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February 5, 2008

the making of "a word from professor ichbonnsen"

by sven at 9:15 pm

behind the camera

I've been flummoxed for a month about how to structure a post describing the making of "A Word From Professor Ichbonnsen." I think now what I'll do is use this post to illustrate the "pose-to-pose" (or "keyframing") method of doing stopmo, which I've been writing about...incessantly...for the past day or so.

recording the voicetrack
click on image to play clip (1.9 MB)

"The sound leads." Here's an amusingly embarrassing clip of me recording the voicetrack. (Thanks to Gretchin for thinking to tape this!)

I did the recording in a walk-in closet, thinking that the clothes would help prevent echoes. I used the built-in microphone in my laptop and GarageBand for capture. I did some clean-up of the sound afterwards using Sound Soap.

Papagayo interface

After finishing the voicetrack, I imported the sound file into the free lipsync analysis program, Papagayo. Doing the analysis is actually very intuitive and simple to do -- but the mouth shapes that come with the program (to demo your lipsync) are pretty useless.

I decided that after doing my analysis and transferring it to X-sheets, I should proof the lipsync to make sure it looked right. A fairly easy task -- and not having to worry about whether the mouths are right during actual filming... Well, that more than makes up for the time spent on proofing.

mouth stickers

The mouth shapes that I used on this project are straight out of Preston Blair's book "Cartoon Animation." I've looked through quite a few books, and so far nothing comes close to the clarity of Blair's mouth shape illustrations. Good way to learn on my first serious lipsync'd film, I figure.

The mouths are photocopied onto sticker paper, hand-colored, and cut out. I've got a reference key attached to a clipboard. I tried covering the reference sheet with acetate -- but to my surprise, the stickers adhere to it strongly. I tried using wax paper instead and found that it both easily releases the stickers, and I can see the reference chart through it with no problem.

viseme chart

Phonemes are the audible sounds that make up words. Visemes are the visual mouth shapes of a language. You can figure out lipsync analysis by looking in a mirror... But I decided that while it may not be 100% accurate, I'm quite content to at least rough out an analysis by having a cheat-chart of which visemes go with which phonemes.

While Blair's book was an invaluable starting point, I did need to make judgement calls about which visemes I was going to include, and exactly how I wanted to map them to phonemes.

I found it very useful to re-name the phonemes... Linguistic marks are troublesome to create on a computer -- transliterations work better here.

mouth shapes in AfterEffects

I locked down my camera and photographed the puppet's head wearing each of my 15 mouth shapes. I imported these 15 photos into AfterEffects. Reading through my X-sheet notes, I dragged instances of the photos into a new timeline, creating a lipsync proof film, one frame at a time.

lipsync proof
click on image to play clip (885 KB)

While still in AfterEffects, I added on a time code -- so if I found a frame that looked wrong, it would be a simple matter to locate and correct it. I was really astonished when I was doing lipsync tests a month or two back to discover just how much a single bad frame can stand out. I got lucky this time, and felt satisfied with my lipsync on the first try.


To finish up pre-production work on the lipsync, I went through my X-sheets and made sure that every frame was marked for which mouth would be required. As an example, "Sven" might get written out as: 1-X ... 2-FV ... 3-Eh ... 4-Eh ... 5-X.

non-linear pose development

With the voicetrack all pre-planned, I moved on to developing poses. To do this, I started by just brainstorming all sorts of poses that might fit with the energy of the scene. This is a short clip, and Ichbonnsen doesn't walk anywhere, so nine photographs of pose options seemed plenty.

click on image to play clip (352 KB)

Selecting five photographs from the visual brainstorm, I assembled them into an order that seemed to make sense. Using the script and the X-sheets to choose logical moments for pose changes, I created a new "pop-thru" clip in AfterEffects. This clip would be my visual reference while filming.

stopwatch & metronome

I made notes on my X-sheets about how long each pose should last. One last thing to do: figure out how long each transition between poses should take.

I've tried using a stopwatch while acting out the poses to try to figure out timing. I don't like it. It's hard to stop and start the stopwatch with precision... And time is measured in 1/100th of a second -- rather than 1/24th, which is what I need for animating.

So, I switched over to using an electric metronome. Mind you, I don't care about "beat mapping" the entire film -- all I want is to figure out how long each transition should last. Setting the metronome to 60 beats per minute (bpm) gives me a "click" each second -- that is, every 24 frames. 120bpm is a click every 12 frames... 180bpm is a click every 8 frames... And so on.

Listening to an audible beat while acting out the transitions made it very easy to get a sense of how long a particular transition should last. I'm excited: it feels like if I continue using this method, I'll very quickly be able to get a sense for how to estimate how long any particular action will take on screen. (Well, so long as it's a very short action!)

tripod's kick-guard

On to filming. ...D'oh! Ten frames in, I kicked the tripod and ruined my shot!

Well... I had a little insight about the tripod while working on this film. When I kick the legs of my tripod, it's usually not at the very bottom -- it's halfway up. So, this time around, I used a piece of foamcore sandwiched between bricks to create a wall -- which keeps me from coming anywhere near the damned thing.

And the wall worked like a charm!

the finished film
click on image to play clip (2.1 MB)

Here's your reward for wading through this long post: The finished film!

the giant lightning sloth

But wait... One last extra treat: A peek at the film that didn't get made.

Everything I've described in this post happened in one long marathon, during the Saturday, Sunday, and Monday leading up to midnight of New Year's Eve. As late as Friday, I was planning on going with a different script, one which had the Professor getting swallowed by the "giant lightning sloth" pictured on Monster Month's cover.

Ultimately I could see that I just wasn't going to have time to get an adequate monster puppet built. As you can see above, though, I bought faux fur and was roughing out the thing over a cardboard frame.

Heh... And besides not having time for fabrication, I realized too late that set wasn't big enough to get something as big as the lightning sloth in frame. Y'know, I originally wanted to shoot with a 16:9 aspect ratio... If that's going to be the case, gotta have a wider set next time!

posted by sven | February 5, 2008 9:15 PM | categories: stopmo