Topic: The Making of Johnny Thunder & The Orb of Waktu (THAC XVIII)
Okay, so we’re in for a long one! I don’t intend to break down the production of an animation this much again, but couldn’t resist for a THAC. This pretty much covers everything that went into it from conception to release.
Pre-THAC (tsk tsk tsk)
I came up with the plot in advance- it just sort of evolved out of seeing a Star Wars Cantina Band electro remix in my youtube recommended. As I'd used a piano version in the Explorer Bar before, I thought maybe they'd be playing the electro version in the future. Everything else stemmed from that bar scene. Ironically, it would be the one scene I could get away with cutting from the final video.
With this idea in mind, I started building bare bones sets that I could adapt with the mod element on the day. O helped put these together and was responsible for the 'car'- a kit bash between the one from Agents 'Turbocar Chase' (8634-1) and the Ninjago 'Katana V11' (70638-1), with a few propellors yoinked from Atlantis.
To have the cast reprise their roles without being called upon at some ungodly hour, I got as much recorded in advance as possible. In previous years, I've noticed my voice acting ability can take a sharp plunge after 20 hours of animating, so I recorded my own lines too.
THAC Begins! (12:00)
When I heard the theme I couldn't believe it- 'change' fit so perfectly I didn't even require any rewriting. I'd been conceptualising possible tweaks to different words for days. Obviously it was pretty pointless- I'd never come up with a version for every word in the English language- but I couldn't stop myself thinking about it. For the first hour, I applied the mod element and other finishing touches to the sets with the help of Lucy.
Shot 1- Outside The Temple (13:03)
For the first shot, I raised the mountains on a pile of books to get the van the low enough. This also gave me a first test of my new (very very bright) lamp. I'll admit, I may have rushed the setup a little and the lamp may be a little overpowering…
This is only the second animation I've used DragonFrame for and after a month's gap, it took me a little while to get back in the flow. To save time, I shot at 24 on 2's and discovered that unlike my old software, DragonFrame actually takes 2 separate frames with a short time delay between them. This posed potential problems when the setup wasn't very stable or I had a handheld torch. On a few occasions, I had to swap the order of the two frames, like when a loose minifigure tipped forwards slightly between frames when he was supposed to be moving backwards. In the end, it looked a lot better than the old 12fps videos I used to make. I might go back to that as my go to, as 24fps has been really time consuming this past year or so.
Shot 2- Into The Temple (13:34)
I didn't plan for shooting this angle when I built the set, so had to hide the fact the stairs just ended with a bit of black cloth- ideally it would look like light was coming from the stairway, but that wasn't possible.
Stupidly, I’m still using the same LED torch with dreadful battery life; the flicker is caused by it running low. I had to wait a while to let it recharge, so took the opportunity to put out the casting call for background bar people. Shout out to HazyDayFilms and Guss Griswold who provided. Sorry it was all but lost in the edit, but I guess that’s kinda the point.
Shot 3- Snake In The Shadows (14:47)
I wasn't happy with this shot and planned to come back to it if I had time. I intended it to be closer in, just showing the glint of the blade in the light
Shot 4- Snakes Dive Down (14:56)
When I first envisioned this scene, the snakes would have just had slope bricks for legs, but I decided to make them feel more like tails by stacking a load of different plates. It added a bit of extra time to animate, but was definitely worth it.
I hadn't planned the fight out at all, I just knew how it had to end. This is my normal mode of operation and something I should probably change if I actually want some good fight choreography.
I had the idea for Thunder shooting straight through a snake giving a few frames of you seeing through the hole in its abdomen. In the final video it’s all a bit quick and too low down in frame to notice unless you’re looking out for it.
Now comes the ever present challenge- how do you attack the main character without actually causing them serious harm? For my early animations, I planned nothing, so if a character got into a situation where they would logically get killed, that's what had to happen. Unfortunately, that sort of spontaneity doesn't necessarily breed a good story. In this case, the snake inexplicably chopped the barrel off Thunder's shotgun. The barrel that falls down is actually a snapped spade piece- never get rid of broken parts, you'll never know when they'll come in handy!
Another point I'd like to note about this shot is the struggle to not have it go by too fast. When there are multiple armed figures trying to kill each other, it's all too easy to have them constantly striking, which is impossible to follow. I haven't quite got the pacing down yet, but things like the snake pulling itself up to full height before swinging the blade definitely helped.
Shot 5- From Shooting Sword to Leaving The Temple (16:54)
To end the fight, I had to somehow get Thunder over to the orb and temporarily dispatch of the remaining snake. Having him shoot the sword to the other side of the room and then have the gun jam did the job. Hardly 5 star screenplay, but not too contrived, hopefully.
Turns out the snake moves pretty fast across the room, so to keep it down long enough for Thunder to pick up the orb, I had to knock it out with a well aimed throw of the gun. This also had the benefit of properly disarming Thunder, which was convenient for later. Having the pedestal between Thunder and the snake meant I could achieve the throw without needing any masking down the line- always a good time saver.
I made the orb sound effect in advance by layering a few random things and applying a good bit of reverb. The flash was done just with a handheld torch, but it worked surprisingly well, especially in the later shot where it has some lovely golden edges to it.
For the title sequence, I made use of my lovely new industrial lamp. I put the orb directly on the lamp's surface and whacked the camera down to minimum gain and exposure to give it a nice glowy effect.
I'd built the temple set with giving it a crumbled rework in mind. Sprinkling a light bit of sand over the floor really helped sell the look. For those of you who need reminding- stick down all loose parts so they don't shift about! I forgot to bluetack one section of rubble in this shot and you can see it jittering about a bit.
You'll spot a couple of skeletons lying around- one of the shotgunned snake and the other of Kilroy. Then again, maybe you won't. Thunder sure didn’t. At this point, it's not supposed to be clear whether he's travelled through time, or the orb just caused some sort of explosion. It would be interesting to see at when most audience members worked out he'd been sent to the future.
The absent 2nd snake opens up certain questions- did it abandon its post as temple guard once the orb was stolen? At one point I was thinking of giving it a cameo appearance in the bar. In the end, I decided it would just be a wasted opportunity as there would be no time for a proper interaction between the snake and Thunder, especially given he's not yet aware of the time that's passed. Honestly, that would be one of the main reasons to make a post-THAC extended edition, not that I plan to do such a thing.
Shot 6- Back Outside The Temple (18:30)
Similar to the Kilroy skeleton, I wanted to (somewhat) subtly hide the fact that Thunder is dead wrong and has actually been transported to the future. The top of the truck can be seen poking out of the sand, although it kinda gets lost against all the rock, given it's just another grey shape in the periphery.
Originally, Thunder was supposed to fall straight off after failing to climb down, but it was funnier (and easier) to have him bounce off a load of the steps on the way. This was an occasion where shooting on 2's paid off. There's one frame of motion blur where the bluetack just came loose. Lovely stuff.
Dinner Break (19:08)
Man can't work on an empty stomach!
Shot 7- 'Car' Approaches (19:25)
I'd been searching for a sufficiently large orange background in the hours before the start. In the end I found this bivi bag. I tried pegging it out to remove the creases, but they were still very much present when it came time to animate with it. Ah well.
It was at this point that I had to coat my table in sand. I have two pots of the stuff and fortunately there was enough of the nice sand that I didn't have to dip into the less aesthetic stuff.
The idea was to make the 'car' look like it was coming from much further away than the length of my table would allow. I tried to start off slow and steadily accelerate it to hopefully give the impression of travelling a greater distance.
Shot 8- Asking For A Lift (19:37)
Okay, I know it's ridiculous asking for a lift when the 'car' is clearly still so far away. I was considering putting this shot partway through the next shot once the 'car' had pulled up, but then you'd have 2 shots back to back of the car travelling over the same bit of desert- not an improvement.
Shot 9- ‘Car' Pulls Up (19:47)
I kept forgetting to spin those blades! Hopefully no one picked up on that
Shot 10- ‘Car’ to Bar (20:09)
Shot 10 starting set
The 'car' had to pull away down the length of the table rather than the width, or the background would look too close. I had to shift the cliffs over to my side of the table and wrap the orange sheet as far around as it could go. Ideally the cliff shouldn't have just ended abruptly, but I'd run out of bricks. Luckily it's hidden behind the 'car' and the camera moves fast enough that it doesn't look too odd.
After the first few frames of the car pulling away, it transitions to a second set with a TV screen as the background. I stepped through the TV footage frame by frame, then moved over to the future city set. The footage on the screen consisted of two bits of video where I dragged the camera across the set fast enough to cause a load of motion blur. Between that, I hacked together a warp transition thing by applying a few effects to the 'JO Co' intro Motion file (and hiding the text, of course). I tried to roughly match the colours at the beginning and end of the warp to the footage on either side, but struggled a little as the sleep deprivation started to set in. The biggest issue for pulling this off was the transitions between real and screen sets. I feel like the start worked fine but I had to cheat and use some bloom on the end one as the camera angle really didn't line up.
Originally, Thunder was supposed to stay in the car and get booted out as it drove off again, hence the line "Yeah maaaan, get ouuuuut". When I started doing the jerk from the sudden stop, it just seemed obvious to me that he'd go flying over the bonnet instead. I forgot to spray water on the car until a few frames in, so it looks a little odd. Hopefully people assumed it just dramatically started raining when he hit the deck.
Wet plastic and bluetack don't mix, so I had to stand Thunder on a plate to keep him upright. Fortunately I didn't need his feet to be visible in shot. I intended the 360° camera spin around Thunder to be dramatic and hopefully make viewers realise he’s in the future. Unfortunately, it zooms by way too quick and you really can’t take any of it in. Such a shame.
Shot 11- Thrown Out of Bar (23:52)
The future city set was beneath a huge curtainless window, so it was vital to finish with it before dawn. As such, I skipped the bar and went straight on to Thunder being thrown out.
The orb was supposed to be thrown out after him, but I forgot until I'd closed the door. I realised that rather than redoing the last few frames, it would be funnier if they just lobbed it straight through the glass, so that's what happened. I had to dry out the door to get the bluetack on the glass shards to stick. After that, I decided to scrap the rain for this shot- it was too slow and too much hassle.
I was trying to work out the quickest and clearest way to let Thunder know he’d traveled to the future. I settled on just having a very obvious new year announcement. The fancy text was done using my phone screen and changing picture every frame. I bashed the text sequence together in Motion 5 and exported it to individual images the night before. Given how long the export took, I’d have had to just stick with a single frame of text if I hadn’t prepped.
PS. Thunder should have counted to 80 years, present day is 2012 for him as it has to take place before he lost his leg in the video from 2015.
Shot 12- Back to The Past (00:52)
I have the contemporary city built up in the corner of the loft, with the roof sloping just above. These days, I usually shift whatever section I need over to my nice table where I don't need to contort myself into a corner. Alas, my table was covered in sand, the other space I'd set aside had the future city all wired up, and I had no time for clearance.
All in all, the whole setup was a bit haphazard. If you noticed the weird exposure change for Kilroy at the end of the video, that was my tiredly incompetent crack at saving in the edit after I knocked the lamp.
Shot 13- Into The Bar (04:07)
Shot 13 smoke setup
I really wanted the future bar to look like it had actually changed somewhat in 80 years. My attempt at future chairs was pretty lame and the jukebox could easily have been as old as the piano it replaced. Automatic sliding doors have been commonplace for decades (although not usually to the toilets) and space age colourful lights have been around even longer. Obviously the bar patrons were a completely different breed, but they merely populated the set. I tried one last thing to adjust the tone- smoke! I lit an incense stick and placed it under my desk with a grated surface. The smoke drifted up through the cracks between baseplates and successfully populated the set. However, while this may have looked quite cool as a single frame, it was frankly a bit of a mess in motion. The smoke was far too inconsistent and moved way too fast. I got through 3 sticks and gave up.
This shot is technically split into 2 as I didn't think I had time to show Thunder walking all the way. In the end, the cut only saved me about 3 frames, but at least it freed me from tiredly messing up the camera move.
Shot 14- Behind The Bar (06:40)
I have no idea why the smoke was so much more apparent this side of the counter. I didn't even move the incense stick. The background is far darker than would make sense from the previous shot, but I wanted to add a bit of atmosphere. It helped make the bar patrons less obvious and a little more sinister as they get into position.
Shot 15- From Side to Behind Bar (07:28)
To emphasise the bunch of bar patrons ganging up on Thunder, I had to keep them out of shot until the reveal, so I cut away at the point I felt the previous shot was feeling stale. This had the added benefit of saving a load of time animating 11 background characters. Looking back, the camera move looks a bit rough, but that’s what happens when you’re 20 hours in…
Shot 16- Close on Thunder (08:13)
I’ll admit, this was a kinda weak shot to wrap up production on, it felt quite anticlimactic. I am pleased with how it turned out though. I’ve had Thunder pull his hat off many times over the years and it’s always nice to see I’m doing better than 5 years ago.
Never have I had a project so set up without a single animation file. I even had background ambience for each set ready to fit to the final shot lengths. I’d like to say it was as simple as dropping the footage in, but it was a little more involved than that. Still, saved me many valuable minutes. O was willing to send in a few extra lines to fill in any gaps. Unfortunately the different audio setup between the two recording sessions is pretty noticeable, so I had to limit it to mostly a few grunts and exclamations.
Upload Begins… (11:20)
I tried compressing the export with minimal quality loss but managed to increase the file size somehow in my sleep deprived state. Oops. Given the lack of time remaining, I was forced to upload the uncompressed version (232 whole Megabytes- I know, so large...)
Link Sent (11:42)
I am so glad YouTube has added link sharing before the upload is finished. I might have been screwed without it.
Upload Complete! (12:03)
Damn internet. I really should know better by now, I’m aware it’s always tight for time yet this was my worst year for it.
The Post-THAC Aftermath
Over the rest of the day, between napping and binging the other entries, I managed to produce a proper thumbnail and transcribe the subtitles. I don’t know if anyone turns the captions on, but I provide them, all the same.
At the grand unveiling of the results, when WillowTree was announcing who they would be giving out the prizes to, a most unexpected and peculiar event transpired. It looks like my ambition paid off because I discovered that my new THAC entry had achieved third place! At first I thought this had to be a misunderstanding, perhaps a case of mistaken identity, or even a divine intervention! But no, this unlikely alliance between fate and fortune is what really happened! I'm glad I took the opportunity to enter and didn't have to change much from the original idea. Who knows what could have been lost in transition over to fit the theme. I guess that's the end then, I better crack on and make a fresh start on my next brickfilm.
(Yes, I just included every past THAC theme in that last paragraph. Yes, it absolutely does make the message more convoluted. No, I'm not sorry)