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-mach√© 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