Wednesday, May 26, 2010...12:59 am

Behind the scenes: Doctor Knowgood part 5

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Part 1;  Part 2;  Part 3;  Part 4Part 5;

Stop.Frame has been following the progress of Doctor Knowgood – a short puppet animation film by Dutch animator Arnold Zwanenburg, shot in Indonesia over the past six months or so.

It’s taken a few weeks for Arnold to adjust to being back in Rotterdam, but he’s now put together the fifth instalment of his account of the making of the film.

5) The shoot

We’ve got to the point of the shoot itself. How did that go? Tell us about the things you learned and the problems you had to overcome. In a way it’s the biggest question – so lets break it down into some of the technical elements – from lighting and camera to rigging and animation.

Arnold Zwanenburg
Finally I send you a new entry for the blog! Sorry to keep everyone waiting for the next episode – it’s taken a little while to get back to my normal routine.

I wanted to use indirect, soft lighting in the set. A strong light source was needed, but I didn’t want to use 1,000W, heat-creating lamps like they used in the Bristol Animation School. So I looked for the strongest energy saving lamp I could find.

This was 125W (equivalent to an old 600W bulb). It was so big, it didn’t fit in any existing armature – so I made the armature myself with a bit of wood and aluminium plate (see photo, right).

The light was reflected on three styrofoam panels above the set. This was enough light for exposure times around half a second with my camera settings. For a darker corner I used 6 seconds, which is do-able – but it does break the flow of animation a bit.

Though energy saving lamps generally worked well, they did cause me some problems too. Tweaking is difficult, as light regulators for these type of lamps are not so common yet. Ideally, I would have lit a corner with plants (see photo, left), as if the sun was shining through a collapsed roof. It was hard to direct the light of an energy saving lamp to it, and the light from special stage lamps I could borrow (halogen) looked very fake, because they have a very different colour compared to my main energy saving lamp.

In the end I improvised with the lid of a cookie tin that reflected the main lamp. It helped to bright up the spot a bit, but nothing like the blinding sunbeam I had in mind. Time had run out, so better luck next time!

Camera set-up
I really like the small depth of field that you see in animations of the Brothers Quay (see photo, right). I learned that SLR still cameras have the best features and lenses for this. I bought the Canon 40D, which was one of the first with Live View. This enables you to have a live image of your scene on your laptop, seen through the lens. With older DSLR cameras you have to take a picture before you can judge the position of your puppet.

This Live View feature helped me a lot to make smooth animation. Most was shot with a lens with a range of 17-85 mm. A bit more zoom capacity would have been helpful for some shots – then you can place the camera further away from the set, with less risk of accidentally bumping into it.

Shooting in RAW image format would have been ideal for the image quality, but hard drive space and processing speed held me back.

Computer set-up
I bought Dragon Stop Motion 2.0 to install on my MacBook Air. This program has a nice workflow. I love working with the keyboard, and this program even comes with a customised USB-keypad, which gives access to all important functions, right on the animation table.

Too bad I couldn’t use it, as my laptop only has one USB connection – and that one went to my camera. I used my laptop keyboard instead, which worked also fine. More important to tell is that the program displays the animation smoothly, even when you shoot in high resolution (3888 x 2592 pixels in my case). That is, if the computer doesn’t overheat, which brings us to the following issue.

Heat and noise
Afternoons especially can be very hot in Indonesia – about 30-35 degrees Celsius – and the air is very damp. I noticed that my computer always gave up working properly just a bit before I came to my limit.

I bought one of these small fans that you place under your laptop – which helped a bit. But bigger material was absolutely necessary (see photo, left). For my personal comfort I placed another big fan on the floor. This one blew the cooler air up, without disturbing the tiny loose bits in the set. However I noticed that I worked much more productively in the cool night, when computer overheating is not an issue, and it’s absolutely quiet outside.

To prevent the lion and the monkey from falling over, I used screws to attach them to the floor. This picture is taken from under the animation table (see photo, above left). Using strong magnets (see photo, above right) to hold the feet in place is a little quicker, but the monkey could still turn a bit when standing on a single foot, that’s why I preferred screws for animation. I used the magnets only when I quickly wanted to place a puppet for planning shots and composition.

In my animation, a lion makes a jump, so special rigging was necessary to suspend the lion in mid-air (see photo, above left). I used fishing wire around the neck and the waist of the lion and attached it to a bar over the set. For every movement I simply slid the bar a bit sideways.

What I like about this method is that I could give the lion a bit of a swing, to make it look blurry on the photos (see photo, above right). This didn’t only give me a natural motion blur, the blur also made the fishing wires invisible. No need to erase them in PhotoShop afterwards!

I also used wires to make a bottle fly through the air (see photo, right). The method is a bit like hanging marionettes. The small bottle is attached to wires, which in their turn are attached to a piece of cork. The cork is held on a thick aluminium wire that can be bent to position it.

From the six months of this project in Indonesia I used only 1.5 for animation! The other 4.5 went into preparation – organisation, set and prop building, puppet making (mainly the lion), making an animation table, lights, making the storyboard, preparing the studio space, etc.

For most shots I made a little video of myself for reference. In the video above I’m preparing for next day’s shoot. This shot appears when a roar of the lion blows the monkey away.

I analysed the movements and wrote down durations (see photo, left). The resulting shoot is my favourite. In the video below, the paper the monkey is holding is actually made of aluminium foil covered with normal print paper. The jacket is animated by bending aluminium strips inside the seams. Leaves in the background are animated with a fishing wire.

I was a bit afraid for the shot where the lion comes in and sits down (see video below).

Sitting is not always easy with animation puppets – armatures can be too rigid. Often a separate puppet for sitting is made. In this case that was not needed – the construction of clay and aluminium wire was very flexible: I could just bend the legs aside the body.

The most time-consuming shot was the lion walking in the room (1.5 days of work for 4 seconds of animation). Particularly time-consuming were also the shots where the lion shows his teeth (see video above). For every frame, I had to meticulously remove the Plasticine stuck on his teeth. Meanwhile, the lion was getting impatient to perform. But he behaved well – and I still have all my fingers…


Still more to come from this Indonesian extravaganza – stay tuned for editing and post-production.

Part 1;  Part 2;  Part 3;  Part 4Part 5;

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