Tim Burton Exhibition

MoMA Short Video

The making of Tim Burton’s MoMA promo.

Original Tim Burton SketchTo help promote a major exhibition of Tim Burton's work at the Museum of Modern Art New York, Mackinnon & Saunders produced a 30 second promo film designed by Tim Burton and featuring a stop motion robot and CGI balloons to spell out the MoMA initials. This blockbuster exhibition has since been showcased at TIFF Toronto, ACMI Melbourne, LACMA Los Angeles, La Cinematheque Francaise, Paris and SemA, Seoul.

Tim quickly came up with a concept utilising his favourite medium of stop motion animation and asked Allison Abbate, his producer for Corpse Bride (2005) and the upcoming Frankenweenie if she could help pull things together.  “Tim had suggested Mackinnon and Saunders to create the puppet character for the spot,”  says Abbate, “and when they volunteered to shoot the animation too that seemed like a logical choice too.” 

Company heads Ian Mackinnon and Peter Saunders pick up the story, “It was of course something we were delighted to be involved with.  The company’s relationship with Tim has always been a pleasurable one taking in Mars Attacks (1995) and Corpse Bride (2003).   For the promo Tim had designed a cute and quirky little robot character whose job was to inflate four typically Burtonesque balloons spelling out the MoMA logo.  The whole premise sounded very simple, until we found out the timescale, we had just three weeks to create the character, the balloons, animate them and get the footage out to Los Angeles for post production.”

MoMA Robot SculptMackinnon continues, “Tim was very keen for whole piece to be rendered in stop motion. For the robot character this wasn’t so much of a problem, Joe Holman, one of our lead sculptor/designers broke all records to get the character fully sculpted and broken down into his constituent elements, head, body, arms, legs ready for moulding.”  “Because I was essentially trying to bring Tim’s drawings to life,”  says Holman, “The speed of turnaround actually helped me visualize the energy and immediacy of his designs.”

Flix Facilities MoMA BalloonsAt the same time the problems of creating the illusion of four balloons being inflated in stop motion was being addressed.  “The first thing we did was buy some large foil balloons and blow them up just to see what dynamics we were dealing with.  We considered creating actual rubber balloons and inflating them with helium and shooting them time lapse but in such a short time if we hadn’t got it right first time we would miss the deadline,”  says Mackinnon.  The team also considered replacement animation, a technique whereby each stage of a balloon’s inflation would be rendered as a separate model.  “Again time was against us and there was no way we could produce the literally dozens of stages we’d need in time.” adds Saunders,  “For all these reasons we decided to go with CG for the balloons and called our friends at Flix Facilities to create a test shot of the 3D balloons for us.”

Lead CG artist Simon Partington took up the challenge. 

Within a day he had a beautiful bobbing balloon for us to see, it was gorgeous”  says Mackinnon, “A bit too gorgeous.  It didn’t have that quirky stop motion feel that Tim was looking for so we asked Simon to try again.”  Sculptor/ Designer Noel Baker quickly produced plastercine sculpts of the balloons and painted them to match Burton’s designs.  These were then photographed and shipped over to the Flix team. “We reproduced the shape of Noel’s fantastic sculpts as closely as possible in CG.” explains Partington, “We then took Tim’s actual drawings and textured them onto the balloons before adding some of the same imperfections such as fingerprint detail that Noel had deliberately left on his sculpt. This all helped to recreate the sense of realism that stop motion provides.” 

Flix CGI team with MoMA letters.Over the course of two days Partington and his team nailed down a technique that not only gave the light fluffy feel of big rubber balloons but also had the slightly staccato feel of stop motion.   The tests were rushed over to Burton who was deep into post production on his present feature, Alice in Wonderland.  “There was a huge sigh of relief when Tim gave the thumbs up, in all honesty I don’t know how we’d have got this done in time without the Flix team’s work,” MacKinnon smiles.

MoMA Robot Arm CastMoMA Robot Head AdjustmentWork on the robot puppet was also now moving apace.  Lead puppet makers Caroline Wallace and Richard Pickersgill completed mould making and cast out body parts in fibre glass, rubber and silicone whilst at the same time constructing the intricate metal skeleton which fits inside the puppet and enables it to hold any pose during the animation process. 

“Typically a puppet character can take anywhere between 12 a 18 weeks to produce,”  says Pickersgill, “But Tim’s design leant itself to a very economical build and we put the puppet together in just ten days, probably something of a record!”  A sentiment Wallace agrees with, “Tim is a pragmatist when it comes to these things, he knows stop motion inside out and he knows how to create a great design that isn’t going to break the bank in terms of time and money.” 

Richard Pickersgill and MoMa RobotStill time was ticking and Pickersgill only completed the final paint job 24 hours before photography was due to begin.  “As he was a bit of a beat up looking little fellow I decided to add streaks of rust around joints and arms.  We sent pictures off to Tim and the only change he made to remove the rust so there was an eleventh hour (literally!) repaint.”  Pickersgill chuckles, “I think the paint was possibly still tacky when we put him on the set!”

With the delivery deadline only 4 days away lighting cameramen Martin Kelly and animator Chris Tichborne took over.  “Our set was very simple,”  says Kelly, “Tim wanted the robot and the balloon against a flat grey background.  It was great because it further emulated the look of his original pen and ink drawings on a plain sheet of paper. I used mostly bounced light to create a softness whilst introducing enough modelling to pick up the surface details.”

Animating the MoMa RobotTichborne had perhaps the toughest end of the shoot, with no time to rehearse it was straight in at the deep end, “We had three days to shoot the whole piece and my first take had to be right.  I’d spent a day the previous week videoing myself performing the robot part.  You feel a bit silly but Neil Sutcliffe who edited the footage into his animatic was very kind, he didn’t laugh too much!” Even for such a short piece Tichborne tried to cram in as much in as he could “Richard and Caroline had included a hinge top to the robot’s head which bobs open and closed as he walks.  I also had in my mind Charlie Chaplin when the robot walked, not directly copying him but more just how he would create an idiosyncratic walk.”

Testing MoMA ballon rendersCG lead Simon Partington was on set the whole time doing test composites of the balloons and the animation just to make sure everything was lining up in terms of lighting and the timing of the dynamics.  “The CG and Stop Motion animation had to be delivered simultaneously; there would be no time to fix things later so we were literally doing the CG renders and the animation at the same time.  Seeing it come together shot by shot was fantastic!”

Finished MoMA Robot

Although the shoot took three long days over a weekend the team’s experience and preparation paid off and the shoot went off without a hitch. The precious footage was beamed off via a high speed data link ready for Tim Burton to oversee final post in Los Angeles.

“Tim and the folks at MoMA seemed very pleased with the results,” says Ian Mackinnon, “It was a great little project to have been involved with and we hope the audiences at MoMA like it too!”