The Making of “Counting on a Friend”

Watch the final video here!

Ever since I first saw my friends' kid-friendly band The Bazillions perform live to a roomful of ecstatic children, I knew I wanted to be a part of the project. Since my involvement began in Summer 2010, I've pitched in on various videos, a book design, and The Bazillions web site.

“Counting on a Friend” began with a quick color sketch I did early on in my involvement with The Bazillions. Once we had a few videos in the can, I was able to rope the very talented father-daughter team of Dale and Season Mustful into the project, and we decided “Counting” had good potential to do something more narrative and character-based than the videos I had done previously.

Step 1 – Concepting and Storyboarding

Using my initial sketch as a starting point, we began to develop a story and scenes for the two characters based on the song lyrics and music. We also had a mutual interest in stop motion, and Season had the knowledge to build the puppets we’d need, so we decided to go in that direction (despite the fact that it would be much more time-intensive than digital animation!) These initial sessions led to storyboard sketches and then to a complete animatic:

Step 2 – Character Design and Construction

While I fleshed out the storyboard, Season worked on the character design. We had decided that one of the friends would be more reserved and shy, while the other would be more wild and adventurous, and these ideas were reflected in the designs:

We all liked the idea of incorporating found materials, which led to Season’s first prototypes built from kinder surprise packages:

But as the story developed, we needed the puppets to be more versatile in their movements, so the designs got a bit larger and much more elaborate in internal structure. The final puppets consisted of an aluminum wire armature, covered in stuffing and a sock, coated in latex and painted, felt booties, little sewn clothes, yarn hair, and stick-on felt eyes and mouth.

Finally, Season’s neighbors were kind enough to field test the puppets and name them Patsy Potato and Angelina Triangle. You can’t get any better than that.

Step 3 – Set Design and Construction

Once we had the puppets, we were ready to start designing and building props and environments. This process began with another round of sketches and concepts, along with compiling a collection of reference images for inspiration, texture ideas, etc.

We used all sorts of different materials, from duct tape to Styrofoam, to build our sets and props. We tried to use simple things you’d find around the house, like bendy straws, packing materials, toothpicks. Our slide is made out of a plastic chip bowl from the dollar store.

Step 4 – Shooting

We shot with my Canon EOS Digital Rebel and captured using Dragonframe software (the same software used to make Coraline.)

We had a pretty basic lighting setup, and gradually turned our little set in my basement into a bedroom, a playground and park, a hopscotch sidewalk, a bowling alley, and more. In most cases the stage set was foam core elevated a few inches above our work surface, allowing us to pin the puppets into place from above or below depending on the pose.

We also shot a good amount of pieces against greenscreen, including the birds and certain shots with the main puppets. The movie theater environment was built in the computer from separate shots of the puppets, empty seats, and a background wall.

We averaged about two minutes per frame, which I’m told is very fast for stop-motion! This of course varied depending on the complexity of the shot. We got some of our best results for shots with both puppets when Season and I would each take a character, and we could really play out a scene. I animated a few shots that featured both puppets and it was a challenge to keep both sets of movements clear in my head.

We did most of our camera moves digitally, but we did a few where we actually repositioned the camera frame by frame to create an orbit or a push. One of the big ones was the opening push into the house; I wanted this to be a real camera move so the viewer would perceive the real depth of the scene. Each frame required moving both the camera and the car in small increments.

Our most complex shot was probably the swingset. This involved thread running from each swing to two mic stands, and then a slick mid-shot transfer of each of the puppets onto our “flying rig” (a mic stand boom + barbecue skewer + wood dowel with long pins.) The dowel could rotate inside the barbecue skewer loop, allowing Angie to execute her fancy flip and perfect-10 landing. To complete the illusion, all of those various strings and things were removed frame by frame in Photoshop.

Step 5 – Post-production

We had five basic steps on the computer: cleanup, compositing, smoothing, visual effects/color correction, and editing/assembly. Cleanup happened primarily in Photoshop, and involved the tedious task of removing any pins or strings used to hold the puppets in place, frame by frame.
Compositing involved the combining of elements shot separately into single shots. The birds, for example, were always shot separately and composited in with the frames shot on the stage. For the opening push on the house, the house scene, the foreground tree, the birds, and the numbers on them were all shot separately. Using Adobe AfterEffects, we were able to assemble, duplicate, and alter elements in 3D space, creating some nice effects like our virtual movie theater.

I should mention here that the number artwork during the 1 to 22 counting was furnished by Miss Marni’s kindergarten and 4th grade art classes. Kudos all ‘round.

Smoothing was another AfterEffects trick which allowed us to play back our footage (shot at 12 frames per second) at 24 frames per second. The program would generate the missing in-between frames, creating much smoother motion. We were also able to add motion blur and fine-tune timing to create some very fluid and hopefully convincing movement.

We added a few visual effects (such as the car headlights and house windows on the opening shot) and as much color correcting as our schedule would permit. We then used Adobe Premiere to assemble all the clips into the finished piece.

Video Release Show

The beauty of working with The Bazillions is that you get to screen your work in front of an enthusiastic audience who’ve just been warmed up by a great live musical performance. And despite yet another snow-blasted release show (The Bazillions have notoriously bad luck with weather) the screening was a great success. I should also add that it is a credit to the quality of the music that we were able to spend six months with the song and, rather than going insane, still be humming it right to the finish.

It took a lot of late nights and long hours by Dale, Season, and me to get to the finish line, but it was a very enjoyable process and I’m really pleased with the finished product. On to the next one!

Watch the final video here!

All images copyright 2011 The Bazillions, all rights reserved.