To bring characters from Bill Bryson’s One Summer: America 1927 to life in a series of six videos, we merged traditional hand puppetry with motion-capture techniques to create a unique form of animation. Wait — did we create it? Or did we independently invent a technique that smarter people than us have perfected years ago and are now yawning about? I don’t know and thankfully I don’t care.

BEHIND THE SCENES VIDEO:

I’m David Malki !, author of the comic strip ‘Wondermark’, collector of strange old books, and lover of taking something simple and making it really complicated. For over a decade I’ve been turning engravings and woodcuts from dusty Victorian magazines into surreal collage-style comics, and more recently, I’ve played around with turning them into puppets, too.

The ‘Real True Actual Stories’ videos are animated, but it only ends up as animation via the long way round. The original performance for every character is performed by an actor, using a clothespins-and-rubber-bands-controlled hand puppet with a face drawn on it. I first made a bunch of these very simple puppets a few years ago, for a series of video experiments that were basically just an excuse to talk in funny voices all day long. The more complex the videos became, the more we began to butt up against the physical limitations of building puppets, props, and sets. We wanted to spend time performing, not laboriously cutting out paper. So I decided to turn to my film editing expertise (from my prior career, before I started making comics), and came up with a way to merge the worlds of live performance with digital design.

For help I enlisted Andy Vatter, a filmmaker and digital effects artist who’d created a fan film for one of my other projects, the book collection Machine of Death. Between my skills at HILARIOUS ACTING and Andy’s mastery of digital compositting, we knew we had the seeds of a really interesting technique. All those seeds needed was the water of perseverance to grow the vine of accomplishment into the bloom of artistic success. And with that sentence, my metaphor quota is satisfied for the rest of this post.

My typical work enjoys a very old-fashioned aesthetic, so adapting Bill Bryson’s book about the 1920s seemed a perfect fit. We created a newsreel-type educational series called ‘Real True Actual Stories of America’ to dramatize some of the most outragous, but true, facts from the book — that president Calvin Coolidge liked to take lots of naps and wear an absurd cowboy outfit around the White House, for example, or that Babe Ruth would amuse himself by riding alone in hotel elevators for hours. I am assuming all this stuff is true because why would Bill Bryson lie to me? If you want to look up his sources, you can, but do it on your own time. As for me, I will take him at his word.

I used archival photos to create articulated digital puppets for every character in the videos — Babe Ruth, Al Capone, Henry Ford, and all the rest. Then we shot live-action footage of actors performing with blank, “stand-in” puppets covered in motion tracking points. My colleague Michael Mohan and I edited the live footage into rough “animatics” to solidify the timing of each piece, then handed the footage off to Andy for final compositing.

Andy writes:

From the raw footage, I can track the points on the blank puppet to capture the basic motion, rotation, and scaling of each performance. The eyebrows and mouth require a separate and independent tracking pass that is then overlaid onto the motion of the head.

More articulated characters are more challenging. When there are lots of moving parts, it’s frequently a judgement call of whether each part is moving completely independently, or is married to a more central point. Some of the joints require a mathematical expression in order to get the rotation across, but it’s a huge payoff. In spite of his lack of clothes, Bernarr is one complex beast.

Once all that’s done, I start assembling the scenes: a timeline with basic blocking first, timed to the animatic. If we’re sticking with some basic camera movement, then that timeline gets moved to a separate, larger timeline, where the moves and zooms occur, but a sense of depth needs to be conveyed (like with Charles in the tree), then the entire composition is converted to 3D and given an actual camera in 3D space. Once all the moves are in, I’ll go back into the  first timeline and add the little tricks like focus pulls and motion blur; the latter of which is a small but subtle way of adding a lifelike feel.

The actors who brought the Real True Stories to life are narrator Matt Hopper and performers Mike Betette, Sean Casey, Jeff Feazell, and Nikki Rice Malki. (I’m also in there too, but just a little bit.)

Making these videos has been a ton of fun and I’m really grateful to Audible for allowing us the opportunity to create something weird! I hope you enjoy watching them, and the great thing about the book One Summer is that we didn’t even scratch the surface of the fascinating bits trapped inside like strange misshappen nuggets of true factual gold. If you get the audiobook you can even hear Mr. Bryson read it to you himself, which is sort of like snuggling into a grizzly bear pelt to rest through the long winter. It just feels safe.

Happy audibling!

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