Sunday, December 30, 2012

Pirates of Legoville: The Making Of

On our way home from Christmas spent with Will's parents, I saw an email from a coworker that he needs a few amateur videos for a demo they're doing. I had just spent several hours the day before assembling a lego house that Santa brought us for Christmas. I also remembered last Christmas' project, which was a pirate ship now sitting in pieces at home. A lightbulb went off at that point. I knew that I would be making my first Brickfilm. Will and I spent the next hour or so brainstorming the story line. I decided that there would be a lego house building montage, followed by an attack from the pirate ship.

Then I realized that I'd need to figure out how stop motion animation is done. I mistakenly thought that somehow the stills were taken from a video, but in fact, you just use an ordinary still camera. I knew then that I would use my Canon 50D. After thinking about the problem and googling around, there were a few key things I needed to nail down.

First, the lighting needed to be strong and consistent. Natural light is your enemy when filming stop motion, because any subtle changes in lighting can be dramatic from frame to frame. This led me to choose our office for the venue, since there was only one window to black out. A couple of pieces from Will's foam board stash did the trick. I used a couple of desk lamps plus a giant flood light for the lighting. Will had already created a sort of soft box for the flood light, which worked well.

I also wanted to have a plain white background for the village scenes, so I used a low table in the office against the wall with one piece of foam board as the backdrop, and another piece as the base.

Another thing I wanted to avoid was constantly having to change memory cards on my camera, and also the ability to see an immediate preview of each still. I had read that my Canon 50D has a remote shooting feature, where the camera can be controlled using the computer, and pictures are directly stored on the drive. I managed to get the Canon utility installed on my MacBook Pro, despite not having an optical drive and not having access to a download. Then it was a simple matter of plugging my camera in via the USB connection and setting up the manual controls. I did plug in a remote for my camera so that I could easily click the button without moving the camera or reaching for the space bar.

For consistency across shots, I manually set the white balance to a value that made the whites look white. I kept the aperture narrow (f/16 to f/22, depending on the shot) to get a sufficiently wide depth of field. This meant that my shutter speed had to be relatively slow (between 0.1 and 0.4 seconds).

For editing, I just used iMovie, which is all I have. The main drawback is that it only does 10fps, so it's hard to get really smooth motions with it. All-in-all, iMovie will do the basics, but it's very easy to hit the boundaries of its limitations. Also there seems to be a memory leak or some other bug because iMovie complained of being out of memory quite frequently as I added more projects.

The story came together as I shot it, but the basic plan was in place before shooting. Will animated a couple of the scenes, and added some funny flourishes (such as the cat getting into mischief).

Some things I would do differently next time: more close-ups, different camera angles (e.g., from above), have lego pieces walking on lego board, since it's difficult to have them not move on a smooth surface. I would also like to try software that can do more frames per second, and see if I can smooth out the motions. For lighting, I'd work on brighter, and tighten up the white balance. The camera did seem to move around a bit, and I think that part of this was because I had the image stabilizer on the lens turned on for the first half of filming. Next time, I'll keep IS off.

As far as animation techniques, too much motion can be distracting, as the eye doesn't know where to look. For example, in the scenes where the pirate ship is navigating the ocean waves, one of the lego guys actually climbs the mast and another guy falls off, but you don't notice it because they are dwarfed in comparison to the ship's motion across the waves. It turns out that less really is more. Also, instead of having the lego characters move while panning, it's better to have them still while panning and then have them move.

Lliam helped out with some of the scenes by clicking the shutter button on the remote. It really is fun for the whole family and I will definitely be making another film.

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