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Posted by kriminel, on 2006-07-24 18:00:05

set background with low lighting

Hi, I'm in the early stages of beginning to make a set with (as usual) a very tight deadline and no set building experience. The models are small (largest is 9 inches high) and are made from tiny bones. I will be shooting on 16mm. The lighting will be moody so the background wiil be pretty much in shadow, receding away into darkness. Because the models are made from such small delicate bones, I can' use conventional tie-downs cos I can't drill into them. So for most of them I have stuck nails (using superglue) directly onto the bottom of the creatures. They don'thave two legs, most are on a kind of single stalk.This means I can have them stand upright by pushing the nails into whatever (soft) surface is beneath them. In test shots I have simply laid blackout material on top of a large thick polysyrene slab. The nails pierce the fabric and the polysyrene is dense enough to keep the nails vertical. Because of this limitations, the creaturesd don't wlak but they do other stuff and there are some low horizontal ones which can glide across smooth surfaces as they don't need nails or tie downs cos they can support their own weight. That's all not so relevenat to my question but helps with the context a bit. My issue is that I want to have them in a set, kind of a lunar landscape but very dark so it's very subtle. I plan to use some soft gray rock I can get from cliffs near here and crumble it and lay it down loose. There are a couple of snags I can't get my head round though: 1. I need a surface beneath the layer of crumbled rock, for the nails to penetrate, which is not white so that it blends with the rock. Guess I could spray paint the polystyrene. I've also thought of making a layer of thick plastecine. 2. It will be difficult for the low horizontal models to glide across a textured surface. 3. This is the main query: I really need a subtle background and don't want a 'sky' type background or anything. What I'd like is for the set to recede into blackness. I had originally thought of making a curved, mini version of a half skateboard ramp which ends vertical at the back of the set, but am now thinking it may be more practical to have a completely flat set base (upon which I could make some small hillocks using plastecine and my crumbly rock), which falls away at the back. But do you think this would look too sudden, even with the moody lighting? I'm hoping depth of field will also help. Any help/ideas would be appreciated from you more practical-minded people, as I'm new to this and am having some trouble picturing it. Thank you for your time. C.

Posted by Nick H, on 2006-07-24 20:29:56

If the background is just black, it can be a flat wall with a black cloth hanging on it. Like you were saying, the set can be flat, but with raised bits at the back to break up the edge. The light needs a soft edge, a gradual fall-off. If the edge of the circle of light looks too sharp, you could possibly put some fly screen over the light with the centre cut out, so that it cuts down light near the edge. If you need more fall-off, add another layer or 2 of flyscreen where you want to dim the light more. You might also have a little backlight to pick up the edges of your characters in the main lit area. You can also cheat and actually change the colour of the paint to help darken down the distant areas. If you need a surface that is smooth to glide over but looks rough, maybe make pits in the surface, but not bumps sticking up where the gliding puppets go. This could look good on a moonscape. It's easy to make pits in the styrene foam, then paint it grey. Splatter it with some paler grey, and some watered down black, to break up the surface colour more, give it the illusion of more roughness. The trouble with styrene is that every time you poke a nail in, the hole will be white. You could make all the holes beforehand, but just shallow ones that are a little bigger around, and paint into those holes. Then the new hole made by the nail will be at the bottom of that shallow pit. If your camera is down low, you won't see those holes, they will be hidden. In fact, you don't want new holes to suddenly appear on camera, so you should do this anyway. Another option is to add a layer of rigid polyurethane foam. Get the 2 part stuff. You can add a little black universal pigment (from the paint shop) to one component just before mixing, so instead of being light brown in colour it can be medium to dark grey. Then you can poke holes anywhere you like. It has a lava-flow kind of texture, and can be carved and added to. It will work just as well for holding the nails as the styrene. I would avoid loose rock anywhere near where you are animating. While you are concentrating on the puppet, you will touch it without realizing. (Then you'll start the shot again, and you'll be really careful, but your sleeves will brush some bits again! Even if you are wearing a T shirt and don't have sleeves! Maybe its the air currents caused by your hand going past 8 inches away, maybe its stopmo gremlins, maybe its those loose bits suffering Puppet Envy, but they're gonna move...) Sprinkle your crumbled rock onto wet paint or pva glue, let it dry, and brush away the loose stuff. Stick some larger bits on with hot glue. Make sure nothing can move. Back where your hands or sleeves NEVER go, it can be loose.

Posted by Strider, on 2006-07-25 01:56:51

You're in luck. There's a perfect material, that's manufactured and sold in many hardware stores, that will work beautifully, and should solve several problems at once. It's corkboard. The same stuff used on walls for bulletin boards. It's dark, made for sticking pins in (grips them better than styrene does actually) and if you get the right kind, it even looks like rock. Like flattened rock actually. But here's the other problem I was thinking it would solve: Crumble some of it up and glue it on and you've got rocks strewn across your surface. You can actually crumble it to different degrees... big rocks, small rocks, gravel, and even dust.

Posted by kriminel, on 2006-07-25 03:28:20

Thanks you two- that's such a huge help and much appreciated. Another barrage of questions if I may ; ) Do you think I'll be able to get cork in large lumps, to make little hillocks for the back of the set? The colour had in mind for the rock was a very dark, matt grey. Do you think it's paintable? What kind of paint do you use? And what kind would use on styrene? Also, I've been thinking of adding a small amount of very subtle plantlife, some trees, just in the background but not a big feature, really just to add depth. They need to be in scale of course and the ones in the moddle shop here don't look right- the scale is wrong and they're too stiff and english! I wondered if you had any ideas? I'm not much of a sculptor and time is an issue. I thought to use some sprigs picked from plants in the garden and stick them upright into the surface. If I make sure to shoot one take at a time I think it will be ok to change them each day so they're fresh. Also, what are your thoughts on sticking down some subtle patches of grass here and there? Again, the stuff in the moddle shop seems too stiff and flat- I'd liketo be able to shade the edges away so the patches are not just big obvious shapes. What do you reckon? Thanks again, C.

Posted by Nick H, on 2006-07-25 04:01:17

Trees: Don't change them every day so they're fresh! They will be slowly drying and shrinking while you animate. Played back, it will be speeded up. Worse, it will be uneven, because not every frame takes you the same time to animate, and they will pop. I learned this the hard way, shooting on film before frame grabbers, so I didn't even know it was happening. I used branches of trees with small leaves that had dried for a few days already, but they were still shrivelling under the lights. They need to be dried thoroughly for a few weeks. And even then, never stop for lunch in the middle of a shot if there's plant material in the set. I've also used some dried flowers that look like scrubby little Acacia bushes with really fine branches (look in florists). And I use a lot of plastic foliage, but usually either attach the leaves to bare branches or make the branch from wire. Some plastic plants with fine foliage come from aquarium supplies. Chopped foam sprinkled over gluey branches can often work too. Model shops have fine chopped foam, but you can also make coarser stuff in a food processor. (Um, that bit stays between us, ok?) Grass: Depends on the scale, but I usually cut some round bits off fur fabric for tufts of grass. It suits my 8 to 12 inch puppets. I go for a mixed sandy colour, and airbrush a little green onto it. Maybe for a desert I'd leave it yellow. The grass would stand maybe 20mm - 30mm high, in separate tufts rather than a continuous lawn. I sometimes use shorter fur fabric, but it doesn't have the colour variation in it, its one flat colour. It needs a bit of coarse spraying or spattering to break it up and look interesting. (If you don't have an airbrush, run your thumb over a toothbrush to spray dots of paint.) This is short fur fabric for lawn, with a few bits of plastic aquarium plant in the foreground: http://pic20.picturetrail.com/VOL65/42706/58123/349236.jpg But desert grasses tend to be isolated clumps.

Posted by Strider, on 2006-07-25 04:02:55

I almost mentioned this before, but neglected to... but I actually made a mountain range once from corkboard. And I'm talking about the really dark stuff, not that light brown/tan stuff made of really fine particles of cork. The way I did it was to just stand a few sheets of it up (I forget how I supported them) and I broke them off in a ragged mountain-range shape. Behind them was a big sheet of white posterboard drenched with light, so the ragged corkboard edge was strictly shown in silouhette. I think even with a darker background you could get away with this trick. Since it's the distant background you can't really tell if it's 3 dimensional or not anyway. I suppose if you want to paint the corkboard you could probably spray it with a primer first, which are generally grey anyway, and then just paint over that with acrylics or whatever. If you don't seal it with something like primer first though, I imagine the coark would just soak up your paint. Might take a couple coats of primer. I'd be careful trying that with styrene though... it would probably melt, unless you use some kind of waterbased paint to paint it with. Anything enamel or laquer will eat it up like alien blood... in fact, I'm pretty sure that's exactly how they did that effect in Alien, laquer thinner or something similar on styrene. I'm not sure what kind of scale ypou're talking about for grass.... it would depend on where in the set it's located I guess. You could use something like a terrycloth towel cu into bits, or pieces of a velour shirt. Or if it's closer, maybe some fake fur trimmed to size. You can paint any of these to make them less fake looking. I hate when props look too stiff and english! I prefer them to look rough and Swedish. :+

Posted by Nick H, on 2006-07-25 04:14:10

I have a coloured cork floor in my kitchen. It's basically cork tiles coloured with watered down acrylic wall paint, so some of the cork pattern shows through. I needed a colour they didn't make for a stip around the edges (that would match a paint I used for trim) so I asked the makers. And my wall paint worked fine, thinned down and applied with a roller. (For a floor, there's a coat of sealer on top, which you wouldn't need on your set.) Same water based paint for styrene, for reasons explained by Strider. I buy Accent base (for strong colours) in a 4 litre can, then tint up small amounts as I need it with universal tinter (same as they use in the paint shop).

Posted by kriminel, on 2006-07-26 03:12:34

Thanks again guys, that's great and loads to work with. Smashing grass, Nic ; ) I guess I need to try both cork and styrene and see which works best for this. Can I just check though: it may be a different country thing but are you referring to what I would call polystyrene, or is styrene something different? I'm guessing it's different, as poly suggests the tiny balls, which I'm concerned would be visiible on the surface (though maybe not in low light after paint). Cos I imagined some quite large hillocks in the midground here and there (just about 3 inches high), and am thinking that the little balls would be visible on the roungh edges. Do you think it would be possible to create them with corkboard? How thick was the stuff you bought, Mike? It would be great to know what kind of retailers you bought it in. What kind of glue would you use for it- a hotglue? Sorry for all the questions- it' just really helpful to get your answers at this stage- as you know, it cuts down on the running around and trial/error. Thanks again.

Posted by Strider, on 2006-07-26 03:32:36

Yeah, when I mentioned styrene, I meant the stuff made of little balls... like you find in packing cartons. The corkboard was already in the basement... my dad had a big box full of it he had bought long ago. It was about 1/2" thick I guess. If you had enough you could stack up a few sheets and cut your hill shapes from it. If you use the styrofoam (styrene) for hills, you can coat it with plaster or some kind of putty before painting. You could certainly use hotglue for corkboard, but I think it would melt styrofoam.

Posted by Nick H, on 2006-07-26 04:16:54

Styrene, short for Polystyrene. The poly refers to the chemical composition, not the little balls. The stuff we are talking about is polystyrene foam, also known as styrofoam. Lots of little balls fused together. Cork would be good too, but you wouldn't get it in thick blocks.

Posted by kriminel, on 2006-07-28 03:33:37

Thanks guys. I'm sure I'll be back with more questions once I get going with it!

Posted by kriminel, on 2006-08-09 04:15:19

Hey, Just a quick update/another question on the styro saga.... So I'm just researching which surface would be best for this set. I need a large base (about 3 metres by 1.5 deep). I can either get polystyrene or styrofoam. The latter may be preferable as apparently it's denser, so may hold the nails (my version of tiedowns) better. The only snag is that I can only get styrofoam that size in blue, and my set needs to be grey and textured. Upon your suggestion, I plan to paint it with a water based paint to give the illusion of texture and also make pits in the surface with solvent. However, I'm concerned that the blue may show through the paint. Have you any experience of how styrofoam takes paint? It would be helpful to get feedback before I make my decision, as it's not cheap stuff and I've no contingency time... I may also use polyurythene lava to make some hillocks on the surface. Would you say I need to cover the whole surface, or can it just be used in certain areas? Do you think it will adhere to a styrofoam surface, so that I can just blend the edges down? A million thanks again. C.

Posted by Nick H, on 2006-08-09 23:12:36

Styrofoam takes water based paint ok. Don't use oil or turps based enamel or spray cans though, they eat it. I don't know the blue stuff, all I can get is white, in different densities. 2 part polyurethane foam sticks well to polystyrene. In fact, I use it to stick 2 pieces of polystyrene together. Actually it sticks to just about everything. The aerosol can gap filling foam also sticks, but doesn't make such nice lava flows. But both types can be carved back with a sharp knife to belend into the styrene surface. No, you don't need to cover the whole surface. For your base, use particle board or something first, then put the styrofoam on top of that. But I should be clear that I never use styrofoam or polyurethane where the tiedowns go, I always have bolts coming up through a hard surface and into the puppet feet. So I'm no expert on the approach you are planning.