Ambulance Video Design Process and Animatic

10 April, 2010

For the last five weeks or so, I've been working on stop motion video for the song Ambulance by TV On The Radio. I started it for the stop motion assignment for Methods of Motion, have continued it on through the After Effects assignment, and will be pressing on work with it through the rest of the semester for my final project.

The process has had four stages so far: building the environment, designing the characters, animating, and putting in the faces. I'll go through them one by one.

When I first heard the song the idea for a narrative popped into my head almost immediately. The imagery was inspired by the combination of the running water sounds that open and close the track and the "dark barbershop" quality of the harmonies. In my mind these combined to summon imagery that juxtaposed warm domesticity with violence and raw violent nature. The basic outline of the story would be: at a warm household on a riverside cliff, a woman waits. Her man returns home infuriated and attacks her. She escapes and he chases her along the cliffside until she falls into the water. He chases her through the river until she finally manages to fight back, kicking him into the water where he drowns as the lights of an ambulance flash in the distance.

I started with the part I was most comfortable with: building the set. Having already built a miniature mountain for a previous project, I knew how to proceed with the construction. I set about laying out the landscape with balls of rolled up newspaper.

river landscape newspaper underlayer

Then I covered the paper in strips of plaster cloth

plastered model from above

and painted it:

view of painted model

Finally, I added grass (from plastic modeling dust) and trees (out of sticks from Tompkins Square Park).

lights installed in river set

Since the scene takes place at night, I imagined it lit by a ghostly blue light that seemed to originate from the water. This took a little bit of experimenting with to get right. Finally I found that a combination of cut-up blue cellophane and vellum gave the light the right diffuse quality so you couldn't see

view through rocks with new water

The other great advantage of this technique was that it's extremely easy to move the blue cellophane around between shooting each frame to create a compelling illusion that the water is actually moving.

The next thing I had to figure out was how to do the characters. I struggled with this for a couple of weeks. At first, I experimented with taking photographs of a couple of people in my class, making them into paper dolls and moving them through the environment. I recruited two actors, photographed them in a variety of poses and facial expressions and then had high quality prints made so I could cut them into paper dolls. Here's the print I made of David Phillips who I'd recruited to play the male character:

David arranged for cutout

This approach had two problems. When I finished constructing the paper dolls, I rapidly realized that they were going to be extremely difficult to animate. I didn't have enough poses to really just swap them out and all of my attempts to cut them up and attach them to different armatures failed miserably.

David paper doll in Ambulance set

Also, while these photographic prints did look somewhat compelling on the set, a number of people in the class gave me the feedback that they didn't quite match it. They were both too specific and too mundane.

So, after some more experimenting, I decided to go with a hybrid approach. All along in the process, I'd been using small posable wooden drawing dummies while constructing the set to get its scale correct:

climbing onto a rock

These figures had a nice neutral quality that made them iconic and I liked the way that the moved. The main problem with them was that they were identical making it hard to distinguish the male and female characters. Also, lacking faces, they lacked a certain subtlety of expression.

To solve these problems, I decided to team up with Calli Higgins, a fellow student in the class. Calli had some pre-existing experience with After Effects and we decided to experiment with using it to superimpose faces onto the drawing dummies.

It took some brilliant finagling by Calli with multiplication layers and transparency, but here was our first test footage (it's a short clip so watching full screen will make it dramatically easier to see the faces):

Ambulance - test from Calli Higgins on Vimeo.

We used our own faces for each of the characters, taking pictures with the built-in iSight camera whenever we needed a new pose. Then Calli worked painstakingly through frame-by-frame to match the faces to the dummies' poses.

With the world and characters in place, we've begun pushing through animating the rest of the piece. I'm shooting the raw stop-motion footage and then handing off to Calli to apply the faces. This week, in order to show the whole story to the class and to let Calli prepare for what was coming, I edited together the existing minute or so of animated footage that I'd shot along with an animatic, a kind of moving storyboard made by dissolving between still shots.

Ambulance Video Animatic and partial assemblage from Greg Borenstein on Vimeo.

The animation is a slow and painstaking process, with an hour of work resulting in about two seconds of footage. From here on out it's just a slow slog where I need to shoot about 6-10 seconds of footage per day for the next three weeks to get the thing finished.

For more "behind the scenes" on the building of the set, you can take a look at my Ambulance video set on Flickr.