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They Might Be Giants - Shape Shifters - Stop Motion Music Video

 

I’ve been a fan of They Might Be Giants ever since I first heard them back in 1986. Not only have they always impressed me with their expansive musical range and lyrical smarts, but also with their desire to take creative chances combined with a tireless work ethic. Creativity AND productivity! Hooray!

A great example of all of the above has to be their classic Dial-a-Song concept. This was a service that allowed fans to call the TMBG answering machine in Brooklyn and hear full-yet-unreleased songs, in-progress fragments that later BECAME full songs, and loads of other musical ideas which (often by design) never really evolved past their answering machine origins.

So why am I yammering on about all of this? Because after allowing the concept to lay dormant for a while, They Might Be Giants have decided to reinvent their Dial-A-Song service as a weekly series of brand new tunes, complete with accompanying music videos. And how stoked was I when John Flansburgh actually contacted me about DIRECTING a pair of those videos for them? Yes! Exactly! Like Off-The-Scale stoked!

(This feels like a good place to pause and mention that the secret hero of this story has to be [worldwide sensation] Alex Italics. Not only has he ALREADY directed an excellent trio of videos for TMBG over the last year or so, but he is also the guy who hipped John Flansburgh to my work in the first place. Thanks Alex!)

So with that backstory in place, here’s a bit of the shorthand scoop regarding my two videos for They Might Be Giants:

Above: “Shape Shifter” – Dial-A-Song Week 52

“Shape Shifter” Stop-Motion Music Video

“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.) 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 are a few notes and images around what those three weeks worth of work looked like.

They Might Be Giants - Shape Shifters - Notes and Storyboard Frames

Above: “Shape Shifter” In-Process Storyboarding Notes and Animatic Frames

Below: “Shape Shifter” – Puppet and Prop Construction/ Graphic Design

“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.

They Might Be Giants - Shape Shifters - Products and Prop Design
They Might Be Giants - Shape Shifters - Posters and Band Design
They Might Be Giants - Shape Shifters - Misc Apps
They Might Be Giants - Shape Shifters - "Shifters Teal Prize Lambic" Label
TMBG - Shape Shifters - Desktop Background - Art by Felix Emory Jepson Smith, Age 5
They MIght Be Giants - "Shapeshifters" T-Shirt Design 01 (Unused)
They MIght Be Giants - "Shapeshifters From Space" Design
They MIght Be Giants - "Shapeshifters" T-Shirt Design 02

Above: “Shape Shifter” – Puppet and Prop Construction/ Graphic Design

Below: “Shape Shifter” – Video Reference Stills, Misc BTS Images

“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.

They Might Be Giants - Shape Shifters - Video Reference Still

Above: “Shape Shifter” – Video Reference Stills, Misc BTS Images

Below: “Shape Shifter” – Scenes

“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.


Above: “Daylight” – Dial-A-Song Week 46

Below: “Daylight” – Video Stills Collage

“Daylight” Live-Action Music Video

Next we have some backstory regarding my first collaboration with They Might Be Giants, a live-action music video entitled  “Daylight”:

Now while the plot of the video itself was intentionally designed to be somewhat left open to interpretation, I will mention that it’s a moody little number which stars Jared McKinley of Territory Magazine (et al) fame. In fact it stars him twice! Thanks Jared! (And thanks too to Katy, SirLoin and JellyCat, all of whom helped make super valuable contributions to the final. SUPER VALUABLE!)

My workflow and process behind “Daylight” was a pretty straightforward affair. After the pitch, narrative arc and storyboard components were nailed down and agreed upon with Mr. Flansburgh, I went over to the location to meet up with Jared and do the set dress (as you may have guessed, Jared and Katy don’t actually live in such grim squalor). The entire video was designed to take place within the semi-sickly and flickering glow of (various forms of) artificial light, and we shot the majority of what became the final footage in a single night.

Because of the hard and fast Dial-A-Song schedule, the timeline for the video’s debut was tight, which meant that the next two days involved a marathon of work required to complete the remaining piece and still allow for any edits, tweaks and changes. First off, two followup sequences (those being the bathtub scene that leads into the bridge, and the bridge itself) were shot and the assembly edit was constructed. With all of the footage in place I then worked up a final smattering of post-production trickery (some of those effects should be obvious, and a few shouldn’t); finally wrapping everything up in a color-corrected bow for delivery.

And THAT’S what the daylight brought.

They Might Be Giants - Daylight - Video Stills Montage

CONTACT JASON WILLIS

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