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Interview With Paul Zito, Director and Animator of Samurai Stop Motion Music Video, "Old Love"

A chrysanthemum blooms and swords of Samurai begin to clash in rhythm with snare drums as the stop motion music video for the song “Old Love” begins.

Directed and animated by Paul Zito, an animator currently living in Portland, Old Love follows the story of two samurai, each belonging opposing factions, who face each other in battle and then fall in love when the victor realizes that he cannot bring himself to kill the other.

The song “Old Love” – based on the Japanese folktale “The Chrysanthemum Pledge” – is on its own a great listen. Joe Hertler, the song’s lyricist, says, concerning the inspiration for the project, “What I really wanted to capture in the song – and I’m not sure of the best way to put this – is that there is beauty in tragedy and violence. Their [the Samurai’s] love is forbidden, but sincere, sensitive, and beautiful. Sounds kinda silly to say it like that, but it’s what I was feeling when I wrote the song. I felt very connected to these characters and as a fan of Japanese literature, I really wanted to do the beautiful source material justice.”

The stop motion aesthetic that Paul selected for this film was a stop motion/digitally animated hybrid. The particular stop motion technique used is two-dimensional replacement animation, which is shot in three-dimensions using the multiplane camera system. Interestingly, the multiplane camera was a system first engineered by Walt Disney and his Nine Old Men in the early days of Walt Disney Animation. The original objective in building the multiplane camera system was to find a way for two-dimensional objects to move relative to other two-dimensional subjects, giving the frame a depth of field. The actual engineering of the equipment resulted in several layers of glass being built on what is essentially a metal rack. The camera is angled to look down through all of the layers of glass. Each layer thus contains different elements of a scene to give the scene a rich depth of field. The opening shot of Bambi, where a camera pans through the woods, is a beautiful example of the multiplane camera effect at work. In this video you can watch Walt Disney himself explain the multiplane camera system and the thought process behind it.

In the description of the Old Love video on YouTube, Joe explains his and Paul’s collaboration on Old Love, “I was introduced to the director [of Old Love], Paul Zito, of Portland, through a mutual friend and instantly fell in love with his work. He immediately seemed to connect with the story when I pitched it to him and cannot overstate how much I appreciated the level of respect and sensitivity he gave to the source material.”

The handiwork and passion that went into the project is evident in every frame of the film: everything from the initial character and set design to the final animation. According to Joe Hertler, Paul made “something like 10,000-15,000 paper cut outs and spent like 4 months on the project.”

Shout out to Paul, who I was fortunate enough to recently interview about his work on Old Love. Our discussion (below) ranges from the equipment and software Paul used to bring Old Love to life to his creative process to details about his animation workflow. Enjoy!

A.H. Uriah: I was quite excited when I saw your employment of the multiplane camera system (the process of animating a scene on several separate layers to create a rich depth of field), a process that I believe was pioneered by Disney in the early days of Walt Disney Animation. How did working with a multiplane system change your animation workflow on Old Love compared to a project like Battery Life (which, by the way, I think is fantastic)?

Paul Zito: I’d say the biggest adjustment in animation is to get your brain to think in terms of 2D vs 3D. Once you come up with a shot, the next challenge is breaking that down into flat layers while maintaining things like perspective, parallax and depth. And to me that’s where the magic of the multiplane really lies. It opens up all sorts of doors into stylization where you can create a sort of “faux 3D” with a bunch of flat 2D elements. A good example of this might be the shot at 1:12 where both samurai are walking deeper into the woods. Right before the shot cuts, this additional layer of trees and ground reveals in a way that creates depth. Those kinds of moves take a bit of extra planning and forethought to pull off but when it works it’s really rewarding.

A.H.: Can you walk us through the creative and animation process, from pre-production to post-production, for the Old Love music video?

PZ: The concept came from the song’s lyrics that Joe Hertler, the band’s frontman, had written. Joe sent me the general story and inspiration behind it which I then adapted into a music video format. Once we had the story nailed down I went on to things like character design, storyboards, and the animatic. I really took my time with the animatic. I knew there wasn’t going to be much room for change down the line so I poured extra attention into each shot and scene so that it all flowed and felt cohesive.

Once things felt good with the animatic I moved on to character templates. The templates were the character’s animation in bare bones digital form. You can see some of them in the BTS. A lot of it was done with traditional cel animation and other times it was a hybrid of cel and motion graphics.

Once I finished the templates I began printing each frame onto computer paper. And each one of those frames had to then be taped down onto large sheets of color card stock. I then cut out each frame, by hand, with x-acto knives and scissors. That was probably the most laborious experience of the whole video. And that’s coming from a guy who loves making stop motion and cel animation!

While the cutouts were being generated, I was also splitting my time with the last 40-50 seconds of the music video. Towards the end, when the orange-ish/red samurai commits hara-kiri, there’s this transition that happens where we enter a heavenly realm. I wanted this part to feel unique and different from the rest of the story so I used a cel animated, After Effects approach. The characters were all animated in Photoshop again but the camera moves and compositions were done in After Effects. My brother, Jonathan, created all the digital backgrounds in Photoshop. I did however overlay quite a bit of rotating paper texture, which I captured from the same colored card stock I used for the characters. As much as I wanted the heavenly realm to feel different, I also wanted to maintain an overall sense of papery cohesion.

After the character cutouts were done and the background elements were created, I started shooting the stop-motion portion. This is where the 5 layered multiplane came into play. For most shots, I would design the backgrounds on the bottom 2 layers, reserving the middle 2 for the characters and the top layer for foreground elements. The underlying character animation was already baked into the pre-made cutouts so my main focus here was making sure everything felt as smooth as possible.

That last major step was to take all the stop-motion/multiplane footage and go over it one more time with cel animation. That included things like swords, eyes, character highlights, fireflies, peddles and the flowers. I also overlaid all those elements with various rotating paper textures, again using textures I captured from the same colored card stock I used for the characters.

Around the time I finished that, my brother and I started wrapping up the 40-50 seconds of digital animation for the end. Once those two pieces came together I polished it all off with a few rounds of color correction and paper texturing to cement the world.

A.H.: What was your workflow like on Old Love? What specific gear, software and cameras did you use?

PZ: The animatic and early assembly cuts were done in Final Cut X. All the characters were animated in Photoshop. Some additional elements were done in After Effects but I really only reserved that for things that I deemed too laborious to do frame-by-frame.

This particular multiplane rig was my 2.0. I had built one about 5 years ago and had learned from my mistakes. Instead of buying a bunch of material and making my own frame, I bought a heavy duty shelving unit from Home Depot. I then special ordered 4 layers of glass to fit the shelves and used particle board for the 5th layer at the top of to rig the camera through.

I shot on a Canon 60D and used Dragonframe for my stop-motion software. Dragonframe’s layering system, where you can overlay images and videos on top of your live feed, was a huge part in making this whole thing work. Without it I wouldn’t have been able to align the character cutouts with the digital templates.

The final layering of cel animation was made in Photoshop. All the compositing, coloring, and finally assembly, where the stop-motion/cel sandwich was made, was done in After Effects.

A.H.: What is one piece of advice you can give to our readers – specifically animators who are just beginning – that you wish you had known when you were first getting started in animation?

PZ: If I could give an earlier version of myself some advice, it’d be to spend more time grinding through the basics. I was definitely a little impatient and just wanted to start making full productions right of the bat. Consequently, it wasn’t until Battery Life that I felt like I was grasping decent character animation. Sometimes you gotta be okay with making a bunch of stuff nobody’s ever gonna see just to get through those early learning stages.

You can watch the Old Love music video here, and you can connect with Paul and explore more of his incredible work on his website, SoundCloud, Vimeo, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. For further resources concerning the making-of process of Old Love, you can check out the behind-the-scenes video here. Also, if you’re viewing this article on the Stop Motion Geek blog, I have below posted several behind-the-scenes pictures which Paul provided me with.

The song “Old Love” was written by Joe Hertler and is off his album “Pluto” by Joe Hertler and The Rainbow Seekers. You can download this song and more of Joe’s music on his website, Spotify, Google Play and iTunes.

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