A Walk in the Forest

It’s Saturday, November 13th. Leo and I plan to animate this weekend while our daughter is out of town with a friend in Canmore. As with the work we do for Bleeding Art Industries, the work on Skeleton Girl requires us to wear many different hats. I’m more of a behind the scenes type person, trying to ensure that the financing and other infrastructure requirements are in place. I like the challenge of pulling the pieces of a project together. That all being said, I wanted to get a better feel for what was happening in our makeshift studio in the shop. When Leo is talking about convergence, inter-ocular distances and the optical physics of something, I realize that this is all more complicated than I thought. Yet there are still the basics of putting together a story frame by frame. I need to spend some time animating; familiarizing myself with the actual creative process of making our dear Millicent move. I’m always quick to point out that the business side is also a creative process, but admittedly, requires more stretching of the left brain than the right.

I’m waiting for Leo to finish up some other work with Lisa, our sculptor. She is doing some final tweaking of the 16 ft forest model and Millicent puppet we are about to shoot. I come, coffees in hand, for a long night ahead. We don’t get started until about 5 pm, as I pace the office upstairs, waiting for my call to action. As someone who doesn’t mentally peak in the evenings, I’m slightly wary given the diminishing day. However, I am a bit of a workhorse, and am ready for whatever lies ahead. Leo cracks jokes about how long I’ll last and has apparently been making comments to others about whether I’ll have the patience to do this or not.

Lisa leaves and Leo and I get down to business. We decide that he’ll move Millicent and the two oversized black birds, and I’ll take the shots. He walks me through the Stop Motion Pro program on the laptop we have set up. It looks like we’re using the workbench/platform that was built from our special effects work on Evil Dead: The Musical. Cool. I like it when things are reused. I watch and listen intently as he shows me the capabilities of the program; how to go back and review what was shot previously, how to move a cursor back and forth “onion skinning” the shots – showing a merging of the combination of photos taken. Just like in Disney’s day only without the paper. Even though this is all computerized, I have a new found appreciation for the hours and hours of drawing and erasing and redrawing that must have occurred when artists were animating by hand.

The studio is slightly dark; we have the back bay doors covered to keep the light out; the lights set up above the model provide a lovely glow against the forest and sky backdrop. Short bursts of fog emanate from one of our fog machines as Leo intermittently presses the controller. Knowing that he likes to work to music, I ask if he wants the music kept on that was playing when Lisa was here. It’s pretty loud and I’m more in favour of working in a quiet environment. He concurs and we shut it off. It is however one of the coldest nights on record and the loud buzzing and grinding of the industrial forced air heating systems interrupts the quiet.

I ask some questions. How do you know how many movements to make and what they are? He knows what the plan is from the storyboard that’s been created and the rest is improvised. It seems to me, as I sit there watching him move the wings very slightly on one of the birds, that it might be helpful to know what kind of movements these types of blackbirds actually make. And do they hang out together in groups of two – or more than that? We shoot a number of shots of the birds hopping about, moving their heads ever so slightly, and the one bird being moved slowly down the tree log Collin placed there. We go back and review the shots thus far, totaling probably eight or twelve by that point. We notice something popping up and down in the moss nowhere near the birds. What is that, we ask, looking closely at the monitor. Because Leo is sometimes in front of my line of vision when he’s moving things, I can’t always see what is being touched. It turns out his fingers have been inadvertently moving the moss on the model; because of the lenses the smallest change results in huge movement in the shot. It’s early evening by this point. As much as we want to ignore what has happened, we know what we have to do. I go to edit and delete the past shots. “Don’t touch the moss!” becomes my mantra for the remainder of the evening. Then the bird’s beak falls off. Even by this relatively early point in the night, we know who has patience. And it isn’t Leo.

Finishing the shots of the birds, we now focus our attention on Millicent, who is freshly attired in a large hat and a cream-coloured fluffy throw of her mother’s that is draped loosely around her small shoulders. Earlier that week Leo and Amanda had painstakingly measured out where the camera needed to move to on the dolly for each shot. At least we didn’t have to do that tonight I think to myself. We begin to move Millicent down the path through the forest. Destination: the gates to the graveyard. We’re shooting 24 frames per second and I know that we’re trying to shoot the longest straight scene in the script – 17 seconds. I’m doing rough calculations in my mind as to how long this will take. Going for an early dinner is not in the cards.

Leo moves Millicent and turns away, backing out of view of the camera. I click the camera. Millicent does a face plant before both left and right eye shots are captured (we’re shooting in 3D which adds a whole other dimension – excuse the pun – to the process). I know right away that I’ll be deleting the shot. This happens more times than I care to remember. With a top heavy hat, Millicent likes to do face plants, or fall over backwards onto the dusty path. Leo picks her up, blows her off, and sets her up again. We’re struggling big time. The puppet isn’t working and we’re having to repeat shot after shot to get her into the previous position properly and take the shot as quickly as possible before she falls over again. Leo, who is obviously restraining the urge to scream expletives, is getting increasingly agitated. Although I’m thinking how much faster we’d be working if she didn’t keep moving by herself, I actually find the whole process somewhat zen-like, even if I am starting to feel quite tired. Leo hot-glue gunned the bird’s beak back on and now there’s a chip in Millicent’s hat. There isn’t much we can do at this point except turn the hat in such a way that the chip doesn’t show on camera.

And then, looking back at some of the shots, we notice something moving on the log coming into view. ‘Oh no, not again’ I think to myself. Well, can we pretend that there’s a bird hopping on the log and that’s creating the movement? We could just bring one of the birds back into the next shot. I like this kind of thinking. What solution can we come up with to deal with the current problem – namely, why do Leo’s fat fingers keep moving parts of the set that shouldn’t be moved?! Once again, we know that we need to delete some shots and reshoot. All with a weebly-wobbly puppet that keeps falling down.

An ongoing concern for the past few hours has been how to slow Millicent on her walk down the path such that the camera can catch up with her so that she’s in the center of the frame. Leo comes up with a great idea; he’ll have Millicent – outfitted in her mother’s clothes – spin around on the path. Makes sense. She’s twirling with her lovely throw around her shoulders. It’s a nice character touch and slows her progression to deal with the problem. We do that twice, and the camera has caught up.

We stop and discuss whether to go grab a bite to eat or continue. Leo is concerned about being able to match the atmosphere and lighting if we stop part way through and continue the next day. I have visions of Bellinis at Cactus Club. Food. I’m hungry, and I’m tired. But I know he’s right. If it’s going to be hard to match the scene tomorrow we have no choice but to suck it up and keep shooting.

It’s after midnight (in real time). Millicent has made it to the stairs leading up to the gate. Shit. How is she going to get up the stairs with no feet? Her dress overflows to the ground so up to now, she’s simply been giving the appearance of shuffling along the path, in her mom’s oversized shoes. We didn’t think about steps for her to go up when the model was built. She falls face first onto the stairs. Leo stamps his feet and finally utters unrepeatable things. I breathe. He takes her fluffy throw and brushes the dirt off, takes her with him, then walks away. I’m wondering how Erin is doing in Canmore.

He attaches black sticky stuff (I find out later it’s butyl tape) to the bottom of her that will allow us to move her in increments up to each step, giving the appearance of naturally walking up the steps. Phew. Almost done. She falls again, knocking the gates out of place. We spend tired minutes viewing and reviewing the shots taken; where were the gates lined up? About an inch apart? Less? It’s hard to tell and my vision is feeling increasingly unfocused. Because of where the steps and gates are on the model, Leo can now barely reach across the set to place her into position. He moves behind the gate and does it from there, moving around the model and out of shot each time I take a picture. It’s laborious. And even though the movements seem so minute, she looks like she’s moving in hyper speed in the footage. Is she supposed to move that fast I ask Leo? Is that because we haven’t taken enough shots? Yes and yes Leo replies. We can slow it down later though.

Finally, it’s about 1:30 in the morning. Millicent has made it through the gates and into the graveyard. Tonight’s shooting is done. 17 seconds in 8.5 hours. For those who are keeping track, that’s 1 minute and 25 seconds per frame.

Discussion — No responses