Sunday, May 18, 2008

Blue Skies Ahead

After many notions of how to construct a sky background, I believe I'm much closer to what I'll be doing. I took a little bit of advice from everyone, then modified the concepts to be even cheaper and easier for me. Where I'm at today is 9 large panels of single-wall cardboard, er, double-faced corrugated sheets! (about $3.60/ea.) attached together, seamed and painted. The top row is cut to form an almost-cove curved up and over the set. A large stretch fabric scrim is hung in front of the cardboard partition on a steep angle, over set at top and far back from set at bottom. (scale model and schematic above, click to read) The whole 12'x 24'backdrop is lightweight and moveable so as to stay opposite the camera in wide shots. I've sourced the 4'x 8' panels, and will get a price from our handyman for helping me build it. I may order about 15-20 panels, in case this idea is so easy to construct I'll be able to essentially cover the entire scope of the set with it.

I watched Suzie Templeton's Peter and the Wolf dvd's Making-of featurette again with an eye towards how they handled the sky for their enormous set. It was extremely valuable to see, partly because after taking 5 long years, and an talented army of over 250 people working on it, their sky solution was to place a blue screen card behind the moving puppet and digitally place the sky in the majority of the film! The rigs were treated the same way, giant brass, heavyweight, jointed, contraptions setting on the set in every shot! That film wasn't animated--it was painted! I adore the film for it's detail and thoughtful workmanship but it was both encouraging and dis-heartening that after all their preparation and effort there wasn't an affordable way to backdrop such a massive (gorgeous) set as theirs.

That set is so huge it makes Halfland look tiny. They could get away with simply painting the giant stage they were in with sky blue and fixing everything in post because the ceiling height there must have been 30' if it was an inch. And the space was so extensive beyond the massive set that there was actual sky in their background!

Giant hole in sky on the set that had to be digitally painted out, around all the tree details! madness! (Image copyright© 2006 BreakThru Peter Ltd.)

My dear friend, Esther Jantzen, came by last week to trade working on Halfland with a brainstorming conversation about several of her literacy projects. She's an amazing child advocate working to get parents to speak and read more to kids. With her help Speed Maché layer 4 was DONE! twice as speedily and so much easier! Thank you, Esther! You showed me collaboration truly can make a project easier.

Intern Sophie came by last Monday too (I guess denim is a must have in 1/2L!) This time I gave her a....brush! Thus making her job of sculpting over the blobs of hot glue with flexible cement so much easier! Duh! I had forgotten that little point the first time.

During our work conversation about her first stop motion project, we hit upon the idea. Sophie will make her first film about a little kitten, Socks, in a basket and all the adorable business it gets up to in there. (We were inspired by the real life wittle kitten that her sister brought over for us to audition living here that day. The sweet kitten went home but the sweet idea stayed.) Now Sophie is planning out the moments, the notes, she knows she'd like to hit in the film on blank business cards and next week we'll shape them into a story board.


  1. Sounds like a good sky plan to me!! You gonna curve the top part for a nice smooth transition?

    One thing to keep in mind about Petey and the Dog.... the animators took great pride in the intense speed they worked at.... and meanwhile they left a LOT of work for the digital cleanup crew. A LOT!!!! Hey, THEY didn't have to deal with it, so why not, right? Did you read the article posted at StopMoShorts about the work the digital dudes had to do, and how poorly the animators had set it up for them? It sounds like it was a nightmare... basically they had to remake the movie, creating parts of backgrounds where they didn't exist, patching together ground and sky form bits and pieces because the animators hadn't provided needed stuff or even taken clean plates in some cases. Apparently the animators didn't know what was involved and just left it all to the post crew... pretty bad form really, but when you're both animator and digital post production house, then you should do yourself a favor and be sure to provide everything you'll need for the post production portion. A few tests beforehand will familiarize you with the process so you don't end up making basic mistakes on the massive project itself.

    Always test small-scale before diving into the deep end (he tells her as she nears the top of her arc....)


  2. Looks like a solution that will fit well with what works for you. :-)

    Having created some XXXL stuff in my past, I just want to offer two more factors to be thinking about:

    1. Will the cardboard WARP? Heat from the sun, humidity and moisture can cause problems when you're working on this scale. You may find that you want a little more reinforcement on the back of those sheets in addition to the plinths.

    2. How well protected is the structure from WIND? I half-remember you having some large windows... A tall flat thing like this acts like a phenomenal kite... Even small drafts acting against such a wide surface have the potential to bring it down.

    Oh, and a bonus thing: remember that those plinths are LEVERS. Whatever force is applied at the top of them is greatly magnified at the bottom.

    Physics of really-big-flat-things 101.

  3. Whew, thanks guys, I was afraid you'd say "r u quazy beeotch" again.

    Yes, curving the transition from ceiling to "wall" PLUS!!!!!! With a scrim in front so much of the cardboard background is totally obscured. I will make it nice though as when I light in-between the layers the cardboard is illuminated and shows flaws.

    Oh, Mike, it was shocking to see the making-of docs on P&W! Shocking! That's why I said that the film wasn't animated so much as painted! It was like the props, sets and their details were off the chart gorgeous but the animation (and tone) left me thinking how much better it could have been if done elsewhere. Although I say that knowing there's no way on earth that film could have been given a budget to look that good anywhere else. It's like the ridiculously huge luxury hotels built in Africa with dirt cheap labor, um, when the dollar was stronger...

    Sven, firstly, everyone should know about the wonderful sketches you made so I could understand your panel suggestion. May I post'em?

    Secondly, windows, no problem. They will all be blocked out (I think with vinyl flooring scraps hung and then taped down at the edges) no light, no wind.

    And if I need to reinforce the structure I can with anything from glued on cardboard strips to the flattened sheet metal edgers.

    Any warping won't matter behind the scrim--the cardboard wall is only there to block out the workshop clutter, the scrim is the illusion.

    The whole sky hinges on two keys, the scrim (which will surely cost a dear penny or two) and the steep angle working. The thing that has me worried is whether I have enough room and whether I can get scrim fabric large enough to have just a single piece all the way across.

    Although, taking a cue from the Baltics, a seam in sky *could* be touched out digitally if it comes to that.

    Thank you for the great input. You both make me feel like you're here in the building working with me. SO nice.

  4. Groovy. :)

    Feel free to post the sketches... I was considering doing the same myself, but have a huge backlog of posts to write, and no idea when I'll have time to blog again.

    Looking forward to hearing about how the scrim research goes...

  5. Glad to see everything's movin' along!

  6. Huh??? Not sure I understand... are you planning to try to paint on the scrim rather than on the cardboard? I don't know if that's possible. I think it's a synthetic material, right? And it's see-through, like a fine mesh... you'd be seeing cardboard through it.

    Here's the article about the poor overworked digital crew that had to clean up after the animators on P&the W... is this the one you read?

    Very eye-opening.

  7. Doh! Ok, I just clicked on your pic to see it larger, and I see you're planning to paint the cardboard, not the scrim. My bad!

    One teensy lil problem I foresee.... cardboard is kind of like a Gremlin... you don't want to get it wet! (Feeding after midnight is actually OK, though I can't seem to find anything it likes). Once it gets wet, that's when the shrinking and warping begins, and soon it becomes someone you don't even recognize!

    Hmmmm... Possibly wooden frames with canvas stretched, instead of cardboard? Frames could be screwed to each other then maybe you could spackle in between to hide seamses?

    Just brain drizzlin here....

  8. Hi Shelley - thanks for your kind words as always... am always blown away when I come over here to see what an ENORMOUS project this is! I am very in awe... my little tiny animations seem ..well.. tiny in comparison! Keep up the fabulous work.. and happy days to you x Rima

  9. HI Mike, I love it when I've got answers tha cover what you've brought up! yay.

    No problem on the transparency of the scrim, it takes pain beautifully and is only see-thru if what's behind it is lit. Front lighting shows nothing behind it. This is a known stage craft trick.

    BUT-- I am still of course painting the cardboard backdrop cyclorama as well, a double layered sky....

    The cardboard doesn't warp because it's getting a skim coat of flexible joint compound and a prime coat of white gesso. And if it does warp that is not a problem either as that level of flaw is obscured by the scrim layer.

    If I were to use framed stretch canvas I might as well make it out of gold, as I'd be right back at a huge per panel cost. On eof the discarded ideas was to use wiggleboard, plywood that has scores on one layer making it shape to curve but it cost over $17.00/per 4x10 sheet. Great for a small set though, here's a link...

    And no, I hadn't seen the clip you sent hent, I will go see it. I just could tell the nightmare of the job from the making of featurettes on the disk. There's one worker there who said wearily that over 90% of the film was made over digitally. Plus, you can tell from seeing the raw clips in the commentary feature, the rigs are all over every shot. Even a high-contrast clean pass wasn't going to erase how much was there, the shadows, the reflections, the fine branches behind, my god.

    Hi Rima! Thank you so much! yep, this is a huge scale. Thank goodness it only has one main set this large!!

    I see a lot of films made this size; 1:3 scale, Corpse Bride, even Peter and the Wolf was like this--but-- they had huge crews too. Have a lovely day there!

  10. Anonymous9:30 PM

    The sky's the limit - except, apparently, when you have a digital crew to fix it in post.

    Ok, this is starting to make more sense to me!
    Glad to hear the scrim takes pain beautifully (though I'm sure you won't mistreat it).
    Yes, I remember the magic of frontlighting stage scrims, then fading up the lights behind and fading out the scrim.

    One concern still - folding angles into the card on the wall will make the light hit each surface differently, and tends to show as differences in brightness. A curve makes a more gradual change, so it's fine for a curve from wall to ceiling because the colour of the sky changes with height anyway.
    It sounds like the scrim in front will cover any hard lines in the lighting on the card. But then I wonder, why not use something more opaque so you don't see through at all.
    I have a fixed backdrop, and rotate the set if I need a different angle with sky behind it. My set tables are all on castors so I can move them single-handed. Your set is telling me it wants to stay exactly where it is, thank you very much! So I guess you need a lotta backdrop, or a movable one, or both.

    Best wishes for Sophie's kitten film!

  11. Oh, Nick! I'm so glad you checked in! I can curve the top row of cardboard easily to avoid angling the planes of light, as you suggest, thank you.

    Here's what's got me worried...

    The angle I'll have to place the scrim is incredible. The only wide shot I have---WAIT I think I just figured it out! Even writing to you works wonders!

    Here's what I'll do, I'll cut away the back half of the landscape when shooting the wide shoot! Duh! Man, I can't believe I didn't get that until now!

    Next stop: cutting up the set into pieces!

    Oh, and why the transparent scrim? because it looks so beautiful and gives a natural sense of depth to the sky, that if in a single layer appears to be simply a flat plane.

    The interplay between the layers, each with different gradients and clouds, is quite magical, especially concerning the many lighting effects brought about by shifting emphasis.

    When I tested it months ago, I was shocked at how natural a moon glow could look simply by diffusing a spot light from behind a card.

    The sun can be recreated by gold leafing a circle on the background layer and hitting it with a high intensity focus spot, something I figured out from a gag Hila created in one of her miniature room and from the artist that made a forest entirely out of paper. Hila shone a light onto her set that looked exactly like the light was emanating from the lamp itself. And the artist photographed his paper forest indoors but it fooled my eye completely with his reflected sun, until I looked closer, and closer still.

  12. Anonymous12:34 AM

    Ok, I'm sold on the scrim!
    Great that you figured something out.... 'cause I couldn't have helped. I guess I don't have a clear enough idea of the space you work in, where the set sits, and what you see through the viewfinder.

    How much longer do you think you can put off the dreaded moment when you start animating? Not that long I reckon, heh heh. Things have come a long way.

  13. This is so sad, I just lost a long answer, Nick, It was witty, and clear, and asked valuable questions. sigh.

    Basically I said that I didn't know the points you mention above either, except to say that the fit of the set is very cramped and tight here, the ceiling just 18" over the tree top, some set edges up against support columns, etc.

    I said I have to get measurements of the backdrop to give to a woman who is willing to sell me used backdrop material that I've researched is a better choice than the typical theatrical mesh for my close-up use.

    I said that in terms of starting to animate, I need a concentrated push because shooting still seems ages away yet.

    I have to finish the set, make the puppets, and armatures that work, dress the set, find and install lighting, choose a camera/lenses, build stable moco (that's actually happening soon thanks' to Yuji and the Rasches, more later).

    I said I wasn't having children of my own to finish the project and asked what you reckoned my chances were of making it.

    And I called you professssionate (professional + passionate)

  14. Hi, I just wandered in while browsing and this is amazing stuff you've got going on! Boy if I had even an ounce of your creativity I would be in heaven!!

  15. Howdy there, Mama! Thank you for saying, Hey! Awfully sweet of you.

    Yes, I am creative, that's something I can claim. But your raising two babies is about the most creative and important thing that can be done on earth. I'm sure you knew that, but it bears repeating often as it's so easy to forget that in modern culture. Plus, you have a great sense of humor and that's yet another kind of creativity and expression.

  16. Three, THREE! little girl kiddies, THREE!!

  17. hey shells,

    awesome progress!

  18. That P&W stuff is rather strange. I mean what takes two minutes to fix in camera takes tens of hours to fix in post. What a terrible waste of energy.

    Much better put into something like your scrim setup.

    Keep on keeping on Shel.

  19. Anonymous10:14 AM


    is admirable. I don't know how you work in such a gigantic scale, but your organizational skills are supernatural, so I would imagine that helps a great deal.

    As far as the huge backdrop, WOW! That's quite an undertaking. The shelter idea kind of reminds me of Disneyland's curved wall/ceiling on the Pirates of the Carribean ride at Disneyland (albeit obviously smaller). If I attempted a set (or world) the scale you're working in, I wouldn't have anywhere to sleep!

    Kudos for keeping on and surmounting every technical snafu that comes up.

    This film will be amazing.

  20. Thank you Shel, Rich and Ryan,

    I can't begin to say how much your encouragement has meant here. I was beginning to doubt I could do the sky. But I will do it, by-gum!

    There's been lots of 1/2L action here that I've not updated on the blog yet but the time away gave me the space to see the idea isn't so bad and that it may be just right for this.

    Thank you the right words...


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