Interview with Joshua Oram, the director of CODENAME:SWEEPER

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The winner of the 2012 Mega Bloks Halo Toymation Fest, CODENAME:SWEEPER, took the toymation world by storm. It’s one of the highest quality toymation videos we’ve ever seen, and was the talk of our Montreal headquarters for several weeks. It was funny. It was beautiful. It was brilliant.

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But I couldn’t shake my curiousity about one small factoid: the author, oram1007 – real name Joshua Oram – had written in the video description that this was his first stop-motion project ever. How was he able to create something so high quality on his first attempt? I was determined to find out. So I asked him.

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BRAD: You had written in the description that it was your first stop-motion video ever, but the production quality is frankly fantastic. So we can assume you’ve done other kinds of video work in the past, yes? Like what?

JOSHUA: Yes, you’re correct; I’m a freelance motion graphics artist and have ten years of experience doing both visual effects and character animation for TV and film. I was able to envision CODENAME:SWEEPER as a 2D animation, but how in the world could I do it with stop-motion? I’d never attempted it before. I had zero knowledge. The Tyler’s Tips videos were really helpful here – for example, I would have ended up using my old desk lamps rather than using the proper LED lights.

However, I almost did give up after the first shot. I remember it well … my kids (8 year old son and 7 year old daughter) had built the main set and were ready to record the first shot. It was where the two men are sitting at a table and the EVA Spartan is eating like a pig. Right away, I realized how difficult this was compared to 2D computer animation. The figures are so tiny! The smallest movement looked huge on camera. When I played the first shot back, I was so disappointed … really jerky, inconsistent movements. It was horrible. So I was pretty much done then and there. I thought, “Who am I kidding – I’ve never done anything like this, it would take years of practice!”

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I came back after a day or so and tried some some tests. I realized the biggest problem was that I was trying to do too much movement, with too many gestures and details. Once I simplified everything by expressing movements in broad, clean gestures, the shots became better and better.

Still, I gave up on this video many times. But my kids would come in and say, “Hey, are we going to finish the video? Let’s do some more!” I didn’t want them to see me give up on something. Now, I’m so glad that we made it all the way to the finish line. It was worth it just to finish something that we started as a family.

BRAD: That’s a really incredible story! I’m really happy to hear that Tyler’s videos were helpful to you. He’s a great guy with a great sense for teaching. It’s impressive that, considering all of the struggles you had early on, you were able to create something with such smooth animation.

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BRAD: The story for CODENAME: SWEEPER is really interesting, despite the obvious humour. We don’t often see the more typical human characters cast in heroic roles – that’s usually reserved for the Spartans. How did you come up with this story? Why did you decide to use a human character for this?

JOSHUA: Yeah, Tyler’s The Rookie is the video watched more times in our house than any other toymation. I still watch it and think, “How did he get such a smooth walk!”

The human character as the lead role was the very first thing we thought of. My kids – of course – didn’t care, they just wanted to see Spartans doing awesome things. But I personally wanted to tell an interesting story with a main character we could all root for and relate to. So in the brainstorming session I said: “We’ve seen Spartans and Chief do a million amazing things and be the big heroes. Everybody expects that. So who would be the least likely character to ever be a hero?”

We immediately thought of a lowly human recruit, one of those expendable guys who usually gets killed in the game because you kicked him out of his warthog, stole his battle rifle, and stormed off to take down two scarabs by yourself. Right away we knew we had a good story. “Yeah! A marine who’s not good at anything, and everybody makes fun of him, but he ends up saving everybody.” It’s the stuff you see in action/comedies all the time at the movies, the lame guy who ends up pulling it together by the end and saving the world.

In the beginning our story was epic. We had the marine leaving the base and stealing a ghost so he could zoom under an approaching Scarab, climb aboard and take out everybody by himself. He was a real warrior who just hadn’t been given a chance yet. But as I looked at the reality of filming a 2 – 3 minute video with the limited amount of Mega Bloks we had, most of that stuff got thrown out. Our story kept getting smaller and smaller, until we really just decided it could all happen in one room, the kitchen/recreation area of a UNSC base. And as the story got smaller, our main character also changed. We got rid of all heroics and gunplay, eventually landing on the idea that this guy ends up saving the day – almost on accident – without any real weapon at all. I said, “What if all he had was something lame, like a broom?” That got a laugh from my kids, so the idea stuck.

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As for the actual character we chose to use, it was very important to me to have a character with eyes. All the Spartans have helmets, you don’t get to see the look on their face, which is fine for a big bad stoic hero, but I wanted somebody softer, more vulnerable. But even most of the marines we had wore glasses or a helmet. The only one we had was this guy with one eye! That was good enough for me. I just shot him most of the time from that side of his face, so you could see the eye. The amazing thing is how expressive that one eyes is! My kids would swear that I had painted his eye different in certain shots, because sometimes he looks sad, and other times he looks mad. He turned out to be the perfect character for this. We love that little guy. Now we laugh when he comes in a new set that we open up. We say, “It’s Sweeper!” He’ll always be my favorite now.

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BRAD: Some of the best art is produced in constrained settings – it seems to me that the 3 minute time limit really allowed you to scale things back and focus on the essentials. I’d say it came out really well!

Now that you’ve had a taste of stop-motion, would you say it was worth the effort expended? Will you produce some more projects in the future?

JOSHUA: We haven’t made any more videos yet. We’ve been really busy putting together all the Mega Bloks sets that came with our prize winnings (the Forward Unto Dawn, are you kidding me? We do only four or five steps a night, it’s gonna take weeks!) I am filming a lot of that so we can put together an unboxing/display/thank you video showing all the awesome sets. Looking at all these guys and vehicles, we could really make some epic videos, and we’ve talked about possible sequel ideas to Sweeper. I’m sure we’ll make more stop motion videos.

For me, the contest was a huge motivator, knowing there would be a built-in audience coming to look at our work. Mostly, I would want to find another story that is interesting on a human level. My son, though, has made me promise that the next video will have more action with real UNSC weaponry, haha! It would be nice to make a video with no crazy deadline, though. We didn’t start Sweeper until after the contest was getting underway, so we had to rush the whole thing in a matter of weeks.

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BRAD: From your trials, is there anything you have learned that you’d share with anyone looking to get into stop motion animation?

JOSHUA: The most important tip I can give is, “Never use your first take.” When you break it down, most of the effort is spent in setting up a shot – the background, positioning the camera and characters, planning, lighting … you fiddle with all of this stuff, you get it just right, and then the animation actually goes fairly quickly. Then you film and play it back. At this point, most people will say, “Great, got it, next shot.”

But wait! You’ve just spent so long getting everything set up and planned out. Learn from your first take. You’ll see that some things will have come out too slow, or too fast, or there’ll be movement you can remove to make the shot cleaner. So shoot it again. Your second or third take will almost always be better than the first. Most of the shots in Sweeper are second takes, with some thirds and even fifths.

Another tip: for most people, the hardest part will be estimating how long a specific action should take. Say, a guy raising both of his hands – how many small movements do I need to get his arms from resting at his sides to raised up? Some people will do way too many frames, resulting in slow motion; or they’ll do too few and the movement will look jerky. What I learned is that almost all human movements happen within 6 to 10 frames at 24 frames per second – so just under half a second. Of course, if you’re looking at a slow movement, you’ll have to double it.

And remember that the smoothness of the animation does not depend on how many frames you film for an action, but how you split up the action within those frames. This was covered in Tyler’s videos on the Mega Bloks site, it’s called “ease in and out.” Be sure to watch all of Tyler’s vids

BRAD: Thank you so much Joshua. I’m looking forward to your next Mega Bloks Halo toymation!

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Thanks to Mega Bloks for providing the source.

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