How I made “Too Much” with Puppet Crafts and Digital Animation

I explain the hows & whys behind my music video story “Too Much” using elaborate photo illustrations. Please enjoy!

"Too Much" Music Video Story by Joe Sparks

This music video story makes young people and old people smile at similar high intensities.

For the first time in more than 10 years, I was going out on my own as a indy creative publisher.

“You’re brave,” said fellow Googlers. “You’re insane,” said their faces (eyes a fraction too wide, smiles tightened).

Joe, you’ve had a “Real Job” for too long

I’d been cranking out ads on daily deadlines for over 10 years, ~80 hours a week, with very few vacations. Aside from meetings, my work was on computer only, and split between software engineering and animation. I was a creative at Google, but I was not doing the things I’m chiefly known for (games, cartoons, animation, and music). Instead, I would massage the creative assets of outside agencies into compliant interactive ads and YouTube video ads. I started and managed a creative team inside Google to do this at scale. The work takes skill and patience, pays well, but it uses a narrow focus of rapid creative execution. I’m not dissing the work —this was real work, valuable work and challenging as a designer and a software engineer. A great way to earn a living in between masterpieces! But I wasn’t making beloved cartoons or cult classics, shall we say.

I’d been doing this kind work for more than TEN YEARS. How was I going to resurrect that unique weird artist side, locked away for so long?

Could I break out of my corporate mentality, wake up my creativity, and shake off a decade of the nerdy side of advertising? Probably not, but I would try.

Step away from the computer

I decided to do some non-digital arts and crafts. I’ve read that working with natural materials (that you can hold in your hands), can activate a different part of our brain and bring to life some unused talents.

Working on Old Babette

Detail work on my puppet-doll “Babette Bleu”

I was also interested performing on camera (I am a former Theater and Music Major). I used to be in bands and music theater productions. I’m also the primary voice actor on Total Distortion, Radiskull and Devil Doll, and most other things I’ve done.

If I combined the arts and crafts with performance on-camera, I might get a Hipster Mr. Rogers thing going on!

Joe-Sparks-Mr-Rogers

I could become a hipster Mr. Rogers with my own neighborhood!

Meanwhile, let’s do a simple music video!

Let me back up a bit. When I started work on “Too Much,” I thought I would make a quick live-action video for our anniversary (notice that my charming, beautiful, and remarkably supportive wife JJ Sparks has been a part of all my recent videos). I had a strong idea in mind: we should dance through a park, while people looked on, and some of those people would give us dirty looks. We started up the project by shooting ourselves (using a tripod with no camera operator) on location in Huntington Park and Club Deluxe in San Francisco.

JJ Sparks in Huntington Park

JJ Sparks preparing to shoot in Huntington Park, San Francisco.

But I couldn’t work up the nerve to ask strangers to let us shoot them giving us dirty looks and disapproving head shakes. This might not seem important, but this is why I eventually wanted to use puppets.

We also shot ourselves lip syncing to my song “Too Much ” against a studio green screen.

Joe and JJ Sparks

Joe and JJ Sparks performing in front of a green screen.

We also shot at Club Deluxe in the Upper Haight. There, we got some dirty looks!

club deluxe shots

Finally got some “gross-out” looks at Club Deluxe!

I thought this material would be more than enough video to get me through a 2 minute song. But when I started editing it together, I wasn’t happy with the end result. There’s wasn’t enough interesting material to fill the whole song. I wanted more reactions, of people being “grossed out.” I could only pull about a worthwhile minute out of our shots. I really wanted this video to be decent. This was my first public thing in forever. Maybe I could do some animation?

Then I started playing around with clay one night and thought: “Hey, wouldn’t it be fun if I added puppet versions of ourselves…”

Puppet Time

I imagined puppets on video would be faster than straight-up animation. I was wrong. Not the way I was doing it anyway. I’d never attempted anything quite like this before.

Here’s an example of a type of challenge I encountered over and over. I wanted to make sunglasses for “Puppet Joe Sparks.”

Puppet Sunglasses

Finding the right size sunglasses for JS puppet

I tried clay, paper, and wire..

Failed attempt to make sunglasses

One of many blind alleys I traveled, only to find I was attempting something beyond my skill level.

In the end, I animated a photo on top of my puppet video, because it was too hard for me to make actual sunglasses at this size (I tried). Who cares anyway? I’ll just use my much-better skills in computer animation to make up it.

Joe Sparks Puppet Shades

To develop my modeling skills, I began to watch crafting videos on YouTube, and l learned more about paper clays from Japan, armature wire, and artistic techniques. I started visiting art supplies stores (including Blick’s, Mendel’s on Haight Street, dollar stores in the Mission, and costume shops) in search of new materials. I bought fabric samples, synthetic fur, pipe cleaners, poms, glue sticks for my glue gun.
Craft supplies

Assorted crafting supplies on my Singer plastic cutting board.

I started working on clay puppet heads. I started with small styrofoam balls, and applied a coating of “Hearty” Japanese paper clay, and sculpted into tiny simple faces. I attached plastic googly eyes.

Clay mouth detail.

Working on a tiny clay mouth for JJ’s puppet.

Puppet heads

JJ and Joe Sparks Puppet heads

I made little leather jackets out of black felt:

JS JJ puppets

Joe and JJ puppets with clothing made from pipe cleaners, felt, faux fur, and paper cloth.

Time to build a park for my puppets

I wanted to build a clay-model park for my puppets to act in. I started in, making plants and walls.

Clay plants

Clay park plants on rotation table

After a day or two of working on this, I realized it was taking too much time to make the park I wanted. I estimated at least 3 weeks and a ton of clay to pull it off.

Hmm. After some long thoughts I decided to build this park on the computer. I was a world-class 3D modeler early in my career, but I was out of practice. I started up again with Blender 3D, an amazing open-source 3D animation, rendering and modeling program.

I had a specific idea of a park at dusk/twilight. I searched Google Images for “park at dusk,”  and I came upon these photos on a cute blog called “Passengers on a Little Spaceship:”

Joseph Wood Hill Park

Joseph Wood Hill Park at dusk 1

I really wanted some stone walls and lamps along these lines.

trees in Blender 3D

Rebuilding my clay models in Blender 3D. I love strings of electric lights in trees, so I added some.

I tried to emulate my clay modeling style into the digital 3D world. I couldn’t really do it, but it does have a toy-like feel to it.

Park Modeling in Blender

Modeling my Park in Blender 3D

After I had the basics of my 3D park together, I added some 2D elements for distant sky and mountains:

Animated Sky

I made a distant background animated sky using simple elements

Put them together and we have a park at dusk:

Park 3D Sky 2D

Putting the 2D sky animation together with the 3D park models. Not exactly what I was looking for, but I was pretty happy with this!

I wanted reaction shots in the park, remember? Now I had to get my puppet animation into this 3D world.

These are more fragile dolls than real puppets. You can’t even really pose them, express them, or do any substantial stop-motion with them. All I could do was shake them, rotate them, maybe bend a pipe-cleaner arm. Any extra animation would be done after the fact, in software, on top of my video material.

I shot the puppets against a green screen with my new camera, the Panasonic GH5.

handmade puppets for video animation

Shooting puppets on Green Screen with my Panasonic GH5

park puppets

Shooting the park puppets, learning lighting and camera techniques on the job (I’m not a pro camera person)

I took my camera shots into After Effects and animated eye blinks, head turns, painting small expressions, and compositing it all together.

I exported these animations as PNG sequences and brought into Blender to anchor inside of the 3D world.

Placing video shots into the 3D world in Blender 3D

And here’s what it looks like in the final music video:

Still frame from the final “Too Much” music video

I was able to put my green-screened puppets into the 3D world, and fly cameras through it.

Please have a look at my first attempt at using these techniques to make a Music video. It is titled “Too Much” and hosted at my Joe Sparks channel on YouTube. There’s much more to this story, the music, and other materials used. I will follow up with more posts about the works as I go.

I hope you enjoy the music video! If you do, I appreciate your like, subscribes, and friendly comments over on YouTube. Really helps us to get discovered over there. I plan to get much better at this over time. Please subscribe if you want to see more as I go!

Thank you!

~ Joe Sparks, San Francisco July 2018

Subscribe to my Private Email List

So thankful to everyone who adds their email to my private email announcements. Subscribers will be first to know of my new works, including Radiskull & Devil Doll shows. THANK YOU. ~Joe Sparks

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Sincere thanks to you for signing up for my announcement emails! ~ Joe Sparks

Hello from Joe Sparks of 2018

Welcome to the new JoeSparks.com! I’m an indie creative publisher again!

I made this new wordpress site by myself over the past couple months or so (using the “Music Lite” theme). I haven’t made a site in a VERY long time, so this was a learning experience  all over again. Making a website is much easier today (compared to when I started joesparks.com 21 years ago), but it still it can be very complicated! Tying together Social Media, YouTube, Tagging, Analytics, Advertising, and the endless extra options is a new challenge.

Maybe you are here because you remember me from the days of yore, or maybe you have a similar creative career. Here’s my reasons for writing:

  1. PROFESSIONAL My stories are of interest to other creative professionals (and some fans from way back when). Telling my stories keeps me closer to the creative tools business & marketing (Ex-Macromedia Evangelist here!). More importantly: As an artist with a long historical background, I need to do a better job as archivist for the future Joe Sparks Museum.
  2. PERSONAL I have two sons who are growing into young men. I want them to have better records of their Dad’s crazy history. They may have heard most of these stories before (when we were younger), but I think I can tell them better today (with a pinch more wisdom).

I’m kicking of this new site with a few pages about my past and what lead me to go independent once again. I repeat myself a few times as I talk about my origin stories, and I hope you can forgive that. If it seems like too much info, try to remember I’m answering questions that have been asked many thousands of times over the years (and mostly ignored for more than a decade).

Who are you? I’m a slightly famous artist/engineer with some big hits along the way (wikipedia, NYT) . I used to make wildly popular and award-winning things like Radiskull & Devil Doll, Total Distortion, Spaceship Warlock, the “You Are Dead” song, and more. Then I started working for other companies and fell out of the public eye for more than a decade (except for the occasional interview ).

In the 90’s and early 2000’s I was all over the place:

some Joe Sparks press

Some highlights from my archive, Spaceship Warlock, BusinessWeek, Entertainment Weekly, New York Times

What are you up to now? I am making music, video, characters, and animation and putting that together as “music video stories.” I’m adding arts and crafts into the mix, combining live action and puppetry on video, composited with 2D & 3D animation.

Why so long to update this site? Making my own stuff was no longer my business. I was out there working at various companies, including an 8-year stint at Google (longest I’ve ever stayed anywhere).

So why now? I knew I had to get back to it someday, and that day was in 2017. I have returned to my roots as an independent creative and after I made a few videos and cleared my head, I realized I HAD TO clean up joesparks.com and resurrect my personal email list. (For much more see:  “Joe Sparks, where have you been since the Radiskull Days?”)

Do you mean business this time? As proof, here’s my new business card:

Joe Business Card

I made this Business in After Effects with elements from my music video “After Effects, I Love You” http://bit.ly/AFX-ILoveU

Have a look-listen to what I’ve been up to since I’ve been out on my own and left to my own devices (literally):

After Effects, I Love You

Thumbnail for After Effects, I Love You

After Effects, I Love You MUSIC & LYRICS (C) 2018 JOE SPARKS
https://youtu.be/ZC6kCw-PoOY
I wrote a country-western love song to After Effects, and then I made this music video for it.. in After Effects, of course. 

 

Sometimes I Draw

Thumbnail for “Sometimes I Draw”

“Sometimes I Draw” SHOW, MUSIC & LYRICS (C) 2018 JOE SPARKS
https://youtu.be/vkiXRCVy3oA
I made a song about DRAWING and made this music video for it featuring drawings old and new. I also show some old storyboard sketches and the end-result animation I made based on those drawings (including some original Radiskull & Devil Doll art). May be of interest to artists who want to make videos using their static art scans.

 

Radiskull Threatens Christmas

Radiskull Christmas Rap Carol 1 (the first song in a new holiday tradition)

RADISKULL CHRISTMAS RAP-CAROL MUSIC & LYRICS (C) 2017 JOE SPARKS
https://youtu.be/rZUEb7R9kus

This is my first new Radiskull music in a very long time (it’s not bad, a very old-school 80’s style rap). Radiskull returns to threaten everyone at Christmas. I had this Christmas song idea for Radiskull right before Christmas and I “wrapped it up” 2 days later on Christmas Eve 2017. I wanted to animate it, but there was no time. I had to post in time for Christmas! (so I made this lazy long loop of Radiskull in the sky outside my home as a backdrop).

Want to see more Radiskull and Devil Doll? Subscribe to my channel on YouTube.

Babette Bleu Interview

Thumbnail for my ambitious art film “Babette Bleu Interview”

BABETTE BLEU INTERVIEW SHOW, MUSIC & LYRICS (C) 2017 JOE SPARKS
https://youtu.be/HE8UJNWJnNE

In December 2017 I released “Babette Bleu Interview” on YouTube. I have not worked this hard since Total Distortion. It is truly bizarre. It helps to think of this as an artsy short film by David Lynch. “Babette” is a future cult classic. I do parodies of 50’s sci-fi films, 70’s TV cop shows, and modern-day “musical tributes” to cinema stars. The whole frame work is a parody of “Inside the Actors Studio” with James Lipton. The host is a hero-worshipper, and Babette is a hipster-granny star like Betty White. In the end, it goes full-psycho and we learn Babette is not even human. My 70’s cop show theme music: I nailed the era pretty well. I’m strangely proud of my opening titles, music and animation/design.

After the main show, I added a long chatty musical message to my “fans of yesteryear ” and the people who have written thousands of emails asking about my past works. I also explain why I have returned to the creative life. If you wonder why I added that “bio” part, then you are not one of the thousands of people who have written questions about that stuff.

Citizen Kane of Puppet Shows

“The Citizen Kane (of puppet shows on YouTube) Launch-day promo poster for “Babette.” I think it is hilarious!

Extrovert seeks attention

Another promo for Babette “Extrovert shamelessly exploits wife” series

Babette MONSTER

Yet another Babette promo “MONSTER”

Too MUCH (music video story)

Still frame from the final “Too Much” music video

New Pages of Interest

I put up a few permanent pages to go with the relaunch of JoeSparks.com:
Where have you been since the Radiskull Days? ~ Explanation of my disappearance from the animation/music scene
Joe Sparks’ Creative Tools 2018 ~ Notes about my main software and hardware tools for 2018
Radiskull & Devil Doll Episode 9? I will finish it. ~ Yes I will, but there’s additional details
The Ancient JoeSparks.Com is Still Live as a Museum Piece

Thanks for finding my website, and I hope you will enjoy my new work! As time goes on, I will post stories of work in progress. Please subscribe and stay in touch!

Joe Sparks, San Francisco July 2018

Subscribe to my Private Email List

So thankful to everyone who adds their email to my private email announcements. Subscribers will be first to know of my new works, including Radiskull & Devil Doll shows. THANK YOU. ~Joe Sparks

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Sincere thanks to you for signing up for my announcement emails! ~ Joe Sparks