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.