September 20, 2003

Making Movies I

David and I spent an hour or so this afternoon shooting footage for a short movie featuring James' stuffed python, Yellow. Yellow is about four feet long, and about two inches thick, and is covered with mottled orange and yellow plush.

Ostensibly, we were preparing to make a music video (a music video? Why not?) of the Aquabat's wonderful song, "Attacked by Snakes." In practice, we spent a long time learning What Not To Do.

The first seven shots turned out just fine: four and five second-long clips of Yellow in a variety of odd places; one-second clips of these will be inserted into the video at strategic points to underscore the music.

After that, things got hairy. See, stuffed yellow snakes don't move by themselves. And that means stop-motion animation, which is a long and tedious process. Fortunately, the Sony TRV-22 camera supports animation adequately well--it has what's called "frame rec" mode. Each time you push the Record button, it records six frames (1/5th of a second) and then stops. And fortunately, the Sony TRV-22 comes with a cordless remote, so that you don't jiggle the camera each time you record a few frames.

For our first animated scene, I set up the camera on a tripod looking down a long pathway, so that I could animate the snake coming up the path. It was a good idea, in principle, and I might redo the scene later. But there were many problems in practice.

The first, predictably, was the lighting. Most of the path was in bright sunlight, but the end nearest the camera was in shade. I'm still using the auto-exposure setting, and the camera took its cue from the shady part. So during the first half of the scene, the snake is completely washed out. But wait! There's more!

The snake started out about thirty feet from the camera. I did each individual shot in this way: I'd move the snake about five inches, then walk back up towards the camera and step off to one side, and then click the remote. Dave was sitting behind the camera the whole time watching on the viewfinder, and he was supposed to tell me whether I was in the picture or not. Alas, he didn't, most of the time, and a sizeable fraction of my person is in most of the shots. But we're still not through!

I had apparently not impressed upon David how important it is not to touch the camera, because over the course of the scene the view moves slowly but significantly to the right. It's just enough to look really bad, and not enough to get my belly out of the picture on the left. And not only that!

The long walkway looks down a driveway to a major street. And in the back ground of a few of the shots, we've got a car zooming by. 1/5th of a second is a remarkably long time.

So, four lessons for doing video animation:

  1. Check the exposure!
  2. Get behind the camera between shots!
  3. Damn the battery, if your little boy is watching the camera for you fold out the LCD screen so he doesn't have to touch it!
  4. Mind the background!

I didn't make those mistakes again...but I did find some new ones.

The next scene had the snake slithering down some stone steps. This bit actually worked out very well, after a false start. It develops that the TRV-22 automatically turns off "Frame Rec" mode if you turn off the camera. So I shot about a minute's worth of footage of me positioning the snake and climbing out of the way again. This was not a good thing, as I'm not entirely a lovely object in shorts and a T-shirt, and particularly not while bending over.

I discovered yet another nuisance during this scene--the IR pickup for the remote control is on the front of the camera. It's hard to follow rule 2, above, and still use the remote.

The third scene had the snake going around the corner at the bottom of the stairs. I purposely had the snake slither through a patch of sunlight for effect. The scene actually came out fairly well, except for one thing: do you have any idea how fast the sun moves? Neither did I, until I watched that patch of sunlight slide along the ground on playback. It's really quite striking, and would be a neat effect if it didn't completely ruin the illusion that the snake is moving by itself.

The fourth scene has the snake moving through a shady area covered with flagstones. It's not too bad, except for the little bits of debris moving from placed to place in the background.

The fifth scene has the snake going down some more steps and around a corner. I positioned the camera carefully so that I wouldn't have problems with the sunlight--and damn that sun moves quickly. In just the few minutes I was shooting, a triangular patch of sunshine slid onto the piece of ground I was using just far enough to catch the shadow of my hand operating the remote. Sigh.

And when all's said and done I've got about thirty seconds of usable video to show for an hour-and-a-half of work.

But then, I've already admitted that I'm mad to have bought the camcorder to begin with.

Posted by Will Duquette at September 20, 2003 03:46 PM

Ian said:

30 seconds' footage for an hour and a half's work is actually pretty good for stop motion (although getting a full fifth of a second for each setup is cheating — it ought to be no more than a tenth of a second to look really good).

In high school I made a stop-motion video about two socks who come to life, explore the house, get chased by a hedgehog, and meet up with an animate fountain pen. All to the tune of Dramarama's "I've Got Spies." Took me three months (mostly weekends) to put together about four minutes' worth of story. Needless to say, at the end I hated it. Everyone else loved it. Unfortunately I don't have any copies anymore.

Yes, that sun just books across the sky, doesn't it. A common phrase to hear from any DP (director of photography) is "we're losing the light, people!"

It's rather fun to vicariously (re)learn filmmaking through these posts. Sounds like you're having a blast. :)

Deb said:

I want to know if the snake was saying "slith" as it moved?

Will Duquette said:

No; it's a non-speaking role.

Deb said:

I have to read more carefully!! You edited out the butt shots!!! Rats.

Will Duquette said:

Trust me, Deb, you're missing nothing of value. Plus, that clip was mind-numbingly dull.