Experimenting with bokeh and animation

These are a couple of experiments I’ve been working on recently at uni. Each took about a week to produce.

My aim with Snapshot was to create a brief portrait of the centre of Plymouth, and give a sense of the vibrancy and the hustle and bustle of the city, but without relying on recognizable landmarks such as the sundial, Charles Church and the university.

I have tried to create an abstract view of a journey from Royal Parade to the university, which captures the feel of the city without it being obvious or particularly clear to the viewer as to where exactly each shot was taken.

I was keen to experiment with a shallow depth of field quite a lot, as it is something I’ve always wanted to be able to do, but wasn’t possible with the cameras I have used in the past. With the 550D, I lowered the aperture to an f-stop of around 3.0 and adjusted the focus ring – differently for each shot depending on the camera’s distance from the subject – to get the effect I was looking for.

Rather than using a shallow DOF to draw the viewer’s attention towards an object in the foreground, I was more interested in using it to create bokeh, as it gave me a new way of looking at Plymouth. Bokeh is a Japanese word usually defined as “the out-of-focus area of an image” and is most visible around background highlights, like reflections and obscured light sources. I used bokeh to distort the majority of the shots, in order to create a kind of hazy, nostalgic warmth, which is how I’ve interpreted the brief’s theme of “Fragments of Place”, as if the film is a collection of vague memories.

I have used close-ups to try to focus on movement, changes in light and reflections, and small details, instead of wide-angle landscapes or long shots. I approached it as if I was taking “moving photographs,” positioning the camera to be more of an observer, letting other factors influence the shots, instead of my own interference. I used the standard lens, which came with the camera, for all of my shots, and I think if I were to attempt bokeh again, I would use a longer lens with a larger aperture depth, because it would allow me to be more precise with which parts of the image are obscured.

The quality of bokeh is usually dependent on how strong a source of light you have. As I was filming in the early evening, I was able to film with a reasonable amount of sunlight, and also use street and shop lights as well.

Visually, I was inspired by the increasing use of in-your-face, stylized bokeh in TV and film, such as in The Bourne Ultimatum, which was shot with Nikon lenses. I was also inspired by the title sequences for the Channel 4 series Skins and Dates, which were designed by Tal Rosner, and use a constant barrage of different shots to create a frantic, hyperactive pace.

For the film’s audio, I was inspired by Jaunt, by Andrew Kötting, a film which features a boat trip through London. I really liked the way he used diegetic audio he had recorded along the route, to guide the story. During the walk I took, I recorded some audio with both the camera’s built-in microphone and a continuous track with a Marantz recorder, to create a soundscape which ebbs and flows with the visuals. Throughout the film is the sound of a busker singing and playing guitar, which gradually gets louder as I get closer to him towards the end of the route.

Overall, I am quite happy with the final outcome of the film, especially the quality of the visuals, particularly those of Royal Parade and the carousel. Although I think it could be a bit more coherent or have a more obvious thread running through it, it was my intention for it to be a bit random in the first place! I do think the pace could be improved, as towards the end it peters out a bit and the visuals become slightly repetitive.

For Him and Her, my idea was to use a room as a metaphor for a couple’s relationship. A man and a woman alternately and continually redecorate the same room, each to the other’s dismay. Over the course of their relationship, their likes and dislikes, hobbies and interests begin to overlap until they finally settle on the decor, just as they are reaching the end of their lives, only for another couple to move in afterwards and the cycle begin again. In order to give the characters some personality in a short space of time, I decided to give them a few stereotypical traits, similar to how many cartoons commonly create their characters – the man loves dogs and music, while the woman loves cats and gardening.

I have used Adobe Premiere and Photoshop to create a concept video that imitates a traditional 2D stop-motion animation by featuring physical artwork and textures. I decided to use this method over using a video camera and software such as iStopMotion for a variety of reasons; it gave me higher quality images, excluded the issue of variable lighting between shots, and allowed for greater control of each element of each shot.

I first drew out each layer on paper and cut them out, then scanned these into Photoshop and saved each one as an individual file, with a transparent background. The room background, which was similarly scanned in, was drawn on paper and has a felt floor to emulate a carpet. The blue wall was made from shiny card, the red from corrugated card. To create an exaggerated, homemade style, I gave each layer a crude white outline, which was partially inspired by some of Aardman’s Darkside shorts. This proved quite tricky when attempting to do the same for the characters.

I decided to use Lego figures because they are instantly recognizable and have very simplistic, expressive faces and exaggerated movements. I planned to have them aging over the course of the film, by changing their faces and clothing using Photoshop. I animated each character using the traditional stop motion technique of taking a still image for each frame of movement, but I kept the characters in the same spot, with only their arms and legs moving, to allow me to set their position whichever way I wanted during the editing process.

A Lego walk cycle

Going by the cycle in the image above, I shot 7 images for each movement cycle, and 3 cycles for each character – walking forwards, backwards and left to right – resulting in a total of 42 images. When it came to editing the film in Premiere, I flipped the left to right cycle horizontally to give me a fourth cycle – walking right to left. To give the characters the white outlines, I used the Magic Wand Tool in Photoshop to cut around each of the still frames and then applied them to white outlines. This is one area I think could be improved; I had to make them quite large to accommodate for the movement of the arms and legs – if I hadn’t, I’d have had to create a unique outline for each frame, meaning 42 individual white outlines, and it took long enough just to cut around the still frames!

The seven "Him left to right" frames

The completed cycle

Once I’d pieced it all together in Premiere, added the titles and the audio, I think it really came together quite nicely as a proof of concept. However, it was extremely time consuming, taking roughly 22 hours to complete – about an hour’s work for 1 second of animation! At the end of the video, I’ve included the rest of my “assets” just to give an idea of how the film will play out. I think if I am to pursue more animation work in the future, I will look to use much simpler, less intensive techniques.