Animating 1920s style!

The process of creating the animations for the film Vibrant Highland, Commercial Love, was, right after the translations, the most challenging and time-consuming part of the production.  We went through different styles and different ideas, and it took quite a few failures to finally get it right… and not just “right”. Seriously, the animations (which as of 2 days ago are now finally finished!) look freaking awesome! It’s hopefully some of the most unique work viewers will have seen and for me some of the most creative & challenging work I’ve done in a while!


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But let’s start from the beginning…

I keep getting asked: “Why do you need animations in first place?”  After my test screening, a couple people from my audience nearly begged me not to add animations to the film, as it’d ruin the aesthetic which I’ve already worked very hard to achieve with live action footage. Well, let me answer that question here:


Essentially, our first cut of the film flowed very smoothly and kept your attention up until a certain scene in the middle of the film. That scene was like a roadblock, which despite being interesting, simply stalled the whole film.  Not that it was a boring scene, in fact it’s quite fascinating, dealing with opium trade and opium kings, but it lacked B-roll (action footage covering up interviews); unlike most other scenes it was shot with a single camera, so there wasn’t much editing I could do and without going into more details, it simply seemed to drag on, regardless of whether the story told was interesting or not. But that said – that scene was also pretty important to the film (still is), it plays a big role in the film, and it sets up a lot of historical and cultural context for the viewer. It was not a scene that could be easily cut.

My initial hope was to find quality archival footage which would go well along with the story. If we were “watching” the story, it’d be much more interesting than listening to someone just “tell it” for 5 minutes. I mobilized my good friend in Paris, she spent a few days going through the French National Archives, but sadly found nothing of value for the film. I contacted VTV, the primary Vietnamese TV channel (I worked with them before…  they also have a history of stealing my work so they owe me…) and their answer was “go download it from YouTube“. Sadly that’s where most TV content comes from in VN and I didn’t want to do that. I’ve reached out to int’l experts on the topics, I’ve searched everywhere and sadly found no archival footage. For all I know, it’s possible that no such footage may exist or if it does, it may be rotting in an old film canister in someone’s attic somewhere far away. After all – Meo Vac/Dong Van Region is fairly remote nowadays, so I have no idea whether anyone was ever able to bring a camera there in the 1920s and film it at that time. Anyways, having no luck with stock footage, I thought of going the animation route.

But there was one big problem. The film was never intended to have animations. If you watch a live action movie and suddenly one of the scenes in the middle is animated, it’ll probably take you out of the story and make you wonder “what the hell were they thinking?” Well yeah, it’d seem odd. So if I was to add animation, I had to do it in a way which would fit the film and I had to potentially introduce some more animation elements throughout the movie to make it more continuous. The trick was to not just add animated elements for the sake of them being there, but to actually make them “enhance” the film.

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Animating the Mountain Transition Scenes


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Around spring 2014, I started working with a Hanoi-based post production house to complete all of my finishing work on this film including the animations. Sadly, this turned into a prolonged pain in the ass that never amounted to much.


We started off with some truly awesome ideas. I was extra excited, the team was working tirelessly to get there, but unfortunately that was the high point and it didn’t go much further. Deadline after deadline was missed, my visa in Vietnam expired complicating things for me and forcing me to leave for a bit, delaying everything, then more deadlines passed without much of a result. Since it was pretty clear that the initial idea may have been a bit too ambitious, I tried to find another way. Not that I was compromising, but I consider myself a pretty creative guy, I find creative solutions to problems like that.

So I came up with a new, different concept, new deadlines, we revised the work load and the aesthetic and yet again, it sadly didn’t amount to much.

By then it was fall and sadly nothing was even close to done.  Time and so also money kept going wasted.  I couldn’t take it much longer, we had to part with my post-production team. So much for “professional” film service in Vietnam.  Upsetting. But it’s what had to happen and in the long run it was for the better.

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I was at my personal breaking point, not sure how to proceed. Then a friend sent me a video tutorial of Terry Gilliam speaking about paper cutout animations and how he does it. The video was old, from the 80s or so. I knew the style he talked about – it was not right for my film. Too ‘South Park’y”. But, it made my mind spin in different ways again and I started thinking of different styles and what I could do, how I could get there on my own (cause honestly, by that point I couldn’t be bothered with more trial and error from others). Here I should note that I know nothing about VFX, I have no idea how to use After Effects or other advanced animation/CGI software. So I started thinking back in time, back in different eras of film and how effects were done at those times, and trying to see at which point i would’ve felt confident enough that I could pull it off myself. And pretty quickly I got back all the way to the 1920s where I clearly remembered (from film school) the film “The Adventures of Prince Achmed“, one of the first feature animation films ever made. The film was done by cutting out elements from paper and then moving them behind a back-lit screen and photographing them frame by frame. Then, when played back at 24 frames per second, it’d create the illusion of movement.

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“The Adventures of Prince Achmed”, 1926


Now – if anyone’s followed any of my past work or read of my screenplays – you’ll know that I absolutely love such old school animations, I also love and have previously used projections and stop motion elements. Also, historically, this animation style fit my film perfectly, as the story told in the above mentioned scene in my film took place right during the years when this kind of animation was first invented and used. So there – I was excited, anxious to get started and completely unsure whether I was really capable of pulling this off.

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So I needed about 6 minutes of animation in total, all of which was divided into something around 15 pretty elaborate shots. Each shot had to be carefully planned. Let me give you a more detailed overview of the process for one of the more difficult shots, one in which we see a man moving into frame and looking off at the mountains in the distance:


First, I needed to design the shot (in fact the entire scene because that shot needed to cut well with the other shots). It’d greatly help if I could actually draw, but my drawing skills end at stick figures… Tough luck, after trial and error, 15 sketches later, I would finally get at least a rough storyboard done.

I bought cardboard, thick paper, knives, some arts and crafts supplies, all of which cost no more than $50 (yay, at least one advantage to doing this in Vietnam!). With the film budget exhausted long ago I couldn’t have afforded any more than that. Now I had my design and my storyboard for what I wanted done in my notebook. The scene was “a man moves in with clouds covering the background. He raises his hand and clouds open up revealing rice paddies and mountains in the distance”. I started sketching large size drawings on cardboard then cutting them out. Sounds simple, but being in Vietnam we have stupid problems like shit products from China (yeah, nevermind the cheap prices…). You’d think you could buy a sharp art knife for cutting here, no? Well, good luck trying. Half the time the dull side of the knife was sharper than the sharp one. Bought 3 more expensive knives – all even worse. Bought a knife sharpener – it only broke my blade.  Ugh, nothing I could do.

So, cutouts were done, but now the man needs to move his hand, so I need to create joints for his arms. I did that by poking needles through the joints and securing them with pieces of rubber. But, while it worked for some smaller elements, his hands were too heavy. After several solutions, I worked out a way to keep the joints tight with paper clips, then tape up the holes from the paper clips with more paper, so that we cannot see them in the final projection.

Ok, so the man and his hand were done!

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The “Animation Team” hard at work!


Now – rice paddy. I spent 2 days on this. Anything I drew/cut looked like stairs, not rice paddies. See, the problem is that dealing with shadows (that’s essentially what i was filming), there’s no depth. It’s only light or no light, only black or white, no grays. So good luck trying to create perspective that way! Especially when I cannot draw… Well, eventually I managed, but the whole piece was so flimsy that it wouldn’t stand straight. I had to secure it by taping thin plastic rulers on the back of the cutout and clamping everything together with a few camera clamps. That took a bit of good brainstorming too, though!

In the paddies there were 2 farmers – these weren’t too difficult, but also had joints that needed to be made – they needed to move their hands, heads and bodies. And there was also a buffalo that moved its tail and body. And then in the sky there were birds – well how the hell do I attach them “in the sky,” floating in the air? Well, I took some of the packaging that some of my thick paper came with. It was made from some transparent mesh which made perfect clouds. I was able to use it to create clouds and then attach the birds to the clouds and by that was also able to hold the whole rice paddy piece more stable.

Ok – so now I can film, right? No. Actually up to this point was the easy work. And I actually thought I was nearly done, ha! Well, I had to rig it all up now and make it movable. I had to make the man movable, I had to make the rice paddy movable (mimicking a dolly shot), I had to make sure everything can be precisely and carefully moved as needed each frame.

I set up my camera slider (Konova brand, if you’re wondering – the best piece of equipment I’ve ever invested in) and with more heavy rulers taped to the base of the rice paddy piece, I clamped it to the slider. It worked for about 10 sec before the whole thing fell apart… it was too heavy one side. Without any better ideas, I brought out all the books, dvds, and thick stuff I had and I had to prop it up, so that the slider kept one side up, while the other side of the piece rested on books which elevated it up. The slider was movable and had a ruler for measurements in it. Great. Then the man had to move independently. I taped two rulers together and clamped the bottom of his cutout between them. Then I rigged the 2 rulers to the slider on the opposite side, so that both pieces could move with the slider but at different speeds/distances. Then the farmers and cows had to move. I took a ruler and drew out to the millimeter the measurements on the back of the cardboard pieces. Done.

Now I needed to set up the projection screen (well actually this was before I started the whole process, but nevermind). You think it’s easy to find a white bedsheed in Hanoi? Yeah right… they only sell that flowery crap and shitty Chinese designs. All I want is a white bed sheet, dammit! So well, for the first shot, I sacrificed my VietPride T-shirt – they bought the simplest, white t-shirts for their crew, I only wore it once before and well – I have other shirts. The shirt was white but sadly too small. Well, then I realized I had a white bed sheet at home, but it was my only one… Sadly I now no longer own any bed sheets… I cut up the bed sheet but now I needed a frame for the screen. I have a crappy wardrobe that’s made with metal bars. Well, “had” a crappy wardrobe. I had to break it into pieces and rebuild it into a screen frame. Now my clothes are in a big pile, moving from my bed to my chair depending on which I need at which time.  I’ll have to manage until I maybe one day earn enough to buy a new wardrobe haha.  Nah, I’ll probably be working on some other ridiculous project and will spend all my cash on that…

Anyways, I built the frame and attached the white bed sheet to it with C47s. (we, filmmakers like to boost our own egos by calling common clothes pins “C47s”; it makes us feel cooler) That worked surprisingly well, because I could actually tighten the bed sheet all around the frame quite easily, just by pulling on the clothes pins, it was as if tuning a drum.

Then – light. I was hoping for a film light but I don’t have one and didn’t have cash or time to chase after one. Asked a couple friends who run bars etc, but they couldn’t offer me much. I tried my portable LED light, but it wasn’t strong enough and was very ‘spotty’, not very even. Then, in some dark storage closer in my house which I never before looked into, I found some old work light. I plugged it in and the light bulb burst. I had to spent few hours running around town looking for a store that sold those specific light bulbs, as the light was pretty ancient. Anyway, managed to get it. The light was very orange, but that’s a fairly easy issue to fix in post. More annoyingly (although not a significant problem), the light generated lots of heat. The room of my house which I turned into my work space had no A/C. I couldn’t bring in my fan either cause there were so many scraps of paper everywhere, everything would fly. And I couldn’t open the windows cause they were boarded up with cardboard to block out sunlight, so that it wouldn’t mess with my exposure. Within minutes, it got EXTRA hot in the room.

So I did the only logical thing that any truly dedicated filmmaker would and I continued the work… naked, only pulling on my pants when my dear and very excited local film student came by to help me cut paper.

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Animating a Girl’s Face



Animation Sample – The Girl’s Face (Final Look, after post-production)


Ok, so screen was up, light was on, the whole cardboard set was rigged and I’m standing in front of it all in my best boxers and scratching my head. Yup… it was time for math… and I thought becoming a filmmaker meant that I never would have to do any math.. ever.

Well, lets say that this specific shot needed to be something around 10sec, meaning around 240 frames. Now the hard part was I had to visualize in my head exactly what needs to move when, how far, how quick and so on. In my notebook I drew out a big chart full of numbers. I had the following elements that all had to move independently of each other, at different times and at different speeds. Each of them had to be precise to the millimeter:

  • The man’s position
  • the rice paddy set’s position
  • The man’s elbow joint
  • the man’s shoulder joint
  • the mans wrist joint
  • two separate farmers in the paddies
  • each farmer’s hand
  • each farmer’s body
  • each farmer’s head
  • the cow’s tail
  • the cow’s head
  • 2 separate birds
  • clouds covering the mountains

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So in my chart I had essentially a list from 1 to 240 with each of the above elements written down and to the millimeter (or degrees, in case of rotating motion), I had to calculate how much each of these elements had to move and at which point.  This took a while to work out.  Had to measure total distance of each moving element’s, divide it by the number of frames, work out how to “ease in” and “easy out” the movement (so that the movement doesn’t seem very sudden) and yeah… sounds fun, no?  No, it wasn’t, I promise.  But, let’s take a quick step back – “clouds covering the mountains“.

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Animation Set from behind


I needed something that would conceal the shot at the beginning, so it’d look like a dark cloud covering the area.  I had cotton but had no way to easily attach it.  Tried thread but cotton would just spill out from the sides.  But quickly I realized that it was just a blur anyways, so I could just put the cotton in a transparent, plastic bag.  That seemed a bit boxy, but I cut out holes and made the cotton pop out out left and right and that seemed to work.  Then, I needed it to move though… I don’t know how I worked it out, but my camera tripod has a degree measurement when the handle moves around.  So, above the white bed sheet screen, I put up my tripod, attached a broomstick to the tripod handle and at the end of the broomstick hung the plastic bag with cotton.  Now I could be fairly precise when turning the tripod for each frame so that the “clouds” could reveal the image as they move out.

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Finally – time for shooting.  I set up my camera and snap a picture.  Then I move each one of the however many different elements there were to move, and I snap another.  After half hour and having taken mere few pictures so far, I accidentally bump into the screen frame… doesn’t seem like much but even a tiny bump changes the framing enough to look crappy when finished…  great… start over


I was getting close to done, it was around 3am already, I’m sweating profusely from the heat and when moving the pieces I suddenly had a drop of sweat fall down onto the screen.  Dammit!  Now I gotta wait for it to dry for however long before I can continue.  But wait… wouldn’t that look cool if it was raining?  If I were to start spraying water onto the screen…?

Well, I finally managed to finish that shot, feeling very accomplished, with sun almost coming up already.  And I couldn’t help thinking: “this took me the last 3-4 days… I have another 14 shots left to do…”


VHCL – Man & Rice Paddy (Animation Sample) / This shot was a pretty elaborate dolly move, here you have just a quick still for reference 🙂 Check out the film to see the whole thing!


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That was still not the end of the work, as all the image sequences also needed quite a bit of extensive work on the computer later on to make them look the way I intended for them to look.  And without advanced post-production skills, I had to find cleaver workarounds, which usually meant doing work frame by frame in Photoshop, cause that’s the one piece of software I’m most familiar with after Premiere.  Very time consuming.

Anyways, the above shot was one of the most intense ones, but each shot I did presented a different set of challenges and really no one idea could ever be recycled for all shots.  Some shots required projections as part of the motion.  I had to rig up a borrowed projector playing images that needed to be matched.  Other shots were done in color with theatrical lighting gels that needed to be carefully selected and timed.  Honestly, the more I talk about it the more accomplished I feel.  I hope it doesn’t make me sound too stuck up.

Seriously, this was a pretty monumental task.  Especially to pull off essentially on my own.  Well, that’s not entirely true.  My dear Meo Meo, a recent design graduate and a film enthusiast worked with me very hard cutting paper early morning to late night for a whole week.  My composer and good friend, Josh, and his wife spent a good few evenings at mine cutting out angry French faces and modeling their hands in front of the screen.  Certainly very helpful and I’m grateful for their assistance, especially as their drawing skills were sure better than mine!  To be honest, the work often felt strangely therapeutic.  It was a nice break from constant editing on the computer.  It was nice to do something very hands-on and creative while listening to Polish Indie music and MrSuicideSheep mixes on YouTube.  And when non-stop 16hr workdays got depressing and overwhelming, my puppy was there to come lick my face and make sure I’m still alive.

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