Well, it is high time for a good old autonomous Mutant Worm flick, a stop motion even. So here’s Wasted Cowboys! A short Playmobil stop motion. Not really for kids, although they do seem to like it.
”I don’t do drugs. … I’ve got enough bizarre chemicals floating around in my head. I’m just naturally like this.” — Terry Gilliam
70’s & 80’s PLAYMOBIL
It all started when I got my 70’s-early 80’s Playmobil off the barn attic for my kids. First off, I noticed there was a lot more Playmobil than I remembered, but I quickly realized they were the discarded sets of my childhood friends who outgrew them a bit sooner than me … 30 odd years sooner, it turns out.
QUICK & DIRTY
The boxes were filthy. They’d been collecting dust for decades on the hay and straw attic. Among the first things I took out was a little cowboy house along with some cowboys, and I decided to do a stop motion test. I’d seen that Hue Animation had software and a HueHD webcam on a goose neck — you know, for kids — so that was going to be my approach: quick and dirty. I also left the Playmobil dirty, which you can notice especially in close ups. I even used my iPhone for the voices and assorted sounds.
The way I wanted to do this was quick and dirty but all in-camera for the tactile home-made feel of it — which didn’t work out that way, but more on that later. I’m well aware that stop motion can take a long time. When you’re pressed for time and/or money, the trick is to do as little as possible to come to a cool result. Existing props and characters sure do help. Enter Playmobil.
MY FIRST EVER FILM
Come to think of it, my first ever film was a Playmobil stop motion. I must have been about eleven when I was at my cousin’s and he and his sister had been playing around with an 8mm camera. As I recall we were in the garden when we filmed his Playmobil; it probably has more hands than Playmobil in the shots. He does have it somewhere so I’ll ask if he can dig it up for me.
THE STORY: MY BOY TOM & ESCALATION
The story, if you can call it that, sort of happened as it went along. So I had three cowboys, a house, a donkey and a cart. Even some old paper dynamite I cooked up way back when, to add to the play. I wondered what they would be doing if I made a short stop motion. Who were they? What were they like? What were they doing there?
Well, I quickly found out. They already looked a bit shabby and as they started talking to one another the tone was quickly set. Kids probably know how this works. I sure as heck didn’t plan it and I tried to tone them down somewhat. They are a loud and rowdy bunch. I think they’re gold-miners. At some point I figured that if I’m ever doing a sequel I’ll have to ask Playmobil to put a gold-mining set on the market. I later found out that they already did. Of course, I’m thinking along the lines of a Temple of Doom sequence so that would get tricky all the same.
When I read the early script out really loud to the misses, I got a blank stare in return. Still, I thought … THIS IS GONNA ROCK!
Since it took a while — commercial work demanding my attention, you know how it goes — it also grew in the telling. A large influence on, or rather cause of, the psychedelic sequence was my five-year-old boy Tom. I was in our attic/home office figuring technical stuff out, like the camera, software and lighting, when he came along. He stumbled upon my stash of clay and wanted to do an animation. I could only stimulate that, but I wanted to keep it simple, so I figured I’d create a worm out of a bar of clay. But no, he wanted a snail — for obvious reasons.
I have to say I was a bit daunted by doing stop motion again. What if I couldn’t do it like I wanted to? What if I failed? So thank you, Tom, for proving me wrong. I think we did the clip below in about half an hour.
I intended to just use what I had in the old boxes, but some haphazardly arriving script-elements also made me plunder my girl Zoe’s Playmobil. Also, if you look closely, one of the close up shots of Joshua has a clay cactus in the background. Because it took a while before I could continue, I decided to order some actual Playmobil cacti and mushrooms on Marktplaats (sort of a Dutch Craigslist).
Other things could not be done with Playmobil so I turned to clay there. And of course I did a quick and dirty marker drawn background — that was before I knew how it would escalate, although I doubt I would have done it differently.
So it grew in the telling, and even without a planned story it’s still pretty round, I conjur. The flying horse is even there at the start. If all else fails, at least it had me in stitches.
Did I just say ‘conjur’? It’s amazing no Firefly reference ended up in this animation. Or did I miss it? The brain works in mysterious ways … give me a sec … my head just exploded as I decided to google ‘Playmobil Firefly‘.
HARDWARE AND SOFTWARE
The Hue HD webcam can shoot 1280×720 pixels. Unfortunately the Hue Animation software could not fully reach that, at least not on Mac, so I turned to my professional Dragonframe software instead.
I used iGlasses to lock exposure. The reason I went for the HD cam is that it has a goose neck and a focus ring:
• it doesn’t take a lot of expensive hardware, like computer operated dollies and cranes — that’s the next step ;),
• it can get you up real close in strange positions while still being able to focus,
• you can even do cranes with some effort,
• you want your focus to be lockable when you’re doing a stop motion,
• plus you can actually shift focus during a shot.
Here, again, is the Hue HD webcam in action:
I used three 100Watt lightbulbs, and as you can see that three point lighting is hardly natural. A friend of mine lend me a LED panel recently so I’m going to try and realize a setup with that next. I couldn’t use it here yet because I’d already shot several sequences and it would have screwed up lighting continuity.
I’m saying post, but it was a back and forth. I used Adobe After Effects which is my main tool, also Illustrator for the titles, Adobe Audition for audio editing, and some Premiere Pro. I actually ended up doing sound in After Effects as well, because, well, I’m that kind of guy. I like to tweak with everything there at hand. I should probably do a tutorial about editing in After Effects at some point, for like-minded stubborn lazy fools.
So, although I had initially planned to do this all in camera, combining and fixing things in post ended up making this a lot more manageable. For instance, I ended up with several shots having clay rigs to keep things in the air or simply in place: the rocking chair and falling fish. Obvious stuff to use for an animation, but once you get started where do you stop?
The rigs had to be painted out so I had the presence of mind to shoot accompanying clean background plates. I also ended up using composites because I didn’t find a way to do the butterflies or flying horse with a glass rig to keep them afloat, and the repetitiveness of the burning fuse called for a separate looping composite done with clay on a black background.
Compositing these elements made things quicker, at least this time around. I’d like to do as much as possible in camera but it has to be simple; maybe next time.
Mainly you use the tools you need to get the shot that’s in your head. Like the pan down shot at the start. There was no way I could have done that quickly by building a practical sky that high, so it also became something for post.
I did some grading using a few masked paper textures, the curves effect and Red Giant’s Magic Bullet Looks.
So more and more things got shoved over to post — I felt like Peter Jackson. Where do you stop indeed, and things got more complicated quickly. I even did a facial animation test based on Videocopilot’s Demon Face tutorial.
In the end I did leave some ‘errors’ in, mainly visible set element in the background like a stand, duct tape and background edges. I decided that they added to the home-made tactile look 🙂
Like I said I used my iPhone 4 for the voices and several sounds, which I ran through Adobe Audition insofar that was necessary.
Most of the sound effects I got from my Audioblocks account.
Going for quick and dirty I cooked these up by getting some vector elements from Vectorstock, finding some nice cowboy fonts, and a paper texture.
Anyways, I hope you liked. I should probably mention the movie references besides Turbo. The ‘Wookie’ remark should be obvious, and Transformers.