The Vulture – Plasticine Animation Takes Off

David Coleman tells us about Animated Black Theatre and Camera movements.

Most of you have seen live-action “black theatre” puppet shows, where the stage and the puppeteers are completely dressed in black and can thus manipulate the puppets in space (without the need for strings, sticks or other obtrusive equipment) while themselves remaining “invisible”. It works very well on video, where black—levels can be adjusted to ensure that they DO disappear. Of course, puppet animators – except for those annoying frames with your hand in them – have no need to conceal them¬selves in this, way, but I found the idea of ‘invisible’ supports very useful in a film I made in the three weeks after the Anima Festival.
I was again working from a Franz Kafka story – called “The Vulture” which required this dirty great bird to walk around, hack at one human character’s feet – and FLY! My usual plasticine was far, far too heavy to use for wings and feathers, so the bird — with a scale wingspan of about 11 ft – had to be built up from a Modroc-covered pipe-cleaner skeleton, with gift-wrap ribbon feathers, plasticine clad feet and a long plasticine neck with a silver painted ‘Das’ beak. The vulture’s wingspan is 40 cm i.e. 16 inches at full stretch. When he is standing upright with his neck straight he is 18 cm tall compared with the humans, who are 20 and 21 cm, although the “victim’s” legs are actually con¬structed round thin wooden dowelling sank into a raised black podium (a) to stop him falling over as his feet are hacked away! (b) to enable this huge bird to be on a much lower level, so as to be able to look up at him in a more effective way. I used a lot of fluorescent plasticine on the vulture, which looks good on film, but has a less satisfactory texture than normal stuff. The colours used were light and bright, so that they would stand out well in very hard lighting against the velvety black flock—paper backgrounds, which I shaded from any stray light. I usually underexpose (take readings from white card instead of a Kodak grey card) in these situations, which increases colour saturation, keeps blacks black, and makes back-lighting more effective in picking out the outlines of characters with a halo – rather like the black edging used by cell animators.

If there is no scenery to allow the eye to establish its own subject¬ive “solid ground”, then with a single character, camera movement can to a large extent be substituted for puppet movement through space. In “Put Not Your Trust”, “The Game”, and “After The Ball”, I had used crane shots, which are quite unusual in amateur object animation, just as they are used all the time in live-action features. Mounting my camera on a Cullman Macro Rail Head, I can pan, track about 45 cm, tilt and pivot as well as jib, frame by frame using appropriate cardboard graduated scales stuck on with Sellotape or what have you. This means that by craning and zooming up towards the vulture, who is “sitting” on a black stick, flapping his wings, I can make it seem as if he is diving towards the camera. If I cant left, he “swings” right on the screen, even though he stays vertical in the “studio”. I feel this sort of movement is far more flexible than the use of wires or sheets of glass, which really only allow movement in one plane and bring with them lighting—problems. Since the vulture did not budge from his stick, lighting quality stays constant throughout the shot.

The idea really comes into its own however, when there is another element in shot, establishing its own “solid ground”. such as a human character, watching the vulture take off. This is easily achieved through back-winding, and is therefore most suitable for 16 mm users, rather than Super-8 users like myself. I use a rather good and far too expensive German back-winder, which I sent off for after seeing an advert for it at an amateur film festival in Berlin. With this device, (which actually requires you to take lengths of film out of the original cartridge, load it into a special back-winding cartridge and then put it back for processing and is consequently not popular with the processing labs) you can backwind 40 ft or more of Super 8. Accuracy of frame-count is very good indeed compared with my old Craven, and the characters hold very much steadier on the screen than superimpositions made with a normal back-winder. You would have to be looking for the very occasional slight “jumpiness” to spot it.

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