for stop motion because although he has many moving parts, they were so rigid that when I moved one piece, the rest moved with it. It may be a case of dismembering him and removing dirt/grit, but right now I don’t have time to perform surgical operations on plastic action figures.

I then exported the stills as a Quicktime movie and opened it in Adobe After Effects. As I’m a total newcomer to After Effects this is kind of where I’m at at the moment. I quickly tried out the keylight effect to remove the green screen and it only worked okay. I may need to tweak the settings but it seems that the green screen either wasn’t lit correctly or that spiderman was too close to the green which reflected back onto him. I will do some more playing around with this and do some research to see how to go about actually removing and replacing the green background.

The plan was this weekend to borrow a video camera and film a bustop so I could drop my animation of spiderman waiting into it, to have him waiting for a bus, walking away and then have a bus pull up. I tried to borrow one of the university’s Flip cameras as they are small and portable and would do the job nicely. As it turns out, they are only available to the third year students. This annoyed me because I feel fourth year students should get preference on what technology to use for their dissertation. I ended up being given a bulky Sony video camera, bag, cables, booklet and charger for my nine seconds of footage! To add insult to injury, when I got home I found that the camera takes tapes and I wasn’t given any to record on. That was Friday afternoon and the school office was shut. So I will have to wait until Monday to get a tape so I can film.

Here is the green screen footage and I will post more when I get  working on it.

Week Three – Supervisor Meeting

In this, the second supervisor meeting, Richard and I began by discussing the learning contract that must be completed and submitted by next week. In it I will give the title of my dissertation, my interim deliverables for week 12 (literature Review), and the final deliverable (short film).

Richard suggested that the title should pose a question rather than a statement in case the title fails to deliver the proposed outcome. I asked if the title could be slightly tongue-in-cheek but Richard advised against it, recommending that my writing style be of a academic nature. So far I am thinking that the title should suggest how I will explore ways of breathing life into inanimate objects using the art of stop motion animation. This title though is a little too focused on the anthropomorphic side of the project and less on the stop motion side of which I really want to research. Over the next week I will come up with different titles and variations and refine my selection to best describe the project.

The literature review section is the bulk of the writing involved in the project and needs to be done by week 12. As it has a maximum word count of 12,000 words I will need to set boundaries within my chapters. As Richard advised, it will be useful for me to establish the scope of my research first and then start writing. There is no need to explain aspects that don’t relate specifically to the title of the project. For example, if I am to explore the area of lighting, it is unnecessary to concern myself with how bulbs are created and the speed of light as these matters are unimportant. For the interim deliverable I will identify topic areas and these will eventually make up the chapters for my literature review. I have mentioned some areas in a previous post which are rough ideas but I have thought of some more which can be added. I feel like storytelling techniques could be valuable if I am to talk about character based animation.

The additional deliverable is still somewhat vague. I know loosely what I will be doing – a short stop motion film featuring the fantastic electronics of the reel-to-reel tape recorder – but it is still unclear of the nature of the actual animation and it’s story. I will first try and figure out how long I want the animation to be. I have done some proof of concept animations and confirmed what I’ve been thinking all along, that stop motion animation is extremely tedious work if it is to be done properly. I will try and be realistic with my timescale in this respect.

During our meeting, Oliver Postgate was mentioned and he will be somebody I will also look into. I also showed Richard a quick proof of concept animation I made a few days earlier. It involves a spiderman toy and a simple green screen set-up. I will talk about this animation in more detail in a later post. Richard gave me some very useful hints in relation to the keying out of the background using Adobe After Effects. I will work on this in my spare time in the near future.

Budget #1

I though it might be fun to keep track of my budget. Note: I’m not just buying some of the items specifically for this project (eg camera), so don’t start thinking I’m going a bit overboard on this. It would seem silly to include my MacBook Pro in this list as it’s a few years old now. Here are the items I have purchased so far which will be of use:

Canon EOS 450D WITH 18-55 IS lens + Tamron 55-200 F4/5.6 LD macro lens, old Velbon tripod (second-hand £250)

Mini tripod from Jessops (mentioned I was student to sympathetic staff member – £0!)

Unbranded adjustable tripod (second-hand £5)

Uher 724-L reel-to-reel tape recorder + speakers (second-hand on Gumtree £0)

Set of 6 vintage audio tape reels (second-hand on eBay £12.49)

200ml Isopropyl alcohol (John F Rodgers Pharmacy £2)

Lighting rig (old bed frame found beside bin £0)

4 LED torches/lasers (eBay £6.51)

Remote shutter release for Canon 450D (eBay £2.95)

Ikea desk lamp with extendible arm (second-hand on Gumtree £6)

Total so far is £284.95

Week Two – Overview

That went by all too fast. It’s called week two but really it was the first proper week and I’m starting to realise the enormity of work that will be required from me this semester. I like to lose myself in a task and having three distinctly creative modules will turn my brain into an idea-plate spinning machine. But this is what I signed up for and I’m excited about creating some great work this year. I’m less excited about all the lovely sleep I will need to sacrafice.

So this week I had my supervisor meeting, and since then I have been thinking about the work that I will be submitting in December. Like I never said before, the module runs for two semesters, finishing in May, but we must set our own goals/deliverables for a December hand in and we will be graded on that body of work. These grades will contribute to our overall grade along with the final hand-in and a Viva Voce presentation.

I will be going ahead with my original idea of stripping stop motion animation down to it’s bare bones and researching these topics individually. I can then demonstrate my newly learned skills in a short animation as my final submission. So far from what I’ve observed stop motion animation can be divided into the following constituents:

Stop Motion types

The common types of stop motion I have come across so far are:

  • Clay-mation
  • Paper motion
  • Go motion
  • Pixilation

Software

A search on the internet provided an abundance of stop motion composing and editing software. Below is a list of the more popular. As stop motion is currently experiencing a new trend it may be an idea to compare and contrast a few of the more popular programs. If not, then I should explain the software I use to create my animation and why I chose it.

  • JLipSync
  • Dragon Stop Motion
  • iStopMotion (Mac only)
  • Stopmotion Pro (Win only)
  • Animator DV
  • I Can Animate (Mac only)
  • Stop MotionMaker (Win only)
  • Stop Motion Station (Win only)
  • Frame Thief (Mac only)
  • AnimAide XT (Mac only)
  • BTV-PRO (Mac only)

Lighting

I feel that the lighting will determine the final standard of the animation. Too many stop motion animations are ruined by not paying attention to basic consistency with regards to light. I aim to delve into this issue and determine the best way to illuminate a stop motion animation. Some of the topics may include:

  • Numbers and types of light
  • Angles to eliminate shadows
  • Incandescent, CFL or LED bulbs?
  • Wattage
  • Gels and diffusers
  • Heat generated from bulbs affecting set/models

Photography

Things I need to consider within relation to stop motion photography will be white balance levels, F-stop and aperture settings. Also I will need to consider how many shots I will require. This will be done by means of storyboarding. As I have only one DSLR camera I will need to consider different shots carefully. Image format is also a issue. Ideally I would like to shoot in RAW format which offers the most flexibility in post-production. If I am to shoot 1000+ images then this would not be possible as the file sizes are huge and that amount of processing would require an extraordinary amount of time and processing power, neither of which I will have a surplus of. I will need to research the correct methods of zooming in stop motion while keeping focus. All these options correctly researched will hopefully provide me with a more professional looking piece of work once completed.

Set Design / Stop Motion Techniques

There are no hard and fast rules in the setup of a stop motion ‘studio’. It seems that they are constructed for project specific needs. I will need to try and obtain information from stop motion animators on the general rules of set design. I can imagine some of the issues I will need to consider will be the size and stability of the stage. How the lights are affixed will play a key role in the finished set design. The background will be an important decision, and I am already looking at photo shoot backdrops that eliminate corners and help focus the subject. These topics can be researched and tailored to the specificity of the final film’s needs. Keying may also be required and is an important process in many stop motion shoots so I will need to look into green screen technology. The actual movement of objects will utilise some stop motion techniques, or trickery, involving  invisible threads or wires that are removed in post-production. Techniques like these have been around since the birth of stop motion animation and will be an integral part of my research and final production. Also I have to consider camera movement about the stage and as hand held movement is not ideal for this type of photography I need to look at ways the camera can be stabilised while moving incrementally.

General rules / standards

As this is a popular and one of the older more established forms of animation, I can imagine there are certain rules that are commonplace.Issues such as consistency of lighting is a big rule of thumb. Also non-required organic movement such as plants and clouds could taint an otherwise great animation. These ‘rules’ will arise whilst researching other aspects and it might be a good idea to compile them into an easy to read paragraph. I imagine animatics and storyboarding will be the key to achieving a fluid final animation and this will also be looked at.

Sound (syncing)

An integral issue when working with animation is syncing the sound. I will look at different methods used over the years and determine which will work the best for my stop motion animation.

Above are a few pics of the space I’m working in at the moment. Thankfully the old office desk weighs a tonne and is very sturdy. I will try to develop this space over the coming months based on my research, and non-budget.

As the project started with me trying to restore this reel-to-reel tape recorder, I am still trying to fix it up. My friend Dan, who studies electronic engineering, made up some great cables for me so I will be able to input sound to the machine. The Uher 724-L used 5 Pin Din connectors for its audio input and outputs. Dan built me a female XLR to 5 Pin Din cable to connect a microphone, and a phone to 5 Pin Din for the output so I may connect it to a small mixing desk. I have, after months of searching, purchased some isopropal alcohol from an old chemists which I will use to clean the magnetic tape heads. Finally, I am on a mission to replace/restore the perished drive belt and its attached discs. I have ordered some spools of 7″ tape which should fit this model, and I believe they already have some recorder music on them so it should be a good test to see whether this machine works or not. The issue of it working is not really of great importance though as I will be manually moving the parts myself for the film.

Another aspect I have thought about is motion blur. If, for example, the tape reels were to spin at their natural speed and this was to be shot on video, each frame if viewed individually would show the reel blurred as it is in motion. If I was to shoot this in stop motion then each frame would just show the reel in a still form. I don’t know what effect this will produce when combined to play at 24fps and it is something which I will have to consider. Possibly there may be a way of blurring the moving object in post-production using image editing software such as Photoshop.

An idea I had today was that I wanted to combine pixilation animation and the traditional stop motion photography. I remembered an old Guinness ad from a few years back and thought it could be cool having a person (me probably!) working on the machine from the inside and it could zoom in through the various parts and I could be moving them by hand. It’s the skeleton of an idea, and needs some meat on its bones if it’s to come to life.

Week Two – Supervisor Meeting

I had my first supervisor meeting today with Richard Hetherington. I chose Richard as my supervisor as not only does he teach the Motion Graphics and Animation modules, he also knows my style of animation and where I like to take my ideas. We began by discussing the administrative details of the project and what would be required from me. It was pointed out to me that the bulk of the Literature Review would be researched and written by the week 12 deadline. Thankfully this fits in quite well with my initial plans to report on the various aspects of stop motion. I then explained as best I could where I was at in terms of ideas and research. Fortunately, and to my relief, Richard gave me the green light and showed a genuine interest in what I was proposing.

I described my initial ideas regarding using my old reel-to-reel tape recorder as the star of my short animation. Richard gave me some fantastic areas of research, namely Anthropomorphism whereby human characteristics are applied to animals or non-living things. This process is used to great effect in animation and was popularised by Walt Disney, who could make animals and even trees and plants walk, talk, dance and sing. An example we discussed was the Luxo Jr. animation by John Lasseter.

Richard also pointed me towards Pixilation, the process of using live actors in stop motion animations. Actors are shot frame-by-frame in the same way as non-living objects are typically used in these films. When used correctly the results can be stunning. Radiohead’s There There video is a great example of this technique. Richard suggested I look into the work of Norman McLaren, a Scottish animator known for his work with the National Film Board of Canada. McLaren was an avid user of the pixilation technique, winning an Oscar for his 1952 film, Neighbours.

At the end of the meeting we had a quick look at the Animation World Network and the Imagine Animation sites, the latter of which has a great ‘show and tell section’ which will come in handy if and when I need feedback on my animation.

For the next meeting we both agreed that I would have a fair idea of my deliverables for my learning contract. I showed Richard that I had a brief idea of what I wanted to achieve by week 12. He recommended that I use the university library to find books on stop motion. He also loaned me a previous student’s honours project DVD which explored stop motion animation.

I feel this meeting went as well as I had hoped. Richard seemed pleased with my choice of topic and now I am enthusiastic and excited about getting under way with the tasks ahead.

Week One – In the beginning…

Hi World.

Just when I thought I was out… they pull me back in. It’s my final year and it’s honours project time. We were briefed just before the summer break on what the project would entail and were told to use the summer break to think about what we would base our project on. I spent the sunless months pondering this project and the plan was to hit the ground running come September.

Everything I did, everywhere I went, I would question “Would this make for a good project?”. Usually the answer was “Not really, unless making a sandwich would be an interesting topic”. Eventually I came to the conclusion that the honours project will represent my skill set and will act as a gateway into my future career. In this respect it should illustrate my interests and what excites me. Ultimately this would turn a difficult, pressurised undertaking into an interesting and enjoyable venture.

I listed all the things that excited me and that could individually, or combined, form the grounds for my piece of work. The list was possibly the most eclectic list I have ever penned and if it is ever lost and found by a stranger it may read like an aliens shopping list. Coincidently, aliens appeared on the motley list along with other varied subjects such as architecture, zombies, paper, photography, aeroplanes, vintage machines, clouds, robots, and silhouettes. I also thought about the medium I wanted to work with. It was a given that I would do something in animation as my enthusiasm has been narrowing towards this field over recent years. I have primarily worked with Flash until this point (there was a brief flirtation with Adobe Director some years back. Let’s not talk about that though) and, although I love the freedom it provides in terms of vector based animation, I found it sluggish and buggy when it came to animating image files. I love working in Flash but I feel like I want to explore different styles of animation and build up my skill set.

After little deliberation I decided that stop motion animation would be my weapon of choice. I have always been in awe of stop motion, since I was a wee lad watching The Plonksters and Freddy Fox on Irish children’s TV. I never questioned it, these characters were real, all animals could speak and crows to this day terrify me. Years on Wallace & Gromit and A Nightmare Before Christmas still sparked the child inside me (doctors tried to remove him but failed). These were all done in claymation and are an excellent example of the art. Other stop motion films that have inspired me growing up were King Kong (the 1933 version), The Wind In The Willows, that amazing skeleton scene in the Army Of Darkness and the big ant in Honey, I Shrunk The Kids.

So I had my medium and a range of topics. Over the summer months I acquired a 1960’s Uher reel-to-reel tape recorder and started restoring it. I was stunned by the mechanics of the machine when I opened it up. The innards of the contraption were so visual and in itself an animation. As I was confronted with a feast of spinning drive wheels, springing springs, moving levers and coloured wired, I knew this would make a great subject for my animation. But having a subject to photograph would be only part of my overall project. The next stage will be how to animate it and bring it to life to create a captivating animation. It’s one thing to have a beautiful looking animation but it’s nothing without a story. An animation needs to progress along a timeline if it is to keep the viewers attention, and a plot, or narrative, can provide this. I have not fully worked out the details of the shoot and it may be some time before I decide on the correct approach but at this point in time I hope to include a multitude of lighting and stop motion techniques that I will learn in the coming months.

Which brings me to the next section. We were informed that we are to set our own deliverables deadline for the Christmas period, in the sense that we state now what we will have done by then. I will propose that in this first semester I will strip down the art of stop motion animation into its component parts and do individual studies on each one. For example, I will look at lighting separately, as I will with the photography, scene construction, audio syncing etc.  This I believe will benefit my overall learning experience and be of great advantage when I tackle the main part of the project in the second semester, which will be to create a short film using the tape machine and the various stop motion elements.

I will have my first supervisor meeting next week and these ideas may be subject to change based on my supervisors feedback. I will do my utmost to keep a record of the entire project on this blog including my supervisor meeting feedback so it will be easy to track the evolution of the ideas and overall progress.