Saturday 21 April 2012

Michael Parks Interview

Hello everyone, 
In January 2011, Michael Parks entered the 11 Second club with a delightful stop motion clip. His entry titled Pet Project was just pipped to first place by Edwin Schaap. One year later, he experiences deja vĂș as his January 2012, Mere Pass Maa, once again landed him second place.

Being twice so close to being our first stop motion winner, we invited Michael to catch up and talk about his work. This time around, we handed the interview reigns over to Eric Swymer. 


Hey Michael, thanks for meeting with us yet again and trusting me with this interview. You are beginning to become a bit of a staple on this blog and we have gotten a chance to talk about you in a broad sense in our last interview
Let’s talk about your 2nd place shot Mere Pass Maa a bit. Your animation feels plays out like a surreal dream. Please tell us a bit about the story.
I found the production of this entry was much more freeing. I figured that most viewers wouldn't know what the lines were, and could play around with absurdity. The goal was to do a fun piece with broad action, and yanking random things out of his jacket struck me as sufficiently absurd.

This allowed the story for Mere Pass Maa to be a string of silly gags. My goal was to have something surprising and entertaining in every shot after the first introductory shot. Stop motion and clay animation gives the freedom of being able to do just about anything you want. You’re not limited by available rigs or models. If you want a silly little duck, you make a silly little duck within twenty minutes. It’s harder to produce smooth, subtle animation, but the trade-off is worth it.

I could also tell any story I wanted. Storytelling is an important skill for animators to grasp, and it has been great to see 11-Second Club animators taking on the challenge of telling a short story within their entries. This was especially evident in the February “whiz palace,” where we saw a great many creative interpretations of the setup and action.

You put on the description that it was just 3 days of prep. Last time we spoke much of what you used was found and recycled, were your models and props already built this time as well? I have watched this several times frame by frame and from like 50-130 where he is pulling out the gags from his suit they really are coming from inside the jacket.

Was there any additional prep for this part? Can you tell us a little bit about what goes into the design process for the models?
I had on hand the set and the armatures, and the clothes were from dolls. The three violinists were the same body shot three times with different heads. To make it look like the props were coming out of the jacket, there was one frame of each featuring a half-size
version of the prop before the full version of the prop appears. Stop motion is all about slight-of-hand tricks like that. The props were made of clay, so it was pretty easy to just sculpt and paint the half-size versions. Rigid props like the iPad were made of Sculpy III and soft props like the teddy bear were made of Van Aken Plastalina.

There were quite an assortment of object pulled from his jacket. How did you decide which items to reveal?  
Random brainstorming. I walked around the house and drew up a list of things that could be pulled out of a jacket. Having kids, this approach lead to a paddle ball, a duck, and a slice of pizza. There’s a really good book called Jump Start Your Brain that has a lot of good brainstorming ideas that can be applied to animation. I like to go to Netflix or Amazon and see if I can come up with one idea per DVD title, first going for quantity over quality of ideas just to get the creative juices flowing. Either the Ultimate Idea comes along as the brainstorm subsides, or I work with the list to zero in on a good one. This approach can work for any 11-Second Club entry preparation. How could this month’s audio work within the setting of each movie on the RedBox new release page?

I have laughed many times at the expressions of the bird. The natural glance on frames 155-160 not only shifts the focus onto the brother, but contrasts beautifully with the craziness in the scene. While his look of disbelief at the end, helps emphasise the mood. Can you talk a bit about this character.
The bird was my inspiration for the whole scene. He’s there just to observe the scene as it plays out, and I was amused by the idea of having an assertive character try to hold a goofy duck in a threatening way. I was also playing with the reason some actors don’t want to do a scene with a real animal. They are unpredictable, and they can upstage their human co-stars. So in this case the threatening pose is defused by having a silly duck getting all the attention.

Where did you take your inspirations and influences for this shot? 
Ernie and Bert. You know, the tall, grumpy guy with the narrow head and the shorter placid guy with the round head. Nice and simple. Perhaps it even plays on the visual association burned into our collective brains from childhood. In general, I was also playing with overly dramatic art films paraded in front of me in film school. Nice to have some of that education put to use once in a while.

Can you tell us a bit more about the build process?
It starts with the armatures for each character, preferably ball-and-socket ones. Mine were left over from the stop motion films I worked on in the '90's. The violinist had a wire-based armature left over from a class demo. Wire can work just fine, but it has to be aluminum armature wire, and it has to be doubled up enough to hold itself up. It's a good alternative to ball-and-socket if you don't have $150 for an armature kit, though they will eventually break.

Armature ready for dress
Raw armature

Did this shot give you any trouble that you did not expect?
The tall guy’s armature broke in two places. The spine came loose at a joint, which wasn’t too hard to fix, but then his foot broke, and I couldn’t even solder it back on. I ended up building a foot (fortunately not needing to be seen on camera) out of wire and epoxy putty.
Broken foot armature fix

Most readers of our blog come from 3d can you tell us how your production differs for a stop motio shot from a 3d shot?
Stop motion calls for a lot more planning and preparation. While the lighting, shading, and set decoration can happen any time in a CG production, a stop motion shot has to have pretty much everything in place before the shooting starts. And the more planning for the performance the better, because any little change desired after shooting calls for a reshoot.

For this reason, shooting stop motion is far more intense than CG, requiring constant concentration and attention to every detail in every frame (I find I need much less coffee in a day). For example, I got so preoccupied with the effect of having all the props pop out of the guy’s jacket that I didn’t realize until I was done that he was drifting from side to side too much. If it had been done in CG, I could have gone back in and fixed that. But with limited time to shoot I couldn’t afford another day to reshoot. I had to live with it. Then my nine-year-old daughter (my toughest critic) pointed out that the mom needed eyelashes. In CG I could have modeled them in. But for my project, the set had been struck and it was too late.

Weight consistency plays a key role in delivering a believable performance. Talk about the challenge of handling weight in stop motion. 
As with all action in stop motion, weight shifts and balance has to be planned seriously in advance. It’s simple enough to get the character in a well-balanced first pose since it can be worked and reworked before the animation begins. But then the character has to move into that next pose in a way that ends with a properly balanced stance. So if the character is going to shift all his weight to the right foot in that second pose, but all his weight accidentally moves over that right foot before he has struck pose B, the shot is now in trouble. There is no undo button, just retakes.

I believe it can be extra challenging for a stop motion entry to compete. However, each time you have entered, the community of voters have fell in love with your puppets and unusual storylines. Please talk a bit about your motives for entering.
When I’m between animation jobs (or between semesters when I’m teaching), I want to still be animating to stay active and refine my skills. So for my CG employment pursuits I have animated dialogue shots just for my reel. But it can be difficult to be motivated to do excellent work when I know that my first audience will be a few recruiters. The animation ends up being uninspired and is eventually cut from my reel.

For my stop motion reel I wanted to find more inspiration for doing good work. The 11-Second Club adds an element of competition as well as a wider audience, making the project more exciting. I end all of the classes I teach with a tour of The 11-Second Club site with the recommendation to enter during the breaks to keep active.
You have a background in 3d at a little up and coming studio called PIXAR as we talked about in the last interview. Can you tell us a bit about what you take from that into your classroom?
I taught both stop motion and CG animation, and of course the CG animation is all about what I learned at Pixar. And since all the principles of animation apply to stop motion, the same aspects of performance and believability find there way into those classes as well. Stop motion puppets need to be as alive and engaging as a CG or hand-drawn character, so we explore creative acting choices and subtlety as well as balance, weight, and mass. My lectures on walks were almost exactly the same for CG as it is for stop motion until it gets to the demo itself.

Thank you again for talking with me. Do you plan to keep doing this until you win? 3rd time is the charm.
I only have time to enter when I'm unemployed, or between semesters when there isn’t much freelance work for me, as it was in January.  I’m also starting a new project that combines different styles and techniques of animation that will also hopefully generate some tutorials.

Interview by E.Marston