I always tend to make things much more complicated than they need to be, especially when it comes to filmmaking. I get this urge to push myself, try something new, and I usually commit myself 150%. This week was no different.
I’m writing his blog from Old Forge, New York, as we were able to sneak in a family getaway in the Adirondack’s Fourth Lake. Also, on this trip, I was tasked with producing a stop-animation film. In my last blog, I laid out my vision, a hybrid film featuring a stop animation, paper cut, seagull.
The story tells attempts to tell the story of a tiresome seagull seeking a quiet place to rest. However, a busy seaport city challenges those plans. As I viewed seagulls sleeping on the fishing trawler’s masts of New Bedford, Massachusetts, the story came to me recently. I started to wonder what happened when the boats leave port and where the birds ended up. This film’s story was born.
I found Liz Blazer’s book, Animated Storytelling, helpful in designing a wonderland environment. Liz discusses the importance of developing a setting that supports the animated story including time and place, physical and social laws, developing visual laws, and visual rules. For Gull, New Bedford, Massachusetts established the perfect environment for the film. It’s a gritty, loud seaport, loaded with noises, and close to the ocean. Its architecture is perfect for seagulls, and I knew it would be a perfect setting for the story.
The Film Process
My vision for this film included paper cut stop animation. In order to produce this aesthetic, many steps needed to be taken. Here’s an outline of the process:
I needed to obtain footage, either through my video library, or shooting some footage. Luckily, while shooting my documentary film, Restart 2020, I was able to capture quite a bit of footage of seagulls in the city. I’ve always been enamored with the reverberating sounds the gulls make through the city, and felt like it needed to be included in the film.
My vision for paper cut animation requires animation to be created first and then transferred to paper. I hoped to use a Cricut Cutter to cut the individual frames needed for the animation to occur.
While the frame rate of the film is 24 frames per second, I opted to create an animation that focused on 12 frames per second. This decision made animation feasible but still looked pretty fantastic. I needed 48 cut paper pieces to make four seconds of an animated seagull.
I edited a rough cut of the film and found the video that I could use as a reference for the paper cut seagulls. I brought the clips into Adobe Animate and rotoscoped or hand drew over 48 frames. Using a black brush, I crafted each frame of the desired animation.
Once complete, I exported a sprite sheet from Adobe Animate and then loaded the file into the Cricut Design Space and cut the sheet with the Cricut. I weeded the seagull images and prepared the images for photographing.
Stop Motion Photography
This phase was my downfall. I encountered so many issues that I had to work through in this phase. It was near impossible for me to line up each stop-animation frame perfectly. While I used a tripod, remote shooting software, and constant lighting, placing each element precisely proved tricky.
I taped a green piece of paper on the wall and planned on removing the background of each animation. I then used a piece of tack putty to stick the images to the paper. I didn’t realize the putty would sometimes spill into the cut paper, and placing each cut seagull was never perfect.
Each element of animation needed to be aligned. I used Adobe Photoshop, created a simple isolation action, and batch processed over 50 frames per scene. Finally, I used Adobe Photoshop’s script command to load all files into one stack and then went through each layer, lining up each element to each other. Once complete, I was able to bring the layers into Final Cut Pro X and assemble the images as animation with a duration of 2 frames per second.
In Final Cut Pro X, I was able to align the cut paper into the video and used some slight keyframe animations to get the movement of the flying bird just right.
The above process was time-exhaustive. Knowing of my travel plans, I attempted to complete the animations before leaving. Last weekend, I completed 3 paper cut scenes and planned to complete the scenes while my son napped during vacation. Upon arriving at Old Forge, New York, I realized that the Cricut Cutter required an internet connection to cut the new images from Adobe Animate. My plan had been foiled.
This luxury was not available, and I needed to adapt, adjust, and overcome. I turned to Adobe After Effects and thought I could use some fancy editing to mimic the cut paper process. The images were still hand rotoscoped in Adobe Animate and then imported to Adobe After Effects. Using the Time Polarization effect, I downgraded the frame rate, making the animation appear more blocky. Then I used the expression “wiggle()” to replicate the random movement stop-animation features. Finally, I added a paper texture that I photographed to the animation to make it look as if I cut it with paper.
Title and End Credits
Once imported back into Final Cut Pro X, I added a drop shadow effect to match the shadows from the physical paper animations. I used this same process for the animating of the title and end credits. I really loved this process and felt like it blended the physical and digital animation really well.
Gull’s title effects were inspired by two title scenes. I really wanted something simple, but also support the overall story. Disney’s Loki‘s opening title is simple yet powerful, as it supports the story’s idea of varients and time travel, and even includes a soundtrack of
Disney’s Mandalorian also excited me for this film. The animated text is straightforward. The bold, all caps, text slowly grows towards the audience as the music ramps up. It’s that subtle motion that fascinated me. I often feel like too many filmmakers overdo it with their animated text, and less it more!
In chapter 6 of Liz Blazer’s Animated Storytelling, she goes into great depth about sound design. She argues sound design is the most important aspect of the film, and sound should lead and inform the audience. She breaks down into two formats, diegetic sound, the sounds made by objects and characters on screen, and nondiegetic sound, the sound made by objects and characters off the screen.
I felt it important to spend a good amount of time focusing on sound design. The film needed strong sounds to tell the story fully. I knew I wanted to use diegetic sounds for objects on screen, and wanted to use nondiegetic sounds to provide context clues for the audience.
Liz also stresses the importance of sound effects and music, and how powerful these sounds can change the mood and feeling of a film. I wanted to emulate Pes film, and decided to not use music in the film. Instead, I wanted the ambient natural sounds to fully inform the audience.
I also loved The Present’s sound design and loved the aspects of natural sound that fully engages the audience. I loved how the film really focuses on sounds early on to set the mood of the story. It’s not until the very end of the film, where music is introduced.
I wanted to create an environment that was loud and raucous, one where a tired seagull would be annoyed. When going through my video library, I found this one sound of a seagull that sounds like a long whine. I felt that sound was important to include in the film and used it as a motif for its feelings. You hear the sound early in the film as the boat’s foghorn awakens the seagull. It appears midway through the film, as the seagull is annoyed that a band is playing loud music. It also appears in the final scene as a car horn awakens the seagull.
The off-screen noise was so much fun to build. I added layers and layers of sound to the film. At one point, I wanted to create a crescendo of noise. The sounds of cars driving by, ocean noises, buses stopping, seagulls cawing, church bells clanging, and bicycle bells ringing, create a cacophony of sound. That final scene is juxtaposed to nothing, a quiet place.
I’m usually very critical of my work. While I’m proud of the story I crafted, I know I could do better. I wish I had more time to fully craft the film I envisioned, and I wish I could have made the animation a bit smoother. Stop animation is challenging, and I applaud those who can use this medium effortlessly. Overall, I’m happy with this project, and would be happy to not see a seagull for a few weeks!