Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Frodo in the world of home movies.

Here's a real curio for you: This short clip comes from a bigger project that was never finished. Somewhere around 1999 I was part of a group of Swedish artists and musicians who worked on a musical video version of "Lord of the Rings"! For real! This was just before Peter Jackson´s mega-version of the books grabbed the world. At the end of the 1960's, Krister Gustavsson and Stefan Håkansson had written folk-rock songs based on the many poems of the books. (You can find Krister's YouTube channel HERE.)
At first we got permission from the publisher Harper Collins and the Tolkien estate to do an amateur version of the story. Then New Line Cinema pulled all the worldwide rights to protect their interests. This could very well be the biggest disappointment of my life. Now I realize that our version was very humble indeed and not much different from other amateur efforts, with hand-held cams and kids for hobbits. Those of you who know the books can see that I've changed the barrow-wight fight a little bit. For those of you who don't know the story, it is as follows: The Hobbits are captured by a ghost called a barrow-wight, but rescued by Tom Bombadil, master of the Old Forest.
This past weekend I found the old tape containing this particular footage, the devil went into me and I took a holiday from my other obligations to piece together a little video featuring this episode from the book "The Fellowship of the Ring". On Saturday evening I started building the barrow-wight hand and late Sunday morning it was ready to be animated. It's probably the fastest I've ever built a puppet. On Sunday evening the animation was finished and edited into the live-action footage. I wish all projects would go as easy as this one.

Here's the aluminum wire / Friendly Plastic hand armature. Nothing fancy, but it could do everything a human hand can do.

The hand armature covered with latex skins and a latex / cotton mix. It's been attached to a support rod made out of braided aluminum wire.

A pretty simple set-up as you can see. But why make things unneccesarily complicated?

The support rod was partially painted blue to be keyed out with the rest of the background.

There are a number of Tolkien fan film projects out there, and quite a bit of them on YouTube. Most of them are parodies but some are dead serious (perhaps a bit too serious for there own good). I've done a couple and am planning to do more. I'm a member of a forum on the web page "", originally devoted to Peter Jackson's films, but now more of a stomping ground for Tolkien purists. There's a section for "fan art", including music and some home-made films. Some of us posting there have recieved quite a beating from those who believe that nothing should be produced without the approval of the Tolkien Estate. Tolkien himself stated that he'd like to approve all the art being produced based on his ideas, and now that he's gone, that job falls to the Estate. But I must say the taste and judgement of the Tolkien Estate is highly debatable.
I use a by-line in my forum posts that read: "I would draw some of the great tales in fullness, and leave many only placed in the scheme, and sketched. The cycles should be linked to a majestic whole, and yet leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama." Now, this is a quote from a letter that Tolkien wrote to editor Milton Waldman to convince him to publish "The Silmarillion" and "The Lord of the Rings" simultaniously. I took this quote as a postive affirmation that Tolkien would approve of at least of what some of us are attempting to do. He had, after all, the ambition to create an alternative mythology for Great Britain, that hopefully would be as appreciated and widely read (and studied) as any other real mythology. It was, however, pointed out to me on that forum that before that statement in the letter, Tolkien makes it clear he has all but abandoned this early idea for a larger, shared mythology. Thus, using that quote as a statement is a great misjustice to Tolkien's memory.
The concept of that great shared mythology may not have been a reality when "The Lord of the Rings" was first published, but, by God, it certainly is now. I'd say Tolkien's ideas and imagination have grown out of the hands of any copyright holders. I'd say it falls to the love of us fans to do his work real justice, without any thoughts of any profit besides the shared joy of the finished result. I'll go so far as to say that some fan efforts help make up the perception of LOTR et al, for some of us. The fan efforts help make this a phenomenon, and I'm surprised this fact is not acknowledged. It's not any damn commerce that make a myth, but constant, honest retelling of it.

In the 60's when "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings" were absorbed by pop and hippie culture Tolkien was, as I understand it, befuddled by the great interest, the fanzines, the rock songs, the "Frodo Lives" stickers and the people trampling the flowers in the garden of his peaceful Oxford home just to take pictures of him and his wife. But as far as I know he never raised any issues of copyright infringement or claimed any "creative injury". And he very well could've, had he been inclined. The only debacle where he actually took action was against Ace Books, who published "The Lord of the Rings" in the US without telling him, using a loophole in the copyright law. In order to stop those books Tolkien addressed his most powerful ally; his fans, and asked them to boycott the Ace editions, which they did. I think that says a lot about the relationship between this author and his admirers.

A bit of a rant there, I'm afraid, but I feel strongly about all of this.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Save Prince Plutonium!: Props and shooting

Last year I shot the film Goblin Wood with my friend Björn's step-daughter Angelica (you can find several posts about that project here on my blog). We all enjoyed the experience so much we decided to repeat it this year, adding Angie's friend Tove, who had gotten quite worked-up about becoming a YouTube film star herself. The resulting project was Save Prince Plutonium!, about two rival space heroines, Astro Girl and Galaxy Girl, setting out to rescue and win the same boy (never a good thing). As a side-note, the girls are at present having a bit of a real-life fall out over a boy in school, but the issue seems to be resolving in a way quite similar to what eventually happens in our film. Life imitates art, as always!

Also shot last year were two projects filmed in front of a less-than satisfactory blue screen. I've spent close to a year getting usable extractions of the actors from that blue screen background, but this experience hasn't deterred me from having another go at chroma key. This time I decided to use green, which seems to have been a much better choice. This meant we only had to build a couple of consoles and seats for space ship interiors. The rest would be models keyed in behind the girls. My pal Björn helped me build the things we needed.

The cockpit chair for one of the space ships was an old automobile seat. The controls for the consoles were all sorts of old stuff gathered up; buttons and keyboards repainted and pieced together.

While Björn and I were building the set pieces the girls started getting into their roles and playing with the stuff. This was very cool, of course, since it meant they were really looking forward to doing this project.

For Angie's (Astro Girl) space ship we only fixed up the auto chair with a couple of control handles. The handles were painted jet black and retractable buttons for firing laser cannons (of course) were put into the grips.

Tove's (Galaxy Girl) space ship had a big console used for long shots of her steering her ship. Astro Girl, on the other hand, gets into a space battle with robot ships and only needed her chair for her action-filled, very quick shots. The console was built out of fiber board. Nothing fancy at all, but it worked great.

The console was painted with a black base coat. The steering wheel was made out of an old coat-hanger and two wooden dowels.

With gold paint and controls added the console looks snazzy enough for this project. I ran out of gold paint while spraying the front of the console. But that was alright, since we never intended to shoot very low anyways.

The laser guns were just two water guns lazily bought by me and modified slightly.

Angie's mom Lisa took care of the make-up duties. Looks like neither of the girls really enjoyed being made up.

But it was worth the slight anguish! The space suits were two (very expensive) gymnastics suits I bought, with some small details added. Before we started filming the girls got to do some inspired action-heroine posing. Might be good for poster art or the end credits.

As you can see we used a cloth green screen (4m x 2m) for the background. Another piece was added to the floor when that was necessary. It's difficult getting the cloth completely smooth, but a simple iron with the steam turned up will go a long way fixing that.

And off into space we go! There will be additional stuff like blinking lights added to this console.

All the new stuff for Angie's cockpit will be added in the background.

We shot all the scenes in an old room in a boarding school, just a stone's throw from where I live. Angie's turning into quite a mini-Milla Jovovich, with ever-expanding fight scenes. Both girls were very acrobatic, doing back-flips, cart wheels, high kicks and other sorts of gymnastics that looks particularly painful to a 35-year old couch potato. In the film they'll be fighting stop-motion animated robots.

And of course I'll have to mention Prince Plutonium himself. I shot the scenes with Elias playing the prince about a week after we did the scenes with the girls. He dressed up in clothes picked from the costume storage of the boarding school's drama class. I made a suitable "atomic" head band for him. Like the girls, Elias is 10 years old, but already severely bitten by the acting bug.

I borrowed the camera from the school as well. It was the first time I shot in HD, in 16:9 and saving the footage on a digital memory card. I wanted the best possible image quality for all the green screen shots and that's why I didn't use my old standard DVcam. It's good for most things, but I don't trust it for producing good keyable footage. This big, expensive camera was not the easiest to cooporate with. I will buy my own HD camera as soon as I can, but it will be something much simpler that this big chunk of plastic.

After the filming was done we all had a wrap-up dinner. Angie fooled around with a Beltain deer mask I made a while ago and we decided that for 2010 we would do a celtic-inspired fairy tale, where she could wear the mask. The main focus here would be to find stunning spots of real nature and keep the chroma key shots to a minimum. It may seem foolhardy do discuss new projects while old ones are unfinished (or just shot), but you never know how long the enthusiasm will last when it comes to kids. All of a sudden they might decide that they're too old or too adult to play around in front of a camera, so do what you can as long as you can. Stock up with good footage while you can get it. I don't really think that attitude will be a problem with Angie, since she's really easy-going and adventurous. She's a very good actress despite her tender age, so I'd really like to do more films with her.

Finally; a background shot from the planet where the prince is held captive. This unhospitable, monster-infested place was created using photos of twilight skies with shots of coral reefs provided by a friend living in the caribbean.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Editing "The King Who Sought Immortality",

Now here's an old project I haven't talked about in a while. That's mostly because I've been deep into the gruelling task of trying to get good composites out of quite bad bluescreen shots. While filming this project the actors were placed in front of a pretty dark blue screen and lit with two stage lights. About half-way into the filming we managed to smash one of the lights, which considerable lessened the effect of the blue screen background. The resulting footage is full of background shadows, grainy imagery and other compositing horrors. The main problem has been achieving an edge around the actors that doesn't flicker.

So for almost a full year I've been trying to make the best out of the situation, using different ways of extracting keyed material and applying hand-drawn mattes (sigh!) The finished result varies wildly from scene to scene. Sometimes it's quite horrible, at other times not that bad. But I've been told that for an amateur production shot under the aformentioned circumstances with a DV camera, it's not that bad at all. It's just that I always pump up my ambitions to abnormal proportions, aiming for highly unlikely results: "But.. But, Peter Jackson's got these really nice composites in the Lord of the Rings films! Why can't I have that too??" It's been a good learning curve, though. Here are some stills from some finished scenes:

Tiger Shark for Shelley; Part one

I thought I'd join the band of puppet makers / animators that have contributed with sea creature puppets to Shelley Noble's project "Halfland". My idea was to make the puppet in cast silicone for maximun flexibility. It was supposed to be a learning experience for me too, and it was.

I started off with making a sculpture of the creature; a "tiger shark" all in line with the rules for how wildlife in Halfland looks.

A dividing wall in softer clay was put up around the sculpture in order to cast a two piece mold.

A thin first layer brushed on to avoid air bubbles.

Top layer cast and sculpture turned around for second layer.

The whole plaster mold ready to be separated. The thin wooden stick provided a tunnel through the plaster, where I could stick an aluminum wire support rod for the puppet.

So far all's good and well. I mixed some PlatGel 10 silicone with yellow pigments (to provide a painting base) and brushed that into both mold halves. I should also say that the armature was padded with soft foam after this photo was taken.

Before putting the mold halves together some more silicone was added as a glue. The halves were clamped together and in theory the finished casting should come out just dandy.

Which of course it didn't. It turned out I added too little silicone and in some parts there were just big air pockets of loose skin. So the new plan will be to either recast the puppet with a (very expensive) silicone foam I'm dying to try out, or just do it with a latex skin, like I usually do. I'd like to get this puppet finished as soon as possible or it won't be of any good to Shelley's project. There have, however, been a few complications.

Taking up most of my time the last month-and-a-half is a theatre production of a famous Swedish children's book. I have been making 40-something soup terrines, one to be smashed each show, casting them in thin plaster and painting them to match the non-breakable original. Thank god it's all over now, but a rumour of a revival next year is already buzzing. I did get handsomely paid for it, though.

My little studio was also flooded during a week of terrible rains and I've been working with the drying and cleaning of the room since then. So quite a bit of my many projects have been on the backburner due to both planned and unplanned interludes. There's also a little film project that I had planned for this past summer and that I actually, despite all other interventions, managed to get done as far as the raw footage with the actors goes. More about that one in a bit...