A girl’s number written on a coffee shop patron’s hand comes to life and becomes a portal to a fantastical cartoon world. It’s a cute enough idea for a short animated film, but this movie has the distinction of being the first stop-motion film animated with Google Glass. Called Catch, this first-person film is the pet project of Tu Ulthaisri, a designer and filmmaker at Google’s Creative Lab who wondered what his employer’s new wearable headset meant for animators.
“It started with simple curiosity,” Ulthaisri tells Co.Design. “I’m a filmmaker, and Glass allows for a new perspective on storytelling. So I made a few live-action films with Glass at work, but then I realized that no one was looking into the animation aspect yet, so I thought, what the heck, let’s just give it a try.”
But there needed to be some ground rules. For one, Tu decided to emphasize the nature of Glass as a wearable headset, so the film had to be from a first-person point of view, and since it is also hands-free, the hands of the person wearing it had to be in the frame most of the time. Finally, there could be no trickery, and minimal post-production, which meant no computer animation, green screens, or rotoscoping.
With those limitations in mind, Ulthaisri came up with a premise for a cartoon in which the ink on a coffee shop patron’s hand comes to life, allowing him to see the world as an ink drawing through a magical portal on his palm. (Tu was inspired by the film Blu, in which a graffiti monster comes to life.)
Despite the fact that it was filmed on Google’s next-generation wearable headset, the film didn’t take particularly advanced techniques to bring to life. Rather, Catch was filmed in stop-motion, a classic animation technique in which a scene is photographed frame by frame, then strung together to make a fluid film. Here, that meant that all the actors had to stay still to pose for individual shots. Taking these shots with Glass proved extremely difficult, says Ulthaisri, because Glass’s camera app doesn’t have a viewfinder, making it challenging to line up multiple shots in exactly the same way so that when they are strung together they appear fluid and stabilized.
It was animating the hand that gave Ulthaisri and his team the most trouble, though. Each frame of animation needed to be drawn onto the palm of the main photographer and actor Nam Doan. The distance between the hand and the camera needed to be precise for each take, requiring Ulthaisri and his team to develop a custom rig to make sure Doan’s hand was exactly the same distance away in every shot. Likewise, lining up drawings between frames required Ulthaisri to cook up a clever custom assembly line.
“To animate the hand, we worked just like an F1 pit stop,” says Ulthaisri. “We set up a small projector on a table next to Nam. Between shots, he’d reach his left hand onto the table, line it up with a projected outline, and then our two animators Freddy Arenas and Isam Prado would draw the next frame fast.”
And to make sure the drawings could be erased easily, the team drew their animation with dry erase markers, wiping the hand clean between takes with make-up remover.
It took five days to take all of the thousand-plus shots needed to animate Catch. Afterwards, Ulthaisri spent two-and-a-half months lining each shot up one-by-one, correcting them for color, and stitching them together into a finished film.
Although Ulthaisri and his team went through a lot to make Catch a reality, the effortless charm of the finished film makes it all worth it. As for the future of filmmaking and Glass, Ulthaisri thinks that the directors who follow him will have far more sophisticated tools than he did.
“You will soon see a lot deeper exploration of apps on Glass that enhance the camera experience,” Ulthaisri says. “There’s a lot of potential for wearable tech on film sets. Technology like Glass allows you to see the filmmaking process from a new perspective, which is why this is such a great time to be trying to help figure out what Glass can do.”