Animation World Magazine, Issue 3.2, May 1998

Animating Under the Camera

compiled by Heather Kenyon

We asked leading artists who work with two of the most popular and striking under the camera animating techniques, sand, and other loose materials, and paint on glass, to reveal different tips and tricks that they have learned through trial and error. We hope that they will encourage you to experiment in these areas as well as other under the camera animation techniques. All of these artists attest that what makes these techniques so difficult is what makes them so appealing -- that fleeting sense of spontaneity of creating an image, only to replace it with the next, destroying while creating.

On the subject of sand, we hear from
Caroline Leaf, Maria Procházková, Eli Noyes and Gerald Conn, and for paint on glass, we hear from Alexander Petrov, Wendy Tilby, Eleanor "Ellen" Ramos and Lyudmila Koshkina.


This sketch by Caroline Leaf illustrates her recommended
set-up for sand animation. © Caroline Leaf.

Caroline Leaf
I worked with white beach sand poured out onto an underlit piece of glass in a darkened room. The only light in the room came from the lights under the sand animation, letting the sand become a black silhouette against a white ground. Even though it was very fine sand, I needed a large field size to make detailed sand images. The field was approximately 24 x 18 inches. The best way to light such a large surface evenly turned out to be with a light on either side of the table pointing down to the floor and bouncing back up to the underside of my working surface from a large curved piece of white cardboard lying directly below on the floor. An important side benefit of this indirect lighting is that you are not looking directly into a light bulb while you work. This can strain your eyes, not only because of the brightness, but because the eye struggles to accommodate the big contrast between light and dark. Go for the weakest light possible behind your artwork whenever working with underlit images.

Caroline Leaf, often referred to as a pioneer of sand animation, is shown here
working on her first sand film, The Owl Who Married a Goose.
Photos courtesy of Caroline Leaf.

When I am setting up for sand animation, I always look for glass, not plexiglass, on which to work. With friction and rubbing, plexiglass builds up static electricity, which makes the grains of sand jump around in a frustratingly independent way, particularly in dry climates like Montreal in the winter. The best glass I have found, though rare and expensive, is called flashed opal or milk glass. It is window thickness clear glass with one side of very thin white glass. It is often sold by large glass manufacturers supplying photography stores. Choose a piece of glass without bubbles in the white flashing and have the white side up when you work to avoid problems with reflections within the glass.

Maria Procházková
When I decided to realize an animated film on such a simple, matter-of-fact subject as traces, footprints, human touches and their passing character, I became perfectly aware of the fact that this film could not be a drawn one, and that the chosen animation technique should express the basic idea that I was trying to share a passing, transitory feeling, the feeling of the impossibility to preserve something. Within the small scale of this film, I hesitated between sugar and flour, but finally opted for sand, due to its beautiful color. Also, it does not imitate soil. On the contrary, it may be fixed for some period of time with water. For me, the sand was a very good material with which to work. I used a layer of about six centimeters thick in which I imprinted with small molds (printers). I sprayed the sand in short intervals with water so that its quality of looseness did not change, and simultaneously, in order to prevent the sand from turning more pale. I was careful not to get it darker due to excessive watering. The sand turned dry very quickly under the powerful film lights. I sometimes had to pour in water even during the individual shots, which constituted a big risk of moving the footprints already marked. I used a dense sieve for the sand used in close-ups so that this sand did not seem courser than the sand in the whole-shots. The aspect that I enjoyed most in this project was that everything was appearing directly under the camera and in the same way, was disappearing in subsequent shots, in order to give way to the creation of something new.

Sandman. © Eli Noyes.

Eli Noyes
The sand animation I did was back in the mid `70's when I made a short film from experiments I did under the animation stand I kept in my loft in New York. The experiments turned into a short film called Sandman. Then I convinced the Children's Television Workshop to let me make the entire alphabet, upper case turning into lower case letters, using sand animation and the little characters I invented when I did Sandman.

Tricks and tips? First I got my sand from an aquarium supply store. It came only in white so I sprayed it black so it would show up. Then I made a little sandbox out of strips of wood on a big piece of glass underlit with a light box. I experimented with all kinds of brushes, little squeegees, tools to manipulate clay with, etc. I found a medium stiff paintbrush the best tool for pushing the sand around to make my characters. The most useful tool was a simple invention made from a mayonnaise jar and some tubing from the fish store. One tube pierced the cover of the mayonnaise jar and went to the bottom of the jar. The other only went in an inch or so and had a sort of filter taped over it made from lens tissue. Sucking on the short one would allow me to use the longer one as a vacuum cleaner to pick up pieces of sand that couldn't be brushed away. That helped a lot when I wanted to make clean lines, or put white holes in dark shapes.

The most important thing for me was and still is to let the material I am working in speak to me and help me derive an aesthetic particular to it. The sand naturally makes certain shapes when you push it around. It tends to leave trails which can be of use if you don't try to fight them. I would say that a big dose of this philosophy would be a very useful cheat and tip for anyone wanting to work in sand. Experiment, and experiment to find your design.

Gerald Conn at work in his studio.
Courtesy of and © Gerald Conn.

Gerald Conn
I have been using sand in my animated films for about ten years. I prefer manipulating materials directly underneath the camera as I find this working method leaves room for greater spontaneity. To me the process seems similar to modeling forms in clay, where you are constantly adjusting and thereby improving on the image as you go along. I storyboard my films quite carefully and usually bar-chart the animation to music as this gives me a structure with which to work.

For me sand animation seems particularly suited to certain subject matter. I don't use many figures in my films but I like dealing with topics that involve animals and natural phenomena. I also like to include tracking and zooming shots in my films for dramatic effect. These shots have a particular quality in this technique because you are creating the imagery as you animate rather than it being a purely mechanical camera-move. I often use inks on a second layer of glass in order to combine color with the sand animation. It's difficult to do anything detailed in this way but I find that it gives the animation an extra dimension.

I would say the most important tip when working with sand is to use a thin layer of the material on the glass. This enables you to control the tonal quality of the image, which in turn will give the animation a greater sense of form. I personally prefer to work with a fairly course grade of beach sand. This gives the animation a grainy look that I like.

Paint On Glass

The Mermaid. © Alexander Petrov.
Alexander Petrov
In animation film, painting on glass is like painting on a canvas. My work deals with subjects like portraits, landscapes, and historical events in a realistic style. Painting on canvas is creating an idea with one subject. Animated films allow the possibility of finding multiple ideas; therefore, the themes grow larger, more detailed, and are more dynamic than paintings on canvas. This animation technique gives me wonderful opportunities for variations on a subject. I prefer working with living ideas, changing the details of the subject, and making transformations during the filming process.

I stick to a very strict art direction, and with my storyboard, I know where I need to arrive, but how can I get there? What will be the next scene? Every time, it's a surprise, good or bad. For example, in the film, Dream of a Ridiculous Man, there is, at the end of the film, this episode with the hero observing Hell. He looks down and sees a little man in his hands. When I was filming this scene, I didn't like the final, and the skin color of the little man bothered me. So, I decided to change the color of the skin for a white sculpture skin. With this changing, the little man, made of sand, could kill himself. The clay was falling through the hands of the hero, and leaving a sense of destruction. I found this symbol at the end of the film! That's what I like with this technique of painting on glass -- I can improvise with the subject.

I also prefer working with real people. In the film The Cow, I chose my son Dimitri for the role of the child. For Dream of a Ridiculous Man, the hero was my camera man Sergei Rechetnikov and in The Mermaid, I used some people from my neighborhood and again, my son Dimitri. It's essential to work with references because my work is realistic and I try to keep the real personalities in my characters. It is wonderful to paint people that I love.

When I'm doing an animation film, just like painting a picture, I let out my energy and my feelings in the colors. With the animation, I'm searching to express ideas, but I also try to find the harmony of life. This harmony I can find during the filming process with mistakes and successes. Step by step, I try to project the beauty, the force and emotions within the animated image.

Wendy Tilby used paint on glass for this Acme Filmworks commercial.

Wendy Tilby
Here are my "paint on glass tips `n' tricks" (which I have not necessarily followed):

1. Preserve your health and well-being by using non-toxic, non-smelly water-based paint such as Pelikan gouache mixed with glycerin.
2. Limit your palette. Too many colors quickly turn to mud!
3. Top or bottom? Top lighting will give your colors more brilliance while bottom lighting will mute them. Ask yourself if you would prefer to spend countless hours in a dark room under hot lights or countless hours in a dark room staring at a light table. If you choose bottom light, I would recommend color-balanced, non-flickering fluorescent tubes. Incandescent bulbs are too hot.
4. Use milky plexi-glass or opal glass.
5. Add and subtract paint with brushes, fingers, Q-tips (cotton buds), small sticks, strong tissue. Textures can be created with sponges, lace or rubber gloves with patterned grips.
6. Small field sizes (i.e. 5 to 7) are more manageable than big ones unless you are moving only parts of a larger tableau.
7. Paint on glass is very forgiving. In other words, if where you start and where you are going is clear, you can get away with a lot of fudging in between.
8. Don't treat each frame as though it's your last.
9. Never destroy your last frame until you've sketched in the next.
10. Paint on glass is ideal for metamorphosing, animated scene transitions, dream sequences and fish.

Eleanor "Ellen" Ramos
The Other Side of the Volcano is my very first attempt to animate by painting on glass. I cringe every time it is shown on the big screen. I cannot stop seeing every single frame and every single mistake I made. It was a totally risky adventure for me, one full of discoveries achieved through much pain and frustration.

I only stumbled upon the idea of using this technique when I read about Caroline Leaf's The Street. I was completely intrigued and immediately decided that I had to try it. It was only after I'd finished my piece that I had the opportunity to see one of her films, or any paint-on-glass animation for that matter. When I started working on my film, all I knew was how painstaking it would be and that I would need a lot of self-discipline, endurance and concentration, as well as an assistant who would tell me if I'd forgotten to click the camera.

First priority for me, was physical comfort. Aside from having a bed close by, I designed my own animation table so that my assistant Annabel and I could work face to face, comfortably sitting down, and with the trigger of the second-hand Bolex camera not too high for our fingers to reach. I decided to use a 10mm lens so that I could work with a 7 x 9 field in two levels. I had to content myself with only 6 inches to separate the two levels of glass, which sadly did not give me a chance to play with illusions of depth. I could also slide the upper glass to the side if I wanted to work on the lower glass.

I did some tests with inks, water-based paints and oil paint mixed with linseed oil. The tropical heat of the Philippines, however, is just so strong that aside from making me easily tired, almost every paint I tried dried much too quickly, except for the oil paint. Along the way, it became much easier for me to use it pure. To keep the paint wet as long as possible, I decided to use fluorescent lights for bottom lighting with a minus green correction filter. A wonderful side effect was that it made the room temperature quite bearable as well, since I couldn't afford an air conditioned room. Except for short coffee breaks, I had to work continuously to finish a scene or get to a point where I could make a quick transition. Otherwise, the paint dried and the scene would become dirty as I reworked it. I would really appreciate it if someone could share with me their secret of keeping the paint wet as long as possible because scraping off dry oil paint takes a lot of energy!

Although I made a storyboard, how the next scene would work was decided along the way. Sometimes, one second of transition would take me one entire day to accomplish. If I was hungry or not in the best of moods, the transitions became awkward and less imaginative.

My fingers, and the pointed edge of a nail file for scratching in lines, were the only tools I used. Sometimes, I used cardboard stencils for keeping the shapes and sizes of the figures consistent as they moved within the frame. I loved the texture of the oil paint made by my fingers and how the colors piled up and glowed with the brilliance that can only be achieved when lighting from below.

My producer Avic, Annabel and I labored over the film for more than seven months. Those who have seen The Other Side of the Volcano in international animation festivals say that it reminds them of "batik" art. I'm happy that even with its crudeness and imperfections, it somehow came out with an innate Asian look and feel. In making this film, I somehow felt a strong affinity with the Tibetan monks -- laboring over intricate colorful patterns in the sand, only to cast them away to the wind.

Lyudmila Koshkina
I work in the paint animation technique. The technique has a conventional name but every artist animates his painting and paints right in front of the camera in his own way. That is why I'd like to put aside the particularities of my own creativity and tell you about the technology created as a result of such painting. I use various methods, which are sometimes called mixed techniques, however, my pictorial stylistics unite all of these methods.

Paints will dry quickly and be opaque (non-transparent), so I usually work with natural tempera or synthetic paints with analogical qualities.

The general method of this technique is to work directly under the camera: one layout, or in-between, is overlaid by a layer of paint, depicting the following layout. As I overlay paints, I sometimes pass on using a cel and work, for example, on cardboard. However, experience shows that using cels sometimes not only helps to save one pains, but also encourages the artist to feel more free in his creative work.

Actually, one person bears all difficulties in the creation of a cartoon film made using such a method. The art-director-painter has to be an actor, because how the characters mimic emotions is a very important aspect and depends on the ingenuity of the painting, i.e. to be real psychological acting.

In addition to painting under the camera I use previously prepared in-betweens on cels and flat-figures (cut-outs). Plus, I also use the cel as glass.

It is very convenient to use previously prepared layouts when a character actively moves the shot, on pans or when wonderful or unique scenery (backgrounds) cannot be repainted with each character move. The prepared layouts (in-betweens) can also be used when a shot is to be used two or more times. Such in-betweens differ from regular in-betweens of a cartoon film because the paint is put on the face (obverse) side of the cel and is worked over there - i.e. the cel is used as a canvas, on which the artist draws a picture and works with it in the same way as a painter works with a fragment of his painting.

Work with flat-figures (cut-outs) has its own peculiarities. Flat-figures can be cut-outs in the form of phases of full movement cut out from the cel, such as a walk or a dance. If a character walks through the frame, but not on the pan, then they can be used. The flat-figure can also work as it usually does, but the painter-animator can draw on the cel under the camera the necessary details, like a facial expression, pleats or folds of cloth or a hand movement.

Certainly, we can only dream about a script which is especially written for this technique, but the general approach can be defined as psychological and lyrical. The scale of the relationships of the characters is different.

This technique is very good for close ups, which are very rarely used in animation. It is possible to make some elements less mobile. Assume that fairy or historical costumes with decorations, which are limited in movement but pleasant to look at, don't decrease the historical veracity of a simple scheme by using this technique. It also ensures that they do not contradict the flat coloring of other elements.

The time crunch of film production does not allow for an opportunity to achieve the quality of a finished oil-painted painting in each shot, but the painter strives for perfection in his own style. Every shot is more deep because of texture and the great variety of hues and colors. However, it leads to certain peculiar features of rhythm because it is necessary to let the audience study each picture. This allows us to shoot three frames for each image. Eyes accept such frequency even in shots with a large range of movement.

By all means, such work itself can be regarded as a process, where one has to solve current creative and technical tasks on each shot. I have really described only the main characteristics and features of this animation technique. It is impossible to speak about all the niceties and secrets in such a short survey, besides, plot can dictate certain particularities when developing a film concept.

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