Although I’ve always loved stop motion animation, I had never, ever considered doing it before getting a tour of Tippett Studio by Phil Tippett himself.
I grew up on a diet of Rankin/Bass holiday animations, followed by college days of independent animation festivals, which then led to an adulthood following filmmakers like the Quay Brothers, Jan Svankmejer, Jiri Barta, Andrei Tarkovsky, and more. While I had many friends who worked at Industrial Light and Magic and did commercial motion graphics, and did a bit of that myself, stop motion seemed like a form I had never considered.
But my trip to Tippett Studio changed all that.
I had a business meeting there and Phil offered a quick tour of the studio. We and his producer Chris toured the main digital building, and there I was introduced to his art film project called Mad God. After a while it was just the three of us, touring the model shop and shooting stage, and two Mad God Part 3 sets were active, with scenes and puppets.
Then something clicked.
This was photography, which I had done for over a decade. This was editing post-production, which I had done for more than two decades. This was animation, which I’ve done in motion graphics for most of my career (but never character animation). This was miniature construction and scale set design, which I had done since college through a hobby in wargaming. This was painting and sculpting, and I was an art major. This was storytelling, pacing, and sequencing; my first professional job was learning to be a video editor. This was design and storyboarding; I was trained to be an illustrator. This needed music and sound design, which I’ve done and blogged about for most of my adult life. My varied career and interests made this style of filmmaking suddenly relevant on almost every level. It was as foreign to me as a new language, yet I was compelled to learn.
I was coming off a three-year period of working almost exclusively on music as my main creative output, having released four albums and played live a bunch, and I needed a break. I had just signed on to score a short documentary but the filmmaker was delayed, so I decided to strike while the iron was hot. I was to try my hand at stop-motion animation.
For my first film, I needed to narrow the field of possibilities to make sure I started and wasn’t lost in a sea of options and dead-ends. I was going to need to lean heavily on influences, and make design decisions that played to my strengths and addressed my weaknesses. The Quay Brothers and Svankmejer had been influences for over 20 years, so that was my stylistic reference point. I needed to rely on animating found objects more than anything else, as I had no experience producing human character animation, but I wanted some opportunity to try that on a limited scale. I had some themes in mind and wanted to make a short that was more allegorical than literal. I settled on a 1/12 scale because I could source props for those things I lacked the fabrication skills to make myself. Despite having a decent collection of film and lighting gear, I opted to avoid camera movement so things didn’t get too complicated. I also limited post production effects just to color grading and image correction.
So, Sterile Flower was born. And I immediately made a ton of mistakes.
1/12 scale is quite small and the objects/puppets were extremely lightweight, which caused frame-to-frame “chatter.” I had heads and limbs popping off of characters mid-shot. I really struggled with the disparity between the Canon 7D’s live view versus the actual shot exposures. I shot nearly chronologically, which means that the animation actually is rougher earlier in the film, but that also allowed me to ramp up into more complex scenes as I got more experience, and later shots required no real edit decisions in post. Plenty of shots were ruined by classic amateur mistakes like bumping the tripod or the table in the middle of a shot. I improvised all movement, even when an x-sheet would have increased consistency and reduced error. Even the original title of the film wound up being a contemporary tech start-up company…which, very much a blessing in disguise, led me right to a reference to Karel Capek’s play R.U.R., which was also appropriate for the story being told.
A lot went right, too. I watched the entire Chiodo Brothers educational video series on Stan Winston School of Character Arts site, which gave me a lot of ideas and guidance; well worth the (small) expense. I read a lot on the StopMotionAnimation.com forum, which is very low-traffic but it’s easy to find threads discussing common problems, which saved me from repeating a lot of those mistakes. I was happy with the textures and moods of the sets and character design. My decision to shoot with vintage Pentax lenses helped sculpt a certain “look,” even though the lens breathes when racking focus. I even managed to design a narrative that didn’t force me to create a standard character walk cycle when I wasn’t ready. A friend recommended that I use Dragonframe for video assist, camera control, and capture, which was a huge boon…as many find, it does slow down the shooting process, but that’s because through constant review you can prevent scrapping entire shots due to one small error, saving time in the long run. The resin cast skulls from Black Rider Industries were key design components that held up well under macro photography.
Construction of the first character and set started on 6 May 2017, and the finished edit was locked on 4 June 2017.