Chris Ullens (ullens.net) recently completed work on one of Fergie’s new music videos, this one a stop-motion video for the track Love is Blind. Ullens took time from another music video project that he’s currently working on to share his experience working with the recording artist.
How long did it take to produce Love is Blind?
“To start with, I had about a week of writing the treatment and then over another two weeks, we were chatting with Fergie and William Derella for us all to discuss and agree on the treatment and the production process. We, very quickly, were on the same page — it was really great. We were laughing already and getting excited when chatting about the scenario and the film that was to get created to illustrate Fergie's track. It's been a really good ride to work with Fergie and William!
In terms of production only, excluding the treatment stage and all the calls and emails prior to production to agree on schedule, budget, scenarios and so on, we had nine weeks. There was three weeks of prep for my producer (and wonderful wife), Jade Bogue, and myself to further develop the concept, for Jade to write the scenarios, for us to adapt all that to fit perfectly on the track, to create the team that will nail such a shoot, and to direct the art department, lead by the very talented Emily Suvanvej, who were creating all these beautiful bits of set, the characters and so on that inhabited and made our miniature world.”
Talk about the shoot?
“We were at it for two weeks, and the team did [nailed] it. They were great. We had Jamie Durand, our director of photography, with whom I've literally done all of my shoots, that lit and shot it all in ways that were emphasizing the art department's work beautifully, and he created the perfect shots to translate our scenarios. And then to bring it all to life, we had the great Gary Cureton as an animator. It was the first time we worked together, although I had already heard many good things about him through friends. During our first call, he mentioned that early in his career he animated MTV's Celebrity Death Match, and that was an instant winner for me as a young fan of that show when it was airing.
“And finally, we moved on to the post production — first the edit with our friend and talented editor Rebecca Luff from Tenthree, who orchestrated all our footage to fit the track perfectly, then the post visual effects by Aaron Lampert, who did a great job at giving our characters more life and Fergie great expressions by animating their eyes and mouths. And finally, we went to the Electric Theatre Company in London for Lewis Crossfield to wrap the whole film up with a beautiful grade that helped giving us this gorgeous, sunny vibe that fits the track so well.
“We then delivered and Fergie was very happy. So were we! A great experience with a wonderful team.”
Is it all stop-motion techniques?
“It is all stop-motion in a very traditional sense that we have literally shot all these frames one at a time and all the objects in motion throughout the track have been manually animated. But, as I mentioned, the animation of the eyes and the mouths (were) all done in post production.
“I am a true fan of stop-motion animation and I am still, on every shoot, amazed like a child that at the end of a day on a shoot, that we suddenly have that footage of elements that have come to life on screen from someone moving these inanimate objects one frame at a time. Stop-motion is amazing like that. Also, it has that human imperfection that makes it so precious and every shoot unique to it's team of hard-working people. So we did shoot it all in stop motion on an eight-foot by eight-foot set, with all the rigs and armatures beautifully orchestrated by Gary, and shot by Jamie.”
Talk about the characters’ expressions?
“The eyes and the mouths needed to come to life. [They were] created and painted on the characters by Emily, (and) were so delicate. We didn't have the time or budget to animate those in situ and in traditional stop-frame with many replacement eyes and mouths that fit in an armatured head. And this is where the evolution of technology makes wonderful tools, specially when handled by someone like Aaron. He really brought these eyes and mouths to life and managed to give our miniature Fergie the expressions she has in the video. He also cleaned all the armatures Gary used to hold our characters in the positions we needed them to be.”
What tools did you use during production and post?
“This is another question that will illustrate how the evolution of technology has brought us wonderful tools. The Dragonframe software we used to shoot all of our frames is a wonderful tool for stop-motion animation. When you think that the pioneers of animation were shooting on film with no means to preview, it makes them even more impressive at their skill. Then, when I started as a stop-frame animator, we had lipstick cameras looking through the viewfinder of the cameras we were shooting with, and that would give you a very rough preview. And we needed a whole computerized tower to give you a very vague idea of what you're shooting. And now, with Dragonframe, it feels like we're spoiled. It really provides you with all you need. Dragonframe gets its images from our cameras being linked to our laptops. These cameras were a Canon 5D Mark2, a Canon 7D Mark 1 and a Nikon D700. I then processed all the raw files and exported them as footage through Adobe After Effects, and that footage was edited at Tenthree. I think Rebecca was working on Avid for this project.”
Is there a scene that was particularly challenging to produce?
“The scene with the meat cleaver flying through the air! I love that scene so much, but it was a very tricky one to plan. Our set, being miniature, we had to remove many walls and the ceiling for our camera and its tracking rig to fit where it needed to be to capture the floating meat cleaver. But removing the walls and camera meant that the lighting was different on our set, so Jamie had to re-arrange the lighting drastically for it. And with the rig in the middle of the set, that left very little space accessible to Gary to physically animate and move our character and to create this wonderful fountain of pink blood that spurts out of our character’s head.
“But then, anyone that is familiar with stop-motion animation has tales like these. In a way, the shot being harder to capture makes it even more satisfying to see the result at the end. Another reason why stop-motion is great — it's full of these challenges and it's all about finding clever solutions in very hands-on ways with whatever equipment you have to still capture these scenes you want. And with a great team like we had on this shoot, it's been really fun finding all these creative solutions.”