The making of "The Act of Breathing"

This is a diploma film I made at Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design.  My primary aim was to combine dance and animation.  I dance as an amateur, and I thought about the way in dance how breathing is so closely connected to our bodily movements, and I wanted express that in the film.  I also chose plastic as the main material because of its abstract forms as well as its organic nature.  

In this article, I wanted to record and share mainly the preproduction and production part of the project and explain technically how we did it because I think it’s quite unique.  The whole process was mixture of exhausting and exhilarating, devastating and hilarious, eye-opening and mind-blowing experiences.  And I am ever thankful for those who were involved in making the film because everyone was disciplined professional with dignity and great ideas.  I was so fortunate to work with them and the film was created with team effort in all aspects.  

Initial idea phase

I didn’t start with a storyboard with this film.  First I started to experiment with different kinds of plastics to see what they look like and how they behave under the camera.  I tried animating them too.

I animated different kinds of plastic to see what worked well.

I animated different kinds of plastic to see what worked well.

And I also wanted to see bodies and plastic sheets together, so I asked my dance colleagues and we had several sessions of “dancing with plastic sheets”.

Christa and Adri dancing with plastic sheets

Christa and Adri dancing with plastic sheets

Through these experiments, I became interested in the following:

  • Animating plastic sheets

  • Time-lapsing plastic sheets

  • Pixilation with plastic sheets

  • Dancing body with plastic sheets shot in slow-motion and reversed

  • The lighting on plastic sheets (for all techniques)

The story gradually emerged once I started to think how I could combine these different filming techniques.  I made a small mock-up stage and I took photos of it to create storyboard instead of drawing because sketching plastic sheet was rather difficult. I wanted the movement of the body to be the focus of the film, and my next challenge was to bring those different film techniques mentioned above to be somehow sewed together with the flow of the movements.   I should mention that at the initial stage of the project, I also wrote my thesis, which was about dance films and how dance movements could be expressed in films and animation.  The research on dance films helped me very much to understand what I wanted to do with my film.  The article is called “From Dance to Animation: Transforming Physical Motion” and can be found on Academia.edu.

The “Ghost” was born

There was one scene in the film I wasn’t sure at all how to technically make it happen.  I wanted an upright, pixilated dancing body to be in the middle and on both sides the transparent plastic sheets to move in the same way as the body, but they would be empty. 

Storyboard image of pixilated body in the middle with empty ghosts on both sides.

Storyboard image of pixilated body in the middle with empty ghosts on both sides.

I consulted this scene with Milan Kopasz (animation director), and he suggested that we make a transparent puppet underneath the plastic sheet, and we could manipulate the puppet somehow.  He also mentioned that there was a way to make a cast of a body with transparent packaging tapes, and so that was the next thing we tried out.

The cast of the body looked amazing with lights, and with the plastic sheets on top as well.

The cast of the body looked amazing with lights, and with the plastic sheets on top as well.

The Ghost

The Ghost

The next question was how to manipulate the puppet. First we thought of wiring the joints and make a sort of life-size armature.   However, this turned out to be very difficult because the body parts were too soft to hold the weight of other parts of the body.  Another problem arose that since the puppet was placed underneath a plastic sheet, when we animated the puppet, we needed to remove the plastic sheet for every single shot.  I tried reinforcing the parts which were holding weights, but after a few weeks of trial, it was clear that we needed a different solution.

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The next idea was to use a marionette method.   This way, it became much easier to move the body parts in precise way, as well as we didn’t need to remove the plastic sheets for each shot. Milan came up with the mock-up of the puppet, and it worked beautifully, so we decided to take on the challenge of making a life-size marionette puppet.  

Stop-motion with “Blob”

Meanwhile, I started to work on other parts of the film, too.  I animated the “blob” (that’s what Balazs Varju Toth, the DOP, and I called this little mass of plastic sheets) and I struggled with that a lot because unlike clay, a bundle of plastic sheets didn’t like staying still and kept moving with its natural spring force.  

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For this part, mostly I attached fishing lines on several parts of the blob and pulled them to animate it. With this method, the movement was unpredictable compared to animating a wired armature, but I discovered that I like working this way that I’m not completely in control of the subject that I’m animating. More figurative part of the scene was done with wire figures covered with plastic sheets.  The challenge of that was, I had to lift the covering plastic sheet up to animate the puppet in every shot.  

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This process created an effect on the covering plastic sheet which differentiated the look from other blob scenes, and I liked that. The plastic sheets caused another difficulty that it was very hard to light it.  It reflected lights in unexpected ways and once the blob moved to a different position, it either looked overexposed or underexposed and this gave Balazs a hard time.  Because of these uncertainties, this part of the shooting was like the continuation of previous experiments, but this time we were shooting for real. We went on like this over a month including most of the weekends in the concrete heat of the summer, over 40 degrees in the darkness with plastic sheets sticking to our sweaty bodies. When we felt we were going nuts, we took a break and played ping pong.  

Thoughts on plastic

One evening, I was waiting for Balazs to come to do another shot for the day, I opened all the windows and I just lied down on the stage on top of the plastic sheet.  I closed my eyes and listened to the shuffling of plastic sheets around me, and it was just like being on a beach.  I could hear the ocean murmuring and it was so easy to transform myself into this peaceful sunset beach.  One thing I understood through working with plastic sheets was that they mimic nature in such uncanny manner.  This aspect was reflected in the visual and sound design in my film.  The way it moved with its springing force or with some movement of air, it resembled some beautiful creature from a sea world. I sometimes felt like we were shooting a nature film especially when we were shooting time lapse shots.  It is very ironic because plastic is a man-made artificial object and yet it can look so much like a creation of god.  I wasn’t surprised to learn that plastic contains polymer which exists in our DNA. I didn’t mean to make a point of environmental issues in this film, but having worked with it intensely, I now look at plastic in a slightly different way. The reason why people throw away plastic so easily is because we think it’s cheap and worthless.  It’s not quite correct to portray plastic as the “bad and evil” for the nature like most of the media do nowadays because the real problem is that the fact we throw them away into the nature.  I think if we see different values in plastic, we may start treating it differently.  

Controlling a human size marionette

Milan and I continued the development of the Ghost.  We made a device called “controller” which controlled the puppets movements by pulling and releasing the strings. 

The controller

The controller

This device was different from the normal marionette puppet’s control because for us to animate the puppet, it needed to be still while we shot. Therefore, on our controller we made it so that each string could be easily fixed in one position by screwing down the bolt.  The controller had to be placed quite away from the puppet itself so not to be in the way of the camera. Fundamentally it worked wonderfully, but I needed to adjust the joints of the puppet to make the movement closer to the human’s, and it took a long time until the puppet moved the way I wanted to.  The real shooting felt like a tight rope walking because we went through more than 500 frames in one go.  

The structure of the marionette

The structure of the marionette

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The shooting of Ghost at art quarter budapest

Pixilation

Pixilation part was done by me. I had this costume which made me look like a Michelin man, and on top I had the plastic sheet over me.  I covered the whole of my face with white ski mask, so all I saw was white, and I could hear shuffling of plastic sheet close to my ears, and I heard the voices of Milan and Balazs far away instructing me to put my arms higher, and so on.  The longest shot was more than 500 frames, and it was physically one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.  

Live dance shooting

I asked Gabriella Batho to be the dancer in the film, and she did a wonderful job.  We did several rehearsals to check how the body movements and plastic sheets could look good with lights.  

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The ending scene was shot in a studio where the ceiling was 7- meter high to drop the plastic sheet on Gabi in a wide shot. The ceiling had no structure, so we put a fishing line across and slid the plastic sheet to the middle, and then tried to drop it by shaking the string, but it wasn’t working well.  We tried blowing the sheet with electric fan as well, but the landing of the sheet was not accurate.  In the end, we ended up holding the corners of the plastic sheet and swung the sheet up in the air while we blew it upwards with the electric fan to reach enough height. To do this, we needed at least 5 people, so the production manager, the gaffer, the camera assistant all had to join in.   It was a very difficult task to coordinate, but the huge plastic sheet flying in the air looked spectacular beyond words.

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