Sunday, 23 January 2011

Experimental stop-motion animation: Light Painting

Light painting is a relatively simple photographic technique. Having a camera with a slow shutter speed i.e. a long exposure, you can effectively take a still image of something moving over time. For example, keeping the shutter open whilst moving a torch enables the camera to pick up light from all parts of the torch’s path- leaving a surreal trail through the air. You may have seen this in a photograph of a motorway at night, where the car’s lights can be seen as a continuous trail, and in the recent ‘TalkTalk’ adverts:

From internet research, we found that it was possible to make a stop frame animation utilising this technique, which would be a form of ‘pixellation’- using still images of real people at regular intervals of their movement. With this week’s task focusing on experimental stop frame techniques, emphasis being on finding an interesting medium to work with, we felt this was an excellent opportunity to try something pretty unique, and very cool. Now, my group had no experience of this technique whatsoever, so we made use of YouTube tutorials, which  indeed gave us an insight into the technique, and how we would be able to successfully implement it into our group animation. We found great inspiration from the YouTube video 'Light Warfare':

Of course, the most important thing to do first was to make sure we actually had the resources enabling us to do this, and so we spent our first day planning. From the tutorials, we knew we needed a digital SLR camera and tripod, with the ability to adjust the shutter speed (preferably with a ‘bulb’ setting). We also needed a dark space to work, and so we booked the university’s photography studio and took the appropriate health and safety course to ensure we could use the equipment properly. 

We used our first day in the photography studio to perform a series of tests to get used to light painting and develop our technique. By slowing the shutter speed, we were able to take our first (and admittedly very ghostly) image. Other tests followed.

We learnt from these images. As you can see, the person creating the light in both images is visible. With a long exposure, fast moving objects become blurred as their motion is captured as a still image. The faster the object moves, the more transparent it becomes. The second image featuring another group member shows this well- his body barely moved so is very visible. His arms however, which moved slowly, are seen as blurs. The light circle on the other hand was drawn very quickly, and nothing can be seen of his arms leaning forward to draw this, since they moved too fast to be picked up by the lens.

The solution we devised came in the ‘artist’ of the shot being separate to the ‘actor’- whilst the actor remains in position, being as still as possible to be caught on camera very visibly, the light artist, dressing completely in black, moves around very quickly and creates the shape in the air, so not to be seen in the background. To further reduce visibility of the artist, we adjusted the angle of the spotlights to obtain a darker background. This also added contrast to the light making the effect more prominent. An interesting point is that we can actually hold the shutter open for as long as we need to in order to finish the light drawing. This is useful since it means the artist does not have to panic to draw everything quickly. They should move fast of course, but the longer we hold down the shutter, the less visible they will be overall. Here are a few of our more successful line test images- as you can see, by shining the light through a photographic 'gel' (translucent plastic sheet), we were able to create various colours of light, which was particularly effective for fire:

Taking into account that this light effect is far from natural, something that without modern cameras you would never see in fact, we decided early on that the subject matter of our animation would have to be rather surreal and somewhat abstract. We all agreed the ‘plot’ of our animation should be a dream, enabling us to create a wide range of light-based effects in different situations. These situations focused on a particular ‘light object’ and were intended to flow from one into another. As you can see below, once our animation had been planned, we took reference photos to ensure we knew what poses we were going to work with- we were careful to avoid poses where the light object would be obscured from view as often as possible, aiming for clarity throughout.

The finished animation is included below, with an intro sequence and credits added by another group member:

Once we had completed the animation and had chance to review our work, we all agreed that there were some slight issues relating to the volume of the light-based objects, as well as the smoothness of the animation. Fortunately, I did have a solution to these key issues involving the tracing of real life objects (check out my project evaluation for this task via the tab at the top of the page for more details!), and so we set about creating a second animation in the time we had left until the deadline. the aim for this second video was to further develop our skills and see just how much we could improve upon the first video.

Our second attempt of course was restricted further by time, and so we decided to keep it short and really focus on the animation. The story is incredibly simple, with a bee being caught in a net by a hunter (both being portrayed by members of my group). A reference video was taken help understand how we would need to plan around the story's key action:

Once the animation was done according to our second storyboard and audio planning, members of my group proficient with editing were able to once again add an intro sequence and end credits to make the piece feel more finalised.

As I am sure you will agree, our second animation is far smoother and more consistent than the first. Overall, I think this project went well. What I am most proud of is the fact that we really did, as per the task brief, experiment with a rather unusual form of stop motion animation, and were met with success. I am pleased with the resulting animations, but more pleased that I have learned about a whole new form of animation, and have developed skills in this new area.


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