Thursday, February 28, 2008

LifeFormz: Livin' In the Fridge music video

One of the best ways to learn video puppetry, in my opinion, is to lip-synch to songs. It's how Jim Henson started -- he used the local TV station's record collection of Stan Freberg comedy sketches as well as popular songs. When I started LifeFormz, I discouraged new puppeteers joining us from jumping right into character dialog work.

"Aww, come on Brian!" they'd say. "This is just for fun, who cares if my head's in the scene or my puppet's head is flapping?" Well actually, the audience does. Do it right and the audience will believe in the character and respond to it. Do it wrong and it may laugh at how bad the puppet's moving or the funny dialog, but it won't have any connection to your character.

So when we started, all we did were music videos and very few spoken bits. With songs, we could focus on these techniques first:
  1. Proper lip-synch
  2. Eye gaze
  3. Rhythmic choreography
This music video (to the song "Livin' In the Fridge" by Weird Al Yankovic) was actually one of the last clips I worked on before graduating and it was finished and shown after I left. Unfortunately, you can tell -- note the difference in lip-synch of the red monster for the song up until he gets pushed into the fridge. Head-flapping! Stiff! Heh. Oh well. I think it turned out rather well despite my absence.

I love how we somehow found a real fridge, yanked off the door and attached it to a fake fridge interior with holes in the back. Making all the food puppets was really fun. We learned a lot about coverage -- how do we fill up the time with the lead singer, cut to close-ups of activities inside the fridge, and keep things reasonably consistent. The psychedelic sequence was really fun to make although it's a bit crude. (Layers of S-VHS tape being duplicated over and over just don't hold up, apparently.)

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posted by Brian at 9:51 AM 0 comments links to this post

Monday, February 25, 2008

LifeFormz: Foamhenge (Teatime)

One of two sketches called "In Search of the Unsolved, Mysterious, Unexplained, Unknown Things We Do Not Know Anything About."

How We Did It:
  • Bertrand Crumb in front of green screen, long shot to make him small.

  • Two 1 1/2 foot or so rod & mouth puppets of Stonehenge on a table in front of a black screen, medium-shot to make them seem big.

  • Both these are done at the same time, with the Amiga Video Toaster doing the Luma-key of a blue sky with clouds and the JVC analog switcher doing a Chroma-key of the result behind Bertrand Crumb.

  • Audio looping done in post.

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posted by Brian at 11:43 AM 0 comments links to this post

Friday, February 22, 2008

LifeFormz: Mr. Stick

*sigh* Ok, I had promised you some LifeFormz footage months ago (last year in fact), but I became frustrated with the results of digitizing the 15 year-old VHS tape I had -- bad sound, all washed out or too dark, and generally crappy. But just this past week I discovered I had another, much better tape. Yay!

So here's one of everybody's favorite sketches, Mr. Stick. Brian Flumen came up with the idea of a silent film actor who happened to be a stick. Somehow we evolved it into having a historical film host guy showing off a few of Mr. Stick's films, Mr. Stick Goes to Town, and the sequel, Mr. Stick Comes Back from Town, plus Mr. Stick Walks His Dog.

Brian performed the voice of the host here while I simultaneously listened and lip-synched along in front of a green screen Chroma-keyed (using an old JVC analog video switcher) with footage taken from U.Penn's Fine Arts Library. Besides wanting Brian to perform, the reason we did it this way was that Penn's UTV Station did not have good microphones in the studio at the time, only in the control room. That's why sadly, most of our sketches did not involve multiple characters speaking. Separately, Brian also performed Mr. Stick himself in front of a green screen with a Chroma-keyed image taken from a book of old streets we found somewhere.

Oh! The piano music... Well, in the grungy basement of the studio, back in a far storage closet, Steve and I found a piano, and one day, a young woman was practicing on it. We asked her if she would play something ragtimey, so she played The Entertainer. Perfect! Steve ended up speeding it up old-school style, by dubbing it off of one S-VHS player to another that was recording at a slower speed. Man, we would have LOVED having Logic or ProTools back then.

The Amiga Video Toaster provided the film-look and black-and-white FX.

One technical challenge we faced was that we could not do compositing after the fact like you can today. So anything being Chroma-keyed had to be ready, up and running in either the JVC switcher or the Amiga Video Toaster, or in some cases both! That also meant we needed enough people on hand to operate everything, essentially live. Although editing-wise, we often shot in a film style. This drove UTV nuts because we used WAY more S-VHS tape than everyone else and we produced episodes much much slower than they would have liked. (Not to mention the fact that our puppets and building materials were slowly taking up a huge section of UTV's office!) Cié la vie. We had a hit show and it won a Student Emmy, so they stopped complaining eventually.

Up next, "In Search of the Unknown Unexplained Mysterious Things We Do Not Know Anything About".

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posted by Brian at 11:10 PM 0 comments links to this post

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Ordeals In Upgrading Media

In 1994 I bought a Panasonic 4-Head VCR. In 1997 I bought a Hi-8 Camcorder. Now it's 2007 and I have amassed a relatively small but still space-taking collection of VHS & Hi-8 tapes, mostly recorded off of TV (when cable was still $12-40, had few commercials, and a diverse set of channels), some recorded events like my brother Colin's wedding, San Francisco Bay Area Puppetry Guild shindigs, and other random stuff.

Sadly, that very well-made VCR would cost a lot to repair (Note to self: Never pack a VCR in styrofoam peanuts!) though it is so much better built and (when it worked) records better than the crappy plastic JVC behemoth I had to buy in a pinch (2003). And in any case I don't watch Cable or Satellite TV anymore (a growing trend in Hollywood. Ironic, huh?) so having an analog playback device around constantly is no longer necessary. Soon the U.S. government will be forcing everyone to upgrade to digital TVs (2009) and shutting down analog TV signals altogether in 2012, so my eventual goal is to move entirely to computer-based playback.

Anyway, this desire to upgrade my media situation coincides with my recent post about wanting to put clips from "Lifeformz" online, the only copy I have of which is on VHS. I bought a Canopus ADVC-110 for this purpose, a cute little box that digitizes analog to DV quite nicely. Granted, DV is not the best format because it can cramp colorspaces but for my budget and purposes it should be fine.

Discovered that even DV footage takes up a TON of disk space! My poor Mac was running dry after just 2 tapes. So I bought a Lacie 1 TB drive with USB 2.0, Firewire 400 & 800 ports. There we go. 60 hrs!

Today I just took a look at the entirely open-source Neuros OSD multimedia device, which seems to have evolved a bit since I last checked. Might have bought that instead had i known I could watch Youtube with it and that it doesn't need a computer. Ah well.

Incidentally, you can actually recycle VHS tapes and other media through a company called Green Disk.

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posted by Brian at 3:59 PM 0 comments links to this post

Friday, October 12, 2007

15 Years Ago, Lifeformz was Born...

Lifeformz Cut-out Title
Lifeformz Cheese Monolith

Good grief! It doesn't feel so long ago, but sometime in the Fall of 1992 I raced back to the Penn campus via train from NYC (my first time there), having just seen a life-changing presentation at the Museum of TV & Radio about Jim Henson. The guest panel included Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson, Jane Henson, the late Jon Stone, and Michael Frith. I had a mission. When asked by an audience member "What should we do or study to become Muppeteers?", Jerry Nelson half-seriously blurted out "Computers!" and after the laughter died down, Jane Henson suggested "Cable Access Television." One of the brightest lightbulbs ever lit up over my head because I was already doing BOTH, at Penn's University TV Station (UTV) and doing some modeling & animation work for graduate & PhD Computer Graphics students at Penn's Center for Human Modeling & Simulation. There was no question about it, it had to be done. Yes, I was going to attempt to create a TV show with puppets and animation. But what to call it?

I'm not entirely certain when or how I arrived at the name of the project, but at some point I mentioned it to my good friend at the time, Steve, and he nodded approvingly. I printed up some flyers using my Atari ST & its ginormous laser printer advertising a new student group / experimental puppetry and animation show. We plastered them over campus, not entirely certain of the people who would show up to the first meeting. After all, Penn back then was NOT known for any sort of visual arts training. The Annenberg School of Communications was there, but its film & video classes had long been shut down because the Dean "did not want Penn to be a trade school." Bummer! Even its theater department (as I found out later when I set up an independent study to do the show) emphasized theory and academia over actually doing anything. So we sat at a table in Houston Hall, and waited for whoever showed up.

We started with a few women interested in building puppets, four computer scientists, an English major, and one artist. The next few meetings involved sitting at Houston Hall with trash bags of foam, glue guns, and fabric, but over the next year we took over a large chunk of UTV station with our puppets and materials. We had no scripts at first -- our model was Jim Henson's earliest show "Sam & Friends," and the earliest of those that involved only lip-synch and musical numbers. (It was frustrating to many of our members not to jump right into voices and elaborate sketches, but truthfully, we were not ready.) But the puppets evolved over time (after scrutinizing various Muppet & puppet-making books), and we got pretty good at using the limited 70s and 80s era video equipment. (The most modern thing in the station? An Amiga Video Toaster, which we mastered better than anyone else at UTV)

Towards the end of 1993 we became one of the most popular UTV shows (apparently our demographic was "stoners") and had grown to about 35 members and volunteers. We started experimenting with then state-of-the-art software for the Mac, Quicktime, hooking it up to a PowerGlove a couple years before Quicktime VR or other various image-based digital puppetry attempts came along. We even did a live performance, using puppets that played foam drum MIDI-triggers we rigged up.

Then, inspired by another student* at Northwestern who had won a Student Emmy for her puppetry TV show "Freeform" we submitted an edit of our show to the same competition. We won a Regional Student Emmy . Not bad, considering our competition was from Film Schools, and had budgets of $10,000 and one even starred Mel Gibson. Ours? $300 maybe) It was incredibly surreal to attend the Award ceremony in Beverly Hills, sit at a table with other award-winning students and get a photo taken with Brent Spiner (who says "lifeforms" quite a bit on Star Trek: Next Generation episodes).

Needless to say, it was a wonderful time in my life. It tickles me now that some very talented people passed through our group who later went on to be big shots working at Electronic Arts, ILM, Weta, and technical artists featured in WIRED magazine. One guy who never had time to work on the show (despite my nagging) who designed a recruiting poster for me went on to co-found Gnomon School of Visual FX.

Here we are 15 years later... Very soon you will get to see some video clips. About time, huh?

And now you know why the domain for this site is called "Lifeformz."

* Who was that student, you ask? Stephanie D'Abruzzo, who went on to work for Sesame Street and later became the co-star of the original (off and on Boadway) Avenue Q!

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posted by Brian at 12:38 AM 0 comments links to this post