I thoroughly gave a Synfig, Audacity, Anvil Studio, Gimp, Corel and good ol’ Microsoft Movie Maker a workout.
I haven’t got a lot to say except that the promotional animation for Grosvenor Lane Ghost is now up on You Tube and Daily Motion (hehehe… Daily Motion. You know, like, one’s daily constitutional?) and any other place that I can find.
Please share, enjoy and criticise. Don’t worry, I won’t be listening, I’ll be sleeping. Right now it’s a warm Milo and off to bed.
With the backdrops pretty much ready to go, with the exception of the fireplace, which needs some serious shadows, I’ve been looking at the animation side of things.
Nothing gets stuff done like getting stuff started, eh?
Opening up Synfig, I set the dimensions to 1280 x 720, which gives a 16 : 9 ratio, ready to go.
Now, the scenes are to be slow and progressive so, unlike Adaptation which was more a collection of conceptual shots, I’ll be looking for a lengthy time span of about ten seconds. At a frame rate of 30 fps, that’s, uh, wait, let me get my calculator out… carry the 1… 300 frames.
Hit the OK button and get ready to rumble.
I start by adding a flat colour for the background. Black is good, considering the number of shadows. Why do I need a background if I’ve got a backdrop? If any part of the backdrop image happens to be transparent, or if I use a layer over the top which modifies the alpha of the backdrop, I don’t want to make sure it doesn’t use white or something to compensate.
Anyway, with that in place, I add the backdrop of the door frame (taken from the actual cover. Yes, it’s grainy. Yes, it’s dark. That’s ok. The scene is at night, and it’s going to be a bit further away than our Professor, anyway. The door, however, is sharp. This is where the Professor will be spending some time opening up the lock.
So I insert the door and, presto, I’ve got a front porch!
Now I want to be able to move things about. I want the Professor to walk from the right, over to the door while chatting to the protagonist, unlock the door and open it. And for extra focus and ‘night time’ness, I want there to be some evidence of a lantern.
I’ve broken up the Professor into two main parts: his arm, which will move about to give an impression that he’s not just a cardboard cutout, and his torso. Both the arm and torso will belong to a group so that, as the Professor ‘walks’, the arms and torso bob at the same rate.
I’ve added the ‘lantern’ to the Professor group, so that it, too, moves along with the body. It’s really just a shroud, a radial gradient of zero-alpha to full, with a heavy offset, such that everything outside of the lantern’s influence is dark.
You’ll note, on the time line there, the bunch of green dots. This is the motion of the Professor, stepping and bobbing along. The green is Synfig’s TCB waypoint inference. It gives a looser waypoint than clamped or ease. If I set them all to linear or clamped, the Professor would be marching like a soldier. As it is, his gait is more natural.
All that’s left to do now it animate the door opening, add in a warm ‘lantern’ glow to the radial gradient and shade the door more as it opens to give an impression of darkness and depth.
There are three key sounds in this scene:
The Professor nattering to the Protagonist about it being dry on the porch.
The key turning and the door opening.
The ambient rain, a crucial element of the story.
Getting the key and lock sound was fairly simple. I went out the back to the gate and practiced with the slide bolt. A few trial runs and I recorded it on my phone, picked the best sounding one and cleaned it up in Audacity. More on the cleaning-up bit later.
The voice was more difficult. Where, oh, where does one find a Victorian Professor in the middle of outer Melbourne suburbia? I tried a few online services, but I couldn’t get the voice actor I was after. The ‘British’ was either too uppety, too young, too old or, in most cases, too damned expensive. I’m working on a shoe-string, here.
Fiverr looked promising. There are a lot of voice over artists who are willing to lend their talents. Checking through the various videos and samples, though, it seems it’s mostly geared toward reading scripts for advertisements. Not what I’m after.
In the end, I put on my best ‘old-but-not-too-old’ British accent, practiced again and again and again. And again. Then recorded myself. Yeah. That’s what I did. I hope it sounds right. You know when you hear your voice on tape and you think, “Heck, is that me?”
Lastly, the rain. I haven’t got that sound clip yet. I’m expecting it to rain here in Fawkner tomorrow, and I’ve got a nice corrugated iron cantilever out the side that should sound awesome.
Anyway, back to Synfig: I tried adding these sounds as ‘sound layers’. That is, one adds a layer of type ‘sound’, points the sound file to the .wav or .mp3 and then set the offset.
This seemed the perfect way to add sound to the clip apart from two things.
Firstly, it didn’t always play. Every so often, when re-running the clip, I’d have to select the layer to give it a poke, and the sound would then play. OK, no biggy. So long as it exports…
It didn’t export. No matter what format I exported it as, the sound didn’t come through in the final file. I vaguely remember having this issue with The Bullet. My solution there was to add the sound when assembling the final video. I guess I’ll have to do the same thing here.
Making scenes to represent the various parts of Grosvenor Lane Ghost proved harder than I expected. I had, in my mind, a grand set of a horse and carriage, of a row of dilapidated houses, of looking up to see the young boy in the window. Yeah, right.
The problem is that I was reverting to the ‘tell’ rather than the ‘show’, that is, I was telling the story as a movie, scene by scene, rather than showing what the book was about. What I really needed to do was scrap the chapter by chapter approach, getting more into what the message of the book is about.
And what is it about? Science. The introduction of the Protagonist to the world of Paranormology. His first steps into a strange world. The Professor learning to take his own advice and judge a case only after gathering evidence.
With that in mind, I got cracking on making up a few key elements: The equipment, the larder and the laboratory.
Finding an image of an ‘old-school’ thermometer was tricky, since many were large, ungainly contraptions, nothing portable as the Professor would use. I had to be a bit creative, change the gradient to a positive / negative rather than absolute, and add in brass screws for calibration.
I found many image for an electroscope. Diagrams. Blueprints. None were suitable. So, I had to construct one from a bell jar, a copper rod, a disc and copper sheeting. The vibrometer? Well, that’s actually a high temperature thermometer, but let’s just keep that between you and me, shall we?
I really wanted to get the equipment into the animation since, as the books go on about, any real paranormal investigation require documented, calibrated evidence, not just ‘feelings’ and the like. Plus, a big part of the Professor’s obsession is repeatability, such that his investigations might stand up to peer-review, so his equipment is all important.
The Protagonist spends a fair bit of time in the larder, listening to the house, observing his equipment, getting thoroughly bored.
I don’t have a larder in my house. And I don’t have floorboard. And the garage is concrete. So getting a picture of a larder was kind of hard. No problem. Gimp to the rescue! Taking shots of various textures around the house, including an inverted one from underneath the house, cropping, trimming and poking, I was able to assemble a larder.
On the left is the larder in the Gimp stage, where I was having issues getting the shadows to play nice. You can see some of the icky-thicky lines around the centre. Meh. On the right is after I got to it using the Wacom Intuit drawing tablet. Applying heavy shadows was made a bazillion times easier. The results is a lot more like what I had in mind.
Aw, geez. You wouldn’t think it would be too hard to find an old school lantern, light box, prism and holder, easel, and a sheet of paper and tuck them into a laboratory, would you? Well, it was a pain, let me say.
I blurred the background for a sense of depth, constructed the bench out of pieces of wood and scaffolding, found a decent signal lantern (and roughed it up a bit) and put it on top of a box. The result was uninspired. Why? Because everything was ‘different’, that’s why. The box was too clean, the lantern was too old, the paper was too shiny… you get the idea.What I needed to do was make everything a little bit ‘banged up’. Except the prism, since that needed to be an obvious ‘glassy’ element. Not only that, the whole thing was too damned bright. More shadows, more shine. Wacom to the rescue, once more.
Seriously, I’m loving this thing. Still getting the hang of it, of course, early days and all of that. But enough blabbering. I haven’t got the ‘old’ laboratory for comparison for you, my apologies. Let that be a lesson: Hard-drive space is cheap. Don’t delete stuff, move them into separate folders so you can see progressions.
I’m going to get going on some of the other images. Come back soon!
One of my biggest bugbears when it comes to digitizing pencil scratchings is that I have to do my sketching on paper, get my phone out, take a photo – with a black piece of paper underneath to hide the stuff on the other side – then transfer that via bluetooth to my machine, process it through Gimp to get rid of the noise and stuff, despeckle, desaturate and use the threshold command to get the ‘black and white’ levels, mask one over the over to retain the gradient of the pencil or pen, and, finally, use my clumsy mouse for shading and colouring.
I’ve been drawing with a mouse since the old 286, and it’s fine and fair enough for this and that but, really, what I’ve been after is a way to draw / sketch / paint directly into the machine.
There I was, at Officeworks, looking for a present, when I saw this little puppy looking at me with sad eyes:
I thought, “Nah. Nahhhhh.”
I did a skip around the store, found the present and was about to leave. I looked back. It was still there. “Take me home,” it said, not forcefully, not appealingly, just sagely.
“Take me home. Use me. I’m what you’ve been looking for.”
I have an old (ooooold) Wacom pen and tablet thing. As a pointing device, it was great. As a drawing tool, no good. Naturally I was skeptical about this one. But times change, technology improves, things get better, kinks get ironed out.
I thought, “OK.”
The rest is history. And, I have to say, it’s awesome. It came with a Corel painting software with which it integrates perfectly. It responds to finger pinching, so I can move the virtual ‘paper’ around, or zoom in and out, without having to leave the pad.
But the really cool thing is that it’s pressure sensitive, so if I want to make light strokes, the corresponding lines are light. Push down and make darker, stronger strokes. The result is a very natural looking stroke for pens and pencils, even watercolours, oils and acrylics.
Blending and shading, as you can imagine, comes out tops. In Gimp, it’s not so great because it doesn’t respect the pressure sensitivity, but pop the picture into Corel and it’s like liquid. I can shade gently, I can shade hard, I can smear this bit, scratch that bit, and even layer it all.
Needless to say, I’m going to be spending some time with this little pooch to make the artwork for Grosvenor Lane Ghost. My pictures will have a lot of chiaroscuro, contrasting light and dark, so I’ll be working on shadows and shines a lot, lanterns, old fireplaces, that sort of thing.
What do you know? I haven’t been excited by technology for a while.
On a side note, I’ve found that this is pretty cool for my little Boy as well: I showed him how to paint with it, how to change the colours and make shapes and things. He’s still getting the hang of it, of course, he hasn’t actually mastered holding a pen properly, but he loves how Daddy can draw him a dragon or a car or a train or a tree or a face or a cat, and he can ‘colour them in’.
Not only will it set the mood of the animation, if I do it right it will tie into the various scenes. The first question I asked was “what’s the mood?” Well, this animation is for the book, so the mood should reflect how the book reads.
Hmm. The Bullet is slow and sad, so that’s not quite right. Adaptation is paced and new age. Also not right. No, this needs to be light, in that it’s not a horror book, it’s a ghost book, so that means a little bit of creepiness, and it’s vintage, a tad ye olde world.
“Danse Macabre” sprung to mind. Remember that? Ah, yes. And that brought me back to when I was practicing scales on the piano, and there were the majors and the minors, and then there were some of the ‘advanced’ ones that I (vaguely) remember. The octotonic (I admit, I had to go rifling through google for that one) scales had that sort of ‘unclean’ feel about them.
Before you open up a can of music-theory-whoop-ass on my posterior, just remember that I’m a writer, not a musician. Actually, add to that pile ‘producer’, ‘animator’, ‘sound engineer’, ‘post-producer’… Anyway, if you can bear with, I went out onto the organ in the garage – hello old friend – and fiddled about with scales, noting some of the chords that sounded about right.
The Bullet score came from a tune I had stuck in my head for years. The Adaptation ditty was inspired from a mix of “Ship To Shore” and some old piano exercises. For Grosvenor Lane Ghost, I’m going with something altogether different.
One big lesson from the previous projects was to start with the tune and leave the bass and beats and accompaniments for later. Secondly, choosing the primary instrument, while easily changed at any point using Anvil Studio, is best done early: While plotting music, if it doesn’t sound right, it could be because rather than a Honky Tonk piano, one needs a Flute.
So there’s me, sitting at work, trying to get raster images to print to thermal Epson docket printers with wonky Escpos (ask me about it sometime 🙂 ) while tumbling through random tunes in my head. No good. There’s me on the bike ride home, skipping between cars and ducking underneath trucks while pounding out ditties through my brain. No good. There’s me sitting at home, slurping on a coffee, letting my fingers practice Phrenology, forcing a brass band to make music inside my skull. No good.
It doesn’t matter how hard you squeeze the toothpaste tube, nothing will come out until you take the top off. Fine, not totally true. Squeeze it too hard and you have paste across the roof, but you get my drift. I needed to chill. And for that, I turned to a dusty bottle of Hennessy and a creaky desk chair.
K. I’m chillin’. Anything yet?
No. Mmm. No. Actually, yes. A quaff and a sit down does wonders. Tunes start to develop. Patterns. Memories.
Zig-a-zig-zig. What was that? Zig-a-zig-zig? The Spice Girls? Hmm, no. A violin? Ah. Zig-a-zig. A fiddle. Good. Fiddles are cool. What’s that? Well, that’s nice, too. A guitar. Hmm, a guitar and a fiddle. Not strummy, more folksy, more plunk-a-plink-plink.
And so, I state with honesty, I started writing the music of Grosvenor Lane Ghost with zig-a-zig and plunk-a-plink.
I think that’s the beauty of Midi – it’s like sketching or scribbling. You can start anywhere. You can work at it and refine it down, a bit at a time, cut out the bits you don’t like, add more twiddle-dee-woo or change tappa-ta-ta-tap to doomfa-doomfa with a few mouse clicks and see how it sounds.
I’ve got six tracks, now, with a lead in using a celesta and a nylon string guitar (plink-a-plink). The melody is with a flute, harmony with a cello (zig-a-zig) and a timpani and xylophone making up the bass and beat. Too much? Probably. But, going back to how Midi works, if it is, I can always mute a track and see how it sounds, or mix up the instruments, swap the cello to a fiddle, or a harmonica, or adjust the volume, or, perhaps, just hit the save button, finish the cognac and hit the hay.
Don’t want to overwork it. Don’t want to lose my chill.
As previously stated, I’m going to be giving love to Grosvenor Lane Ghost in the form of an animation. I’ve learnt a lot from the Bullet, and from Adaptation, about the sound, about the music, about vectors and rasters and paths.
Making a plan
It all starts with a plan. I made a story-board for the Bullet, likewise for Adaptation, and I think that helped a bunch. I could see what I needed to make / draw / record.
What I didn’t see was exactly how much was involved in each scene. This is because my plan wasn’t fine-grained enough: “Brother Holland in the bathtub” doesn’t capture all that was eventually required to make that scene. So, too, “Crabman in front of building” or “Assault on Sanitation Facility”.
Sure, it helped break things down into manageable chunks, but each of those chunks was broken down on the fly. OK, I’ve worked like that before. Sometimes there are just unknowns. It’s a fact of life. However, if I sit and think about each scene, I can picture each bit that is necessary:
“Oh, I’ll need a sniper’s scope. And figures in uniform. And a background. And waymarkers. And text.” Right. That’s a whole lot more concise.
To ease the production, I’ve taken the story board, made scenes and, for each scene, detailed the rough time (it’s very loose at the start), the voice-overs, the sounds, the backgrounds and the props required.
And I came up with this:
Scenes on the left, assets on the right. And from here I can pick and choose the bits I need to make. Only got twenty minutes left on lunch? Make a differential thermometer. Have a couple of hours to spare, crank out the laboratory scene. Got a quiet (Yeah. Right) room? Record some voice-overs or sounds.
I’ll not working from start to finish, rather it’ll be a bit of this and a bit of that as I can fit it in. In an ideal world, I’d like to concentrate on one thing at a time. In a real world, that ain’t going to happen.
Besides, with technology today, I can work on (most) of these things during lunch, before bed, between dodging telemarketing calls or while watching tv.
Cool, Jez. What’s first?
Ha. Ha ha. Haaaaaa. Yeah. Meat or potatoes, right? Well, you know what? I’m going to have a little fun and start with the music. That’s right, I’m skipping to dessert.
Why? Because it’s fun. Really. It sets the mood for the pictures to come. And I think it’s important to have background music for a video rather than just sound. Not only that, if I’m going to make a bunch of these (one for each book in Paranormology), then I’ll want to have a ‘theme’ going, a tune that is associative with the series, not just the book.
Which means making a ditty. And since MIDI is such a wonderful way for a single shmuck to make music, and considering I already have Virtual Midi Synth installed, I’m going to go bury myself in my earphones.
The whiteboard got a thorough workout. Having suffered an attack of ‘Oh, crap, I need to get EVERYTHING done‘, I cooled my jets and took some of my own advice. I laid out everything that I wanted to get done, shortlisted the urgent and important points and then prioritised my list. Whiteboards are good for that.
What did you figure out, Jez?
When I put it all out there and assessed each screaming item individually, I realised some important points:
It’s better to knock off items that have a definite ‘end’ to them.
I’ve been wasting too much time playing Fallout 4.
Point one is shared by every creative mind out there, I’m sure. Better too much than too little, for certain, even though sometimes it would be nice to relax and not have to think, “Oh, I shouldn’t be playing Fallout 4 right now. I could be doing…”
Point two is one of those obvious-yet-profound understandings: I cannot change number one, but I can change my attitude toward it. That is, if I acknowledge, rather than lament, that I cannot get everything done, then rather than being distracted, I can crack on with getting through the list.
Actually, it raises an interesting question: If I know that I cannot achieve everything, then is there really a point to doing anything? My gut says “yes, of course!”, but I’m a little too preoccupied to go through it in an analytical sense.
Anyway, after realising point number two, number three is a consequence. I cannot divide my time equally among all tasks, otherwise no tasks will be completed, but that doesn’t mean I need to work exclusively on a single task. That leads to burning out and creative cramps (come on, we’ve all had those, right?) which means sub-optimal throughput.
So while I wouldn’t want to write three stories concurrently (tried it, wasn’t a pretty outcome), I can, say, write and animate concurrently.
Did you say ‘animate’?
Yes, I did. And that brings me to point number four. While marketing, promoting and general administration is a never ending chore, an animation has a start, a middle and an end. When it’s done, it’s done.
There’s a sense of satisfaction – and disappointment to an extent – when it is completed, a real milestone moment. You actually feel like you’ve done something, like you’ve gone somewhere. Sometimes, when I’m mired in admin duties, it’s easy to feel like I’m filling a bath with a sieve. While it’s essential stuff, I don’t feel like I managed to score a ‘win’.
And right now, I need a win.
So that’s where I’ve decided to focus my efforts for the next bit: while plodding through Adaptation Part 6, I’m going to be giving some love to Paranormology in the form of an animation for Grosvenor Lane Ghost.
I had a squizz at Thomas Amo’s Teaser for his book “Midnight Never Ends” on You Tube and I’m digging the still motions, the voice-over, the music.
Oh, and point number five? Yeah. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy playing Fallout, it’s downtime and usually it’s only half an hour to an hour at the end of the night, but still. Downtime is good to recharge but not for getting anything done.
It eats into productive time, which, in turn, increases stress that I’m not getting stuff done, and that leads me all the way back to point number one.
Food for thought.
Now that’s all sorted, I’ll be making a plan for the animation, making pictures, music, putting it together and I’ll let you know all about it.
There is a temptation, with everything we create, to fiddle and poke and prod to get it ‘just so’. This applies to writing, of course, but also to drawing and, as I’ve discovered, animating.
We start the creative process with an idea, vague or exact, of what we want to build. As we progress, the idea will morph as we think more and more about it, and it should, for rarely is an initial idea perfect.
Things change, ideas change, the goal will change. A book, painting or animation is made up of many ideas, and therein lies the problem: the bits will change at different rates and in different directions. The struggle of the artist (read: one of the many struggles) is to keep all of the moving parts aligned an synchronised with each other.
That’s very much a software developer’s perspective, you can tell by the wording, yet it’s quite applicable.
As I’m making more scenes, my drawing style is converging, so that my original sketches are dissimilar to my current ones. So too with the colouring. So too with what I intend to offer to the end user. Now that the music has come into play, the order and relevancy of the scenes is also under question.
Along with all of this, comes the desire to optimise before functionality has been achieved and, as any good programmer can tell you, premature optimisation is the road to Paintown, stopping all stations.
While things change, and they have to, its good to set a few core elements in concrete. For example, when it comes to books, I can maintain the theme, the premise, and the setting while being free to develop characters or explore morals, so long as they fit within the scope of the aforementioned.
Likewise with animation, I am keeping to the original plan of showing parts of the story rather than telling the story. Which means that the scenes can be out of order in order to fit with the music, and they can take artistic license to render a scene conceptually, rather than in actuality.
Using this approach, it also shows me that some scenes that I had originally earmarked for inclusion no longer fit under the category of ‘an important part of the story’. In short, if the scene did not demonstrate something new to viewer, then there was no real point including it in the final cut.
I guess this is why film makers take so many shots and leave most of it on the cutting room floor. Not everything is relevant.
Also, since the music has been locked into about a minute or so, I’m restricted to the amount of content to include. This isn’t such a terrible thing. In fact, it solves the primary issue: I can’t afford to ‘optimise’ (tweak, fiddle, poke, prod, push, tap) until I’ve got the fundamentals laid out.
There’s a solution for you – limit the scope of any project, before you commit to too much, so that you are forced to really assess what must be in there and what would be nice, and what amounts to wood pulp.
The Adaptation – Part 1 animation is now up on YouTube!
A few of the posts regarding the scenes and whatnot didn’t make it, pardon my user error. They’re there, they just haven’t been ‘published’, most notably the ‘thermal’ imagery of Lucas’ sniper scope and the crabman at the firestation.
Anyway, that’s a minor thing. Right now I’m winding down after doing the rendering and re-rendering and tweaking and syncing and, yeah, I’m spent.
I’ve spent some time on the music. I’ll need to spend some more time on it, of course, but I’ve had my fun and I should get back to the animations and whatnot.
Looking at my plan, I’ve made a few of the assets that I wanted, like Miss Penelope and the assault at the Sanitation Facility, I’ve got a basic tune to put it to, so, really, there’s no excuse to open up Synfig and start poking about.
With The Bullet animation, the scenes were mostly long running, which fit the slow pace of the book and music alright, but Adaptation is more action and adventure (mixed with some metaphysical introspection) so it wants shorter, dramatic shots.
Shorter shots, means a shorter run time which, in turn, means more shots per minute. Considering I’ve got the music, and the whole animation, to run for a minute, I’m going to need to up my asset count by… more than what I’ve got.
Still, the good news is that I can actually compose clips and shove them together to see what I’ve got and get a feel for where I’m going.
Composition in Synfig
I did The Bullet in Synfig Studio, I’ve gotten comfortable with it, so it makes sense to continue on with it.
All of my drawings are two dimensional, with shading and hashing to give an impression of depth, but that’s not all I can do to help. Backgrounds and foregrounds, for example, don’t have to be ‘in focus’. To give an impression of depth of field, I can use Synfig’s blurring layer over backgrounds or I can also simply blur them in Gimp, saving on rendering time in Synfig.
Crabman, an important element, gets a look-in, as will Henry and Lucas.
Now I’ve opted not to make Vectors this time, instead I’m aiming for a more ‘paper cutout’ look, with sketching, hashing, colouring and heavy light / shade. Because of this, I won’t have an opportunity to use the bones feature of Synfig Studio, but that’s OK because it wouldn’t fit the style, anyway, and I want to save that for Grosvenor Lane Ghost.
Edit: This post was supposed to be posted about a week ago. Don’t know what went wrong, guessing this fuzzy headed dude didn’t click the ‘publish’ button.