Sven Bonnichsen (Chestnut) interview

Thank you so much for the interview questions, John!!

1. You have so many artistic endeavors. What draws you to stopmotion?

I’ve got stopmo fever. It’s like lust: all-consuming. I’ve tried to figure out what it is about stopmo that makes it worth such an investment of time, energy, and money… But what I come up with is that I must have fallen in love so early in childhood that the attraction is beyond rationalization. I can’t talk myself out of it — so I guess I just have to accept my fate. (Makes me happy — so not a bad thing!)

On an intellectual level, one of the things that’s appealing about stopmo is that it makes use of just about every other artform: painting, sculpting, photography, filmmaking, writing, music, acting, dance… It feels like the Uber-artform: a topic so rich, I can study for decades without getting bored.

I also like how stopmo is so linear. You shoot a frame of film, for better or worse, and then you move on. I love how this means I can’t get overly fussy — and I love the sense of progress as I rack up frame-count.

2. You have made brass armatures, and steel armatures. Can you describe how they feel compared to each other?

To me, brass feels buttery when it slides against itself. Brass is an alloy of copper and zinc… Think of the smoothness of the edge of a copper penny. When the joint moves, it’s sort of like that.

Steel feels solid. When I really tighten the joints down, they’re going to STAY… And I’m not worried about the sandwich plates buckling — whereas that’s always in the back of my mind with brass. A tight steel joint feels like it might almost squeak when I turn it (it doesn’t, though).

3. What kind of tips can you give us future metal workers as far as armature construction and machining?

Oy… That’s a big question, so forgive me for breaking my answer into parts.

I. BASIC METALWORK: Three years ago I’d never done any metalworking at all — the whole idea was really intimidating. It was a matter of overcoming one hurdle at a time. Tackle them in this order, and you’ll be well on your way:

A. Put a piece of aluminum from the hardware store in a clamp-to-the-table vise and cut it with a hacksaw.
B. Drill a hole in a strip of brass K&S, and tap it (make it threaded for screws).
C. Get a soldering iron and solder a brass nut to a brass strip.
D. Do some more soldering work, but using a butane micro-torch.

Fire was really scary to me. My first micro-torch actually came with a creme brulee set I got for Christmas — kinda funny, but it made learning fire work a lot easier!

II. HANDTOOLS VS. BENCHTOOLS: Mentally, I think there’s a big leap from using handtools up to using benchtools. If you want to make a steel armature, like in LIOs tutorial, then you absolutely need a drillpress. You’re also going to have to order parts online…

I wanted to come up with an armature design that’s a stepping stone for people who aren’t ready to dedicate a table to benchtools… And using raw materials that can easily be found locally. My brass armatures were made using an handheld electric drill, a Dremel, brass beads from a beadstore, and K&S from the hardware store. I wrote an an in-depth tutorial here: how to make a brass ball-jointed armature

III. MILLING MACHINES: Want to take the next step beyond open-hole joints? Then buy Tom Brierton’s book, Stop-Motion Armature Machining: A Construction Manual. Yes, it’s $50 — but it’s the ONLY book on the subject.

Step-block joints, hinge joints, swivel joints… You’re going to need a milling machine to make them. You’ve basically got two choices: a mini mill, which weighs 100+ pounds — or a micro-mill, which weights about 35. I opted for the Sherline micro-mill. It’s less powerful than the minis — but we’re doing small work anyway, so that’s not much of a constraint.

Sherline also has some great package deals, so you can buy your accessories all at once. I found that well worth the money — how can I learn the basics of machining if I don’t have the tools in front of me? I decided that for the cost of a class on machining, I could buy the machines and teach myself. Three of my machining books (including Tom’s) use the Sherline in all their photos, which is also nice.

Most folks feel you should have both a mill and a lathe… I’d actually recommend just getting the mill to start with. (What attachments to buy — that’s another topic we could discuss.)

IV. WIRE VS. B&S: Know when to use wire armatures and when to use ball&socket armatures. Roughly speaking, a brass armature takes 20 hours to make — and a steel armature takes 40-60 hours to make. If your puppet’s going to be onscreen for less than 5 minutes, use wire. Even stopmo TV shows use mostly wire; it’s only the feature films that can afford B&S for most of their characters.

Also, I recommend not putting your first armatures into puppets. Me, I’m treating learning armature-making as one thread, and general puppet-making as another. When I feel comfortable enough with armature-making that it’s no longer a huge challenge, then I’ll feel like I’m ready to put B&S inside puppets. Until then, I’ve found it really valuable to keep my armatures for display, studying them to figure out how to improve the next version.

4. You are working on a computer animation called “Let Sleeping Gods Lie”. Can you tell us about it?

LSGL is an adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s novella “At The Mountains Of Madness.”

In the original story, antarctic explorers discover an ancient city at the South Pole that pre-dates the human species. It’s revealed that aliens, the “Elder Things,” created all life on Earth — but they were overthrown by their own slave-race of protoplasmic blobs, the Shoggoths. The great emotional revelation of the story is that the Elder Things were not simply mindless, malicious monsters; they were sentient “men” like us.

My main inspiration for the project is the annual H.P. Lovecraft FilmFest, which happens here in Portland, OR. No one’s done a film version of ATMOM before — I want to beat out Guillermo Del Toro and be the first! No one’s put these amazing five-legged space aliens on the screen before… I want to see a mad stampede of them galloping.

I’ve been working on this project for five years now — and it’s probably going to be just a bit over five minutes long. (At a cost of about three hours labor per one second of screen time. ) The fact that working on LSGL prevents me from doing stopmo right now just kills me… But, Cthulhu as my witness, I WILL finish this monstrosity!

5. What aspects from your art training and experiences do you bring to your stopmotion?

Anatomy. I’m still studying, but what what I’ve learned so far is very useful. I recall Harryhausen once pointing out how most amateurs’ dinosaurs have sausage legs… The more you can build plausible (if not “realistic”) musculature and bone structure into your sculpts, the better they’ll look on screen.

Music. I play piano, and have a musical sensibility about how I want sound and motion to mesh together… Taking a tip from LIO, I’ve found it extremely useful to figure out timing using a metronome. I’ve tried using a stopwatch, but it feels really counter-intuitive to me. Listening to an audible click that’s 1/2, 1/3, or 1/4 of a second makes estimating how long an action should take much, much easier.

6. What is your animation goal?

I want to produce top-notch, professional-quality puppetfilms — either working independently, or with a hand-selected team of other indy artists.

I’d like to become so comfortable with the materials and processes of stopmo that I can go from idea to film relatively painlessly. I like the idea of using stopmo as a 4-dimensional sketchbook: not just paintings — not just sculptures — sculptures that move in the dimension of time.

I want to make films that get chosen to go on compilation DVDs. Especially the annual “The Animation Show” collection or AWN’s “The Animation Show of Shows” series… I’d like to get seen on the Channel Frederator “original cartoon podcast,” too.

7. What area of this craft do you consider your weakest? Short posts Maybe?

Ha!

Right now I feel like my weakest area is Content. I’m putting a lot of effort into learning craft skills, but I’m not so clear about what kinds of stories/images I want to produce.

Props and sets are also weak points. Some people delight in creating miniature worlds… I find I’m most oriented toward puppet fab.

8. What off-topic things that you have studied or learned have you discovered that you find useful in stopmotion?

Oddly enough, the outside skills that have most helped me with stopmo have to do with personal organization and time-management…

I’m a compulsive note-taker. Whenever I’m working, I always have a clipboard with a legal pad on it so I can jot down thoughts. I highly recommend it: translating what’s in your head into written words will help you learn faster and more thoroughly.

I also keep a magnetic, digital kitchen timer attached to my clipboard, so I can better keep track of time. Over and over again I set it for a 1-hour countdown. It means that I know very precisely how much time I’ve put into a particular project… Which in turn gives me more realistic expectations about how long future projects are going to take. It also helps me really focus my mind during the work time I’ve committed to.

9. What things do you foresee for stopmotion?

Well, digital technology has made stopmo immensely more accessible. I know I wouldn’t be doing it if I had to buy film stock and work with a Bolex… Combine this with the landmark year when both Wallace & Gromit AND Corpse Bride were in the theaters, and you get an unprecedented influx of new wannabe stopmoes.

I think that framegrabbers are creating a new species of animator. Harryhausen and the like had to be human framegrabbers — going into a sort of hypnosis, where they could see the puppet’s last pose floating in mid-air. People learning stopmo now may get a little of that experience, but I don’t think anyone now will develop the skill to the extent that the old masters did.

Pay attention to Laika studios. They’re the ones working on “Coraline,” and they’ve got plans for more feature-length stopmo films to come. With the exception of Aardman, none of the big animation houses have been doing stopmo on a regular basis… I think when they see that Laika has claimed U.S. stopmo for itself, the big boys (like Disney) are going to scramble to put together some stopmo films of their own, just to stay competitive.

10. write and answer your own last question.

Q: Apparently you’ve written a bunch of tutorials and essays. Is there any way to easily find all that stuff?

A: No — not yet. When I write tutorials, they go up on the Scarlet Letters blog first… And then if they seem worth sharing, I repost them on SMA. Unfortunately, this means that all my best stuff gets buried as new posts go up.

So, to solve the problem, I’m in the process of putting together a stand-alone webpage that collects all my stopmo work in one place. I’ll post an announcement at SMA when it goes online.

Sven Bonnichsen
Scarlet Star Studios
http://www.scarletstarstudios.com/sven

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