Keynote and the Cretaceous

I've started to not sleep well again. So naturally I've started another animated video, and in the spirit of escalation that has characterized my vids, it's going to prominently feature Orlando and dinosaurs. I've done five videos using a combination of iMovie and Keynote* with each being more ambitious than the last. What started with stick figures and cartoonish figures on relatively static backgrounds has given way to realistic dinosaurs in real world locations.

*Note: I usually say PowerPoint rather than Keynote for clarity. Keynote is Mac's Power Point equivalent, and it's basically the same thing.)

As I mentioned in a previous post, these videos were an exercise in story boarding that got out of hand. Basically what I do is draw up scenes in Keynote with the intent that every slide will be a 0.5 second section of what is essentially a giant flip book. I export the slides as images, drop them into iMovie, set them to a half second in duration and align them with an audio file.

It's an iterative process: I drop in files, find that I've screwed something up or that I'm coming in short / long or that something is paced wrong, then I adjust the images, re-export, and check it again. Rinse and repeat. (Note Laurel Wreath 0:55 where the sharks go backwards; I added some images to sync with the music and missed that I needed to adjust the shark fin positions. I noticed it about a year after I published it)

It is time consuming, but I've gotten much better at it over 6 videos so it's getting faster. We're still talking about hours and hours but the creativity and problem solving aspect of it is something I really enjoy.

I say "problem solving" because you have to make a lot of choices to make a bunch of flat shapes on a 2D surface mimic an actual "realistic" movie where the viewer can tell what is going on. This is particularly an issue when using real world locations that actually have to look right.

The shapes go onto the slide in layers and you have the ability to move them back behind or in front of each other. With a little finagling this lets you make it look like the scene has depth of field, or that a moving figure is emerging from behind something else. In slides with a lot of shapes you can end up with dozens and dozens of layers so a mistake can mean you spend several minutes untangling the layers relative to each other. Starting with the background of an image is a wise tactic that I don't always remember to follow.

Also falling into the problem solving category is the narrative of the videos themselves. The videos I've done have had differing levels of narrative complexity. Whereas there wasn't much cause and effect to the locations and actions in Laurel Wreath, Barricades, and The Long Sleep, the second Just Wait is a detective story with a definite beginning, middle, and ending. And since I have to show things completely visually, without text, I sometimes have to think really hard to ensure I'm not the only one that understands what's happening.

I usually jump in before I'm completely sure where I'm going or how I'm going to pull it off. I have a loose idea of what top level thing I'm trying to do and then I start thinking about what locations I want and how to string them together. Then it's a little bit of trial and error to figure out how many images I need. My first cut of Just Wait 2 came in about 40 seconds too short, so I had to find a way to sneak 80 more slides in without throwing off the timing of the scenes that were synced to particular parts of the song and without making it feel like I frantically padded it at the last second.

Usually, I pull from something artistic or literary when I'm coming up with a video. Laurel Wreath has references to H.P. Lovecraft's The Call of the Cthulu, The Long Sleep [1] video is based on Shakespeare (the irony of coupling that theme with a song inspired by American Folklore is not lost on me), Barricades re-enacts Cervantes's Don Quixote [2], and Just Wait 2 is a Sherlock Holmes detective story.

As for the drawings themselves, Keynote / Power Point has a pen tool which lets you free hand shapes. Every click of the mouse creates an anchor point connected by a straight line to the previous point until you either click on the starting point or hit Escape to end the shape. Double clicking on a point turns the section from a straight line between the adjacent points to a curved one. With this tool you can pretty much draw whatever you want, be it foreshortened rectangles or dinosaurs.

Picking the dinosaurs is the most fun part for me and I try to introduce a few new species every time I do a video. Tyrannosaurus is always going to be involved, because it is my favorite animal in history. Especially in the more recent videos featuring places in Orlando, it can be hard not to exclusively use theropods (bipedal dinosaurs with a general body plan like T-Rex or Velociraptor). Not surprisingly, being bipeds ourselves, most of our landscape is not well suited to giant four-legged beasts. I have to fudge the sizes quite a bit, but I try to at least get them mostly correct in relation to each other, and about right if there happens to be a stick human in frame.

I start the dinosaurs from paleontological skeletal drawings. I draw the limbs as individual sections following the bones, so when I have to make them walk or move I can adjust them by rotation and don't screw up the sizes. The skeletal drawings tend to have the dinosaurs in running position so I usually have to reposition at least the legs to make them interact with the environment.

Believe it or not, having a general knowledge of dinosaur bone anatomy really helps. Knowing which bone is the shoulder or how the hips work makes both the drawing and the motion far easier. Dinosaurs are unique among reptiles in that their legs were positioned under their bodies for more efficient land locomotion, as opposed to modern day lizards and crocodiles whose legs sprawl outward from their body. Dinosaurs were digitigrade, which means they walked on their toes, similar to cats or horses. This is why cats and horses and herons look like they have an extra backwards knee in their back legs; it's actually their ankle and their toe bones are greatly elongated.

Using color fills in Keynote means my skin pattern palette is limited so I just pick colors that stand out from the backgrounds and make sure that if their are two individuals from the same species that I color them differently. I made the decision not to bother with feathers on the dromaeosaurid dinosaurs like Velociraptor, most of which have been discovered with feather imprints around their fossils and attachment points for feathers similar to modern birds in their bones. (Side note; the raptors in Jurassic Park aren't actually Velociraptors. They're way too big. The vaguely human sized ones are probably either Austroraptor or Utahraptor). Paleontologists believe this clade (evolutionary group) of dinosaurs led directly to modern birds.

In addition to loving dinosaurs, I also love Orlando. So in my last video dinosaurs invaded my neighborhood of Mills 50 just north of downtown. I wanted to make sure to include as many of the places I frequent in the neighborhood as I could. Apologies to King Bao and Viet Garden, which I go to a lot, but are in the wrong direction from the rest of the action of the video. I was insistent on making the neighborhood's geography correct at the expense of leaving out some of my favorite places.

I've had some really great experiences in the past year with the arts and, for lack of a better term, culture scene in Orlando; so I thought for this new Barricades animation, I'd send my Mesozoic pals around to see for themselves. So far I've got them at the Plaza Live for Opera Orlando, at Dr. Phillips Center for the Orlando Ballet, and at the Orlando Science Center for a little gallows humor. Timucua Arts is next up and there's a few more locations I'm hoping to be able to fit in, so keep an eye out.

And watch out for the dinosaurs in town. The staying still thing is B.S.; Tyrannosaurs likely had excellent vision and would absolutely still see you no matter how little you moved.

Stay vigilant, friends.



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