Quackhead is my final project from my COMM 339 experimental film class. I planned, shot, and edited it over the span of a week in December 2019.
Initially, all I knew about it was that I’d film various objects in front of a green screen, manipulating them while wearing green screen gloves. I’d then key out the green, take the remaining shape, and fill it all in with one solid color—so I could create animations consisting of solid 2D shapes, that behaved and transformed like objects moved in 3D.
I ran this by my professor, who was on board with it. He especially liked my throwaway idea that everything would be white on black, save for a yellow rubber duck that the audience could latch onto to navigate the weird world I’d be creating. So that inadvertently centered the project around the duck—which led Lilly Adams (him. director) to suggest a whole “loss of childhood innocence” vibe.
With this loose idea of what I was doing, I shopped around at Five Below, Dollar Tree, Target, and Walmart for objects that fit two criteria: they could be jammed into a childhood innocence metaphor, and they could be easily recognized solely by their silhouette.
Armed with my bizarre collection of toys, tools, and tchotchkes, I storyboarded the whole thing on index cards (with a drawing ability that suggests I still had some childhood innocence left):
Those red numbers are important—because every component of each card had to be shot individually against the green screen. So when my reserved time in the PSU film studio rolled around, the index cards became the bible:
Shooting went straight from around 11pm to 6am the next morning. I never would’ve finished without Lilly and Jake Mayer donning the green gloves and moving each object hundreds of different ways as I directed them:
I got into the mix for the duck’s climactic fight with a suit—literally. I wore a green morphsuit so I could key out everything but suit and sword:
The studio devolved into a slush of props, gloves, and index cards, but by sticking to the process we had in place, I was confident I walked away with everything I needed to animate the piece.
The index cards came in clutch again as we ran into duplicate takes—with 57 shots planned out, sooner or later you’re going to repeat an angle of a duck or a skateboard. To save time, I’d just note the object number (within the current card), and which other card had that angle already.
This translated well when I imported everything—we shot completely out of order to save time, so I renamed every file based on the card I slated with at the beginning, and which object on the card it was. This allowed for quick sorting in After Effects:
I then went through and keyed all the objects out from every shot in the project, filling them in either white, yellow (the duck), or pink/purple (the unicorn) along the way. Deviating from my original vision of all the objects being flat white, I tweaked the Keylight settings on a per-object basis for whatever I thought got the point across best—so some are legitimately flat 2D, others are shaded in gradients.
The final step in After Effects was, well, creating a composition for each shot and animating the keyed/colored objects together to tell the story. The intricacy of the animation went on a per-shot basis; some were all 2D transformations, some were rigged in 3D. Some derived all the “wiggle” of the objects from their source video, others were still frames that I pulled, and then applied a wiggle behavior back on top of once I keyframed the essential movement.
Some shots didn’t survive from index card to rendered .mov; for reasons either story-based or technical, I concluded animation with 40 of the original 57 shots fleshed out. These 40 went into Premiere as individual files where I cut them together like footage, before sending a rough cut over to Logic…
…where I built the sound design. I thought the cartoonish visual aesthetic would be made all the more surreal with a hyper-realistic soundtrack, so I went in with the footsteps, sword clangs, impacts, grunts, and the like. A steady presence of wind (which picks up and calms down in sync with the story), and reverb filters on nearly everything place the soundtrack in the black void the duck navigates. As with Fight of the Loom, what I couldn’t find in the PSU film school’s sound library, I recorded myself with my Blue Yeti mic—although this time I also added score elements using software instruments.
So that’s Quackhead! I don’t know if I could’ve finished it without stumbling into the perfect workflow in the index cards, or without Jake and Lilly’s help in the studio during shooting. I’m proud of how it came out, especially given what it looked like on set:
Shot on a Canon C100 Mk2.