by Marc Lougee
:: Mini Cameras: Small, like Diamonds There’s much talk on and offline concerning the advent of mini camera’s used in stop motion animation, specifically when used in tandem with DSLR’s. Some folks love’em, some hate’em, but either way, they keep proving themselves useful, relatively inexpensive and hard to boot when faced with the alternative of shooting all day only to find yourself facing a re-shoot for lack of a decent preview. I’m a big fan of the mini cam and keep a couple in my toolbox all the time. Light weight, reasonably durable, replaceable lenses and output to various devices (like television monitors, VCR’s, etc) make these things handy. This is similar to the version we used;
Did I mention they’re pretty cheap, too? Low-light levels and high contrast tend to be good for the size as well. Most will come with a o.o5 rating for low light, but the best option is to go lower, like 0.03/ 0,02 at F1.8, for instance. Some research is in order to find the right camera/ lens combo for your particular use. Should you grow weary of using the mini cameras for animation, they’re imminently well suited to monitor the front door for pizza deliveries.
The Mini Camera is Go
Initially, we attached these mini-cams to the camera as a sort of parallax viewer, but found we could attach it to sit directly against the viewing glass on the rear of the D70s, allowing the animator to see a live feed from the set to the computer, via Frame Thief.
Several lenses are available for the Clover camera, providing a range of focal lengths. These are handy depending on individual shots, the DSLR viewfinder, preview requirements, etc. I bought a few sizes with to experiment, settling on the 16mm for the viewfinder / mini camera set up. You may need to experiment with a few of the lens sizes, to see what works best for you. The 16mm offered the best focus and contrast thru the D70s/ lens at smaller apertures settings, while fitting snug against the viewfinder glass. We eventually had an aluminum plate shaped to fit in to the flash mount atop the camera, on which the mini camera was mounted, holding it snug to the D70s viewing glass.
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Ghost in the Machine
As for process, it’s totally subjective. Ours went like this: Tweak/adjust/animate. Shoot reference frames (with Frame Thief); loop the sequence for playback/ review. Once satisfied with the animation progress, activate the Capture NX window and shoot/ capture the corresponding number of high resolution frames (using Capture NX), checking that these frames are directed to a dedicated file on the external hard drive ( as massive file storage on the Mac Mini would eventually bog it down). Once you’re satisfied Capture is storing your frames where you want them, re-activate the Frame Thief window and head back to the set, cleared for takeoff. Animate, review, capture, repeat.
Here’s a more linear breakdown of our workflow;
1. Animate, Capture low-res mini cam image to Frame Thief.
2. Capture high-res frame with Nikon Capture NX.
3. Store each shot to proper file destinations (ext. hard drive or 2 G Flash card).
4. Import RAW images into Adobe Photoshop CS2 (I use Adobe Light Room).
5. Convert to targas, uncompressed jpegs, or whichever file format needed for post.
6. Save to a new file, do effects work, rig removal, compositing, etc.
7. Re-size the images as 1920 x 1080 pixels (the RAW files will be far larger)
8. Save the shot as a targa sequence.
9. Drop targa sequence in to FCP HD for editing.
10. Export as uncompressed QuickTime, or whichever format you desire.
Since Capture NX numbers incoming files sequentially, it was easy to batch convert entire shot sequences at a time, keeping everything in sequence. Of course, here is where you could use (low-res) versions of the shots for cutting into the animatic with iMovie HD. I find it useful to show everyone how the shots are cutting together by reviewing the animatic inter cut with approved shots. This helps everybody stay amped by gauging progress as animatic sketches are replaced with finished animation. It’s cool to see the film being built this way and makes shot approval fast and efficient. Equally handy is a 2 Gig memory stick to move shots from one animation station to another, allowing access to the completed shots for perusal. I’d wander around, load up the latest stuff onto the shooting stations between shots and voila! We’re all on the same page.
Another option is to use 2 Gig Flash cards to store the high-res frames in the camera body, unloading these from the card at end of day, or when it’s full, dependent on your output. I like the idea of the card storage on large jobs, with several shoots happening simultaneously (series television, for instance), but it can bog down an individual with much to do beside downloading cards during the day. My preference is storing frames to external hard drive(s), then burning a back-up DVD data disc at end of day. This keeps the hard drive in place and you walk with the DVD. Pro’s and con’s abound either way, so see what works for you.
DSLR = Small Rigs
The relatively small size of the DSLR make it conducive to rigging. Traditional camera moving equipment can be big, bulky and heavy, often proving counterintuitive to small sets and puppets and potentially making access to puppets for animation a back- breaking affair. Foregoing the heavy equipment approach, set builder Adam Weir made a few very simple wood & PVC pipe camera mounts that were small, light and yet strong enough to secure the DSLR and lens combination. These cool little rigs could handle pan and tilt, as well as provide a sturdy support for tracking shots. The small size of the cameras and mounting rigs enabled extreme close ups with wide-angle lenses without impeding access to the puppet for animation. There’s lots of off-the-shelf machine motion stuff out there, but with a little ingenuity, rigs for DSLR’s can be super simple, steady and secure for very little cash outlay. When I do need to get hold of small mechanical gear for table top camera moving rigs, I go to Small Parts, Inc. (http://www.smallparts.com). Below is a test set up we used prior to mounting the mini cam on an aluminum plate, and sliding the plate into the flash mount atop the camera.
The Parallax Question
As cool as the DSLR system proved to be, it wasn’t without a few difficulties. Long exposures and deep focus dictated we shoot with very small aperture settings, which affected our mini camera image preview as we were shooting animation reference thru the D70s viewfinder & an 18-70mm zoom lens (manual). I felt a parallax perspective would prove more troublesome, contributing too much hair pulling for those brave souls animating, so I attempted to avoid it if at all possible. Our initial tests went well, with a wide aperture, but once we stopped down to F11- 16, things got interesting in a horror-show sort of way. I considered shooting with the mini camera’s attached to or over the D70s lens, but settled this ‘thru the lenses’ method due to tight framing and focal shifts following movement of the characters. In the end, this is really a project/shot specific consideration.
One way to avoid parallax mishaps would be to frame slightly wide, accommodating for movement in the frame. In post, we found we could push in/ adjust up to 10% without any noticeable resolution loss, as long as the source image was RAW (zero compression, full frame). This allowed some movement over the frame, creating a ‘camera drift’ effect, or ‘breathing’ which we incorporated during compositing.
Speaking of breathing, I’m back to lenses for a moment. With a less expensive zoom lens, (say, the 18-70mm zoom packaged with the D70s), there is quite a bit of ‘breathing’ in the lens during an animated zoom or rack focus during a shot. These pre-packaged lenses are not meant for cinema-style shooting, so you’ll see focus aberrations in the shot after its completed. This stuff is not readily apparent in the preview, nor in the single high –resolution frames. But, like flicker (see below), it becomes quite apparent and bothersome during playback at 24-30 frames per second. Tough time to find out the lens went soft throughout the shot. We opted to replace the pre-packaged zoom lenses with more expensive cinema-style primes, and for zooms, we either moved the camera (like a dolly shot) or made small focus shifts after testing for focal shifts in the lens.
Flicker: Easy to get, hard to lose
Here’s where that aspirin may come in handy. There’s a bit of an anomaly prevalent with DSLR animation, referred to as the much dreaded ‘flicker effect’. This is caused by a variety of situations, a few of which I’ll address here.
The hitch is when viewing several still images in rapid progression (24- 30 frames per second), versus looking at each image one at a time. Many DSLR’s have flicker issues due to the iris having to open and close for each shot, neglecting to return to it’s precise former position, thus causing a change in exposure. Minute exposure variations aren’t noticeable when viewed as single images, but when strung together for rapid viewing in sequence (animation), these exposure variations appear as a ‘flickering’ effect. This noise or pixilation fluctuates in the frame, seemingly more prevalent in the darker areas.
Beside the shutter’s operation noted above, another cause is due to the sensitivity of the camera’s exposure sensor chip in conjunction with the aperture and shutter speed. This normally a good thing, sensitivity, but with DSLR’s with automatic lenses, there is a problem with the repeatability (consistent exposure) required for animation. In DSLR’s with a manual lens, the shutter and the aperture work independently of one another, allowing adjustment between the two, resulting in a consistent exposure. Once the shutter speed and aperture are set, they fire the same way each frame without control by the camera’s on-board program. The D70s we bought came with an 18-70 mm zoom, but being automatic, so we sought to bypass the auto aspects get it to work act like a manual lens. Eventually, we purchased fully manual lenses, but this approach below worked fine until then, without any apparent harm done to the lenses or camera.
One trick that worked well was rotating the auto lens off its contact point on the camera body. Rotate the lens counter clockwise a bit less than a centimeter, while keeping the lens attached to the body. The plan is to break the electric connection that sends signals to the lens. This essentially reverts an auto lens to manual, and the aperture will stay constant once set. Along with this maneuver, be sure to set everything in the camera to fully manual. This will necessitate going thru all the sub-menus, switching anything that’s in Auto mode. The camera literature will be handy here, as the sub-menu’s can be deep and elusive if you’re not careful. I dislike reading manuals as much as anyone, but it was worth the time invested.
Another cause of flicker is electrical fluctuation at the source. We had a very unstable environment to shoot in, with lots of computers, heavy-draw lighting (outside the shooting area), and a massive air conditioning system switching off and on throughout the day. This combination caused major fluctuations in our electrical current. The spikes and drops in current to our lights and cameras caused variations in exposures and lighting, sometimes noticeable, but often not until we’d assembled a sequence. Most building’s electrical is not set up for ‘clean’ power, so we had to find ways of stabilizing the current for the equipment.
While shooting the CBC’s animated series What It’s Like Being Alone, we incorporated power scrubbers at the wall outlets, adding high-end surge suppressors closer to the cameras and computers. This minimized flicker significantly once we had the cameras properly set (switching Auto features to Manual & rotating the lenses). Any flicker we did notice was often minimal and easily removed in the post process using either the De-Flicker plug-in for Adobe After Effects.
Stopping down and using longer exposures also worked well. One backfire on this was the mini cams. The mini cameras supply a ‘live’ or active image, versus the DSLR’s cumulative exposure for a still frame. They don’t get any more light with long exposures as they only get what’s coming thru the aperture, and that isn’t much at F 11–F16. We got around it by adjusting the lighting & shutter speed to accommodate the mini camera a bit. This took some time, so I’d suggest setting aside time to allow yourself room to work out a range of possibilities. The mini camera’s had a Lux reading of .05, which was Ok, but I think an even lower rating would have been ideal.
In retrospect, here are few things I hadn’t mentioned earlier, but may prove useful;
- A Shooting Checklist. Good to have a fall back until everyone is comfortable with the entire window switching/ frame grabbing stuff is well in hand.
- Practice File Naming conventions. Many a shot has landed in the Bin of Despair as a ‘lost’ or misplaced shot due to abstract file naming, so do yourself a favor, and work out a plan prior to starting. There will be a lot of high density storage going on and redundant/ misnamed/ misplaced files will be an equally large hassle. We nearly lost a couple of shots, and in animation as it is in live action, DIY folks really can’t afford to lose anything.
- Voltmeter / Rheostat for larger lights. The voltmeter will let you see fluctuations in the power supply just prior to shooting a frame (minimizing flicker), and the heavy-duty rheostats (not household wall dimmers) will help suppress power spikes in the line, as well. It’s a rental, but these can be bought too. Worth considering if you’re planning on a long shoot.
- Surge suppressors. We went for the larger type with a built-in battery back up. Eyeball the surge/ spike/ drop specs carefully. Shop around as a decent version is between $90-130. Well worth having at least one on the camera/ computer power supply. Lots of these available from various electronics manufacturers & retail online.
- Using remote capture. There are several benefits too using the computer keyboard to trigger frames grabs/ captures, the most immediate being a static camera during an exposure. It’s easy to inadvertently bump the camera after many hours into a shoot when you’re tired, addled with caffeine and your client is getting restless.
Once the film was completed, we had the opportunity to screen at AFI DALLAS during its inaugural year. This was the first time I had seen the film in a large, theatrical venue, so I was suitably anxious to see the results on a large movie screen projecting from an HD tape. Apparently, I was the only one worrying as the audience was thrilled with the picture quality. The film looked fantastic. Our next stop-motion film, EA Poe’s THE RAVEN is to be produced using the same system, with a few requisite tweaks, but definitely a DSLR- based pipeline.
Hopefully, the DVD of the Pit and the Pendulum, and nearly 2 hours of production clips, will be ready to ship Spring 2008. Our hope is that between the articles and the DVD extra’s, more folks will be inspired to shoot with a similar, or improved, pipeline, creating stunning looking digital films for all to see. I hope this has proven helpful in gaining some understanding of what went into the pipeline of the film.
If you have questions concerning the process above, feel free to get in touch thru the film website, http://www.thepitandthependulumshortfilm.com. Time allowing, I’ll do
Marc Lougee – Creative Producer / Director, Hand Hade Heroes Marc’s work as a director blends techniques ranging from 3D/ CGI computer animation to stop motion to classic 2D character animation. His projects integrate live action, special effects, puppets, miniatures, models and all manner of visual effects illusions.
Marc has lent his expertise of mixed-media animation production to scores of national commercial campaigns and broadcast interstitials, including work for ABC Saturday Morning, MTV, HBO, Epic Records, Fox Television, Kool Aid, Parker Brothers, Mattel, Hasbro, The Pillsbury Doughboy and the original “Bud Bowl” Super Bowl half-time campaign for Budweiser (which logged over 350 million viewers worldwide for the 1.5 minute spot).
Lougee enjoys applying his creative sensibilities to broadcast series programming. Working closely with Producer Susan Ma, he played a key role as Creative Producer in assembling the creative team for What It’s Like Being Alone in 2005/ 2006 and his contribution as Episode Director provided a major creative force behind the show. Marc’s directed animation on several series and pilots for MTV, Discovery Kids, Fox Television, Sci Fi Channel, HBO, BBC and the CBC. Several of these series are currently on-air, including the DiscoveryKids! / BBC’s Dinosapien, MTV’s Celebrity Deathmatch, and the BBC’s Ace Lightning.
Marc directed and co-produced (with Susan Ma) the award-winning short film, “The Pit and the Pendulum”, executive produced by animation and visual effects legend Ray Harryhausen (Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, 20 Million Miles to Earth, Clash of the Titans) and Fred Fuchs (Francis Ford Coppolla’s Dracula, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein).
Since it’s premiere, “The Pit and the Pendulum” has been chosen as an Official Selection in over 150 film festivals worldwide, garnering several awards and nominations, including Best Animated Film at Miami Shorts International Film Festival, Best Adaptation at the International Horror & Sci Fi Film Festival, Best Animated Short Film at the Dragon Con Film Festival, a Storyteller Award a the Redemptive Film Festival, an Ideology Award at the Cinepobre Film Festival and Best Animated Film at the HD Fest Awards.
More info on the film and the trailer can be found on the official film site;
For the latest news, screening dates, locations check the blog;
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