Assembly: A Hand Painted Film

Posted by on May 21, 2015 in Uncategorized | No Comments

For the hand-painted short film Assembly, I adapted a traditional paint-on-glass animation setup to my specific needs using some helpful digital tools. The system I came up with allowed me to paint while referencing live footage. Though this helped with accuracy, it did not help with speed. Painting and drawing the film took approximately 1200 hours. The “making-of” film below will give you a sense of the meditative process of creating each frame, photographing it, wiping it away, and starting anew.

My paint-on-glass muse is Caroline Leaf, whose expressive, lyrical animations for the NFB I find mesmerizing. When she was creating some her major works in the 70’s, the practice was to shoot single exposures on a film camera, shooting down onto a pane of diffused glass with a light under it. The paint on the glass was manipulated frame by frame, creating an effect where the paint is constantly moving and smearing around the screen. Have a look at her film The Street for a beautiful example.

I wanted to capture the texture of brushstrokes and fingerprints and the glowing quality of light through paint, but have more control over the image detail. To help with both the motion and the mechanical detail I wanted to be able to “rotoscope”, or trace over reference images, frame by frame. And I would need to work on multiple layers to keep the detailed backgrounds from needing to be constantly repainted.

My very supportive father, Dan Strom, loaned me a small portable monitor and built the wooden frame I designed to surround it. I had several panes and strips of thin glass cut to size, which could be layered over top of the monitor, with spacers in-between so wet paint wouldn’t smear. My reference footage was played out to the small monitor under the glass.

A DSLR camera was suspended over top, controlled by a computer running the stop motion software Dragonframe. I can’t say enough good things about the company who makes this awesome and affordable software – their website is a wonderful technical resource, and their service and products are excellent. I was able to preview, onion skin, capture, play back, and do rough composites of different layers as I painted, using this great software and it’s keypad controller.

When it came time to capture the backlit, painted image, I sent my base monitor a white frame and used it as the lighting source, with a layer of diffusion to remove the monitor texture.

To create the reference film, I worked with DOP Kim MacNaughton and NFB editor & filmmaker, Ileana Pietrobruno, who knew how to work the Steenbeck and splicer. Vlad Horodinca kindly lent his talents to sculpt the high key lighting.

I edited the resulting footage with the clips I had selected from many Studio D documentaries to create a locked picture and sound cut to animate over top of.

Then I set up residency in a room at the Film Board, turned off the lights and didn’t come out for a long time. After months of animating, the photographed layers were composited together and colour treated using Photoshop and After Effects.

The film is very sound driven, and our final audio processes were a lot of fun. My super creative composer Gordon Cobb used the sound he’d recorded at our live shoot to create rhythmic bed tracks and a final musical composition that is emotionally poignant while still echoing the mechanical world of the mechanical editing table.

Chris McLaren at Sound Kitchen Studios generously spent two days with me perfecting the final surround sound mix, which is a rare luxury for a short film.

Making this film was a journey and an honour, and I am so grateful to the NFB and all the many people along the way who supported me and contributed their talents to make it happen.