Production Note 2880810: Posting the Haunted Library

by Carvin Knowles on Tuesday, August 31, 2010 at 12:05am

I'm doing post-production on the "Haunted Library" scene from "TheFunhouse Waltz." I'll ask "What the hell does that mean?" So I'll back up a little and bring you up to date:

My last Production Note about my adventures in Stop Motion Animationwas about shooting the "Haunted Nursery" scene. That was eight months ago. It was the beginning of shooting the "Haunted House" section of "The Funhouse Waltz." The strange thing is that in my original "script" (which is more like what you film-makers would expect for a Treatment instead of a Script), I had just written "...exit Clown section. Enter Haunted house: 24 bars..." Based on the metronome for the original Waltz recording, that would be about 20 seconds. The first "Haunted Nursery" shot alone is over 45 seconds. I'm going to need to write more score.

In the time since, I have shot the "Haunted Gallery," which was a smallish room with three hand-painted portraits and a fireplace. This one was wired for two crystal globe electrical lights on either side of the fireplace. The shot was fairly simple. A walk-through of the room and an exit throught the side door and down a corridor which also has a hand-painted portrait on the wall. The whole purpose of that room is to build a little suspense. After that, I did some shots in the corridor before striking the "Haunted Gallery" and building the "Haunted Library" set, which will be the last of the "Haunted House" scenes.

A glimpse of The Haunted Library, through the mirror. Note the camera.
Photo by Carvin Knowles

The "Haunted Library" is the most complex set of the Haunted House section. Unlike the Nursery, there is no window, but there are three bookshelves with 270 individual books on the shelves. This room also has a fireplace, but this one has logs that burst into flame. There's an antique globe, a tea-cabinet, a large wall-mirror, a chandelier (which only appears in the mirror), a large hand-painted portrait over the fireplace, a small round table with a skull on it that has a candle on top, a large thronelike chair upholstered in burgundy velvet and a floor-standing candelabra. There are also dishes, tea-pots and some statuary on the mantle. Like the other Haunted rooms, the entire room is wallpapered in a pattern based on a Victorian wallpaper, but somehow more sinister. And everything was covered with cobwebs.

The shot its-self took two separate "takes." The first one took two nights, but in part of the 50-second shot, you could clearly see that there were no pages in the books on the shelf. And my "fire" in the fireplace was made of shiny plastic, painted yellow. It looked like cartoon fire, which was only bad because there was a candle on-screen just a moment ago and the difference was jarring. And speaking of candles, the candle on top of the skull kept burning down. Too bad, since my camera work was technically quite good and cropping it to 16x9 (widescreen) would have been easy. But because of those three problems, the whole shot would have to be scrapped. It took two nights to shoot the first take.

Inside the Haunted Library, the skull candle-holder in the foreground, the fireplace in the background.
Photo by Carvin Knowles

So I spent two week fixing the technical problems with the set. The first job was to put pages into the books on the offending bookshelf using blocks of paper cut from an old phone book with an X-Acto knife.

But then came time to deal with the fire. I tried several methods to put fire into the fireplace. Nothing looked right. The problem was this: Early in the production process, I decided to use on-screen lighting when I could. At first, this meant using Christmas lights as carnival lights. They looked GREAT! Then I started using candles for lighting. Candle light is beautiful and warm. And it flickers in a way that is random and natural, adding life to any scene. I bought several large boxes of Chanukah candles to use on-screen. But using candles adds an element of time-lapse to the stop-motion. They burn down quickly, so managing the candles is important to the shoot.

Resetting The Haunted Library for another complete take.
Photo by Carvin Knowles
So back to the fireplace: with all this natural candle-light onscreen, I had a great deal of trouble creating a "fire" that would look good compared to the candles. So instead, I set up three candles in a pattern that matched the set-up of the logs in the fireplace, with a piece of construction paper between them. I shot the candles using the same time-lapse, single-frame techniques I used while animating the scenes that had candles in them. Then I roto-scoped them into a 3-second loop of bright fire on a black background to use as fireplace flame. Then I wired the fire-place with an LED to shine a yellow light onto the back wall of the fireplace, when the time came. I also tested and perfected a system of adding an orange lens to a flaslight to shine into the fireplace for that shot.

Everything was ready.

On the night of the shoot for Take-2, I had Boog-E with me to manage my candles. She ran the animated chase-lights in the "Clown Room" last year and was completely brilliant, so whenever her schedule permits, I've got her on my lighting crew. For fill-lights, we had two bundles of Christmas lights suspended over the stage, to supplement the half-dozen Channukah candles on the stage. Once again, the two holidays occupied the same space and combined their ambience to make everything slightly brighter.

This time, the shoot went faster. The animated character's performance was more dramatic, more human. The camera angles were brilliant. Thanks to Boog-E dowsing the candles between shots, keeping the wicks trimmedand keeping track of which ones were burning down, the candle light was moody and beautiful.

Some magic occurred when we were shooting the skull-candle, at the end of that sequence, just before we were to move the camera away to the closeup on the bookshelf, the candle's wick began to lean over untl it went out. The cold wick was sticking out at a right angle, with the wick from the previous candle sticking out on the opposite side as the camera moved away. In that shot, in the upper-right hand corner of the screen, the book on the shelf's title can be clearly seen "Tobin's Spirit Guide."

The shot of the bookshelf shows clearly the pages in the books before moving across the chair to the fireplace.

Suddenly, we were stuck again. I had left my flashlight-and-lens system at home. A quick scan of the office turned up a laser pointer. I found that by aiming it at a certain point on the stack of logs, it gave the impression of glowing embers AND it reflected a strong red glow onto the floor below the logs. With a bit of help from Boog-E, we managed to get a good fiery glow onto the back wall of the fireplace.

72 frames later, I was tilting up to the portrait above the fireplace, a judge in full wig and robes with piercing eyes. After another moment, the camera moves away and the shot was finished.

Next, I dumped the contents of the camera, 1288 frames, onto my computer and rendered them out as a simple QuickTime animation. Overall, it was much stronger than the first take...not even counting the correction of the flaws that hadrequired a second take.

But now it was time for post-production on the 50-second continuous shot. For those of you not involved in film, that's where I take the raw footage and make it look like a film. The most obvious thing was that I needed to composite my rotoscoped candle-flames into the fireplace. Since I'm doing this as primitively as I can to maintain it's rough texture, I'm not using AfterEffects or Motion or any of those applications that make film production easier. Instead, I amindividually placing each flame in Photoshop, one frame at a time. I amalso adding the shadow of a noose to an earlier part of the shot, using shots I had taken of a tiny noose that I tied using twine, earlier in the process.

And that SHOULD have been all. I'm avoiding doing lots of composited shots in this production, and only compositing together things that I've shot myself. Avoiding "computer generated" effects altogether. But there was one more thing. One tiny problem....

As I've mentioned before I'm shooting this mad opus of stop-motion on my Nikon Coolpix still camera. It's small and fits onto the set easily. It goes through tiny doors. It fits in small corridors. It shoots 4 Megapixel photos, which is plenty for animating HD. But, as with nearly all snapshot cameras, it shoots at a 4x3 picture ratio. That means that in order to get the 16x9 ratio of HD, I have to crop each frame, cutting off some part of the top or bottom. Usually, I would shoot everything so that it frames to the top of the viewfinder and cut off the bottom quarter of the frame by automating the cropping in Photoshop. But on this shot, I was working fast, worrying about camera angles, lighting, character, mirror angles, keeping the camera dolly smooth from one frame to the next....and I completely failed to keep everything framed to the top.

So here I am in post-production, working out the cropping for each different camera move. There are now six different framing layouts for the shot. Each one requires a 10-frame transition to get from one framing layout to the next. So for the next few days, I'm in post-production. Compositing and cropping. At this point, it will look good. Great even. But not until I do all the work.

A view of The Haunted Library as seen through the mirror.
Photo by Carvin Knowles

Late Addition 300810

Today I finished off the transitions and compositing for the scene. As I left the office, the animated scene was still rendering. It still hasn't been colour-graded, but tomorrow morning, I'll get a good look at the shot.

In the meantime, I shot the pick-up shots for the Library scene tonight. Little bits and closeups in case I need them when it comes time to edit this beast.

Now, it's time to strike the set and say goodbye to the Haunted House. Next stop: The Crypt. Hey, it's a Funhouse, you knew this was coming!

Production Note 021010: Recycled Materials

by Carvin Knowles on Saturday, October 2, 2010 at 12:23pm

I'm mid-way throughbuilding the next set for my stop-motion short,The Funhouse Waltz. This one is to be the "Crypt" room in the funhouse. Myoffice is filled with half-painted parts: stone-grey arches and pillars, large grey "walls" painted with masonry patterns. It is a fantastical mess.

As with all of the sets and many of the props on The Funhouse Waltz, most of it is made of recycled materials. The back wall, with its arched doorway built into it, was a carton for a Samsung l 42-inch LED TV. The styrofoam for the arches and other architectural details came from the rubbish-heap ata building site, from packing materials that were used in shipping my gong from Thailand, and from the packing on Boog-E's new stove-top. That one is especially good, since it looks like a wide, flat styro box or cooler (chilly-bin as they say here). I haven't chopped it up yet, but I think it will make something special!There's also cardboard walls from the large cartons disposed of by the shops down below my officeon High Street, and some large-ish cardboard tubes, just over twice the diameter of a paper-towel tube, with thick, strong walls, and measuring over a meter long.

Recycled styrofoam and packing tubes that will become arches and pillars in "The Crypt" section of "The Funhouse Waltz."
Photo by Carvin Knowles

Some of it, especially the styrofoam, has been hoarded for over a year. It feels good to finally use this stuff and not just be a pack-rat. This (and one other) is the scene I've been saving this old trash for.

Carving up the styrofoam has been interesting. Styrofoam always makesa mess. Too bad I don't need snow for any scene, because the office looks like there's been a blizzard indoors. Even with the sharpest of X-Acto blades, this stuff sheds like mad! So as soon as a piece of styrofoam has been cut and shaped, I coat it with acrylic paint to keep it from leaving any more droppings on the stage floor. Or the office floor.

I hadn't given much thought to it before, but the sets from this little project are at least 70% recycled. Every scene. The last one had bookshelves filled with hundreds of tiny books, all made from recycled materials. Before that was a dresser, grandfather clock, staircase, fireplace...the list goes on....all recycled. I hope my "Green" friends are paying attention. True, I did it this way to keep costs down. It's no secret that living in New Zealand has been an economic disaster for me. But it has made me remember how to make art without spending a lot of money--to turn nothing into something. And, as it turns out, that has been good for the environment.

But when you watch the final version of my short film, when I finally finish this insane project, I hope you're not thinking about the environment or cardboard or styrofoam or any of that. I hope you don't notice at all that so much of this isrecycled. It is my sincere hope that you'll just enjoy the ride on a creepyold Funhouse.

Production Note 050711: Painting and more painting....

by Carvin Knowles on Tuesday, July 5, 2011 at9:50pm

Once again, there has been a long break in the production. After my annual Halloween trip to Los Angeles, I had an album project, and I've had a bit of work, and time haspassed very quickly. Nowthe dark winter months are upon me again. So this timeI had to just make time for The Funhouse Waltz where there was no time to be had. After all, it's not going to finish its-self. So in the middle of June, I started work again.

When I left off in October, I had been building the "Crypt" set, the location for the next few scenes. I was about halfway through building it. The last set, the Haunted Library, was the most complex set up until that point. After that, I wanted to make this one as simple as possible. The trouble is that the action I had always imagined for this scene required entering it from above, and travelling downstairs into the cavernous, gothic crypt, then moving from chamber to chamber, with some of the action starting up near the ceiling. That, of course, required a ceiling. And a high one at that, to accomodate the shot coming down the stairs. With my story dictating the set, this one has become even crazier than the last one.

The Crypt takes shape!
Photo by Carvin Knowles

And it has required paint. Lots of it. From the beginning, I have mixed my own greys for stone. From the photos in the older Production Notes, and in the Trailer on YouTube, you can see that there are many stone arches throughought the Funhouse. The varied textures and colors of the "stone" are the result of mixing paint. So far, the Crypt set has taken just over threeliters of acrylic, in large bottles of black, white and blue, which I mix while painting, to insure that it is always different, like the real thing would be. Today, I painted the newly constructed ceiling, with support beams, some pillars, the upperlanding and balistrades for the staircase, a movable wall-unit and some styrofoam "bricks" that will be used as details on a few of the walls. It was pretty much a painting day, all day.

And that should be nearly all the painting on this set. Aside from a little touch-up painting, the next step is to assemble the main chamber of the crypt, with its pillars and arches and doors and bricks and ceiling. It is all ready to go together. It really is exciting. I know that all this pre-production is probably boring for some of you, but the mad construction projectis coming to a head. Soon, I'll start shooting again. I'm looking forward to getting the last bit of principal photography underway, and take this little film to its dark and creepy conclusion.

Production Note 090612: Angels and Demons and Vampire Bats

by Carvin Knowles on Saturday, June 9, 2012 at11:55pm

My eBay shipment of Catholic saints have arrived. I have tiny statues from six different countries all lined up on the kitchen counter-top, freshly painted in shades of stone-grey. There are three Virgin Marys, three different angels, a St. Joseph, a Nun (Can't remember which obscure saint she was), a St. Benedict and a St. Bernard and some other monk holding a lamp....all lined up in neat rows like grave markers while the paint dries. In front of them are even more tiny statues. 11 little Gargoyles based on the ones from Notre Dame Cathedral stand in a twisted row, their paint drying. They will all become monuments for inside the Crypt.

My last note mentioned that I had used over three litres of paint for the Crypt set. That amount has doubled in the past year. While the paint was drying I sat outside with a lighter, melting the wings on a tiny plastic bat, to prepare it to become an animation maquette.... although I use the term very loosely here. Still, from the beginning, I wanted to have bats flying through my funhouse. What I have created should work perfectly. I hope.

I didn't write about it before, but last October, I built a small coffin for use in the crypt. Tonight I gave it a coat of black paint, with gold accents on the rails. I lined it with red silk. It is beautiful, drying in the kitchen with all the others. It looks as if all the saints, angels and demons are gazing upon the coffin.

Progress is slow as my other careers keep making claims on my time, but the funhouse is never far from the front of my mind. It creeps forward like the inevitable. Someday, it will rise to be unleashed upon an unsuspecting public.