How “How A Bow Is Made”…was made: Creating a part-animated educational featurette

“From the timber of Brazil to the timbre of your strings, this is how a bow is made.”

A little musical wordplay never hurt anyone, right? Maybe? Regardless, that’s how we started off our part-animated educational short, How A Bow Is Made, presented by our friends at Carriage House Violins of Johnson String Instrument.

After completing parts 1 and 2 of The Bow Series in June 2016, CHV approached me to try something different: An animated video. The first two videos turned out well, but were live-action and pretty technically detailed – great for an older audience, but not quite accessible for kids. The Carriage House folks wanted the next video in the series to show how a bow is made and where the materials come from, but in a way that the younger string instrument learners would appreciate. An animated cartoon was a great solution.

Now, I have long been a cartoonist and have produced a handful of stop-motion “tradigital” animated shorts, but animating more than motion graphics in After Effects was mostly new territory – whatever I didn’t know, I would learn along the way.

So we embarked on the project. We met to talk about what the video would look like: A character would travel around the world visiting the places from which bow making material comes from – wood from Brazil and Africa, leather from southeast Asia, horse hair from Mongolia; this would lead into live-action footage of a bow maker crafting each part of the bow, and would end with an interview with bow maker Jon Crumrine.

Preproduction

CHV provided an outline and general text for the piece and I adapted that into a screenplay. I storyboarded the film, drew some concept art, and we discussed the look, tone, and pace of the video over the course of a month or so.

We needed a narrator. A female voice would work well, especially with the female cartoon character leading the visual narrative. As we were considering this, I happened to be talking to musician and Four String Films frequent composer (also, incidentally, my fiance) Eva Walsh and I thought, hmm she has a pretty good speaking voice. Eva has a background in theater, so it wasn’t a long shot to have her narrate – we did a test recording and it was great. Narrator! We moved forward with the plan and tried not to talk too much about it over breakfast – you know, work/life balance.

Production

The first thing we did in production was to record an interview and extensive b-roll with Jon Crumrine at his Newton Upper Falls, Mass. workshop. It was fascinating to see him work, and I had a lot of fun shooting on some cool lenses: a Canon 100mm f/2.8 macro lens for those ultra-closeups, and quite possibly my favorite lens in the world, the Canon 35mm f/1.4L. “Man, that is a beautiful lens,” I exclaim on the street to anyone who will listen, like a post-Clarence George Bailey. (You can also see this lens on the Steve Smith videos, among others)

After that one day of live-action production, the rest was up to me animating on my computer for hours. And I mean hours. It’s not just hand-drawn animation that is a time consuming process. But with my computer freshly-upgraded to 28GB of memory, I started plugging away in Adobe After Effects.

The Puppet Tool was my friend during this process of creating a simple but dynamic and easy-to-manipulate character – and copy & paste were my best friends. First I drew “Jane” by hand (I draw nearly all my cartoons by hand on paper), scanned in the image, cut up the pieces (hat, bow, eyes, mouth, eyebrows), and saved it all as a layered Photoshop image with a transparent background. Importing that into AE, I applied joints using the puppet tool and used of the Starch Tool and Overlap Tool to allow her to use the violin bow. I operated the character’s mouth and eyes by opening the PSD file as a composition in AE, and erased some Puppet Tool-caused scraps around the edges by using the eraser tool in “constant” mode.

A whole lot of coffee, key framing and digitally painting water buffaloes later and I had a completed set of animated scenes. I created a separate sequence for each of the 12 scenes in Final Cut Pro (start playing taps folks, this was my last big project on FCP7 – I’m converting to Premiere; Avid is a tough change and FCPX is a nonstarter). That really helped a robust project like this feel contained and manageable.

Postproduction

In this sort of project, production and post get a bit tangled up – there’s a lot of back and forth between editing and animating, but gradually I finished up the animating and was just editing and sound designing (a fun exercise in cartoony sound effects).

I went back and forth with CHV in a few stages of feedback and changes, and soon enough the project was finished and ready for release at the beginning of March 2017.

Marketing with no sales pitch

The piece was received positively and spread around among string educators who commented that they would share it with their students. The video has seen 5,000+ views on Facebook (the client’s primary means for marketing this video) and close to 1,000 on Youtube, certainly leading many potential customers to Carriage House Violins online.

Handy resources for free source media

This was a pretty low budget project with a minimal crew and solo postproduction, so the creation of source material like swooshy sound effects and vector images of tropical reptiles was going to take too much time (and cost too much money). That’s where a few handy resources came in, allowing me to use some media available via public domain and Creative Commons Attribution Licenses:

  • I found a number of public domain photographs and really nice vector images on Pixabay
  • The music in the video (by Franz Lizst) was found on Musopen
  • Many of the random sound effects were found on the Free Sound Project, which is an eternally awesome site

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Jon Dorn