Droid Wars: Assault of the Astromechs
Technical Release Notes
I am happy to announce the release of my first short “brick film”, a stop-motion animated film using brick toys like LEGO. Actually, I hope it qualifies as a brick film considering the only LEGO pieces are Star Wars battle droids and blasters. In my defense of this designation, I believe the film does make use of one of LEGO’s primary features: ease of assembly/disassembly.
This film in fact began as merely a camera and software test in early September 2006. I had just downloaded Monkey Jam software and hooked up my cheap-o Hi-8 video camera to my video card. To my surprise, the set-up worked perfectly straight away. So I decided to try to capture a few test frames just using whatever I had lying around on my desk. In this case, that happened to be a couple LEGO battle droids and my old 1980-ish Hasbro R2-D2 action figure. Their presence had something to do with the fact that I’m enjoying my second childhood playing with such toys with my young children. The battle droids were lying haphazard and in pieces, thus sprung the broken arm idea. Instead of just putting the battle droid back together myself, I began filming right where the characters lay and decided to have them repair each other. This created my first challenge: animating floppy battle droids. Unlike some other Battle Droid LEGO figures that we have around the house, these two guys came with a LEGO set I bought on eBay that was supposedly “like new”, but I swear I’ve never seen LEGO pieces that stick together so loosely. These relatively new Star Wars sets must’ve been assembled and disassembled hundreds of times to be that loose. So my main characters were particularly challenging to work with as they were apt to just bend at the waste or neck without warning. I ended up keeping at least one of these accidental falls in the film. I’ve since figured out that a bit of dried, clear nail polish on some of the joints can firm these up a bit.
So as the filming progressed over almost a two hour period (that may sound like a long time, but it was nothing compared to the sound design, editing, special effects, opening and closing credits), different ideas just popped up as I went along. This lack of pre-planning of the film is quite obvious from the monotony of the camera angle, the poor frame rate, and minimal plot. I tried a couple poor-man’s special effects: painting out my fingers that held EH-11 as he stood up, using the edge of the frame to conceal my hands as I slowed EH’s fall and held R2 in the air to make him appear to levitate.
I thought I was filming frames at the popular 15 frames/second, but when I was done filming, the movement was way too fast. So I doubled each frame to create a 47 second soundless clip and figured that was that. I don’t know what madness inspired me, but a couple days later I thought it might be cool to record my six-year-old son doing the voices for the battle droids, and later to record him doing one and his seven-year-old friend from down the street doing the other since they already could do a pretty good battle droid monotone from playing Star Wars around the house. So I wrote a simple script to fit the footage and helped the boys record their parts as they are too young to know how to act, how to read the larger words in the script, or what some of the bigger words even mean. Having a dialogue track that didn’t match the video footage required me to massage the frames a great deal changing how long frames were held, repeating sequences of frames and in the process adding in a few visual “jokes” that I hadn’t thought of while filming (AL having trouble standing up, for instance). This process broke the film into 4 more manageable clips totaling a little less than four minutes.
Thanks to some helpful on-line tutorials for Axogon Composer by Thomas Foote (http://www.bricksinmotion.com) and Smeagol (http://www.smeagol.co.nr), I was able figure out how to add some simple special effects using ‘geometries’ like R2’s arm extension, getting the explosion the right size, title zoom-out, squishing the opening crawl down a bit. Also, Smeagol’s tutorial on green screening helped me figure out how to add a starry background to the opening and ending credits. Stefan’s scroller was perfect for doing both the scrolling end credits and the stars-to-planet pan.
At some point, I decided that I would try to turn this little film into a “true” Star Wars spoof complete with Star Wars music and the classic opening with title zoom-out, prologue crawl, and Star Wars-style end credits. Getting those close enough to right was quite challenging using mostly free and some obsolete software. Windows Movie Maker 2 proved the way to go for the crawl and splash end credits, but using Axogon Composer worked out better for adding the starry backgrounds to those clips. But I’m sure it was still much easier than what it took to make that happen in 1976 when Star Wars was filmed. Lastly, since I shot the film at 720x480 but using a “cinema” effect on the camera with black bars on top and bottom, I cropped off the black bars making my final resolution a measly 720x360 which allowed me to export the whole thing at 16:9 to enhance the movie feel.
I spent a fair amount of time in “technical video hell” trying to figure out different codecs, ironing out audio-video sync problems, being overwhelmed by the incredible size of uncompressed AVIs, trying to get my head around square versus non-square pixels and NTSC’s bizarre 29.97 frames per second frame rate and how I could convert a 15fps video to 29.97fps without it doing weird interpolations, considering the philosophical implications to the universe of filming at 14.985 fps (exactly ½ of the NTSC standard), working at first with a sub-par video editor that came with my video card, learning almost half a dozen different pieces of software to make it all happen: Monkey Jam, Axogon Composer, Virtual Dub, Video Mach, Windows Movie Maker 2, Stefan’s Scroller, and others. Ultimately, patience, perseverance and some guidance and assistance from some helpful souls at BrickFilms.com redeemed me from the pit.
I’m most proud of the sound design. Most of the sound effects were recorded in my basement and then sped up, slowed down, reverbed, etc. I made good use of wrenches, pieces of PVC pipe and large cooking pots banging around on my tiled floor. Hissing through one’s teeth while rapidly clicking one’s tongue makes a respectable sound of sparks. Humming while blubbering one’s closed lips with a finger does a nice battle droid overheating/spinning. I recorded the entire audio track of Star Wars as a WAV file to extract a bunch of R2-D2 chirps, whistles, and mechanized movements. I used an old version of Cakewalk to place all the sound clips into about 8 different tacks and to reposition the voices to match the final video. I spent a good bit of time trying to get the volume levels for each sound approximately right and stereo panning everything left or right depending on where the action was taking place on the screen. To get the best effect, one should probably wear headphones or place PC speakers just to the left and right of their computer monitor.
If you’ve read this far, you’re probably a rare breed. If you are new to film-making, I hope this has been at least a little bit educational. If you’ve been making movies for a while, perhaps you could relate a little to some of the growing pains one goes through while learning about this stuff. Ultimately, I hope you find this little film at least not a total waste of time and maybe even a little enjoyable.
Thanks for watching,