Sunday, July 11, 2010

Nina Paley on Fire

This is another excerpt from my interview with Nina Paley about the Agni Pariksha episode of her feature-length animated film, Sita Sings the Blues. I organized the interview around a series of frame grabs from the film. In this excerpt we're discussing how Paley animated fire.

[The first interview excerpt is here and it is about directing.]

Rotoscoping Fire

BB: Where’d Mr. Squiggles come from?

NP: Ah, that is one where I did make an automated rotoscope. What I did I was looking on line for real fire, real explosion.

I should say that making fire, animating fire, was such a challenge for me. I did not know how to do it, I could not find books about doing it. There had been a book that I’d seen in San Francisco, I didn’t remember the title of it.

BB: I, I, I’m sure it’s a pain.

NP: But I saw it beautifully done in Fantasia -

BB: Oh, sure. But they had someone who animated fire 24/7, he breathed, and another guy animated bubbles 24/7 –

NP: I know –

BB: And another one did sea foam –

NP: I know, but there are principles behind it that could be learned, but I could not get my hands of a book. I was looking everywhere . . .

BB: Well, Mike Barrier tells me those, they’re [The Walt Disney Company] never gonna’ release the archives, and it’s a world treasure, and no one’s ever gonna’ know what’s in them.

NP: Well, anyway, such books exist, I know they exist. But I could not find them. So I was just going nuts, and I actually went to great lengths to get a DVD of Fantasia, which of course was in the vault, out of print, couldn’t get that. So that was an adventure in and of itself. And then I studied it.

Studying that didn’t, I couldn’t figure it out anyway, even from studying it. It was like I didn’t get it.

So, I was having to learn how to animate fire. And one of the many things that I did, was I rotoscoped fire. But to do that I needed some footage of fire. So I scoured the web. And remember that I was basically broke, even though the film cost a lot of money, cost many 10s of thousands of dollars, I was broke. So I could have bought a videotape of fire, like somebody had shot various explosions against a black background, for compositing and special effects. And that was like $500 to buy the videotape. It was then royalty free, but I did not want to pay that. I mean, I didn’t really need the videotape, I just needed something to rotoscope. So fortunately I found the tiny little preview videos on the website that was selling the tape. Because who would want it at such low low resolution? And they put their  logo in it. So, and um, it might have been like $800 or something, it was more than I could afford. And I wasn’t going to use it for compositing.

So I managed to capture some of those videos, remove the logo, and I had to crop the thing. But I rotoscoped those with software called Synthetic Studio Artist. Which is not easy to use anyway. You have to create all the brushes, and create how it’s gonna be –

BB: So that’s rotoscoped fire –

NP: This is, yeah, this is rotoscoped with Synthetic Studio Artist, which is amazing. And I also use that for the explosion in the beginning.

BB: I mean, that’s three times in the film. In the very beginning and at the beginning and end of this sequence.

Animating Fire by Hand

NP: And then this fire I made myself. And that, boy there was a lot of trial and error there. Hand-made in Flash.

BB: The dancers were –

NP: Ah, the dancers are from these old Indian charts, which a friend of mine had a whole book of. They’re really really cheaply printed on like newsprint. And they put them in schools. And there was a chart called Dances of India. It had all these different, this kind of dance, that kind of dance, I realized that I could put them together and make one dance, which is the technique I used in “All creative work is derivative.”

BB: And this is Reena doing a sort of devotional thing there.

NP: Yes, that’s her doing that introductory prayer thing.

And then this background is from, I don’t know. I scanned in a whole lot of different cards.

BB: I mean those backgrounds are going, they’re strobing you.

NP: Yeah.

BB: Has anyone flipped out during this thing?

NP: Has anyone had a

BB: - an epileptic –

NP: - an epileptic fit. Not that I’m aware of.

BB: I’m told Stan Brackage used to have that happen to him sometime.

Patterned Fire

NP: That’s still Reena’s thing [that is, her pre-dance invocation]. What I did with this was I traced her. But that sparkly effect is that after I traced her by hand I processed it with Synthetic Studio Artist.

BB: That’s your hand-drawn fire there.

NP: Yeah, that’s the same fire shape, but it’s filled with bit-map images, in various shades of red. And those bit-map images are scans of fabric and backgrounds and just anything that was yellow and redish.

BB: Any reason you decided to do that, just –

NP: There’s something so, you know this type of printing is so ubiquitous, this printing on cheap paper, with the big dots. And at least at the time that I was in Trivandrum and that I made Sita Sings the Blues, that was very Indian. I mean at one time it was very American as well, but our printing technology or, whatever, our access to better printing presses in Singapore, whatever, is greater. So we have more expensive printed goods, but this stuff is just really ubiquitous, and I wanted to give some of that flavor.

And there might have been other reasons too. That’s just the first thing I pull off the top of my head.

Paisley Fire

BB: And that’s more handmade fire in there.

NP: Yes, that’s the paisley fire. You know, once I animated this fire, it’s like ‘well I can do this technique to it and that technique and why not, because the fact is I’m not really a good fire animator. And this pattern of the fire was the best I could do, so I wanted to really milk it by doing as many variations on it as I could.

BB: Now, these little fire things [indicating the edge of the arch], that was just part of whatever you’d scanned in.

NP: Yeah, this was the border of something. And I put my fire in here. [Looks around, picks up a small vessel from a shelf.] Here’s a diya right here. Put oil in here and a wick.

BB: So, you installed the fire.

NP: Yes, but they, I think they had a tiny little flame on them, but their flame wasn’t animated.

BB: And so here we have much larger paisley fire.

NP: The idea in this little bit was that the fire’s growing. The more she’s dancing, the more the flames are taking over.

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