In the last few years, video-sharing sites like YouTube have become a marketer’s best friend.
These sites offer the opportunity to disguise advertisements as pure entertainment. As more people recognize the marketing opportunity, getting exposure becomes more difficult. Video producers are constantly scrambling to stay relevant and unique.
Two years ago, I was given the challenge to help a new company gain exposure through video. With a minimal budget, I decided my best chance for viral success was an incredibly time consuming stop motion video.
Luckily for me, blogs recognized the effort that went into the project and began to share the video (Thanks Lee Morris!). A video that was referred to in the comments as “Painstakingly beautiful” Thanks to this video’s viral success, a previously unknown company had the opportunity to be seen by 100,000 prospective customers.
These days, stop-motion videos have become the “go-to” for low budget viral videos. As my newsfeeds fill with stop motion videos, I’ve become more and more cynical towards them. That is, until I came across Dominique Fricot’s newest video - a tasteful and unique stop-motion masterpiece directed by Mike Southworth. I immediately felt my love for stop motion come flooding back to me.
Earlier this week I got a chance to talk to Mike about stop motion and the challenges of creating viral content:
DW: Why do you think stop motion has become so popular with music videos in the last few years?
MS: Well, I think the main factors are the ubiquity of digital photography and the distribution of YouTube. Making stop motion pre-DLSR cameras would have been a lot more difficult and required much more expensive tools. It used to be that only big budget major label acts could make music videos - and even they only got one or two per album. Now we have inexpensive equipment and free distribution - it’s a great combination for the music video world. I believe people can ‘see’ the work that goes into something and often appreciate and spread something more if it seems like it took a lot of work, physically or time-wise. I think that’s part of the reason stop motion videos are popular. The main point of a music video is to promote the song so the more people share and spread it, the better.
DW: In your recent video with Dominique, what are some of the ways you tried to differentiate from other stop motion videos?
MS: I think one of the main differentiating factors is the cinematic style, lighting and set-decoration. We spent a lot of time creating each scene and our Director of Photography Bryon Kopman did an incredible job lighting them. I also think that the video tells a story that expands on the lyrics of the song. The stop motion is a device to help tell that story - not just a visual trick. The basic concept is showing a man going through the stages of grief and eventual acceptance after the loss of someone very close to him. Using stop motion allowed us to show the passing of time and the slow disintegration of his surroundings. The other thing that I think was different than standard stop motion videos was using the clothing changes. I was inspired by Noah Kalina’s Everyday video where he takes a picture of himself every day for 6 years. Watching that video made me wonder, “What’s going on behind him? Is he sad that day? What happened to make him sad? What is he dressed up for?” I loved they way you could infer things that were happening around him just from one still shot. “Our Last Song” has a very consistent, fast rhythmic movement to it and stop motion seemed the best way to make that sound into something visual.
DW So, why do you choose to commit to such a long process?
MS: Pure stupidity! Not really. As I mentioned, I think people can ‘see’ the time that something takes and it gives them more appreciation for the art. I tend to come up with the concept first without worrying about any of the logistics and then I try to make it a reality. Often that means that the concepts take a long time. I really don’t mind though - it’s all worth it when the project is finished and people appreciate it! There’s a lot worse things I could spend a week doing.
DW: In your experience, what do you find the musicians expectations are like before shooting a stop motion video? Do you have to make sure it's a person you'd enjoy working with through the painstakingly long process.
MS: Yes definitely it has to be someone I’m ok with spending a lot of time with! Luckily, Dom and I go back a long ways and we get along well. In a lot of ways it was quite a fun way to spend time together - we had goofy moments, fun moments, tired moments and everything in between but overall it was enjoyable.
Mike shot 3750 photos as Dominique went through 850 clothing changes, 9 pairs of glasses and a haircut.
DW: How do you approach preproduction for a video of this scale.
MS: This video took a lot of prep work. I usually create a video mockup with text outlining every shot but on this video I also had to include coloured squares that I used as a video underlay while shooting the stop motion frames so I could see where each clothing change or item movement had to go in order to fit with the 8th notes and shots of the song. It also showed where we needed Dom to be clean cut and where we needed him to be disheveled. We shot the disheveled parts of the video first (Dom grew his hair and beard out for a couple of months) and then we shot in reverse while a hairdresser chopped and shaved a tiny bit at a time until he was clean cut. That was one of the most painstaking moments for sure because it was a couple of minutes between shots so it really dragged on. Then we shot the clean cut parts. This video was about 4 months in the making from initial concept to completion. Actual days spent though was probably about 10-12 including pre-production, set-decoration, shooting and editing.
DW: Stop motion videos aren't always easy on the eyes. What are some of the mistakes you've seen in similar videos?
MS: Lighting is really the trick. Unless you are using a completely controlled lighting environment, it’s pretty much impossible to shoot over the period of 10 hours and not get lighting changes. We put up large tents around the windows we were using as fill or key lights and then recreated the look of daylight, dusk etc. We also used C-Stands to hold up pieces of branches to give the look of natural shadows through the blinds. Once again, our Director of Photography Byron Kopman is a genius and he managed to make the light look very realistic but be controlled so we could shoot all day and night without having to worry about continuity.
DW: What type of gear/lighting/shooting tips would you give to someone getting into stop motion to ensure they do it right the first time?
1) Prepare. Plan out every shot and every movement before you start. When you are shooting thousands of frames it’s impossible to gauge where you are so you can’t really just wing it.
2) Light properly. Blocking off any natural light and then recreating it will give you a clean and consistent looking video.
3) Tape down your tripod. Sounds simple but it’s a good trick to avoid inadvertently bumping it out of place and ruining hours of work.
4) Use computer software or at least a remote trigger. Touching the camera everytime you want to take a picture is just asking for trouble.
5) Get the look you want in camera. Don’t rely on raw files or processing to fix things, if something doesn’t look right when you’re shooting it - fix it now. You’ll save yourself tons of time and it’ll look better.
A huge thanks to Mike for the tips and perspective on stop motion. I hope this inspires you to think big with your next project. Just remember that stop motion doesn’t always mean viral success. If you’re going to take painstaking hours to create something, make it unique and memorable.