Making the video 1: how it all works and papercutting

So by now you’ve have seen the video for “10,000 Letters of Love” and want to know how it was made. As I hinted before, the answer is long.

So, what you see when you watch the video is a real papercut scene with footage back-projected onto it. The footage is a mix of greenscreened (chroma keyed) live action (any characters, most of them played by me), computer-generated elements which I coded up in Processing (raindrops, bricks, Zeppelins, grass, etc) and a background cloud image which is a photo I took.

Ok, let’s talk about sets. Baby.

The projection screen

This is what it looks like: an ikea picture frame with some card pinned to it and and a bit of furniture clamped on for stability. It sure ain’t purdy. The paper sets go in front, either free or attached loosely with some spray mount, and the projector sits behind and, uh, projects.

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I’ve done some papercutting before, for the album sleeves, but these sets needed to be larger and more complex; luckily I only needed one of each, so they didn’t have to be quick to make like the albums. I was keen to create something out of one piece of paper, in the pop-up, 2.5D type arrangement. Not having to glue the sets would mean less chance for botching but also better structural stability.

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I used a Silhouette Cameo cutter and designed the cuts in their premium software – here is one of the designs (for the sewer Act 3):

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Black lines are cuts, red scores are “valley” (inward) folds and blue scores are “mountain” outward scores. You don’t have to colour code things but it makes it easier to keep track of what the hell’s going on. This is what it looks like all made up; all of these designs underwent various tweaks and revisions for style and stability, so it’s probably not quite the same as the one in the video:

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Ingrid Siliakus‘ work was a major inspiration here. Her paper architecture is breathtaking. I bought the book she contributed to, “The Paper Architect“, which has a series of designs that taught me the logic of the more complex popups. The basics of popup architecture are a (horizontally or vertically) folded piece of card or paper, with cuts in it so that an element folds out in the opposite way:

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Most popup is basically a variation on that. But how do you do approaching tunnels? And approaching stairs? And oblique stairs? How do you do a piece where linked elements have different depths and heights?

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It turns out that the last answer is “make sure that the position of every horizontal fold is self-consistent in both depth and height” – in other words, make sure all the bits it connects to are at the same depth and height as it is. This will either seem obvious or opaque to you, and is not always easy for someone whose internal spatial visualisation is as crap as mine. Studying this book helped me to figure out the rules – the first scene, the village, is inspired by Siliakus’ Hopi village. I didn’t use her design, but I definitely studied it in order to understand how and why it worked. It’s beautiful, too.

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(I like this black on yellow effect, but it’s hard to light – hence the yellow-on-yellow you see in the video).

I knew I had a series of scenes that made the story from the song, and broadly that’s what I ended up with. Act 1 is set in a village, it’s the only part of the song that doesn’t exclusively focus on Bazalgette, so I wanted it to be less grand, and a place where a peasant like me might have met him. Act 2 is meant to represent a lecture theatre or grand public space where Bazalgette is being “honoured and badged, imperial-style” (by which I meant “knighted” or “OBEd” or something else empire-y). Scene 3 is his nightmarish “labyrinth of brick” which I knew would be hard to do, as labyrinths are rather confined, traditionally.

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The final act was to be set on a beach, but instead I went for something like a pier, because (wo)manmade forms are easier and lend themselves to linear folds more. The tunnels and gates serve as transitions between acts.

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Working out how to realise these was hard. The village felt right, but underwent a major redesign to allow Bazalgette a scene within the buildings, instead of in the fields to the viewer’s left, which would have been visually repetitive.

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Originally, Act 2 was going to be set in something like a lecture theatre – I was thinking of the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford probably, where everyone graduates – but projection essentially has to go on behind the papercuts on a backing screen, or it’s not clear or bright enough to be visible, so I had to do a massive rethink. The theatre boxes seemed a good way to get a few characters in shot but was also in keeping with the opulence of the surroundings.

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At this point, I was starting to see motifs developing in the shapes I was using; the thin triangles in the village being vulnerable and quiet; the raindrop shape being tears and messages, but in Act 2 also reflecting opulence and grandeur; so I knew that Act 3 would have to be built from right angles and vertical bars to represent Bazalgette’s confinement and fear as he walks around this weird maze in a fever.

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This was probably the hardest bit. A labyrinth of brick is essentially an internal space, not accessible to the camera, and while I did think about creating a series of tunnels it would have got boring fast. It’s also an essentially 3D space and not amenable to the implied space of popup. The design I went for was inspired by the sewer junction in Batman Arkham Asylum; essentially structures meant to imply the carriage or restriction of water, with various access routes for engineers. The vast caverns of the mines of Moria in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of The Rings hinted at the idea I wanted – vast functional structures within vaster underground spaces.

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Except upside-down. That was tricky. After toying with shooting it right way up and flipping it in software, I realised that was way too hard and got busy with the spray mount. I don’t know why, but the viewer looking down upon an underground city would have given them a freedom that I didn’t want. Having a city of drooping stalagtites protruding from the roof felt more oppressive to me and maybe a bit more grand.

Next time: compositing and coding.

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