Turned out that quite a bit more (three actually) ;) were interested in the process I used. That alone would not yet warrant a post like this, but the level of detail in some responses made me decide to use LJ instead of IRC, mainly because I can upload and embed images.
A little basic data up front. I use a consumer grade (yuck!) HDV-camcorder for filming. That gives me raw material with a resolution of 1440*1080 and an aspect ratio of 1.3333 to get to 16:9. Also - since I live in Europe - 25fps.
I use the high resolution throughout the production process to keep more details than ultimately needed for SD video or YouTube. Rendering a movie at a smaller resolution will actually increase image quality and the result looks like a professional SD camera and equipment was used. Also the camcorder doesn't allow for good focus control. It's reasonably well in regular daylight but at the close distances with puppets and what passes as a studio light (LOL) around here focus is either random or guesswork. Rendering "down" also removes that problem.
Step 1 - The idea
It's like everything I've done so far. At some time a problem or situation gets funny because my brain decides to add a reference to something completely different. In this case I was actually looking for a nasty little bug in my own C++ code that only seemed to occur in certain situations. To relax a bit I decided to watch a movie and my searching eyes fell upon TRON... click
This happened quite some time ago and I had already made plans to do a short film with real actors but that was missing two essential ingrediences: A green screen stage and, well, actors...
When I started the pawpet videos and was looking for material I realized it would be much easier to do this TRON thing with pawpets than with real actors.
Step 2 - The pre-pre-production
I can recommend to everyone out there who wants to try stuff like this: Get organized from the beginning! In this case this means: write a script. Or at least something that holds your thoughts and ideas in sequence. My scripts don't look at all like real screenplays or stageplays. I just type out every little gag I have in mind, rearrange them and add some fillers between them. As long as there's only one or two people involved, there is no need for a spiffy spit-shine screenplay.
Step 3 - The pre-production and casting
Once the sequence of events is fixed, you can check what sets and props might be needed. Usually I like to build the props first and then have a look at what puppets are most fitting to the props... but this time there were costumes involved so I had to decide early on who was going to play what part.
Step 3a - The costumes
This was an experiment in fail... I tried to do the hard parts (helmets and the backpack for the fly swatter) with epoxy resin and failed miserably... the stuff I'm used to takes about four hours to dry and stays usable for about one hour. The stuff I got went all jello within ten minutes. Also I tried to use cut pieces of paper and scotch tape as a mold.
Then I took a step back and decided that maybe (missing english word here: paper/paste mix? "Pappmache" in German) would do the trick. So I wrapped the puppets in plastic foil and lots of scotch tape again and applied the paper/paste mixture where I wanted the helmet and backpack to be. For the fly swatter I glued two circular pieces of cardboard with a spacer in place.
After the paste had dried, I used the same stuff they use to fill up small dents in car bodies to smooth out the surface and add some stability. Again one day later, a Dremel tool (woot!) and dust mask came to use to smooth out the surface.
Now that the plated parts were done, I borrowed my mom's sewing machine and stitched together the suits. Oh boy, never again will I try to make a costume for the snail puppet: no straight edge whatsoever - I ended up wrapping it in the cloth, sewing it shut and cutting the protruding edges... ;)
Now that the costumes were done, I painted them: the plastic/paper parts I spray painted in white first and then I used colored deco and textile pens to paint the lines and murals.
Step 3b - The 3D models
Looking at the script again, I knew I needed several models (I count every distinct geometry definition as a model, not only characters). The complete list is here.
- 7 Stages
- 5 "characters" i.e. models with animation of some sort
- 15 props
For the 3D animation/modelling part I use a software called Animation Master - affordable yet very powerful and tons of features other tools would charge you ten times as much money for (their newest shiny is "liquid simulation")
The models ranged from simple (like the "null-device") to more complex (like the "sound mixer") to quite intricate (like the light cycle) to "who ever came up with that s****" (bit)
Step 4 - Audio recording
Set up the studio grade mike, connect a small mixing console (the mike requires phantom power) and an old MD recorder. Read lines while trying to do a funny - but consistant - voice for each character. It helps if you do the lines one character a time so you don't have to change and re-find voices.
This is the hard part for me and the reason I will not be likely to perform live anytime soon.
Step 5 - The green screen stage
Since it would be next to impossible to hand-control a puppet to an existing moving environment (like the "device corridor" sequence) I did the principal photography of the puppets against green screen first. It does take some imagination to picture where the 3D elements are going to be. I can say the hardest part was the fly swatter hit: try putting one between two fingers and the thumb and swatting thin air without overshooting...
Step 6 - Animation
Since the timing can now be done with frame accuracy by looking at the green screen footage for reference, it was easy to find and tweak the key frame positions for the moving background and putting bit and the recognizer where the fox was looking. This resulted in 9 choreographies and - as you can see - quite some keyframes for the barely visible bug-animation... But I kept it at it's rather imperfect stage since no close up was required... if you were to look closely at the legs they are flying all over the place ;) But coordinating six legs with three bones in each leg with each bone having an origin and a direction (x/y/z and four angles) makes 126 keyed values per frame, not counting the feelers and general movement...
Step 7 - Render the animation
Yawn! Let the computer work for once!
Step 8 - Composition
I'm using Adobe After Effects 7 Professional for the composition work since I have it and it has a nearly perfect green screen keying plugin called "keylight". Putting the fox in the shot was easy. Desaturation to give him a "TRON" looking gray tone was easy as well... but a gray fox is mostly gray to begin with, so this didn't show up as good as I hoped.
Next issue: get the lines on the costumes to glow. For this effect I use the "keylight" plugin on a copy of the greenscreen footage, invert the result set all color information to blue (or red) and add a glow filter.
One of the more challenging effects was putting the fox inside the light cycle as it heads towards the camera. I used a composition inside the composition for that or the alpha channel would have exploded ;) The fox is a bit translucent so the cockpit glass shows through giving the impression of looking through the glass at the fox. Then I added an animated mask to cut the fox at the boundaries of the cockpit and used After Effects "motion tracking" to keep him inside the cycle.
Step 9 - "real live" footage
As soon as I knew that I would no longer need the costumes, I "stripped" the puppets and shot the scenes for the office.
Step 10 - The final effect
The de-rez effect was rather easy compared to the other ones. The scene right before and right after the de-rezing are actually one shot and the effect is done with an interesting looking freeze frame. Had I had more cameras and much more time I could have done the same trick as in TRON and used different views of the same pose...
Step 11 - Editing
The cutting of the scenes was rather easy and only took about two hours total. Syncing the audio was mostly easy and it wasn't much dialog. I like to place every "idea" of sound on a discrete channel - e.g. "Dialog-FOX", "Dialog-Snail", "Footsteps" and so on. This way I don't have to keyframe so many audio levels. Since I own the Adobe Production Studio Suite, I use Premiere Pro for editing.
Step 12 - Titles/Credits
I just use the titler that Premiere provides - the presets require next to no tweaking to make nice looking titles/credits. The downside is that they aren't that unique and I have to restrain myself from overusing different styles in the same production.
Step 13 - Sound Effects
Oh, this was a hard one. I could have used the original sound effects. I have the TRON DVD (well duh!) and there is hardly any music during the interesting effects. BUT as I mentioned in my post about the Pawpet News (goint-to-be) series, I don't want any licensing issues whatsoever! I'm still playing with the idea to create and sell a DVD collection of these at one time. So I had to find good substitutes. A royalty free sound effect CD I purchased several years ago had most of them - although I had to speed some of them up a bit. That left me with just the light cycle race. I couldn't find anything pre-made that sounded remotely like a light cycle. I even toyed with using a didgeridoo to reference the joke about yappyfox's bike being refitted with a didgeridoo exhaust... But then my eyes fell upon my Theremin! Yes, I actually "played" that thing for the first time and recorded it. Pretty neat set up if you think about it: the worlds oldest electronic musical instrument hooked up to the line in connector of a pretty recent PC... :) But it allowed me to do the "turns" of the cycle with a flick of a wrist... literally!
Step 13 - Export to MPEG and Upload
'nuff said ;)