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“Shape Shifter” is my second music video for They Might Be Giants, and it closes out their ambitious 2015 Dial-A-Song program (a project which saw a new TMBG song and video every week over the course of an entire year; you can read a bit more backstory about this over at my previous post). Thanks to the tight timeframe of the Dial-A-Song machine, “Shape Shifter” was something of a crazy whirlwind (as well as a tremendous amount of fun) to make.

To set the scene: When I first listened to the song that John F sent me to consider, my immediate thought was “stop motion!”, which made me both excited and anxious. Excited because of the creative and visual possibilities that it would open up, and anxious because of the incredibly short turnaround that we were talking about (three weeks from storyboard to delivery!) wrapped up in the time-intensive labor-load that stop motion has embedded within its DNA.

So to be sure, making this decision absolutely portended that I’d be spending a slew of sleepless nights mapping out the plot, then constructing and finally animating all of the characters, props and sets… but c’mon! I mean, just listen to that music! Check out those evocative lyrics! Even though I obviously wouldn’t be doing a literal translation, isn’t this song just BEGGING for a quintet of sweaty and roughhewn looking puppets to inhabit its world? In fact, when you get right down to it, what real choice did I have? I think you’ll have to agree that the answer is clearly “none”.

So! What follows is the video, along with a few notes and images around what those three weeks worth of work looked like.

“Shape Shifter” Storyboarding, Prop and Puppet Construction

With the basic arc of the plot in place, my next step was to time out a simple storyboard that worked with the musical edit points and various visual ideas that I had going in my head. I wanted certain moments to happen alongside specific musical and lyrical cues, and for the pacing to increase as the song progressed, so I stitched together a “visually expedient” video animatic that broke everything down in an aesthetically-unflattering-but-functional-enough manner. Ugly storyboard? Check!

Then came the puppet and prop making. The protagonist couple were a fairly straightforward affair, but I wanted the band (Note: as befitting the theme they are alternately identified as “Shapeshifters”,“Shapeshiftaz”, “The Shape Shifters”, “Shpshiftrs” and “The Shape Shifters From Space”) to possess at least a shorthand visual backstory of their rock and rollery, which meant cooking up designs for posters, t-shirts, and instruments right alongside of the characters themselves. Similarly I also worked up a range of blink-and-you’ll-miss-‘em designs for the cassette labels, beer cans, app icons and tractor equipment logos that live in this world.

“Shape Shifter” Process and Aesthetics

Because I truly love drinking in the look of crude and imperfect things, I wanted to allow the components and construction of my designs to be visible in their final appearance. As a result you’ll see that the materials used in character creation (roughly speaking: foam and latex buildup over metal armatures) is often readily apparent; their painting is rough, their eyeballs are flaking, their hair is a mess — it’s like a lumpy textural salad bar. (Note: For a look at some of the inspiration behind my process here, please check out Nick Hilligoss’ FANTASTIC YouTube videos “Make a Buildup Puppet” and “Making Latex Build-Up Puppet Head(s)” — Really, really great stuff.)

Similarly I wanted the eventual chroma key work to feel at least a little bit like an old Land of the Lost episode or something. I mean sure, it would probably be pretty easy to go overboard with this impulse, but I have always enjoyed those kinds of super-obviously composited shots, and it felt appropriate to impart at least a touch of that vibe here.

Alongside all of this construction work came the ongoing refinement of the animatic that I would be using (in concert with the program Dragonframe) as part of my animation and capture process. To keep the project moving at a speedy clip (countdown: only two weeks to go!), I shot a bunch of reference video, often using myself and my wife Jackie, so as to better time out the movements of the characters. Now I’m not too sure I’d ever want anyone to actually SEE those reference videos, but doing this step meant that I was able to have the edit points and pacing almost totally locked in well before the physical stop motion work actually began, which was a giant help.

“Shape Shifter” Animation and Post-Production

So what was next? Let’s see, let’s see… oh right! Moving everything around 12 different times per second and taking 2,292 photos along the way.

Once I had that relatively incidental detail out of the way, it was time to begin the scene assembly and post-production color work (the couple’s home is a fairly washed out and brightly lit affair with plenty of blues and pastels happening that stands in contrast with the darkly rich red-scale world of the Shape Shifters) using Lightroom, After Effects and Final Cut Pro.

A day or two of obsessive tweaking, a few final passes at the motion graphics that make up the on-screen messages (as well as the Shape-Shifting-Device Rays) and KAPOW! The three weeks were up, and both my video and the entire 2015 Dial-A-Song Direct project were complete.

So: Thanks once more to the Johns of They Might Be Giants! This was a completely rewarding collaboration as well as a total honor to help close the Dial-A-Song project out — it’s hard to imagine a better gig to end my year on.

“Shape Shifter” Animation and Post-Production

So what was next? Let’s see, let’s see… oh right! Moving everything around 12 different times per second and taking 2292 photos along the way.

Once I had that relatively incidental detail out of the way, it was time to begin the scene assembly and post-production color work (the couple’s home is a fairly washed out and brightly lit affair with plenty of blues and pastels happening that stands in contrast with the darkly rich red-scale world of the Shape Shifters) using Lightroom, After Effects and Final Cut Pro.

A day or two of obsessive tweaking, a few final passes at the motion graphics that make up the on-screen messages (as well as the Shape-Shifting-Device Rays) and KAPOW! Both my video and the entire 2015 Dial-A-Song direct project were complete.

So: Thanks once more to the Johns of They Might Be Giants! This was a completely rewarding collaboration as well as a total honor to help close the Dial-A-Song project out — it’s hard to imagine a better gig to end my year on.

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