Thursday, October 11, 2012

A Little More “Mermaid”

Back to the first "Little Mermaid" entry

Hitting a Wall

The faithful, long-time reader of my blog (and you know who you are, Dad) will probably recall my annual struggles to create animated presentations of my illustrated stories for, using Adobe Flash.

I think Flash is just too complicated to 
use without proper training
Creating pieces for Gothtober during the past nine years has led me to take advantage of what the Web can do by translating my story and illustration ideas into art pieces with movement and sound. But as I taught myself just enough Flash from online tutorials to get my more recent pieces finished, I felt like I’d wandered into a little corner of the world of animation somewhat by accident, and I started to wonder where I would go next. Without any proper education in the program, I barely knew what I was doing, and wasn’t even sure that this was the best tool for my purposes.

As I put together “The Buffalo Demon” last October, repeatedly banging into the walls of my own ignorance and Flash’s quirks like a Roomba trapped in a pantry closet, I solemnly promised myself (between bone-jarring collisions) that I would find another way to animate my work.

A Break-through at SFAI 

On a rainy March night this spring, I sat down in a dim film classroom at the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) to start an adult continuing education class in experimental animation. I felt like I was going out on a limb — me, the goofy painter, taking a film class? — but when my teachers, David Borengasser and Tiffany Doesken, reached their unit on 2-D stop animation and showed us how we could set up a stage and camera, make our own puppets, and animate them, I began to put these ideas together with my illustrative work. For the final project, I chose 2-D stop animation as my method, and started “The Little Mermaid.”

I think David and Tiffany may be the most patient and encouraging art teachers I’ve ever had, and I have to stop and thank them here for everything they taught me, and thank the ACE program at SFAI for running their class. David and Tiffany’s experience, guidance, and support have definitely pushed my work to the next level, and I’m truly grateful for the opportunity to learn from them.

Inspiration from “Surfer Girl” 

Like most of my time-based pieces, I started this animation with a script. This was based on some idle thoughts that I had while driving on I-580, listening to The Beach Boys’ “Surfer Girl.” The script developed my initial inspiration and images into a continuous narrative, separated into scenes and shots that paralleled the song lyrics while telling their own story. At this point I also started my technical planning with lists of all the puppets, props, and backgrounds I would have to paint and construct to shoot the animation.

Editing a list of the puppets needed to portray the surfer

I see this story on a couple of different levels: as a sweet and simple story about a lonely character, as a sort of laughable romance fiction, and also as a story that alludes to the drama of self-discovery and coming out as gay. Not to say that I was trying to write a commentary about being gay into the story, but after a few months of work, one does draw some connections.

Hans Christian Andersen’s “Little Mermaid”

Only after completing my script did I pause to consider the similarity my mermaid story bore to Hans Christian Andersen’s classic fairy tale, in which a mermaid trades her tail and her voice for legs in order to pursue the human prince she has rescued and fallen in love with. In due diligence, I read through a Wikipedia article on Andersen’s “Little Mermaid” story, and reviewed several other animated interpretations of it, but only to check how his plot compared to the one I had invented. I felt my story was different enough to feel like a twist on the original, rather than a remake, and decided, cheekily, to give it the same title. I then promptly buried my nose in my own project again. In fact, I was so focused on creating a coherent narrative for my own story (without the benefit of expository dialogue, I might add), and completing as many shots as possible before David and Tiffany’s class ended, that I unthinkingly relegated my very own childhood copy of Andersen’s Fairy Tales to the bottom of a pile of books assigned the menial task of holding up one of the lamps on my animation stage.
Andersen's Fairy Tales sat on my 
worktable for five months... unopened.

Imagine my surprise six months later as I read Julianna Parr’s comments about my “Little Mermaid” in The Gothtober Blog, in which Julianna, Gothtober’s creator, shares the results of her own research on Hans Christian Andersen. Her readings revealed that the original “Little Mermaid” is itself, as she puts it, “a really really really GAY STORY.” Once I understood Andersen’s perspective, his familiar tale seemed to open up to me. Now I do fully recognize a very gay experience in the original plot: the pain of invisibility and silence, and the hopeless vulnerability of an attraction to someone who may as well inhabit a separate world that you just don’t belong to.

Big Watercolors, Tiny Actors

Painting large watercolor landscapes isn’t something I do frequently, but I decided that the backgrounds for this ocean piece would look best if painted in subtle, watery watercolor. Having done the necessary research and experimentation, I have a few observations about watercoloring to share with you.

  1. You can make lovely fluffy clouds in a wet wash of sky by simply wiping some of the paint away with a paper towel.
  2. Despite the inherent delicacy of the medium, painting a smooth wash over a large area is an almost athletic pursuit in which you race against time and temperature as your paper mockingly dries before your eyes.
  3. When thoroughly moistened, Arches watercolor paper smells like a wet dog.
I now have greater respect for people who paint large watercolors. In fact, I’ve come to suspect that the world’s most skilled and successful watercolorists all live together with a pack of St. Bernards in an eternally damp basement (possibly somewhere in England), where their paper stays wet for a full hour, and nobody notices the way it smells.

Parts for my first set of mermaid puppets
Designing and crafting the puppets for this piece was more familiar territory for me, and it was amusing, if time consuming, to assemble lifeless little pieces of painted paper (some of them as small as a fingernail) into convincing-looking characters.  My favorites in this piece are the shark (So grumpy! And he never manages to bite anyone! Hee hee!) and the yellow tangs, which are so silly-looking, and so easy to animate just by pivoting them on the single brads that also serve as their eyes. 

Deus ex machina

It’s remarkable that for all of my pieces requiring voices, the opportunity to make a good-quality recording has come to me out of nowhere, like a Venus in a Victorian play, descending on a flower-decked swing from the catwalks above. This time was no exception; I had the good fortune to record in SFAI’s recording studio, with professional David at the controls. The only canker in the bud was that on the designated day, I came in with the dregs of a cold that just wouldn’t clear out. As a result, I went home with excellent recordings of a very snuffly performance. If you listen carefully to the heavily altered version that accompanies the animation, you may detect that the mermaid’s high and dreamy voice also sounds a little congested. 

Making the Animation 

I made my first attempt at animating my new puppets with only a general idea of what needed to take place in the shot. When I brought my spontaneously-shot frames to class and exported them to video, I dissolved in a fit of giggles, discovering that motions I had imagined would look smooth and subtle actually looked like a frenzied, erratic insect mating dance.

Tiny physical props are a fun 
aspect of stop animation
After this amusing learning experience, I wrote out a frame-by-frame plan for each shot that listed exactly the motions I wanted, from start to finish, and the frames they should occur on. Writing the plan often took as much time as it did to shoot the sequence, but, even though I’m still learning, it gave much better results. However, I may return to exploring spontaneous animation in my next project, a touching story in which true love overcomes social and familial obstacles to unite two praying mantises.

After shooting all the frames for each shot, I exported the photos into a video clip with Quicktime, and then compiled all the clips into one iMovie file, added the soundtrack, and edited the clips to the right length to match the sound. Though I am glossing over the compiling of the animation a bit, it was honestly the shortest and simplest part of the process.

To compare my old and new animation processes, stop animation is like fishing a pickle out of the pickle jar using a fork, whereas animating with my previous homegrown Flash methods was like trying to fish a pickle out of the pickle jar using only the power of one’s mind. Not only does stop animation afford me more possibility for motion, it’s easier. This means that I can create more meaning. And creating something — anything! — meaningful is certainly my goal.

Back to the first "Little Mermaid" entry
See the piece (click on Gothtober pumpkin #7)
Read The Gothtober Blog

1 comment:

Ronald C Abler said...

Hey Steph
This is the best yet. I am really impressed with how smooth and lifelike the motion is.

Thanks for the background blog. You know that I always consider it an integral part of the piece.