Thursday, March 10, 2011

What I learned about Agile, I learned through stop-motion ...

I love Regina Spektor – her music really is very quirky and unique.  So when I first listened to her album Far, there was one song which really stood out for me – The Calculation.

It's a lovely, light and breezy track, one of those songs I listen to and visualise in my head.

At the time I was tinkering a lot with stop motion videos, and decided to build one for this song as a project.  It was a huge project for me to undertake, but I learned a lot putting it together – and the result, if not a huge internet sensation is something I've watched and enjoyed again and again …

This was in February 2010 – and at the time I knew little of the whole “Agile” methodology.

Looking back on it, I realise how the project shared some attributes of good Agile and software project management …

So what were they?  I'm going to talk about them one at a time.

Start with a good idea

Basically I wanted to bring the lyrics of Regina's song to life.  I wanted to tell the story of love between two people.

In my collection of models/toys my most pose-able figures are a Barbie doll and a C3PO doll.  They would be my “couple” - which would fit nicely into Regina Spektor, because she's a bit quirky, and love between a girl and a robot is a bit unconventional.

Break into bits

People watch the whole video and go “wow that's amazing how did you do it?”.  The answer is it's not one movie – it's actually 37.

Basically I sketched out my script ideas on a printed sheet of lyrics, and blocked it into 37 sequences or shots.  Some of these scenes were similar – and were collected into themed “sprints” of work.

For instance there are about 6 sequences of Barbie and C3PO holding and moving their stone hearts, which were all filmed together as they used the same models in similar positions with similar “accessories”.

Fail fast

I had a lot of ideas for things to do with my models.  Not all of them worked out.  Sometimes it would turn out a model couldn't be posed quite as I wanted, so it would be back to the drawing board, as I'd try to figure out something else.

Basically I needed to try things out early to see if they'd work, rather than depend on things working, and be lost when they didn't.

The first sprint I worked on was a repeat loop of Barbie playing a piano.  I found several piano toys, but none of them really worked – so I went back to the cover of the Far album,

I decided to try filming Barbie moving as if playing the piano, and create a matte from the album cover, to make it look like Barbie was playing the piano from the album cover – and it worked rather well.

In fact this worked so well it made me quite daring for the “chorus section” in an later sprint – I'd originally planned on having just a dancing Barbie and C3PO – but decided to try and superimpose a slowed down film of flames over them as Regina sang about “this fire is burning us up”.

Avoid rigid planning

As mentioned with the chorus, I broke things down into sequences and sprints.  Not everything worked out.  Some things were infeasible or just didn't look right, and were binned and replaced.

Some things worked better than I imagined, and I got a bit more daring.  The finished project was about 80-90% of what I'd imagined, with a bit of compromise thrown in along the way.

As I worked through I learnt about working with the models and technology, and had a better idea of what I could push to achieve.

Test early

In the old days, they'd do stop motion by putting together a model, take a shot with a film camera, move it a bit, take another shot, move again, another shot and so on.

It'd go on for days, and when done the film would be processed.  If there was a blurry frame they'd forgotten to focus the camera in, or a hand in the way of a shot, then it'd be back to the drawing board, and the whole sequence would have to be redone.

My son taught me the following trick in the digital age.

You position your model, take a photo, move, take another photo.  THEN – you review your shots on the camera, and flick back and forward between your last couple of shots to make sure the two shots match, and the movement looks right and things look in focus.

You're basically testing early hereand my son taught me that!  If the shot looks wrong, you delete it, reposition the model, reshoot.  You lose minutes not hours/days!

When a sprint shoot is done, I load it into the computer, put the photos into my animation software (I use AVS Video Editor), and put together all the shots into a video.  I aim for 8 shots a second (the professionals go for 25), but I sometimes speed up/slow down what I've shot to make the movement look the right speed for the song.


Good software reuses components when it can.  Watch my video again, and you'll notice I repeat use a few of my segments.  Especially Barbie at the piano.  Why reinvent the wheel if you can reuse what you already have?  To the first time viewer, it should be barely noticeable anyway.

If I'd not made that decision I think filming would have taken two to three times longer.  So it saved me time, and didn't affect the quality of the finished product – so why not.

Putting it all together

So bit by bit I assembled my 37 short films, across about a dozen sprints.

Did I mention I tested again?  [You'll notice a theme here]  Just because you checked the photos as you were filming, doesn't mean you're done.  When you join the photos together as an animation, you can notice defects you didn't quite notice first time around.  Especially as you're watching them through a 19” monitor vs a 4” camera display – things become more noticeable.

Some of them mean refilming – which is annoying.  Some of them you decide you can live with …

For instance during the sequence “so we made our own computer out of macaroni pieces, and it did our thinking while we lived out life” - R2D2 circles in a figure of 8 around C3PO and Barbie holding hands.

In one shot in the bottom right hand corner you can see a little piece of white tack I didn't notice.

Later on, it “disappears”  …

Oops!  But I decided “we can live with that” and it didn't detract too much from the scene.

Then with my 37 shots completed, I took the song track, and copied my filmed shots into place over it, compiling my finished video.

Oh – did I mention I tested again?  Ah yes, what looked brilliant on the editor, didn't quite work in the finished movie.  With so many cuts in the song, it created a lag which meant about a minute into it, the animation was out of sync with the song.

What I ended up doing was cutting the song into about 4 sections, and animated each section to keep it synchronised, checking the output of each, then assembling the four sections into one finished movie, which I then uploaded onto YouTube.

And you know what I did then?  Yup I tested again!  Making sure it all looked okay, no surprises or lags.

It was only at this point, knowing the quality of my film was assured, I put a link on my Facebook page so all 12 of my friends could watch and enjoy!

Summing up …

The end product was not quite what I'd originally planned, and yet at the same time everything I wanted!

I had a vision, but I had to be pragmatic about it as I developed the project.

Some ideas I found couldn't be realised, others I found I could go even further than I'd originally imagined.  Hence what I did achieved more in some areas than originally planned, and less in others.  But importantly it got finished, and didn't get stuck in a loop where the effort to achieve a particular shot became painful and time consuming.

Not of course that being Agile means “not doing hard stuff”.  But if doing something is so painful, but brings little benefit, you have to ask of your manager “why are we doing this again?”, and consider if it's really worth pursuing.

Throughout I tested and tested what I was doing, to reduce the impact and rework of any mistakes.

This I feel confident, is the Agile way ...


  1. Hard to say which is cooler, the resulting video or the breakdown of your process.

    Thanks for the intro to Regina Spektor .... off to mine Youtube for more of her tunes.

    You left out the last part of Agile you conformed to ... you documented and shared your knowledge so others could learn from you.

    Excellent post! :)

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