The Ballad of an iStopMotion Prodigy

by Megan -

The life of the “average” 20-year-old typically consists of dealing with pesky roommates, worrying over college exams, figuring out how to stretch a limited bank account accumulated over a summer of working…but Charlie Collier is not your average 20-year-old. We met him over a year ago when Slovenian band Puppetz released their music video for Generacija Y, which Charlie was responsible for making. Seriously – how many 19-year-olds do you know who have had a music video featured on a European division of MTV? Naturally, we’ve been following his work ever since.

We already ranted and raved about Charlie’s amazing talent in our first blog about him (and again in the second), so we’ll spare you the gooey admiration and get right down to business. Charlie was, not surprisingly, commissioned to animate a music video by a different artist. This time around, it was for indie/folk/rock artist Lincoln Durham’s song Ballad of a Prodigal Son. Also a Texas native, the two met in a rather unconventional way – at a martial arts school’s end-of-the-year party.

My instructor wanted to have a musician play at our studio for our end-of-the-year party,” Charlie tells us (I know what you’re thinking – he animates AND practices martial arts?! Where does he find the time… Oops, back to the story.). “He knew Lincoln Durham and got him to come out and play. That’s how I ended up meeting him. We talked, I asked him if he had any music videos and explained to him what I do.

Once they established the relationship, the two got right to work. In the past, when asked to create the music video for Puppetz, Charlie told us they essentially gave him full creative control over the animation. They had seen his work in Twist Ninja and knew they wanted something similar, letting Charlie take the wheel. This time around was a bit different, but in a good way. “It was definitely more of a collaboration,” says Charlie. “We wrote the screenplay together, really bringing his style and ideas to life. Lincoln actually lives in Texas as well but about four hours from me, so after we wrote the screenplay I storyboarded everything and posted updates of what I’d been doing on Facebook. Being able to collaborate online was key. He’d tell me what he liked and what he wanted changed.”

Luckily, Charlie was happy to share the reigns with another artist. He tells us there were many moments he and Lincoln would bounce ideas off of each other, and many times Lincoln would come up with an idea Charlie had never even thought of. Another interesting, and very different, aspect of this creative process was that Charlie did not have to invent the characters himself. “One of the cool things about this project in particular is that Lincoln already had these characters laid out from other songs he did. He writes songs and stories and has these characters like the crows and the girl present in all of them; I was able to bring them to a visual format.

While Charlie didn’t have to do any work conceptualizing the characters, he did have to create their physical, real-world counterparts (and, not to mention, make sure they lived up to Lincoln’s imagined perception of them). To do so, he hand-make all of those characters himself – something he was completely new to. “I never built a traditional stop motion model before this; a lot of the materials I used I had never actually worked with before. The characters were made from foam and wire with latex skin over that. I hand-sewed all the clothes and the trees were made with plastic polymer clay. Lincoln thought the models were so cool. It was the first time his characters were ever created physically.” Charlie even admits that the singer may have liked the model characters even more than he did.

In order to bring those characters to life, Charlie employs the never-failing iStopMotion. “I really like iStopMotion,” Charlie tells us (not trying to toot our own horns or anything but, Toot! Toot!). “It’s really helpful and that’s what I like about it – it’s not overly complicated, allows you to do some editing, and is effective without trying to be something it’s not. I did all the compositing with After Effects and built the timeline using Premiere Pro.Watch how Charlie did the compositing.

He shot the film with a Canon 7D along with a 28-135mm lens and an 18-24mm lens, shooting all of the elements separately in front of a blue screen. Separating all of the scene elements allowed him to make them appear larger than life, an effect that translates quite well in the video.

Animating a project, especially if you’re a perfectionist like Charlie, can be a maddening thing, reviewing your work over and over and over again until it’s absolutely perfect (and even then you still have your doubts). Charlie tells us he must have listened to Ballad of a Prodigal Son dozens of times. “It’s not even funny,” he says – while laughing. “I listened to it more times than Lincoln has.” Luckily, it’s a good song. What helped ease the process of animating his characters precisely to the music was iStopMotion 3’s audio track feature. “You can import the audio track and see the waveform in the timeline. That was an awesome feature to have when I was animating Lincoln’s character to play along with the guitar. If it wasn’t for that feature I’d be really angry.

All joking aside, this has to be the most epic moment of the entire music video, so we’re happy that we can (sort of) say we had a little something to do with it. “That’s my favorite part of the whole video. Up until that point, there are really no other instruments,” Charlie comments. “I wanted to transition from slow into this climax, with the lightning and rain. I actually filmed that whole guitar section first – mostly because I wanted to. I really wanted to get that part down, because it was the most challenging scene to animate – having him play the guitar perfectly to the rhythm. By doing that part first, I knew I wouldn’t be pressed for time in the end with deadlines, because I really didn’t want to rush shooting that scene. I’m pleased with how it turned out.” So are we, Charlie, so are we.

You may be wondering what’s next for the young animator. More music videos? Film school? Partnering up with Tim Burton on his next feature film? According to Charlie, he’s still working on perfecting his animation skills, so he definitely plans to do more music videos in the near future. “Music videos are meant to be kind of weird, in a way. Plus they’re short, the length of a song is usually about two or three minutes, which is nice when it comes to stop motion animation. You can experiment with stuff and try all these different styles, and the audio is taken care of. I do want to get into narrative storytelling in the future, but really the reason I’m not yet is because I’m not sure my animating skills are up to par. If I’m going to do a short film, I want to give it my all. With music videos, I can experiment and get more practice with animating. I’ll start branching off eventually.” As for film school, he’ll get there eventually, but he’s not going to rush it.

The last time we spoke with Charlie, he named Laika, the animation studio that produces films like Paranorman and Coraline, as one of his daily sources of inspiration. We were happy to hear that, since then, he had the opportunity to visit their Oregon studios. Well…sorta. “Over the summer I visited the studios in Oregon but they wouldn’t let me in because they were filming something. [He laughs] I did get into the little vestibule though. Next time I’ll schedule a tour.

While Charlie is currently “talking business” with a few people right now, he doesn’t have anything set in stone. He’s just enjoying life, working on his craft, and having fun being commissioned to do projects (like we said, not your average 20-year-old). You heard it here, people, Charlie Collier, animation extraordinaire, is open for business. But you better book it fast – we’re betting Charlie won’t be kept out of ANY animation studio much longer (we’re looking at you, Laika!).

To see more from Charlie or to contact him for more information on working together, check out his blog, Zapamation.