4200 frames. 320 hard-copy photos. 200 sheets of construction paper.
PART ONE: BACKGROUND
As a kid, I loved making stop motion videos with my mom's unbearably clunky Canon ProShot. The usual narratives involved something groundbreaking, such as "spaceman walks across room" or "cowboy shoots alien" or some other deeply meaningful event of location. Despite the work-to-product ratio, I remember enjoying the process immensely. There was rhythm in the back-and-forth; making tiny changes to the figures and snapping the photo was musical. I think any kid who's played with Legos imagines them moving of their own accord. The creative joy of seeing that reality, if only for 5 seconds at a time, was profound.
Flashing forward to 2018, as I wrote Young/Lovely, I was compelled to imbue it with imagery from my childhood. I can't recall exactly why I used it as a starting point, but the memory of a Jumbrotron-based shell game at Seattle Mariners' games struck me as a distinct marker of childhood. My entire family except for me was pretty crazy about organized sports, and Safeco Field in summer was a regular pilgrimage. In between innings, a baseball would hide under one of three hats, and they would shuffle around, and the entire stadium would yell out their guesses in absolute confidence. This non-event in between strikes and home runs never meant much to me, but the idea of making a choice with absolutely no consequences stuck out to me.
When the time came to make the video, I knew it had to involve the same childhood images. My initial idea was essentially a compilation video- I tasked my parents with finding all of the videos they could from my childhood. A fair amount of tapes had been digitized a while back, so I had plenty to work with. I cut a rough version together in iMovie, and it just felt... wrong. Lazy. While there were a few shining moments (some shouted phrases in the videos lined up neatly with the song), I realized this wouldn't mean much to anyone except for me and my family. And damnit, the song deserved more meaningful content. The video needed to reflect the spirit of the song-- something childish, something confident, something a bit foolhardy but worth working on. Sound familiar?
Now, keep in mind, the longest stop motion video I had ever made was probably about one minute long at 5-6 frames per second. Young/Lovely is nearly 6 minutes, and to achieve reasonable movement, I would need to make at least 10 frames per second. Some rough math led me to the conclusion of there being over 3000 photos to take, nevermind editing and upload time. However, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, I found myself with a lot of time to kill.
PART TWO: THE PLANNING
I didn't know exactly how I wanted the video to look, but I knew I still wanted childhood images involved: Photographs, videos, etc. The content of the lyrics needed to reflect what was onscreen at the time, and there needed to be a journey through my life, birth until present. I spent a couple days watching every video my parents sent me, taking strategic screenshots of moments I thought were important. I pored through old email threads, finding some horribly embarrassing teenage messages along with some terrific photos and videos of middle school. After compiling them, I spent a few days cutting down the excess, only finding what was absolutely necessary to tell the story.
Simultaneously, I was creating an outline for the song-- deciding what would happen when, how the lyrics would be represented, what colors would be present. The latter was especially important to me, realizing that started with the entire spectrum would leave me nowhere to go, visually. In the same manner of the song, each color and element was to be gradually introduced before exploding all together in climactic moments.
Skip this next section if numbers hurt you brain. They definitely hurt mine.
* * * * * * * * * MATH BEGINS
While writing the outline, I realized I wanted to have control over the accents in the song-- 16th note flourishes and horn lines. That would require precise frame-to-beat coordination, with each moment needing to line up. I started doing some math to determine how many frames would make up one beat.
Young/Lovely is at 190 beats per minute, in 6/8 time.
That means there's 3.16666 beats per second. (190 beats / 60 seconds)
At 10 frames per second, every frame would be 0.31666666 of a beat. So a whole beat would be.... 3.158 frames.
Obviously, I can't take half-pictures. This wasn't going to work. Given the repeating decimal value of the beats per second, there would be no FPS rate that would divine cleanly and give me a whole number value for frame-to-beat.
I realized that the BPM was the real thing giving me trouble. Trying to divide 190 by any even number (2, 4, 8, 16) was going to result in something awkward and repeating. In order to get the frames to line up with beats, I would have to slow down the song.
Of course, the song was already recorded, and I wasn't about to go through the trouble to slow down the recording in a DAW. Instead, I decided I would film the video with a certain BPM in mind, and then speed up the resulting footage to match 190bpm.
A nice, round 180 bpm was settled upon, 94% slower than the actual tempo of the song. This meant every 4 frames would make up one beat, giving me control over the smallest subvisions down to a 32nd note. (2 frames = half beat, 1 frame = quarter beat). That meant we had 12 frames per measure, which divides nicely with units of 60 such as minute or seconds. While this added the extra step of running the footage through Premiere (speeding it up by 105.5555555%), it took away the headache of trying to line up specific moments with footage that would have never aligned at the regular BPM.
I would like to thank Google for giving me an easily accessible calculator to make those numbers happen for you.
* * * * * * * * NO MORE MATH
SO, with the math out of the way, I began gathering my resources. Walgreens has always been my go-to photo printer, and they had a deal running for 50% off any photo order. Even with that, my almost 800 photos was going to cost a bit more than I had budget, so I went through another round of trimming and brought it down to about 350. Thanks to the miracle of same-day printing, I picked up those photos for $35 that afternoon.
On my trip to Walgreens, I also gathered two packs of construction paper, a pack of color Sharpies and some white posterboard. All in all, I spent just over $50 on materials, and I had everything I needed.
After a solid two hour session of putting the photos in the correct order, I was ready! Let's make a stop motion video!
PART THREE: WHAT HAVE I DONE?
My setup for the video was the exact opposite of glamorous. Part of me wanted to do it as DIY as possible, and the other part simply didn't have the resources for a nice stop-motion table rig. So instead, I taped my iPhone to my roommate's desk, and then taped out the edges of the frame. I had a small ring-light just in case, but it was rarely used-- the natural light from a window provided enough, and the colors it brought out were terrific. Who needs fancy setups when there's duct tape and sunlight?
The one thing I never planned out for the video was a schedule. The entire month of May was open for me aside from small amounts of work and other promotional needs for the songs. One of my roommates was back home due to COVID, and another was frequently gone. I roughly allotted myself a week. While that ended up being pretty accurate, remind me to never be in charge of planning again in the future.
The first day, I got through 200 photos. There was a lot of setup, troubleshooting, and formatting to be done, but I think a lot of it was realizing exactly how much cutting, pasting, and moving each shot would require if there was constant movement. Also, I hadn't done stop motion in quite some time (read: almost 10 years), so there was a good amount of relearning and un-learning to do. For instance, I tried to make the letters of the word "Certainty" look like they were dancing, so I poked each one just a bit between every frame. Upon reviewing the footage that night, the resulting effect just make the letters look twitchy. There were lots of educational experiences like this throughout shooting. LOTS.
As I went, I got quicker, averaging about 500 photos a day. I developed a rudimentary system for retakes and mistakes, taking a photo with my hands gesturing how many photos I should delete/retake, as to remind myself in the editing stage. I would also often lose count of where I was in a certain measure, resulting in me taking too many or too few photos. I won't tell you where, but there's at least 3 instances of me looping footage in the video to disguise a lack of coverage.
(Quick note: The photos would pass through about 4 different locations before being actual footage. I would upload them into the Photos app on my Mac laptop, then send them to a folder on the desktop. After that, I would upload them into a program called Stop Motion Studio ($10 on the App Store, a LOT of fun), delete and duplicate until every measure was in the correct place, and then export a rough version of that to the desktop. AFTER which, I would throw the video into Premiere, speed up by the requisite 105.5555%, and then throw into iMovie to sync up with the music. My laptop's fan was sweating as much as I was.)
The only thing I truly didn't prepare for was the physical exertion necessary to move photographs underneath a desk for hours at a time. I would start sweating so much I would have to stop shooting as to not drip on the photos, and my knees and thighs were so sore at the end of each day, I had to take a day's break after three straight sessions. Art is sweat and tears, kids!
A handful of memories from shooting, as to not bore you with long paragraphs about each:
Me, in my dachshund boxers, sweating, crouching over photos of me as a child, and my roommate comes home with his girlfriend only to find me doing Gollum over a shrine of nostalgia.
Accidentally ripping off the wood finish of my roommate's desk when I un-taped my phone, and subsequently having to instead tape my phone to a piece of paper which was then weighed down by two shampoo bottles. (Sorry Matt!)
The warm feeling of watching the day's footage in bed, legs shaky and knees worn, but proud of the work.
The final day, working from 9am to 7pm and taking almost 1200 photos.
Seeing the upload time for 500+ photos being almost 30 minutes, and making lunch simultaneously just in time for it to be done.
Some other thoughts:
The most complex shot was almost definitely the entire ending sequence, the call-and-response. I kept trying to one up myself, adding more photos and more color. The first "If we" shots took probably 3 minutes each to set up-- I changed almost every single photograph in the frame.
Like I mentioned, color was very important to me throughout the video. I didn't want the full spectrum to be available until the song really exploded. The video uses almost entirely primary colors up until the drums really kick in, about 1:45. And there's only two sections that make use of every color of paper: "Our only frontier" and the very final section.
The red balloon photo was a happy accident. I was debating making it a focal point of the video-- red balloon branding relates much more to Jury Duty than Young/Lovely-- but the synchronicity was too much fun. Also, life imitates art imitates life.
At one point in the bridge, a color paper hurricane begins around "Age of anxiety." That was the end of a long day for me, and I wanted to celebrate by kicking around some paper. It wasn't necessarily planned, and it certainly wasn't in the outline, but to be honest, it was quite therapeutic.
There are many other places I would have like to used that animation effect-- using multiple frames from a video to make the photos "move." The outline got slightly out of sync with the video. I do love seeing the hands wave on the second chorus though!
The most exhausting thing I've ever done is my life starts at 2:46. The stars took FOREVER.
I had an album art blanket made a few months back, and it made the PERFECT background for the time of life when those albums came out. Happy accidents!
After eight days of work, I had taken 4500 photographs, 4200 of which ended up being used. I had added almost 30GB to my laptop's memory, and it was started to get angry with me. At the end of each photo session, I would lump all of them into a folder. Each folder had between 200 and 1200 photos inside, and as a quick wink to the audience, I decided to put the image of all of those folders up front. There's a bit of Inception fun to be had with your laptop filling up with photos taken of other photos of your past.
In conclusion, I'm incredibly proud of this video. I think it suits the song in a way an ordinary slideshow wouldn't. It's not perfect, I certainly would do things differently if I had to do it again, but I think the imperfections work in it's favor. Using an art method from childhood to talk about childhood as an adult was a joy for me, and reaffirms my faith in childish curiosity and discovery. This whole video cost me $60 and a couple afternoons.
I'd encourage everyone to get in touch with their inner child, and mess around with some paper for an afternoon. It'll get messy, but the best creation happens in a mess. If we can't be young AND lovely, we will just be young.
And sweaty, apparently.
You can watch the video here.
Jury Duty + Young/Lovely is available all over the place, but mostly Spotify, Apple Music, Bandcamp and YouTube.