Sword of Damocles Production Notes

The Sword of Damocles is a short stop motion animation that was made in response to the StopMoShorts December 2006 contest. The contest provided three words (sword, cave, and fear) to inspire animators. I focused on the sword with the idea of doing something related to the legend of the Sword of Damocles. I would also embed the other two words in some fashion within the film.

When I first learned of the legend I envisioned it in a medieval setting. However, the legend appears to be Greek in origin and much older. The premise I chose would keep a medieval setting while also referencing the legend. By using a referential approach I took the opportunity with this film to explore how it could become a veiled criticism of conventional film formulas (including film techniques, story formulas, three-act structures, etc.).

The list that follows contains the conceptual ideas that I was working with when creating the storyboards, the script, and during filming. The whole process was very much stream of consciousness and experimental to see what I would come up with quickly. I may have succeeded in some places and failed in others. In either case, I did have fun making it quickly and learned several things that I can apply in the Vitruvius production process.

  1. What quote by a literary figure is being referenced in the opening tale by the Jester? What is the context and meaning of said quote?
  2. At what points do the harp strings sound?
  3. Is the Jester ever seen in the same frame as any other character?
  4. At what point does the Jester directly address you the viewer?
  5. Why was the Jester dismissed by the King?
  6. The King and Damocles toast each other? Who is the other party that the Jester is toasting at the end of the film?
  7. There are multiple films presented, which one is the real film?
  8. There are five characters and each are symbolic of participants in the film making process.
  9. The sword is hanging behind the window at the end of the film but the Jester’s words are future tense and speculative.
  10. The voice of the sword in the last act says: “I am the Sword of Damocles. Pay no heed to the tale being told by the fool jester. I was recorded by Cicero as being invoked by the King Dionysus to inform Damocles of the perils of being King. I am the one true Sword of Damocles.”

Character and Set Design Photos

The characters are aluminum armature wire with epoxy putty at the hips and chests. The wire is wrapped in jute string and painted. I used thin craft foam for the clothes and hot glue to hold it all together. I painted raw umber acrylic paint on the clothes to dirty them up a bit. The hands and heads are carved from basswood. The arms of the puppets are single strands of wire and the hands have a small hole in them so they are easy to put on and spin around. The feet are epoxy putty with a slot cut through to use tie downs. I also used some epoxy putty for hair. The eyes are wooden beads and the eyelids are Sculpey clay. Eye blinks are made by pressing the clay over the eyes for for one, two, or three frames as needed.

The sets are made out of pink insulation foam and covered with plaster wrap and then painted for texture. The chairs and table props are basswood and epoxy putty.

The film was shot on a Nikon D50 and edited in Sony Vegas. The vocals were recorded and edited in Audacity and the music was made with Sony Acid Loop samples.


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7 responses to “Sword of Damocles Production Notes”

  1. Ok, I had a FEELING there was stuff going on at hidden levels!! No wonder it’s so freakin’ hard to critique your work!

  2. Nice job, man…now I’ve gotta go rewatch…..may as well just download it 🙂

    Painted plastic wrap, eh? I never wouldve guessed, it looks great! Thanks for the ‘behind the scenes’…

  3. @strider. I got the feeling that you had a feeling that you got what was going on. 😎 Your critiques are helpful. I’ve got a list of things to watch out for in future projects from the critiques provided by you and other people who have seen Damocles and Man Drawing. Again, thanks everyone for offering your thoughts and suggestions.

    @uba. Thanks. Yes, at Michael’s they have this plaster of paris fabric wrap (I think it is called Magic Wrap or something). You apply it in strips and it dries quickly. Best of all it has enough texture to paint and can look rough like stone or wood or something. I built all the sets in a day with the stuff.

  4. Those plaster bandages are really just cheese cloth that have been infused with plaster particles. They’re incredibly convenient — but if you’re doing something large, or are trying to economize, you can get the same effect buy buying the cheesecloth and plaster separately.

    I used to buy cheesecloth at a fabric store… But last year I realized that most hardware stores carry handy plastic bags of cheesecloth in their painting sections. I believe it’s used for texturing, when you’re painting a room’s walls.

  5. Yeah, I knew there was Something going on more than meets the eye (well, and having seen Man Drawing… I know how you like to load your films up with layers of meaning). Honestly at first though I thought this one was just strightforward narrative, because that’s what it felt like, and partly because it was done for SMS. I’ve thought about it a bit more since then, and I’d like to offer one more bit of critique if I might.

    You’re obviously extremely talented – I get the sense that if you just wanted to make ‘normal’ films with narrative stories you could crank out great ones. But I know that’s not your goal. It seems to me you might want to consider two possibilities….

    One the one hand you’ve got a film like Man Drawing, which is obviously not straightforward narrative, and then there’s Damocles, which masquerades as narrative. Both have a lot going on under the surface, but you could make it more obvious to people (not that I know how exactly!). You might consider a film (like Damocles) being done as a complete narrative, resolving any tension and tying up all loose ends as I mentioned at SMS, but with hidden extras for the astute viewers to pick up on. But then that might not be what you want to do. IMO I think the challenge you face is to figure out how to direct the viewers toward what you want them to be concentrating on. That’s a director’s job, to make the viewers see what they’re supposed to. And I don’t know, possibly you want the ‘extra’ material to be subtle and just float up on people rather than aim a spotlight at it… I’m just thinking out loud here.

    Ok, somehow I thought I had more to say! I sometimes feel kinda weird doing these critiques, and I hope people aren’t getting offended or getting their feelings hurt. Sometimes i think I should just stop, but the reason I do it is because in the case of certain people who have obvious talent and are well on their way, somwetimes the most valuable thing you can get is a completely candid and honest critique. That can be the hardest thing to get… most people will just pat you on the back and say “Great job man!”. And while it’s nice to get your ego stroked, too much of it can become a big circle jerk and not be helpful at all. I figure this is the time for such critique, during the early student period, before a person’s technique becomes solidified and it gets to be too late!

  6. I think critiques are helpful if they’re wanted. I know for my things I won’t want any because I’m not trying to make better films, only to express myself. I think that’s the key difference. Someone wanting to be a better filmmaker vs. just wanting to express themselves as they learn and grow along. I’m sure Grant is grateful for Mike’s very valuable input.

    As for Damocles, I especially loved the painted backgrounds, as I’ve said before. They’re always not only so well matched to the film aesthetic but artistically beautiful on their own. I also thought that using thin foam as clothing was clever and matched the hand-carved wooden feel of the sets and faces.

    As for the story, I think I’m missing the layers you and Mike are talking about. I read the questions in this post and I still don’t get any deep multiple meaning to any of it. I only follow the jester’s narrative about failing to please the king and how Damocles learned his lesson. My cerebral limitation no doubt. But if there were symbols and actions that meant something to you personally, Grant, then I think that’s great. If you wanted people like me to grasp those meanings, I was left behind. I Wiki’d the S of D legend so I’d have a better idea of what the point of origin was. It’s a really rich tale. I see why it appealed to you to make it.

  7. @Strider. Thanks for your thoughts. I do like to load up my films with a lot of (maybe too much) information, unhinged relationships, and personal proclivities. Your observation that I “figure out how to direct the viewers toward what you want them to be concentrating on” is accurate. It takes time and energy to ponder, write, and offer constructive criticism so I thank you for doing so.

    The Durer, Damocles, and Vitruvius projects are essentially experiments with the stopmo medium and the idea of the non-narrative form. Idea over story. I want to destroy the suspension of disbelief in the viewer so they become active rather than passive in the consumption of the work. The challenge is how to provide the right cues for the viewer to know when and why such a disruption like this occurs.

    The Damocles script (if you can call it that) was created in about an hour and I didn’t stop to craft it further into anything cohesive, logical, or formulaic. In a sense the whole film is an exaggerated MacGuffin with 90% of the film being an excuse for the idea of the Sword legend (I intended the “real filmâ€? to be the 15 second clip of the talking sword by the way). The wanted to rush through a production from start to finish ASAP and what came out was what you see…flaws and all. To me Damocles is finished and it is more important for me to move on to Vitruvius and beyond. But I learned a lot from making it so quickly and how it revealed some of the issues and challenges that we are commenting on right now.

    @Shelley. If you were inspired by or even enjoyed a few seconds of the film then I consider it a success. The film is a quick and personal stream-of-consciousness experiment so I don’t really expect people to grasp everything. In fact what I strived for is enough ambiguity in the work to make it mean whatever the viewer fancied it to mean. On the other hand, that aspect may be backfiring and creating the issues that I need to address in my future film projects.