Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Wide Load - and Stop Scratching that Rasch!

Tonight I downloaded some freeware called HuginOSX that stitches pictures together into panoramic images. I had tried the free trial version of something similar before, but it didn't work very well (at least the one time I tried it). This one worked like a charm! Ever since I got my new Kodak Easyshare Z650 digital camera a few days ago I've been wishing it would capture wide panoramic views specifically so I could do justice to this particular image. You still can't really tell how deep the gorge is between the two houses, or just how tangled and chaotic the wilderness is there, but it's about as close as you can get! I just decided to go ahead and take 3 consecutive shots at exactly the same settings, panning the camera on the tripod each time and trying to make sure there's a little overlap at the edges of the images, and I hoped I could find some good panoramic stitchware. Well, maybe it's a Christmas present, but it all fell into my lap perfectly! Click the image above to feast your eyes (my present to all my readers).

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Also, jriggity hits the blog scene! Justin Rasch (aka jriggity on the stopmo message board) has started blogging. Keep an eye on him... this guy is going places! Click the pic or use the new link at the bottom of my Stopmo Blogs link list to the right.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Dumped another load

Here's one of the steaming fresh pics I just uploaded to Flickr. This is one I decided was worth doing a little photoshopping of. Did a red and a green version (hmm... oddly appropriate considering it's Christmas Eve!).

Anywho, I also added a bunch of pics of the house and the surroundings, still all shot in the dark of night. My neighbors must be wondering what the heck's going on! Some of them aren't really very good - I'll probably be pruning the collection in a while, so if you want anything be sure to download it before it's gone.

Have a merry Christmas everybody!


I took the best pics from the Nightscapes set and modified them slightly to increase atmosphere, then created a new set called Darkvisions. That's the one to check for my best night shots.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Check out my photoset

This is one of the new pics I've uploaded to my Flickr photostream. I'll be adding to it in the near future, probably frequently (I've been wanting to get my hands on a digital camera for some time now). I love the nightscapes.... there's something awesome about the quality of light when you use a long exposure and just soak up every drop. A tripod is essential. I think I'll be taking some more later tonight... in fact I'm considering mountain biking around town with my tripod fully extended strapped to the frame of my bike so I can just stop and set it up quickly. I used to ride around with a Canon Rebel (non-digital) in an army fanny pack hanging on my hip for fast draw capabilities, and I also did the same at night but with an 8mm camcorder, which captured fairly well in low light. I got some pretty decent pics with that Rebel, but it got to be too expensive for film and developing. Now at long last I'm FREE!!!!!

To see the full size version of the above pic click on it (it's a big-ass thumbnail) and then at my photostream click on nightscape0001 and then on all sizes. You can download the big size if you want... it looks intense fullscreen on a monitor.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Tremble at my new pic-taking ability!

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This was just to test my new digital camera, a Kodak Easy-Share that I got as a christmas bonus from my workplace (well, actually it's a few bonuses put together - their idea of a bonus is a Wal-mart gift card!). I love this shot... it has that whole Calvin Klein thing goin' on, it looks like somebody with a camera (with a bright flash) just busted in on something naughty. I hope I can get this kind of feel in the film when I shoot it.

I've also added a few pics to the post about Shelley's christmas puppet a little ways down... feast your eyes folks!

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Dream a little dream with me.....

Stop me if you've had this one already -

You're a kid again, right, and you're in the house looking out a window at the yard. You start to notice animals all over the place... nice friendly woodland creatures like fluffy bunnies, possums and raccoons and deer and suchlike. You press your face closer to the window, because you're getting this tingly feeling that there's some kind of animal magic afoot.... there's never been such a proliferation of fauna in your yard before! But as you watch, the quality of light outside begins to change, into a sort of bleached twilight, and you begin to notice the other animals, that were hidden better. The wolves and the bears and the cougars (maybe the dinosaurs). Suddenly you decide to make sure all the doors are securely locked. And then you wonder.... where's my little doggy at?

You don't find her in any of her usual places, and suddenly you spot her, way out by the edge of the woods! You don't see any of the animals now, but somehow you can still feel that immense presence of their wildness pressing close in on the house, and you're super-aware of how cheap some of the doors are, especially that sliding glass door that likes to slip the track and won't lock right.

Ever had a dream like that? I have... a few times actually. It was a recurring nightmare when I was younger. And I never associated it with Peter and the Wolf until just tonight. But suddenly I'm quite sure a lot of other people have had that one too (or one very similar) - including a Russian gentleman named Prokofiev. And possibly a Brit named Suzie Templeton.

For me that was one of the 'important' dreams... the ones you wake from in the middle of the night, remembering every bit of it clearly, and you go on remembering them the rest of your life. These are the archetypal dreams, the ones arising from deep in the subflooring of the unconscious that are trying to tell you things at important transitions in your life. The Peter and the Wolf archetype is based on his transition into manhood. I'll bet just about any man can relate to it (the tale, and possibly the dream, thought maybe in different form). Not sure if it's universal to females as well, though it might be (which would explain the story's universal appeal, and also why Suizie Templeton was able to tap into the symbolism so perfectly).

Anyway, the whole point of this entry is just to say - that's why I think I respond so strongly to this film, and doubtless why so many others will as well. It truly does tap into that archetypal realm in a powerful way. The recurring dreams I had give me a deep personal link with it, and maybe I was vaguely reminded of them as I watched.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Shelley's first finished puppet!!!

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I've just recieved my special handmade christmas present from Shelley and Paul (#5 of 80)! Wow, finally I see what all those painstakingly cut pieces of paper came together to create! And this is something really special... it's a little automaton folks! I really wish I could do what I originally wanted to do the second I opened the envelope and was greeted by this cheery little fellow, but unfortunately I no longer seem to have the ability to take pictures or do animation on my computer (long and painful stoy... some other time) so all I could do is shoot this crappy little bit of hand puppetry using iMovie:


My first impulse was to animate him... after all, he's essentially a cutout animation puppet on a stick! But Framethief now steadfastly refuses to recognize the exact same camera setup it once integrated with beautifully (though iMovie has no problem strangely), so this is all i could do, and even iMovie is giving me fits. It won't run for more than maybe two or three minutes before spazzing out and causing a system failure. So I wasn't even able to get a better clip than the one I posted.

I also wanted to post a nice close-up picture of the guy from each side (they're slightly differet, so when you spin him around the face animates while the arms and legs wave up and down delightfully) and of the beautiful card included with him. But alas, it's not to be. Hopefully one of my cohorts can do it justice where I'm unable to.

But meanwhile... wow!!! Hey, I just realized, not only is this Shelley's first completed puppet, but she's making 50 of them (or 80?)... or I suppose Himself is making his share as well, but at any rate, what an incredible assembly line they've got going - a couple of christmas elves laboring away to being joy and cheer to their friends!

Well done you two!


Obviously I've now gained the capability to take pictures once again! Just got myself a nifty little Kodak Easyshare digital camera, basically a bonus from the workplace (ok, actually I put together a couple pof bonuses... their idea of a bonus is a Wal-Mart gift card!)

Digging deeper into Peter and the Wolf - Big spoilers ahead!!!

Well, not for the story obviously, I guess most of us are familiar with it in some form already. But I'm giving my reading of some of the subtle and powerful undertones Ms. Templeton has layered in this beautiful little film for us to ferret out through multiple viewings, feeling the pieces click together as we work like a jigsaw puzzle. And that's what makes it so deeply satisfying, the fact that they DO click together, and everything fits.

Guess I'd better explain.....

I already mentioned that the wolf is Peter's dark doppleganger, representing his wild and dangerous side, and in fact I also had a sneakin' suspicion the other animals represented various aspects of his psyche (or grandpa's) as well. Now I know they do. And it's quite clear from her deft handling of the various elements that Suzie did this knowingly. Sometimes when I watch a film and start to get that tingle that says "Yes.... this character is a double for that one", or "The horse represents the little girl's yearning for a father figure" or whatever (because I always want to find these connections whether they're actually there or not) it turns out just to be a coincidence, or something that maybe the writer or director stuck in briefly and then dropped, not following up to make it complete. But this time I was delighted to find my reading borne out subtlely and effectively all the way through!

Now it could be this comes from the original folk tale itself... I'm not all that familiar with it though I did have a record that I used to listen to as a child and was quite fond of. I hardly remember it though. More likely actually Suzie has just tapped into the pseudo-Freudian nature of folk tales, where ogres, witches and wolves actually were used to represent various parts of the characters' psyches. What I love is the fact that she did it so subtlely, so that the film totally works without understanding this level, AND for those of us who discover it, it adds a brilliant new layer of meaning to it. Ok, here's my breakdown....

The duck is Peter's childish innocence. It's all dreamy and drowsy, always just sort of standing there swaying its head gently as if in the breeze, or like it's about to nod off. It seems quite helpless, and must constantly be rescued from its own clumsiness. In fact, tellingly, it begins the story trapped (along with Peter) inside the monstrous enclosure of Grandpa's prisonlike wall, designed to protect them from the wolves roaming the forest. It accompanies him wherever he goes, and does a lot of just standing there watching and waiting to be picked up and carried around.

The incredibly fat cat is the double for grandpa, I suppose representing his somewhat overzealous watchfulness and overprotectiveness of Peter (and of the animals that represent his various parts). It's first seen sleeping alongside dear old granddad, its hair and his beard tangled together, almost as if it has grown from it like some godling from the great beard of Zeus. It's a mischeif-maker, arrogant and proud to a fault, and it causes no end of grief for our band of funseekers, but when it all hits the fan, we feel sympathy for this fat cat and don't want to see it get chomped because it's a part of the family.

The lame bird is Peter's sense of soaring adventure. It first appears by gliding in from over the wall, from the great dark forest. See, inside the enclosure is domesticity, security and... well - boredom for a little boy who needs to run and play. He's always stifled by this great huge wall, cobbled together from bits and pieces of timber and corrugated metal and car hoods and pieces of sheet tin all nailed together into a crazy fence twice as tall as the boy. He finds the occasional cubbyhole where he can peel back a bit of material and peer out at the inviting meadow and the foreboding forest beyond it, which beckons strongly. So it's totally fitting that his sense of adventure should arrive from the forest itself, tumbling in wounded and unable to stretch its wings and fly.

And so fitting that the wolf gobbles up the duck in one gigantic swallow, at a stroke destroying forever his childish innocence at the very moment his darkness and aggression first begin to stir. Then it terrorizes and attempts to devour the other animals and Peter himself, like some great raging monster from the Id. I began to notice the ways in which she demonstrated their symbiosis (Peter and the wolf's that is) and the careful balance they must maintain in order for one not to overwhelm and destroy the other.... The wolf has a truly menacing gaze, but Peter has one to match, and when they first lock eyes they stare each other down for a long time, tension flowing between them. And the action around the great twisted tree where the climactic struggle takes place, with Peter and the wolf tethered together by a rope strung way up over a high branch and them each dangling beneath it like yo-yos, responding to each other's every move.... a perfect metaphor for their power struggle! It's only broken through Peter's foresight and clever action when he manages to reach a net and throw it over the wolf, entanfgling and entrapping it. then Grandpa arrives on the scene with his trusty rifle held in shaking hands, obviosuly unable to shoot accurately. this is the moment when Peter takes control... when he becomes the man of the house and masters his own darkness all at once with one simple gesture. He gently takes the gun from Grandpa. And we don't know it for some time, but he doesn't use it. Instead he cages the wolf and takes it into town to display it, his own dark soul alive and wild, beside the stuffed and mounted bears of the great bear hunter. This is a poignant scene, and really drives home the idea that Peter has managed to come to terms with his inner darkness rather than destroy it or hide from it as so many do.

At this moment, tellingly, the bird appears, now healed fully and wildly looping and soaring in graceful acrobatics overhead. So at this point his innocence is dead, but his sense of adventure is alive like never before, able at last to fly and soar like it should, and his darkness is caged. And then he releases it... right there in front of everyone, and again he and the wolf lock eyes, but this time without any menace, just a telepathic symbiosis flowing between them one last time before they stride together through the astonished crowd to the edge of the village where the wolf lopes back out into the dark primeval forest and the boy stands, once cowed and clumsy, now free and proud.

Sorry if I went a little deep (I tend to do that if you haven't noticed yet!) but it's just that, once I discovered this hidden dimension to the film, I understood why it appeals to me so powerfully, and it also lent the ending a resounding poignancy that I felt before but was unable to explain coherently.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Suzie Templeton's (and Prokofiev's) amazing Peter and the Wolf

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I'm still agog. The DVD came in yesterday (PAL format, only viewable on PAL players that can handle a Region 2 disc). I watched the half hour film several times, including the rough cut with commentary by director Suzie Templeton and showing a proliferation of incredible Rube Goldberg rigs specially designed for each shot. Yes, amazingly, every puppet was rigged in apparently every shot, different rigs for each shot depending on what it needed to do. I watched the Making of and the other extras, then went back and watched the film itself again. And I'm still in absolute awe! In fact at this moment I'm absolutely convinced it's the best stopmotion film ever made. No joke. And this is even taking into account the world masterpieces like Starevitch's Tale of the Fox, Trnka's Old Czech Legends and Barta's Krysar (and yes, even Street of Crocodiles)!

Oh, don't misunderstand - I'm not saying it's better than each of these films at their own games... the cinematography for example doesn't hold a candle to that incredible dancelike motion I recently expounded on in Street of Crocodiles, but as a whole I must say it's a more enjoyable film.

In fact it's everything I was hoping Corpse Bride would be but wasn't. And that's a secret disappointment I haven't shared publicly before now - only spoken with Shelley about. Yes, the animation in Corpse Bride is spectacular, but somehow the production design left me a bit cold, and I felt like it was watered down from the powerful original tale in the effort to flesh it out into a full length feature. In Peter and the Wolf there's a strong sense of linkage with the great backhistory of european tradition. It's set in modern Russia, where the occasional bursts of western color and commercialism clash with the crumbling and graffiti scrawled remains of the once great Land of the Tzars.

The animation in P&W is not quite as silky smooth as Corpse Bride, but I like the fact that the puppets are dressed in real cloth and have hair that twitches slightly, just enough to impart a certain magical sense of liveliness that inert silicone doesn't have. It reminds you that you're watching something lovingly animated by hand.

What really grabbed me about it is this; it's everything I want to do in stopmotion. If you go back and read all my various comments about silent film, about pantomime and cinematic storytelling - it's all there! Perfectly realized. It's bizarre really, almost as if I've been somehow tapping into the development of this project (rather ironically, it began 5 years ago, exactly the same time I first stumbled across the stopmotion message board and began my own journey of discovery). It has the lyricism and beauty of some of the classic eastern european puppetfilms without any of their preciousness. The structure is like a great silent film by Buster Keaton or Laurel and Hardy, or one of the early Warner Brothers or Disney cartoons.... a simple effective and very emotionally involving story with a few 'gags'; joyous scenarios where the animation tests the laws of physics in humorous and delightful ways without ever violating them, as is done so often in today's overblown CGI spectacles.

I posted a link to the trailer some time ago, but here it is again: Peter & the Wolf Trailer. It's a bit fidgety to get it to play right.... I've found it's best to let it play through once even though you can't see much of what's going on, then play it again. Or it might even work better if after playing throuigh it a couple times you navigate to another web page then back, and play it from your computer's cache. At least that worked well for me. If you have QTPro you can download it and shouldn't experience any problems. Oh, and at long last I can explain the mystery of why the bird is hopping up and down with a string tied around it.... it has a lame wing and the string leads to (unseen because not yet added digitally) a helium baloon that's helping it maintain some bouyancy. This setup leads to some great sight gags and just some incredible animation sequences.

Oh, and yet one more of my personal obsessions that's embodied in this amazing film - the wolf seems to operate as Peter's dark doppleganger... representing his wild spirit roaming free through the forest, from which he's barred by a fence surrounding his grandfather's cottage. Note the picture on the trailer page where Peter's shadow is an image of the wolf... perfect symbolism there! It IS his shadow, in the classic Freudian sense.

The only thing I can think of about this film that's completely different from my own vision for films I intend to make is the realism. It looks incredible in this film, but I find making things realistic takes a lot more work and ends up being less appealing than going a bit surreal or absurdist. This idea goes back once again to my Things That work Well and Things That Don't. For example, if you want to animate a scene where someone is checking the effectiveness of his traps, it would take a good deal of very painstaking work to build realistic looking traps that function just they way they should, and would likely require some special effects work that in the end will go unappreciated because, for effects work to be effective in a realist picture it must be invisible. Whereas, in a more surreal picture you're free to come up with on-the-spot innovations and improvisations, like the trap-checking scene in Epic of Gilgamesh where Gilgamesh tests his croquet-hoop trap on an unsuspecting dandelion. How simple was that? He held a triangle up to it in a few places, as if checking the angles of certain things (the shadow of the hoop apprently?) and then when the dandelion came drifting through the wire loop simply snapped down into the set accompanied by a grating metallic sound effect. Simple as pie, and twice as tasty! But I've gone off track once again... sorry! Getting back to the subject at hand....

Here's the best online article I've discovered about the production, featuring an interview with the always delightful Templeton: The Independent.

Here's a page in Polish from Sem-a-for studios site with lots of cool (but extremely small) pics of behind the scenes construction: Pics. It looks like thumbnails, but when you click them they don't open bigger pics unfortunately.

Ok, I'm off to watch it a few more times!

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Another jewel of wisdom from Larry DeHaan

Larry is one of the readers who occasionally sends along interesting tidbits that I invariably find fascinating. Here's an email he sent concerning the last blog entry, my study of the scene from Street of Crocodiles:


I've been reading the blog on the Quays, and as I probably have not viewed them as many times as the other contributors to the blog, I don't know if my opinion would carry any weight. However I do know that the brothers are steeped not only in literary tradition, but also extensively in film tradition. this is very apparrent in their collective knowledge of Expressionist films and technique ( lighting, shadows and camera angles) the stimming (soul) of those films. To properly understand the art of stop-motion-animation film-making one needs to study the art of silent cinema.
The link below is to the most important book now in print covering the German Expessionist period and I have found this to be my bible, when it comes to film reference. If you don't already have it , this is an essensial book for anyone who is an animator, silent film buff or just loves the techniques that were applied. I have read this book cover to cover at least six times and it is easy to follow despite what the reviewer here states, Also it's loaded with great pics.

all the best ,

The Haunted Screen

Sounds too good to pass up! I've already ordered my copy. Thanks again Larry!

Friday, December 08, 2006

Cinemastudies: Montage in Motion

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Street of Crocodiles

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Prison Sex video

Hope the title isn't too misleading - this isn't intended to be a complete study of montage in motion, just a comparison between two sequences to see what we can learn by analysing them. I've chosen two similar(ish) sequences from two excellent films; Street of Crocodiles by the Quays and Tool's Prison Sex video. It's obvious the Tool videos are strongly influenced by the work of the Quays, but it's also obvious that the directors/animators have tried to go their own way, as difficult as that is under the monumental infuence of something so startlingly original and powerful. In this day and age, with the work of the Quays becoming more and more well-known, anyone influenced by them is in the same boat as the fantasy illustrators of the 70's who labored in the mighty shadow of Frank Frazetta.... it's impossible to do anything that isn't either a tribute to (or in some cases outright plagiarism) or a reaction against that work. And that's the crux of the problem faced by so many of us animators who are fascinated by the Quays - how to break away and not end up copying them!

But I digress - that isn't the point of this entry. Rather I want to go in-depth and really analyse what's happening in each of these clips, at least from a cinematography viewpoint.

One of the major differences is in the design of the set for each clip. As the Quays stated in an interview, they like to (and I paraphrase as well as my memory allows): " design the decor in such a way that the action of the scene can be framed through the portals of the architecture of the set". And this does always seem to be the case in their films - we're usually seeing puppets through framing devices like windows or doorways, archways, or something similar. It makes the sapce seem more complete, or in theatrical terms completes "the illusion of the fourth wall". In the Tool video we only see a corner consisting of two walls meeting, which comes across as rather bare in contrast (not that it's really fair to compare the two, I do it only for purposes of comparison and contrast in order to point out things that might be hard to express otherwise). So already, before even introducing a puppet or movement of any kind, we see the excellent design aesthetic of the Quays and how important it is in creating their little worlds. I think it would be fair to say that at least 99 percent of all stopmotion films fall into the category opf the Tool clip, utilising a simple three wall configuration. Let's face it, it's a heck of a lot easier to build and to animate in!

The next immediately apparent difference to me is in the puppets. Quay puppets are cobbled together from scavenged pieces of antique dolls, bringing to bear a certain sense of antiquity and of stylishness that's lacking in (again) 99% of stopmotion films. In nmoist stopmo productions the puppets are freshly cast from molds or built up, and the aesthetic is toylike - super-clean and brightly painted, or else it's an attempt at realism as is the case in more naturalistic creatures of the Harryhausen/O'Brien ilk. I know it sounds like I;m knocking these types of puppets... I really don't mean to! It's just so rare to run across something at the level of what the Quays do, and it's hard not to let the praise seep into my rhetoric. Here's a thought that once again relates to my iodea of "Things that work well (in stopmotion) and things that don't" (which was originally a result of studying Quay films) - how hard do you suppose it was to build that puppet from Street of Crocodiles compared to the (from what I understand) almost 4 foot tall silicone puppet in the Prison Sex video? I believe the Quays will use (often mismatched) parts of old dolls or puppets and insert custom-made joints between them. They both make puppets, and I assume they're making ball and socket joints and somehow fitting them into the parts. If you study the puppets you notice the proportioning isn't right, in fact it's downright bizarre.... necks are twice as long as they should be, wrists don't bend in the right place. These are practically the only determining factors in the design of most puppets fabricated specifically for a production, within the limitations imposed by the materials and size of joints needed. And yet somehow the Quay puppets come out looking more natural, more "right" than even the most carefully designed and painstakingly fabricated rubber puppets. At least for their intended purpose... I'm sure a Quay puppet wouldn't look right wandering around in a Tim Burton film, nor would Jack Skellington or the Corpse Bride be at home in a Quay film. I think it works because the Quays are so true to their "found object" aesthetic. Just as when they build a set they don't attempt to imitate realistic textures or proportions.... "The Zone" for Street of Crocodiles, while built to represent a dilapidated and rundown warehouse district was far from naturalistic. Instead they basically used large sheets of material (I'm assuming wood for the most part, though there were also sheets of grimy glass) on which were applied various widgets and textures and some attempt was made to create a surrealistic sense of a warehouse district. An approach like this is more organic and process-oriented than the more fastidious and painstaking process that begins by designing a set and then building it so that realism is imitated. I still wince when I remember how much effort and time went into just making two brick-textured panels for my Race the Wind tests a while back! Yeesh! Then I look at the old Hat Tip Test where all I did was pour out some Durham's Rock Hard Water Putty onto a sheet of cardboard and press in a bricklike texture with the edge of a lathboard and it looks even better! somehow it suits the aesthetic better too.

Ok, on to the fun stuff! this is the main point I want to make - the use of montage technique in each of these clips. In Street of Crocodiles it's subtle and sophisticated, conveying a continual sense of movement through space (albeit a twisting motion) whereas in the Tool video it's patchy and fails to really move in any direction. I'll examine my reasons for saying this, but first a bit of quicktime lore to help you get the best use out of this exercise - the beauty of using quicktime for an animated clip like this is that you can pause it by tapping your space bar, and then progress frame by frame either forward or reverse by using the arrow keys. I don't know of another type of online video viewer that allows this. Also, to really examine the animation or the cinematography closely, turn the volume all the way down so you're not distracted by sound. As you read each part of my commentary you might want to go back and watch the part I'm discussing. Ok, on to our discussion....

Street of Crocodiles clip:
We begin with a view of/through a sheet of dirty glass. Already this is multi-layered, because you're seeing the surface of the glass as well as what's beyond it. The camera is in motion, seeming to seek out something. The camera moves in the quay films always seem to be active, seeking something - be it the next interesting object or area, the next puppet to be introduced, or a reaction shot looking toward some sudden action. This makes the camera a sort of narrator, and brings the viewer into the film almost actively, or rather as if he's being led through it by a storyteller. It's like being on a guided tour rather than just wandering the streets on your own not knowing where to look next. So often when i see montage or camera movement used in movies these days it's completely unmotivated, apparently just for the sake of making a movie more exciting like a roller coaster ride. But the Quays are very "old school", and use camera movement only to make a point.

So, we begin with the camera drifting sort of aimlessly across this expanse of dirty glass, while something mysterious is pulsating slowly behnd it (or is it reflected on the front, who can tell? Another level of mystery). The pulsations have an almost living quality to them, like the rhythm of a heartbeat. This parallels certain other rhythmic movements they've populated this wasteland with, all seeming to be dictated by the rhythm of the "rubberband cutting machine" at the heart of "the zone". Only for a second is the camera's wandering aimless, then it's suddenly drawn by the appearance of our nameless hero, who's on the other side of the glass peering through it intently (almost as if looking out at us, but trust the Quays never to do anything so tacky). Not only is he looking through the glass, but he's rubbing a tiny hand against it, strengthening its tactile quality and giving the impression of maybe wanting to wipe away some of the grime to see better through it. Like the camera before spotting him he's looking around kind of aimlessly at first, then suddenly seems to spot something. He whirls, lifting to more completely fill the scene. It's a beautiful entrance, done with incredible subtlety. He sees something else on the other side, whirls again, and rises even more fully into view, changing the composition. He rapidly flees this shot to appear in the next, raptly intent on whatever's caught his attention. He keeps this behavior up, looking into windows on either side of the street, as if fascinated by the strange things he sees in these shops. The rhythm of his movements is important... as in a lot of european animation there's a sort of flow/pause/flow quality, fluid and graceful, but punctuated by sudden abrupt changes of direction or complete reversals (in the sequence there don't seem to be any complete reversals, which would interrupt the constant forward progression, though at times he spins into almost the opposite direction> It's important to note though that even when he does this, he seems to actually be still moving forward in a twisting path dictated by his random noticing of shiny things in shop windows). His movements, like those of the camera util spotting him, are exploratory, leading him deeper into this glass maze. This section serves as a transition from one part of the film to the next, leading him (and us along with him) into the tailor's shop, where the rest of it takes place. Cutting is always "on the action", meaning an action will begin in one shot, an action that would take the character out of that shot, and when the next camera setup is revealed that same action is continuing. It helps make cuts less visible, or to bridge them smoothly. If he whirls and is leaving a frame off the left edge, he enters the next frame from the right, still moving toward the left. It's continuity in effect.

He dodges across the street and looks in the opposite glass wall, and this time there's a reflection of him, adding yet again to the sense of his being actually enclosed in this glass space. Note the way he leans so far forward, his torso diagonal. So often puppets walk around upright and just stroll lazily from one place to the next. This guy always seems to be moving dynamically - rising into a shot or dropping out of it as if going to his knees for a better look. He spins into a shot and whirls out. Its like a dance, graceful and elegant. And in fact, the Quays always say they work from a very musical standpoint. Their action is in rsponse to musical and auditory cues, or rhythmical like music, rather than being propelled by drama or narrative.

And the final shot of this sequece adds another level of mystery and artifice, when it's revealed that what you at first think is the puppet himself is actually only his reflection, and when that spins off the edge of the shot the hand of the real puppet glides in, closer and still continuing the same twisting motion begun by it's reflected doppleganger. Absolutely brilliant! And "All done with mirrors"! This kind of motion couldn't be pre=planned and storyboarded... I believe it could only occur when you've got your set put together and you play arpund a bit with the camera and puppet, watching carefully for new possibilities. That's one of the greatest strengths the Quays have, their ability to 'listen' to a puppet, to notice the possibilities offered by a particular setup. If you're working from a strict storyboard you're blind and deaf to those possibilities.

finally, (though I already sort of covered this it bears re-examining) think about the way the puppet moves through space - the flat space of the frame in each shot, as well as the 3 dimensional space of the set. He's down low, only the top of his head and a hand visible, then he rises up (the movement motivated by his exploring of the set) to move more fully into the center of the composition, to become the focus of it as it were. Then he moves from a half-up shot to an extreme closeup, focus on his eyes, giving the impression of thought going on (because he's exploring and that's made palpable by use of cinematography and staging). And when you examine his movement, be it across the flat surface of the computer monitor or through the fully 3-dimensional space of the set, he's always twisting and snaking forward. I could go on and on, but this is long enough already! Time to move on....

Prison Sex video
First let me say, I Like this video, though I'm basically using this sequence to illustrate some common mistakes in cinematography (or what amount to mistakes when compared to the sublime work we've just seen). I won't examine this one as in-depth as I did the Quay clip (you can breathe easier now - it's almost over!). I feel like what we have here is a typical american action-movie montage, like sopmething where you'd expect to see an explosion or a car crash, maybe with the hero and his girl flying in slow motion through the air toward camera in front of it.

We begin with three successive shots of - essentially the same motion from differnet camera angles. It all takes place in this simple corner set, and the movement is completely unmotivated. Why is this puppet standing up (over and over again)? We don't know. I suppose it's her entrance, but nowhere near as effective as that brilliant scene just analysed (though that wasn't even our hero's entrance, just his entrance into that particular sequence). The standing-up motion is kind of dull to begin with, rising from a hump-backed lump. It isn't visually compelling enough to warrant three successive views. And the use of three separate camera angles to shoot the same action is annoying to me - it's what's done as I said in action movies to ensure good coverage of an unrepeatable event like an explosion or a crash, and today's rather unimaginative directors simply don't want to choose between all the coverage, so instead they show each shot one after the other, doubtless thinking it's exciting and that it increases the film's dynamism and appeal. Wrong! It could, if it was done effectively, with continuous motion as was demonstrated in the Quay clip, but instead we see part of the action, then in the next shot it's rewound back to the first frame and we have to watch it again. And again...... point taken I trust. What I'm saying is, once the character has stood up, why do we want to see her crouching down again/! It's self-thwarting behavior... it takes us back to square one. In a game, if you keep going back to square one it means you're not doing well.

There's something else I find annoying about this clip as well.... it's about the positioning of the puppet relative to the frame. She always seems to be centered and upright, after completing the standing up gesture. Take the shot where her hands are right in front of the camera in extreme closeup.... there's a centeredness to them as well. Each hand takes up half of the screen space, divided neatly across the center. They move in opposite directions, but at exactly the same rate, so the movement balances out any dynamism it could have had. It IS a neat visual, but could have been so much more powerful from a different camera angle or with a little shifting of visual elements. Instead it becomes like a simple gate opening, revealing the puppet standing perfectly upright and centered behind it. And then the final shot - where I ended the clip. Something annoying about it as well to me. She's not centered now - or is she? The head is off to one side, and looking away at an angle, but then up comes the hand and now head and hand are perfectly balanced against each other, each occupying the center of its screen section. And that final shot (of my clip).... does anyone really stand like that? I mean even in mid-gesture, with the hand pointing straight up and palm flat directly forward? It just seems really fake and unnatural to me. As bizarre as some of the Crocodile man's movements were, they always felt natural and were motivated.

Ok, guess I'll wrap this up now. See ya next time!

Monday, December 04, 2006

An amazing time for stopmo on DVD!

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Just today I discovered 3 incredible DVDs, and got so excited I ordered Peter and the Wolf from amazon.co.uk on PAL dvd! Bear in mind, I can do that because I have a magic box, my trusty all-regions all-systems DVD player from World-Import. The rest of you yanks will have to wait on this one.

The other finds were through Marc Spess' incredible new StopActionAnimation fan megastore (and are in America-friendly NTSC format!):

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Yes friends, steaming fresh Svankmajer! Well, fresh in this country anyway. Many of the films collected on this disc have never been released on NTSC video in any form. There are also two discs in the same format called The Collected Shorts of Jan Svankmajer, which are nothing more than new repackagings of Kimstims earlier DVD releases of the same name. Not sure why they did that! I might have to get The Ossuary and Other Tales, just for a quick fix, and then still (of course) get the Michael Brooke release on PAL DVD when it comes out, which will be a much better production I'm sure (judging by his Quays release) and include far more films.

And this brings us to our final find:

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Yes!! At long last, Jiri Barta comes to America (on NTSC no less)! I know this package as Labyrinth of Darkness and Light in its PAL version, but it's just called Labyrinth of Darkness here. His films are a strange assortment... some I love and some leave me pretty cold. But even if the only film on this disc was Krysar (The Pied Piper of Hamelin) it would be an absolute must-have!

How about one quick parting shot of the Piper at work?

Now that's nice!

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Icelocked in the midwest

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I didn't take these pictures, I scavenged them online, but they give a good idea of what it's like here. Why don't ice storms get cool names like hurricanes? Everybody remembers legendary storms like Katrina, but in years to come who will remember "The midwest ice storm of '06"?
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Let me start by saying that for the last month it's been unseasonably warm to say the least. 70 degrees every day in late November! Then came the warnings, which somehow fell woefully short of really describing the danger that was about to strike - there was a big cold front moving in that was to be preceded by a lot of rain, which would freeze and be followed up by sleet and freezing rain, onto which 6 to 9 inches of snow would fall. Ok, sounds like pretty typical midwest winter to me! I wasn't all that worried really (like most people I think). We've had ice storms quite a bit in the past, but I don't remember anything like this!!! (except way back in 1980 or so... way back when)
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It began innocently enough, and yeah, the streets were slippery as all hell, but really nothing out of the ordinary, until I heard the first tree come crashing down right across the street! It takes surprisingly little ice to bring down a tree, or a major chunk of one. When you stop and think about the design of a tree it's easy to see why - all those tiny little branches out at the tips present a massive amount of surface area - like cilia or something. The pines suffered the worst because all the needles offer even more surface area for ice to collect on.

It's a spectacularly beautiful disaster - the world becomes a crystalline fairytale palace; a winter wonderland - but a wonderland frought with danger and destruction. It begins like this - first the power goes out. Maybe it comes back on and then goes out again a few times (happened three or four times here). Then it goes out and stays out. The house becomes preternaturally silent and you can hear every sound from outside. After a while you begin to hear the trees crashing down all around - and my house is built right at the edge of the woods - in fact, the house is completely surrounded by trees three to four times the height of a two-story house, leaning over it ominously. These forest giants also lean over the power lines and meet each other across the streets in most places, making for a nice tunnel-like appearance. That means when they come down they can smash through roofs, walls or windows, onto cars, or bring power lines and telephone lines down. So you find yourself sitting in a dark house getting gradually colder and colder, hearing the world crash down all around. Then the transformers start exploding. Meanwhile of course cars are sliding off roads and crashing into each other all around.
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This is actually post-tornado imagery, but it shows a scene remarkably like the one directly across the street from my house (or rather what it would look like without everything being liberally coated with ice and snow). The neighbors have three gigantic pines that stand like massive columns in front of their house. The middle one now literally resembles a telephone pole (but three times taller) - the top of it came down and stripped away all the branches. An hour or so later the one next to their driveway broke in half. Fortunately it just misseed the three trucks in the driveway, but it brought their telephone/power lines down to about four feet above ground level. They're slanted enough so cars can get through if they stay far enough to one side of the road, but that's only if they SEE the downed lines first.

I called the power company to report the downed lines, but I got a recording saying there were too many calls to respond to and that thousands of people were now without power. I thought about making some kind of makeshift barricade to place there, but the neighbors parked a truck on each side of the lines. Problem solved.

I was one of the lucky ones - I have a gas fireplace so the house had heat through the whole ordeal. And after a few hours I moved the stuff from the fridge/freezer out to the garage, non-frozen goods in an ice chest so it wouldn't freeze up. Many people in the area had no heat at all. After a while I got out the emergency radio (has a hand crank or takes batteries) and listened to reports of the disaster and tips on survival. It's weird the kind of stuff you'll hear on these things - putting anti-freeze in the toilets etc! Crews were out the whole time of course trying to repair all the downed lines, but it was difficult and dangerous work, I can only imagine what it's like to have to cut a massive tree with live power lines trapped under it. And of course more trees coming down all the time, sometimes right on top of them!

After the ice had stopped building up I decided to take a little stroll around the yard and assess the damage. The moon was just shy of full, and all the snow and ice diffused the light so there was plenty of illumination - sort of a grey ghostly half-light that seemed to have no single source. The kind of light farmers work by all night during Harvest Moon. So I layered up and grabbed a pruning saw and started in on cutting up all the downed trees/branches around the yard. That's when I came to realize just how heavy all that ice can be - and that it's out toward the branch-ends that it's the heaviest. Branches I can normally toss out into the woods no problem I couldn't even lift! I had to cut them into bite-sized chunks first.

But this morning, after two days of blackout, I heard a chainsaw buzzing and screeching up on Sherwood Forest, where a really big tree had taken down the lines, and I figured that meant the crew was at work and power would soon be restored. Sure enough, in about half an hour, the lights came back on and I was plunged back into the normal world I usually take for granted, where I have stereo, lights, microwaves, a hundred channels of crap on the TV..... and my trusty Macintosh! I'm not sure which world is better.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Quayspeak continued

I was going to answer this in the comments box, but decided to move it here. I'll begin with a quote from my last post and a response to it:

"In fact, they're basically terrified of attempting to make a puppet walk. They rarely do it, and prefer to have them glide about on wheels, like Gilgamesh on his tricycle or the women in the tailor's shop in Crocodiles, because it imparts a nice smooth elegance. The few times a puppet did walk they would inevitably laugh embarrasedly and comment on how "ropey" it is, and how much they hate doing it."

To which Michael responded (quite rightly):

"I think the phrase "we had a horror of" has been slightly misinterpreted - I understood it to mean that they have a strong aesthetic objection to something, not that they found it too technically difficult.

I mean, if they wanted to make things easy for themselves, they wouldn't have built the Street of Crocodiles set out of multiple reflective glass panels and buried everything under an inch-thick layer of dust, would they?"

Yes, I'm not entirely sure what they meant by that remark, I hope I didn't mangle it too badly! "We had a horror of" could mean they were afraid of it or that they had a hard time with it (or possibly something different?). I definitely got the impression they feel their walk animation is substandard and that they don't like to do it if they can find a way around it. Walks are one of the hardest things to do well, and they mentioned that at the time there were no books (and no websites!) on how to do puppet animation, and I believe most people who were doing it either learned from more experienced animators (which they didn't have access to as far as I know) or figured it out for themselves through trial and error. It's very appropos of their artistic sensibilities that they chose to forego walks (the stock in trade for most stop motion animators, on which a character's personality is usually based, or rather through which it's reflected) and flying shots and the like, and instead got the camera in close and made such scenes obsolete. And in doing so they give the viewers something to mull over - "what do the wheeled women represent?" etc. Brilliant! This kind of creative problem solving (which is a hallmark of their style) is exactly what I was trying to get at long ago in a thread called Things that work well (and things that don't) - the idea that " If it is hard to do in animation, maybe it's something that isn't natural to it. For example, if I need a character to throw something, rather than make a flying rig and get it in one shot, I will have him draw back his arm in an obvious winding-up gesture, and do a quick pan to the target area, where we see the object (formerly in his hand) hitting the ground or whatever. It is a way of using the entirety of the film technique rather than focusing on the effects".

The thread didn't really go the way I hoped it would, but instead it turned into my introduction to Eastern European stopmotion by the old masters like Trnka and Pojar. One of those life-altering moments that reverbrate like a gongstrike through the rest of your life.

The last special feature is an interview taped in some kind of doll museum and conducted by a French guy who really struggles with english. I couldn't understand all the questions, but some of the ones I did just made me say "Huh?!?!?" I don't remember just now what they were, but it seemed like he just didn't have a grasp of what the Bros are about. And it seemed like they had a hard time understanding him too, or possibly they feigned it to their advantage. It was amazing to watch... this guy would ask some lame question and in typical Quay fashion they'd stand thinking for a minute or two and one would start muttering almost randomly, and it seemed to me like they pretty much ignored the questions and just kept elaborating on thier own fascination with puppets. And it's a trip to see the way they talk... they're definitely intoverts and they stumble for words, sometimes they seem to be very forgetful or lost, and the one speaking will just trail off, and suddenly the other one will pick up, as if they share thoughts. It's uncanny really.

But the reason I brought this up is to talk a bit about their ideas on the puppet. They kept talking about liberating them, about how sad it is to look around in the museaum and see all these cutesy little babydolls and little girly dolls dressed in their victorian finery and all they ever do is just sit there on shelves gathering dust. I'm trying to paraphrase here, and probably messing it all up - hey, I sat through a lot of Quay last night! The details escape me. But they said something along the lines of feeling sorry for the puppets (meaning dolls - they seem to use the terms interchangeably) - like children who have to sit around all dressed up formally all the time and never get to demonstrate their inner life... that unique strangeness that dolls and puppets have as objects rather than as imitations of people, and they wanted to do something almost pornographic with them just to break them free. To give them a pathology. Pathological puppets! That pretty much describes what they do - they focus in neurotically on individual gestures, meaningless repetitive twitches and the like, revealing mental or physical abberations. What a totally different approach from the usual! They said they love Trnka and Starevitch, but they felt the films were shot in a very static manner, without any use of cinematic language (and yes Shelley, they actually used that phrase!). So they wanted to bring the full complement of cinematography to bear in their little world. I repeatedly got the impression that they were neophytes learning as they went - they said a lot of their early reels would come back improperly exposed or somehow messed up, and they gradually figured out how to avoid these problems.

Another thing I was greatly impressed by (and wondered about) is that they made all their own armatures and puppets, as well as their 'decors'. But I suspect their puppets are mostly cobbled together from pieces of dolls and the like, with joints inserted here and there. In fact they said they liked to collect doll parts and particularly liked to get ahold of just a single arm or leg without a mate. They do everything themselves except the music and sound and sometimes they get help wth lighting.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Thoughts on the new Quay release

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Been having computer problems lately, to the point where I did a complete OS re-install, and I'm only gradually getting back to full functionality - that's why I haven't been able to post here for a couple days (forgot my username!) and I haven't got my main email set up yet. Hopefully tommorrow - so if anybody is waiting to get a reply on something, just hang on.

But in the meantime, I received the wonderbox - the new PAL edition of the Quay films, and I'd like to share my initial thoughts and impressions.

First - what an incredible production! Even just the packaging is beautiful. The films look fantastic. But of course the real treat is the commentaries and interviews included, and those have completely shaken up my world. The Quays have always been pretty tight-lipped when it comes to releasing information, to the point that they refused to have any kind of web presence, and in fact asked that their section at Animation of Heaven and Hell be removed. And of course, in this information overload age, that makes them stand out as something special - hearkening back to old world values as opposed to todays McMenatality. So it's with mixed feelings that I recieved all this backstory, and let me just say that I'm glad they waited until now to release it, because for many years I was blissfully able to believe in all kinds of magical ideas surrounding them, and read things into their films that aren't necessarily there. And of course, in a sense it's all still there, whether they meant it or not, and whetehr they mentioned it in a commentary or not.

There's the inevitable letdown that comes with looking behind the curtain as it were and seeing the little man operating the machinery, but at the same time it's fascinating to learn how they worked, how they went about creating their masterpieces. And of course there's a lot more going on behind that curtain than they revealed in this glimpse.... they're very modest about their work (rather like Uncle Ray, who makes it sound as though what he did was always fairly simple).

A couple of things that really blew my mind:

The puppet in Nocturna Artificialia was just an ordinary artist's manniken! Well, obviously it had a face sculpted on it, and the hands were carved or somehow changed (I think anyway), but aside from that they used it as far as I can tell unmodified. It didn't move very well, and wouldn't walk at all, so that's why they concieved of the idea of having the world sort of shift around it instead, or viewing things through a window so it didn't need to walk around.

In fact, they're basically terrified of attempting to make a puppet walk. They rarely do it, and prefer to have them glide about on wheels, like Gilgamesh on his tricycle or the women in the tailor's shop in Crocodiles, because it imparts a nice smooth elegance. The few times a puppet did walk they would inevitably laugh embarrasedly and comment on how "ropey" it is, and how much they hate doing it.

The brilliant scenario of the bird puppet flying in Gilgamesh was done in extreme close-up of only the wings flapping right in front of the camera because they did a long elaborate shot with a rig where the whole puppet was visible and it came back from the lab looking awful, so they decided to cover up their inability to do smooth flying with some creative photography.

In fact, that's what strikes me the most after seeing this set - so many of their creative innovations resulted because they didn't want to try something they thought might look ridiculous or might be difficult. More of their innovations were the result of just setting up their scene and studying it through the camera to see what would look interesting. A trick of the light, a certain angle that reveals a mysterious incomprehensible view - anything that can open up the mind to possibilities rather than shut it down with concrete realities (or rather illusions calculated to resemble concrete realities - the stock in trade of most animators).

Their films seem to result mostly from their studies into ephemera and odd corners of Eastern Europe that just strike a certain chord with them. Apparently when they first entered university in Pennsylvania (I hope I'm not mangling this) there was a display of some sort that featured Polish posters (in fact some of the same ones Aeron Alfrey has posted on his Monster Brains blog) and this seems to have kicked off their interest in eastern and central europe, which they view as a refuge from the cultural void devouring America, and a source of inspiration. They visited Poland a few times and were intensely inspired by shop windows where there were these displays like artful arrangements of screws or high heeled shoes or whatever was sold in the shop. but done in a completely different way from commercial displays.... they had a humbleness and at the same time a powerful beauty, a beauty of the ordinary that spoke volumes about the people who run these little shops. They also of course began reading eastern european literature and delving through museums and theaters and wherever they could find inspiration. They'll be struck by something like a photograph or a diary entry, and as well as I can figure, they'll just start talking about it, working out all kinds of possibilities of what could be done with it (or something similar).

And their ideas behind the films are bizarre and deep, let me tell you! But not in the way I thought they would be. Or it doesn't seem so anyway. From watching Street of Crocodiles I had all these strange, half-formed notions about the male (scews) versus the female (sewing) way of holding the world together that I thought they were trying to convey (probably just what I read into it) and they never mentioned anything along those lines at all. Their explanation of what's happening in fact is pretty simple and straightforward, except that they seem to read a lot more into it than comes across onscreen, while other apparently unrelated things are coming across at the same time. Hard to describe. I didn't realize that at one point in Crocodiles for instance, the string starts to run backwards, making time go backwards. That's when the rubber-band cutting machine (which I thought was some kind of weird sewing machine) starts putting rubber bands back together and dandelions reassemble themselves and an ice cube un-melts. And when the women in the tailor shop start doing that weird spanky spanky motion, that's supposed to represent "the Zone" (area of town where the Street is located) breaking down. I don't know... I kind of got that, but I thought it was already well in progress by that point. Maybe I misunderstood or their explanation was a bit off.

What I'm left with is an impression of a couple of super-talented twins who expand each others thinking process (dialogue being key to deepening creativity) and who work very simply, avoiding anything they think is difficult, but at the same time creating vistas of extreme beauty with simple materials. All this brings me right back to the first days of the Ahab film, when my goals were very similar. And I'm filled anew with the desire to get back to that approach.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Vas ist DAS??!!!?!

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Ok, I'm not entirely sure exactly what this IS, but it looks really cool! I just learned about it in an email from longtime Darkmatters contributor Larry DeHaan, who ran across it and knows no more than what is printed on the web page: DIE GROSSE LIEBE EINER KLEINEN TÄNZERIN. The link goes to Googles translated version of a page at Das Deutsche Filminstitut, which is fairly mangled english, but somewhat understandable.
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Looks really cool! My guess is it's a marionette film that's apparently based on the look of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, called Large Love of a Small Dancer. The puppets and sets have a great expressionist look. If any of my readers have access to a 35MM projector, there's a link at the bottom of the Filminstitute page where you can rent a print. If anybody does, I'd love to hear more about it.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Another incredible book!

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I stumbled across this one at Amazon and it sounded like something I really wanted to check out, so I ordered it and let me tell ya, I was not disappointed! I've only read the first half so far, but already I give it 5 stars. And I've read a few other books about screenplay writing and directing technique that failed to even make a decent blip on my radar. The beauty of this one is that it gives you a set of powerful tools for breaking down your movie idea into sections (and breaking those down further) so you can work out all the shots and scenes before shooting (before doing a storyboard) and find the best dramatic possibilities. It doesn't replace Writing With Pictures in terms of how to actually tell a ripping yarn, but it covers the next part of thje process, how to turn that story into a screenplay. I see them both as essential texts for any aspiring filmmaker.

He tells you how to find the NARRATIVE SPINE of your film idea, which he compares to the armature in a sculpture (something we can definitely relate to) and to use that and the FULCRUMS (dramatic turning points) to keep everything in line so you don't end up going off track somewhere. Each movement (of actor, camera or object) should relate directly to that spine, as well as to the WANTS of each character. He also discusses the GRAMMAR of film.... he compares each shot to a sentence that must contain at least one subject and one verb and he breaks scenes down into NARRATIVE BLOCKS (paragraphs) and even further into NARRATIVE BEATS (each movement is essentially a beat, and must relate to the spine of the film and to the spine of the scene). I love the way he does this.... he writes out his screenplay leaving a margin along the right edge and next to each action he jots down a verb (narrative beat). It sounds like an almost mathematical formula, but that's not the way he approaches it at all - rather it's a way of breaking things down methodically so they can be examined and correlated very specifically.

What caught my attention and made me single out this book alongside the hundreds opf other screenwriting books that litter the shelves was this subtitle: "See your film before shooting". Now you KNOW I like that! So for me this one is an integral part of the process I've been learning - of cinematic storytelling. Until finding this volume, this part of the process was pretty random for me.... just visualise the whole movie scene by scene and shot by shot and "try to make sure everything works". Well, here's an excellent process for doing exactly that! Using beats the way he does turns your screenplay into something like a poem or a song (hence the musical terminology - beats).

Wednesday, November 15, 2006


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Today the book of correspondence between Lovecraft and Lieber came in and I've been immersed in it for hours. I should say Lovecraft's letters to the Liebers. It's kind of weird reading only one side of the conversations, but Lovecraft is so loquacious that he usually basically restates the original questions as he answers them. It was just so bizarre (and delightful!) to see the old master writing about Fafhrd and the Mouser! Kind of like if someone suddenly unearthed letters where leonardo Da Vinci discussed Star Wars with George Lucas (except of course that they didn't live contemporaneously). I always thought of Lieber's writing as much more recent than Lovecraft's, though that's largely because of his thorougly modern and whimsically inventive use of language, which I now know definitely was inspired by Shakespeare.

That's one of the strange things about this book for me.....

Lieber sent his (rejected by the publisher) manuscript for a story called Adept's Gambit (which from certain clues I gather is his first Faf/Mouser tale?) and Lovecraft elaborated at great length about it. Ironically, in my bedtime readings lately I'm midway through this very tale (which eventually did find publication). It's a weird one.... in that it takes place not in the fantastic and many-storied world of Nehwon but in a strange world alternately referred to as Gaia, Midgard or sometimes Earth somewhere around the Hellenistic era. I think originally that was to be the setting for the tales (shudder!) but, probably in response to some of Lovecraft's (rather excessive and nitpicking) criticisms in matters of historical accuracy and grammatical usage I'm thinking he invented the wonderful world and all its delightful locales, which are really some of the best things about the stories. Heh... Lovecraft went on for several long pages listing recommendations of historical treatises and compendiums Lieber should consult just to establish a proper sense of historical placement. Truly an extreme case of a rationalist and devoted antiquarian berating a true master of fanciful fantasy whose greatest strength is the creative weaving of locale to perfectly suit the story. It was also annoying to see him constantly attacking the use of some of Lieber's invented words and phrases (another of his strong points and a large part of what's so delightful about the F&M stories) because he feels that words should be chosen that would accurately fit the period. Interesting to see two such great artists who obviously admire each other professionally and as friends be so at odds over these trivialities, but that's the way art is.

And I now know for certain that Fafhrd was indeed based on Lieber. I couldn't be absolutely sure by Lovecraft's first hint, something along the lines (in a letter to Lieber's wife) of congratulations on having a husband so talented and possessed of such an admirable physique (could have meant he was small and in fantastic shape, like the Mouser) but later in a different letter he mentioned sending some books around to "Your Mouser" (meaning Harry Otto Fischer). They frequently mentioned sending books and manuscripts around to a small select group, which I found fascinating. In fact Lovecraft mentions a certain owner of several rare volumes who has a waiting list of people to be sent the books on loan.

I wish the letters by Lieber and his wife were included... and I wonder why they weren't? Possibly they no longer exist... apparently the Liebers kept everything Lovecraft sent them, I wonder if he just threw theirs away? I actually doubt it, especially since he obviously considered them good friends and Fritz a great talent similar in many ways to himself.

Actually, it just occurred to me..... in a recent bout of Lieber related websearching I discovered a database of a whole slew of material written by Lieber... just a listing that included manuscripts, published volumes, and letters to various friends as well as magazing articles essays and the like. Taking into consideration the fact that the book includes a goodly selection of Lovecraftian stories and articles about Lovecraft, all written by Lieber - it only makes sense that someone assembled all this material from the trove of material represented by that web database. And of course the letters sent BY the Liebers TO Lovecraft wouldn't be included in that stash. Possibly there were problems in getting permission from the current copyright holder to use letters in the possession of the Lovecraft estate. Ok, anyway... getting pretty dull here... sorry about that!

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Yadda yadda yadda

Hmmm, well, last night I got waylaid by Federico Fellini. La Dolce Vita was on TCM, followed by a good doco on Fellini, that I had to watch. The only other Fellini film I've seen is La Strada, which I thought was absolutely brilliant. Guess I need to see the rest of his flicks.

Tonight I foamed up Cosmo's torso. More to come.

Sunday, November 12, 2006


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Foam cut from sofa cushion with a drywall saw and applied with two heavy coats of spray adhesive.
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Rough shaping done with kitchen shears.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

tracin spacin and erasin

All I did tonight was trace the image, and as i did I moved things around a little (Fafhrd's arm and his legs) to try to fix proportioning a little. But I screwed it up and got disgusted with it. He looks like a Frankenstein dude now. As it stands, I'm not sure I want to continue on this piece. I think it would be much better to start fresh, now that I've had a little practicce to get the rust out. Iused to be able to draw figures much better than this, and I know I'll be able to again (probably next time I try will come out a lot better).

Alas, the main reason for doing this piece was because i was burned out on my movie, but it's calling again, I think it's time to get back to those little guys and gals.

Friday, November 10, 2006

For better or for worse....

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Now Fafhrd looks a little too small compared to his little buddy. But I like the overall shape of the composition, a sort of composite being bristling with weaponry.....

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Wednesday, November 08, 2006


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Well, I struggled, I tried, I thought, I visualized, and this is all I could come up with tonight. I think the main problem is that I don't understand the character of the Mouser (physically or personalitywise). It seems a lot harder to me to draw slender people than musclebound giants. But it's a start. Now I'll re-draw him on a fresh piece of paper, work out the pose and clothes and everything, and put them together later. I decided he would be using his sling rather than a sword, just to make it more interesting. Strange that they're both using their left arms.,... just another bit of clumsiness plaguing this piece. Maybe I'll reverse him so he's facing away from the viewer, and put the sling in his right hand.

Thought I'd post this here so it doesn't go unnoticed

Here's a comment that came in yesterday on an entry that has already slid off the first page (one of the problems with daily bloggage!). It's from Bart Van De Plas, in response to our recent discussion about Le Cid, the film with animated insects made by Beast Animation studio in Brussels:

Bart said...
I had a great time helping out on this film and it was very interesting seeing it all come together.
The director has a history in Theatre, and Artdirection and this was her first animation project. The storyboardpannels were real graphic pieces of art and her visual vision of the film was strong.
However; She didn't have any experiance in telling a story trough the Animation/Film medium and you can see that. Also the style of the film was to be far more dark and obscure. The project was presented to me as a feast of sex and murder, and instead it became a talking drama. The french like long dialogues, it's in their nature, and if darker the film would have been stronger and more intense.
The people at Beast Animation tried to film this project as a film, rather then as a table with some moving puppets on. I think they succeeded on this level.
They animated about 6 seconds of film a day and the whole project had a big challange to it in the sence that they had to break up the entire set in the middle of production to move it to France to shoot the second half. This had to do with split budgets in the co-production arangements. It was quite a task to do all this without damaging stuff.
I like the film, although it's a pitty the 'edge' fell of during production..."

Wow, it's great to hear from someone who worked on the production and can answer these questions! Thanks for explaining how it all came together.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

1st attempt at a composition for a painting.

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Ok, enough with copying photographs! It's time to start drawing entirely from the depths of my mind. That's how I'll need to do it for the paintings, unless I plan to hire models to pose (and heck with THAT!). Here I'm going for an older, brawnier Fafhrd, as opposed to the strapping youth version I drew earlier. I left space for the Mouser to stand next to him, back to back, facing danger with blades drawn and nerves of steel. The pose looks kind of clumsy, but after living with this drawing for a little while I'll re-do it in a slightly modified pose. That's how I had to do the Longbow painting I did of him that's on my site.... I couldn't do the foreshortening for the rather difficult pose until I first drew it looking straight atr him (no foreshortening). That done, I found it simple to translate the pose into three dimentsional space with depth and everything.

Oh, and yes, I'm well aware he has no midsection! His ribcage seems to sit right on his pelvis! I'll be fixing that too.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Sketchin' wit the Fafmeister

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Tonight's progress. I'm just trying to get my rusty skills back in shape. This is from photoreference of my mystery celeb (who is the visual inspiration for Fafhrd). It came out a bit clumsy, but I definitely feel that toward the end of the drawing I was getting better. I wasn't worried about fussy little details like hands and face, more the basic forms of the body itself. I want to do a few more sketches like this to get the ol' skills dusted off, then do a bunch of gestural sketches to try to figure out poses I might want to base a painting on.

The poor barbarian! His chest is all messed up! That's me trying to exaggerate beyond my ability to do so.

A part of my goal I didn't mention in that long rambling post below.... when I'm done with the Frazetta/Jones emulation phase, I hope to move beyond, into more expressionistic work, to push myself into my own territory. In other words, think of this as my Renaissance, and it will serve as the basis for my further development toward my own painting style.

Also, these paintings are helping me deal with multiple figures interacting wth each other in a defined environment, in the context of a good composition. Total stopmo stuff!

Ok, I need to just quit with the ramblin'! See, it's like I always say... artists do what they do BECAUSE they have something to express that can't be expressed in daily conversation. If I could say it, I wouldn't need to be an artist. See?

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Where I'm going

Sven made me realize that I haven't really explained why I'm doing the Fafhrd painting project, so I thought I'd try to give it a shot here.

To start with, there are 3 things I've always wanted to be able to do when I grow up.... stopmotion, sculpture, and oil painting. And like the Bauhaus artists, I believe each form of art strengthens the others... in other words, what I learn about sculpture helps me in my animation AND my painting, etc. I've been drawing for as long as I can remember, and got serious about it in the beginning of the '90's when I took art classes at the local community college. I gotta say though, I learned a lot more on my own than I did in class. The classroom environment was nice because i was surrounded by other art students and encouraged to push myself, and just having assignments that needed to be finished on time makes you work. But most of the learning I did there (aside from some good art philosophy I absorbed from my instructor Dale Threlkeld) was on my own, after class, in the library. I also bought myself a bookcase that I nicknamed the U of Me (or the University of Myself) and started filling with books. That actually was a fairly comprehensive university (the U of Me that is) with a curriculum in the Humanities.... literature, psychology, philosophy, a little poetry, as well as art instruction.

In art my main focus was always on the human figure. For time I wanted to be a comic book artist in fact. I've bought (and studied) a lot of anatomy books, my favorites being the Burne Hogarth Dynamic Anatomy series and the Robert Beverly Hale books, which are the most advanced anatomy books I've been able to find. I believe the human figure is the measure of all things, at least in our humancentric world. Studying anatomy and figure drawing is the way to develop your artistic skills and to guage your progress. The reason I say this is... obviously anybody can sling paint around and say "I'm an abstract artist".... but where's the skill? Where's the knowledge? I was doing that with fingerpaints when I was 3! I believe to call youirself an artist you need to have some skills. And in art, the human figure is probably the most difficult thing there is, and at the same time the most recognizable. We all know what people look like, so we can tell if they're painted 'right' or not. And I'm not referring only to photorealism here.... personally I prefer art with some degree of distortion and expressionism. But before you start to distort or get expressive, it pays to do your homework (which is learning anatomy as well as you can). In learning to paint (or draw or sculpt) the human figure you learn all you need to know to do anything else.... the subtlety, the color control, the balance of large smooth curves coordinated against complex forms..... the dynamic tension of a body in athletic action and the expressiveness of a face. It takes a long time and a lot of learnin' to get good at it, and by the time you are, you can call yourself an artist. The skills you develop along the way will apply even if you're just painting park benches or abstract designs.

Ok, so much for my philosophy of art. Now on to the particulars of what I hope to accomplish in the near future. I've done SOME painting in the past... a little watercolor, and I've dabbled in oils and acrylics and casiens and gouaches and a few other things. But I wouldn't say I'm good at any of them yet. I've always used drawing media in the past, which handle differently, and I guess that's what I'm used to. With a pencil, if you want something darker you press harder... simple as pie. It doesn't work that way in painting. If you want an area darker you have to use darker paint, and then you're delving into the whole area of color theory, as well as brush handling (brush strokes are very different from pencil strokes) and the whole slew of problems associated with the physical and chemical properties of the various paints. Some are thick like frosting or toothpaste, some are very runny, some are more transparent or opaque than others, some will have weird reactions with certain other pigments... it's a lot to deal with. And as if that's not ENOUGH..... what kind of painting technique to use? They udon't teach technique in schools anymore, except at certain very select private ateliers and possibly some of the most expensive art schools. When I was in painting class the teacher just walked through all the time saying "you learn to paint by painting". This is apparenty the legacy of Postmodern Art, in which it's been declared that "painting is dead" and all that counts is finding innovative new ways to shock an audience (that generally involve no skill whatsoever, like immersing a plastic crucifix in a jar of urine). I was actually pretty pissed off that, after spending so much money on tuition, I wasn't taught a damn thing about how to paint! I mean geeze.... I could have "learned to paint by painting" at home!

Well, so I bought books on painting techniques. Impressionist, post-expressionist, baroque, renaissance, etc. etc. ad infinitum. They all have their own theories and approaches. I've tried a few of them and haven't found an approach that seems straightforward and intuitive enough to me yet. I couldn't understand what to do with the pencil drawing on the canvas... do you try to hide it completely, let it show through, or what? Do you paint opaquely, transparently, a little of both? What? Paint thick, paint thin..... I was so confused!!!

So I decided to get back to basics.... to try to paint in a 'classical' style (rather than some expressionist technique). At one time Kent Williams painted very much like Jeffrey Jones, who was his mentor. So I figure, why not start out by learning to paint like the classic '60s and '70s fantasy artists I grew up with? Frazetta and Jeff Jones being my favorites. Then from there I have a solid basis to branch off from into more experimental territory. In emulating artists like Frazetta and Jones I learn about composition, multiple figures interacting in a solid environment, anatomy, powerful colors, the whole nine yards!

And then the Bud Plant catalog came in a few weeks ago and I saw a DVD called The Secrets of Fantasy Painting by Mike Hoffman. This guy paints a lot like Frazetta (some say too much like him) but that's perfect! Exactly what I was looking for in fact. And watching somebody actuially paint on a DVD is a lot more informative than seeing pictures in a book. You can see exactly how he moves the brush, how fast he works, how careful he is, etc.

Ok, this has gone on long enough. I could go on and on, but I wouldn't be saying anything important, so it's time to stop now.

Here we go again.... SuperNOVembathon!!!!

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With Monster Month behind us now, we've decided to start another production marathon because basically Shelley and I were both slackin'. I'll be jumping back and forth between a few different projects... one being the Fafhrd painting project (which nobody seems to dig much), one being the Scott Radke puppet flick (which I was getting burnt on so I had to do something else for a little while) and then there's the critter above, which I'm designing and hope to build as a stopmo puppet and animate sometime next year. He's the Dragontiss (emphasis on the second syllable), and you can see more details about him on our Monster Month page at Flickr.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Fritz Lieber - the Shakespeare of fantasy fiction?

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One of the fantastic Jeff Jones covers.

I decided to go back and (oce again) re-read some of the Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser stories to familiarize myself with the characters before setting off to illustrate them. The books are actually collections of short stories (except for Swords Against Lankhmar, which is a full length novel) that were originally written for pulp magazines.... some of the same ones that published stories by Robert E Howard and Lovecraft. In fact, though Lieber began his writing career pretty much at the time Lovecraft was ending his, they struck up a correspondence that lasted many years (begun by Lieber's wife who knew how much he like Lovecraf'ts stories and just wrote to him out of the blue). I learned this and much more over the last couple of days through extensive research (thanks Google!). I also just ordered a book of their correspondence and some of Lieber's Lovecraftian stories, which I'm looking forward to immensely. Following are a few more choice tidbits of Lieber lore:

The characters Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser were actually based on himself and his friend author Harry Otto Fischer, who wrote 10,000 words of The Lords of Quarmall (which was possibly the first written of the tales? Not sure). The rest was penned by Lieber. I haven't been able to determine which author inspired which character (I thought a peek at them would help me figure out what the Mouser should look like) and I haven't found a pic of Fischer yet, but I did find one tiny image of Lieber as a very old man (looking a bit like Tolkien). He seems even at that advanced age to be a pretty large fellow, so I'm thinking Fafhrd. In fact, I suspect it's true from the handling of them in the stories... Fafhrd is more sympathetically presented and more fully developed.

The first pair of stories chronologically (according to the fictional timeline, not when they were written) is a solo Fafhrd tale, about his life amid the frozen northern wilderness and the small community there, and the second is the Mouser's intro, and in the third story they meet and forge a lifelong bond. Fafhrd's intro is some of the most excellent fiction I've ever read (and I don't say that lightly). Lieber's prose is lyrical and almost poetic, if sometimes a bit flowery, but in a playful inventive way that I find amusing and powerfully imaginative at the same time. That's why I compare him to Shakespeare..... none of the other author's I've read (and that's quite a few) can weave a sentence as inventive, as delightful, and as descriptive as he can. In my web research I ran across countless similar sentiments posted by some of his admiring fans.

I remember some time ago when I was really into watching classic black and white films on TCM (not that I'm not still into that) I was dumbstruck by the beautiful imagery of Charles Laughton's Hunchback of Notre Dame, and also thunderstruck to see the name Fritz Lieber in the credits! Turns out it's his dad. The old coot was a silent film star and Shakespearian stage actor. That might explain a few things.

What really smacked me between the eyes this go-around is the sheer storytelling skill! I was aware when I read the stories in my younger days that there were things going on that I was unaware of, compelling powerful things that made me keep coming back for more and made it impossible to close the book, but I didn't know what it was. Now it's clear as day to me.... it's good old simple straightforward storytelling! I was in awe seeing how deftly he weaves things together - example:

Fafhrd's mother is the leader of the Snow Women, who are all rumored to have witchy control over elements of cold and to use it to keep their men in line. At certain key moments some of the men would suddenly become subject to an icy chill in the blood, or in the loins. The Show has just come to town, a sort of traveling burlesque act from the decadent southern cities featuring half naked (or in some instances stark naked) girls (characterized as "scrawny" by the Nordic women). All the men are going to the show, and all the women are up in arms about it, gathered in one big tent from which issue flickering candlelight, occasional flashes of strange colored light, odd smells, and a constant low murmering chanting sound. It's become unseasonably cold, and just keeps getting colder, as ice crystals of unnatural size begin to form over every surface, but especially the hide covering of the tent housing The Show, which creaks and bulges inward under the unaccustomed and ever-increasing weight. Each segment of the story alludes at some point to the ice crystals, always reminding the reader of that growing threat. And as the story progresses, the landscape itself seems to gradually transform, becoming an icy hell making the mere act of walking treacherous and dangerous. Each time Fafhrd tries to accomplish something he's thwarted (or almost thwarted) by huge heaps of snow falling from unseen branches high overhead, or by an avalanche at one point, and toward the end of the story monstrous ice appartitions, like titanic statues begin to take form, moaning and creaking in the wind, which makes them sway almost as if they're about to break free and step forward. Or simply fall forward, crushing him under their sheer weight. It's masterul writing.... each time he alludes to the growing threat of the ice, it reminds the reader of the women chanting away in their tent, maybe or maybe not actually controlling the weather. It creates a sense of the menace constantly growing throughout the story, and ties "magic" (which in his world might exist, or might be just superstitious dread strained to the breaking point by odd circumstances) in with real human motivations (jealousy etc). It gives a human element to stories that in other hands would be inhuman.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Breakin out the brushes again

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Well, actually I didn't use a brush for this, but I will be soon. Posting all the old stuff made me really want to get back to drawing, and in particular to push my painting skills to the next level (I had only just started to figure out how to paint decently when I put it aside in favor of stopmotion a few years ago). This was done over a pencil drawing using Cra-Pas, the first application turned into a wash with some Turpenoid on a paper towel. Over that I just used straight Cra-Pas and rubbed with either a dry paper towel or my fingers. I kind of like the look of it, but it's pretty hard to get any detailing at all, and the colors are really transparent. The only way I could manipulate value at all was with either a black cra-pas (crude) or with a soft pencil, which I ended up using all over, rubbing it into the oil pastels with my fingers to blend it a little.

This is the kind of drawing I could see doing as a color rough before tackling a painting, although in this case the background is just an afterthought. Before attempting a real painting I'd work it out a lot more, and push the colors till they started to look better.

The character is Fafhrd, from Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser series, which was some of my favorite reading when I was younger. He's a northern barbarian, but he's not a total hard-ass like Conan, I always pictured him as more of a great good-natured surfer type or something (but you definitely don't want to get him pissed off!). I've decided to concentrate on him to develop my painting skills, and at the same time develop my version of the character. I also want to try to paint his partner the Mouser, a little grey-clad catlike fellow. The Mouser is Fafhrd's polar opposite, a city boy and a smooth-tongued con artist as opposed to the brawny Northerner's direct open naivety and straightforwardness. But I must say I'm having a much harder time with him.... Fafhrd is so much easier being pretty close to a stereotype we've all seen a thousand times.

The other day I got Mike Hoffman's DVD The Secrets of Fantasy Painting, which is exactly what I needed to see! If you don't know who Hoffman is, he's a fantasy painter known as almost a shameless Frazetta clone. He takes the viewer through his techniques starting with an already finished drawing on bristol board, doing the underpainting in acrylics, and finishing over that with oils. Watching the way he works was a HUGE help! I'm amazed at how direct and simple his methods are, and it looks like a very natural way to work for me. In the near future I intend to do a bunch of drawing to sharpen up my rusty skills and then start a painting that I'll document here for you my loyal readers to follow.

Oh, and maybe I'll do some work on my movie now and then too! ;)