Animation Discussion – Darkness, Light, Darkness (1990)

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I’ve talked about Jan Švankmajer a few times during this project but I want to discuss some of his work further. This animation discussion features Darkness Light Darkness (1990), a claymation film which revolves around a clay character building themselves, a similar theme to the final animation I will be creating.

The animation has a classic Jan Švankmajer atmosphere to it: creative but also unsettling and sometimes grotesque. The animation plays with a lot of imagery that would be pretty disturbing if it was real. Luckily stop motion is used appropriately here and having the character clearly made from clay gives the character visual appeal.

Modelling clay is used as the main material with the various limbs being made from it, as well as the character using the moulding properties of the clay to build himself. There’s a lot of visual gags that arise from the use of clay. Sound also plays a good part in this short film with the sound effects adding to the unsettling nature of the content.

In general, the modelling clay has a smooth, elastic property to it. The limbs retain their shape to where they would resemble the firmness yet softness of real human limbs. Sometimes this is broken for a purpose, for example when the ears are torn off they leave an uneven tear which contrasts to the typically smoother use of clay within the animation. That itself can create unsettling moments as the tear feels more real to the audience.

The nature of the story means there’s a lot of imagery that can get a reaction from the audience, from playing around with eyeballs to realistic looking organs making an appearance. A tongue and set of teeth enter the room and as they are the first non-clay moving objects (other than the eyes) there’s a distinct contrast between them and the clay character. The use of realistic (maybe even real) organs that are wet in texture, coupled with the squishy sound effects, might alarm the squeamish and this is more than likely the intended effect.

I particularly like the different ways that the clay is deformed throughout the animation. Opening the head up to put the brain in leaves a nice effect in the clay that looks like the hands have left indents in the skull. The feet crushing the head from either side is also a humorous moment that leaves the head crushed in a comical way. As more clay comes in from outside the room it becomes more fluid and has a texture that looks hand moulded with lots of fingerprint indentations.

Another moment I particularly liked was when one of the hands reacts to seeing something outside the door. The hand points then turns against the door and raises all its fingers as if to convey shock. This was both funny but also interesting in that I have considered doing a similar effect in my own animation, where my own hand (animated with the pixilation technique) will gesture towards my wire armature character.

Overall I really liked this animation. In context with other animated shorts and features I’ve looked at, I feel this is the most relevant to my project and I’m glad I took the time to discuss it further. For a claymation it does a lot of things and has contains many interesting techniques. I’ve said a lot of good things about the animation so I’ll balance that by saying that I would’ve liked to have seen the hands mould the clay in more detail. Sometimes I didn’t always feel the drag on the clay that it could have. I’m also not entirely sure of the few live action moments such as the use of water. I understand that it is impossible to animate water the way you want it to so I get why they are live action scenes but it does stand out. But on the whole this is superb animation and a must watch for those interested in stop motion with clay.

Progress Update – Animating the Armature

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Following the first scene involving pixilation, it was time to move on to animating with the armature. I had previously created a test animation with the armature but this was the first time animating it with the intention of using the shot in my final animated outcome. Compared to the test, I had allotted more time to the animation and was able to spend more time focusing on getting the movements right.

Taking the feedback from my animatic into consideration I decided to do the first few shots as one bigger scene to avoid switching camera angles too often. I am aware that I have not animated a large shot over different filming days in a long time. I tend to prefer animating a whole shot in one go to avoid changes in lighting and the position of the characters in set. It means I usually split up scenes with smaller shots or dedicate time to completing a larger shot in one sitting. For this project, doing that would not be appropriate so I decided to face my fear and approach a larger shot in segments.

To do that, I’m going to ensure I end each segment on a “resting” character position (i.e. after an action, not mid-action). I’ll also need to ensure I am especially careful to secure the lighting setup throughout filming. Even with the same lighting setup and environment, things are never simple and when I come back after a day’s filming on another day there is always a difference. It comes down mostly to the camera and that it resets some of its settings on every startup. To get around that I’ll need to ensure that I match up the settings as best I can on each segment transition. Even then, it will not be perfect but thankfully I have been improving my skills with colour correction in post production and feel pretty confident I can tweak each segment to match. I also have other make-shift methods of blending them together if I need to.

Animating went well and I mostly achieved what I wanted. The segment I filmed was very similar to the depiction in the animatic and storyboards however I added in additional movements here and there so the character had more time to show its inner thinking. The character “wakes up” and has a look around, then discovers their own body and then tries to understand what he cannot see – his head. He looks at his hands and jiggles his feet.

I wanted the character’s first thoughts to represent “what is this, what am I?” before curiosity takes over and will lead him to explore his surroundings. The animation itself is okay, certainly better than the earlier test I animated but I think I will become more confident as I progress through the animation. I anticipated this and I feel this is okay to show, as both myself and the character are learning about the armature and more confident movement later on will also reflect a more confident character. Seems like cheating a little but that’s okay, its all up to the viewer’s interpretation anyway.

Progress Update – Filming Begins

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At long last, filming for the final animated short film for the project has begun. I began chronologically with the first scene which is slightly different from most other scenes in the animation. It deals with pixilation animation, a stop motion technique where live actors are animated like a puppet would. It creates a unique surreal quality with the possibility to bend the laws of physics and the environment. I won’t be utilising pixilation to achieve surreal effects but instead will be using it to incorporate a live actor within a story that features a stop motion character.

Due to the length of time I needed to animate these shots and the availability of other people, I animated my own hands for this scene. However I needed my hands to be very steady during filming in order to keep the movements between frames from jumping around too much. I encountered this potential problem earlier during the creation of my photographed animatic and came up with the solution of capturing frames with my foot. Luckily I have a portable numeric keypad which I have keyed to the stop motion software I use. This method worked quite well and it was relatively easy enough to animate like this. Its important to note that had I used another actor, the quality of movement would be different as I’d have less control with how that person can hold their pose but I’d also have greater control to take my time to fine tune the position of the actor between frames. I feel the method I used was the most practical for my own time as well as how big a role it plays on the animation on the whole.

A large part of the project has been documenting process so for this final animated outcome I will be time-lapsing my animation process. These time-lapses won’t be perfect, I’ll be using different angles, different speeds and avoiding focusing on motion blur or lighting but they’ll serve their purpose. Interestingly enough, the time-lapse of the first scene showed some very interesting results. Because I was moving my hands in slow motion, the sped up timelapse showed my hands moving at a surreal slower movement. I wouldn’t have thought to try a concept like this but I have seen it used effectively before. I may have tried out an animation test earlier in the year had I known about this technique however I may also try out this technique at a further date.

Overall I’m happy with finally starting to animate the final outcome and look forward to making progress. Due to the nature of stop motion there will be some shots I am happy with and others where I know could have been better. Because of the straight ahead process of stop motion, things are difficult to change. I accept that this is just how it is but as long as I do my best and evaluate the work I do, I will hopefully get a little better each time.

Lego Batman v Superman – Post Mortem

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A few days ago I completed my Lego animated version of the Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice film. This has been an ongoing project alongside my Honours project and earlier in the month I decided to commit to finish it before the movie’s release date. While it did mean I had to put my Honours animation on hold at an inconvenient time, I felt it was necessary to move this secondary project out of the way in order to fully commit to my Honours project. I also wanted the video to be uploaded at the relevant time. Had I completed it later it would have been a couple of months since the movie’s release and it wouldn’t have had the same impact.

This was the final outcome and I’m pretty happy with how it turned out. The animation has been my most ambitious project from a technical stand point requiring over 100 shots and a large number of multiple sets. As its a blockbuster movie, there were also a number of visually complex shots including explosions, flying, fighting and cinematic shots I had to re-create.

This blog post will analyse this project as the work I’ve done on it has affected the way I’ve gone about my Honours project. While I don’t intend to use this animation in my submission, the thought process, techniques, lessons and feedback have directly fed into my Honours project and without it, my Honours project would be in a very different position than it is now.

Lego as a Tool for Filmmaking

Not only was Lego the subject of the animation but I discovered interesting ways to use Lego to assist the actual animation process. One such way was using Lego to position and move the camera in shots. I use a webcam for filming since it connects to my computer to be used as an input for animation software. I’ve always used a Lego cradle to steady the camera as it doesn’t have a good stand of its own plus it helps to attach directly to the surface its filming on.

While I’ve used Lego as a camera movement tool in the past there were new things I tried. As I was recreating the trailer which is very cinematic in nature, there were camera movements that I wouldn’t normally consider so had to come up with solutions on how to replicate them. There was one shot which required the camera to be elevated gradually, so I built a make-shit elevator rig.

In another shot I required the camera to rotate around a centre point of the set. I connected a few Lego bricks together to make a long rod connected to a Lego turntable which I concealed beneath the set. The camera then slid along some flat tiles. I’d move the camera by hand at a steady rate.

However there was a shot which was seven seconds and required the camera to follow a character running up a street. The camera needed to be following the character steady so some maths was involved. If you’re interested in that: The run cycle in the shot lasted 6 frames which moves the character 2 studs forward. The distance between 2 studs is 16mm so each frame the camera needed to move 2.67 frames. This was the longest shot in the trailer so I sought the help of a friend to help move the camera while I focused on the character and environment movements.

Observations

As with most animation projects, each new project brings new things to discover.

I’ve thought more about the materials being used as well. As I’ve historically worked with Lego in my animations, I hadn’t thought about the material’s properties compared with other materials. As I’ve been exploring different materials throughout this year, its highlighted what is unique about animating with Lego and what traits it has within the medium of stop motion.

Points of movement. Lego has seven points of movement (two legs, two arms, two hands and the head) which defines the way most people will interact with them – through playing, posing or animating with them. However animation isn’t limited to just these points of movement. There’s nothing to stop you from removing an arm and positioning it in anyway you want, provided you can support it and hide the support. I did this a few times throughout the trailer such as when Wonder Woman smashes her bracers together or when a poor background guy surrounded by water waves his arms about to get the attention of Superman. But in general, the seven points of movement defines the movement of the characters. Subtler movements have to be done different whereas the chest can’t bend and the head can’t look down, the waist has to move instead. A real life person moving this way wouldn’t look natural but for Lego it’s just accustom to see that type of movement.

It’s clear The Lego Movie (2014) were aware of the vast number of stop motion animated videos by fans and so much of the character’s movement emulated the style of stop motion animations. With some exceptions, the characters keep their rigid bodies and often hop about or pay little attention to the restrictions of their own bodies and movement.

During the long running shot I mentioned earlier, I had the problem of not being entirely sure on how to animate the oncoming smoke and rubble coming from the collapsing building. I settled on simply pouring a box of Lego slowly over the course of the shot and moving the large quantity of bricks as a single mass similar to how I animated with rice earlier in the year.

Comments/Feedback

The YouTube comments section is a weird and wonderful place. Having been a long time YouTube user I’ve seen most of it. I never expect a lot of meaningful feedback on my videos, in general the fans don’t much care for the quality of the animation. They may notice it but the feedback is going to be along the lines of “this is good”, “this bad”, “this is amazing”, etc. most of the time. That’s okay, for the most part I am pretty good and self analysing my work and there is a large user-base of other “brickfilmers” around. There are sites dedicated to giving more detailed feedback on brickfilms but the nature of this animation being based of an existing work makes it less interesting to share and talk about on these sites. Instead, this video is aimed at the fans of Lego, Batman, Superman and my own followers.

Majority of comments I received on my video upon upload were “he’s back” and “you’re alive” and most of the rest were overwhelmingly positive. This is great for morale and I feel good to be back and to still be welcomed among fans and the community of other YouTube animators. This is step one in my goal to reignite my YouTube channel, my website, brand and professional persona. Along with my honours animation, I hope this is a good way of selling myself for the future.

Stats

As expected I received a quick drop in subscribers as I’d reminded people that I was still alive. After three years of inactivity, not all of my subscribers will be interested in Lego videos any more. Fortunately after a couple of days I was back on the rise again and subscribers were flowing in nicely. Views were typical but suddenly picked up a couple of days in. During the weekend my video was featured on JovemNerd, GeekTyrant and Nerdist which brought in a sudden influx of viewers. This is why I wanted to release the video when I did, any later and interest in the movie wouldn’t have been as strong.

Interestingly enough, most views have actually came from YouTube’s suggested videos feature (where my video will show up along side other similar videos). While I’ve heard many users complain that this feature doesn’t work in a lot of people’s favour, it seemingly does for me.

Animatic – Version 2

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Although later than expected, I now have a first draft animatic for the second revision of my story (I had created a first draft animatic previously before the story idea changed). This animatic is adapted from storyboards I had created earlier with some minor alterations and a completed ending.

I chose to approach the animatic differently than I normally would and chose to use photographs of the posed character and the set to block out poses and actions. Editing them into a video would help me with pacing and timing as well as communicate my story idea to others easily. It also gave me an opportunity to try out camera positions and lighting setups and generally get a feel of how I would be working on and moving around the set later on.

The animatic does however switch to drawn frames half through which I had to do due to suffering from back pain after a pretty intensive week of animating prior. Unfortunately I had also lost my drawing tablet’s pen so was limited to drawing with a mouse. Generally I wouldn’t use this quality of drawing but I needed to complete some form of an animatic by the end of the weekend in order to stick to my schedule which was already pretty tight. The animatic still communicates my story idea but had I started it earlier and spent more time on it I would’ve achieved a higher polished result.

I was initially less enthusiastic about creating an animatic as it has previously taken me a great deal of time to create. My experience of animation over the years has been mostly thought up on the spot without the need for previous planning. Throughout university I have tried to focus more on the pre-production side of things in order to produce higher quality work as well as learn how the industry operates. This is especially useful when working with others. So while less enthusiastic, I felt it was necessary to complete an animatic for both the project’s and my own benefit.

From here I will now be able to start animating and I’ll be able to use the animatic as a guide to timing and planning out shots. It’ll also help me with scheduling and monitoring my progress. Like the Batman V Superman trailer animation I just created, having a video (in this case the animatic) to work from will be beneficial.