Category Archives: animator interviews

Sandra Valenca’s interview

Sandra Valenca took time away from her new film to answer our interview questions. Thanks Sandra,

1. Can you tell us a bit about your upcoming film “The Weapon”?

Well, The Weapon is an animated “short” film (aprox. 28 min.) in a science fiction setting, inspired by Czech puppet tradition and 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s a story about Lydia, Lorenzo and Augustine who work at Minerva, a space station in orbit around Earth. The station is the most important part of a defense system for maintaining World Peace. Everything is quite peaceful until the day they receive new orders, and a moral dilemma approaches. The central question then becomes: are we individually responsible?

Me and a friend of mine, Markus, started out this project in September 2006. Earlier on, we had done a quite crappy short film, and it was really annoying that it came out that bad – I knew we could do better. So, we simply decided that we were going to challenge ourselves and try to animate this long, far too long, script that Markus had written. We also involved my brother, Mattias, to get some help.

This far, it has gone really well, yet no major catastrophies. Hopefully, the post-production will be finished in time to have the film released at Gothenburg International Film Festival in January 2009.

2. Is it true it has 22 minutes of lip sync that you have to animate to?

Hehe, yes, well, the dialouge soundtrack is about 22 minutes, but it also includes pauses between scenes. Although the script is 28 pages (which, if you use common American script format, is supposed to be 28 minutes film), it’s a bit hard to estimate the total length of lip sync animation, but let’s say it’s about 19-20 minutes. Jeez, I must really be such an idiot…

3. What drew you to stopmotion animation?

Even though my brother and I as kids used to make stop motion with lego puppets, and also did some feeble claymation-attempts, I would say that me making my first stop motion-film was mostly a coincidence. I’ve always been drawing, and at twenty, I studied Cartoons and Sequential Art at University. When graduation approached, I wanted to do something new, and I asked Markus, who was really into film, to write something for puppet animation. Earlier on, we had done some things together, longer graphic novels and stuff. He wrote the script for “Ivan the Meek”, which was our first stop motion shortie.

4. What are some of your strongest skills in this craft?

Clearly, the model-making. That’s what I find most entertaining, even though I am often frustrated by not having the time or money get the materials I would like. But well, you’ve got to be inventive when you’re poor. They say that’s part of the charm… Strikes me sometimes though how weird this profession must seem to others. When working today, it just hit me, like “what the hell am I doing? I am sitting, drilling holes in a stick to put smaller sticks in that stick, to be able to put small lumps of clay on it, to make it look like a tree. I must really be seriously ill.” I enjoy it very much, though.

5. What is a big weakness you have in stopmotion and how you deal with it?

Funny thing is, that none of us is really interested in animation, I think that we both kind of see it as something that you have to deal with when the writing and the sets are finished… When starting out, I bought this Aardman-book, “creating 3D-animation” from which we have learned pretty much everything we know. I also had an old copy of Preston Blair’s “Animation”, a book on classic cell-animation, which was helpful when coming to understand the movements of a specific body mass. It took quite a while before understanding that a movement isn’t at it’s best when the puppet move as much in frame one as in frame to and three and so on… Now I think that we have got quite a grip on it, though I still find it hard to create complex, fast movement. And the whole “shoot-on-two”-thingy is still a mystery.

6. How do you think films from the U.S. or other parts of the world differ from the films you would produce or watch in your country?

There aren’t that many Swedish puppet animators, most of the Swedish animation is 3D-generated, which I, because of the looks, don’t really appreciate that much. Mostly, I watch Czech puppet animation from the sixties. Actually, there isn’t really much of (interesting) Swedish animation at all, because of this subsidy system of the Swedish film industry. It’s rather complex, but let’s just say it works this way: you pitch your project to a film counselor, and if she or he likes it, you get a certain amount of money to produce your film. Of course, everybody want this money, and to get it you “have to” (it isn’t outspoken, but quite obvious) write a certain type of script to get it approved. This leads to most films ending up conforming and boring.

7. If we set up a large studio to make a film, what job title would you like to have if we hire you?

Hey, that’s a dream situation! Do you think there would actually be something called payment involved? I will take the “Scenograph and Puppet Designer” title, please.

8. What advice would you give to a person just starting out in stopmotion animation?

FIX THE CAMERA. Any unwanted movement of the camera will be outstandingly annoying when watching the film. It will probably make the audience nauseous and they will leave. Fixing the camera isn’t really that hard, I use a simple, but quite heavy, tripod, you could use pretty much anything that doesn’t move, for example putting the camera on a table – and avoid the table. Re-do rather than say “okay” to a bad take. Have patience (which is a funny advice since I really lack that myself). But ok, just force yourself to re-do it, animation isn’t fun, it’s having patience…

9. After showing your work to a group of people, what compliment would you enjoy hearing?

“You are such a brilliant puppet designer. Tim Burton? Who is that?”

10. What do you dream of right now?

I am exhausted, so I would just like to get this thing finished, and then I would just lie down and watch the entire X-Files over and over and over again. After that, I would probably start another kamikaze project…

Ok, Sandra back to filming. I will post some of your photos here too of your project

Replacement mouth parts

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Mysterious Ron and Elise’s son V’s interview (Devan)

In an attempt to interview people from all levels of experience, next on our list Isomer’s son. He has just been animating a few weeks and has just completed a few test clips. Here are his responses

1. You are just getting into animation. You have made a few tiny short clips. What has been the hardest part?

Well, the hardest portion of my work has been dealing with clay. Mainly the armatures, but also, when I move something, the object itself changes its local. I experimented with flying, but gravity took care of THAT idea!

2. After you finished your animation how did you feel about the process?

As of what I feel after producing a test clip, I want to shoot more! Any time I finish, I just want to give maybe a few more frames for good luck. Add maybe a frame to fix up that shot. I also feel that it isn’t a film, but reality, like it really happened.

3. You are the son of a famous special efx guy, any plans to work in this field when you get older?

Probably for a career, stop motion will be a side job, going along with the arts in general. My thought is a balance between cgi and the traditional forms of entertainment.

4. With all those fancy video games out there, what draws you to stopmotion?
Your question concerning what brought me to this field, instead of the new high tec video games, is that the games are nice and all, but making them is better. To create a project is far better than to merely watch the finished product.

5 Most of us are old and we have no idea what todays kids are into. Can you tell us what people of your age are interested in these days?

People of the generation of the current status are interested in relationships- to the extreme. They discuss matters that your generation would be embarrassed to even think about. It is the shock value that has encouraged generations of our time to get into arguments with the previous. They also love their games, food, and traveling in relation to competition. They also are so different because the parents do not check what it is that they buy for their children. The kids get what they want when they want, or they get super mad. So most parents- as to avoid a big conflict- buy the kid the thing they’ve been begging for for them to spend a million dollars, so the item can collect dust when the NEW thing comes out. That is the proper definition for this generation.

6. Have you seen any good videos, films or shorts lately?

Well, my Dad’s short is a good one, I can tell you that!! Good clips are easy to find, yet they come in bundles. My dad showed me one a while ago- the proposed first try at clay. The residual motion was fantastic. As I stated earlier, they are easy to find.

7. If we could make a tutorial to help out beginners like you, what would it be?

A tutorial for beginners would at best be to explain what to expect to go wrong, and how to overcome it. The rest should for most come naturally. If you want to go into this field, you do not have to go very far to find put the basic mechanics of the system.

8. What is something that you think my generation doesn’t understand about you and your friends.?

This may seem obvious, but the thing your generation does not take into account, is that my generation was raised in the proverbial bubble environment. This generation does not face nearly as many hardships as yours. I SHOULD KNOW

9. Any goals for your stopmotion animations?

My goal for my stop motion career is to get to a point where I can make a good living off it, so as not to put all my eggs in one basket. As I stated earlier, I will go into many fields.

10. My final question will be about the resurgence of this field. I feel that if you want to help this generation to get back into this art, then show them how to do animation in the computer. Show them how to do the stop motion physically, then show them how to enhance it with the computer. My thought is that you want a balance with the traditional arts, and the new fields.

I Thank Castlegardener for these questions. I will continue on my path and pursue greater.

Paul McConnochie (PaulVortex) interview

1. You have produced live action videos, so what is the draw of stopmotion animation?

I originally trained as an animator, so stop-motion (and animation in
general)has always been very exciting for me. There are several reasons why stop-motion is a big draw…

A : On a project, which must have an other-worldly look (be it fantasy, science-fiction or even simply a quirky contemporary story) I think there is only one type of animation that can really make that work in a fantastically believable way… stop-motion animation.

B : Stop-Motion is film-making personified… The use of photographic
equipment and techniques to produce moving images. Computer animation and drawn animation can all be accomplished now-a-days without even looking at a camera… But stop-motion cannot be done *without* photographic processes. So, if you are a film-maker in the truest sense, then surely your first stop for animated projects (and creature effects in your non-animated projects) should be stop-motion animation. It certainly isn’t the *easiest* option… But nothing
truly Great is ever easy to accomplish!

C : As stop-motion is essentially the movement of objects frame by
frame in front of a lens, it is also potentially limitless in the range of possibilities available to the film-maker. From the intricate 2D cut-out animations of Yuri Norstien, to the beautiful sand-on-glass animations of Caroline Leaf, and from the ground-breaking replacement puppet animations of George Pal, to Ron’s similarly ground-breaking cable-controlled puppet animations…stop-motion is limitless in it’s potential for the creation of striking moving images. You can make a thousand stop-motion films and each one could easily look totally
different from the others.

D : Stop motion is perfomance. Computer and drawn animation are
iterative
processes… You can go back to one shot a thousand times and tweak the life out of it. With stop-motion (as with film and live-theatre) there is a performance, it is captured on film (or hard-disk), and then it is gone forever. If you want to change it, you have to re-shoot it… So, in essence when you are performing stop-motion animation you are an actor playing the character(s) in your
film…It is the perfect way for those of us who might not like to go in front of the lens directly, to have our chance to act and perform in a very true sense.

E : Stop-motion is difficult and intricate… and that makes it a
highly enjoyable pursuit with rich rewards when you watch the results of your efforts.

There are other resons why stop-motion is such a draw… but I’ve
harped on about it long enough for now. ;o)

> 2. Can you give us an update on Fidget the Witch and all those tiny
shingles?

At the moment Fidget the Witch has taken a back-seat to the project I’m working on with Ron and Nick. We are producing a short stop-motion project where-in each of us animates a separate character… These characters will all be interacting in shots together, despite the fact that I work in Europe, Nick works in Australia and Ron works in North America and we have never met each other in real life… In fact, we have never even spoken on the phone, and our only communication on the project is through email. It’s an exciting experiment.

Inter-continental animation has been done before by the big studios…
However, they will have had people flying back and forth co-ordinating the different aspects of the production and they will have used video chat and other devices to keep things on track… So, I believe what we are doing is pretty unique. It’s certainly a new experience for me.

As for Fidget the Witch it has NOT been abandoned… I will be getting
back to it again, and the blog will go into action again too. I’m looking forward to making more shingles!

> 3. What is it like to be a director and producer of a live film crew?

I think it’s the same as being a producer or director of a stop-motion
production only It’s fast and frenetic and sometimes frantic… But
always a lot of fun. It’s like stop-motion at break-neck speeds.

But you have to remember not to prod and poke and pose the actors…
they don’t like that much. They prefer if you ask them to do something through the use of speech and language.

Live-Action is great for those very reasons. There is something to be
said for pulling together a group of people (crew and cast) and carefully planning the shoot together… Then you go to it, and a week later you can have hours and hours of finished footage to work with (which is why I love working digitally as well), and before you know it you are in the edit bay!

> 4. What is your biggest weakness in this craft and how do you deal
with it?

Inexperience… and thankfully that is a relatively easy to overcome!

When you undertake to create a stop-motion film on your own (ie : without a crew), the sheer range of skills required to do that can seem daunting. Not knowing how to do a certain task can stump you for ages if you don’t realise that the only way to learn how to do something is to actually try it… and if you fail it isn’t really a failure, it is simply a step forward on learning that skill and therefore should be seen as a triumph in itself.

There really is only one process for dealing with inexperience… READ
BOOKS (or *websites*) and then do what it says in those books (or websites) or at least take a cue from what they say.

If you are really stumped then asking people questions sometimes helps
too. This site (SMA) has been a real treasure-trove of information… I find that any question I might have, generally has already been asked on the boards (and in most cases has also been answered too… very often by Nick, Mike or LIO actually!).

> 5. How do you think films differ that originate in Scotland as
compared to say
the United States?

There are less of them. ;o)

Well… If we are talking about *Scottish Feature Films* in particular
(rather than film’s which have been made in Scotland by other countries) it tends to be social-realist drama or comedy because that appears to be the safe horse to bet on when it comes to the public-funding of what might be termed as “local cinema”.

What I will say is that those films tend to be *beautifully* made
because we have a seriously deep talent pool in Scotland (check out the films of Lynne Ramsay!). Sylvain Chomet moved his studio to Edinburgh employing some 200 animators as he knew this to be true. There is also an explosive short-film scene here and I know that there are tonnes of small scale film-makers out there and literally *tens* of them are really good! So there is a lot of creativity here. The range of short films being made here is incredible… some of them are
totally *bizarre*!

I’m not sure why, but even with this diverse short film scene, you
don’t see many out-there feature films coming from Scotland. I am talking about fantasy and science-fiction etc… I think the authorities might think it’s too risky to get behind that kind of feature film and so they back the social-realist drama or comedy or dramedy. I think that is a big mistake, they are missing a trick,
and I intend to prove my point.

> 6. What is your biggest goal in stopmotion?

To bring stop-motion back to creature-effects in Live-Action film / tv.

There are also several very large scale stop-motion-only projects I
wish to produce… But I won’t talk about those yet!

> 7. What is the toughest thing about working with clients?

Producing projects (be it a film, website or other new-media
production) for clients is really enjoyable for me. I like learning about them and what they do,and I like using my skills to help them in their business. I’ve been generally very lucky when it comes to the clients I have had as they all tend to appreciate the efforts I put in for them.

So far, I’ve enjoyed working on business projects just as much as I
enjoy working on my own projects. I can’t see that changing any time soon.

> 8. What is your greatest skill in this artform?

Probably adaptability.

Adaptability makes a good bed-fellow for Inexperience. The adaptability is what helps me turn Inexperience into Experience and eventually into expertise.

> 9. Talk about the direction of films, and animations and where we are headed.

I think the Internet is revolutionising film. I don’t think the big
Hollywood studios will ever go away (they are really good at what they do despite the relatively small profit margins in that game). However, I do believe that the Internet is going to provide a gateway for independent Producers to get their work out to the buying public without the need of Distributors, Television networks or even retailers.

When broadband hits the speeds where HD video can be streamed at HD-DVD quality,and people can easily access the internet from their television set, then the revolution will truly kick in… That will allow Producers to stream pay-per-view (or subscription based, or even free advertisment-funded) content directly onto the visitor’s home cinema system.

Instead of television channels (which will probably still exist in some form)every person in a house will have their own webpage filled with links to their favourite programs… They will be able to watch whatever they want, whenever they want.

That direct access to the consumer will transform film and television
production. Profit margins will rise, because the route to market is so much cheaper, and that will allow more projects to go into production. Each Producer’s website will become like a mini-channel containing their own productions.

I think Cinema is still going to exist… but it is going to look a LOT different to what we are seeing now (and I’m not just talking about 3D).

> 10. Write and answer your own last question…

Question : Okay, Why do you write such interminably long answers?

Answer : I don’t know, maybe it’s becau…. Hang on… I’m falling into that trap!

Brett McCoy (idragosani) interview

1. I see you are a member of SCA. For the people here that don’t know
what that is, tell us about it.

SCA stands for Society for Creative Anachronism — http://www.sca.org
— an international educational and historical organization whose
purpose is to teach medieval and Renaissance history through living it
by wearing the clothes, wearing the armor, eating the food, and so on.
While the SCA tends to focus on Western Europe, there are also sizable
groups who focus on Middle Eastern and Far Eastern history as well.

> 2. You have an extensive music background. Can you summarize that for
us?

Well I have been studying music since I was in high school, although I
have never been a professional musician. I have studied many different
musical styles, including jazz, blues, Middle Eastern, celtic,
classical & symphonic, heavy metal, and so on. I play guitar also, but
can compose for other instruments and have been studying film scoring
and sound design for the past couple of years.

> 3. Can you give us a music tip for our animation shorts?

Ummm… hire me to write your music?

If you want to be good and avoid copyright infringment, I recommend
using royalty free music if you can find it. The Classical Music
Archives — http://www.classicalarchives.com/ — has tons of MIDI
files you can download and use for music. You will need audio software
for recording the MIDI into audio files. If money is tight, I
recommend Reaper — http://www.cockos.com/reaper/ — which is free for
non-commercial use, and can do a lot of the same things Sonar or Pro
Tools can do for a lot less money. It’s great for mixing sound FX as
well!

> 4. What goals do you have in stopmotion animation?

To help keep the art alive! I have loved hand-made animation since I
was a kid, meaning stop-motion and hand-drawn 2D, and have been active
the past couple of years in both activities. My goals are to
independently produce short films that are great art and are also
entertaining (the two don’t always go hand in hand!), and also show
that you don’t need Hollywood and millions and millions of dollars to
do it. Most of what is coming out Hollywood is stunningly photographed
crap anyway. ;-P

> 5. What is your biggest weakness now in this craft, and how do you
work around it?

Mainly experience and lack of time. I have much of the gear in place
that I need, including software and cameras, now it’s just fitting it
all into my schedule (my “day job” is as a software engineer, and that
can sometimes intrude into leisure time). I tend to be a perfectionist
and don’t want to just slap stuff together for the sake of getting
stuff on YouTube. I’d rather spend 3 years making one great film than
crank 10 crappy pieces in the same amount of time, ya know? But this
can be a hindrance as well, because it leads to impatience and
frustration when things don’t come out the way I want.

> 6. With more and more people having access to computer programs that
work for animation, how do you think it will affect this art form?

I think it makes it more accessible, especially for those who are
doing hand-made animation. Unfortunately, it makes animation too
accessible and a lot of people use the software tools and think it
will do the work for them… and now witness how much lousy stuff
there is out there (especially when Flash is involved). Unfortunately,
the same attitude has hit the music industry… someone thinks they
can get Pro Tools or Reason and expect to have these things do the
work for them. The result is manufactured art that all sounds or looks
the same with very little ingenuity or creativity behind it.

> 7. What draws to you to stopmotion as compared to 2-d drawn
animation?

Well, as I said earlier, I also love handmade 2D animation and have
been hard at work studying that and trying to get my skills to a level
where I can produce it the way I want to produce it. I have always
loved stop-motion since I watched King Kong and the Sinbad movies as a
kid growing up in the 70s, and even through the present day it still
fascinates me. Sure, CG animation is amazing, especially the stuff
coming out of Pixar or Weta Digital. But as a pure artform, CG just
does not have the character or feel that a stop-motion animation has.
CG is too slick looking for me, everything looks ‘plastic’ and
everything moves too fast.

> 8. Few of us have professional studios, how can we improve our music
quality?

Well, as I said above, having a decent DAW (digital audio workstation)
is a good start. A lot of people have Audacity, which is good for some
things, but an application like Reaper or Sonar will really help with
mixing and syncing audio and video. Most, in fact, provide timecode
and fps settings so you can break down your audio frame by frame,
which is essential for foley and lip-synch work. There is a bit of a
learning curve for DAWs, though, but it is worth the effort.

Another application that was designed for film work is Sony Cinescore
http://www.sonycreativesoftware.com/cinescore. It provides thematic
loops of music that you can piece together without having to do any
composing. I’ve played with it a little bit, it’s pretty neat.

> 9. What would be a great compliment after seeing your work?

“That made me cry” or “I laughed so hard I peed my pants”

> 10. write and answer your own question.

10. What animated films do you have in the works?

Well, I am in the pre-production stages of a short animation called
‘Tulk’ which will be very ‘Czech school’ in tone (and indeed, the
music will be based on Czech polka music as well as some of the works
of Smetana). I have a couple other things in the works (one is a
collaborative project for which I am writing the score). I also want
to produce a series of very short animations (less than a minute)
called ‘Tales from the Perilous’, which will be more one shot gags in
the style of Gary Larson, Charles Addams, etc. I had originally
intended these to be 2D animation but may do both 2D and stop-motion
(and when I say 2D, I *always* mean traditional hand-drawn 2D).
Actually, for ‘Tales’, I was wanting to do it more as a collaborative
thing, with lots of people providing ideas, music, animation, etc.

— Brett
————————————————————
“In the rhythm of music a secret is hidden;
If I were to divulge it, it would overturn the world.”
— Jelaleddin Rumi

Ethan Bartholomae

1 What hand tools and power tools do you have access to?
Um anything I can find and afford really, although I mainly use the simple hacksaw, hot glue gun, X-Acto knife.

2 Where do you buy your supplies locally?
There is a hardware store about 15 minutes away from the studio that I buy most of my hardware and lighting and such. Also right next-door is a shipping supplies store that will just give me free recycled StyroFoam.

3 Have you ever bought any supplies online and what?
Yes, a few surface gages.

4 What is your favorite/standard puppet construction?
Wire armature and clay, simplest stuff, although I have tried DragonSkin before which I like and might start using more often.

5 What camera and software setup do you use?
A Panasonic SDR-S10, with Digital Flip-book and many other programs for different steps.

6 What is one of your biggest weaknesses in animating or studio setup? How do you deal with this?
Space, I never have enough room. To overcome this problem I would take the studio on the road and find building that would allow us to work in.

7 What sort of goals have you set for yourself?
Completing the three films I’m working on. Hoping for at least StreetCop to be a huge success.
And getting my girlfriend to find her true self, hopefully bringing her out of this gloomy trance she is currently in.

8 What about this process do you enjoy the most?
Everything but re-shoots. I especially enjoy seeing the final cut, then thinking back to how it was originally a lump of clay and wire, then seeing it as close to life-like as possible.

9 What would be a great compliment on your work?
An Emmy, simply that.

10 Write and answer your own final question.

10: What is your favorite quote of all time? And why?

“Life is like a box of chocolates… you never know whatcha gonna get.”
-Forest Gump
Because it seems inspirational, like with this morning for example, I never thought I was going to have two warblers crash into my window.

–B&B Studios–
Ethan Bartholomae

B&B Studios;
http://bandstudios.web.officelive.com/

Brickfilms-R-us;
http://brickfilms-r-us.webs.com/

Neil Hughes (Neilbunyip) interview

Hello all

I thought I would answer the “10 questions”

1 What hand tools and power tools do you have access to?

A: The usual stuff in my shed, saws, hand drills etc, however my Dad is a retired fitter and turner and he has a full workshop with lathes, milling machines etc. For my next film my dad will be making most of the armatures, special rigs etc.

2 Where do you buy your supplies locally?

A: I’m from Melbourne Australia. I get supplies from local art shops e.g. Riot Art also latex etc from Onestop plastics or Barnes. And of course the mecca for all hardware stuff Bunnings!

3 Have you ever bought any supplies online and what?

A: I mainly buy books online all on animation, storyboard etc.

4 What is your favorite/standard puppet construction?
A: I find clay extremely frustrating but i love the look. I am also obsessed with light puppets so my construction techniques revolve around getting a clay look without the weight and the mess, so lots of silicone,sculpey, resin etc.

5 What camera and software setup do you use?

A: I have always used stopmotion pro from very early on. The Stopmotion Pro people are from Melbourne so they came and saw what we were doing at doghouse films and when I was at the Victorian College of the Arts film school to get feedback. I have shot on 16mm film with video camera for video assist. My next film will be shot on a digital still camera.

6 What is one of your biggest weaknesses in animating or studio setup? How do you deal with this?

A: In this day and age we are competing against CG with all its glorious camera moves and infinite sets. My biggest gripe with a lot stop motion is that it looks like it was shot on a kitchen table (which it probably was in a lot of cases) So I want to put more effort into getting the camera moving and giving the illusion of space in my films. I’m thinking of trying digital set extensions too.

7 What is one of your biggest strengths or assets, and how do you utilize this?

A: I have a very strong sense of story and character. My head is full of story ideas. This can be a blessing and a curse as I sometimes lose focus on one idea and start on another. I now have a real producer to work with and keep me on track.

8 What about this process do you enjoy the most?

A: Hitting the play button when I have been working on a shot and seeing the inanimate come to life. It still gives me a buzz seeing that.

9 Name some goals you have in this field.

A: Make more films and If I can get paid to do it all the better.

10 Write and answer your own final question.

A: Okay,

10: What were your main influences and inspiration.

A: I grew up watching a lot of TV animation etc. I loved Morph, and the muppets, fraggle rock , Astro Boy, Star Blazers, Dr Who. The most important inspiration moments for me were:

The Skeleton scene from Jason & the Argonauts (Still excellent after all this time)

Star Wars

The Dark Crystal

The Nightmare before Christmas.

The Wrong Trousers. I saw this after finishing college and it was the film that gave me the final kick up the bum to start animating.

Cheers

Neil Hughes

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