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Interview with Sean Ohlenkamp, Co-Creator of "Oh My Gourd - A Halloween Stop Motion Pumpkin Carving Experiment"

Just in time for Halloween, stop motion animator Sean Ohlenkamp and photographer Robert Popkin have teamed up to bring us their spellbinding stop motion pumpkin carving experiment, Oh My Gourd, a special treat of a short film, many years in the making.

Two astonishingly talented animators, one stage – a wooden box with “character,” one black curtain, one all-pumpkin-themed soundtrack, several candles, and “dozens upon dozens upon dozens of pumpkins,” says Ohlenkamp, “cut, gutted, rotated, scraped, poked, slapped, and banged” were what it took “to make this stop-motion animation and the music that brings it to life.”

The film, a 2-minute romp through beautiful and extravagant pumpkin-themed stop motion effects, was made using several techniques that are not unknown to stop motion, effects that allow the medium to flourish and step out to be as creative and inventive as only stop motion can be. Casting aside the atypical Halloween iconography, Ohlenkamp and Popkin dive deeper, playing around with unique shapes and effects rarely implemented in stop motion – a rotating cube, a piano playing itself, and, of course, a buffering browser. To make the effects, Ohlenkamp explains, “Many pumpkins were photographed twice. First as a nicely lit, carving-free plate. Then again after carving our designs and removing the top or back so we could insert a light. The two were then composited together to remove the lighting equipment. We re-used pumpkins where we could (fronts and backs and sometimes sides) but that wasn’t always possible. We often projected images onto the pumpkins to help with the carving and to improve consistency between frames, but due to each pumpkin’s unique curves, it often took just putting it in front of the camera to check alignment.”

The music for the film, created by the eclectic sound design engineers at Grayson Matthews, was made, as Ohlenkamp says, “through what we’ve deemed ‘Pumpkin Orchestration.’ Grayson Matthews’ Igor Correia created this catchy rhythmically-driven underscore with the help of Tom Westin and the team of sound designers at Grayson….Most of these sounds were smashed, tapped, kicked, clapped or scooped out of actual pumpkins and carving tools, with some enhancement and sound manipulation courtesy of Logic and Protools.”

This film is not Ohlenkamp’s first rendezvous with stop motion, having worked with the medium before in his brilliant little Kellogg’s Rice Kirspies commercials and for his short film, The Joy of Books.

For Ohlenkamp and Popkin, Oh My Gourd was a labor of love. As Ohlenkamp states, “It took a few years – pumpkins rot, schedules get busy – but we loved discovering the methods that worked and the many that didn’t.”

The video has begun to go viral since its release four days ago, now clocking almost 44,000 hits.

“We hope this inspires others and can’t wait to see what you create!” Says Ohlenkamp.

I had recently had the pleasure to interview Sean and to mull over the minute wonders of his film. Enjoy!

A.H. Uriah: Can you give us a little walk-through of the production of Oh My Gourd, from first concept final product?

Sean Ohlenkamp: We were initially hoping to make it a narrative. But neither of us are professional carvers (if there is such a thing!) and it proved far too difficult to align the detailed animations needed to carve frames of a character. So we simplified it down to the looping sequences of shapes and movement you see here. It was designed partially out of necessity and partially out of the want to do something that didn't lean into all of the more expected Halloween imagery of carved smiles and witches and bats. For each frame we shot two photos. One where we nicely lit the exterior, uncarved pumpkin. And one where we cut the back, top, or side off the pumpkin, gutted it, carved it, and lit it from the inside. We then merged the two images back together to make sure both the pumpkin and the carving looked good. Without doing so would have resulted in the pumpkins turning into bright red glowing orbs because of the strobe we placed inside!

A.H. Uriah: You mention in the description of Oh My Gourd that there were “many animations that didn't make it into the final piece which seemed like good ideas at the time but ended up being too complicated and did not work (a carved heart that emerged and beat with the pulsing of the light, a complex Halloween themed pumpkin zoetrope, and an animation of a tree that grows as the pumpkins sizes do among others).” How did you decide which pumpkin designs to use in the final video and how did you go about creating the final effect that we see in the film?

SO: Honestly it became which animations were the clearest. The more complex ones ran into issues when the frames did not align clearly enough. Essentially, you couldn't tell what was happening. There was a lot of trial and error throughout the process. The clearest bits of animations seemed to be short loops which set a bit of a pattern for the eye to follow which could make up for our poor carving skills.

A.H. Uriah: In the production of Oh My Gourd, you worked closely with the incredibly talented photographer Robert Popkin during the production of the video, as well as with the composer Igor Correia and a team of sound designers in the musical composition for the project. What did your collaborations look like in the process of making “Oh My Gourd?" Do you have a particular approach to collaboration and particular methods for communicating with your creative collaborations?

SO: It was a wonderful collaboration with Rob Popkin and the team at Grayson Matthews. Rob was the photographer and we developed the concept together. We both bought carloads of pumpkins, stored, carried them, and gutted them. I ended up doing most of the carving while Rob was behind the lens. Once we had the assets, we started compiling them to see what worked and didn't, creating a rough edit. We supplied that to Grayson Matthews (who also composed the music for this other stop-motion piece of mine) with the suggestion that the music also feel part of the space and use pumpkins where possible. They took that to heart and came back with a beautiful score using both pumpkins and the tools used to carve them. We then refined both the edit and the music together to make things line up and create a bit of a resolution to these otherwise random carving experiments. It was a great collaboration with both of us feeding off one another.

A.H. Uriah: It would appear as if you faced several challenges along the way while making this project. The ones you’ve noted are working with natural objects (pumpkins) and, as such, you were forced to work under the constraints that they put you under; another challenge being the limitations of working with pumpkins, and having to come to terms with the fact that some of your ideas were simply too elaborate to work practically. I’m sure you faced more challenges, as well, that I’m not aware of. Although from coming out of this project having worked under the constraints and conventions of the project, do you have any advice for stop motion filmmakers who might be facing similar challenges on their own projects? What did you yourself learn from the challenges you faced on this production and what answers did you devise to remedy these challenges?

SO: In terms of advice, I don't know that I'm in a position to give it! I just create things to satisfy personal curiosity and meet self-imposed challenges. But commitment and passion will lead to great things!

(Note on below picture: Sean mentions that, “The scissors/cuts one was a test pumpkin that I thought looked pretty cool. We were going to have scissors cut along a dotted line to open the pumpkin at the end but it didn't really work out.”)

You can see more of Sean Ohlenkamp’s work in stop motion and design by going to his website, blog, Google Plus, or YouTube channel.

You can go see more of Robert Popkin’s dazzling work in photography by visiting his website.

You can go watch Oh My Gourd by going here.

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