Saturday, February 10, 2018

Stop Motion Animation Using "Digital Puppets"

I did a video on this awhile back, which mixed old style stop motion with digital in order to work around a puppet I had designed poorly.  More recently I used it to enhance a scene in Jack vs Lanterns because I wasn't happy with the in camera movement we had set up for the pumpkin goop in a scene. (I'm still not entirely happy, but at this budget level if I'm entirely happy it's a real treat).

You can see the second part on my YouTube Channel

A Magician should never reveal his secrets.

And movie magic sometimes loses it's flare when explained before viewing.

I'm always reluctant to reveal in camera or simple editing tricks because then when people see them they're somehow less impressed than when they thought I used some more complex method.  Seriously, the effect looks the same as when they saw it in the movie, but when I've revealed how simple some of the vines moving in Lumber vs Jack were to achieve people remarked with a sigh and a "Oh, I thought you used some fancy CGI or something,"  as if accomplishing something with a tried and true method somehow makes it "less".

Anyway, in this particular scene I had used my regular bag of tricks.  Reverse footage, jiggling the gelatin based goop and pushing it from off screen with a hair dryer were all employed to varying levels of effectiveness.  But the scene needed a bit "extra". I'm no CG guru and really, that wouldn't fit into the movie's overall retro look well, so I went with the next best thing. Cartoonish 2D animation.

How the trick was done.

Basically I took frame captures from the scene, isolated the "goop" and treated it like a stop motion puppet, building individual frames to make it appear to move.  Had I thought of it before the scene, I may have tried building a wire puppet of latex and wire with a shiny, gooey appearance, but this was something that came up after the fact.  The beauty of digital is that you can make a lot of decisions after the fact if you have the time, patience and software/app to handle the job.

I built the frames in Photoshop, as I did in the stop motion video above, but this time I used the liquefy and smudge tools to manipulate the puppet instead of the "puppet" setting, since the blob has no real appendages.  The real key was separating it from the background using a TIFF with a transparency layer so that the manipulation of the goop would affect as little of the surrounding image as possible.  This also solves the problem of trying to "key" it in the image later.

After the movie is finished, if I get a chance, I'll try to do a video on the process.  Meanwhile, feel free to ask questions and discuss with others in the comments below.

What it looks like on screen.

Here is a brief look at one of the animations.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018


If you've been reading this blog for awhile or following my YouTube Channel, it's no secret that at the end of 2017 I made a push to "grow" both this blog and the channel.  Mostly, I just made sure to use both a bit more, let people know I was doing that and hoped a few people would care.

Well, not enough people cared about the YouTube channel.  At least, not according to YouTube.  You see, even in a world where anyone can make shows and videos and put them out for public consumption, ratings matter.  Now more than ever, because I can't even monetize a video ( or won't be able to, rather) unless I have 1000 subscribers and a specific number of  viewed minutes from the preceding 365 days.   What does this mean?  If I'm not really making money now, what do I lose?  A few bucks?  Think about it a minute. If I happen to hit the viral video jackpot, I lose the opportunity to make the money from those first few hundreds of thousands of views.  Sure, it's like buying  lottery ticket, but if you won the lottery wouldn't you want it to pay off?

Also, there's a slight matter of respect.  My channel has been in good standing on YouTube for YEARS.  Sure, it didn't earn me much, which means it didn't earn them much, but part of that was because I avoided breaking a lot of laws that maybe would have boosted the channel's traffic.  I mean, a lot of people show up to a job that doesn't pay well, but if that job suddenly said, "Hey, we'd like you to keep doing the same work, but aren't going to pay you at all anymore", that would be rude, right?

Maybe I should look at it as being fired.  Or my show was cancelled. Put on my "big boy pants" and suck it up. The real question is, why did YouTube suddenly decide that channels not earning a certain amount aren't worth having around?  They were always glad to have the small drops filling their bucket before. I can't speak for them, but with the way the "Not suitable for all advertisers" label was handled, I have my suspicions.  Smaller channels don't produce enough to be as profitable now that they also have to be policed manually by YouTube.  Paying people costs money.  What I find offensive is that the policing of content is being dropped for small providers instead of large channels that have broken the rules in the past.

If I post violent content, lie about it and try to get advertisers under false pretenses, fine.  Take away my partner privileges, but to punish my little channel because other channels  have broken the rules is disrespectful.  There is no loyalty in business anymore.

I'm ranting about YouTube on this blog and the revenue for this comes from the same ads as they did on YouTube.  It's one of the major problems with monopolies.  They're very difficult to boycott.

Will I stop giving YouTube content and growing the channel because I'm insulted?  Probably not.  At least, not until a viable competitor comes along.  I think I mentioned this in another blog.  It's a still a decent place to promote movies and the easiest place to host stuff that I can then embed on my website (also ad supported).

Sorry if this is a repetitive blog.  I've been editing a lot lately and don't have a lot of new stuff to talk about here at the moment, but I want to keep up with writing in this space.  Also, YouTube sent out a survey asking creators for opinions and it sort of dredged all of this up again.

Let me know below if there's anything specific  you'd like to hear about.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Editing the Wide Shots First and Why

If you read my last blog, you know that to get through a long shoot day with limited time, I like to shoot the close-ups first. You can read about that here if you missed it and then come back to this blog if you'd like.

Lay your foundation:

If you followed the first method, hopefully by the time you got to your wide shot the blocking, lines and everything else were spot on.  Hopes are fleeting though and more likely, something still went wrong and you didn't get one long, perfect take.  Someone may have missed a line, a car may have passed or a plane flew overhead or the camera got jostled by a rogue P.A.  Or maybe the pace is just a bit off and needs to be tightened.

Whatever the case, that wide shot is still a great way to establish  your scene and it may be how you open, or at least you want to show it somewhere near the beginning of things.  Drop the best take of  your wide shot and the subsequent "pick  ups" into your timeline.  See how they flow.

Clear up mistakes first: 

As much as you may have planned in your head, your notes or your story boards to have a particular line said as a wide shot, maybe you didn't catch it.  Maybe 2 minutes into a three minute scene somebody flubbed a line or sneezed.  Whatever the reason, you need to cut away to an appropriate close up in order to bridge the clips without a jump cut.  ( A really fast paced scene can sometimes benefit from jump cuts, but for general dialogue I avoid them).

You don't want constant cutting back and forth to ruin your pace, so it's best to get in and clean up your wide shot with the close ups you'll absolutely have to use first.  This way you know the cuts that HAVE to made are taken care of and you won't waste time setting a pace only to have it ruined by a compulsory edit later.

A Wide Shot from Lumber vs Jack which was interrupted 
when I forgot my lines...again.

Enhancing a performance:

You've used the greatest actors  you can afford an some who you can't.  Every moment they're in front of the camera is sheer theatrical perfection!  But, some moments are more perfect than others.  Now that you know you have  your scene, go back through and check your talent's close up performances against their wide shots.  You may find that they gave a better moment during their close up.  I have experienced this with a few actors who seem to put a bit more into it when they know "they're on".  This is often true of reaction shots.  So, if you want your actors to love you, make as many of their best moments hit the screen as possible.

Set Your Pace:

Once you have all of your necessary clean up cuts in place and you know your actors look their best, you can start trimming your scene down to make the conversation flow more naturally.  You may need some dramatic pauses or  you may need to overlap some audio in order to make  characters seem to be responding to each other in a rapid fire argument.  Whatever the case, with your wide shot foundation set, you can now concentrate on setting the proper mood.  You've edited out your mistakes and have all of the lines in place.  If you need to tighten up some lines using the wide angle footage's audio you can avoid a visual jump cut by dropping a reaction shot into the mix.  Clip out the extra wide footage and cut back to it in a moment where things are working.  Lay the existing useable audio under your reaction footage. If you shot everyone's close ups all the way through, you should have plenty of footage to use for this purpose.

Check for continuity:

Things get a bit more complicated  here.  Changing the pacing or just a bit of forgetfulness during shooting can cause differences between the staging in  your wide shots from your close ups.  Often you won't have a dedicated continuity person on set, but making edits seamless relies on the small details matching between the wide and close shots.  Someone's eye line may be different from one shot to the next, or their arms are folded and then suddenly outstretched.  Maybe they're holding a coffee cup in some shots and not holding it others or it changes hands.  Whatever the small continuity errors are, the less of them that you let slip by (and some will ), the more you'll draw people into the story.  

This is a handy time to have a "cat". (Check the video on that.)  

You can also cut away to a close up of any character who happens to match between shots.  If all of  your characters are "out of whack" at this point, consider cutting to whoever is not speaking.  They're less likely to be the focus of the moment and their idiosyncrasy may be less noticeable.

Watch it again: 

When you're finished, watch it all again.  You'll probably find something that you wish to tighten up. I find things like that at the movie's screening, two years later and whenever I watch the movies I've made, but I like to catch most of them before I commit it to DVD, BluRay or streaming, when I can still do something about it.  Watch the scene a few more times before calling it "done".

The long and short of it:

Much like the shooting close ups first process, this isn't suggesting you rush things, but if you have a client who hired you on short notice or you're entered into a 24 hour film festival, these kinds of mechanics will speed things along.

I find having "steps" helps me immensely with the process.  Do I always follow them?  Of course not.  Artistic endeavors rarely benefit from being "step by step", but when you're looking at hundreds of hours of footage and trying to cut it into a 90 minute story, it sure helps to have a place to start.

Talk to you soon, gang.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Shooting Close Ups First & Why

If you're reading this blog there's a very good chance that you're an ultra low budget, independent, self distributing movie director who has to borrow your friend's camera to get things done.  Or maybe you WANT to be that person.  (You should consult a psychiatrist about that.)  If you're either of these people then your cast members may be friends, family or local theatre volunteers who are helping you out for little or no pay.  Most of them will have other jobs and responsibilities and for some acting may not even be their first passion (gasp!).

No Rehearsals:

When  you're working with people who don't act for a living getting them all together at the same time for rehearsals can be tough.  Getting them together on the location for staging and rehearsals can be even tougher.  And when  you're flying in some talent (usually my biggest expense), getting that person into the mix on a budget can be near impossible.

I remember being super excited about actually having the chance to do a table read for Stopped Dead with the core cast. (on Amazon Prime ).  Actor couple, Kevin and Karen White hosted at their house and Debbie Rochon, I believe, tried to telecommunicate for the reading and did manage to  be there on speaker phone for part of it.

Debbie Rochon in "Stopped Dead"
Photograph by Nancy Liquori

This was, however, a rare  opportunity.  More recently, on Jack vs Lanterns, we had 17 pages to shoot in one day with cast members who had never met.  At least one didn't understand the urgency with which I was shooting.  Monique Parent and Ryli Morgan weren't local and paying for a second trip for Monique would have taken 25% of the budget.  I was already asking for freebies from locals.  Adding money to the travel budget wasn't in the cards.  Weather was a concern for getting some shots and the studio stuff HAD to be done on that specific day.  This didn't really leave time to rehearse much.

A Close Up of Monique Parent in Jack vs Lanterns
because who doesn't want to see a close up of
Monique Parent?

The Blessing and Curse of Off Book:

Going into a situation like this, it's usually a blessing if all of your talent is "off book".  That is, they have their lines memorized.  As I stated earlier though, most of these people have other life matters distracting them, as we usually do, and so they may not have their lines as committed to memory as you'd like.

On the other hand, you may run into someone who is so locked into their lines that the slightest change, say to explain a missing prop or handle a script change that was made the day before, will throw them completely off their game.  You will actually have to present this person with new pages.  Some people need to see things in print.  ( I often need to write things out by  hand in order to memorize them.)

Some actors will only remember the cue words from their fellow characters.  So, if a line is changed, but has the same exact meaning, they won't know when to speak because they're waiting for a specific word.  A bit of improve is something that's good to know.  Learning how to "flow with the changes" is important.  Let the script supervisor writer or director worry about if the slight line change is earth shattering.  Sometimes what's on paper doesn't flow well when said out loud.

These are not complaints.  They're problems you will encounter while working with people who are honing their craft.  You're giving them experience while they give  you their talent.  Part of the pay off is they get to do what they love, so keep a happy set when  you can.  For many, however, learning is a big reason they're working with you.  So, be prepared for not everyone to know their lines or how to handle the changes.

Surround the newcomers with as many of your pros as possible.  It will make your life easier.  Although, some of  your pros may get frustrated, most of them will be helpful with new talent.

Take Advantage of Down Time:

So, it's shoot day.  Most of your cast is sitting around while you set up, reading their lines to themselves.  Put a stop to that immediately.  Have them do that "table read" (I put that in quotes because often I find them sitting on the floor with the dog between them).  Have them interact and read the lines out loud.  Do a bit of multi tasking yourself.  If you have a crew setting up lighting, let them, while  you listen to the cast.  If you're setting up things  yourself (you know you are), listen as you tighten down lights and drop sand bags.  By the time you get everyone on set you'll have a feel for who knows their lines, who is comfortable with their characters and who is ready to "go first".

Learning Lines While the Camera Rolls:

Have your most confident sounding, off book actor do her close ups first. Let everyone else reference their script for feeding your off book actor her lines.  This will often mean shooting a scene, in its entirety, several times.  Perhaps more times than  you think  you need to, but it will ensure you have the coverage when you get into editing.  Watch the actors who aren't on screen as well as the one who is.  This is when  you'll shape their performances.  It's likely that your most confident actor, the one who is already off book, is also your most experienced, or one of them, and will already have a pretty good grasp of the character.  You may need to do some tweaking, but it's the people who weren't quite ready who will need the most help at this point. 

Even if people haven't memorized the lines by the time you get to their close ups, it's easier to hide a few pages of script in a tight shot, than a wide shot.  Just watch for those glances.  They can't be reading their lines while they are speaking and you will want some close up reaction shots with the correct eye-line.  Make sure  you get those.  You may need to tighten the pacing in the editing room, because nothing is worse than fluttering eye-lines that jump from the script to the other character's direction while a line is being spoken. 

After you've gone through everyone's close ups, perhaps stopping when they have to glance at the script from time to time, you'll move on to the wide shots, secure in the fact that you have several close ups to cut away to if the need arises.

Finally, the Straight Run:

Hopefully, now, everyone has gotten the staging, pace and lines pretty locked in.  If the scene is very long they may still stumble, but you want to add some close ups for drama and pacing anyway.  If everything goes to plan, at this point, what you'll have is a nearly flawless reading, that almost comes across as a stage play.  The lines will be quick, the reactions genuine and everyone will be in the moment, together.  They've have their rehearsals and you've gotten your shots.

This is not the ideal way to work a long scene, but it get things done and sometimes that's the best we can do.  The project may deserve better, but finishing a movie is no easy task.  If the impossible shoot day is all that's holding back, hopefully this will get you past shooting and into editing.

Getting to "completed" is another story.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Digital Fog and an Observation or Two

During production of Jack vs Lanterns (ongoing), there were several scenes that called for "smoke". Smoke machines are relatively inexpensive, but in my experience, they have been unreliable for year after year use, especially if you're not one to dump the juice out after each outing. (I don't trust that the stuff is entirely safe).  When mine refused to work during key scenes on the movie, I gave up.  I wasn't going to buy a third machine and more juice only to add plastic and chemical waste to the world.  Especially not when my friends over Detonation Films  (you've heard me mention them before) have digital smoke, dust and fog packs starting at $11 each.  That's less than one big jug of juice and it works just about every time. (Sometimes the direction can be tough to lock down with an effective "screen" overlay.

So far I have used the fog pack I bought three times and it's not even in shots I had originally planned on using smoke.  They would have been too difficult to run cords, conceal the machine and wait for warm  ups to get done.

I also did some testing and learned something I suspected would be true.  Screened smoke can easily be "colored" in post.  Since the background isn't affected by the color or post lighting changes you can manipulate it more.  This should be pretty neat in a movie where orange is such an important color.

Also, I refer to it as "digital smoke", but really, it's footage of actual smoke machine fog lit and shot in front of a black matte.  So, while not as great and interactive as on set or location smoke, it's pretty good looking. 

It's useful in a number of situations:

1. Better for the environment to blow the fog once and have it for use on many occasions.
2. Reliable.
3. Can be added as an afterthought to a scene which you didn't originally think fog would add something.
4. Safer for actors who may suffer from asthma or other respiratory ailments.
5. Not a fire hazard if misused.

Do I suggest you all dump  your smoke machines and go "digital"? Of course not.  The stuff is great, but there's definitely still a place for physical smoke.  I just think it makes more sense for  your Special F/X person to own, maintain and run the equipment than the writer, director or producer.  You can't afford a special F/X person on this project?  Well, then the savings and ease of use of the digital method is probably for  you.  Detonation Films (link above) even offers a free 9 second sample, which you can use to see how easily it screens into a scene using your editing software.

Random Observations:

So, I've pretty much skipped YouTube Videos for the past few days.  The number of views and watch time dropped for a few days, but then went up.  Mostly on older videos.

Same with the blog.  I stopped writing one every morning because I've been working on the movie and haven't had a lot of good news outside of that to report.  Nobody wants to read bad news.  But the views still grow daily.  Not a lot, but some.  The blog remains active even when I don't.  This is key.  Building a website, channel or blog that has enough content to remain active and relevant when you go through a stretch that you can't tend to it.

Don't expect those numbers to grow unattended forever though.  Drop by every so often, like I just did, and leave some new knowledge, a product review or just update your followers and readers on what's going on in your corner of the world.  It seems to be working here to some degree.

If nothing else, these are helpful notes for me later when I'm trying to figure out if it's worth buying that new pack of F/X footage.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

"You Make Money Doing That?"

This was actually a question posed to me by a "life long friend" (at the time.  I don't think I've seen him since) back when I was visiting N.Y. to do some movie work and a bit of work for Cult Goddess Magazine and I think some filming.  I believe we were up to Volume 2 at the time,  but I'm really not sure.  Some of you may read the question and think, "Well that's rude?"  I get that in polite society asking what someone makes or if they make a "good living" performing their chosen task is considered rude.  I think in many cases it's really just curiosity.  People trying to figure out if they can make a living doing what it is you do.  In this case, however, I think the question was actually meant to be rude.  A "challenge".  I'm clearly not rich and people who publish magazines are rich (according to this person's thinking), so I must be doing a poor job of it and not making money.

The fact is, on paper, I wasn't.  I was happy to break even with these things and I had gotten to a point where I was travelling to get some of the photos, so my budgets got a bit high.  Nothing I couldn't handle, but a lot to "earn back" from a free online magazine.  We offered ad space for sale, but I've never been a big salesperson, so we didn't do much business that way either.  How could I make any money at this?

And here's how it tended to pay off.  In order to have "ads", I would run them for my own projects, movies, T-shirts, etc.  I ran free ads for friends as barter for times they had worked for me free/cheap in the past.  Over the first year I noticed each time an issue would come out my web traffic went up, my sales and rentals went up and through those means I guess I "Made Money Doing That".

I eventually stopped because attempts to keep costs down meant less interviewing people in person, doing none of the photo shoots myself and generally sucked a lot of the fun out of it.  Doing it properly took too much time and was too strict a schedule and doing it wrong was just, well, wrong.  So, eventually, I came here, launched the much less formal Cult Goddess Magazine Blog, enjoyed ad revenue from video interviews conducted over the phone and using photos and banner ads on the sister blog to this.

This whole long story came back to me yesterday because, well, YouTube is shutting down my partnership and so I no longer will be able to collect revenue from the videos by way of ads.  The past week since I found out I have posted one video.  In that week I also have written fewer blogs.  What I discovered this weekend is that my numbers on Amazon (one of my bigger indicators for my movies ), which had been recovering steadily the past few weeks, dove 20% since I stopped posting.  Coincidence?  Maybe.  But I have to consider, is writing blogs and doing videos worth it even if the only pay is from the effect it has on other aspects of my business?

Of course, the short answer is, "Yes".  If they prove to be effective marketing tools then it just becomes a question of how much time and money do I put into them.  I originally started my channel and blog as ways of informing people about my movies in the first place.  The ad revenue was a nice bonus.  So, I'll be trying to stick to that 100 videos for the year and to post to each blog at least once a week, but you may notice specific projects being spoken about more, like Jack vs Lanterns (especially on YouTube) and shows I have planned.  I actually think these are the things people are interested in anyway, besides Chaya.

If they start to slag off you know they didn't have the intended effect.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Doggy Stunt Double

In Lumber vs Jack, we had a bit of a risky scene, where after rescuing my Chihuahua I was to run with her and "leap" into the house.  I didn't want to worry about squishing my little girl, so I looked for a suitable stunt double.

This is what I came up with.