Sep 102010

If you’ve watched book trailers (video commercials for a book) on-line, there’s a good chance you saw a slide-show of stock photos and text. Sometimes the images are panned or change size. Canned music typically plays. I’m always surprised, and thrilled, when a book trailer actually holds my attention, because it’s so rare. That’s why I thought doing short films as book trailers would be an interesting exploration.

Book publishers rarely have much of an advertising budget, and most authors are not paid all that well. The people making these trailers are trying to do business, and that means staying within a very tiny budget. Making real films, even short ones, can take a lot of time and effort. Unless the trailer is short and simple, you need an artist so passionate about what they’re creating that they don’t mind working for between zilch and I-coulda-made-more-working-at-McDonalds.

Twice I’ve participated in creating short film style book trailers. Both times it was at the request of authors who were friends of mine. So, to make them worth doing, I decided to push some boundaries. I wasn’t going to get paid in cash, but in interesting experiences.

The first short film was for Kathe Koja’s book, “Under The Poppy”. This is a novel of sex, love, danger, and puppets in a brothel during wartime. Yes, sex and puppets! And since I was the only person the author knew that had done any puppetry, she and her director, Diane Cheklich, asked if I’d be interested. We sat and talked. I came up with a puppetry and digital media blending technique I thought would be interesting to do. It was a lot of work, but creatively exciting.

The second short film I did was for “The Iron Hunt” by Marjorie M. Lui. Instead of puppets, I decided to try 3D character animation. I knew eventually hardware and software would make this fast and easy, and I wanted to see if we were there yet. Sadly, at the time I did this project, the software was still buggy and crashed constantly. I finished, but it wasn’t as good as it would have been had the software worked. I ended up hobbling the video together with a blend of stills, 2D, and 3D animation techniques. While I was disappointed I couldn’t make it solidly fluid animation, the author was still thrilled to have something more than a slide show. It would go better if I tried this again today, as last time I used the software I found many new features and much improved stability .

One of the best things about using shadow puppets for a book trailer instead of 3D characters is that the character’s features are left to the imagination. Kathe Koja let me create the look of the shadow puppets  and digital sets as I wished, and because we only had outlines of the live actors, it left plenty to imagine. On the other hand, Marjorie Liu and I spent a long time trying to create a 3D character that looked as close to her vision of the character as possible. We worked on facial features, body tone, limb length. I then added the details of living tattoos on her skin. The process took long enough that it seems unlikely that creating trailers with this much detail could replace the old stock photo slide show for the same cost, but with an advertising budget, or an artist that really liked the book enough to want to create the book’s world for the  pure joy of it, detailed short films are very doable for book trailers.

I’d still be game for creating another short film for the right book. Live action this time maybe. Of course, the fact that it takes as much time to do casting, costuming, make-up, locations, etc. as it would for a longer film means the project would have to stand on it’s own to make it truly worth doing, and that’s exactly why it would be interesting to watch.


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