NEGATIVE SPACE #8: Night’s new twist

February 28, 2007

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Screening Room: Live action animating with Van Gogh

February 23, 2007

The following leader is a typical example of how I like to morph live action with animation in my motion design work. The project uses studio footage of actual people to combine a limited animation feel with Screwy Squirrel-lunacy. Reality TV as painted by a Modernist Vincent van Gogh on speed… or something. Think I’m crazy yet?

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SamenWonen is one of our longest-running Dutch TV programs and it’s a joy to direct. Every 25-minute episode features two lovers who want to move in together, in spite of having radically different tastes when it comes to interior design. They have no idea how to combine their contrasting sensibilities, and so our TV-host pays both of their houses a visit, sends them away and the renovating begins. When the couple returns to their tailor-made house, the viewer finds out whether its unique blend of decorating styles is to both of their liking.

By the fifth season, the program needed a new leader, and this is what I came up with. The idea was to do a fast-forward version of the program itself, done in – appropriately enough – a fusion of styles. The live action part was shot in a studio before a green-screen, with (believe it or not) two of my colleagues as models. Basically, I instructed them to exaggerate different aspects of the program like characters out of a Tex Avery-cartoon. Needless to say, we had tons of fun in pushing ourselves to the limit. Just imagine me choreographing this stuff right next to them and you’ll get the picture. The program’s host, Erik van der Hoff, proved himself a real pro by going along with the madness and adding a considerable dose of his own.

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Peet (left) with Erik van der Hoff

The green-screen cut of the leader below shows how the original footage looked like. You can see where I sped up or slowed down parts of the action to achieve a more cartoony feel. (If you’re wondering why the green-screen area of the limbo was so insanely narrow, well… My producer tried to lower production costs by saving us some paint. I’m not kidding. No problemo: we’ll fix that in post.) The couple and Erik were shot separately; this enabled me to treat them as different image layers during the final step of post-production.

For keying and compositing, I used Adobe After Effects (as I always do). In contrast with Erik, who had to remain instantly recognizable, the couple was given a more anonymous, painterly look (the plug-in effect for this was Sapphire’s AutoPaint, tweaked in Van Gogh mode). The choice for an overall minimalist approach grew out of a recent fascination with UPA’s Gerald McBoing Boing, while the idea to have a different color background in every shot was inspired by the animated series based on Lucy Cousin’s Maisy Mouse, which my youngest son still loves to watch. Finally, I applied a canvas structure to the image as a whole, to give the flat colors some texture.

Here’s the final composite. Pay attention to the house illustration at the start. It consists of one line only, and I had to draw it on a Wacom tablet in a single stroke, while beads of sweat formed on my forehead, to have it animate over time.


Embarrassing Movie Posters #9

February 21, 2007

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I especially like the caption “Stalin’s weird fetishism revealed!” next to the picture of the bald woman.


Boys like Peet are not afraid of wolves

February 16, 2007

Below is my second contribution to Jim Emerson’s Contrarianism Blog-a-Thon, running all weekend at Scanners. My earlier contribution can be found right here.
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The best animated picture of 2006 wasn’t made by Pixar, Disney, DreamWorks, Blue Sky, Warner Bros. or Sony Pictures. It didn’t feature any talking or dancing animals. It wasn’t directed by Nick Park, Hayao Miyazaki or George Miller. It’s neither CGI nor drawn. Hell, it wasn’t even released in the US last year.

Last Christmas I was out shopping with my two sons. We visited the local electronic store looking for a new microwave oven, when I suddenly had this creepy sense of being stared at. I looked on my left to a wall covered with about fifteen giant flat-screens, all tuned into the same broadcast, and saw a pack of wolves staring right back at me, moving in perfect sync. It was a moment straight out of a dream.

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‘What’s that?’ I whispered when I noticed that my boys were as fascinated as I was.
‘A wolf!’ said my oldest, who’s always had a weak spot for dangerous animals. ‘It’s a puppet.’
I nodded and thought to myself: stop-motion animation. Our eyes were glued to the silent TV-screens. Apart from the wolf-puppet, we saw an intense-looking kid wearing a brown leather hat, a bird, a cat and a duck.
‘I think it’s Peter and the Wolf,’ I said, remembering the cassette tape of Prokofiev’s classical work I used to listen to as a kid. It simply had to be, and yet… it couldn’t be. I knew Peter’s giddy string theme by heart, and it didn’t match at all with the pale, brooding puppet I saw before me…

I got home, started googling and learned about an ambitious 29-minute short called, yes, Peter & the Wolf. Five years in the making. Produced in Poland. Shot on high-definition cameras. Directed by a female Brit by the name of Suzie Templeton. Music performed by the Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Mark Stephenson. Apparently, it premiered at the Royal Albert Hall last year alongside a live performance of the orchestral score. Being the animation enthusiast that I am, I couldn’t help wondering why I’d never heard about this project before.

Two weeks later, the DVD arrived from Amazon.co.uk. The boys and me sat down before the television and we pressed play. What we witnessed was an outright masterpiece.

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You see, as much as I enjoyed listening to that Prokofiev tape as a kid, a part of me was always a little let-down by the paper-thin story. Frankly, I couldn’t care less for the bird, the cat and the duck. It took ages for the wolf to arrive! This adaptation, however, took all these familar ingredients and made them work in every single way. The characters had been fleshed out properly, just like the action, and the lavish production design, the exquisitely sculpted puppets (not too cute!) and gorgeous cinematography were simply flawless.

In an interview for The Independent, director Templeton explains:

I had to work out how to visually tell the story, how to arc it and stretch it to the music, so that it keeps the viewer’s attention, and doesn’t just fill time but builds visual sequences that correspond to each musical theme.

Templeton’s first stroke of genius was to get rid of the traditional narration. As a true visual stylist, she decided early on to let her images do the talking, which meant that words and dialogue were ruthlessly abandoned. Mind you, we’re talking about half an hour of pure pantomime here! But wait, there’s more: Prokofiev’s world-famous composition – obviously the backbone of the whole enterprise – doesn’t start until six minutes into the movie. Instead of using the musical themes to establish the basic story elements, we’re familiarized with Peter’s ghoulish, claustrophobic world by listening to the howling wind on the other side of the fence, and the creaking backdoor that his overprotective Grandfather keeps firmly locked. It’s only after the tormented boy finds a way to sneak out of the house and into the woods where sunshine hits his face, that the string theme sets in as a breath of fresh air. Cinema doesn’t get more cinematic than this.

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I could go on and wax rhapsodic about the beautiful frozen lake; about the muted color palette and the wide range of fabrics and materials that makes every shot a feast for the eyes; about the intricate sequence where Peter catches the wolf (an almost Brian De Palma-worthy set piece) and hundreds of cinephiliac moments crammed inside those 29 minutes. A personal favorite is when we hear the English horns play the wolf’s theme for the very first time. Instead of cutting to the approaching wolf directly, Templeton dares to show a 30 seconds long close-up of Peter, sensing the wolf’s presence. It’s a perfect set-up for the drastically altered ending – which I won’t reveal here – that would have Carl Jung clap his hands with glee.

The tag-line for this adaptation is “Boys like Peter are not afraid of wolves.” Now that I’ve seen Templeton’s film, I know why: Peter is the wolf.

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Peter & the Wolf – a co-production of UK’s BreakThru Films and Se-Ma-For Studios in Lodz, Poland – is available on region 2 and 5 DVD only and can be ordered here. Go ahead, you won’t be disappointed. It’s worth buying a region-free player for. To see an early short by Suzie Templeton, visit AtomFilms.


NEGATIVE SPACE #7: Au contraire

February 15, 2007

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I’ve been terribly busy the last few weeks, but I made sure to save some time for Jim Emerson’s Contrarianism Blog-a-Thon, which is running all weekend at Scanners. This cartoon is my first contribution; the second can be found right here.


Screening Room: The poor man’s motion control

February 5, 2007

A few years ago, SBS Broadcasting asked us to produce a commercial for their shopping channel / webstore Via5. We came up with a script in which a man uses a remote control and a laptop to get himself everything he needs, simply by clicking a button. The client liked the script, but didn’t have much of a budget to offer. You might say we were faced with a challenge…

There’s an old-school movie trick to make an object suddenly appear or disappear within the frame. You simply hold the camera still while you shoot the same shot twice; one time with the object in question and one time without it. Place a dissolve between the two shots, et voilà: magic! Right? Well, not exactly… Awe ages. Such a vintage effect may have had people panting in their seats in the 1920’s–you’ll need a little more to wow audiences today.

Ever since motion control photography has been invented (the technique to program cameras in order to replicate the exact same movement for an unlimited number of times, even at different scales), filmmakers can make their objects appear or disappear while having the camera pan by, zoom in or tilt up at the same time. Obviously, such a state-of-the-art effect was what I wanted for this commercial. Unfortunately, we didn’t have motion control money.

Then I got an idea… When I’m doing motion graphics, I often use documents with a resolution considerably larger than that of a TV screen, in order to be able to digitally zoom in or pan over the image with compositing software. If I could find a way to expand my recorded canvas, I’d be able to make a virtual camera move in post-production.

Too bad we couldn’t afford recording on High-Def or shooting VistaVision plates, either. (In fact, we ended up using one of the first DV-cameras that could handle progressive scan.) How could I achieve more or less the same thing without going wildly over budget?

The answer: by stitching.

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Everyone who’s ever shot a panorama photo with a digital camera knows what I’m talking about: You take a picture, then you turn the camera a bit while keeping the horizon in place, you take another, and so on and so on, until you’ve covered the whole landscape. Once the pictures are in the computer, you use stitching software to blend them together, resulting in a wonderful overview of the scenery.

For this commercial, we did more or less the same thing. After shooting each static set-up twice – one time with and one time without the appearing object – we would rotate the camera on its tripod and shoot to the left side and to the right side of the original frame. This way I was able to stitch three shots together (with the actual action taking place in the middle shot) and add a digital pan in post-production. To allow myself the same freedom for vertical “camera moves,” we shot full-frame and added black bars to disguise a few digital tilts.

Et voilà: magic!


NEGATIVE SPACE #6: Rotterdam replicant

February 4, 2007

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I had to draw this damn cartoon twice after coming to the bitter conclusion that Rutger Hauer is impossible to caricaturize. It’s funny: the man has such an onscreen presence yet so little remarkable features. Hauer has the face of an angel, possessed by Satan himself. Come to think of it: he’s the visual opposite of Jack Black, who looks like Lucifer haunted by the spirit of an innocent toddler.

At least it forced me to radically alter my angle and use a weakness as a strength. Don’t force me to explain the color scheme, by the way. I just thought it looked menacing.