John's Studio News, Part 5

I'm back with another update on the production of "My Love Affair With Marriage".  Last time I took things really easy, I just re-printed what Signe and Sturgis wrote for their Kickstarter update, called "Anatomy of a Set", which was a great breakdown of everything that goes into making just ONE of the approximately 50 sets that will be built for the 150 scenes that will make up this feature film.  (This is a very rough estimate, right now we're assuming that each set could be used for about three separate scenes, but this is just an estimate, and is likely to change.)  

While I was on vacation, my wife and I spent a couple days in Dallas and on our way out of town, we stopped at the famous Southfork Ranch, which is where they shot the TV soap opera "Dallas" back in the 1980's.  Do you remember the Ewings - J.R., Bobby, Sue Ellen, Jock and Miss Ellie?  From 1978 to 1991 (and again on a recent re-boot) these characters lived in a big house on this ranch outside Dallas - but it turns out that they only filmed the exterior shots there, since they didn't have permission to shoot inside the house.  All of the interior scenes were filmed months later, on a soundstage in Los Angeles.  

We were a little disappointed, I mean, we got to see where the Ewings ate their breakfast on the patio next to the pool, but the other rooms of the house didn't look familiar at all.  I got to thinking about how much of a hassle it must have been to shoot this TV show, and to keep track of what each character was wearing, or how they styled their hair, because if a character was seen outside and inside in the same episode, those two scenes were filmed several months apart, and in two different cities, hundreds of miles from each other.  Plus, it seemed like a very inefficient and expensive way to make a TV show, especially since they had to fly everyone from L.A. to Dallas and back, and then keep track of what everyone was wearing every day, for the sake of continuity.  

What does all this have to do with "My Love Affair With Marriage"?  Well, you might think that the easiest way to make a movie or TV show is to start at the beginning, film the first shot first, and the last shot last, like a staged play. And some productions may do that to make things easier for the actors to have real reactions to things, but in most cases movies film their scenes out of order, to either work around difficult actor or location schedules, or just because it makes more sense logistically.  The mysteries of scheduling are probably different for every project, and nobody wants to waste time, money or materials any more than they have to. 

For "My Love Affair With Marriage", Signe is going to be filming background plates for the animation, and since these are real physical sets, with real (miniature) props, it's going to require an incredible amount of organization to keep track of everything.  What if Sturgis builds that hallway scene and they film the backgrounds for two scenes there, and then after breaking down the set they realize that there were really THREE scenes that needed to use that set?  That's a lot of work to have to re-build sets, again and again.  So once that hallway is built, it just makes sense to shoot all of the scenes that use it, and then the set can be broken down and those materials can be used for another set-up. 

Then each scene is going through a number of different phases which involve drawing and animating the characters, doing line-testing, scanning, coloring, compositing and editing.  I'll try to cover these steps as topics in later posts. 

But the point is that we've got to be very careful about what we're doing, because things could get very confusing very quickly.  To make sure that everyone will know what's been done and what hasn't been done, Signe made this chart:  

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For every scene from 001 to 150, thanks to the filled-in colors, everyone can now see the progress, what stage each scene is at in the production process.  And slowly over the next two years we'll watch the chart fill up with color.  When everything is green, then the movie will be finished.  

There are a few more sets that have been built recently, in addition to the classroom set that we posted before on Facebook and Instagram, and the hallway we showed you last time.  Now there is also a train car set:

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Currently in front of the camera is a carousel in a park with trees:

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And the most recent set under construction is what will become Zelma's apartment:

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Hmm, I wonder what she pays in rent for that space.  It looks like it still needs a little bit of work.  But at least she's got hardwood floors, maybe she just needs a little bit more furniture, maybe a painting or two would really brighten up the place. 

Every set needs a few props, it turns out, and we now have three people (Margarita, Fiona and Masha) building them, so let's take a look at a few that have been built in the last couple of weeks.  Some of them are self-explanatory, while others are a lot more mysterious....

In addition to the small carousel horses, we now have this larger black horse: 

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And this large cat's head, which looks like it's eating a television set - but that's just an image on some paper.  

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Here are some rocks - (whatever you do, don't put them in your pockets...)

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And this looks like it might become a bathtub, but you never know...

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This person looks like he's got a split personality - 

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And here's a big fellow with spiky hair, carrying a suitcase and another bag:  

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And here's a rather bleak tree, with no leaves: 

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But wait, what are those things around the tree that look like bones?  Ah, that would be a life-sized skeleton kit, which Margarita began assembling on Halloween, coincidentally.

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I like to call him "Mr. Bones", after a character in the Star Wars: Aftermath novels, but Signe's been calling him "Good Will", which I think is a reference to the guy from the music studio next door who plays a lot of music very loudly.  Sort of like wishful thinking.  Anyway, Mr. Bones is almost all assembled now, and he looks like this: 

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I can only imagine what might happen if someone in the building across the street should happen to look over into Signe's studios, like with a pair of binoculars or something, and see Mr. Bones lying on the table.  What would they think is going on over here?  

But what IS going on here?  Why does an animated film need a real (OK, fake) skeleton on a table?  What does this have to do with marriage?  I've read the screenplay, so I have a few theories but I think most people will have to wait to see where Mr. Bones will appear in the final film.  Stay tooned...

Studio News - Anatomy of a Set

Signe and Sturgis recently wrote an update for the Kickstarter backers of "My Love Affair With Marriage", which is all about the process of building the sets for the film.  Since that was going to be the next logical topic for me to cover anyway, it makes sense for me to just reprint that Kickstarter update here, and we can stay right on track.  Here goes: 

Today we would love to share with you our "My Love Affair With Marriage" set-making process. There are 145 scenes in the film and often many shots within each scene. We build and photograph background sets for most of them, creating a 3-D environment on which Signe can animate her 2-D characters. 

One recent set is the hallway of a Soviet school which Zelma, our leading character, attends. A total of 7 scenes take place in and around this hallway. Signe wanted it to be long with doors on each side. And staircases going up and down. Here is her drawing explaining her thoughts. It is about as sophisticated as our set designs get.

                Shaky because it was drawn on the subway

                Shaky because it was drawn on the subway

In the carpentry department, Sturgis builds the initial structure - 8 feet long by 16 inches wide with adjoining hallways at each end:

                       Sturgis interprets Signe's sketch with carpentry

                       Sturgis interprets Signe's sketch with carpentry

Signe glues paper-maché over the wood to create texture and paints a black undercoat:

     Doesn't it look like Signe is messing up Sturgis' beautiful carpentry work? 

     Doesn't it look like Signe is messing up Sturgis' beautiful carpentry work? 

5 coats later and this section of the hallway is complete:

                   The black paint underneath helps to bring out the textures

                   The black paint underneath helps to bring out the textures

Meanwhile, Sturgis builds the stair unit. The pink stairs were part of a set from a previous scene. We recycle set pieces whenever possible:

                            Sturgis builds with an environmental conscience

                            Sturgis builds with an environmental conscience

One reason we don't spend much time designing sets is that good ideas come to us while we build them. Here we decided to double the length of the up staircase, the unpainted white piece connecting the two previously built sections. We also decided not to put railings on the stairs. Despite potential hazards to animated schoolchildren, we like the simple look:

                            Stairs will be more than just stairs in the film

                            Stairs will be more than just stairs in the film

We move the set to the photography room. To accommodate the staircase unit we have to elevate the whole hallway:

               Like a bride at her wedding, the set is now ready for lighting

               Like a bride at her wedding, the set is now ready for lighting

Signe wanted a moody look for the first scene in our new hallway. Light and shadows mixed together. The box in the lower left corner is our dimmer board, crucial for sculpting the light:

                                The set is lit and ready for the camera

                                The set is lit and ready for the camera

We have a saying: what does the camera like? Sometimes our Nikon doesn't care for lighting that we think is beautiful. Sometimes it surprises us by liking lighting that to us seems ordinary. Here is an early test shot taken by i-Phone, not the Nikon:

            Test 1: Notice how sharply angled light accents the walls' textures

            Test 1: Notice how sharply angled light accents the walls' textures

Another test:

              Test 2: Compare the smoothness of the steps with the textured walls

              Test 2: Compare the smoothness of the steps with the textured walls

And another:

Test 3: This shot is from Zelma's point of view - it's what she sees walking to her classroom on her first day at her new school.

Test 3: This shot is from Zelma's point of view - it's what she sees walking to her classroom on her first day at her new school.

In this scene the Boy With Green Eyes, whom 7-year old Zelma is madly in love with, walks out of the boy's room at the end of the hall. As he comes closer (she will be where the camera is) the hallway explodes in glorious colors. They quickly fade when he passes by without acknowledging her:

Orange light was our choice for Zelma's fantasy moment (check out the gels on top)

Orange light was our choice for Zelma's fantasy moment (check out the gels on top)

Once a hallway scene is shot, Signe starts animating that sequence. The small tree on the table behind her is made of paper-mache. We will use it as part of our next set: the carousel in the park, where another 5 scenes will be shot:

When Signe is on a roll (uninterrupted by calls, e-mails and petty life problems) she can do 70 animation drawings a day.

When Signe is on a roll (uninterrupted by calls, e-mails and petty life problems) she can do 70 animation drawings a day.

Sometimes we despair at how long animation takes. Sometimes we get plagued with doubt. But seeing the animated-on-paper characters come to life and inhabit our backgrounds is always quite thrilling. 

THANK YOU so much for your support!

Signe, Sturgis and "My Love Affair With Marriage" Team

John's Studio News, Part 3

Before I get on with another update on the production of "My Love Affair With Marriage", I wanted to take some time and describe the process of using SAG actors in an independent animated feature.  I mentioned this in passing last time, but I think the topic deserves a full examination, because it's something of a complicated process with a lot of intricate rules. 

I happen to have a history with the Screen Actors Guild where independent animation is concerned.  I was an associate producer on Bill Plympton's film "Hair High", released in 2004, which was quite possibly the first-ever animated feature that qualified as a low-budget feature according to the rules of what was then SAG (now SAG-AFTRA).  What does this mean?  The union obviously exists to protect the actors, and works to ensure that they are paid what they deserve, but it also allows for high-profile actors to work on smaller independent films if they want, as long as they agree to a smaller salary.  So if Tom Cruise wants to waive his usual $20 million paycheck and go appear in a small indie film, he could do that, assuming that SAG-AFTRA would grant the production a waiver. 

For "Hair High", Bill wanted to hire a number of well-known union actors (Sarah Silverman, Dermot Mulroney, Keith Carradine) but also pay them as cheaply as possible, to keep his overall production costs down. Even though the SAG rules typically allow for low-budget live-action features to use union actors, they seem to have something of a blind spot when it comes to animation.  

I remember my first phone call to inquire about this, and I was told by the Screen Actors Guild that there was no such thing as a low-budget animated feature.  This didn't make sense to me, as I knew Bill had made several of them before ("I Married a Strange Person", "Mutant Aliens").  I realized that SAG was used to dealing with Disney, Dreamworks and Pixar, with production budgets in the millions, and Bill's usual total budget for a feature was more like $200,000.  After some time on the phone explaining Bill's process, my contact at SAG finally agreed that it WAS possible to make an animated feature for six figures and not seven.  

But in order to afford that cast, we needed two things - a waiver from the SAG Advisory Board, and signed statements from the actors stating that they understood that the project was low-budget and therefore they would not be receiving their typical day rates.  The waiver from the board was crucial to this, because it turned out that SAG's production agreement for low-budget films specifically states that it does NOT apply to animated films - unless, of course, the board decides to issue this waiver.  Once we got the waiver, and all of the actors signed their documents agreeing to the lower rate, we could proceed.  

(Bill ended up paying the actors more than he was required to, but I think for most of the cast of "Hair High", it wasn't about the money.  They were either eager to work with Bill Plympton, or perhaps just looking to gain some experience in the world of animation voice-overs.  I know some actors from that cast went on to do more animation work, like Sarah Silverman voiced characters in "Wreck-It Ralph" and "Bob's Burgers", and Justin Long became the voice of Alvin in the "Alvin and the Chipmunks" movies. Also, Dermot Mulroney provided the voice of Green Lantern in the Batman animated series just a couple years later.)  

Time went by, and Bill didn't have a reason to work with union actors on another feature until recently, with his new film "Revengeance".  With actors like Matthew Modine and Dave Foley interested in doing voices, Bill's studio applied for another waiver in 2015, only to be turned down.  The paperwork was re-submitted with a more detailed request, and it was turned down again.  It seems that in the time since 2004, SAG had merged with AFTRA, and a different set of board members was in place, one that was more likely to stick to the letter of the law and less likely to issue this waiver to allow an animated feature to follow the terms of the low-budget agreement. 

Bill's solution to this problem was to make "Revengeance" without any union actors officially involved, and the film's talented co-director, Jim Lujan, provided most of the character voices, with non-union actors completing the other roles.  (I even did the voice for one character in "Revengeance", a DJ named "E-Money", so I may get my 15 minutes of fame yet...)

A year or so later, Signe and Sturgis started casting the voices for "My Love Affair With Marriage", and though I wasn't part of this casting process, I know that Sturgis called on some contacts he had in the theater world, plus other connections put them in touch with Matthew Modine. Other actors, like Emma Kenney and Cameron Monaghan, signed on during the Kickstarter campaign.  Since these actors are all registered members of SAG, going the non-union route was never a possibility for "My Love Affair With Marriage", in order to use the best voice talent available. 

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But, we also knew that SAG-AFTRA would be very unlikely to issue a waiver to allow the film to follow the terms of the low-budget or modified-budget agreement - and we were right, they flatly refused to even consider it. So the only recourse was to follow the same rules as any Hollywood film and pay the actors full scale, which they no doubt deserved for their talents, even though the union rules dictated that an hour in the sound studio would equal a full day's pay.  Besides being more expensive in the long run, what else did working with the union entail?  

For starters, this meant that the actors legally became employees working for The Marriage Project, LLC, even though each actor may only have worked for an hour or two.  (The days of the "freelance actor" are a thing of the past.) All federal, state and local taxes needed to be withheld from their checks, and deposited to the proper government accounts.  The production also needed to make contributions to each actor's health and pension funds, as per the terms of the SAG-AFTRA agreement.  And even though their voice-over work would be performed in the relative safety of a sound studio, the production needed to get a workers compensation policy, just in case an actor got injured on the job.  You never know when someone could get hurt by a falling microphone, I guess. 

Now, some of the actors were recorded in New York, while others were based in California.  So for those on the West Coast, the LLC needed to be registered as a California employer, since that's where the work was being performed. Then we had to calculate withholding and make deposits for California state taxes and also disability insurance in that state.  (Again, falling microphones, you never know...)

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An interesting side note is that while all of the actors were treated as employees, some of the actors were also incorporated, which made calculating the withholding taxes much easier in those cases.  Remember those weird government laws everyone was talking about a couple of years ago, where according to the law some companies have the same rights as people?  Well, it turns out that works both ways, and some people are also companies.  Some actors have incorporated themselves, so that meant we could pay them their full rate and their "company" would be responsible for all of the taxes and also the contributions to Social Security and Medicare.  I guess that makes financial sense for some actors, who can work on many different films and TV shows over the course of a year.  

I won't bore you with the details of filing quarterly payroll reports, because that's certainly not one of the more glamorous parts of my job - still, it needs to be done.  And then at the end of the year, we'll have to send out those pesky W-2 forms (and 1099 forms to the people who are also companies) but then the process will be complete.  In the end it's kind of satisfying to know that all the paperwork is being filled out properly, and that the states of New York and California are happy, the union is happy, and the actors are happy.  Now Signe just has to animate a film with these voices that will make the audience happy!  

John's Studio News, Part 2

I'm back with part 2 of my look behind the scenes at what goes in to making an independent animated feature.  Last time I talked about getting grant money and running a successful Kickstarter campaign, but what comes after that?  What happens after some production money comes in?  

I think most people might be familiar with the plot of "The Producers", where a Broadway impresario and his nebbishy accountant raise a ton of money to produce a play, then realize they'd be better off in making the worst play ever, and keeping all the money when it fails.  As tempting as that may seem, thankfully the world of filmmaking is not like that.  I imagine that there's more of a responsibility to spend the money wisely, because now that there's a community that has expressed interest in contributing to a film's success, the real-life producers now have a renewed determination to make the best film that they can. 

Some of the Kickstarter rewards packed up and ready for mailing...

Some of the Kickstarter rewards packed up and ready for mailing...

The first few months after the Kickstarter campaign were spent mailing out as many of the rewards as possible.  I've seen other campaigns take months or even a year to start sending out rewards, but Signe wanted to get going on that right away.  So some of the pledge money that came from Kickstarter went to creating the reward items and buying mailing supplies and postage.  Then it was time to focus on production, getting things into a higher gear.  

The "LOVE CARDS" that were part of the Kickstarter Rewards sent to backers.

The "LOVE CARDS" that were part of the Kickstarter Rewards sent to backers.

Most of the money raised on Kickstarter was spent on recording the film's soundtrack, which will be a combination of spoken dialogue and songs.  So there were costs for recording studios, sound engineers, the composer's fee for creating the songs, and then the actors' fees. Some of the cast members were based in Los Angeles, so that meant travel expenses for Signe and Sturgis to supervise the recording of their parts, as well as the costs of a second studio and recording engineer in California.  

Signe Baumane and Sturgis Warner during the West Coast actor recording sessions.

Signe Baumane and Sturgis Warner during the West Coast actor recording sessions.

The production went through the Screen Actors Guild to secure the best possible voice talent for "My Love Affair With Marriage". (I could probably write an entire blog post about dealing with SAG, that should probably be my next topic...) And part of hiring union actors means payroll taxes, contributions to pension funds, workers compensation insurance, and so on.  I'll get into more detail on this next time.

Sound designer Jeffrey Roy during the voice recording session at 3rd St. ADR in Santa Monica.

Sound designer Jeffrey Roy during the voice recording session at 3rd St. ADR in Santa Monica.

18 actors recorded their roles in April 2017 in New York, another 6 were recorded in May in California, and the last two in June and August.  Signe and Sturgis were on hand for the entire sessions, to give the performers direction and the background information about the story to get all of these pieces of dialogue right, and then came the task of assembling all of these pieces into a soundtrack, much like a giant jigsaw puzzle. 

It took several weeks of working with editor Arjun Sheth to select the best takes and put them together with the temporary versions of the songs composed by Kristian Sensini (who also created music for "Rocks in My Pockets") but as a result, it seems that the film's English soundtrack is nearly complete. (A Latvian version will come later...)  

Editor Arjun Sheth putting the best dialogue takes together at Final Frame.

Editor Arjun Sheth putting the best dialogue takes together at Final Frame.

It's a little strange to think that right now, you could listen to the whole film of "My Love Affair With Marriage", and not see anything.  Film is a visual medium first, but the sound also plays an important role, and I guess you've got to start somewhere, right?.  Now the arduous task of creating images to go with all of these sounds can begin, but that's a good thing to talk about next time. 

John's Studio News, Part 1

Hello to all the fans of Signe Baumane and her animation!  I'm John H., her office manager and she's asked me to help her update her blog once (or maybe twice) a week while she's in production on "My Love Affair With Marriage".  I'm sure she'll still post on this blog when she can, but her main focus right now is to keep animating her new feature so that it can be completed in a relatively timely manner.  

That's partly how I came to work for Signe, though we've known each other for over 20 years. We worked together for Bill Plympton for several years, with Signe on the production tasks like painting cels and helping to shoot the animation, and me taking care of the office work, like dealing with film festivals, accounting, e-mail and other day-to-day tasks.  A little over two years ago Signe called me up and asked me to come in for a day and do some consulting.  I was only working part-time then, three days a week since one of my two part-time gigs had folded up shop.  

So I went to visit Signe in her studio in Sunset Park, Brooklyn - she told me that she was planning to start production on her second feature, but she was concerned because her day tended to fill up doing a lot of other tasks, leaving little time for animation.  So I asked her what these tasks were - answering e-mail, dealing with festivals, accounting - and it started to sound really familiar.  I've done all of those things as an office manager, so I suggested that she get herself an office manager. "Great idea!" she said, "But I can't afford an office manager."  So, why not get a part-time office manager - and that's when I realized that I was an office manager, and I was available part-time, so it just sort of made sense. 

It could be just like the 1990's all over again, I figured, with Signe on production and me taking care of the paperwork - though now we're in the digital age of filmmaking and I'd have to learn some new things, like how to send files with new-fangled things like FTP and WeTransfer and Dropbox.  But things like payroll and accounting are still the same, no matter where you go, so I volunteered to get involved on her new, independent animated production, "My Love Affair With Marriage".  

My first task on the production end of things was to copyright the script in October 2015, which at the time was just called "The Marriage Project" and it was not much more than a rough treatment then, without dialogue.  In January 2016 I started re-typing it all with the help of screenwriting software into the proper format, while Signe was writing dialogue for the characters, so that each time we made a new draft, there was more dialogue to add, replacing the story beats in the treatment. By June of 2016 we were on the 20th draft and the script was essentially completed and ready to be copyrighted again. 

By then it was also time to apply for some grants, like the NEA Grant, the Sloan/Tribeca Fund and the U.S. Artists Fellowship.  And while we were unsuccessful in getting funding from those sources, the project had received funding from Women Make Movies and NYSCA, so there was paperwork to be done in order to give those organizations reports on how their funding was being spent.

By the time January 2017 rolled around, Signe and Sturgis had begun the Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for the production of "My Love Affair With Marriage", and I helped however I could, whether it was spreading the word on social media or just watching the pledges coming in, and trying to reassure them that the campaign was going to succeed.  Once it did, I began packaging and addressing the rewards that we could fulfill right away, while making notes about the ones that we'd have to send out later on.  

Next time I'll bring you up to speed on all that's happened since the Kickstarter campaign, which is recording all of the actors, completing the soundtrack, building the sets and starting the animation.  Catch you then!

Caption Contest #5

CAPTION CONTEST! What does the woman say to the man? Post your caption in the comments below and get a chance to WIN the caption contest! We'll post a poll of the finalists on the Facebook page for "My Love Affair With Marriage" in a few days. Thank you!

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Happy Summer Solstice!

Summer Solstice is my favorite time of the year. You could dismissively say it is because on June 21st the Solar System reflects my bipolar state of mind, but I am OK with that. On June 21st the Solar System and me become one.

To celebrate this occasion, I made 5 Summer Solstice cards for you. Use them wisely and widely.

If you like what you see and want to see more, you can support my new animated feature film "My Love Affair With Marriage" here:

KickstartMarriageFilm.com

THANK YOU!!!

Life Drawing: Seeing Things

When you go to a really good life drawing studio you get to see models in all kinds of shapes and ages. Sometimes models even put a nice scarf on to make it more exciting.

But sometimes you start seeing thing that are not there. The other day I drew a model and suddenly I saw a frowning face on his back. 

- Why, - I thought to myself. - Is that a dog?

And yes indeed it was a dog.

Meanwhile, back to my studio I am trying to work on my new film while applying for grants. Before I can blink the work day is over and I got to go to life drawing again.