Tag Archives: stop-motion animation

Aardman creates short film, struts its stuff

By Randi Altman

All creative studios strive for creative ways to show off their talent and offerings, and London-based Aardman is no exception. Famous for its stop-motion animation work (remember the Wallace and Gromit films?), this studio now provides so much more, including live-action, CG, 2D animation and character creation.

Danny Capozzi

In order to help hammer home all of their offerings, and in hopes of breaking that stop-motion stereotype, Aardman has created a satirical short film, called Visualize This, depicting a conference call between a production company and an advertising agency, giving the studio the ability to show off the range of solutions they can provide for clients. Each time the fictional client suggests something, that visual pops up on the screen, whether it’s adding graffiti to a snail’s shell or textured type or making a giant monster out of CG cardboard boxes.

We reached out to Aardman’s Danny Capozzi, who directed the short, to find out more about this project and the studio in general.

How did the idea for this short come about?
I felt that the idea of making a film based on a conference call was something that would resonate with a lot of people in any creative industry. The continuous spit balling of ideas and suggestions would make a great platform to demonstrate a lot of different styles that myself and Aardman can produce. Aardman is well known for its high level of stop-motion/Claymation work, but we do CGI, live action and 2D just as well. We also create brand new ways of animating by combining styles and techniques.

Why was now the right time to do this?
I think we are living in a time of uncertainty, and this film really expresses that. We do a lot of procrastinating. We have the luxury to change our minds, our tastes and our styles every two minutes. With so much choice of everything at our fingertips we can no longer make quick decisions and stick to them. There’s always that sense of “I love this… it’s perfect, but what if there’s something better?” I think Visualize This sums it up.

You guys work with agencies and directly with brands — how would you break that up percentage wise?
The large majority of our advertising work still comes through agencies, although we are increasingly doing one-off projects for clients who seek us out for our storytelling and characters. It’s hard to give a percentage on it because the one-offs vary so much in size that they can skew the numbers and give the wrong impression. More often than not, they aren’t advertising projects either and tend to fall into the realm of short films for organizations, which can be either charities, museums or visitor attractions, or even mass participation arts projects and events.

Can you talk about making the short? Your workflow?
When I first pitched the idea to our executive producer Heather Wright, she immediately loved the idea. After a bit of tweaking on the script and the pace of the dialogue we soon went into production. The film was achieved during some down time from commercial productions and took about 14 weeks on and off over several months.

What tools did you call on?
We used a large variety of techniques CGI, stop-motion, 2D, live action, timelapse photography and greenscreen. Compositing and CG was via Maya, Houdini and Nuke software. We used HDRI (High Dynamic Range Images). We also used Adobe’s After Effects, Premiere, Photoshop, and Illustrator, along with clay sculpting, model making and blood, sweat and, of course, some tears.

What was the most complicated shot?
The glossy black oil shot. This could have been done in CGI with a very good team of modelers and lighters and compositors, but I wanted to achieve this in-camera.

Firstly, I secretly stole some of my son Vinny’s toys away to Aardman’s model-making workshop and spray painted them black. Sorry Vinny! I hot glued the black toys onto a black board (huge mistake!), you’ll see why later. Then I cleared Asda out of cheap cooking oil — 72 litres of the greasy stuff. I mixed it with black oil paint and poured it into a casket.

We then rigged the board of toys to a motion control rig. This would act as the winch to raise the toys out of the black oily soup. Another motion control was rigged to do the panning shot with the camera attached to it. This way we get a nice up and across motion in-camera.

We lowered the board of toys into the black soup and the cables that held it up sagged and released the board of toys. Noooooo! I watched them sink. Then to add insult to injury, the hot glue gave way and the toys floated up. How do you glue something to an oily surface?? You don’t! You use screws. After much tinkering it was ready to be submerged again. After a couple of passes, it worked. I just love the way the natural glossy highlights move over the objects. All well worth doing in-camera for real, and so much more rewarding.

What sort of response has it received?
I’m delighted. It has really travelled since we launched a couple of weeks ago, and it’s fantastic to keep seeing it pop up in my news feed on various social media sites! I think we are on over 20,000 YouTube views and 40,000 odd views on Facebook.

Stop-motion director Anthony Farquhar-Smith joins Not To Scale

Film and animation production company Not To Scale has signed stop-motion director Anthony Farquhar-Smith, who will work across all of their studios in London, New York and Amsterdam.

In addition to working with feature film directors like Wes Anderson on Fantastic Mr. Fox and Tim Burton on Corpse Bride, Farquhar-Smith has directed TV commercials in the UK and internationally.

Before joining Not To Scale, Farquhar-Smith worked with clients such as Kellogg’s, HSBC, Cadbury, Samsung and Audi. A two-year stint working in the industry in Los Angeles also led to commercials for Barbie, Intel, Xbox and Alamo. He is currently working on a short film called Drawer. He also lectures at several animation courses around the country.

“We’ve been looking for a stop-frame director of Anthony’s experience and caliber for some time,” says Dan O’Rourke, founder and chief executive producer at Not To Scale. “We were delighted to meet him and sign him onto our roster and even more delighted to get him working with St Luke’s and Very in his first week.”

The A-List: The Little Prince director Mark Osborne

By Iain Blair

Two-time Academy Award-nominated director Mark Osborne has been telling stories with animation and live-action for more than 25 years.  His breakout film was the 2008 animated DreamWorks offering Kung Fu Panda — co-directed by John Stevenson — which has grossed over $630 million worldwide.

Osborne’s live-action directing credits include the independent feature film Dropping Out, the animated TV series Spongebob Squarepants, featuring Patchy the Pirate, and all of the live-action sequences for The Spongebob Squarepants Movie.

Mark Osborne and Iain Blair.

Now Osborne has directed and executive produced the upcoming first-ever animated feature film adaptation of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s beloved classic, The Little Prince, which premiered Out of Competition at Cannes and then won the French Cesar Film Award for Best Animated Feature. Using stop-motion animation and CGI, the film features the voice talents of Jeff Bridges, Rachel McAdams, James Franco, Marion Cotillard, Benicio del Toro, Ricky Gervais, Riley Osborne, Albert Brooks and Mackenzie Foy.

The film centers on the friendship between an eccentric old aviator (Jeff Bridges) and the very grown-up young girl who moves into the house next door with her extremely grown-up mother (Rachel McAdams). Through the pages of the aviator’s book and his drawings, the little girl (Mackenzie Foy) learns the story of how he long ago crashed in a desert and met The Little Prince (Riley Osborne), an enigmatic boy from a distant planet.

I recently met up with Osborne to talk about making the film.

I heard that when you were asked to direct this, your first instinct was to turn it down. Is that true?
Absolutely. Part of it was the way the question was asked; “Do you know the book? Do you want to make a big CG animated film of it?” I said, “I know the book very well, and it’s impossible to film. I don’t think CG’s the right way to deal with the book’s poetry.” I couldn’t see a way to stretch out this small, magical novella, but the more I thought about it, the more I saw it as this great opportunity, and that there was maybe a way to do — not a direct adaptation, but something more unconventional that captures the spirit and poetry of the book. I thought that I could tell a larger story that said something about the power of the book, and maybe I could use stop motion to protect the poetry of the book. So the same reasons that initially made me say “no” actually made me agree to do it.

How early on did you decide to combine CGI and stop motion?
It was one of the early ideas I had, but it took a while to present it to the producers — it was one of the deal breakers. I went back to them and said, ‘I think we can do it this way,’ and happily they loved the combination.

How tricky was it combining 2D and 3D?
It was tricky because, except for two transitions, we are hard-cutting between 2D and 3D. I just gave a talk at SIGGRAPH about the challenges. I was always designing the film as a whole, and we were constantly discussing how we’d make it all fit together. But, ultimately, we wanted the CG and stop motion to feel different. The three elements we used to make it all fit were color, light and paper. So the little girl is holding a piece of yellow paper and staring at it, and it becomes the sand dune. Everything in the stop motion frame is paper, and together with light, that makes the link between the CG world and the stop motion world.

My co-production designer Celine Desrumaux, who worked on Harry Potter, is an incredibly talented color artist and she took all the movie storyboards and did color and lighting layouts, which helped enormously. We’d talk a lot about how various scenes needed to dovetail and how to blend the colors and light the CG animation. In some ways it’s very realistic lighting in the CG scenes, but it’s falling on this very stylized look, so it maintains its storybook qualities as it’s not photoreal.

For the 3D did you originate in stereo?
Yes, so when Jamie Caliri did all the stop-motion sequences he shot in stereo — a left eye and right eye. So we didn’t add it in post. It’s true stereo.

This must have required a very complex digital pipeline. How did that work?
It was a lot of innovation and a lot of collaboration. My parent company partnered with French producers and we began work in LA and then moved to Paris for the development and storyboard parts. When we moved to Montreal we set up our CG pipeline with this French-Canadian company Mikros Image. So it was partly their in-house pipeline and partly the French one from Paris.

What about rendering? That must have been a critical part of the whole process.
It was, and we called on Guerilla Render, which is used a lot in VFX, but it’s now starting to be used more in animation. That gave us this unique lighting look for all our CG sequences. It did create a few complications because it was relatively new for animated films and the pipeline we were building was also relatively new. I came from the big-budget studio pipeline and I was coming into a more indie world, so there were some growing pains. But, ultimately, our CG pipeline gave us this unique element that we could work closely with in conjunction with our stop-motion pipeline, since they were both in Montreal.

The Little PrinceAnimation takes so long to edit, and you had two editors — Matt Landon and Carole Kravetz. How did that work?
You’re right — it took years to edit! It’s just the reality of animation. When you make a live-action film, you make it three times — you write it, shoot it and cut it. But in animation, you make those three versions simultaneously — we’re writing, shooting and editing as we go, so it’s highly collaborative. Plus, I’m working constantly with my writers and editors. I began with Carole in Paris, and she laid the basic foundations, then Matt cut with me in Montreal as Carole couldn’t move there. So it turned out to be a great opportunity to bring in a new collaborator and fresh set of eyes. I always knew the biggest challenge would be balancing the book and the film’s larger story. Getting that balance right was very tricky, but Matt really helped pull it all together.

The songs by Camille and music by Hans Zimmer must have been another crucial element?
Hugely important! In animation you have to create every single thing, every sound. Nothing is free. So from sound design to music, it’s all so important. The big key for me is that I treat animation like any other film. It’s not a cartoon; it’s not for kids. We’re making a real film for adults and kids. When I first presented it to Hans Zimmer, I was so thrilled when he said, “I don’t want it to sound like any other animated movie — or any other movie at all. I want it to sound French and unique. Then he partnered with French singer Camille and composer Richard Harvey, and the result is something very special.

Fair to say this was a true labor of love?
Completely. It’s taken over five and a half years from start to finish, and it changed radically over that time. But filmmaking for me is a process of discovery, and it’s been this amazing adventure.

What’s next? Another Kung Fu Panda?
No, I like to keep doing different things. I’m not sure what my next project will be, but I want to keep pushing the boundaries of what animation can be, using different techniques. I’d love to do a full stop-motion film.

Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.

The A-List: ‘Anomalisa’ directors Charlie Kaufman, Duke Johnson

By Iain Blair

Maybe it was just a matter of time before director/writer/producer and Oscar-winner Charlie Kaufman — from whose quirky sensibility sprang such films as Being John Malkovich, Human Nature, Adaptation, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Synecdoche, New York and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind — turned his attention to an animated project.

Teaming up with director/producer Duke Johnson, whose previous credits include the Adult Swim shows Moral Orel and Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole, the result is Anomalisa, another quirky dreamscape that this time uses stop-motion and puppets to tell its story.

Based on Kaufman’s 2005 “sound play” called Theater of the New Ear, Paramount’s Anomalisa follows the mundane life of Michael Stone, a depressed service rep whose life and attitude is changed dramatically after meeting an unusual stranger. But the making of the film was anything but mundane.

ANOMALISA

L-R: Directors Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson.

After the stage script was given to Dino Stamatopoulos, co-founder of Starburns Industries, and Dan Harmon, creator of NBC’s Community, Anomalisa began its transition to the screen. Its journey was helped by a Kickstarter campaign and took shape as Kaufman’s first animated film.

It was also Starburns’ own initial foray outside television. Launched in 2010, Starburns is a production studio specializing in stop-motion and traditional 2D animation. They won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Achievement in Character Animation for “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas,” an episode of Community filmed entirely in stop-motion animation and directed by Johnson.

I recently checked in with Kaufman and Johnson as the Oscar races were heating up.

How did you guys originally team up?
Kaufman: After Dino saw the play, he went on to found Starburns, where Duke worked as a director. They were looking for a project, so we met up that way.

Once a film uses animation and puppets, people assume it’s a kiddie film, but it’s not, is it?
Kaufman: No, it’s an R-rated movie for adults.

ANOMALISA    ANOMALISA

What were the main technical challenges of making this?
Kaufman: It’s pretty close to the play in terms of all the dialogue. The big challenge was taking that play, which wasn’t visual — in that it was just read by actors on stage — and turn it into a film. So we had to design the puppets, record the actors, do an animatic and figure out all the shots and how it would play in realtime… and design and build the sets and actually shoot it.

How did you co-direct this?
Johnson: We did it all together. The unique approach that animation takes versus live action is that a lot of the traditional post work is all done in advance. It’s very front-loaded. You start by editing an animatic — a version of the whole film — and it’s the voice records and storyboards edited together with temp sound, and that’s your blueprint. Then you take that guideline and try to animate it as closely as possible to that, with regards to the frame count. So all the blocking and figuring out the emotional beats of the characters and the shots — along with all the creative work of costume, set and production design — happen well in advance. So Charlie and I worked very closely on all that.

ANOMALISAIn a sense, animation is like one big post process?
Johnson: Yeah, because you’re always doing post. You start with ADR and storyboards, and you edit that together. Then as a shot is completed and you cut that into the animatic, so editing happens over the entire film, unlike with a live-action film.

What did DP Joe Passarelli bring to the project, apart from patience?
Johnson: We went to AFI together and he  had done a lot of live action, and then he did stop motion with me on Season 2 of Frankenhole. When we began this, we all wanted it to look different from the traditional stop-motion stuff where it’s broadly lit with a lot of bounce light. We wanted a very cinematic look, and Joe shot with a Canon 7D, with Nikon lenses and zooms, and lit it like a live-action film. He even built his own little lights for it, and eye lights were very important for us and the characters.

The film was edited by Garret Elkins. Tell us about the editing process.
Johnson: He was there from day one, and he essentially edited it twice — and the main editing is for the animatic. He did Frankenhole and Moral Orel with me, and an editor who specializes in stop motion he has some skill sets that are unique. He’s able to, at times, manipulate some of the frames as animation is a series of 24fps, creating the illusion of movement.  If a shot was problematic, he could rework things, use double frames or re-edit and adjust.

Tell us about the VFX. Aren’t they used a bit differently in stop motion?
Kaufman: Right. There’s a lot of clean-up and dust-busting. We shot on 18 stages with black curtains, and we used a lot of greenscreen where walls are missing so the animators had access. Those were done with visual effects and ceilings, and stuff like the cigarette smoke was all VFX. A lot of different houses worked on it, including Gentle Giant, Boundary VFX and Digikore.

ANOMALISA    ANOMALISA

There’s a lot of correcting for stuff in stop motion because of just how long it takes to shoot it. There are set shifts, as they’re made out of wood, and temperature changes affect them, and then lights burn out and the new bulb may be slightly different color-wise. So VFX is less about enhancing the animation and far more about painting away and correcting stuff. But we wanted it to keep that handmade and organic look.

Charlie, you’ve worked a lot with composer Carter Burwell. He told me that to score for the “vulnerable, normal” puppets, and to help the audience “open their hearts to them,” he used a cabaret-style approach.
Kaufman: That really suited this and is an integral part of the film. Initially, the music was written for the play and was a very big part of it, but of course we had to change quite a bit because of the timing, and we added things and took stuff away.

ANOMALISA

Where did you do all the post and mixing?
Johnson: Everything was done at Starburns, and then we did all the sound mixing on the lot at Warners.

How long did this take from start to finish?
Kaufman: Three years. I think we spent 21 months on the shoot. It makes a live-action film look very fast.

Charlie, you won an Oscar for Eternal Sunshine. How important are awards for a film like this?
Kaufman: Very important for a small movie like this, and obviously it benefits from the positive attention, which is what nominations and awards are.

Where do you keep your Oscar?
Kaufman: (Laughs) It’s actually in storage.

Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.

Quick Chat: ‘Mermaids on Mars’ director Jon V. Peters

Athena Studios, a Bay Area production and animation company, has completed work on a short called Mermaids on Mars, which is based on a children’s book and original music by the film’s producer Nancy Guettier. It was directed by Jon V. Peters and features the work of artists whose credits include the stop-motion offerings Coraline, James and the Giant Peach and The Nightmare Before Christmas, as well as many other feature length films.

The film is about a young boy who is magically transported to Mars, where he tries to stop an evil Martian from destroying the last of the planet’s mermaids. The entire story was told with stop-motion animation, which was shot on Athena Studios‘ (@AthenaStudios) soundstage.

The 24-minute film was comprised of 300 shots. Many involved complex compositing, putting heavy demands on Athena’s small team of visual effects artists who were working within a post schedule of just over three months.

Mermaids on Mars

Kat Alioshin (Coraline, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Monkeybone, Corpse Bride) was co-producer of the film, running stages and animation production. Vince De Quattro (Hellboy, Pirates of the Caribbean, Star Wars, Mighty Joe Young) is the film’s digital post production supervisor.

Let’s find out more from Peters who in addition to directing and producing Mermaids on Mars, is also the founder of Athena Studios.

Why did you decide to create Mermaids on Mars as an animated short?
The decision was budget-driven, primarily. We were originally approached by Nancy Guettier, who is the author of the book the film is based on, and one of the film’s producers. She had originally presented us with a feature length script with 12 songs. Given budgetary restrictions, however, we worked with Nancy and her screenwriter, Jarrett Galante, to cut the film down to a 24-minute short that retained five of her original songs.

What are some of the challenges you faced turning a book into an animated short?
The original book is a charming short story that centers more on mermaids conserving water. The first feature-length script had added many other elements, which brought in Martian armies and a much more detailed and storyline. The biggest problem we had was trying to simplify the story as much as possible without losing the heart of the material. Because of our budget, we were also limited in the number of puppets and the design of our sets.

julian_mars

Are there wrong ways to go about this?
There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of ways to approach production on a film like this. The only “wrong” way would have been to ignore the budget. As many other films have shown, limitations (financial or otherwise) can breed creativity. If you walk the budget backward it can help you define your approach. The film’s co-producer, Kat Alioshin, had worked on numerous stop-motion features previously, so she had a good handle on what the cost for each element would be.

Describe your thought process for setting the stage for Mermaids on Mars.
Originally, we looked at doing the entire production as more of a 2D stop-motion down shooter design, but the producer really wanted 3D characters. We did not have the budget for full sets however. As we looked at combining a 2D set design with 3D practical stop-motion puppets it took us all the way back to Georges Méliès, the father of visual effects. He was a stage magician and his films made use of flats in combination with his actors. We drew inspiration from his work in the design of our production.

l

While we wanted to shoot as much in-camera as possible we knew that because of the budget we would need to rely almost as much on post production as the production itself. We shot many of the elements individually and then combined them in post. That part of the production was headed up by veteran visual effects artist Vince De Quattro.

What cameras did you use? 
Animation was shot on Canon DSLR cameras, usually 60D, using DragonFrame. The puppeted live-action wave rank shots were done on a Blackmagic Studio Camera in RAW and then graded in DaVinci Resolve to fit with the Canon shots. Live action shots (for the bookends of the film) were shot on Red Epic cameras.

What was used for compositing and animation?

All compositing was done in Adobe After Effects. There was no 3D animation in the film since it was all practical, stop-motion, but the 3D models for the puppet bodies (used for 3D printing and casting) was done in Autodesk Maya.

Was the 2D all hand drawn?
Yes, all 2D was hand drawn and hand painted. We wanted to keep a handmade feel to as many aspects of the film as possible.

How much time did you devote to the set-up and which pieces took the longest to perfect?
It was a fairly quick production for a stop-motion piece. Given the number of stages, shop needs, size of the project and other shoots we had scheduled, we knew we could not shoot it in our main building, so we needed to find another space. We spent a lot of our time looking for the right building, one that met the criteria for the production. Once we found it we had stages set up and running within a week of signing the lease agreement.

Our production designer Tom Proost (Galaxy Quest, Star Wars — The Phantom Menace, Lemony Snicket’s, Coraline) focused on set and prop building of the hero elements, always taking a very “stage-like” approach to each. We had a limited crew so his team worked on those pieces that were used in the most shots first. The biggest pieces were the waves of the ocean, used on both Earth and Mars, a dock set, the young boy’s bedroom, the mermaid palace, the Martian fortress and a machine called the “siphonator.”

GilbertOnDock

Initial builds and animation took approximately six months, and post production took an equal amount of time.

What was your favorite set to work with, and why?
There were many great sets, but I think the wave set that Tom Proost and his team built was my favorite. It was very much a practical set that had been designed as a raked stage with slots for each of the wave ranks. It was manually puppeted by the crew as they pulled the waves back and forth to create the proper movement. That was filmed and then the post production team composited in the mermaid characters, since they could not be animated within the many wave ranks.

You did the post at Athena?
Twenty-four minutes of film with an average of five composited iterations per shot equates to approximately 300,000 frames processed to final, all completed by Athena’s small team under tight festival deadlines.

Quick Chat: Screen Novelties’ stop-motion Buddy the Elf for NBC

’Tis the season for fun holiday television fare, and Elf: Buddy’s Musical Christmas doesn’t disappoint. Warner Bros. called on stop-motion specialists Screen Novelties, to produce and direct this one-hour offering, which aired on NBC.

The special, a sort of mash-up of the “newish” Christmas classic Elf, starring Will Ferrell, and the Broadway show Elf: The Musical, is a retelling of Buddy’s adorable story and enthusiasm but in a way that reminds audiences of the classic stop-motion animated Christmas specials (I’m looking at you Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer) of the past. In this new version, Buddy is still an innocent human elf looking for his dad, “unbearding” fake Santas and roaming the streets of New York while singing about the joys of Christmas, of course.

Screen Novelties co-founders Mark Caballero, Seamus Walsh and Chris Finnegan designed the Continue reading

Humble director Sam Stephens on the recent Lowe’s Vine campaign

Agency BBDO New York called on production company Humble, its director Sam Stephens and a handful of home improvement bloggers to create a series of stop-motion animated Vine videos that offer out-of-the-box tips to make life at home a little easier — from turning a t-shirt into a pillow case to painting an old cutting board with chalkboard paint and using it for your grocery list to soaking up water spills in the garage with sawdust to removing a water stain from wood using mayo. Yes, mayo.

The Vines represent the latest tips in the #LowesFixinSix Vine campaign, which launched last year.

So let’s dig in a bit with Stephens.

The #LowesFixInSix Vines have become pretty popular, can you explain the idea Continue reading