Time is relative and can be experienced differently depending on things like your geographic location and emotional state. That is the idea behind Between Times, a new film by Tiny Inventions, the aptly named animation studio of Ru Kuwahata and Max Porter.
Between Times is Tiny Inventions’ second film, following Something Left, Something Taken (see below) in 2010. Made using Kuwahata and Porter’s trademark style of “hybrid animation” that combines handmade and digital elements created in Cinema 4D and After Effects, the new film is narrated by a cuckoo clock on the wall of a bakery in a small town.
From her perspective, the clock tells the story of what happens when another clock mysteriously appears on the street outside the shop’s window, changing the course of her life and the lives of everyone who comes into the bakery over the course of 18 hours. Kuwahata and Porter were inspired to make the film while living in the Netherlands after being accepted into an artist-in-residence program at the Netherlands Institute for Animated Film.
“When we moved from New York to the Dutch city of Tilburg, we were just fascinated by people’s relationship to time compared to how we experience it in America,” Porter recalls. Long before starting their storyboards, the couple spent months researching the subject of humans’ relationships to time, writing down ideas and filling sketchbooks with drawings of the Netherlands.
Kuwahata and Porter launched Tiny Inventions in 2007 after meeting and falling in love in 2006 when she started freelancing for the New York studio where he worked as a designer. By then, both had graduated from college, she from Parsons where she studied illustration and animation and he from the Rhode Island School of Design where he focused on animation and filmmaking.
Together, their skillsets combine to create the perfect match needed for their award-winning animations that often combine photography; handcrafted art such as sets, props and characters; as well as CG. Growing up in Japan, Kuwahata loved crafting and drawing, but after seeing puppet animation at Parsons, she knew she’d found the perfect way to merge her talents. Porter originally planned to pursue photography. But shortly after starting college, he realized that animation would allow him to pursue his interest in photography, design and storytelling at the same time.
In addition to making their own films, Kuwahata and Porter collaborate as Tiny Inventions on the direction and production of original content for television commercials, public service announcements, independent films and music videos. Two of their most high-profile projects have been animating music videos for songs by They Might Be Giants, “Davey Crocket In Outerspace” and “Electric Car”. Both are also faculty members in the animation department at the Maryland Institute College of Art, he full-time and her part-time.
While much of the work on Between Times was completed during the year and a half they spent in the Netherlands, Kuwahata and Porter worked another year and a half on the film after moving to Baltimore to take their current teaching jobs. It was a huge time commitment, many nights and weekends and all of last summer, too, Porter recalls, pointing out that making a film also requires a lot of emotional energy. “We always feel like we’re married to the project for two years, and we swear we’ll never do it again once we’re done; but we know we will.”
Listening to the two of them explain their process—which you can do by watching the documentary at the bottom of the page— it’s easy to see why Kuwahata and Porter feel a bit drained by the end of a project. As a team of two, they easily do the work of an entire creative team while taking care to manage even the smallest detail.
All of the film’s sets and puppets were made by hand and modeled after people and places the couple encountered while in the Netherlands. Kuwahata especially loved the area’s sense of timelessness, which she worked to recreate using balsa wood aged with coffee grounds. Softer fabric textures were used as a contrast to the wood elements. To make the characters and props, such as the treats in the bakery case, she used various types of clay she buys in Japan.
“I used a flour-based clay for the pastries that is baked in the oven for 10 minutes,” she explains, adding that it will actually rise somewhat burn a bit around the edges. “They smell good but they’re not edible, even though I have to admit I was very tempted a few times.”
Both Kuwahata and Porter are drawn to the idea of creating new animation approaches that don’t conform to rigid handmade CG or boundaries. So, from the start, they knew they would be combining CG with stop-motion to get the feel they wanted while being mindful of their strengths and resources. This approach meant that they first made everything by hand and then recreated it in Cinema 4D. Bram Meindersma was the sound designer and composer on the project and he worked with Tiny Inventions from the start.
Once the clay characters were finished, Porter took 360-degree photos of them. Next, those photographs, along with photographs he shot of the set Kuwahata made, were brought into Cinema 4D to be used as references for the polygon models they made of both. To get the textures right, they cut the photographs up and wrapped the textures around the polygon models.
Recreating the set in C4D, Porter explains, ensures that the action can be followed in the same size and proportions in stop-motion and CG. Rather than dropping the frame rate to give the CG animation a handmade look, they opted to go the opposite route by shooting everything at 24 frames per second, in accordance with the CG elements. Porter imported a low-res preview render into the stop-motion program, Dragonframe, to match the stop-motion prop animation of things like doors and chairs with the digital character animation.
Camera moves were shot using Dragonframe’s ARC motion control connected to the eMotimo TB3 (motion control device) on a Konova Slider “That setup worked well because the camera aesthetic that we were going for was relatively understated with no huge, sweeping movements,” Porter says.
To ensure that the element of time was evident throughout the film, the duo carefully considered the direction of the light in every scene. A strong keylight with a snoot was used to introduce hard, graphic light patterns. “If you look at the light direction of the light through the main bakery door, it’s actually functioning like a sundial over the course of the film,” Porter explains.
Kuwahata and Porter used Cinema 4D for character animation. To get the realistic-looking facial expressions they wanted, he and Kuwahata opted to float 2D, hand-drawn expressions with alpha maps on cards in front of the characters’ faces. Though set-up wasn’t easy, the system worked well, Porter says, explaining that freelance character animator, Brian Horgan, was the rigger on the project. He helped come up with a solution that allowed them to update their rigs with new expressions as needed during production.
The ability to place the CG characters in low-poly CG sets that matched the physical sets precisely made pre-visualization easier because they could explore camera movements and plan character interaction with props. Once the stop-motion plate was shot, they did a match move in After Effects using the Foundry’s CAMERATRACKER plug-in. The data was exported from After Effects and matched with the character animation in Cinema 4D.
Now that the sound mix is finalized, they’ve started submitting the film to festivals and they’re waiting to hear the results. “We pour so much love, energy and time into making animated films,” Kuwahata says. “Along the way with this one, there were times when we lost motivation and faith in what we were doing, but it was nice to have a supportive partner who is equally passionate about making art.” And, yes, they’ve already started storyboarding their next film.
Max and Ru's Meet the Artist Thread on CGTalk (scroll down to hear the recording)
Meleah Maynard is a freelance writer and editor in Minneapolis.