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.
While it needn’t be obvious to the audience, I called the three characters (in order of appearance) the Nurse, the Patient, and the Doctor. (In truth, it’s the Doctor’s hands we see first). Despite by background as an illustrator, I didn’t make any sketches or concept art, but instead tried to let my eyes and hands do the design during construction.
The Nurse’s dress form body was purchased from a dollhouse supply store (they came in sets of two, so I had a spare just in case). Small files were used to rough up the body prior to dry brushing, Using thread to cover the clay that attached her head to her body played out well in the last scene, an unforseen benefit. The thread was rubbed with clay dirt for texture. Her “bracelets” are rubber gaskets from the innermost guts of a DVD player. Her skull is cast from a bird called a bee eater. She was the lightest weight character, having a hollow plastic body and tiny contact points with the ground. Mosts shots in which you can’t see her wheeled base, she’s gaffer-taped to the ground.
The Patient was a Figma figure wrapped in Coban, which was stained with India ink. Her character was meant to be the one that was the most different from the set dressing and the design elements in the other characters. She’s dirtied, but not yet worn by age and duty. The figure was lightly painted with washes and dry brushing, but the effect was so subtle you really don’t see it on camera. Her right arm kept popping out of its shoulder socket, causing some improvisational shooting angles and unexpected picture cuts. Her replacement head is a skull cast from a fruit bat. The neck attachment for the skull was pretty sketchy; I had to shoot some super glue on the seam between the neck and shoulders, and I was surprised how well it cemented the Sculpey clay to the torso. She was held down to surfaces using Blue Tack or, when she sits upright, her feet are gaffer taped to a miniature “apple box” that is also taped to the floor.
The parts of the Doctor seen onscreen are goosenecks from a small clip-on dual LED lamp and a pair of hands from a Body Kun figure, washed and dry brushed. The hands fit over 1/8” aluminum armature wire in the ends of the goosenecks, with Sculpey on the ends. However, I had to use thread to keep the hands from falling off, but that established a consistent visual language with the design of the Nurse’s neck. Out of frame, the Doctor is a mess. His “body” exists just to act as a counterweight and base. A steel L-bracket is the base, with foamcore beneath as a “skid pad.” A galvanized steel pipe cap is the main weight, glued to the L-bracket. The arms are glued into small ceramic spacers we had left over from a construction project. It’s all adhered with hot glue and E5000, and designed to sit below the animation stage.
There were two sets: The Syringe Hall and the Operating Room (OR). These sets were influenced not only by the Quay Brothers, but also Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker. Both were built on bases of 1/2” MDF or plywood with 2×4 joists on the outer edges; each measured about one foot in width. They were laid on toolbox liner to keep them from slipping around.
The Syringe Hall was the first to be built. The syringe is an old Russian device, and the background is its instruction sheet. The backgrounds behind the windows were photos of mine that I color printed and spray-mounted to foam core. Small “fairy lights,” wire cords with LEDs the size of rice grains, were used behind the windows as a warm, flickering light source. The vegetation is wire dollhouse ivy and dead moss I scraped off a nearby overpass. The floor is just painted with texture paste tinted with acrylics, applied with a palette knife. The dirt and grime was model railroad ballast and clay dirt and dust from my yard.
The OR floor was plastic dollhouse tile, cut apart and detailed with ballast, dirt, flocking, and hot-glued paint brush bristles. A few washes of paint added stains and grime. The walls were entirely inkjet photos of warehouse interiors that I shot many years ago, detailed with truss work that I painted to match. The metal table was a dollhouse supply purchase, and the Doctor’s box was a cufflink box. More dead moss lines the far wall to obscure the seam of the wall and the floor. The side wall was removable, and you see the same wall flipped and used on the opposite side in the shot with the Patient’s feet right near the camera.
The short was filmed with a Canon 7D digital SLR, using a vintage Pentax Super Takumar 50mm f/1.4 lens and a modern Canon 60mm f/2.8 macro lens. The Pentax worked great, but its minimum focus distance was just barely on the edge of workable; you see it in all shots that are wide to medium, and the Canon 60mm is used for all close-ups. Camera support was a heavy old Manfrotto studio tripod I got for free from a friend’s mother many years ago, with a cruddy pan-tilt head. Of course, every camera setting was fully manual.
I decided to shoot all high quality JPGs rather than RAW, since I didn’t find that I needed much post-processing latitude. The key to that strategy was dialing in the lighting correctly in-camera. I only used two lights: a CoolLights 128-element LED flood and a Lowel Pro Light; each was placed to either be the fill or the kicker depending on camera position, one warmer and one cooler. Each light source was modified by barn doors, diffusion, gels, and a white foam core bounce card just below the camera lens as a fill source, angled off and below the front lip of the set. Camera white balance was set to 4500° K.
The most notable quote during shooting: “That light smells bad. Like, ‘it’s giving me cancer’ bad.” I don’t think I’ll be shooting with that light anymore. Time to retire that old Lowel and upgrade to an Arri, I think.
I flip-flopped as to whether I’d do a soundtrack with only diegetic sound design or music, but in the end I decided to do both.
The score was created with a single Eurorack-format modular synthesizer module, the Make Noise Erbe Verb, feeding back on itself, played improvisational by hand, and then edited to picture in post. The technique of self-patching and feedback was a key part of the themes that the visuals represented.
The sound effects almost entirely came from my own library of recordings and fresh recordings for the piece, except for some burlap rustling from Dynamic Interference, rotten wood sounds from The Recordist, and lion vocalizations from Boom Library. Some notable recordings of my own that made the final cut include subways, metal chains over ceramic tile, bilge pumps, a bicycle wheel, hits against a wheelbarrow, a vintage adding machine, rusty hinges, a horse bridle, human breath, and manipulated wads of cooked pig fat.
My usual sound recording kit is either a PCM-D50, for recording on the go every day, or a Sound Devices 702 field recorder with a mid-side mic setup using a Sennheiser MKH50 and MKH30 pair. Most people use the MKH40 cardioid, but the MKH50 hypercardioid, for me, provides a more focused center when desired, and more sound isolation if I’m recording mono.
My early attempts at a sound effects mix were beset by scale problems: I used sounds that felt too heavy for the objects on screen, even though I wanted to make them feel heavier and weightier. I went with more layers of smaller sounds, which were far more effective. I also had a purely tonal score that did nothing but set the mood, but it lacked tension and release, and it sent the wrong cues to the audience too early, so a thorough edit helped address that. Doing actual foley – performing audio actions to picture – was instrumental in “gluing” the sound and picture together.
The sound process started with the image first, then a series of live improvised score performances. These were edited into a loose score. Sound editing and mixing was done in Apple Logic Pro X, as opposed to the more industry standard Pro Tools; this is only because it’s the devil I know, and I’m extremely fast in its use. The film was re-cut subtly to fit. The sound effects were all added, which resulted in a score re-mix, which also resulted in two re-edits of the picture. This tug of war between image and sound continued for about four iterations until it solidified into its final form.
If you’ve read this far, then here’s bonus trivia: The sound playing on this website (controllable in the lower left corner) is the full nine minute version of the improvisation that led to this film’s score. You can only hear it here.
I’ve used After Effects since 1992 (when it was published by CoSA, prior to its acquisition by Adobe), so for a short-duration piece like this, I use it for all editing, color grading, titling, and effects.
I had to clean up a few shots were either dirt had fallen or Blue Tack was visible while anchoring a puppet to a surface. The only shot that uses any camera movement – really just an experiment with that awful tripod head – had to be horizontally stabilized. The rest of the post-production effects were limited to color grading. After I did the sound design, the rhythm of the syringe’s movement in scene one required a slight re-edit, but the picture was otherwise locked before sound was added. I layered in some post-production effects, but they all detracted from the rich textures that came right out of the camera, so they were all stripped out.
The piece was mastered in UHD/4k with 24 bit, 96kHz sound, but the version available online is 1080p with 24 bit, 48kHz sound.
There is no such thing as a solo project. This piece would be mediocre at best were it not for the advice and help of those more talented and experienced than I. Top-tier thanks goes to Phil Tippett, Chris Morley, and the rest of the Tippett Studio team for being the impetus for me to try my hand at this whole craft after years of just being a viewer.
Seattle artist, musician, and filmmaker Paul Lebel was unique in influencing everything from the production to the sound, and I am thankful for his advice and suggestions based on his wide-ranging experience in filmmaking, stop motion, and music.
I’m lucky enough to have made friends with some film sound professionals, and they lent their time and ears to provide honest, open feedback, which really made the soundtrack far stronger than what I could do on my own. Any sonic strength that this piece has is directly a result of their inspiration, advice, and insights. Deep aural gratitude goes out to Time Prebble, Shaun Farley, and Michael Raphael.
And my significant other, Krista, couldn’t have been more patient with this project taking over various portions of our home. Thanks for your love and understanding.