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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
We also shot at Club Deluxe in the Upper Haight. There, we got some dirty looks!
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…”
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.”
I tried clay, paper, and wire..
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.
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.
I made little leather jackets out of black felt:
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.
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:”
I really wanted some stone walls and lamps along these lines.
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.
After I had the basics of my 3D park together, I added some 2D elements for distant sky and mountains:
Put them together and we have a park at dusk:
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.
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.
And here’s what it looks like in the final 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!
~ Joe Sparks, San Francisco July 2018
Really appreciate the “behind the scenes” of your unique art form Joe. So happy for you escaping corporate grind. Life is not work.
Thanks John! Glad we have stayed in contact since MACR days!