I made this realization recently: I, We, You can make anything you can imagine. Thats the gift that living in 2014 has given to us. Laser cutters, CNC machines, 3D printers, the internet!! It just so happens that all these powerful tools are incredibly useful for creative people.
Its worth repeating again - you can make ANYTHING.
I'm a film producer at Kontent Films in San Francisco, and I strive to foster meaningful change through film while pushing the artistic bounds of my craft. My friend Chris is a maker, and founder of Wood Thumb, a workshop that uses many of these “new tools” to design and produce wood products.
Enter - Maker Film Production
Together we were challenged to make a 13 second clip for a short film Kontent was making on the dominant global economy and what more sustainable alternatives might ential. The premise was that the economy views human labor as just another extractable resource; we wanted to show that workers were just cogs in a vast machine.
It was either hire a shadow puppet dance troupe, or stop motion - Surprise, we decided to convey this message through stop motion animation…. maker style.
So, we had the general idea.. now what?
Step 1: Ideas & Momentum
Fail fast and iterate often.
Its a maxim that entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley swear by, but its not usually applied to the precision world of film making. In the case of maker style film production & stop motion animation however, it’s of paramount importance: when you’re doing something no one (around you or on the internet) has done before, you will likely make mistakes while sliding down your learning curve. Two hours into the last day of shooting is not the time to discover a fatal flaw you made on the very first day.
How? Story boards!
As you can see, drawing is not my strong suit, but I threw some things together to help communicate my ideas to Chris and my director Mark. When we set out to design a film set of gears, a city sky line and some poor 'cogs in the machine', we weren't quite sure how it'd all look together. Our iterative process consisted of printing lots of versions of the gears and people on card stock and some very patient cutting.
We started with a roll of paper and some stick figures; upgraded to mockups of cogs taped on a beer keg (which somehow made it into the scene) and paper gears taped together. It didn't look great, but it was essential to figuring out the geometry, the scale and the functionality of this animation.
Making everything before hand out of paper enabled us to tweak our designs without wasting expensive time on TechShop's machines.
Idea? check. Storyboard? check. Paper models? check. But what about style?
Step 2: Style
When developing a style guide or template for an animation, inspiration can come from lots of different places. For us, an old hotel being torn down seen by the light of the full moon was our muse.
Night time, dark and dreary, broken concrete and bits of rebar. 'metal' gears and warm colored light spilling from a city scape receding into the distance.
We used grey and black spray paint to give some variance to the buildings. We found some cool ‘hammered’ metal textured spray paint for the gears. Spackle to add some texture in the background and bits of rusted steel to complete the gritty look.
Step 3: Brass Tacks
OK, you've got your idea, you've refined it and story boarded it out. You've established your style - now its time to get started
Set elements we built:
Tools we used:
•Computers with Illustrator, VCarve Pro
To film we used:
•7 foot rails with dolly
•Several film lights
•DragonFrame stop motion software
To edit we used:
•Adobe After Effects
•Adobe Premier Pro
Step 4: Solid Frame, CNC, Laser Cut
For a stop motion, any little unwanted movement in between frames could result in a very jarring experience. The set needs to be perfectly still and you need to start off with a solid frame as your base. Attaching moving gears to the frame made stability even more critical. We built our frame out of two 36" x 36" x .5" pieces of MDF board, 2x4's and plenty of screws. We mounted the gears to the front piece and across the top we mounted the city scape. The main gear on which the people would spin was made out of the best cylinder we could find - a beer keg!
CNC Large Components
To accurately transfer computer designs onto wood or other physical medium, we used a CNC router (TechShop's Shop Bot) to cut out the larger, thicker and structural components of the set. The gears and cogs were designed in a handy gear generating software from woodgears.ca. From there transfer the files into Illustrator. If they're not vector files already, you can use the 'image trace' function to turn them into vector files - but be aware, sometimes some pretty funky shapes result. With vectors in hand (on you USB drive, fine be technical) open them in VCarve Pro, and create the file for the CNC router. Then cut the files out of whatever material works best, we used 3/4" MDF which results in a much smoother cut line than plywood.
We're skipping over a few steps here of course - Tech Shop publishes their own safety and basic use manuals and if you're using a different machine - you'll have to figure it for yourself!
Laser cut detailed set elements
The size of your router bit on the CNC machine will limit the amount of fine detail. We were using a 1/4 inch bit, so with very tight angles, it just wasn't going to work. Instead, we used a laser cutter to make the smaller more detailed components of the set. We made the city background in this fashion - basically a series of buildings with the windows cut out in order to light later from behind.
*a note on design*
If you can avoid it, don't reinvent the wheel! I was struggling for an afternoon to get several nice looking buildings made with clean vector lines for the laser cutter. I took pictures around town, tried tracing them in Illustrator - understandably it was taking forever and becoming a nightmare. A friend suggested I use stock images, and lo and behold, a half an hour later I was flying along after downloading a great set of vectors.
Design or modify your file in Illustrator, and then print it to 1/4" or 1/8" plywood. We cut out many buildings so that we could individually stack and arrange them on the set once we were looking through the lens of the camera. Because space and scale is limited on set, we stretched and slanted the buildings to play around with vanishing point perspective to give a sense of depth.
Step 5: Cogs, Assembly, Paint, & Style
Problem: the sides of our cogs were curved, but how on earth do you print on curved pieces of wood???
Some laser cutters can engrave along a curve, but with our compressed time frame, we didn't have a chance to figure that piece out. Instead we printed our silhouetted people on Rub-Onz transfer paper and, well, rubbed them on to the cog. This transfer paper is great for other added details where you want the background to remain transparent.
Each building was spray painted one of three different shades of grey or black. The color difference helped to pop each building away from its neighbors. Once we got the hang of the metallic paint, the gears turned out well - when dealing with specialty paints, its a good idea to test it on a piece you don't care about too much first.
Putting everything together took a lot of trial and error. First we placed the main gear on the cylindrical pony keg with double sided tape and a nail gun. We placed the keg in the grove to mark its place. The we connected the rest of the gears to 6" pipe, sandwiched the gear in between a pipe end cap and a clamp on the back. The pipe was then connected to a pipe mount so that it could be securely fastened to the frame. One by one we lined up and fastened the gears.
Next we set up the cityscape background. This was done by individually gluing the building down with a hot glue gun. Tallest building first and then going in descending order narrowing towards the back to create the illusion of a big street fading in the distance.
Step 6: Background, Lighting, Camera, Action
It order to give a sense of night, we hung a black cloth behind the set and lit appropriately.
Lighting is a key to highlighting features, creating depth, and setting the mood. Lighting should not change during the stop motion shoot, so we had to black out a couple of sky lights with furniture blankets. Ideally you will have a room that you can completely black out so that you can completely control the light.
All different types of lights burn at a specific temperature that is seen by a camera (and our eyes) as a particular color. Daylight is typically blue, while indoor lighting from incandescent bulbs is warmer. To make the warm, yellow windows in the city scape, we lit the rest of the buildings with cool, daylight colored light, balanced our cameras to that and then lit the windows from behind with orange-gelled LED track lights.
The majority of the light used on set was from 4 small Dedo lights that can be precisely directed at specific elements to make them 'pop' more.
The mechanics of stop motion
Stop motion is a film style in which you take a series of pictures of inanimate objects. In between each picture you move and element of the frame - be it an object in the scene or the camera itself - very slightly, so that when the pictures are strung together, the scene comes to life like a flip book.
Setting up the camera
Our specific scene called for a camera move to pan from the people walking the city streets to reveal the economy's true nature.
Before you begin shooting, careful planning of the speed and timing of your camera move must be made. We were operating with just about a 6 foot move over the course of 8 seconds (leaving room on either end for stillness). our film would be played back at 24 frames per second and so 24*8 is 192 frames that would need to be shot for just the move.
I think I figured that'd be about 3/8ths inch every frame. I could have gotten a tape measure moved the camera by a consistent amount, but I wanted to ease into and out of the move. I used after effects, took screen shots of the keyframes of a eased move and printed that out over 6 feet of paper to accurate get an eased camera move.
Step 7: After Effects and Sound Design
We used After Effects to create a JPEG photo sequence and cut it into our film.
At least 50% of the emotional impact of a video comes from the sound. Good sound typically operates at a more subconscious level than video, but it really helps to sell an animation and make it believable.
SoundDogs.com is a great resource for cheap sound effects.
Step 8: Maker Film
With every great new technology, people extoll the democratization of filmmaking. Digital video made it cheaper, the 5DmkII made it beautiful.
However, we believe that the maker style film production will finally allow creative people to bring any idea into reality.