Animated Light Paintings Of Skeletons Skateboarding And Breakdancing

Darren Pearson brings his light paintings to life through stop-motion. And he's working on a film!

A first gander at one of Darren Pearson's animated light paintings is met with a sense of wonder and amusement. On his website, he subverts the GIF process to make his light skeletons breakdance, skate a handrail, and walk across a tiny creek. He's taken still photos of luminously painted octopus, dinosaurs, The Simpsons characters Kang and Kodos, and angels, all set within striking geographical spaces.

But, Pearson's choice of landscapes isn't arbitrary. There is a definite purpose to each location, and the still images and animations that come into being in those places. Pearson is, in a sense, simultaneously a historian, photographer, painter, anthropologist, palaeontologist, and adventurer.  

We spoke to Pearson over the phone about his light painting animation process, and his one-minute animated film that will have ultimately taken close to a year to complete. 

What is your background in art and other media?
I always illustrated things from the very beginning, through high school and into college. The segue that made me diverge into this current medium started in high school when I began filming friends skateboarding. From there, I went to school in Santa Cruz to study film and digital media. Later, I was hanging out with one of my friends who was a photographer, and I was flipping through this book of LIFE photos, and came across this photo of Picasso. He was standing there looking into the lens with this light source, and you see this Centaur that he had illustrated with the light. It's very 3-dimensional in quality, and there is pottery in the background. 

My friend explained to me that it was a long exposure photo, and it wasn't very technical. You just set up the camera on a tripod and then let it go for however long you want to illustrate. So, I thought, “Okay, we can do more than doodles here.”  

Was this the only instructive influence for what you've ended up doing? Or were there others?
There's a whole community of people who do this kind of art. In addition to all the stuff that I learned from my photographer friend, Michael Brown, he introduced me to this Flickr light painting community called Light Junkies, where all of these people posted long-exposure work. Everyone was experimenting all across the globe and uploading their photos, so you could see the different techniques. I don't know if it influenced me per se, because I don't know if it added much to what I was doing. But other things on it did influence me as far as my education in the art form. 

Do you use a particular camera?
It can be done with a film camera, or really any camera on which you can control the shutter. Most people use an SLR camera to control the shutter manually. So, you kind of adjust the shutter from a fraction of a second to multiple seconds. 

How did you go from making light paintings to animating them?
At first it was a test to see if I could even make an animation, and if the movement was followable. I'd done flip book animations before, so I was trying to do the same thing with the light paintings. The first one I did was a skeleton popping up out of the ground, waving its arms, and then going back into the ground. I put it into GIF form because I was just learning how to do that, too. Then I thought, “Well, let's make it more interesting—what else could it be doing?” And so I experimented with breakdancing, skateboarding, and a couple of other things. 

You mentioned flip book animation. With that and other animation techniques the artist has the benefit of flipping back to ensure consistency. I'd imagine you rely more on memory in your work. Is that true?
The thing is, the illustrations themselves definitely vary quite a bit. No frame is going to line up perfectly every time. What I'm basing the majority of these animations on is the movement in the frame. So, you have an object going from one portion of the frame to another, and your brain picks up the details in between the frames. Even if they're imperfect, your brain can see what's going on. 

I also like to use the environment as different markers. So, if there is a crack in the sidewalk, or steps, they can be a good measure of how far you need to go and where the illustration was in the previous frame. The other side of that story is losing your spot, walking to the camera, and checking the work, then going, “Okay, I have to do it generally here.” I prefer to have somebody else with me to click off the shutter and roll through twenty frames at a time, instead of stopping every two minutes and walking back and forth to the camera. 

And the more you do it, the more you get a sense of where the illustrations are in that space, even though you can't see it unless you reference the camera.
Right. I've definitely had more practice than anybody else when it comes to doing this type of animation. And doing the same character over and over definitely helps. You get good at it. 

How much work and time goes into one frame of animation?
Each frame correlates to about two to three minutes of illustration. When you're talking about a 24-frame animation that is less than a second in length, it's about a few hours work. [Laughs] It's really ridiculous how much time I spend on these things, but I like it.

Dig into your process a little bit for us.
Basically, I'll research a place online, and if it's a place I can travel to on a weekend, I will try to go there and illustrate characters within that environment. A lot of times this means going there in the middle of the night or checking it out at sunset, deciding what the shot is going to be, then going back when it's dark to illustrate. I have to decide where the character is going to go within that environment. And I will keep working on a shot until I've got one that I think works best. 

As far as evolving your process, would it be too time-prohibitive for you to create a total light painting landscape for a character to exist in?
It depends. I don't want to say animated light landscapes are impossible, but there is a lot of ground to cover there. There is one artist who is creating a topographical map of different environments with an LED light, and that looks totally insane by itself. That could work with animation, but it would take years. I don't think anyone would be willing to do that. [Laughs]

I am more into traveling to different locations of cultural and historical importance. Places that kind of speak to me as far as how the landscape works, and then putting these characters into these landscapes, or deriving characters from that history to kind of resurrect spirits from the past.  

Did any specific light painting give you a lot of trouble?
There are definitely a lot of those. [Laughs] One of the most troublesome was during a hiking trip in Yosemite with a friend's family. We hiked in ten miles and camped out at the base of Half Dome. It was a pretty serious hike. We had big backpacks. In addition to that, I had my bag of camera gear and a tripod. I didn't really think that it would be that big of a deal after that many miles, but it just wore me down. 

When we set up a camp, I had kind of scrapped the idea of taking any photos because I was so tired. But, I decided to take one shot in Yosemite. So, I set up all the gear. All of the tents were set up and everybody was ready to go to bed. My friend's dad grabbed a light and I said, “Light the interior of this tent this way when I say go,” and I had my friend do the same in a different tent. I ended up with this really cool shot of skeletons out by a campfire. There are three different skeletons: one is playing guitar, one is roasting a marshmallow, and the other is kind of warming his hands by the fire. That was the only shot I took during the entire hike, which was 20 miles. The amount of effort for that one shot was incredible. It was unlike any photo I've ever taken. 

You're currently working on an extended animated light painting of a skeleton. Can you tell us where you are in the process of that project?
Right now I have about 35 seconds of just straight animation footage, but I'm trying to get it up to about one minute. And then I'm going to be collaborating with a music producer to come up with something that fits with it. I've been working on it for eight or nine months, and I have another two to three months left. 

Is the skeleton going to be traversing various locations?
Yeah. A few night locations will showcase huge, gnarly handrails or just interesting places in LA, Santa Barbara, San Diego, or San Francisco. I'm trying to get out as much as possible, weekend permitting. 

How would the light react in the fog with those long exposures.
It's really interesting. The only thing is that it would probably be inconsistent. The fog is denser in some parts, and less dense in others. That's my only worry. If I could manage that, then I'd love to include that in the animation. There is a mountainous region right around where I live, the Angeles Crest Forest, which gets foggy from time to time. So, I might give that area a shot.