The finished gallery. Click to enlarge. Animated version below
Most of the packaging elements I do for the Tonight Show are done either in the camera, or on the computer. For example, I did a series of tilt-shift filmed bumpers, a process whereby you use a special lens that gives you an incredibly narrow field of focus on longer distance shots, giving the illusion that what you are looking at is a tiny, scale model of the real world.
The corner at the Biltmore
I also have done a number of beauty shots around the city (particularly of LACMA), and we run a whole series I shot at the amusement park on the pier in Santa Monica.
And, of course, the titles I do are, for the most part, computer generated. I usually build the words in Maya (a 3D package), throw in some reflections of the stage or a fake lighting rig, animate it, then put the resulting animation over a background in After Effects, the compositing software we use. There are all sorts of tricks that I won’t get into, and at last count I had made more than 500 such titles.
While I wouldn’t have the ego to think that my work has been copied, I have noticed that there are now a number of similar packaging motifs on cable channels like Smithsonian and The Learning Channel. So I wanted to do something that would be interesting and fun to look at, and that would echo the themes we use on the show already: amusement park, tiny, interesting to look at. So I decided to create a series of real, miniature classic carnival arcade games, design and build them, and shoot them either in stop-motion or make them move on their own, and simply light and tape them.
All the parts laid out in Adobe Illustrator
I just finished the first one, a shooting gallery that has moving tracks of targets and fun bright colors. I went with this because I figured the tracks would be the easiest to automate, and since you face the gallery head-on, the whole thing could be designed in two dimensions in Adobe Illustrator, allowing me to get all the targets, interlocking gears and background elements sized correctly.
The big question was moving the tracks of targets. After poking around the workshop for different ideas, the idea was literally staring me in the face: we have so many bicycles hanging up in the garage, and the bike chain design, with a little modification, would work perfectly.
Detail of the assembled chain
Since our show goes out in a 16×9 aspect ratio, it made sense to make the dimensions of the gallery 16 inches wide and 9 inches tall. The physical targets would be incorporated right into the chain, which would make them stay within their track and rotate perfectly at the edges. There would be four different motions: a track moving left, a track moving right, rotating targets behind and two back targets that would rock back and forth.
Now for picking the targets. It wouldn’t be a shooting gallery with ducks, so I designed them first. I made some round, bullseye-style targets next. For the rotating targets I made some soup cans, and in the back would be an oscillating sun and moon. I had toyed with the idea of using the Tonight Show logo instead of the cans, and putting a caricature of Jay’s face as the rockers, you know, because the show and Jay are such easy targets in the press, but when I did a layout that idea seemed trite to me, so I went for a more traditional approach.
detail of the sun, the moon, and the cans
I started by cutting out a sample bicycle chain on the laser cutter. The holes in the chain were so accurate I didn’t need to use any glue, I just tapped them together with a little wooden mallet. And I found that there is nothing more therapeutic, after a long day of joke writing, production and commuting in Los Angeles traffic, then putting together a wooden bicycle chain. I highly recommend it.
a finished gear with ball bearings
The chain worked great, but I would have to change my original cog design to something with a shallower bite, to allow the chain to wrap around the cog without drifting off. I also tried to have the cogs rotating on wooden pegs, but if there was any tug on the chain the friction was too much, and it made the whole assembly too hard to move. So Dash gave me some old skateboard bearings, and I put those in the hubs instead. They moved very smoothly and allowed for much greater pull on the chains.
dry fit of the walls. The braces at the bottom are temporary
As the finished gallery is too wide for the laser cutter’s maximum 14 inches, I had to make some of the wall elements in 2 parts. I separated the parts with a serpentine line that, when joined, was much stronger than a butt-joined wall (there is a “Rick Santorum is so conservative, he never uses butt joints” joke to be made here, but I just can’t).
I would have to do much of the painting of the parts prior to assembly, since everything is pretty crammed together in the design and there are plenty of tight spots. Johanna was instrumental in picking a lot of the colors, and luckily, our friend Tommy Hogan was in town on a visit, and he also lent his fine color expertise to the project.
I built all of the mechanics first, assembling them with the interior walls. The front picket wall and the back wall went on next. Rather than trust my calculations on the computer to be correct, I instead measured the angled side walls, which have precisely cut slots in them to allow the targets to rotate around the bottom and cycle back up on the other side.
the side walls go on. Note the wire brace clamps and the fancy masking tape
With the whole thing put together, I realized how complicated it would be to motorize the thing to shoot it. I was happy with the way it looked and I wanted to shoot it right away, so I took out the linkages and extra gears, and shot it in stop-motion. I slipped a piece of green paper behind each of the layers and shot all of the targets separately, so I could control the speed of each level when I composited it all together later in After Effects. Stop motion is very time consuming, but luckily my Canon SLR has a remote control, so I could move each piece and shoot the frame without having to travel across the room each time (I used a 100mm portrait lens, which has a near-perfect flat field of focus and gives very straight lines, and also makes the layers seem closer together than a regular 50mm lens).
After about three hours in my office, I had all of the elements shot. Another hour of compositing and coloring in After Effects, and the animation was done. Here’s a look at the finished animation:
10 seconds of pure viewing satisfaction!
I have already gotten a bunch of requests for other carnival games, like water pistols in the clown’s mouth, the stacked bottles and baseballs and so forth. I think I might make a left turn with this and also create some bumpers featuring the carnival sideshow, with acts like the strong man and the wild man of Borneo.
All this for 5 seconds of viewing pleasure, just after the commercial break. Comedy is easy, animated wooden carnival games are hard!
even the trash is interesting with a laser cutter