By Brian Tucker
On Thursday night Justin Lacy will premiere his hand made stop-motion animated music video for “Weeds” at Bourgie Nights. The song comes from his excellent 2017 album “Control Burn.” To make the video he calculated how many frames he’d need to fill out the song’s three-plus minutes. 2609 frames, and many hours later, Lacy had his video.
Lacy and his ten-member band will perform along with goldielux – Emma Nelson on guitar/vocals and Hannah Simpson on cello. Lacy’s band has often been large for shows. He says it’s a revolving line-up and for Thursday night’s show members include: LaRaisha DiEvelyn Dionne (Vocals), Hillary Flowers (cello), Nick “Bear” Loeber (Bass), Farrah Roberts (vocals), Brent Trubia (viola), and Laura York (clarinet and bass clarinet), Billy Heathen (mandolin) Jon Hill (drums), and Annie Jewell (Violin).
“Weeds” is Lacy’s first hand-made music video and it’s a colorful, entertaining, and frankly, an uplifting piece of visual art. Below is an interview with Lacy about how and why the film came to be, from his self-taught efforts to create “Weeds” to why the video’s imagery was chosen and what it speaks to.
The video premiered last year at the Cucalorus Film Festival. Once it is fully available online I’ll add the video to this post (there’s a teaser video at the end of this post)
For clarification, all of the video is handmade, no computer graphics? You did everything yourself?
Lacy: I made everything by hand using construction paper, tissue paper, metal wire, yarn, cotton, and pipe cleaners. Almost everything was achieved using in-camera practical effects and animation techniques, which meant adjusting every single frame by hand, for 2609 frames. Other than blending some layers, the biggest computer effect is that I inverted the colors of the entire film.
I was shooting most of this on a backlit white background, with the intention to invert white to black. Off-white became blue. Black became a glowing white-yellow color, blue became orange, and red became this bright alien looking neon blue. This was kind of the whole inspiration for the film. I first noticed in Photoshop that inverted shadows appear to glow like light. I thought that if I could cast shadows under a backlit backdrop, and invert the footage, then I could essentially animate light. So, to create the moons for instance, I used black circles of construction paper, and I used bits of cotton beneath the backlit background to cast shadowy halos around them. Inverted, the moons glow, with halo rings of light.
The bike was on the flyer, but why a bike in general?
The original flier was for a show at Gravity Records in May 2018 with Moon Racer and goldielux. I wanted to hand-make something for it, and I was trying to think of some simple summertime imagery, when I thought about how Emma Nelson (goldilux), had recently spent weeks bicycling all the way across the country. So I made a bike out of construction paper.
I didn’t think much of it, but photographed, it appeared to really pop off the paper, and I liked it. I played with it in Photoshop, and that’s when I noticed the inverted light effect on the shadows beneath the bike. I had already been working on another stop-motion concept, but hadn’t touched it in months. The shadow idea got me thinking, and I realized that, if the spokes on the bike could spin, it’d be an incredibly simple character to animate – a good first subject to try out for my first film as I learned the ropes.
The video certainly has an adventurous quality, the joys and hazards of absolute freedom. As an image, the bike, what does it speak to you or relate to the song (if that applies)?
That’s a good question. A bike can pretty much only move forward, and it can’t stand still without falling over or resting on a kickstand, so, for better or worse, it goes, with no ability to stop or look back. To me, that speaks to some of the follies of relationships, this whirlwind we get swept into with blinders on, moving forward, but not sure where we’re going. It also speaks to western society in general, this idea that we must always be growing, with little consideration of the environmental costs.
The significance of the bike was sort of veiled to me for a lot of the process though, because I originally just made it for a flier. When I realized it could be animated, I had to ask myself, why? Why would I animate a bike, why would anyone want to watch a rider-less animated bike, and what song would this even work with. I thought of the drumbeat to “Weeds,” and to me the 16th note snare drum sort of evoked that baseball-ball-card-striking-the-spokes sound. But I still didn’t think there was any significance there. At first I thought I might just make this a lyric video – a simple, repetitive animation of a bike with lyrics appearing at the bottom of the screen. I figured it’d take me just a few days to knock out, and it would be good practice. But the idea began to grow.
Before beginning, did you listen to “Weeds” and let your mind wander, let it conjure imagery?
Yeah, I definitely went for a lot of walks with “Weeds” on loop, trying to just imagine what a bike could be doing in each moment of the song. At first I mainly thought about the slope of the road, and how I could use the bike’s kinetic energy up and down hills to build momentum towards the finale. During the big moments of the song, I could just see this bike racing downhill. That made me confident that there was something to the simple drama of uphill struggle versus downhill release, and that was enough to get the film started.
Was this your first foray into stop motion animation? What was your learning curve like?
Basically, yeah. I animated a short video to promote the release of my album Control Burn in 2017, but for that, I chopped up Jonathan Guggenhiem’s album artwork in Photoshop, and used Aftereffects to animate each individual layer. That project got me thinking about what it’d be like to do stop-motion animation in-camera, by hand. Sometime after that, I began planning a three-dimensional stop-motion for my song “The Port.”
I watched some YouTube instructional videos, other artist’s stop-motions, and I checked out some books from the library. I built a small wooden crane – a model of those giant long-neck cranes we have at our port – tiny origami shipping containers, and a wire puppet with purple hair, but I didn’t get much further before life got in the way. Soon after building those components, I saw Clyde Peterson’s stop-motion feature Torrey Pines at the Cucalorus Festival, and Clyde was kind enough to hand out DVDs of the film to the audience. I grabbed one, and found detailed instructions in the liner notes on how to build a multiplane downshooter, a workstation that points a camera straight down at multiple planes of glass, enabling animators to manipulate fore-, mid- and background layers simultaneously.
I hadn’t attempted to animate for months, but after I built the bike, I knew I needed to build a multiplane downshooter. Once I started animating, everything actually went surprisingly smooth, maybe because all of that prior research and process-mulling had time to simmer. I found it very easy to just try things out, and moving tangible things by hand, frame by frame, felt a lot more natural than animating in the computer.
The process is notoriously painstaking. Were you surprised at your temperament to make this happen?
I think I’m a pretty patient person. I’ve taken on a few long-form projects now, and I know they’re not gonna happen overnight. It did get a little rough in October, after Hurricane Florence took me away from the project for three weeks. I had to start to work around the clock in order to have it done in time to premier at Cucalorus. I tried to write out an itinerary and budget my time, but I found that just about everything took a lot longer than expected, and there were times when my brain just felt numb working on all of this. There is a nice zen-flow to animating by hand though, that was in a way, really relaxing and rewarding.
Were the dissolves and fades hard to actualize?
No they were pretty easy. I did a little editing to help out the dissolves and fades in post, but I actually had them looking pretty good in camera. I had my lights plugged into a dimmer, so a lot of it was achieved by slightly adjusting the intensity of the lights in each frame.
Did you animate and realize you needed to add more to fill out the running time?
No, for this to synch up with the music, every frame had to be accounted for in my planning process. I did the math to calculate how many frames would appear in each measure of music – I believe it was 18. So, for instance, I knew that if I wanted an action to sync up with a bell chime on beat three of measure one, it needed to happen on frame 10. I did this for the entire song, charting out every single measure of music and noting what frames needed to have certain actions.
I also wanted this to mostly look like a one-shot, and because of that, and probably because of my inexperience, I actually shot this thing from beginning to end, the only exception being the intro/title sequence. I did that last. That’s a pretty atypical process for filmmaking, where scenes are usually shot in whatever order is most practical, not chronological. But because of that, I always knew exactly where I was in the song. This also meant that I had very little editing to do. When I exported the film from the stop-motion animation software, Dragonframe, it was very close to the final product, no cuts or edits necessary.
Can you speak to inspirations, visually? It brings to mind Georges Méliès.
That’s cool. This is all practical effects, so a lot of the tricks Méliès used, such as the concept of substitution. That blew my mind, that I could make a vine look like its spinning and twining just by substituting entirely different shaped vines frame-by-frame. I just really love animated music videos that synch up with the music. Two that I used to watch all the time are “I Say Fever” by Romona Falls, and “Ready Abel” by Grizzly Bear, and I always hoped to achieve a similar aesthetic.