The Making Of "Man Versus Geometry" by Patrick Jenkins


In April of 2003 I had the urge to make a movie. This is an annual compulsion with me. If I don't make one film a year, I feel ill. Call it independent animator's disease. After working for over a year as Toronto Animated Image Society (T.A.I.S.) Administrator, I was dying to make a film with all the equipment we had amassed.

At that time Jonathan Amitay was offering one of his "Make A Film On The 16mm Oxberry Animation Stand" workshops at the TAIS Production Centre. I'd always wanted to make a stop motion film using the Oxberry Stand but 13 years ago, when I was last working in 16mm, filming on rented Oxberry Cameras was always a rushed affair due to commercial rental rates. It hardly made for a relaxed shoot.

Jonathan's workshop seemed like a convenient opportunity to nudge me into getting a new project started. Jonathan gave us a run down on the operation of the Oxberry Stand and exposed us to a wide variety of materials that we could use to animate including cut-outs, paint on glass, plasticine and fun foam.

Fun foam caught my eye. It's thin pieces of brightly coloured foam that can be easily cut with scissors or an exacto knife. Imagine really thick construction paper. Jonathan had a little packet of pre-cut geometric shapes. I started to play around with these shapes looking for an idea. A bright red semi-circle caught my eye. This semi-circle would become the protagonist of my film. Gradually I constructed a human stick figure out of circles, sticks and ellipses of fun foam. This would become the man, the hero of "Man Versus Geometry".

Now that the two main characters of the film had been made, a story had to be developed for them. What would the little man and the semi-circle do? I looked at the shapes and imagined the man coming upon this little semi-circle. His curiosity is piqued. He knocks on the semi-circle which echoes with a hollow, metallic ring. Suddenly the semi-circle comes to life and barks at him. The man jumps back, surprised that the semi-circle has come to life.

I carried on in this way, composing the action in my head and recording it on my story board, coming up with a variety of things that the semi-circle could do to the man. I imagined him turning the semi-circle over with great effort, peering inside and getting sucked into the semi-circle which then drags him through the air with his head stuck inside and legs flailing. I ended the story (at least in this first version) with the man trapped inside the semi-circle on his back howling at the moon like a dog.

Prior to shooting, Jonathan and I sat down and timed the storyboard in an intuitive way, feeling out how long each sequence should last, breaking it down into a specific number of frames.

I planned for a whole day to shoot under the animation camera. The fun foam was to be moved on a clear sheet of glass under which a piece of black velvet had been laid to create the background. The glass allows for the pieces of fun foam to slide easily across the background during filming.

The challenge in animating cut outs is to be clear about what your action looks like in your mind and to get the action done in the allotted number of film frames. Unlike classical animation where you have drawings of every move, in stop motion I was creating the artwork right under the camera by moving all the little bits of fun foam.

The first shoot only took me about four to five hours which surprised me. As tedious as it sounds, once you get into the rhythm of it, pixilation becomes a meditative, Zen-like experience. I was totally concentrated on animating these little bits of fun foam. As crazy as this sounds, this why I'm an animator: so that I can concentrate and focus on something and watch it come to life. My mind stops worrying about everything under the sun and just works on the animating at hand. In this 'multi-tasking' world, this kind of experience of focusing on just one thing is becoming rarer and rarer.

I was totally into it. I moved the little characters on threes (three frames shot for every move). After making a number of animated films on the computer over the past five years, it was a joy to just move these pieces around. As a person who encountered computers in his 30's and 40's, I find that it takes all my mind to work a computer which, while I enjoy the results, can be exhausting. I'm always trying to remember which pull down menu has the command I need. In pixilation you go back to a more basic tactile way of interacting with the animated world where I feel quite comfortable.

The only mistake that I made on that first day of shooting was to sit on a stool to shoot my film. My legs weren't firmly planted on the ground and I was bent over the stand. Several hours later, when I stood up, the stiffness in my legs and lower back was incredible. I had to take several long walks and bicycle rides to work the knots out of my leg and back muscles from working in this unnatural position.

When we got the film back from the lab, Jonathan and I looked at it. The little man came to life and wrestled the semi-circle as I had planned. The movement worked. However, I felt that something was missing. I turned to Jonathan and said, "Do you think it's long enough?" He nodded his head and said, "I think it needs more."

So basically I had the first 45 seconds of what would eventually become a 2 minute and 23 second long movie. I realized that I had to develop the story some more. I went back to the storyboard and brainstormed some more trials and tribulations for the man to go through at the mercy of semi-circle.

Slowly, intuitively, I pieced together a longer narrative that built on what I had just shot. Along the way I realized I was making a kid's film. That wasn't my intention when I started the film; I was simply playing with the fun foam shapes, to see what they could do. With this in mind, I developed the story even more, focusing in on the childlike world of the film.

The second shooting session was much longer, almost a full day. I had a comfortable chair, with better posture and my feet planted firmly on the ground as I animated at the stand. At the end of the day I stood up to no strain or stiffness at all.

In the later sequences of the film, the geometric shapes metamorphosed into the shapes of a dragon and a robot.

Several months earlier, I had moderated a panel with Merlin Crossingham, Key Animator from Aardman Studios. He mentioned that, in stop motion animation, if you're thinking too much about what youíre doing, you're not into it. Again the meditative focus set in, and I was off. It was almost a surprise when I finished shooting five hours later. I hadn't noticed the time passing.

I edited the film on 16mm, had a negative cut and timed answer print made and transferred to Digi-Beta with a mini-DV dub made so that I could do my sound effects and mixing at home on my Macintosh Computer.

The sound effects work was challenging, but fun. I created many of the sound effects at home with a microphone and kitchen utensils. TAIS members Jonathan Amitay, Ray Foster and Gerry Lagendyk helped me with the additional sound effects I needed and advice.

In the past I had animated to pre-made music soundtracks, so creating sound effects was like having my universe turned inside out. One thing I quickly realized was that once you start putting in sound effects, the film starts to demand that every action have a sound effect.

I had composer Ron Wiseman create and perform a musical score for the film. Just a few months before I finished editing the film, Ron moved to Israel, which presented a new challenge in the work flow of the film. Ron would place streaming video of the film with the music on the net and I would download it and make suggestions. He mailed me a CD with the final music and I mixed the sound in a digital video editing program.

I decided to finish the film on Digital Betacam tape as fewer and fewer venues are showing 16mm. The entire production cost around $900 for materials and lab costs. It'll have its premiere at the Ottawa International Animation Festival in the Canadian Showcase screening in September 2004.

"Man Versus Geometry" was a good project for me that came along at the right time. I'd like to do more stop motion in the future. It's fun to work with tangible materials under the camera.