At Northstar Arts, we’re always encouraged to think beyond the simple parameters of a budget or skill set and really dream big on projects and artistic illustrations for our services. We think big first and ask questions later. If it ends up truly feeling out of reach, we let it go. But you’d be surprised how often the impossible projects make it. So many ideas get ruled out because of doubt about the great deal of ingenuity God gifts us with.

A couple of months ago we had the idea to create a short video for the members of our church to use to post on the Facebook walls of friends as an invite to our Christmas services. It was a fresh way to recreate the all-too-familiar invite card that we frequent from series to series. The idea then arose to make the quintessential stop-motion cartoon (with characters crafted from clay) like those so prevalent in classic Christmas TV.

Some of us were sold on the idea from the very start and were sure it could be done. Others of us remained unconvinced until the final frames were rendered. We began pre-vis and conceptualization in late October. Nathan, our DP, was very excited about the project (being a huge stop-motion geek), but was unsure about animating for the first time, so we began with what we knew we could handle: puppets.

We were able to get some pointers from a couple professionals on types of clay to use for such a project. We ended up making a trip to a local arts and crafts store and picking up a few blocks of Van Aken modeling clay, a posable drawing figurine and some cheap plastic sculpting tools. 

We sculpted heads and bodies on homemade wire frames as we found time over the next week or so. They progressively got more and more realistic until we eventually reverted to a more cartoonish caricature of our Lead Pastor, Marty Martin. The body we ended up going with was a very lanky rendition with blue jeans and a double-breasted cross shirt (typical pastor attire, you know).

One of the biggest obstacles we faced with the clay was that it tended to get a little grimy from oily fingers and lent and such. The figure we ended up using in the end was probably our cleanest model (of which there were a total of 3 completed Marty Martin dolls).

Designing for the set came closer to the middle of production. We knew from our conceptual drawings that we wanted it to feature a snowy evening park feel. Christmas trees were a given, and we were able to procure most of the materials from Walmart and other arts and crafts stores.

We began construction on the set around the middle of November. The bulk of it was made on top of an old dry erase board and held together with hot glue. The final ended up being changed from a panoramic feel to a more depth-centered landscape with smaller trees added to the background to evoke distance.

When we returned from the Thanksgiving holiday, we began working in the preliminary stages of animation. Nathan did some research about a software called “DragonFrame” and decided it was really the best bet for what we were trying to accomplish.

The challenge was finding a room big enough to house the set, as well as the green screen we would be shooting in front of. We ended up commandeering the stage green room for a week during the filming phase. The heat from the lights also presented a challenge, being both uncomfortable and also hazardous to the soft molding clay, so fans were brought in to relieve the room of some of the extreme temperatures.

Additionally, we were faced with the near impossible task of obtaining a voiceover recording of Marty without Marty fully understanding what it was for. Our goal was to keep the video a secret and surprise him with the finished product. Thankfully, he was compliant and ended up delivering an even better performance than we could have possibly asked for, and all without asking too many questions!

Nathan filmed for the better part of a week leading up to the release. The due date was set for early December, which would give people an appropriate amount of time to plan, while being as effective as possible within the video’s brief shelf life. As one might imagine, filming a stomo of this size involves capturing hundreds of frames with a camera while making small changes to a figure or a stationary set. If normal film is recorded at 24 frames per second, a 30 second video with 15 seconds of motion was going to take close to 400 individual photos edited together. The software made it a lot easier with a control pad and easy playback capabilities, but the task was tedious, to say the least.

Over the course of the next few days, Nathan would return to the Media offices with a wounded or misshapen Marty and we would have to patch him up and place him in the staff refrigerator for an hour or so in order for him to recover from the intense heat of the filming lights.

Once principal photography was complete, the film was colored and rough edited, and we began work on animating the mouth. We knew it would be a task beyond our time and skill level to craft hundreds of mouth shapes and interchange them for individual vowel and consonant sounds, so we opted for the popular method of digital animation. Justin, one of our designers drew up a few mouth shapes and we went to work on matching mouths with sounds the best we could. Among the last steps were to add logos and text, finish sound design and replace our green screen with something more Christmas appropriate.

The final product can be viewed above or here!

We hope this blog has been most educational for you, and furthermore, we hope you are encouraged as a creative. If you or your organization is looking to do a project like this in the future, please don’t hesitate to leave a comment or a question below. We would happy to assist in any way we can. Enjoy.