Saturday, May 30, 2015

D & D Monsters: A Transatlantic Collaboration

I though I'd give you an update on my Dungeons & Dragons tribute film created with John Hankins. You can read about the puppets created for this project HERE, HERE and HERE.
We are now in the stage of adding pick-up shots to the previously shot video footage, and I've started piecing together the stopmotion animation with the live-action bits. We recently posted a short video clip on Facebook, where John is attacked by an owlbear, while simultaneously searching for an owlbear feather; one of many magical items he need to find on his quest.

We were a bit surprised by the very strong positive reaction the video got, from both stopmo enthusiasts and the RPG crowd, so now we're forging ahead with powers renewed. It was a great tonic to get those reactions, and I'll post work in progress more often now. When you're piecing together your film you're mostly working in a vacuum, and you don't get any outside evaluation until you post it on the Internet (or show it in a film festival). Even if the reaction is negative to your work in progress clip, lap that up too, as it's a clear indication of how things are going for you. It's never too late to make changes, until, of course, the film is finished and launched out into the world.

The most surprising reaction we got was from people who asked "How did you make it work?", meaning our collaboration. John lives in Hawaii and I'm in Sweden, so we have an ocean between us, and we're confined to using emails and social media only to communicate. According to our commentators, many such projects attempted by them had failed miserably, and in those cases the distance was shorter, with the interplay spanning just over state borders. Still, entire projects had collapsed due to faulty communication. This is a great pity, for though people with similar interests and talents are spread across the world, the web offers us a means of keeping in touch and sharing information quickly and easily. So more creative individuals should be able to get together and be collectively productive no matter where you live on the globe.

Now, John and I don't have an unfailing recipe to share with you but I can tell you how we work. When we started discussing the Dungeons & Dragons monster movie collaboration, we quickly cleared up our different areas of responsibility, which I think is the most important thing to start with. John was to act out the hero's role in front of his own green screen in Hawaii, and also create the costume and props that he needed. I handled all the monster effects, plus the Photoshopped backgrounds, and the editing and finishing of the film. This allowed John to focus on the more practical hands-on bits he really enjoys (and does very well indeed). He also wanted to have a go at one of the monsters, the purple worm, which he created as a hand puppet. All of this clarity of decision about who makes what seems like a no-brainer, but apparently it's not always addressed in a long distance collaborative project, at least not at the start-up. And if that's the case I can understand when a production eventually runs into a bit of trouble.

John created these storyboards to get us started. I added some extra ideas, and then John went off to shoot all the live-action video clips.

John's green screen set-up is very basic. He built his own wooden stand for holding the screen and shoots the scenes in his garden, with his wife Alicia as the camera operator, and using the sun as his only lighting source. Since it's in Hawaii, the weather is usually on his side and the shots turn out very good. Before sending the shots to me, John has also created optional versions, where the green background has been cleaned up in After Effects, and is free of shadows and other "jitter". This, of course, makes the compositing extremely easy for me.

When all his shots were finished, including the purple worm hand puppet scene, John put all the material on a small portable drive and snail-mailed it to me. So, why not use Dropbox or some similar online file sharing service? We would've, and we are now, but at that time I had some problems with my Dropbox account, and we solved it this way instead.
When I had received the video footage I could start animating, roughly timing the actions of the monsters to John's acting.

The finished scenes are turning out rather well. The backgrounds are my usual collage of photos, mixed and merged in Photoshop. When editing together the finished shots I quickly noticed that I didn't have enough footage of John to make the story perfectly clear, and that he'd need to film more of it. Apparently this is par for course in the big budget blockbuster films as well, so we're in good company. It does, however, make me wonder why a film of sometimes $150 million or more isn't planned out better.

I made some storyboards for the new sequences and emailed them to John, who is now busy shooting the extra material. He had at this point grown a very stately beard and mustache, but these came off in the name of fine art.

As I said earlier, we're now using Dropbox to send clips back and forth, which is working out very well. Our collaboration is so much fun that we already have our next project planned. I can highly recommend creative people getting together in this way, using web communications. I know that so many of you out there have nobody around where you live to share your dreams and ambitions with, and that that can be enough to kill off your fledgling projects. Don't let that happen. Reach out to others around the globe, and find collaborators. It can be the start of a wonderful new way of working.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Making A Friendly Welcome Video

YouTube itself is very active in recommending things for you, including what the next clip you view should be, and how you can improve on your YouTube presence. The latter is, of course, a good thing, and I'm finally taking some advice to heart.
Among the recommendations from the YouTube staff is that you make an introductory video for those who visit your channel for the first time. It's a polite thing to do,  but more importantly, you give the first time visitor a quick overview of your channel content and the general tone of the channel itself. This is where you come in as a personal host, if you will. People in general seem to be very curious about who's behind the stuff they watch on YouTube, and this is something you can take advantage of to really set the tone for everything people watch after having seen your introductory video, especially if you're a funny or gregarious person.
I'm probably not either of those types, but because my puppet-making craft and my animations, if not unique, are at least rare and have a novelty value, my YouTube channel has something that sets it apart from many others. So I hope my YouTube welcoming video reflect that. Enjoy!

Monday, April 6, 2015

Lone Animator Merchandise

I recently made this t-shirt print mainly so I can prance around in it myself, but some of you might be interested in helping me out with some shameless advertising too. You'll find it on Zazzle right HERE.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

I Thought I Saw That Jersey Devil part 1: The Puppet and Song

The USA is shockful of weird and wonderful legends, and one of the oldest and still most vital among them is the tale(s) of the Jersey Devil. This peculiar gargoyle-ish critter hails from the Pine Barrens forest of southern New Jersey. As legend tells it it's the thirteenth child of Mother Leeds; a local witch who cursed the unfortunate infant for the pains he was giving her. The child transformed into a demon, killed the midwife and escaped up the chimney. Since this harrowing episode, said to have occurred in 1735, the "devil" has been seen numerous times, and is still reported every now and then. It's a seemingly deathless creature. The scream it utters is apparently unlike anything else ever heard. I had relatives who lived in the Pine Barrens in the 1970's and 80's, but sadly, they never had any unusual experiences in the area.

I've done a fair amount of research and articles for Swedish press on the subject of Cryptozoology, and I've returned to the Jersey Devil time and time again. I built a small model of the monster way back in the 1990's, but this now crumbling latex and plastic creation was not made for animation. I thought it was actually high time to produce a proper puppet AND animate it.

Actually, the other big reason for me to make the film is this cool and clever song by Kevin Welch. I saw this performance on YouTube, and thought the tune was both atmospheric and humorous. So I contacted Kevin about being able to use it as the soundtrack for my film, and he said yes without any hesitation. Now I like him even more! So, while waiting for my finished video, please enjoy a live rendition of the song by Kevin Welch.

The challenge I put to myself was to make a large puppet, having the strength to stand on one rather spindly leg in a mid-air leap or stride. So I turned to my Monster Clay, so I could chisel out tiny details in the skin of the creature. The head and chest were created separately, and were the only parts sculpted in clay.

This armature was actually built in a slightly different way than I usually do. I simply laid several aluminum wires next to each other in a clump, tied together with sewing string. I added thin nails with the heads clipped off to the aluminum wire clumps, and thereby achieved the unbending "bone" parts I at least have to have when animating, or the puppet will bend all over its body. As you can see, the chest area has a rudimentary rib cage, and the back has a hunch where the wings will be attached. Those parts are aluminum wires covered with Friendly Plastic thermoplastic.

I've talked so many times about how I make bat wings that I'll skip that here, but here's how the wings looked straight out of their plaster cradles.

The puppet came together very quickly. The head has jointed upper and lower lips, and ears using aluminum wires. I'm having my favourite scrapbooking crimson beads for the eyes. I'm using Friendly Plastic to bond all the parts together. Varying densities of polyurethane foam make up the muscles. The little hoofs are also Friendly Plastic.

The puppet is skinned with patches of latex skins cast in plaster moulds of various sculpted skin textures. The knobbly spine was created by just adding drops of tinted latex with a pointy wooden tool. The claws and teeth are cotton and latex.

The finished puppet has a base colour of black/blue/red PAX paint, and Liquitex acrylic airbrush paint. It's over a foot tall, and very light. You'll see just how flexible it is in the eventual animation. I have to say that it's one of the best and effective animation puppets I've built so far.

Time to step out into the woods and find the proper places where you might expect to meet a devil. I won't be visiting the real Pine Barrens, but I have a swampy pine wood area just a stone's throw from where I live. And who'll be in the film is yet to be seen. I'll be calling on some of my friends that don't mind being chased by imaginary monsters through the woods.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

"The Other Gods": The Gods Themselves Part 3

No, it's not over quite yet -we have some stragglers among the Other Gods. This bunch is made very quickly and with scraps and found stuff, which I thought might be interesting for some of you.

The top thingie on this puppet is a left over casting from an alien fungus prop made over 12 years ago. I found it in a bag of old stuff and was surprised to discover that the latex hadn't deteriorated at all. Below that is a wooden ball stuck to an empty plastic vitamin jar. A wood dowel runs through the whole thing, and all bits are joined together with hot glue.
The tentacles and the eye stalks are the same stuff I always make; aluminum wires covered with soft wire and latex. The black blobs are Friendly Plastic thermoplastic helping to keep the limbs stuck to the body.

I used only cotton dipped in tinted latex to build up the structure of the body. I would never use the cotton/latex mix for parts of the puppet that would move and flex a lot. It simply wouldn't work, it'd be like covering your puppet in tough leather. But since the body on this construction was rigid anyway it was a cheap and quick way of building up structure. I'm using long thick needle tools to detail the surface by simply pressing the tools into the latex-soaked cotton. Using a heat gun in between laying on new details helped dry the structure very quickly.

To make the eyes I printed out eye images created in Photoshop and dripped "Glossy Accents" scrapbooking plastic over each eye. This is a very cheap and quick way of making puppet eyes with flat back sides.

The finished puppet was spray painted with Liquitex acrylic airbrush colours and the wood dowel was painted in the green chroma key paint I use for the backgrounds.

Here's another cobbled together armature, using my usual aluminum wires and Friendly Plastic bonding material, and another wood ball (or rhombus?) to form a head. This creature is a "servitor of the outer gods"; a bunch of creatures playing flute-like instruments to sooth bigger, nastier creatures floating around in space.
The flute was the handle of a discarded watercolour brush glued into the head. The trumpet part is a plastic bit from a broken calibration tool, and what looks like a brown wooden ball is just that. In order to minimize the troubles of keeping the tiny hands stuck to the flute while animating I simply stuck the hands to the brush handle using bits of small aluminum wires going from the hands into the flute. The rod sticking out of the monster's bum was a bit of steel rod attached to a block of wood.


A quick padding using many layers of thin, soft polyurethane foam helped bulk up the body while still keeping it very flexible.

The puppet was mainly covered with latex casts from older plaster moulds. These moulds were made for the flying polyps of "The Shadow Out of Time", which in their turn came from clay presses in silicone moulds made over weird-looking lichen growing on rocks by the sea.
The arms were thick macrame yarn with softer string wrapped around it and then covered with liquid latex. Having the arms soft means that I only had to animate the head moving back and forth, and the arms would follow. The wrinkly head was latex and cotton, and the spikes on the back was toilet paper dipped in latex and rolled into pointy shapes.

The puppet was finished off with a layer of PAX paint (Prosaide makeup glue and acrylic paint). One dark brown layer went on first and then a grey/green lighter colour was dry brushed on top of that, accentuating protruding details. Blue acrylic airbrush paints added extra life to the critter. Bronze Warhammer paint was brushed on over the flute using a disposable pipe cleaner.

This other "god" was initially based on Quachil Uttaus from Clark Ashton Smith's "Treader of the Dust", which is a baby-like mummy. While sculpting it it sort of developed into something more fleshy and organic. I used Monster Clay for the sculpture.

The front of the puppet was cast in latex, backed with a cotton/latex mix used everywhere except around the neck, which needed to be flexible. Like my tentacles the arms were aluminum wire covered with string and latex. The head part of the armature was another vitamin pill jar and the body was an empty super glue bottle. A long steel nail went up the puppet's behind as a support. Soft polyurethane foam padded the back of the body.

Bumpy latex skin casts from older plaster moulds and the cotton/latex mix covered up the back of the body. PAX paint and acrylic airbrush paints gilded the lily.

These puppets took only one to two days to build, and the demands on them during animating was very simple. But I hope I've shown that you can create stop-motion puppets without spending either a lot of time or money on your creations.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

"The Other Gods": The Finished Film

And here it is, ladies and gentlemen. I hope you'll enjoy it. It took two years to finish the darn thing, but the main reason for that is that I've been crazy busy with other things since the fall 2013. Hopefully, I won't take that long to finish the next one.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

The Story of Odin

Taking a short break from "The Other Gods" I thought another project might be of interest to you. Besides working on my own personal stuff I make films with the handicapped people at my day job, teaching them how to use the film equipment, how to blog, and generally how to take advantage of the various social media to market yourself and your creativity. You may remember a film from last year, "Aladdin", made with this group.

Last fall I shot this film, "The Story of Odin", conceived by Joakim Strömgren, who has a light psychological disability. He wanted to make a film based on Norse mythology, with himself in the lead. We settled on the tale of how Odin lost his eye, became a mighty magician, and eventually the chieftain of the gods. Joakim presented me with an outline of what he wanted to include, and we cobbled together the manuscript.

Here's how the film was shot; in a hopelessly crammed space, with bad lighting and a very simple consumer market camera, not at all suited for chroma key work. The resulting footage needed a lot of processing and tweaking in After Effects to work. The actual effects of the film also required tons of tweaking. I didn't have the time to make all the puppets needed to portray frost giants, trolls etc, so I had to compromise and use 2D animation far more than I'd ever done before. It was not something I preferred to do, but I got the basic job done.

Here's an example. These two frost giants inhabiting the desolate world before the real world is created was made up using photos of several puppets. The cyclops to the right is actually a fully constructed puppet that I haven't used yet for any project. Since I didn't have time to properly animate him, I simply took a snapshot of the puppet and animated it in After Effects using the puppet tool. This tool allows you to add key points on a still image (or a moving one) and pulling at those points between key frames in the timeline allows you to simulate very smooth motion. It's a popular way of creating fake extreme slow motion.

The two-headed giant to the left is pieced together using photos of an elephantine demon puppet from "The King Who Sought Immortality", and the heads of the scorpion men from that same film. I coloured all parts in the same flesh tone in Photoshop, and animated the 2D creature using the puppet tool.

Many scenes were created this way. Here's another example; the giant Ymir eating one of the smaller human-like Aesir(Norse race of gods). This puppet is also finished and was built for a project that is still waiting to be pieced together. Lack of time forced me to use the puppet tool on photos of this guy too.

Then there were shots that, in my humble opinion, couldn't have been created any other way than using 2D images and the puppet tool. A depiction of the fall of the gods at the battle of Ragnarok was created with numerous layers of images, including one of Joakim as Odin straddling his eight-footed steed Sleipner, and another where Odin is swallowed by his arch-enemy the Fenris wolf. I used stock photos of animals and lots of photos from various LARP and reenactment societies, including a local one.

When telling a story taking place in the world of Norse mythology you can't be stuffy about it -you have to at least attempt to show the grandeur of that world. So filming against a green screen was a no-brainer. It turned out quite well, but a better camera would've made the film better-looking. The backgrounds are a mix of Photoshopped still images and stock footage, mainly from Videoblocks. In the end I managed to achieve the look and atmosphere both I and Joakim were hoping for.

In the original script Odin passes through Jotunheim, home of those giants and trolls that didn't perish in the great flood that created the new world. He was supposed to meet and fight three trolls, and I started on the puppets with clay sculptures and plaster moulds. Unfortunately time constraints forced me to abandon the troll encounter, so these puppets will have to wait for another film project.

I did however include an encounter with Nidhögg, a serpentine dragon who gnaws on one of the roots of the cosmic world-tree Yggdrasil. This monster was realized as a finished and stop-motion animated puppet.

I decided that I wouldn't build the whole of the monster, just the head and neck, and concentrated my efforts on making a gnarled and unpleasant-looking, but regal head for Nidhögg. The head sculpture was split in half and cast in dental plaster moulds.

Cast in latex lined with a leathery latex/cotton mix, the head and jaw were joined with thick aluminum wires. Another thick aluminum wire was attached to a piece of board and joined to the head with Friendly Plastic thermoplastic. Soft polyurethane foam padded the body, which was then covered with cast latex skins pulled from older dinosaur and monster skin moulds.

Nidhögg has a crest along his back similar to the fins of deep sea fish, or, if you will, the crests and wings of devils of medieval church interior art. The spikes were pieces of cotton dipped in latex and rolled between my thumb and index finger. The skin between them were latex applied to soft clay stuck to one side of the spikes. After two layers of latex the clay could be removed. The latex was dusted down with talcum powder first.

The teeth and horns were also cotton and latex. A mix of acrylic paint and Prosaide glue covered the puppet as a base paint. Acrylic airbrush colours were used for the finishing touches. As you can see a tongue was also added by wrapping sewing string around very thin steel wires and then applying tinted latex.

Joakim was a delight to work with, and I hope to do it again, this time with better equipment and a longer production period. And finally, here's the finished film. It's all in Swedish, though.