Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Thinking inside the Box

After doing over 125 "Minions at Work" photo cartoons, I'm getting a little bored. Not with the Minions but with the sets I photograph them on.

My "stage" for the Minions is nothing but a small workbench on which I throw together sets using a variety of backdrops and walls (most built of foamcore board) and a variety of other "wild" set pieces, such as columns, beams, arches, and doorways. I can really do a wide variety of sets by swapping my basic pieces around, but for the most part, they have one thing in common. They're flat.

Because of the single-panel format for "Minions at Work," it's generally important to see all the characters in a scene clearly: who they are, what they're doing, what their body language is, and what they're holding. That's hard to do when you get more than two characters in a scene, especially if you're also struggling to get an interesting angle on the set (something else my current setup makes difficult).

Somebody is always turned the wrong way, or you can't see their hands when you need to, or you can't see what they're holding, or where they're looking, or something else that's important to the scene or the joke.

But it's also difficult to make multi-level sets to my requirement. I need modular flexibility. I need things that are sturdy and versatile. I need things that are self-supporting and that don't eat up too much of my limited (especially front-to-back) bench space. And most of all, I need cheap.

Here's a solution I've come up with (click on any of the images for larger versions):

Yeah, boxes. These are recycled "shoebox" sized Express Mail boxes. I've just glued the flaps shut and covered them with self-adhesive shelf-paper, also known as contact paper.

Contact paper is wonderful stuff, with all sorts of uses. It's cheap, comes in useful sizes, sticks well to most surfaces without additional glue or tape, and can be used to disguise or repurpose all sorts of common objects for use in our 1/6th world.

The big problem is the limited patterns available and their applicability to 1/6th sets. A lot of the patterns are florals or other decorative patterns that aren't much use to me, and there are wood-grain patterns that are way out of scale for 1/6th use.

On the other hand, there are sold colors, geometric patterns (like black and white or other checks, good for floor coverings, and stripes, which have some uses), and metallic. Here's an on-line-site to show you some of the patterns and colors you may also find in your local stores.

I've used the metallic papers before, but for this project, I went with a couple of stone patterns, one a gray granite and another a gray marble.

Why two patterns? Well, while either pattern can be used for both walls and floors, it's my feeling that the coarse pattern of the granite is better for floors, and the smoother pattern of the marble is better for walls.

Also, cover a box with one pattern, and it still looks rather like a box. But if the sides are one pattern, and the top another, then it takes on a bit more weight and reality.

But remember, I said flexible, and that's where I got sneaky. The trick her is that, in a photo, normally you can only see at most three of the six sides of a box. If you see an exposed side with one pattern, you'll tend to assume that the reverse face of the box is the same, but it doesn't have to be.

So for my boxes, I covered the ends, one wide side, and one narrow side with marble, and one wide side and one narrow side with granite. By flipping and rotating the boxes to expose various combination of surfaces, two little boxes can be used for an awful lot of different things.

Let's start with something simple. Stood on ends, the boxes become modular, free-standing wall panels. These can be used to provide a stub wall in the foreground of a picture, or to suggest a doorway or hall where none actually exists. Turn them one way, and you've got granite walls.

Turn them the other way, and you've got marble.

One thing to remember for photo purposes is, it isn't important what you build, it's what people see, and what they fill in mentally to complete the picture.

So while we can see this is just a couple of boxes on end, if you were to zoom in or crop to eliminate the tops of the boxes, the viewer will just assume it's a wall that extends all the way to some invisible ceiling. Same with the sizes. If the picture doesn't show the end of the wall, the viewer will assume it continues well beyond the picture, even if the wall overhangs the frame by a fraction of an inch.

Of course, I've only got two boxes, so the wall is necessarily pretty small. Making two more would allow for much more sizable walls, and the flexibility to create a doorway in the middle.

But while this is useful, my primary purpose for creating these was to create some verticality to my sets. Let's see how that works...

Here, by flopping the boxes on their side, I create a raised walkway or second level along the back of the set. This isn't a full "story" bump by any means, but it's enough to allow background characters to be seen clearly over foreground ones, and it adds some visual interest.

Note that I've put the granite "walkway" side on top, and the marble on the front. The fact that the floor is also covered with granite pattern ties the set together.

This setup would also work as a large display shelf of some sort, like a museum or trade show-exhibit, or a runway for a fashion show or a strip club. These things are just as flexible as your imagination.

In a perfect world, the gap between the two boxes wouldn't be dead center in the shot, but it's easy to hide behind an object or character, or to Photoshop out. You could also use a scrap of the same pattern contact paper to cover the gap. Or, you could just live with it, and assume it's a natural seam in the stonework.

Okay, here we flip the boxes, and we have a higher, narrower walkway. Still not a full story, but enough to provide some real separation between the levels.

Okay, the next step to tie these things into a scene is to enhance them with props. I happen to have three of these Power Team traffic barriers, so I'll put them on top of the box walkway. Now it looks more like a balcony or catwalk of some sort.

Of course, you may not have something ready made like this. One thing to remember is that cardboard is really easy to work with. You could punch or drill some evenly spaced holes and make removable stanchions out of wooden dowels or tubing. (Remember though, any holes you make in a side may limit its usability as a wall for later use) Connect the stanchions with scale-sized-ropes or small chain (check the jewelry department at craft stores) and you've got hand-rails.

Now, let's get a little more creative in both our arrangements of the boxes, and the use of props.

In this example, by flipping the boxes in two different directions, and careful exposure of a bit of that granite pattern, we've got a wall with a set-back shelf that we can fill with decorative props.

This somehow reminds me of Stargate SG-1 and the interior of a Goa'uld mother-ship. Once again a longer wall would be better, and you could also add to the height by stacking more boxes on top.

(Most of the Egyptian props, by the way, were purchased in the aquarium department of a pet store. The gong is a brass nick-nack I picked up at a thrift store.)

This arrangement suggests the base of a massive column, perhaps along the side of a great temple or hall. Once again, I've arranged the boxes to create a shelf, and added another aquarium department prop to sell it.

A row of two or three of these would be even more effective in suggesting a large and impressive space. As I said before, let their imaginations work for you. Show them three, and they'll imagine a dozen.

This scene would also be greatly improved by a backdrop more in keeping with the foreground (it could just be a sheet of foamcore covered with more marble paper, and some decorations added, like hanging tapestries created from cheap scarves or from scrapbook papers purchased in a craft store.

Finally, here's a slight variation on the above arrangement, used to create an impressive platform from which an Evil Overlord can address their attentive Minions. The custom-built lectern that I've built from wood and molding scraps is a big plus, but you could simply provide a box of roughly the same proportions (perhaps also disguised with shelf paper) for them to stand behind.

This scene would be greatly improved by hanging something on the backdrop, such as a flag, banner, shield, or logo.

Ironically, my first use of these in Minions at Work really doesn't fit any of the above. Mostly they're used to support a pre-existing set piece, my metal catwalk prop. Here's the cartoon. If you're interested in seeing how the catwalk was built (it's an easily reproducable design from parts you can get in most home-centers or hardware stores), you'll find a post on it here.

Of course, while the granite and marble patterns work well for me in a lot of applications, they won't work everywhere, or for everything. If you don't find the pattern you need in contact paper, check the fancy papers sold by the sheet in the scrapbook section of most craft stores. Paper can be glued to the box or applied with double-sided tape. You can even create your own papers by taking photos (culled form the net or shot with your own camera) and printing them on a color printer (heavier paper stock is easier to work with than standard printing paper). Using your own camera, you can capture weathered wood, cracked concrete, stone, rock tile, rusted metal, or whatever else you need, and scale it for use in 1/6th (or other scale) scenes.


BrineB said...

Excellent info!!! I am a big fan of vinyl tiles, but now I will go out and get some contact paper!!!

Annette said...

Thanks for the really great ideas, and ways to use them.