Dr. Justin Case in Mission Mars

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Dr. Justin Case in Mission Mars
This is a 12 meg QuickTime file.

For those that would like their very own DVD in full resolution, please send an email for instructions on how to get your free copy to skye@fll-freak.com

Authors Biography:

Ken Streeter and I (Skye Sweeney) are both software engineers living and working in southern New Hampshire. Neither of us fit the typical nerdy 'pocket protector' programmer, but we are both technically bent. We each are coaches of our own FIRST LEGO League (FLL) teams. Ken heads up (with his co-coach) Mindstorms Mayhem and I (with my co-coach) head up the Tekno Devils. Both of our teams have done very well in the past. Mindstorms Mayhem won a state Director's Award in 2003 and the Tekno Devils won a state Director's Award in 2002. We have won numerous other awards in local and state tournaments. Ken's team is a home school team and mine is based out of a public school.
Note: A "friend" recently informed me that I do fit the profile. Oh well...


Production Notes:

Early in the 2003 FLL season, Ken Streeter and I came up with the idea of making a movie to introduce the challenge to the audience at the New Hampshire state tournament. We both work for BAE Systems as well as Linda Lavoie, the state tournament director. I asked her if she would consider showing our proposed movie at the state tournament. Her answer was a tentative yes. Over the next few days, Ken and I jumped into FLL brainstorm mode. Eventualy we downselected to what we thought would be a simple, quick way to make the movie. Use stop action animation. How hard could that possibly be?

So I ran a few experiments at home using my son's LEGO camera and the Steven Speilberg LEGO Studio software. The tests revealed three things.
  1. The LEGO camera and software were inadequate for making a DVD quality movie.
  2. Stop action animation is horribly time consuming.
  3. I was hooked on the idea and had to proceed.
After some research on the web, I found several sites devoted to stop action animation. I even found a site devoted to nothing but LEGO animation. I learned a huge amount from these sites - enough to run out and buy a top of the line webcam and special stop action animation software.

Now I turned my attention in two directions. The first was to start writing a script. The second was to start filming scenes. Over the next three months I would bounce back and forth between these two activities. The scenes steered the script and vice-versa. At each stage I would show Ken what I had and he would give me his comments. By this time I had Ken hooked on the project. He agreed to be my technical supervisor as he had experience and the equipment needed to make digital movies.

The first few scenes were pretty horrible, but I learned quickly what worked and what did not. I started with all the 'indoor' scenes. These are all the scenes that take place inside the Gusev crater base. In a few days I had built the model and decorated it with items from past challenges. I learned how to make a LEGO minifig walk and talk. I also learned how to get a good camera exposure with proper lighting. I also purchased books on movie making to get more ideas.

It took about a month to film all the indoor scenes. On average it took about 2 hours to film 10 seconds of movie. This includes the camera setup, stage adjustments, lighting, and a dry run of the action. This was the fun part. The actual stop action animation was pure mind numbing boredom. Move the LEGO minifig 1/32 of an inch. Take a picture. Move the LEGO minifig another 1/32 of an inch. Take another picture. Do this 15 times and you have just created a whopping one second of movie. Only 300 seconds or 4,500 more frames to go!

At this point a couple of things happened. The first is that I sent the first scenes to Linda Lavoie. She loved the idea and was more than happy to show the movie at the state tournament. The second was that FIRST somehow learned what I was doing. That week I was sending FIRST a very rough draft of the "work in progress". They in turn sent the very rough draft to LEGO international. Pretty soon, I was getting gentle pressure to finish the movie not for just the New Hampshire state tournament but for all the state tournaments. This meant we had to drastically accelerate the filming schedule to have the movie done before Thanksgiving.

At this point Ken and I went into overdrive. I spent every spare moment filming scenes. I would burn a CD with the new material and hand it off to him when I saw him at work. He would in turn take the material home and stitch it into the framework. When needed, he added sound effects, overlay masks, score overlays and other special effects. He would then burn a CD and bring it in the following day for us to review. During lunch we would discuss the next scenes and brainstorm ideas.

During this time, Ken was staying up till the wee hours of the morning adding in the new scenes. Having the latest scenes incorporated into the movie each night kept us pumped up. I was filming the 'outdoor' scenes on weekends spending 8 to 10 hours at a time bringing LEGO minifigs to life. Week nights I would spend a few hours making the last of the 'indoor' scenes. Of course this was in ADDITION to our normal FLL meetings and our hectic fall schedule.

Eventually, the bulk of the scenes were done. I was only missing the scenes that needed two FLL competition tables back to back. For these scenes I took all my equipment up to Manchester, New Hampshire to the FIRST headquarters. Here they set me up in their engineering area with two tables. I spent a whole Friday (8:00 AM to 7:00 PM) filming the Alliance module, the habitation module, and the MAV blooper scenes. It was fun to watch what was happening at FIRST and I think FIRST found it interesting to watch me.

Part way through the filming, we realized we were going to need a voice actor to play the part of Dr. Justin Case. Neither Ken's nor my voice was appropriate for the part. We pictured Dr. Justin Case to be an "Indiana Jones" character (with a pocket protector). He had to have a good deep voice. My son suggested his science teacher (Henry Castonguay). Sure enough his voice was perfect. Perhaps a little too New England for Indiana Jones, but a great voice. He agreed to be the voice and we soon recorded the first draft. Ken used this first draft to sync the existing scenes to audio. I used the draft to time the new scenes.

A week before the due date, I would go back and get several more audio takes. Ken was then able to pick the best recordings for each scene. I can't thank Mr. Castonguay enough for going along with two crazed engineers and their whacky project.

The music for the movie was our biggest and most unforeseen problem. Early on, we fell in love with a piece of music called "Celestial Soda Pop" by Ray Lynch. It just had the perfect feel to it. It was spacey and upbeat. None of the other 500 tracks I listened to had the same impact. I contacted the author (Ray Lynch) and soon had an agreement to use the track for one showing of the movie for free. This was before FIRST got involved and wanted it for all the state tournaments.

When it became obvious we would be having many more than one showing of the movie, we went back to Ray Lynch. In the space of two frantic weeks we had to learn the ins and outs of the music buisness and having to deal with licences, copyright text, and a host of other issues. Who would have known what a "circle-p" was and how important it is to some people! This was all complicated by having to organize all the fees and transactions between Ken and I, Ray Lynch, and FIRST. But it was all worth the hassle. When we sent Ray Lynch a copy of the movie he also felt it was a perfect match.

As promised, we had the movie done in time for the bulk of the state tournaments. We would only miss the very few that ran before Thanksgiving. Ken and I went up to FIRST to deliver the master DVD. We had a showing of the movie for most of the office staff. It was great fun to have them appreciate our labor. Right after the showing, FIRST sent the disk out for duplication and distribution.

It was even more fun to watch the movie in the intended venue. Both Ken and my teams qualified to go to the New Hampshire state tournament (Ken's team won the Director's Award, mine won the Creative Presentation Award). In front of 48 teams and their parents, the movie was shown on a large screen. The reaction was all Ken and I had hoped for. People laughed in all the right places. We also got comments all through the day about the movie.

The end of this saga is that FIRST wants another movie for next year! Anybody have 200 free hours they want to spend on a simple little project?


Technical Information

For those that might wish to either duplicate the process, or simply wish to understand how the movie was made, I offer the following.

Visit the Brick Films website. This group of LEGO animation fanatics have lots of movies and technical information to share. I also heavily used a second website written for teachers using stop action animation in the class room. You can find it here.

I took much of their advice. I purchased a Logitech QuickCam Pro 4000. This high end webcam can shoot at 640*480 pixels. It uses a CCD imager rather than the lesser CMOS type. I discarded the supplied tripod and used a professional one. I modified this setup by suspending 25 pounds of sand under the tripod to prevent any wiggles. I also built an articulated arm to allow the camera to get up close to the action.

I used several gooseneck lamps for lighting. I used both flourescent incandescent bulbs to minimize hot spots in the scene. One issue I learned early on was not to use ANY natural light. As the day wears on, the lighting changes and you get weird effects in the final movie. I also learned to always stand in the same spot each time I took a picture. If not, my changing shadow would cause flickers in the scenes. You can still see some in the early office scenes.

I also learned to record and lock down all the camera settings before starting a scene. If not, the automatic adjustments make each picture setting different causing a discotech effect.

The Mars scenes that you see out the window of the Gusev crater base are actual pictures taken by the Sojourner mission. The backdrop used on the outdoor scenes is a very crude hand painted backdrop. I simply sponged on an orange/red paint over a tri-board display. I then added some brown to the paint and sponged in the mountains. I then used a coarse sea sponge to dab on solid brown to make the rocks. In all it took about 45 minutes to make. Since it is never in close focus, it worked fairly well.

Most of the props are made of LEGO. Even the white cat was a LEGO minifig. I went out of my way never to use an RCX type robot to perform a mission. I did not want a student to compare their robot to the one Justin Case used. As a result, if Justin could do the mission himself he did. If he needed help, it was done with an obviously simple device.

The bloopers were planned just as carefully as the real scenes. The inspiration for these came from movies like Monsters Inc. We needed something to maintain interest during the credits. We had considered bloopers where the camera would pan back to reveal a Hollywood movie set. We finally decided that this would take away from the "He is really on Mars" mindset we worked hard to create. We probably gave more thought to the bloopers than any other scenes in the movie!

The real outtakes are not funny at all. On a few occasions I had to discard several hours of filming. One time, the Mars mat was not secured and gradually moved during the scene. It looked like some horrible earthquake scene. At other times, some object was not in its proper place. In one case, I had to hand edit a few frames that captured foreign objects like the tweezers I used.

The movie was shot at 15 frames per second. I used Stop Motion Pro software. This program has some bugs, but worked fairly well for me. Its biggest drawback was its painful slowness when adding or deleting frames to anywhere but the end of a movie. If I do this again, I think I will research the other software packages. I might even use the free Anasazi SMA software. My initial reaction to it was poor. It had very few features. With some experience under my belt, the lack of features may not be as big an issue as I first thought.

All the scenes were recorded individually and saved as non compressed AVI files. In all I had 12 CDs crammed full of raw footage. These were given to Ken piecemeal to glue together. Ken used Pinnacle Systems Studio-8 software for the job. The software allows a user to place clips down in a time line and create the needed transitions between scenes. It also allowed Ken to add all the titles and score overlays. He also used this package to merge in all the sound effects, the voice, and the music track. The final output of Studio-8 was either an MPG file on a CD for computer display, or a DVD file burned to a DVD disk. The results are quite professional.

We used the star field screen saver for the opening and closing credits. Ken recorded the video into his digital camcorder and then imported the footage into Studio-8. Ken also used Adobe Photoshop to generate overlay masks for the binocular scene and some of the logo overlays. Ken also used Photoshop for the DVD movie box artwork and labels.

We also used AVI-Edit to color adjust some scenes and Audacity to edit all the digital audio files.

All in all it took 200+ hours to create. By computer logs, I spent 100 hours on filming alone. Ken spent an equal amount of time carefuly massaging the raw footage into a work of art.


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Background courtesy of Fibblesnork
Copyright 2003-2006 Skye Sweeney; Last Updated on 2/16/2006