Sunday, May 8, 2011

Making our "Where the Mountain Meets the Moon" video

First, the kids' current ages:
Isaac = 12
Gracie = 10
Lily = 8
Elijah = 5

In the beginning of February, I (Dad) told the kids about the 90-Second Newbery video challenge that had just been issued.  They were extremely excited to make our first video review for our blog Bookie Woogie.  An important element of our book review blog is the accompanying art the kids create.  So I told the kids that maybe we could create our video with a series of pictures.  It might even be easy enough to work in some moving parts or puppets.

At this point Isaac said, "Noooooooo... We have to do Shadow Puppets!!!"  And our lives were changed forever.  He had been playing around with some shadow puppets of his own, and it seemed like a good enough excuse to work some up with a purpose.  Little did we know this endeavor would span a solid 3 months!

I drew up a shortlist of Newbery books that I thought had good visual potential.  From the first time I had heard about it, I'd wanted to read "Where the Mountain Meets the Moon" by Grace Lin.  Once we had the book in hand, we knew it would be the perfect choice for shadow puppets.  Even many of the interior illustrations are done in a silhouette-style.  We read the book together as a family.  LOVED it.  And we set about to make our video...

First we made a list of our favorite parts in the story.

Then the kids came up with a single statement that they thought captured the MAIN point of the book: "Minli's journey to find the Old Man in the Moon in order to change their fortune."

Because we only had 90 seconds to work with, anything on our list that directly supported that statement got circled, and anything that didn't advance that single idea got set aside.

We combined all our favorite parts into a series of scenes.  Seven scenes in all.

Since video is a visual medium, our next step actually was not writing a script, but rather creating thumbnails to depict each of the seven scenes.  We wanted the eventual script to support what we could portray visually.  So the kids went scene by scene working up thumbnail suggestions.

Through trial and error, the kids learned some things along the way.  We talked about how in visual storytelling, the action moves from left to right.  We talked about making the best use of space to support the main action.  We talked about clear shapes.  We talked about not letting secondary elements distract from the main action.  We talked about how composition can lead the eye and focus attention.  We talked about alternating perspectives for visual interest.

Here's a peek at some of the thumbnail sketches they worked through:



Looking at our final thumbnail choices, we then composed the script around them.  The kids worked out the text while I transcribed their ideas.

Around this time I started thinking about music.  After poking around online to see what was available for purchase, I decided to contact my college friend Victor Lams.  The kids already love his crazy wacky music:

Robot Love
Coloring Monsters
Gothic Tootsiepop

I asked Victor if he had ever composed anything with an Asian feel.  He said he hadn't, but that he would be happy to write some new music for our video.  What he came up with was PERFECT!  I never could have dreamed the music would fit so well.  Thanks Victor!

While Victor was writing music, the kids and I recorded the dialog - and had a lot of fun doing it!

Next the kids set about to do some visual development.  Isaac would be making all the puppets, but we wanted everyone to feed him ideas for inspiration.  We have pages and pages of sketches, but here are a few:

Minli by Lily:

Minli by Gracie:

Minli by Isaac:

Twins by Lily:

Tiger by Elijah:

Talking Fish by Isaac:

Using the sketches for inspiration, Isaac worked diligently making all the puppets and backgrounds single-handedly.  They are awesome!  Many of them have great moving parts.  And he came up with lots of clever mechanics to create the visual tricks we'd need.

Here are some of his wonderful puppets:

Dragon and Minli:

A second dragon puppet with lots of fun moving parts:

And look closely... Isaac even added some fun elements into the details on the dragon!  If you can make it out, there's a little scene depicting two dragons setting fire to some houses:

The Old Man in the Moon:

The Buffalo Boy:

The Green Tiger:

Adorable Twins:

We practiced the puppet show... assigning parts and working on timing.

Finally the day came to film our efforts.  We rigged up our screen horizontally/flat with the light source above and the camera shooting from below.  That way we could lay the puppets on the screen like a tabletop.  We matched our performance to the previously recorded audio we had playing in the background.  It took us seven takes before we made it through the whole thing without a mistake.  We then made it all the way through 3 more times so that we could pick the best performance.  Isaac and I then combined all the elements together in iMovie, and we had ourselves a show!

We had a blast making this video.  We hope you all enjoy it!  We are especially thankful to Grace Lin for writing such a marvelous book, and we hope our little video brings her a bit of the happiness which her book certainly has brought to us!


  1. Thanks for this "how to" blog post! I had an assignment in college where we had to do shadow puppets to a song. It does take quite a bit of planning and practice. Plus it is a different way of thinking about things - like perspective, color, and pacing. Well done Zenz family!

  2. This is amazing! the video is super cool, I love how you slowly expand your blog empire and learn so many new things in the process!

    Are there going to be more movies?! I definitely recommend trying some stop motion animation, it's really fun.

  3. I loved the movie - and the how-to post. What a great family. I really enjoyed hearing about how each person contributed in their own way. Fabulous!

  4. Brilliant! You're all so talented and have worked together to enhance one another. I'm inspired. (About to embark on a puppetry project of my own with 13 year olds).

  5. Ireally enjoy it and your family work. Amazing