Creator Q&A: Breaking down a stop motion tour of Brooklyn
A few weeks ago this one minute stop motion video caught our eye, not only because most of us here at Vimeo live in Brooklyn and enjoy drinking beer, but also because of the smooth style and technical expertise with which the video’s creators, Paul Trillo and Landon Van Soest, toured us around our beloved borough:
We asked Paul and Landon to explain the secrets behind this stop motion masterpiece. Here's what we found out!
VVS: The video is comprised of over 3,000 still photos. Give us a brief rundown of the process.
Paul Trillo: The basic process is stop motion, but with the camera moving with every snapshot. Instead of something like 15 or 18 frames per second, we used 24 frames per second to give it a more fluid feel.
VVS: What programs did you use to put it all together?
Landon Van Soest: First we just went through our stills in a finder window to find the best sequences—like a flipbook to make sure the motion made sense—then imported groups of stills as image sequences in After Effects.
PT: Once in After Effects, just about every frame had to be repositioned, rotated and scaled in order for it to play back in a fluid way. Once the basic camera motion looked right, the image sequences were exported as video and time remapped. Motion blur and frame blending were added to make it feel more like a video and less like a series of still photos.
VVS: Had you made anything like this before? How much did you know beforehand vs. how much did you teach yourself while working on this?
PT: I had done a music video for the Peach Kings which uses a similar technique but with fewer frames. It's the same basic idea of seamlessly stringing together tripod video shots with still photos to make it feel like one continuous shot. That video was made a lot more haphazardly and on the fly, but there were a lot of things I learned from it.
LVS: This was all new territory for me personally, so I was really learning everything as we went for better or worse. I spent quite a bit of time going frame-by-frame through some of our visual references to see how they handled various transitions and effects, but other than that, just did my best to think in terms of animation.
VVS: What camera(s) and rigs did you use?
PT: All the stills were shot with the Canon 5D using 20mm and 50mm lenses. The slow-mo was shot at 450 frames per second with the Sony FS700. Most of the stills were shot with a monopod so we could quickly move but keep the height constant. For the exterior traveling shots, we'd count our steps —between five to eight — to make sure the camera was moving at a consistent rate. The sequences that were handheld were a little tougher to smooth out. I don't think I've ever used the viewfinder cross hairs as much as I did on this project. They helped us keep our focal point so when the camera moved, the eye would have a similar resting place. This was especially helpful for the bridge and bike sequences.
LVS: We used a mafer clamp on the seat of the bicycle at one point, awkwardly reaching around it to give the illusion of the bike being ridden
We mounted the camera on a gobo arm for the record shot. Because we didn’t have a monitor and had to stand on furniture to focus the overhead shot, we didn’t realize that we were getting an obvious reflection of the camera in the record and had to mask it out in post frame-by-frame. We used a large ladder to give the illusion of a sweeping crane shot coming into the brewery, which would have been an incredibly expensive shot on a film set, but we made it work with a handheld 5D.
VVS: How did you go about planning the route and envisioning the transitions?
PT: We had started with a few landmarks and used that as an outline of where we wanted to go. The video also needed to include five key locations representing food, film, music, books and beer. Google maps was incredibly helpful, and partly inspirational to the concept, as far as planning the camera route. We took screenshots from Google maps as placeholder storyboard frames and edited a quick animatic. This gave us a sense of timing and helped us see how things needed to transition.
LVS: Knowing that we had five primary locations that we were going to highlight, we figured that we would have a lot of space for creativity with the transitions. We probably got a little carried away with ideas, but it was liberating to think about all of the impossible camera moves we’d be able to do using stills to seamlessly go from one location to another, then tried to stitch them together with some landmarks and images of Brooklyn that we wanted to highlight.
VVS: Being the good Brooklynite that I am, I noticed we entered a tunnel in DUMBO and emerged in Prospect Park. How did you make the transitions so seamless?
PT: We knew roughly when we'd be jumping between locations so we'd look for common elements in these locations. The tunnel transition was obviously shot twice, once in DUMBO and once in Prospect Park. The tunnels were then stitched together frame by frame so the entrance of the tunnel was used as a mask to reveal the second tunnel.
We made use of wipes and graphic cuts as much as possible. A graphic cut is when you edit together two shots with something visually similar in each frame. So when you see the bike handlebars and arms taking up most of the frame the eye doesn't really catch what's going on in the background. It allows you to cut between different locations. Same goes for the pizza and bike tire shots.
LVS: I think the process taught me a lot about perception and how we make sense of what we see. If we’re focused on a constant object or watching a fluid motion, our brains seem willing to forgive a lot of information that obviously doesn’t make sense. Even for me, knowing exactly where we were cutting to a vastly different neighborhood, when I watch the video I’m completely willing to believe that we’re on one continuous journey.
Check out this behind the scenes video for a breakdown of the tunnel transition and the frisbee and record sequences:
VVS: Could you break down how you did the frisbee and record shots, and any other sequence that required some particularly fancy maneuvering?
LVS: I think all of the shots are more crude than you might expect. In the case of the frisbee, we taped coat hangers to the bottom and moved it through the park manually taking photos as we went. The record shot was actually just a stationary shot mounted on a gobo arm above the turntable. We moved the record slightly for each shot, then rotated the image in post to give the illusion that the camera was locked on the record.
PT: We used this video and Video School lesson to do the water tower shot. Although we found that doing that 360 effect works on higher buildings or something with a clearer line of sight. The water tower can only be seen from certain angles because it's relatively low.
VVS: You mixed slow motion video and CG effects in this piece. Was it challenging to mix techniques and mediums?
PT: This was arguably the toughest and most frustrating aspect of the video. We were editing between still photos on the 5D to slow-mo on the FS700. That means we were transitioning from different sensor sizes, different overall looks, lighting set ups, lens sizes, etcetera. For the transitions from still to the video some frames we collaged together to make it feel a bit more seamless. When you apply motion blur and frame morphing, these harsh transitions can be smoothed out quite a bit.
VVS: How long did the project take?
LVS: I think it was about 10 days from beginning to end, with a whole lot of long days and late nights in between. From now on I’ll try to avoid stop motion on tight deadlines.
VVS: What would you do differently next time?
LVS: I’d be more diligent about using a tripod to be sure we were at the same angle to the subject. I’d also make a better effort to shoot the stills a lot wider than I anticipated using them, with all the additional information in the stills we had a lot of leeway to push into them without losing resolution in a 1920x1080 sequence, but could only be as wide as our closest stills at the end of the day.
VVS: This was a commercial gig, but it seems like you had a lot of creative control. Could you talk about the interaction of commercial vs. personal work in your career?
PT: There are experiences and techniques used on personal projects that have informed commercial projects and vice versa. It doesn't always work out this way but personally, I like to take on jobs that allow me to experiment and try new things. Anytime I'm allowed to play with a new idea and technique then it becomes worth my time. I may be putting in more hours than I should but it becomes more rewarding in the end to have a piece that stands out. It's a matter of building relationships with clients that trust you for what you do. You want people to come to you because you have a particular vision and aesthetic. I turn down a lot of work that doesn't allow for as much creative control.
LVS: I used to differentiate a lot the work I did for pay and the work I did for passion, but I realize more and more that it’s not a productive way to think about a creative career. I think everyone who works in this industry does it primarily to feed a creative passion, and if someone is willing to pay you to do something you’re passionate about, you’re undermining yourself by not delivering your best work every time. I’ve come to realize that most clients really appreciate creative input, and doing interesting creative work always seems to lead to more creative projects and opportunities.
Paul Trillo and Landon Van Soest explain how they compiled over 3,000 still photographs to create a one-minute stop motion tour of Brooklyn.
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