Production Note 301212: Cameras Rolling (again)

by Carvin Knowles on Sunday, December 30, 2012 at11:42pm

Since last June I haven't written any new notes. I didn't want to raise any hopes with those of you who have been following my progress. I assembled the Crypt set in the first week of this month, then moved the staircase from an earlier scene to the front edge of the stage. I knew that in all the pre-christmas madness, I wouldn't have much time to devote to my little funhouse, so I took the opportunity to bring all the little bits and pieces from home to my little studio and get the first two rooms of the crypt ready to shoot.

Looking down the stairs into The Crypt.
Photo by Carvin Knowles

In preparation, I have assembled a primitive camera track so that the movement of the camera through the Crypt will be far more precise than in previous scenes.

I am testing a new camera dolly design, made from a piece of an old model train set, with an inexpensive Italian camera mount bolted on top of it. I have changed cameras to a Canon SX series, which allows me more precise control over exposure, but it's still a small, self-contained digital camera.

Tonight's effort is really a test-shot, since the camera needs to enter the Crypt at the top of the stairs, then track down the steps into the first level of this underground dungeon. On the most basic level, tonight's shoot was a bit of a failure, since I still haven't cracked the nut of getting a smooth stop-motion shot coming downstairs. It will take more work. But in another sense, this was a success. The Crypt looks beautiful. My lighting is perfect. This is going to work.

Production Note 080113: In The Crypt

by Carvin Knowles on Tuesday, January 8, 2013 at10:17pm

For much of the past week, I have spent every night here in the studio. I made 6 attempts to bring the camera down the stairs. In the end, I used my old technique of taping a small tripod to a thin press-board panel, which was my old "Dolly" system for the Clown scenes. It wasn't perfect, and it took nearly 3 hours, during which I couldn't let go of the "Dolly." But the overall rough quality of this animation has created a kind of style that adds to the creepiness of it. So I'm keeping it.

Switching dollys to my new track system, the camera then moved around the corner and into the next room. For the first time, a bat flew through the frame. It wasn't spectacular, but it worked. So after nearly three years of delays, the Crypt section of my funhouse is underway.

Production Note 280113: A New Camera Dolly

by Carvin Knowles on Monday, January 28, 2013 at5:12pm

My experimental camera dolly system has partially worked, but the toy train was just too flimsy. It was hard work keeping the dolly even and stable and I wasted lots of time re-shooting sections that apeared to bump along. But the experiment taught me what I needed from a dolly.

I consulted retired engineer Llew Fox, who immediately started making complex measurements. His work was fine and meticulous.

In no time, we were in Llew's shed, marking with patient precision, cutting and drilling with slow exactitude. Several hours later we had a work of miniature engineering to be proud of. The new dolly is simple, solid and stable. Some of Llew's solutions were quite elegant, for example, when he mounted the wheels, he fitted them tightly into wooden rails, so that the friction of the wood restricts the motion of the wheels. This keeps the camera dolly from moving unless I want it to move.

The camera-mount is bolted to the centre of the camera dolly, which makes it easy to keep track of the position of the camera at any given time, but this dolly will work on a small boom-arm or any of half a dozen pivot heads.

My home-made engineering approach to this project has reached a whole new high. I just hope it translates into a better film.

Production Note 120213: No Ceiling

by Carvin Knowles on Monday, February 12, 2013 at5:12pm

Inside the Crypt, the far room has no ceiling. Shooting must be suspended while I raise the roof.
Photo by Carvin Knowles
In the past two weeks I have shot several scenes using the new dolly system. It has made the walk-through of the Crypt seem more natural. Along the way, I have shot other scenes that have been in my mind from the beginning of this project. But most recently, it was time to get back to the walk-through of the Crypt. To build suspense, the camera has dollied past gargoyles and a few monuments, then around a corner to reveal a long shot through an arch to view a stone archangel wielding a sword. The trouble is that the second room, through the arch, doesn't have a ceiling on it. Above the wall of the crypt, you can see the room where I work. Clearly, I will have build a ceiling and re-shoot this scene. This one should be simple. But it is always the simple stuff in animation that causes the biggest delays.

Production Note 100613: Minnie's Tomb

by Carvin Knowles on Monday, June 10, 2013 at10:36pm

In fits and starts, I have been working my way through the shot-list for the Crypt. Everything has gone in-sequence, in the order that it happens in my little film. I have been building suspense with dark walk throughs of the crypt. But I just received news that will change all that. We are giving up the lease on High Street Studio. I only have a few months to complete the photography on this set that I have taken so long to build. The clock is ticking!

Close-up detail of Minnie's tomb.
Photo by Carvin Knowles

Tonight, I shot Minnie's Tomb. It took a couple hours to set up the scene, to rig the dolly-track and light it properly, then a couple more to shoot it. There are no characters in this shot, so it wasn't very complicated. Minnie is a ghost, so if she makes an appearance, she'll have to be added later. But the significance of this scene is monumental. I made Minnie's tombstone just before I left for Los Angeles at Halloween of 2010. This shot was part of my original sketch of the story line for The Funhouse Waltz. "As the camera moves around a corner, there stands a monument to Minerva Whittomb, with a carved stone angel kneeling before it." Such a simple shot. I was a little sad when it was over and the shot was exactly perfect, so I shot more frames of the tomb from different angles. Tomorrow, I will dismantle this scene and start the next one, but for tonight, may she rest in peace.

Production Note 170613: A Coffin on High Street

by Carvin Knowles on Monday, June 17, 2013 at8:10pm

As I walked down High Street with a small, 13 inch coffin held in both hands, passers-by tried not to look at me. Two tried so hard that the walked right into each other.

My stop-motion film is about to take its darkest turn yet. For months, I have been building suspense, but now its time to make some scary shit happen!

Once upstairs, I finished dressing the set for the next shot. Again, this one was in my original sketch of the funhouse. But all the set pieces are different from the rest of the crypt. Gargoyles and skulls and....well....a coffin. As with any box, you may well wonder what (or who) is inside. That is the big question, isn't it? Your clue is that I spent much of the afternoon wiring a skeleton for movement. It was slow going and took much longer than expected. You'd think, after all these years of working on it, I'd have more realistic expectations. Shooting begins tomorrow.

The coffin in its final resting place.
Photo by Carvin Knowles

Production Note 180713: The Coffin (continued)

by Carvin Knowles on Monday, June 18, 2013 at10:14pm

The Coffin scene is finished. The first take was the only take. It just worked. Boog-E was there to help animate the bat and I lit this scene with candles for the first time in ages. I could have used my fancy new lighting rig (made of light bulbs from a series of nite-lites) but the flicker of a candle makes for a much creepier scene. The result was completely brilliant. Almost exactly what I had imagined, although my imagination makes it all look real and not like stop motion. But I'm rambling now. The point is, it worked.

With the clock running down on our lease, it's time to skip ahead to another scary scene. On Monday, I'll start tearing down the coffin scene and open up the walls for a larger room.

Production Note 040813: Another Night in the Bone Room

by Carvin Knowles on Sunday, August 4, 2013 at10:36pm

I have spent the past several nights working in the dark by candle-light. The stage is set into a long stone room with a small side gallery on one end. Along the edge of the stage runs a model railroad track for the camera dolly and the room is most notable for a suspended iron cage with a skeleton inside. A second skeleton is manacled to the stone wall at the back of the stage. A third lies in a heap on the floor, next to a rusting axe. Welcome to the "Bone Room."

What should have been simple has once again become complicated. In this case, the camera starts in the far gallery, focused on a skull sitting on a pedestal. Then it moves past a pillar to reveal the skeleton in the cage, slowly past him to reveal the skeleton manacled to the wall, then further still to show the skeleton on the floor. After that, it turns past a small pile of skulls toward an arched door to exit. Sounds simple, right?

One problem is that I am lighting this scene with candles. The track is at the edge of the stage which means that at least one candle must be in the picture. For the one in-picture, I'm using a wall-mounted "torch" which holds a single Chanukah candle, which is slightly larger than a Birthday candle. But these little fiery delights burn down fast, so either I must work VERY quickly, or just accept the sudden change of light in the room that occurs when I replace the candle that has burned down. And if I stop to change the candle, the pressure that I apply to my camera dolly on the track changes, so it appears as if the cameraman has hit a bump. Stopping and starting the camera motion is also a problem as it changes the speed at which the camera travels, all of which makes the scene far too jerky and bumpy. This little film is primitive enough! I can't have my audience distracted from the skeletons by bad camera work.

Inside the Bone Room.
Photo by Carvin Knowles

Add to that other little things, such as: the iron cage is suspended by a chain from a metal boom-stand. Working conditions on the stage are understandably cramped. On the last take, I bumped the metal boom while changing a candle. The cage began to swing wildly. I settled the cage by hand and resumed shooting, but afterward, when I viewed the shot as animation, the cage suddenly leapt sideways by what appears to be about 3 feet. In miniature, it was only about 3 inches, but onscreen that was huge. That shot was better than the first, which was a bumpy mess, but it's still not right. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. The list of fragile variables for this "simple shot" keeps going.

Now I'm setting up for the third attempt to shoot this simple scene. Immediately after I get a good shot, I'll have to reset the track. In the finished film, we will visit this room a second time. That next shot will be much more complicated. All the more reason for this one to be perfect. Candles lit. Fingers crossed.

Production Note 121113: Enter The Judge

by Carvin Knowles on Wednesday, November 13, 2013 at6:56pm

After my last note, I finished up the first, troubled walk-through of the Skeleton Room. It came out beautifully, thanks to the lighting magic of Boog-E, keeping watch on the open flames on-set, making certain the candles never burned completely down (not to mention making certain that the stage didn't burn down).

The next scene in the Skeleton Room was to involve walking skeletons. I had arranged for a Czec marionette for the main "character" for that scene. But at every stage, it was clear that it was a marionette on strings. The idea had to be scrapped for now, which was very disappointing. My Czec designer had created a very expressive skeleton. It was genius and I would recommend his work to anyone who needs a skeleton puppet (or any kind of marionette). Perhaps I can use it anyway. Perhaps it doesn't matter that the puppet's strings are visible, but with a looming deadline, I didn't want to take any risks. I purchased another walking skeleton from a seller on eBay, but it didn't arrive. A month went by. The clock was running down on my lease, I was dead in the water. The skeleton arrived. It was the wrong size. More money and more time wasted. I made the decision to animate the skeletons later and composite them into the shot.

And now the pressure is really on!

In two weeks, my makeshift studio will be closed and packed away into storage. I should be packing things into boxes and preparing to move out now. Instead, I am animating. Once I strike this set, I will clear the stage and dismantle it. From that moment, all principal photography on The Funhouse Waltz will be finished. Any pick-up shots will need to be done on a smaller stage with less scenery, at my home. This has happened before. When I moved to New Zealand from Los Angeles, I animated until about a week before I left. All that scenery was lost and I had to begin over in a new country. This feels all too familiar, but I won't let it slow me down.

For the past four nights, I have been up well past midnight, animating a single scene. This one involves four characters, most of whom appeared as clowns at the beginning of the film. Now, stripped of their clown makeup, they present the horror that lies beneath every aspect of the Funhouse. Most of my animation, so far, has not presented any drama. For this one moment in the film, the ghostly veil of circus metaphor will part to reveal the evil that men do. In this scene, characters will die.

The worst horror, the most frightening, is the human monster. In the case of The Funhouse Waltz, one of characters was always intended to become a figure of authority, abusing his power to kill anyone who gets in his way. In the first draft of The Funhouse Waltz, he was a bishop of the church who burned people at the stake. I went as far as making costumes for the character. But on the plane to New Zealand, during my move here, I read a Bram Stoker short story about the ghost of a judge who still executed the condemned from beyond the grave. In an instant, 30,000 feet over the Pacific Ocean, the character changed.

Judge Whittomb's portrait in the Haunted Library.
Photo by Carvin Knowles

When I painted portraits for the Haunted House section of The Funhouse several years ago, I took special care painting the Judge as a menacing character. But now, in the horror scene, the Judge would make his first real appearance. Unlike his portrait, this Justice is blind. His eyes are a void blank. And while you may recognize him as one of the clowns from the opening of the film, his menace, even at the start of the film, is clear.

The Judge needed symbols of authority, so before I could shoot, I built for him a bench and a gavel. Behind him, a new arch with an inverted pentagram in the centre of it reinforces his power and authority. As he pronounces his formal words to the condemned, a headsman raises his axe. As with many a monster in human history, this Judge will not soil his hands with the blood of lesser beings.

I have spent these four nights in the secret underground courtroom of Judge Jacob Whittomb, deep beneath his Victorian mansion in the ancient crypts. The animation has been somewhat complex and painstaking. When I designed this production, I knew nothing about stop-motion animation, so my stage doesn't have a proper tie-down system. When characters must move, walk and climb, they are truly balanced in whatever precarious position that they appear on-screen. The old toy axe I bought over seven years ago nearly overbalances the headsman as he raises it up to strike. Minnie watches the action, perched on the edge of a well. Several times, some of the characters would tumble over and shooting would stop until I could reposition them as they were before. My camera track runs along the edge of the stage to quickly move from character to character as they interact in this formal, ritualized killing. At one point, the camera track was switched to a sideline that runs up a ramp for a push into a closeup on the Judge. During the course of the four nights, I changed batteries in the camera eight times. After seven years of practice, I have learned to do this so seamlessly that you'll never guess where it happened. And to top it all off, I had been shooting much of the Crypt section at 12 frames per second. But for real character work, I knew I needed to shoot at 24 frames per second. Everything on this shoot would take at least twice as long.

Judge Jacob Whittomb at his bench.
Photo by Carvin Knowles

At the end of each night's shooting, I locked the camera dolly down to the stage floor with several strips of gaffer tape and locked up the old High Street office, hoping that gravity would be kind to my characters who were frozen mid-action. There was only time for one attempt at this. The complexity of the action meant that any mistakes would cost me another four-day shoot, and I just don't have time to waste on mistakes.

Last night, the scene reached it's gruesome climax. The Judge's speech to the condemned was over and it was time for the headsman to do his job. As I finished shooting the final frames, I could tell it had all worked. I uploaded more than 1700 frames to my computer and rendered a rough version to video. It was all there, just over a minute's worth of continuous, unbroken action. Sure, I will need to adjust cropping and layout. There are a small handful of camera bumps that I will need to smooth over and few small ghostly effects to add, but this scene, with all its drama and complexity, looks the way I had planned it nearly five years ago.

The clock is ticking down. There may be time for one more shot on this animation stage. But for now, I have the scene I needed to make this insane tale make a little bit of sense. Once the stage is gone, only the FX shots will remain of the animation work. They will require no sets or scenery. No complex setups. Just the character and the camera. But for now, there's lots of work to do and very little time.

Production Note 231113: Final Day of Principal Photography

by Carvin Knowles on Friday, November 23, 2013 at8:12 am

It's the last day of principal photography for The Funhouse Waltz. The lease has run out on High Street Studio and there's no way to extend it. That studio has seen its last production day.

From the beginning of The Funhouse Waltz, from the first story sketch that I wrote on the back of an envelope, I have intended a "pendulum" scene. reminiscent of the one described by Poe in his famous story. Back in 2006, when I was first building sets and characters, I made a large curved pendulum blade from cardboard, acrylic and hot glue. It has been waiting for seven years for tonight.

After all that buildup, after all the character and body animation I have done on this little film, the pendulum finally made its appearance tonight. I thought this would be a simple, get in, shoot it and get out sort of evening. But nothing is ever that simple. There were gears to animate, camera moves, lighting tricks to get the shadow on the wall just right. I worked until well after midnight.

The end result is kind of brief. This was never intended as a separate, full-length episode within the funhouse. It was just another little fright that could kill you. But all the same, it came out quite beautifully. And it's the last scene that needed a large, cavernous, underground crypt to make it work.

With that, principal photography is finally finished for The Funhouse Waltz. That doesn't mean that the film is finished, but this is a huge milestone in the life of this little film. In January, I will resume the pick-up shots for special FX and closeups on characters. This IS a ghost story, so there will be more than a few transparent characters that must be shot separately. After that comes sound design, editing and, of course, the score. But still, the long, hard road of animating this little tale on a stage with complex sets and props has come to a close. After the studio equipment is safely packed away into storage, I'm going to have a little wrap party.