Ken and his Cube – a film by Aaron Johns

 In Behind the scenes

Around 2008 or 2009, the early YouTube days, I would post short stop-motion videos online using my mom’s Canon PowerShot digital camera and some Transformers and G.I. Joe toys, editing them using Windows Movie Maker on an ancient XP machine. I deleted this YouTube channel a few years later to get videos of my 9-year-old self off the internet, with the unfortunate consequence of erasing these stop-motion clips.

That experience of keeping the camera perfectly still, delicately pushing the shutter button and praying the toys never fell over or got bumped in the wrong direction helped in the production of this. The use of a ping-pong ball as Ken’s head came about from wondering how to show emotions and reactions when the face a Ken doll comes with is locked in a blank stare.

Everything was shot with the goal of making Ken look as if he was a full sized man in a room with overhead lighting, rather than a 10-inch doll in a movie theater hallway. The camera had to be placed low, often on the floor to get the correct angle. This made the use of a traditional tripod impossible, so water bottles and cardboard boxes became my tripods. The camera was an iPhone with an app called Halide that allowed manual focusing and other camera controls.

The shots of Ken solving the Rubik’s Cube were the most challenging. To get the angle exactly right, everything was balanced haphazardly. Ken had his legs bent backwards, placed on top of a roll of tape. The cube was balanced on top of a sideways water bottle leaned up against the tape. The camera was leaned against a case of Sour Patch Watermelon candy.

This was all to look upwards at Ken, as well as position his head in front of a lightbulb to have a halo effect around him as he solves the puzzle. The cube needed to fill a larger part of the frame, to focus on its change instead of Ken’s reaction. On my first attempt of the solving shots, Ken took up too much space and it was hard to notice the cube changing from scrambled to solved.

I’m very happy with how it turned out. I shot a version of it a few days prior to this, felt alright about it, then went home and looked at it. Out of focus, messy composition, and showing parts of the environment I didn’t want the audience to see. That initial version was shot while the theater was open, and once a few moviegoers entered for the next showtime, I started to rush to get out of there, being that strangers were watching me take closeup photos of a naked Ken doll.

Going back to the theater another day after they closed gave me the freedom to think hard about each shot. I planned to just reshoot the bad shots and add a new opening frame, but ended up reshooting the entire thing from scratch. Almost ran out of ping pong balls. Those things become very fragile when you cut a hole in them.

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