Dissecting Eyeballs: The making of 'Eye Contact'

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'Eye Contact' is a short stop motion animation I shot on an old Bolex 16 mm film camera over the course of one single night in 2007 when I was a sophomore at Emerson College in Boston. Though it was made quickly, and under duress, it has, over time, grown to become my favorite short of mine, and the one that best captured my nervous attitude and feelings of life from the time. As such I thought it was high time to finally write about it, and give it some context...So here we go....

The initial idea for 'Eye Contact' came to me suddenly in the middle of the night in August of 2005, as can be seen here in these original rough storyboards (Though it just says ' Aug something,' jokingly, instead of a date, I was able to figure the date out from other pages surrounding these ones!).

I often had trouble sleeping when I was younger and it was during these times that many vivid ideas came to me. 'Eye Contact' was an idea that emerged from the heavy feelings of social awkwardness and nervousness that I was feeling at the time. I felt I was just a weird little guy and outside of being able to talk well about film and animation I wasn't that good at much else. The nervousness I felt about going to college was intense...I hoped that I would meet more like minded people there and be able to expand both socially and filmically...But...What if that didn't happen? What if I just continued to bumble and stumble around? That was the fear and horror that 'Eye Contact' came from.

'Eye Contact' also came from my absolute love of the stop motion of Jan Svankmajer. My short was heavily influenced in particular by his masterful 'Dimensions of Dialogue' short, in particular the second segment, in which a man and a woman are at a table, come together, but then destroy each other...

Svankmajer cut right to the horrible heart of male/female social interactions and miscommunication, and while I certainly knew I couldn't outdo him in regards to universal truth, I felt I could draw inspiration from him, and then apply it strictly to my own silly and awkward life....

So 'Eye Contact' is about a first meeting, a date, blind or otherwise, and how people interact (Or how I hoped/feared I would/wouldn't!). It's also a blatant and simple pun, for I enjoy obvious humor that can also be deep, or at least arguably be deep. Now interestingly enough in this first storyboarded version after the man and woman's eyes meet they both leave unharmed...It would seem that my hope was that there were better social interactions awaiting me at college...

...But by 2007 (a few years into college, and once again jaded and grumpy) the finished, and deadly, ending of 'Eye Contact' suggests I found social interactions less than satisfactory (And I did! I was still awkward and foolish and while I had made many great friends I had also gone through many ridiculous and embarrassing times socially, hooboy)...

Here are the 2007 storyboards from which I actually animated:

(As you can see both characters are emphatically more nervous and awkward and the actual eye contact is more flailing and seemingly painful)

(The eyes tangle up, and kill the man and woman. Then the doors open and reveal the second 'couple' who decide to not even try to 'connect,' and so leave, and break the cycle.)

(Here's an initial character drawing from 2005)

(And here's the finalized characters circa 2007 ((again drawn while unable to sleep at 3:03 am!)) )

Now even with all this prelude (two years of thinking and brewing the idea) I almost didn't even make 'Eye Contact' at all... I first shot an entire test reel with one of Emerson's Bolex cameras to see if stop motion was feasible and that reel came back royally screwed up. The camera had a registration problem so the internal 'claws' that should have pulled the film down one frame at a time...Didn't do that...So when I viewed the footage the visuals jumped up and down every other frame in a spastic way. It was awful! 

So did I really want to animate 'Eye Contact' finally, after all this time, only to have it come back ruined? I was unsure. I spent about a week thinking it over before finally deciding: I would animate it, come what may! I had come to far to give up just because of possibly faulty equipment...

Of course due to the hectic schedule I had in College the only time I had to animate it was over the weekend, and in one night. So with the help of several redbulls I stayed up and animated nonstop like a lunatic in my tiny, tiny dorm room.

Here you can see the simple set-up on my table with the bolex (and some of my various strange posters and Tom Waits records, aha).

Another angle showing the cranky old camera i had to deal with.

The characters in mid eye contact.

Here's a delightfully unflattering photo of me looking grumpy and tired midway through animating.

A shot from my door looking into the room, which truly in size was not much more than a glorified closet.

So I animated all night and then fearfully sent the footage off to be processed. A week later it came back and...there had been a problem! But it actually worked in my favor...The old camera had a light leak and so the footage had weird streaking lights and a slght haze to it...However the footage itself didn't jump and this light leak gave it all a mysterious and old feel which helped it considerably. A happy accident if ever there was one. In editing I emphasized this scratchy old look by adding film projector noises to the mix of voices. The voices were, of course, all me...Me slowed down for the guy and then sped up for the girl.

I was super satisfied with the end result and still am, years later. For me it's truly a time capsule as it is the culmination of years of awkwardness and social disfunction which, I am happy to say, I am pretty much done with. In fact I am now brewing the idea for a new animation, a semi-sequel to 'Eye Contact' (at least thematically) which comes from my current happier life (and relationship!) so yes...You heard that here first!

So while the nervousness of 'Eye Contact' may be over for me, it still lives on in the animation below and may be relatable to anyone with a nervous streak in them (Which, I do think, is everyone, at one time or another...)...

About the author


Charles Pieper is a stop motion animator, concept artist, director, editor and monster maker who lives in Los Angeles. He has made music videos for the bands Dufus, Summerbirds in the Cellar, Setting Sun, Quitzow, Brit and the Cavalry, Skidmore Fountain, Lo Fi Sugar, YesMisterBloodVessel, and Man's Assassination, Man. He…

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