E-Project: Noah Webb's Flip Book Music Video

The photographer assembled more than 4,500 still images and turned them into a stop-motion video.

Sept 28, 2009
By David Walker

A still from singer/songwriter Sara Lov's video "A Thousand Bees," shot by Webb using single-frame photographs—a total of 4,664 to be exact.
Photo Credit: © Noah Webb
A still from singer/songwriter Sara Lov's video "A Thousand Bees," shot by Webb using single-frame photographs—a total of 4,664 to be exact.
Flip book videos have been cropping up all over the Internet lately, and one of the more creative and intricate examples is Noah Webb's music video for singer/songwriter Sara Lov's song called "A Thousand Bees." Assembled from more than 4,500 still images shot over three days, it tells the bittersweet story of a woman who turns to a photo album to transport herself back into her memories, only to realize there's no escaping the present, painful as it may be.

"The video is basically like an intricate flip book," Webb says. "I wanted to play with [the idea that] you get sucked into a photograph…. In the beginning it appears to be simple but then as it progresses it gets more odd. I was hoping [it] could be initially viewed as a quirky, cute story, but then watched again to analyze the technique of the process, which was [intended] to reinforce the idea of the song."

Webb and Lov have been acquaintances for a number of years. The video project all started when they ran into each other last Christmas, "and we were like, 'Oh, we should do something,'" Webb says. He brought her a couple of ideas, including a rough outline of the video they ended up making. Lov didn't quite get it, because it is so hard to describe, but she liked the idea of using stills to tell a story within a story, Webb says.

Webb had never done stop motion before, but he'd always wanted to do something filmic, he says. "I was inspired by Dadaism, and I mixed in some David Hockney, obviously, with the photo collage." To work out the stop motion technique in his head, he explains, "I studied a lot. I was on YouTube for weeks."

He created a storyboard to map out the entire project, which gets complicated. The story shifts back and forth between past and present. The past takes place in a blue bedroom with retro styling, while the present happens in a drab gray home office-like room. The video begins with a shot of a battered old photo album that opens up and takes viewers into the blue room, where Lov soon enters, sits on the bed, and begins singing her bittersweet lament.

Then time begins to shift: Lov is suddenly in a state of idle distraction in the gray room, eventually trying to re-experience her past first by reconstructing herself as a cardboard cutout, then reconstructing the blue room as a collage of images on the wall of the gray room. She then melds into the images, before emerging from the wall into the actual blue room. But she ends up in the blue room (the past) as her present self, and recognizes the impossibility of it all.

It's a scenario someone might wake up from in the morning and say, "I had the strangest dream last night." To construct it in flip-book form, though, was a bit of a logistical nightmare. "I had to have a storyboard in order to know what to shoot when and where," Webb says.

The first thing he did was photograph the blue room in sections, so he had the series of images he needed to re-create the blue room in collage form on the wall of the gray room. In another prep shoot, he photographed Lov close up in sections, so he had a collage of photographs that added up to a life-sized, full-bodied portrait of her when taped together.

Both of those photo collages appear in separate scenes of the movie, and they're constructed in stop motion, so viewers see the collages materialize on the wall one image at a time, in rapid succession. But Webb didn't tape up one photo, then take a picture, then tape up the next picture, take a photo, etc. until the collages were fully constructed. That would have led to a fully constructed collage of unpredictable appearance (the image seams and overlaps might not have matched). So Webb taped up the collages the way he wanted them to look in the end, and took successive photographs as he removed one image at a time. Then he assembled the successive photographs in reverse order, so the collage appears to be going onto the wall rather than coming down, as he shot it.

The story shifts back and forth between past (blue room) and present (drab, gray room). To achieve that effect, Webb photographed the blue room in sections so he could re-create the blue room in collage form on the wall of the gray room.
Photo Credit: © Noah Webb
The story shifts back and forth between past (blue room) and present (drab, gray room). To achieve that effect, Webb photographed the blue room in sections so he could re-create the blue room in collage form on the wall of the gray room.
All of the scenes of the video were shot as two separate location shoots over three days: the scenes in the blue room were shot the first two days, while the scenes in the gray room were shot on the third day. There are snippets of the video that are actually stop motion, where Webb took a photograph, waited for an assistant to move an inanimate object slightly, then shot another photograph, and so on. The ceramic deer circling on the dresser and the guitar moving by itself across the floor of the blue room are examples of that. "A little segment of 10 seconds would take two hours to shoot," Webb says.

In snippets where Lov is featured, Webb shot images in quick succession as the singer went through her blocking. "I basically held down the shutter for those scenes, but the camera will shoot only 30 frames before it locks [runs out of buffer space]. So we would tell her to stop and start again."

The production required a crew of about ten people, Webb says, but it was still a bare bones operation. There was no hair stylist or makeup artist on the set; Lov had her hair and makeup done before she came to the set each day. There was no rental fee for the locations: the blue room was in the house of Lov's manager, the gray room was a space in Webb's house. Friend and art director Clate Grunden supplied most of the props from his own collection of yard sale and flea market finds. He also helped with art direction and story-boarding.

Webb's assistant, Nicholas Trikonis, managed the lighting. "We knew we wanted to have a natural feeling with the lighting and also have a sense of time [passing] in the light as well," Webb says. In addition to natural lighting, Trikonis also simulated sunlight with 1200 Watt Arri Fresnel lights outside the windows and Kino Flo 4Bank lights inside.

Given the quantity of images the video required in the end, it was essential for Webb to capture the look he wanted in camera.

"Not much was done to the video [in post production] in terms of lighting, color or retouching. Only a few frames of Sara crawling into the suitcase [at the very end] were edited but other than that, what you see is how we shot it," Webb says.

Tim Melideo, another one of Webb's assistants, was the digital tech for the shoot and stitched the images together as a video using Final Cut Pro. The post production took as long as all the pre-production—about a month, says Webb. It involved some back-and-forth with Lov and her managers. Webb had envisioned using Lov to depict a character in a situation conjured up by Lov's song. But music videos tend to feature the artist singing, and that's what Lov's managers insisted upon. So Webb obliged.

"Those sequences are minimal, and I shot them in a way that I thought blended with the rest of the video," he says.

Webb also had to cut one scene, and shorten or speed up others (the paper crumpling scene, for instance) to make the video the same length as the song. Despite the last minute tweaks, the result was true to Webb's original conception of it. "I'm definitely happy with it," he says.

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