Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Atlantis Blue: Afterward

The preparation process for stop-motion is immense. “Shooting is monumental,” says [Jonathan] Lucas. “As an editor you are a lot more patient.” He points out that an action film can have 14,000 feet of dailies per day––on Harry Potter 2 he had some days with 20,000 feet of dailies. That film, a shoot with children and animals, consumed over a million feet of film.

“Most features shoot in 12 to 14 weeks,” notes Lucas. “With Corpse Bride it’s 52 weeks! We only get two minutes of film a week with stop-motion. One shot can take three weeks.”

The preparation process for stop-motion is immense. Shooting is monumental.

Or not. [laughs]

Obviously if you attempt to recreate theatrical frame rates or theatrical resolutions then, yes, stop-motion is vastly time consuming.

If you approach it more as a kind of sketch or a poem, then stop-motion can be fun and can be comparatively quick.

I did “Sweet Judy Blue Dress” — Atlantis Blue in one day, from start to finish.

Forty-three seconds of content in about ten or twelve hours of work time.

I just can’t describe, can’t put into words, how much fun I have making something like “Sweet Judy Blue Dress” — Atlantis Blue.

Even though the software I use is so inexpensive it is full of bugs and couldn’t handle theatrical frame rates and resolutions if I wanted to (and it comes from a company that seems to test that fine line between business incompetence and criminality), if a stop-motion piece is kept to around a minute and the frame rate is kept low, then the software gets the job done. I’m not saying it works exactly, but it gets the job done.

Anyway I love doing a short piece like that because I can juggle cool images (it’s a woman and a lizard and a shark and the shark is swimming away and the woman and the lizard seem to be happy together—you don’t really see that stuff every day in the mainstream media with their high resolution images and their thirty frames-per-second!) and I can compose some music and I can make the beginning/middle/end sequence of story–telling any style I want, without having to please an editor or publisher or producer or anyone else.

I couldn’t ask for anything more.

Well, if I were a fully-funded supervillain I would be using a Canon DSLR ($9,000) to acquire images rather than a webcam and I’d be using stop-motion software ($300) that comes from a real software company. Maybe I’d even use Adobe’s Creative Suite to pull everything together ($1,500+). But, by and large, I’d be making the same kind of sequences. They would just look a little better. They wouldn’t look slick and professional, just a little better.

Anyway, “Sweet Judy Blue Dress” — Atlantis Blue took one day to make.

I got the idea Sunday morning. Rubber Lizard complimenting Little Plastic Doll on a blue dress. And Little Plastic Doll being happy with her dress, and happy that Rubber Lizard was happy. And I had the idea of using some video clip of the ocean in the background, because I wanted the clip to be as colorful as possible. That was how I started.

First I worked out the general size of the project. I figured I would make the music only four bars long, because then no matter what I came up with for specifics of the music or action it wouldn’t take too long to animate. Four bars, even at a slow metronome setting, is still a pretty quick bit of action. (Even allowing for an intro and outro which add a bar at the start and end.)

Then I sat down with a notebook and worked out the exact words Rubber Lizard and Little Plastic Doll would say or sing. (I still haven’t solved my notebook problem, but I bought an inexpensive 9 x 11 drawing tablet from a neighborhood store to use until I figure out what to do.) I like to start with words, to get from the general idea of a project to the specifics. Once a few words come to mind, for me almost always one thing will lead to another and the project will move along.

Once I had the four sentences I wrote them down and looked at them syllable-by-syllable to make sure each sentence reasonably could be spoken or sung in a four beat measure.

Then I sat down at my arranger workstation and experimented with various progressions until something seemed to suit the mood of the idea.

My first musical thought was to have a simple chord arrangement playing behind a more complex melody, where the melody for each bar would be based on the syllables of each sentence. That’s probably my favorite way to approach turning words into melody. But I had to be practical, too. I like to record music for these things in real-time, without using the multi-track, sound-on-sound tools I have available. I could make up melodies based on the syllables and I could play them, but I couldn’t play them in real-time while I played the chord settings, not all with only an hour or two to practice and rehearse.

So I settled for a simple progression with my left hand and an arpeggio pattern for my right hand. I used a generic synth sound for the chords, and a generic plucked-string sound mixed with synth percussion sticks for the right-hand part.

The hardest part for me on this project was working with the robot musicians inside my arranger workstation.

I used the workstation’s auto-accompaniment function to generate a drum track and a synth pad to go along with the chords I played with my left hand and arpeggio I played with my right hand. The workstation handles all that automatically, keeping time with my playing, sensing what chords I play and all that. However, while a synchronized start is very easy because I can press all the necessary buttons before I start playing, once I start playing, to create a synchronized ending between my playing and the auto-accompaniment on the drum part and synth pad, before I strike the final chord with my left hand I have to press a button just above the keyboard to alert the workstation to end everything when I lift up my fingers from that final chord. Sounds easy and for any real musician, for any real keyboard player who has two-hand independence, it is easy. For me, keeping time from chord to chord with my left hand, keeping time from arpeggio to arpeggio with my right hand, and doing a house-keeping chore like reaching up away from the keys for an instant with my left hand was pushing my coordination all the way to the limit. I practiced, practiced some more, then went to lunch and came home and practiced even more. Then I buckled down and started recording. Amazingly, I think I got an acceptable performance on just the second or third take. But I did have to do a bit of practicing, even for such a simple bit of music.

I’m getting better, but very, very slowly.

So then I had the music. At that point I had the music recorded as a set of sequencer tracks on my workstation.

To add vocals, I sometimes record the sequencer tracks onto my Tascam GT-R1. But this time, for fun, I did something a little different. I plugged my GT-R1 into my workstation and used the Tascam (it’s a very good gadget) as a microphone. Then I recorded the sequencer tracks along my vocals onto the arranger workstation’s digital audio recorder.

So then I had a complete audio track, with music and lyrics.

I transferred that on a USB drive over to my laptop and imported the audio into my stop-motion software so I could get a rough correspondence between the action and audio when I animated Little Plastic Doll and Rubber Lizard.

So then I did that, frame by frame, one frame at a time, an eighth of an inch movement at a time, sometimes a little less, sometimes a little more. That took a couple of hours. I wouldn’t describe it, exactly, as fun. But after a while it is kind of like a meditation drill. It’s something like kind of fun.

So then I had a video track to go along with the audio and I mixed the two together in a video time-line program, adding credits and adjusting the lengths and timing of both the audio and video so that they’d match up okay.

And then I had a new little stop-motion movie for my blog!

I was especially happy to have a new stop-motion piece for this week because today is April 17 and April 17 is the anniversary of starting Impossible Kisses. It’s been, now, six complete years from 2006 to 2012!

Feels like just yesterday, me sitting down and typing up: Impossible Kisses: The Empty Lot Behind My House

I’m getting better, but very, very slowly. But that’s okay—

Thunderbirds are still go for adventure!

Adventure’s waiting just ahead!

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