by Marc Lougee – In April 2007, I dropped a little article here on the workbookproject.com laying out a very basic DSLR/ shooting system that I had assembled for production of the stop motion animated short film, Ray Harryhausen Presents: The Pit and the Pendulum. Using Digital Single Lens Reflex Camera’s in place of traditional film camera’s we’d found a high quality, cost effective digital alternative to 35mm film.
So, in an effort to help sort out the process a bit for those hopeful souls who want to know, I’ve laid out the basic process we used to achieve a digital finish for theatrical presentation, festivals, broadcast & DVD release for The Pit and the Pendulum. I don’t profess the following diatribe to be gospel, only reflective of what I feel were great results for a lower cost than we could expect with 35mm film cameras and the required post processes. This sort of set up has been used for a few years, becoming widely known with the production of Tim Burton’s The Corpse Bride. Tim Burton’s crew took the High Road (theirs was a pricey set up- the Canon camera’s were reportedly $8K each & they bought 24 of ‘em). Alternatively, scores of filmmakers have trundled along the Low Road on their way to a less costly, high-resolution version of the system (think DIY vs. Disney). Hence, the popularity of Nikon’s D70s Digital Single Lens Reflex camera and it’s sub-$1000 price range.
Thankfully, I didn’t have to sell any internal organs or participate in drug tests to get hold of the equipment we needed. Total costs for the computer, monitor, camera, hard drives, lens, mini cameras, et al worked out to less than $2400 per system. Considering what a 35mm Mitchell camera and a few prime lenses used to cost $6K, I think it’s a deal. Once you own it (the DSLR package), you can rent or sell, recouping some of your production costs to throw a wrap party! Since we produced The Pit and the Pendulum, the D70s has dropped a few hundred dollars in price, new. Personally, if you consider buying, I recommend highly getting new gear, with warranties intact. Though the camera’s are pretty hardy, they are not built for the rigors of stop-motion production and the warranty may be void with such use. There is info online concerning life expectancy of shutters, body, etc., but most is fairly vague. We shot a television series with 10 D70s camera’s running 10-15 hours a day, 5 days a week for 10 plus months with scant few problems. Out biggest problem was the power supply cables being crushed, frayed, etc. due to lots of set traffic. The camera’s shot upward of 30-40,000 images apiece, with daily cleaning. So, careful use ought to get you a long way with these things. My experience with this system has been positive, and the resolution…just can’t be beat.
Another camera making waves is Nikon’s D300. Sporting a live feed with Firewire output, these things are changing the DSLR / stop-motion landscape. I’ll stick with the D70s in this article, as it’s what I’ve the most experience with at this point, and I’ve not had time to mess with the D300, but hope to soon. Till then, here we go…
In The Beginning…
Basically, we started much the same way any animated project hits the ground; running wildly through the steeplechase of production, our hair on fire. Our take on Edgar Allan Poe’s classic story started with a Matt Taylor and I discussing the script in April and Matt’s delivery of the final draft in May. Much kneeling & begging ensued as I pitched the project (and our need of favors) to our many friends and vendors. Meanwhile, producer Susan Ma negotiated deals and finalized contracts as we lurched from pre-viz into production. Generous funding from Bravo!FACT and the National Film Board of Canada came in handy, allowing us to go about building sets and puppets, culminating in the start of our six week shoot in July, 2005.
Pre-Viz for everybody!
‘Pre-viz’, or pre-visualization, proved a key aspect on our animated adventure. Everybody finds a process for pre-visualizing ideas and concepts to tell their story, and I’ve got mine, which goes something like this; I start by drawing little thumbnail sketches in the script as I read, transcribing the text into images for reference later on. Here’s a sample from The Pit and the Pendulum (script by Matt Taylor):
Collecting the best thumbnails, then scanning and re-assembling them into my storyboard template, I add dialogue and shooting notes. By now, I’ve a rough version of the storyboards with which I can shoot from directly. If illustration is not your forte’, no worries. There are lots of alternatives and options, from simple stick figures to any number of storyboard software packages available (some even tout free ‘demo’ versions). When I can afford the luxury (usually on series or commercial gigs), I have storyboard pro’s plow through my thumbs, cleaning them up for clarity. In this case we were shy on cash, so I scanned the thumbs and came up with my own version of the storyboards. As you can see, one need not be gifted to get the point across…
Once finished cutting the thumbs up for the storyboards, I drop the thumbnail images (as jpegs) into Final Cut Pro, adding a rough dialogue track I’d recorded to help sort out the timing for animation. This stuff was then cut into an animatic (a version of the film in illustrated form) to share with the cinematographer, dialogue actor and animators. The purpose is to get everyone cognizant of the direction, look, and feel for the film, in hope of saving us a lot of frustration while shooting. In my humble opinion, animation lives and dies in the storyboard stage, so be careful and strive for clarity in what you’re trying to achieve. The devil is in the details and you may need the aspirin for other stuff.
Digital Image Capture and why we went there
From the outset, I wanted to shoot the film utilizing as high resolution source. My experience with digital capture for animation started while Animation Director on MTV’s Celebrity Deathmatch in New York, where we had used three-chip cameras built for medical operating theatres. The image resolution & color was great for standard definition television, but held no promise of great results when screened in a theatrical.
In addition, the body of the camera was tethered to a control box, gamma scope and computer via cables, power cords and whatnot, limiting maneuverability and placement options dramatically. The necessary antics to work around this assortment of cabling and hardware (on an already cramped set) often landed folks on a chiropractor’s table.
Our plan was to shoot The Pit and the Pendulum with Nikon D70s Digital Single Lens Reflex cameras, sending single frames of animation to Mac Mini’s and then to an external hard drive for storage. Animation referencing was handled with Frame Thief, a low cost, highly cool tool for Macs (apparently not yet available for PC’s). The high resolution RAW or NEF (Nikon) files were captured using Nikon’s remote capture software, Capture NX. This allowed for quick uploading and preview of each frame or single image. Capture NX was extremely helpful in making focus adjustments, saving much tucking behind the camera on set. This requires a little getting used to, rotating the focus ring on the camera while staring at the computer monitor, but it may prevent your having to perform diabolically difficult maneuvers to peer thru the camera’s viewfinder while crawling on the set to do so.
Here’s the equipment & software used for shooting The Pit and the Pendulum;
Apple Mac Mini computer
17” Flat Screen Color Computer Monitor
(we used flat LCD screens for portability & minimal footprint)
Nikon D70s DSLR camera w/ 18-70 zoom lens
(we switched the package lens for a manual lens)
Canopus ADVC 11 analog to video converter
500 Gig external hard drive, (non-partitioned)
Mini B&W security camera (for viewing thru the camera viewfinder)
Frame Thief capture program (low-cost animation frame grabbing software)
Adobe Photoshop CS2
(great for batch converting RAW files to TGA’s, JPEG’s, etc.)
Adobe After Effects with The Foundry’s Tinderbox 3 ‘De-Flicker’ plug-in
(De-flicker is an excellent tool to remove inadvertent ‘image flicker’; see below)
iMovie HD (shipped with the Mac Mini’s)
Final Cut Pro or Express
(I prefer FCP or Express to Premiere or Avid for editing. Very handy for test comps on the fly, when shooting green/ blue screen animation or elements).
The D70s lacked live output/ video assist to review what you’re doing in front of the camera. We improvised with a miniature security camera serving as a video assist, which was plugged into a Canopus ADVC110 digital to analog video converter, then to the Mac Mini on which two programs ran simultaneously for image capture. Here’s a basic layout of the system;
The first program, FRAME THIEF, captured single frame ‘grabs’ from the mini camera for preview. While the mini camera supplies a constant ‘live‘ feed, FRAME THIEF grabs a single frame at a time from the feed, supplying a low-res version of the captured image in the viewing window. Once selected, the frame grabs are added to the Frame Thief timeline, creating an animation sequence. This would be the reference time line that can be reviewed as the shot progresses.
As well as being easy on the wallet and even easier to use, FRAME THIEF has several very handy features built in, virtually negating the need for surface gauges, etc. One very cool feature of note allows the user to place digital markers on screen (crosshairs or hand drawn lines, circles, etc), replacing any need for physical pointers or markers on the set. There is plenty more to make us of in the program, so I suggest tromping over to the site and have a look at the offerings. PC users fear not, as there are several ‘frame grabber’ programs available as well.
The second software program is Nikon’s remote capture offering, CAPTURE NX. Capture was used in tandem with Frame Thief, requiring both software windows be open simultaneously for the duration of each shoot. Capture NX captured directly from the D70s to the Mac Mini then onto the external hard drive, while Frame Thief captured the mini cam feed to the Mac Mini for reference use, thru the Canopus ADVC. Essentially, 2 camera feeds, one computer. This of course necessitated we have separate destination files for the two programs. The very high resolution images from the Nikon were stored externally on the external hard drive, while the much lower resolution images from the mini camera were stored on the Mac (reducing strain on the processors). This process requires two windows open on the monitor, one showing a low-resolution image preview (Frame Thief) the other a high-resolution image preview (Capture NX).
Additionally, each increment of animation, whether you shoot single or double frames, should be triggered equally on each of the two programs. Unless of course you’re a mathematical genius, then have at it you wild thing. Personally, it’s a lot easier to keep up if both frame/ image counts are reflecting the same numbers as I work my way through a shot. The fewer mental hijinks to wrestle thru, the more energy I have for the animation.
To be continued next week
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;
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