I recently finished up a project for rezlife student ministries entitled Double Dare, about boldly living out one’s faith.
As with most of my projects, I like to come at the subject in an unexpected way if I possibly can. This particular series was not only about boldly living out faith, but also about bugs- and, of course, eating them on stage.
The challenge was then to find a way to communicate the main idea (sharing one’s faith) while bringing under the motif of bugs in some way.
One of my usual approaches is to try and break down the idea into its simplest form. I find that if you can encapsulate the purpose in one or two words, that can become a good foundation to build upon. For this project I found several different approaches which could work- focusing on the faith aspect, tying in the dare part somehow, etc.
But I finally decided on going with the notion of boldness as my bedrock idea, since it can speak to all of those ideas without necessarily being limited to any particular direction or aesthetic.
Another approach I often like to take is to try and craft a mini-narrative out of any video I create. Most of them are 45 secs or less, which makes telling a story as simply as possible an absolutely crucial part. I am not naturally gifted with brevity, so for me it is especially challenging to condense every idea I might have or want to say into such a short period of time. One of the most difficult skills in editing is not only knowing what to cut, but also being able to do it.
A good narrative will usually have some sort of conflict or obstacle to be overcome, and it is through that that character development can take place. In such a short space not much of this can happen, but often giving a general arc of this narrative movement can be enough.
Given the narrative nature of the videos I try to create, character creation can often be a part of that. People naturally identify with characters, and this allows you to be able to tell more with less. A purely text-based video, for example, has to have a lot more words since all that can be communicated is verbal, whereas character development can often say just as much without any words at all.
I opted for some middle ground here, crafting the character of the fly as my protagonist but with some supporting text to give the animation some context.
Since the title of the series is Double Dare, I initially thought of some flies daring each other to get near to a Venus flytrap and then fly away before they were snatched; using the idea of doing the dare to signal boldness. Originally I was going to have one finally get caught, but I couldn’t really figure out how to resolve that into the message I wanted to communicate.
As I thought about the aspect of peer pressure in dares, my thoughts turned towards how sometimes we do get caught, but that boldness is often in avoiding those things that catch us. It was here I finally thought of bringing the flypaper into the mix. From there the rest of the story came into being, including the flyswatter (since we are all familiar with it) and finally the near-death experience with the flytraps. At this point I had my story complete, so that in my mind it went something like this:
Being a person of faith is not an easy thing. Sometimes we feel like we are all alone in a desert, with no one around to care or to notice. We see our friends and peers living their lives and often doing what they want. Sometimes nothing happens, but sometimes they get caught in their actions and it has a price. We want to avoid those things, but they are always a temptation that is enticing. Even when we avoid the wrong things, sometimes the world seems out to get us, almost like we are punished for doing what is right. It seems that the more we try and live out our faith the more obstacles we face. Sometimes it is even dangerous- being quiet is easy and comfortable, but being bold is full of risk and danger. To boldly live out one’s faith is daunting- so how do we do that? What does it take to live out our faith?
Naturally, that stream of consciousness is too long and disordered to put into a video, so I had to take my thoughts and condense them to the absolute basics. My creative process thus usually has a contract-expand-contract-expand movement to it:
Contract: Break the idea down to the most fundamental idea
Expand: Construct a narrative flow from that idea to the theme
Contract: Reduce that narrative to its most essential components
Expand: Add detail and nuance to complete the idea
From that point all that remained was to create the graphics, pick out some music and animate it. While those can often seem the most daunting part, for me the idea generation is usually the trickiest part. After all, the rest is just execution, but having a solid idea is essential.
I have been intentionally trying to improve my illustration skills over the past six months, and this project was another great opportunity. I decided early on for a minimal illustrative style with a limited color palate. Originally I played around with some greens and pinks, but settled on the cooler tones since I felt they conveyed the sense of isolation I wanted.
Most of the artwork uses straight lines, which gives it a rigid and somewhat detached look. But it also abstracts the object away from its real-life counterpart and not only gives you a lot more leeway in how it is illustrated, but also takes on a stylistic character of its own. There are also some compositional nuances that can be explored.
The After Effects project was pretty straightforward, although I was able to utilize some fun expressions to make the animation easier. The first was a great oscillate expression which basically lets you input the start and end points, the rate of oscillation and even the easing (or lack thereof). I used this to get the fly’s wings to flap fast, and added a motion blur to sell the effect.
For the flytrap I initially was undecided as to how I was going to do the mouth animation. One can split the mouth sections into separate layers/comps and then individually modify the rotation of each, but the disadvantage is that it gives a choppy and rigid feel. Given the geometrical character of the artwork, I didn’t think the would necessarily be bad. One can also use the Puppet Tool, which gives much smoother animation but can be a pain to modify. Another downside is that the puppet pins are limited in their easing and key framing ability.
I finally settled on the Puppet Tool approach because, after some tests, I decided I really wanted a more organic feel. After all, flytraps are organic! I was ready to buckle down and slog through animating the puppet pins when I found an amazing workaround which changed everything. Perhaps I am just ignorant, but I found this to be a breakthrough.
Basically, you simply parent each puppet pin to an individual Null, and then animate the Null to affect the puppet pin animation. This isn’t as straightforward as one might hope, and an expression is involved, but once it is set up it works quite well. Nulls are so much easier to work with and animate, with the additional bonus of not being limited in easing and key framing. Needless to say, this approach made animating the flytrap so much easier, and rather than being drudgery, was actually quite fun.
For more info on this, go here.
I set up my flytrap with 7 Pins/Nulls: One at the base of the flytrap (not shown), two at the pivot point of the mouth (one for stability, one for rotating) 1 at each upper extreme and 1 on either side in the middle. The Puppet Tool can be pretty forgiving, but you have to be careful not to go crazy. I set up my flytrap beforehand so that the deforming I wanted to do would work.
While a lot of people are content with Easy Ease, I find that it is less than stellar. Hence, I tend to jump into the graph editor quite a bit to modify the paths. For the flypaper I wanted a really smooth motion with all of the movements, so I ended up making a path decay that looks like this:
There are expressions that can automatically add these types of animation smoothings, but the difficulty is that expressions can begin to bog a project down really quickly. I tend to have a lot of these types of easings, so I find it is usually easier to go in and do it myself rather than waiting for renders.
The final piece for this project was the music, which I usually pick out before I start the animation. When I first started I would often wait to add a track to project after the animation was done, but I quickly discovered that a track can drive an animation, improve it, and actually give direction. Pauses, swells, hits, and all those sorts of dynamic changes can breathe with what you create, and the goal is to create a seamless whole. This track was not my first choice, but Megan convinced me it was the better one, and she was absolutely right. The other one would have been good, but this one pushed it over the top.
To polish it up, I ended up stacking an animated grain layer to match the graphic I created. I also liked how it gave it a bit of texture and life without overpowering it. After Effects has some nice built in grain presets which, while quite taxing on one’s systems, deliver some nice results. A little vignette to pull it all in a bit and the project was complete.
I had a lot of fun with this one, and am quite pleased with how it turned out.