In 1994 three teenage men were tried and convicted for the murders of three boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. In 2011 all three men, coined the West Memphis Three, were released, including Damien Echols, who had been on death row. "Anything Made of Paper" is a song that musician Bill Carter wrote for Damien. Bill and his wife Ruth befriended Damien's wife Lorri Davis. At one point while Damien was still in jail, Lorri went to visit Bill and Ruth and brought them three roses made of paper that Damien had made as a gift, to represent the West Memphis Three. When Bill asked Lorri what they could give Damien in return, Lorri's response was "Anything made of paper." That's all Damien was allowed to have while on death row.
Last year Bill released the song "Anything made of paper," which he wrote for Damien and Lorri. Befittingly, paper animator extraordinaire and long-time Vimean Brandon Ray made the music video, which they just released:
VVS: Could you briefly describe the process behind making an animation like this? What materials and programs do you use?
BR: An animated music video with a story-arc requires quite a bit of planning. I started out by deciding what animation styles I would use for the different parts of the story. Digitally-produced styles are the most forgiving and easy to manipulate, so the bulk of my planning went to preparing for the stop-motion and paper puppetry scenes. These would require materials and actual hands-on prop and character construction before any animation could take place. I also realized that I would need the musician Bill Carter's help for the rotoscoped scenes with him in them. I sketched out some storyboards of the different poses, positions, and actions I would need to see Bill in, and got my co-director Pat Kondelis to film him in these — like Bill pretending to be scooped up by a flock of birds and carried away. Thankfully he was totally cooperative and cool with such odd requests.
Brandon's storyboard (left) for the digitally rotoscoped scenes depicting Bill Carter (right).
Then I spent a lot of time in local craft stores, picking out all kinds of paper with different textures, patterns, and designs. I guess you could kind of think of it like location scouting, but at the paper racks of art supply stores. The dimly-lit street at night, the raging sea, a deserted island… all these environments had different moods associated with them, so the right paper for the right feeling was essential.
I imagine the process would be quite different with a team of people, but since I constructed and animated everything by myself, I basically followed the order of the narrative and animated one scene at a time. I really only bounced in and out of three different programs: Dragronframe for stop-motion, After Effects for my compositing and digitally-manipulated paper animation, and Final Cut Pro 7 to stitch everything together.
VVS: You mixed several different animation techniques in this video. How is the process of integrating the different techniques?
BR: There was a unifying paper theme in the video. So no matter what animation style I was using, the material was going to be a paper texture, or look like a paper texture. This allowed me to use 3D stop motion, 2D down-shooting, paper puppetry, and even digital rotoscoping mixed up all together. I saved the most time-consuming techniques for the most dramatic parts of the narrative (the three-dimensional frame-by-frame stop motion), and used the technique with the most precise control (digital rotoscoping) for the scenes where I had to portray an actual person's likeness (Damien Echols and Bill Carter). Also, I was always shooting with green screen backgrounds. So even if the styles of animation were different, I could composite the characters and props into a stylistically consistent environment.
Brandon mixed several techniques in this video: 2D down-shooting, 3D stop motion, paper puppetry, and digital rotoscoping.
VVS: What was the greatest challenge you faced during this project?
BR: Paper is a flimsy, fragile material! Ninety percent of the locations, props, and characters I created for this video are crumpled, torn, or shredded now. Making the paper stable enough to survive the photo shoots was without a doubt the biggest challenge. I learned that a proper skeleton — whether it's made from paper, cardboard, wire, or even wooden popsicle sticks — really increases the longevity of paper props. I'm still researching for future projects the best way to make a material like paper durable enough to survive a grueling three month stop motion production schedule.
VVS: What was the greatest reward?
BR: The greatest reward for me was when Bill Carter sent a quote from Damien Echols and his wife Lorri Davis. I was terribly nervous on how Damien would feel about the completed music video, since it's a fictional version of a very real and devastating part of his life. There's a sweet, fairytale quality to the way the story unfolds, and I didn't want him to think we were candy-coating something terrible from his life. Pat and I chose to focus on the part of Bill's song that shows the beauty in hope, and when Damien said he loved the video, we were all extremely happy. Just as important was Bill's feedback, since the song is so special to him, his wife Ruth, and the song's guitarist Johnny Depp. Knowing they were all thrilled with the visual accompaniment to their beloved song was an amazing feeling.
VVS: Paper animation is somewhat of a niche craft. How did you get into it?
BR: When I was teaching myself how to animate, I started out with what was most accessible to me. I was working at a TV station that had a copy of After Effects, and I eventually picked up Flash. Even though I love both of these programs, I couldn't help but feel an overwhelming "digital" presence in everything I was creating. I was watching a lot of Jan Svankmajer, and loved all the imperfections in his stop motion animations. The dust, finger-prints, scratches — it got to the point where any animations I saw that left hints of "real" materials being used in their creation were the ones I enjoyed the most. Wrinkles in paper, tape, torn edges — I craved these flaws, because they made me feel things were coming to life that weren't supposed to be alive. Somehow, paper became my primary medium. As within the “Anything Made of Paper” video, I was trying to push myself to bring a three-dimensional world to life with a flat, two-dimensional material like paper. I hope to keep pushing even further and further in this direction with my future projects.
The paper master at work.
VVS: What is your background in animation, and paper animation specifically? Did you study this in school, or teach yourself?
BR: I went to school for filmmaking, but I taught myself animation. I feel really lucky to be living in the age of the Internet, where creatives around the world can share their work, and even insight into how they make them. Seeing other animators like Vance Reeser, Malcolm Sutherland, Eric Power, and Sean Pecknold posting their work online really gave me the momentum I needed to commit to developing my own animation skills. My paper animation efforts started as mainly "digital paper-craft," where I scanned in unique pieces of paper and manipulated them digitally. The more I did digital paper manipulation, the more I wanted to be able to accomplish the same effects with actual paper and stop motion, so I could see all the beautiful imperfection the medium produces. Whenever I see a creator here on Vimeo pushing the boundaries of paper manipulation, I go gaga and totally get inspired to keep striving to take my future paper works to the next level. If it weren't for such easy access to information and inspiration online, I don't think the self-teaching process of becoming an animator would be as rich and comprehensive.
VVS: What advice do you have for people interested in animation who are just starting out?
BR: There's such a massive variety of styles that make up the art form of animation, all with processes that differ tremendously from one another. I think it's important to get hands-on experience with all the different types of animation out there, and see which kind you connect with the most. It's also helpful to see what other people are creating, not so you can copy what they're doing, but so you can take ideas of how they're creating their animations, and apply that in a new and creative way to your own process. I remember when most of the ideas I thought of were way too complicated for me to actually communicate successfully with animation. Over time, you gain enough confidence to feel you can create most anything your imagination can think of.
VVS: How do you use Vimeo to share your work and what role has it played in your career?
BR: I find it much easier to send collaborators a password-protected link on Vimeo than Dropboxing a whole video file just to get their feedback on the animation's progress. I've also gotten tons of exposure (and a lot of work!) as a result of being a Vimeo Staff Pick four times, and shortlisted for the Vimeo Festival + Awards twice. I heart Vimeo!