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Coronation Animation

Lucas Krech • Answer Box • February 4, 2014

A moment from the West Edge Opera’s 2013 production of L’Incoronatzione di Poppea, with pop art-style animations created in Studio Artist

A moment from the West Edge Opera’s 2013 production of L’Incoronatzione di Poppea, with pop art-style animations created in Studio Artist

Creating pop art animations for a production—no drawing skills necessary

L’Incoronatzione di Poppea is a stunning musical drama from the late-Renaissance/early-Baroque period. Set in the Roman empire it follows the intrigues of Poppea as her affair with emperor Nero evolves from simple tryst to her crowning as Empress of Rome. Our production at West Edge Opera set the show in an alternate-history 1962 where Nero and Poppea were conceived as JFK and Marilyn Monroe leaving their respective Jackie and Joe in the dust. 1962 is also the year pop art exploded on the world stage with Andy Warhol’s first major gallery show, introducing the larger world to Campbell’s Soup cans, among other classics. This was the wonderful and fertile ground in which I was tasked to design video projections. 

The set consisted of an 18-foot-by-10-foot white pop-art inspired sculpture upstage-right and a 10-foot-by-12-foot bed with a white canopy mid stage-left. Both sculpture and canopy were projection surfaces and provided their own technical challenges in terms of alpha masking and image mapping—but while the technical hurdles were many, the real challenge came in the form of creating the animated projections.

I drew heavily from the work of Warhol and Lichtenstein for my visual research and inspiration. This meant imagery would be cartoonish at times with heavy graphic lines throughout. And we wanted the images to move. I am great with software but not exactly the best cartoonist or painter. Hiring an animator was well outside our budget so it was left to the guy who can’t draw his way out of a paper bag to create moving animations. The solution came from a program called Studio Artist by Synthetik Software. 

The Studio Artist screen with original video footage in the upper-left, the Paint Action Sequence on the right.

The Studio Artist screen with original video footage in the upper-left, the Paint Action Sequence on the right.

Studio Artist differs from programs like Photoshop in that it uses source images to create digital artwork.  The program interprets the source image and actually lays down digital “brushstrokes” and “pen lines” to create the final image rather than a single-action Photoshop-style filter. Thus, one could take a snapshot (or video) with an iPhone and recreate the image in the style of oil, charcoal, pencil or watercolor through discrete brushstrokes. And because it is a repainting of another image it is resolution independent—meaning a VGA-quality video capture (640×480) could be uprezzed to 1080p with an increase in detail. In other words, using the program frees the designer from having to worry about the lighting, color or resolution of source files. All that can be overwritten with detail added inside the program. Knowing this, I took the plunge and captured my raw footage of Poppea using a pocket-sized video recorder with rather poor image quality and heavy compression under hideous rehearsal lights. 

I wanted the images of Poppea herself to be Warhol-esque silkscreens, à la the famous ones of Marilyn Monroe. This would involve layering animation effects in the final video. In Studio Artist the paint actions used to create a frame of animation are recorded and then played back via The Paint Action Sequence tool to combine a variety of user defined presets to create an entirely new look. I created the look I wanted and recorded a Paint Action Sequence that would play back, frame by frame over my low-res video, outputting animated video. The final step of each sequence was the Vectorizer tool, which converted the frame to stylized vector art so it could be outputted at the higher resolution I needed. The low image quality of my original footage was actually a bonus as the software moved fast and the output resolution was still full 1080p. 

Building Paint Actions Sequences with different painting tools created different pop art looks for different scenes and characters, all of which was rotoscoped into several hours of animated video projections. Thus, someone with middling drawing skills was able to create custom animations in the style of 1962 pop art. The same could, of course, be done for Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Matisse or whatever your production requires. I did a dance piece a while back with animated Renaissance style oil paintings as projections for example. This is a far superior solution than a typical “comic book effect” or “oil panting filter” in traditional video editing software as it can be uniquely tailored to the needs of your production. 

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