Art in stop-motion

David M. Pickett, AB’07, brings LEGO bricks to life, one frame at a time.

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Fire Escape Films invited stop-motion filmmaker David M. Pickett, AB’07, back to campus on Wednesday to talk about animation techniques, LEGO art, and his own stop-motion web series, the Nightly News at Nine.

In the basement of Stuart, Pickett discussed his decade-long work with stop motion and demonstrated how to use various cameras, lighting, and software to transform a series of photos into a smoothly integrated film, replete with characters, sound, and narrative. After the discussion, Pickett invited people to use a premade set to make their own stop-motion shorts.

The Nightly News at Nine, a cute, witty, and irreverent web series began in May 2007, just before Pickett graduated from the College. Most NNN episodes open on two newscasters, Sherry Tiles and Phil Brickley, a vaguely romantic and dysfunctional pair that struggles to relate the latest breaking story to hit New Block City, the symbolic capitol of Figuria. Their woman on the scene is ROBOphilia, a reporter/heroine with Inspector Gadget–like limbs and a comically shrill voice. Pickett says he chose the nightly news format because it allows him to pursue tangents and “best express the crazy stuff in my head.”

In the first episode, a soccer game is interrupted when the field suddenly morphs into a giant green dinosaur that demolishes the nearby “negligible-security prison,” releasing the prisoners and introducing the series villain, Malifios. In the next scene, the bumbling Phil hires Malifios to replace Steve, the sportscaster taken hostage during the prison break.

Pickett had been making movies starring toys ever since his family first bought a video camera when he was eight. He cites the Cartoon Network as a creative influence. But his first serious foray into stop-motion came during his senior year of high school. For an assignment in AP English, Pickett recreated the play within the play from Hamlet using LEGO figurines.

At the discussion, Pickett brought his early film equipment—he started with a basic webcam, making films that ran at five frames a second—as well as his new digital camera, which he purchased with the help of a Kickstarter campaign last April.

Stop-motion is a notoriously time-intensive art. Depending on the complexity of the set and the level of activity in a given scene, a single minute of finished product might require anywhere from five to 30 hours of labor. For complex sequences featuring several characters, Pickett often invites a group of friends over to help, assigning each of them to a specific character and letting them slightly alter the figures’ motions one shot at a time.

It’s funny, though not surprising, then, that Pickett’s major fan base is “12-year-old boys who can’t wait for the next episode to come out.” In one of Pickett’s most involved shorts, the camera travels through seven unique sets that are constantly being built up and torn down as the robot characters interact within them. Pickett estimates that the two-minute video required at least 110 hours to film—and that’s not counting storyboarding, video editing, voice acting, etc.

In addition to his videos on YouTube, Pickett uses his website to explain his creative process and offer his fans step-by-step instructions on how to make their own stop-motion animations. He also makes behind-the-scenes videos showing how to recreate the sets and the characters from the show.

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