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Calling All Animators

Marc Beurteaux Animates Life-Size Vehicles

It's those surprising emails out of the blue that make one's life worth living. This particular email came from the Toronto Animated Image Society which is a great networking resource. More about this brilliant organisation in another blog (or go to www.TAIS.ca).

Two weeks ago I received an email via TAIS from a production company desperate to find a stop-motion animator. The company, who usually produces live-action commercials, had taken on a contract to shoot a stop-mo ad. However, a week before shooting they had realised that animation was perhaps trickier than they had thought. Cue Marc Beurteaux, stop-motion animation consultant.

This is not the first time that myself or my fellow stop-mo animator friends had been called in by a worried producer to trouble-shoot an animated project. Time and time again live-action producers don't realise how technically challenging stop-mo is until it's almost too late. Therefore by the time someone like me gets called in to save the project, I get treated like royalty - a treatment all too rare for an animator.

When I first met with the producer I was brimming with confidence. I was smug in the idea that a big production company who was making an ad for a major U.S. communications corporation needed lil' ol' me to make sure the animation would work for this thing.

The producer told me the concept of the ad. It was animating life-size vehicles, fire trucks, school buses, a garbage truck and a streetcar... inch by inch... at night. What?!!! I've never done anything like this before!!! I felt my confidence ooze out of me like pus from a pimple.

Suddenly, I felt very small and meek. But somewhere inside of me hope shimmered. I thought to myself - it didn't matter what size the vehicles were, the concept of animation is the same, you just have to figure out the size of the increments. But could I make a huge fire truck move inch by inch? I didn't know but it sure would be fun to try.

I took the job and realised that the success of this ad, with a budget of $500 000, now rested on my shoulders. I was smug no more.

We did a quick rehearsal a few nights before shooting. I met the key people in the crew - all highly experienced and anxious to make this project work. The director was a Swiss-born guy who now worked out of Berlin.

The director had a tonne of high profile ads and music videos to his name. I was a little worried that he wouldn't listen to my advice on animation. I have worked with live-action directors before who hadn't listened and disaster ensued (see my blog: July 30th, 2007 - FILM FIRE SALE).

Anyway, I needn't have fretted. This director easily learned the concepts of speed, timing, pausing, recoil and ramping up and down. I was very relieved. I realised that with this guy at the helm all would be well. It's so nice to work with a true professional. I arrived on location for the first night of shooting and met with my assistant, Mike Weiss, who is an amazing animator (www.deliciousnougat.com).

On location there were film trucks and people everywhere. With one look around at this mayhem, Mike and I quickly realised that this would be an altogether different experience than working in an animation studio. I think secretly we both yearned to be in our studios working on our own animated films, but it was too late to turn back now.

Soon, I was called to camera to give my first consultation.

The director asked, "How many inches per increment would it take for the camera to move along the dolly track from mark A to mark B in three seconds?"

I conferred with Mike. Quickly we figured it out and answered: one inch per move so that's ninety moves. Before we knew it, the increments were marked on the dolly track and shooting started.

We had no live feed, which sucked, so there was no way to see exactly how the animation was going before we shot each frame. So we built a timeline in Final Cut, frame by frame, so at least we could see what had been shot, albeit slightly delayed.

We built the timeline the following way. My laptop was tethered via ethernet to the photographer's computer/server. When the photographer snapped a jpeg it went straight to his server which Mike then imported into Final Cut, slowly building the timeline. This proved to be invaluable as we could see if the animation was working. It was also very handy for the clients so they could see what they were getting. It's good to keep clients happy during a shoot.

Before we knew it we were whisked off to the next shoot. The pace was brisk and there were to be no breaks during these fourteen hour work nights.

The next location was a fire station and we needed to animate their biggest pumper. It must have been about fifty feet long. I shuddered.

We quickly figured out the distance this behemoth would need to travel to ramp up (the term used to suggest how a vehicle gets from a static position to driving using small increments that gradually get bigger to give the illusion of gaining speed).

The driver was an off duty fireman. I briefed him that he would need to move this giant rig inch by inch then foot by foot over the course of about two and a half hours. He didn't bat an eyelid - he said it would be just like driving in rush hour traffic.

We started shooting. The director, who was also the director of photography, was atop a ten foot ladder so that he could do a tilt and pan. Well, this director sure was gung-ho and it was a great sight seeing this guy so high up, his little white scarf blowing in the wind. But even Mike or myself couldn't have pulled off this camera move without a live-feed and a geared tripod head. Nevertheless, the director put in a valiant effort.

We hit the next location, behind The Distillery, around 5AM. We were shooting a delivery van coming up to some stop lights and then taking off again. By now the fog had really rolled in and with my lack of sleep, the whole scene became incredibly surreal.

I have this blurred memory of telling the assistant director the increments the van needed to travel for each frame. We got into a routine of animating this van that became almost zen-like. For an hour and a half there was nothing else in the universe but the van, the fog and us.

The trance was broken by the the morning rush hour traffic. We had PDOs (police department officers) stopping cars for ten minutes at a time while we shot. Soon, roads and off ramps were getting backed up. We hurried through the shot and before I knew it we had wrapped for the night and I was driven home to my sweet, sweet bed.

The next night we shot in an alleyway behind The Reverb. My task was to animate a garbage truck picking up a wheelie bin, shaking the garbage into its mouth and then making the crusher blades look like they were chewing the trash. I'm sure the driver had never thought in his wildest dreams that he would one day be animating his truck. Anyway, we nailed the shot. The clients were happy.

Over the next couple of nights we animated a parking lot full of school buses, a streetcar coming out of a tunnel and the dreaded panorama shot.

The panorama shot was an incredibly wide shot from a camera on top of forty feet of scaffolding. In the shot, all at once, were the fire truck, school bus, delivery truck and the garbage truck. The streetcar and crane would be composited in later.

It was a cold and windy night. I felt really sorry for the camera guy up in the scaffold. Halfway through the night a plaintive cry came over the walkie from him, "Could someone please send me up an empty bottle - I need to pee so bad!"

My job was to animate the garbage truck, making it eat the garbage like before. We started the shot at 4AM and it took about three hours. Everyone was dead tired.

Halfway through the scene I started to hallucinate - the opening of the garbage truck had indeed become a giant steel maw. The rear spotlights were eyes. The crusher mouth began to talk to me. "Come on inside, Marc, for deep, refreshing sleep. There's nothing to fear, just crawl into my belly."

I looked inside the huge metal compartment. The cold, shiny steel looked very comfortable. I was so tired. I thought about crawling inside for just a little nap when suddenly the garbage man who was working the crusher slipped on the control stick. The crusher came thundering shut. The resounding boom blasted into my face and woke me up. I stayed away from the crusher after that.

Soon, dawn's rosy fingers spread across the sky.

The Gardiner Expressway was now very backed up. The PDOs were having a tough time stopping people desperate to get to work on time.

Finally, that heavenly call came, "it's a wrap".

I staggered back to the bus where Mike, the director, the clients and the production crew were. I looked at the footage, it was all there and it looked great. Everyone was happy. Handshakes, thank yous and hugs all around.

The next step for this production was a tonne of post and then a tonne of changes that the clients would invariably want. But none of this was my problem. Mike and I got a ride home with some very tired production assistants and precious sleep ensued.

The next day I had to get ready for my live-action puppet shoot, but that, friends, is another story for another blog.

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