Monday, April 28, 2008

Learning the curves

Click image to see it on Flickr

Tonight was spent learning the intricacies of using the Lumix in full manual mode. Turns out the white balance was set to outdoors, while I'm using halogen! That's why my original pics were so red/orange. In my initial animation tests there's no flicker at all, but it kept refocusing, even though I had it set to manual. Turns out I wasn't supposed to be using the "manual focus assits", which finds focus only for one shot. I needed to use only the focus ring on the lens barrel, and then click the focus lock button. Worked like a charm. And since this one was shot at the full 7 MP rather than only 2, and because I figured out how to use the built-in light meter to get good exposures, I was able to do some photoshop processing without any ill effects this time. Kel has used this camera professionally and says it's never flickered at all for him or anyone who used it in the studio.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

High on Definition

I'm all giddy! The Lumix is in, and now I have opened the secret and magical world of HIGH DEF STOPMOTION. Click the pic to Flickr it (then click on All Sizes to see it in all its glorious glory). Please excuse the crappy lighting and setup..... I was impatient!

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Welcome to the Darkside


Yes, it's happened. I went over to the Digital Darkside and got myself an HD-capable Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ50. I learned from The Maz (Kelley Mazurowski) that this camera is great for shooting in HD. Also, it can be had for chicken feed! I found mine for $375 on Ebay, almost brand new. The seller said he had taken it out of the box and shot a few tests, then repackaged it and ebayed it right away - I suspect because of the well-known low-light problem the fz50 has. It doesn't perform well in low-light situations..... for this reason people do tend to buy them and then sell them off fairly cheap, which is a boon to us stopmotionistas. In our controlled-light environment we never need to worry about that particular problem. I ran across a few even cheaper, but from stores I don't trust, with names like Value Digital or Online Camera Store. Stay away from those deals that seem too good to be true... they usually are!

It's almost a DSLR... or rather it's what's known as a DSLR-like camera. Kel is in fact the one who posted about these vunderkams some time ago - LIO posted the info on his Digital Still-Cam Overview page. That monster lens.... no, it's not interchangeable like a real SLR lens, but it's a thing of absolute beauty... called a Leica lens - it's supposed to be excellent, and capable of everything from macro closeups to extended telephoto range. If that's not enough you can also buy add-on lenses to increase the range even tighter and farther. I had to also buy an AC adaptor, wired remote trigger, and an 8 gig SDHC card to store all those beautiful high-res images on {NOTE.... 8 Gigs is complete OVERKILL!!! You should never need more than a 2 gig card, maybe even less}. Just to archive the info while it's still fresh in my mind, I'll drop it in here. My research indicated you need a Panasonic card.... and that a Class 6 is the fastest for downloading to the hard drive, so that's what I bought. Also you want the more expensive Panasonic remote, rather then the cheap Chinese one that apparently tend to break easily. What I did was, after buying the camera through eBay (the tax rebate will cover this entire purchase... thanks GW!) I logged onto an online camera store and clicked up the Lumix camera, then opened the Accessories tab and found what I needed there, so it's all guaranteed to work with this particular cam.

One idiosyncrasy of this model is.... it has a live feed but it's analog.... meant to be run through a VCR or TV. That means it won't work with Dragon (which wants a USB feed) but I can run it through my Canopus Analog/Digital converter (that I've been using with my analog broadcast camera) to convert it to Firewire for Framethief. Then each time I snap off a shot on the framgrabber I also need to snap one onto the SDHC card using the wired remote trigger (so as not to bump the camera). This is a 10 MP camera (way too much for HD!!) but can also be used at 3 MP (perfect!). I'll be shooting Jpegs and then cropping to standard 1920 x 1040 widescreen size. The beauty of this is.... some time ago I realized the widescreen format would be perfect for this bar flick I'm getting ready to shoot. It's also just a format I love and want to use extensively.

Another camera that's good for stopmo is the Sony DSC-R1. I don't know much about this one, but it's also a great camera for shooting HD-ready stopmo, and can be bought nearly as cheap as the Lumix.


I finally decided to go back through all my old posts from before Blogger had the Tags, and add tags to the important ones. As a result, I've been able to post 2 new links under Resources.... Building the Radke Puppets part 1 & 2. Something I've been wanting to do for a long time now. I had to break it into 2 because the Tag Search function only shows 20 posts, and still I had to remove a few of the non-essential posts to make it all fit.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Dreaming in Plasticene - 2nd impressions on Prometheus' Garden

I promised more of my impressions on Prometheus' Garden, and here they are. I've now watched it probably half a dozen times, (oh, and now the original sound track is my favorite) and I'm finding it really grows on you. On me anyway. When you first sit down to watch some Bickford, there are some thorny thickets that you might not make it through. 1st impressions ;

What the heck is this??!!??!

Did a kid do this?

Oh my god.... what's happening- everything is morphing and changing all the time.... it's like some crazy nightmare!

There's no story!

I don't understand

I don't understand and I'M FRIGHTENED!!!!

What's going to happen next?

Oh my..... did that REALLY just happen?? Did he..... jesus, yes he DID!!!

This scares me.... I'm afraid to watch - judging from what I've already seen, this guy is crazy, and Im afraid he'll show me something that'll scare me even more any minute now!!!

It's at about this point most people just shut it off. They try to forget it, like a nightmare that really shook them. Oh, they might not admit it shook them, most will just laugh derisively and act superior and smug.... the way people always do when they're frightened and they don't want to admit it (to themselves especially).

The way to make it through is to think of it as a dream. This is no movie, with a plot, characters and a happy ending. That's not how Bickford rolls. He's a visionary.... and a visionary doesn't control the visions -- they control HIM! It seems to me animation is for him a constant act of ritual warding-off.... a pagan ceremony to keep the demons at bay.... to entrap them in the oily colorful clay for another day so they can't well up from inside and destroy him.

This is unadulterated adolescent fantasy stuff.... there are naked girls, brawny dudes with massive swords in steel codpieces and helmets, buckets of blood and guts..... in fact it often reminds me of some of the alternative comix - not the superhero stuff, but the wild gory ones drawn in a primitive childlike style usually in black and white. But like only the best of those comix, it succeeds because all that stuff is only on the surface..... Bickford's vision begins there and reaches beyond, into the primal matter of the human soul.

There's something unusual about the way he approaches the sex and violence that proliferate in his world. Not that it's not exaggerated.... it's completely exaggerated..... but it seems to serve a deeper purpose. The girls are naked, well except the ones in the fetishistic Valkyrie armor that wraps itself snugly around their heaving bosoms and contours itself to every nook and cranny of the aureolae - or the ones who wear only living vines rooted in packets of earth attached to their belts. Oh, yes, and they do grab big handfuls of vaseline from their vaseline chalices and copiously smear it all over their gleaming naked bodies. But..... they're not attractive! Not at all! And I don't think it's because he lacks the skill to make them attractive..... when he wants to he can make the most amazing puppets with incredible detail. No, I really think these are some kind of archetypal demonic dominatrixes - not the typical pimplefaced fanboy's sex fantasies. I could be wrong.... possibly Bruce tried to make them totally hot but couldn't do it..... which would only serve to strengthen my conviction that his images come from the world of dream. There are strange creatures lurking in dream-land - ugly hags and harpies screaming out obscenities while performing horrible sexual deeds. And stuff like that.

And the violence..... also not handled in any typical way. He dreams of tortures you and I couldn't imagine! But somehow there's something beautiful about it - in the way its presented. Highly stylized.... when bodies burst open it resembles flowers blooming in timelapse. It's amazing the amount of detail he puts INSIDE the bodies (the ones that are ripe for the bursting anyway)..... under the skin there's a thin red layer of clay, and then a cavity inside the torso into which he's carefully placed lovingly-sculpted entrails. You never see ribs or bones of any kind. Somehow that would clash with the soft squishy nature of his plasticene dream. Torsos burst open readily like overripe fruit.... like pumpkins the day after Halloween, and they sort of turn themselves inside-out in wonderful slow motion as the stylized entrails begin to emerge.... opening like the blossoms of spring. And the characters don't seem to die in any normal way. Instead they fall to the ground.... melt into the ground, as if being re-assimilated by the earth from which they sprang (the firmament of their creator's fertile mind no doubt). And usually from the same spot there blossoms something new.... some other life form, acting out the endless cycles of decay and regeneration.

It's difficult to write about Bickford's work. Well, and try to actually do it justice anyway. It's not at all like writing about any other kind of movies. But when you start to think of it as a dream, then the words begin to flow. I think that's the key to understanding the work. You have to get past those thorny thickets I mentioned above - that takes a few viewings. It takes until you become familiar with the entire film and realize that it won't hurt you. Until you've absorbed enough of what's happening all over the place to begin to make some kind of sense of it all. Only then can you get past those initial prejudices and start to appreciate the sheer beauty of all the color and texture - the wondrous movement and the strange but awe-inspiring flow of ideas. Bruce himself said in Monster Road that movies are about movement. Especially action flicks (which his films are). And he likes to climb. There are clips of him shinnying up a tall tree (and this guy is 58 years old fer cryin' out loud!).... clambering onto the roof of his house, and footage from when he was a young man leaping and running atop some kind of skeletal steel apparatus. There's also the bit where he puts some kind of kerosine-soaked ball on the end of a rope or chain and lights it on fire, then spins it around and around in crazy patterns, tracing glowing spirals through the darkness. Yeah, he's definitely into unusual motion! Once keyed into that, I studied the motion in his films, and it's fascinating to watch his characters walk! They never lift a foot from the clay bed of the ground - instead they have this sort of sliding, lurching step that covers a lot of distance without ever necessitating any great difficulty on his part as an animator. And I believe that's important to him - it allows him to keep working at a rapid pace.

Someone once described his films to me as being like staring into a lava lamp... things just constantly changing shape with no rhyme or reason. That's not exactly true. Well, it would be true if you could jack a lava lamp directly into your cerebral cortex and let it act out the inner fantasies and dreams as they well up from the depths of the subconscious! Technology hasn't yet allowed us to do that. But hey, who needs technology anyway?

We've got Bruce Bickford!


Ok, I went back and took another look.... actually some of the girls are pretty hot. Especially considering the scale Bruce tends to work at, and the difficulty of sculpting attractive women (rugged hero types are a lot easier). But fear not - there are plenty of ugly ones running around!

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Metaphysical pizza - review of Bruce Bickford's film Prometheus' Garden

I'm not the same person I was yesterday.

I'll never be the same person again.

And I'm glad for it.

What happened to change me? I took a dip in the well of souls crossed with a hot tub. This is the way Bruce Bickford describes the pulsing hole in the ground that disgorges living clay - source of endless "chimeras and werewolves" - which is the beating heart of his film Prometheus' Garden.

Being a rabid fan of Bruce's iconoclastic work, I had seen plenty of his animation before.... I bought an overpriced and poorly-dubbed (and re-dubbed) VHS bootleg of The Amazing Mister Bickford off eBay a few years ago, when that was the only way to see his work, and from that moment I was hooked. I also regularly scour YouTube and the net in general for any clips or news about this reclusive independent animator, and from time to time things would show up.

Then along came Monster Road - the stupendously, colossally mindblowing documentary on him by Brett Ingram. It included more of the tantalizing clips, but even more fascinating, it put the work into perspective with a fascinating look into Bruce's life and relationship with his father and 3 bullying brothers. I won't go into detail on that here..... suffice to say it's as good as Crumb, the documentary on famous underground comix artist Robert Crumb - another tortured artist who made his name by delving into the depths of his own mind and hauling out the contents kicking and screaming to serve them up to the amazement and shock of a stunned world on a bloody steaming platter.

How to describe the experience of seeing this film? Well, first and foremost, it's not what you'd expect. Not if you expect a coherent story that is. And to be completely honest, I did sort of hope, even after seeing how purely stream-of-consciousness Bruce's work is, that there would be some sense of coherency.... at least a somewhat decipherable story. Instead it's just like the clips I've seen.... mind-warping, intense, beautiful - often staggeringly so - and completely incomprehensible. Well, there is a main character of sorts..... his name is Gus Reeves and he serves as a sort of stand-in for Bruce. But you wouldn't know his name if you didn't listen to the director's commentary or hadn't already seen it somewhere like on the site. In fact you wouldn't even realize he's the main character for a while, till you notice that he's in a lot of the scenes, and he always seems to be escaping the horrible tortures befalling everybody else.

But it doesn't matter if there's a recognizable main character or a discernible story. That's not what Bruce's work is about. Heck, that stuff is a dime a dozen if you think about it.... how many billions of movies are there with such cliched conventions already? Tis a rarer thing by far to be allowed to dive right into the heart of writhing chaos that is the mind of a twisted genius like Bickford. He shows us that Structure is a bulwark - a wall to protect us from an unobstructed view of chaos. And he demonstrates that he has the courage to face that chaos, to descend into it utterly, and emerge with the grisly trophy to show us all. Well, it might not be so much a matter of having the courage, as simply being unable to do anything else. As is the fate of many unfortunate enough to suffer from mental imbalances, Bruce can't "turn it off" - but unlike most he does have the unique ability to tun it into art. So, rather than another struggling filmmaker trying to "break in" and please the viewing public, what we have is animation as therapy - the capturing of inner demons by modeling them in clay and then mastering them through animation.

Watching the constantly metamorphosing environment and the eternally transmogrifying inhabitants (with more popping up by the dozens all the time and rapidly growing into warped monstrosities, then in some cases shrinking back down to disappear again) - I feel the presence of the Absolute. The nearness of Creation and Oblivion. Bickford's fantasies seem to frequently turn to those primordial sources Creation Myth and Apocalypse. At the same time, they also call to mind a strange parallel with the microscopic world of twitching amoeba and writhing cilia. Or with the Realm of the Subatomic, that unmappable zone of the inexplicable where the laws of ordinary physics are suspended.

I wonder if this is what drew Brett Ingram to Bruce's work? Now that Brett has posted his website online, I see that he taught physics at one time (no telling if that means quantum or ordinary though). And - another strange parallel - Ingram also worked on the Space Shuttle program - making him a Rocket Scientist, just like Bickford's dad. Curioser and curioser. There's a tangled web of fascinations uncoiling itself here that will probably never reveal it's myriad secrets. In the final analysis, all that can be said about Bruce's work is... the people who like it really like it, and the people who don't don't.

The commentary track by Bruce is very revealing, but not in the way you might wish. Still no really coherent story revealed, but instead you get to see the way his mind works in constructing these intricate fantasies. Bits and pieces of popular culture seem to filter in (there's a sculpt of Lee Majors that turns into a werewolf, as well as a popular Seattle area sportscaster who does the same). Listening to Bruce I began to realize exactly what his films are.... therapeutic stream-of-consciousness revelations that spans years (if not decades). And since he's not the kind of filmmaker who structures an easily digestible story and then sticks to the plan, anything that becomes really meaningful to him finds its way in.... it's like a scrapbook set in motion. Bits of things he's heard about find their way in.... fragments of stories and cultural myth woven into a dreamlike tapestry where his deepest fears and fondest wishes are acted out. His commentary keeps returning to several points.... most notably the persecution of the "little guy" by the big guys. And here you can clearly see his early family life shaping him. "Big guys are usually the bullies" he says, but the little people (he refers to Peter Pan as well as all types of fairies and brownies etc) have magical abilities to escape by disappearing into the earth or simply by moving so fast they can't be caught. Rapid movement is an important theme in Prometheus' Garden..... when he's small (invocation of Alice in Wonderland or Gulliver) Gus Reeves can glide Gumbylike through struggling masses of bullies and their victims without getting caught, and in fact picks up a magical ability to slice open bullies by simply waving a hand at them. I love one of Bruce's lines here in the Torture Dungeon sequence - "And he'd better keep moving. When you're involved with these kinda people you don't wanna stop and figure out what their bag is - just keep going. Get through there."

Several times Bruce chuckles while trying to explain what's happening and just gives up. Midway through a complicated explanation he'll say something like "After a bunch of weird stuff that's.... unexplainable...." and toward the end he said "It's all very vague.... don't ask me what's going on here." He followed this with a very telling statement - "The whole idea here was just to keep animating". Meaning it's the process.... the ongoing activity that's important to him. He also speaks about the neurology of animating, certain activities that cause the brain to extend "clear down to your fingertips", so in effect he's working on autopilot - the hands doing the thinking and the reasoning mind left out of the equation.

Well this review could go on for days, and I'd be glad to let it - but I need to wrap it up before it becomes unreadable. In fact, it's a good bet I'll return to the subject several times in the near future... I feel more coming on that I want to express. But I need to wind this down, and I'll do it with another of Bruce's great quotes. As the end of the film was approaching, here's what he said - "With a little bit of..... metaphysical pizza - it should just about wrap it up" And lo and behold, there appeared before my incredulous eyes exactly that - a metaphysical pizza, complete with writhing squid and - well, who knows what else?

Sure - I'll take a slice please.

Oh, but hold the squid.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008 officially online!!!!

Looks like today is the lucky day folks! I've been checking constantly to see when it would happen, and finally today I got through! I guess Brett wanted to wait till the entire site was fully functional before making the store public. Here's the link (which will now go into my sidebar):