Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Shadow Out of Time: My Effects Contributions

The weird visions of unearthly creatures of H P Lovecraft and stop-motion animation would seem to be  a marriage made in heaven, but the fact is that very few Lovecraftian films choose to show his famous monsters at all. There are a few rare exceptions, such as Stuart Gordon's "From Beyond", which features both incredible make-up effects, practical monster effects, and a few quick glimpses of stop-mo, and the Lovecraft Historical Society's "The Call of Cthulhu", which proudly displays a stop-mo Cthulhu emerging from his crypt at the end of the film.

It seems that my main contribution to pop culture will most likely be my animated Lovecraft monsters! I've done a few, and I'm planning to do more. Probably lots more. Among Lovecraft's many weird monsters there are few weirder than his Yith; "The Great Race", which I planned to bring to life in a project of my own. When my friend Daniel Lenneer approached me with the idea of a collaboration, making as faithful an adaptation of Lovecraft's story "The Shadow Out of Time"as we could muster, it seemed like a fun project. And I was right.

The Great Race of Yith was represented by one puppet, then duplicated many times in After Effects. But I'm pretty sure you've already worked that out if you've seen the film. Like my other puppets, the Yith creature is a simple construction, using simple materials. The round head, the cluster of red tubes and the cone-shaped body was sculpted in Chavant clay and cast as latex skins in plaster moulds. The head has three glass eyes, which I think are recreations of a wolf's eye. All the limbs, including tendrils and antenna are pieces of aluminum wire wrapped in soft string, and then covered with latex. The claws were sculpted in Chavant and cast in hard plastic from silicone moulds.

The flying polyps (enemies of the Yith) were much easier to make. I bundled together bits of aluminum wire, and covered it all with soft string and pieces of foam rubber. I cast latex skins from plaster moulds, taken from bubbly lichen, and covered the three puppets with them. The flying polyps are very vaguely described by Lovecraft, but illustrators usually add gnashing mouths and bulging eyes. I just stuck with one of Lovecraft's remarks, which (if memory serves me) likens the polyps to cancerous growths. The polyp puppets were held aloft by aluminum wires painted blue. I finally spent the necessary money on some proper chroma key paint, blue and green, and I'm glad I did. Keying out both support rods and the background is now incredibly easy.

Besides the two opposing extraterrestrial forces there are other creatures mentioned briefly in the story. Among them are "the arachnid denizens of Earth's last age" -a kind of bugs that the Yith take possession of when they loose the war with the polyps, and flee with their minds into the future.
I wanted something that wasn't exactly a spider or a crab or a beetle. I hope I came up with something that was a mix of all of these, and also that the creatures had a certain creepiness, with their eye stalks and spindly legs. I actually got caught up in imagining the biology and social structure of these creatures; how they would move about and communicate by caressing each other with their long antenna. But almost nothing of this made it into the final film.

The puppet had a cast latex shell, with all other parts of the body built up over aluminum wire using latex, cotton and string. I attached a jointed blue support rod to the creature's belly. This rod ended in a modified wing nut, which worked as a tie down to fix the puppet to the animation stage. As with most of my animations, the arachnid was animated in front of a blue screen, and the support rod disappeared in post production. The legs also ended in tie downs, namely some sort of thin threaded metal rods I found in a hardware store. The thin legs couldn't have supported the body on their own, but the tie downs in the feet helped keep the legs in position while animating.

Another puppet built specifically for this project was the prehistoric amphibian Eryops, which represented the early life forms the Yith encountered when they built their civilization on Earth. The Eryops was quickly built with foam padding over a plastic and aluminum wire armature, and lastly covered with latex skin. The head was sculpted separately and cast in latex from a plaster mould.

The teeth of the Eryops were just saw-shaped paper cut-outs dipped in latex. It's actually a fairly good way of creating small, sharp teeth quickly and cheaply.

The creature was never intended to do very much, just lie on a Photoshopped log and catch a giant dragonfly with a totally incorrect chameleon-like tongue, but I think it helped add some atmosphere. The background image is a Photoshop collage based on a photo (taken a long time ago by a friend) from an exhibition at, I think, Michigan University.

Two older dinosaur puppets were pressed back into service in a short clip that eventually ended up being shown on a monitor screen in a Yith laboratory. The skin on the meat-eating Megalosaur was actually falling off as I animated it, so this was probably his last hurrah! I also did a scene with pterodactyls sitting on a rock and swooping down over the heads of some Yith botanists, but we eventually scrapped that shot because of time constraints. Daniel wanted to enter the film in an international film contest, and the running time for our project went over the accepted time limit. So the pterodactyls had to go, but they will most likely emerge in another film.

The Valusian serpent people, very briefly mentioned, were represented by another old dinosaur puppet; a sauropod who's tail and head were inserted into a still image of a guy in a monk's robe. This is terrible cheating, I know, but it got the job done without having to build an entirely new puppet for the few seconds the character is on the screen. And thank goodness for Google image search and the Wikipedia image bank! There is an abundance of public domain photos of exotic locations, that can be adjusted in Photoshop. And if there is a copyright notice attached to a photo you'd really like to use, just email the copyright holder. In my experience they're more than happy to let you use their photos in a non-profit film project.
On another note; for some reason the serpent man has provoked uniformly negative reactions from people, but in a good way. Everyone seems to think it's really creepy. Christopher Johansson, who wrote the music for the film, even dreamt about the damn thing after having scored this sequence, if you can believe that.

Another example of cheapskate dirty amateur film tricks is the shot of a barbarian, a Cimmerian actually, standing atop a cliff with violent storm clouds rising behind him. The cliff is a still image and the man is a composition of two still images of local fantasy role-players. The only things actually moving in this shot are the clouds, which is a stock footage clip downloaded for free during a marketing campaign offer, and the camera, which does a slow zoom-in created in After Effects. However, this shot is quickly followed by more stock footage of Viking reenactors beating the crap out of each other. Combined, the two shots hopefully sum up what Lovecraft refers to as "the Dark Ages" in his text.

More Photoshop magic includes all shots of the Yith moving about in their surroundings. The Yith city backgrounds are modified images of a Canadian art museum, and the interiors of the city are photos of various tile works and synthetic carpet patterns.
In many shots, the Yith are simply still images of the puppet, moving via 2D animation in After Effects. On some occasions I've added animated tendrils to the underside of the head in these still images. I know; more scandalous cheating.

Some years ago I made my very own idol of the Lovecraftian Cthulhu Mythos deity Tsathoggua, created by Lovecraft's friend and fellow fantasist Clark Ashton Smith. You can find an account of the making of this plastic effigy among the oldest posts on this blog. I always wanted to include it in a film project, and I got my chance here, since the time-travelling hero at one point sees a vision of "prehuman Hyperboreans worshipping the vile god Tsathoggua". I simply took a photo of the statue with a low light source and propped it up against a granite wall in Photoshop. The "prehuman Hyperboreans" were me, dressed in a cheap long wig dancing madly in front of a green screen, and then duplicated many times in AE.

Strange star-shaped sentinels guard the dungeons where the flying polyps are imprisoned, according to Lovecraft. These mysterious devices, dubbed "starfish willies" by Daniel, may be plants, may be animals or may be some sort of biological machines. I designed them to be of ambiguous origin. I built only one, but three of them are visible in the film. Silicone moulds were created over a two-part Chavant sculpture, and plastic castings produced from the moulds. The actual starfish willies were rigid, but I animated a snaking tongue and inserted it into the middle of each star-shaped head. My idea was that the tongue was a hyper-sensitive sensory organ able to detect any unwanted movement from the polyps.

Lastly, I added softening filters and colour grading to Daniel's shots of our hero, Åke Rosén, gradually going nuts. We decided to go with what we imagined was some sort of standard for how silent films were colorized, with a green tint for jungle scenes, blue for night and Arctic scenes, and so on. I think it worked out pretty well.

I'd like to say that more than anything, we wanted to show that even a complicated and epic story such as Lovecraft's "The Shadow Out of Time" can be managed as an amateur film project. That many tell us that it's impossible is just like waving a red flag in front of my eyes -Of course it can be done! You can adapt "The Illiad" if you wish; you just have to figure out how. There is a way to retell every story as a film no matter how many actors you have or how much money you can spend.


Sven Bonnichsen said...

Well done! I had the pleasure of seeing this at the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival in Portland, Oregon (USA) two weeks ago... Quite a treat!

Considering how small our international stopmo community actually is, it's rather surprising that I've seen not only your work there, but also that of Max Winston and Michael Granberry. Now, if we can just get Nick Hilligoss to submit his recent Lovecraftian puppetfilm...

Still, your ability to create whole bestiaries of eldritch alien fauna is unequaled in the current generation of puppet animators. Thanks so much for taking on this classic weird tale. I can't think of anyone but you who could accomplish the task so quickly and with such joie de vivre. :)

Richard Svensson said...

Many thanks, Sven! I'm glad you enjoyed the film for what it is. It has its fair share of mistakes and faults, but we (who made it) feel that the main thing is that we tried and enjoyed the process.

I think many stopmotion enthusiasts are also Lovecraft fans, if only closet Lovecraft fans. Yes; I'd love to see Nick's film as well!

Shelley Noble said...

Right on, Richard! YES! it's just a matter of figuring out the how of things. Cut corners, make it happen, render your story, YES!

Love the inventive tricks you use, including the paper teeth and the dino as serpent! I love the way that creature looks, of course!

Richard Svensson said...

Well, you're a living example of the "make it happen" attitude, Shelley! I'm constantly flabbergasted at the effort that goes into your Halfland project. I think that if more so-called amateurs or independent filmmakers adopted a more carefree attitude and just let their projects evolve and see what happens, more films would be finished, and they'd be better films too. The last thing one should do is try to emulate the Hollywood movie-making machine, and simply work with the strengths of your own abilities.

McTodd said...

I loved the film and I love this peek behind-the-scenes! You and Daniel clearly work well as a team.

Jeff Lafferty said...

Excellent work Richard! Thanks for writing such a great behind the scenes post with so many awesome tips.

I've learned so much from watching your videos and reading your blog over the last year.

I appreciate the effort you put for and hope to emulate it in the future.

Richard Svensson said...

McTodd: It seems we work together very well, althogh so far, I'm the one eager to go that extra mile to get the best possible result. We different ways of working and some different influences, but I think we're a god mix.

Jeff: I'm so happy that I can inspire others! It seems most people assume that animation is hard, and making your own spectacular films is impossible, but it's not. That's what I'm preaching, because I think it's so important to encourage creative people to take that leap of faith.

Dr. Theda said...

We posted your Art at our blog the "Crypt", good Sir Richard...
We love the short film... an have bookmarked this page ti include "Background" to the viewers...