Friday, 12 February 2010

Interview for a German Foto magazine

Which equipment do you need for stop-motion-photography?
All you really need is a camera! But ideally you would have a computer and a fairly stable tripod. On Shaun we have twenty Canon EOS1 Mark3 camera bodies with Sigma 24-70 mm lenses and a range (18/24/50/85/105mm) of Nikon Prime Lenses. The beauty of these cameras is that they have a live video feed and in conjunction with our animation software this enables the animators to mix between their last stored frame and the live image so they can see what movement is happening. Any camera will do though, preferably digital – even a webcam can let you practise your skills and get results very quickly.

What is the best way to approach the project?
The two most important elements of any film are character and story. If you’ve got a compelling story and great character designs then you’re over the first hurdle. After that it’s planning, planning, planning! From script to screen, every episode is storyboarded and edited into an animatic (a 2D version of the final film with very basic animation) Every shot in each episode is planned in terms of action, timing, characters, lighting, rigging, sets and props and thinking ahead to any post-production that might be required. And of course you have to be aware of your budget and therefore your limitations. A producer has to balance the creative needs of the Director with the financial resources of the project. Don’t go writing in a scene in a busy supermarket if you haven’t got the resources to build a supermarket and all the people and props you’d need to make it believable!

Which kind of characters are suited best for it?
It depends on the scale and length of your production. For Shaun we need puppets that will survive being pushed and pulled around for over a year and that will stay in the position the animator puts them in. All of our main characters have a complex armature, or metal skeleton, which consists of ball and socket joints and metal foot/hand plates. They are specifically designed for each puppet and made so that replacing arms and legs is possible (when they inevitably break!) and so that the head can be easily removed so that the animator can work on it without taking the rest of the puppet off the set.
Most of our characters are made of silicone or foam latex which are very hard-wearing and versatile and can be cast into any shape, painted and even cast in a fur-like texture. On the other end of the scale are characters like Morph or Purple and Brown who are just plasticine, with no armatures at all.

How many single shots do you need for one second of film?
25 frames make up 1 second of footage. We shoot most of our animation on “Two’s” which means that the animator moves the puppet every second frame, therefore 12 movements per second. Each day, our animators produce around 7 to 10 seconds a day – that’s 84 to 120 movements per day.
Sometimes if a character is moving particularly quickly through a shot, we might shoot it on “One’s” (moving the character 25 times for one second) otherwise the animation doesn’t look smooth enough.
Overall, in a studio running with 13 animators we are producing around 8 minutes of animation per week.

Which post-production-programmes do you use for the animation?
We use a variety of programmes – Adobe After effects, Smoke and Fusion. The main things we do in post-production are: rig-removal (painting out the metal work that holds puppets in place where needed – for example when something is flying through the air); compositing layers into shots, for example foreground bushes and leaves that get in the animators way; adding in clouds, rain, snow & smoke where needed and generally fixing things that need to be fixed like moving branches, adding bits of sky here and there and removing lumps of plasticine or tools that the animators accidentally leave on set!

Which is the best way to transfer the single shots into a video-format? Which format should it be?
Each frame of Shaun starts life as a JPEG image coming directly from the camera – we have to downscale that JPEG to create an image that has the correct pixel dimensions for high definition transmission.
We use software called “StopMotionPro” at Aardman which is a great all round package used by many studios and home animators. A quick internet search will show you that there are many other packages available and most of them allow you to try them before you buy them. I would recommend you do this before you purchase in order to find the software that suits your needs the best. Remember, you can always UN-INSTALL! We tend to use uncompressed quicktimes to store our final footage but other programs may use AVI’s or Windows Media format – there’s no strict rule but file sizes can vary enormously. You should bear in mind where you want your finished animation to be shown as if it will only ever be on the internet, you can compress and keep your file sizes relatively small. If possible, it’s worth keeping an uncompressed version of your footage in case it ever makes it to the big screen! (or at least a television)

What is to be considered with lighting?
There are many books available on cinematography and cinematic techniques or simply looking online at sites like Wikipedia where there is a wealth of information on the control of light quality, color, direction and intensity. The beauty of shooting digitally is that you can see on your computer exactly how your lighting and composition will look in your final film, or at least before you’ve played around with it in post-production!
Tips: Try and make sure your source of light is stable – we literally glue our light stand to the studio floor in case they get knocked or kicked accidentally. Also make sure there are no interfering light sources such as an open curtain or bedside lamp that you’ve left on otherwise your animation will appear to flicker!

Which is the right image resolution?
Our cameras capture images at 2048 x 1080 pixels (2K Digital cinema resolution) and end up on an HDCAM SR tape as 1920 x 1080 pixels which is the correct pixel dimensions for high definition transmission.

How much production time do you need for 5 minutes of film?
That’s a difficult question to answer as it would take a lot longer in real terms to produce a 5 minute film than it takes us to produce 5 minutes of Shaun within the structure of a series. The entire series of 40 x seven minute episodes took 22 months to create from initial story concepts through to delivering the master tapes. Over 120 people were involved in the production, half of those working for the duration of the 13 month shoot. We shot the series on 20 shooting units (using around 35 different sets) using multiples of characters. On this series we used about 130 sheep, 10 farmers, 14 Bitzers, 12 Shauns and a whole host of other characters! Also we were shooting up to 8 episodes at a time as this is the best way to schedule a studio floor on a series of this size. A lot of the different processes that go into producing the series happen simultaneously – for example, we are doing a lot of post-production (voice records, music composition, sound mixes, sound and visual effects) while we are still shooting, which you probably wouldn’t be able to do on a short film. So although it looks like every episode takes about 2.5 weeks (22 months divided by 40 episodes) in reality it would be virtually impossible to make an animated 5 minute film with the production values of Shaun in such a short space of time.

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