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!

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

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

  1. Really appreciate the “behind the scenes” of your unique art form Joe. So happy for you escaping corporate grind. Life is not work.

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