Max, I read that you grew up in an off-grid cabin in the woods. Can you talk to us a little bit about that and how this lifestyle influenced what you do now?
Yes, well, the cabin was indeed off-grid. Still, we had electricity from solar panels, phone and internet connection, so it wasn't entirely cut off. Growing up without siblings though, meant that I would play in the woods a lot, turning over rocks and look at worms, centipedes and isopods. That sparked the interest for entomology.
My research now focuses on soil ecology, or more specifically microplastics in soil, the interactions of microplastics with soil invertebrates. This is a relatively new field of study, with first papers published only in 2016, so there is a lot of groundwork to be laid, and I'm developing analytical methods.
Pollution has been a big problem for some time now, and we hear a lot about the pollution of the oceans. Unfortunately, we hear less about the probably even higher contamination of our soil.
What we've found out up until now is that there are some invertebrates that can biodegrade some of the plastic but not all of it. The rest ends up microplastics, and we have to learn more about it to tackle the pollution problem.
On top of all that you also do clay animation videos. How did that come about?
My grandmother took me to a two-hour claymation workshop when I was six. That was all I ever learned about the process and is the knowledge I still use.
I'm well aware that the animations are a bit crude since I'm doing it on my own and there is no big animation studio involved.
Clay animation video by Max, showcasing some of the effects earthworms have on the soils they inhabit.
Who is the primary audience for your videos?
Up until now, it's been shown in schools for teaching purposes. My early clay animation videos were part of an extension outreach assistantship at Cornell.
I like to depict things that are difficult to show in real life. Vertebrates and humans are easier to film in real life, so clay animations of their lives and habits aren't as necessary to produce.
Can you talk us through your creating process from start to a finished video?
Sure! I always start with a script and narration, where I lay out the story and how many frames I need for each scene. When I first started, I made the huge mistake of doing the animation first without a script, and I ended up with too little material. So having a script is very important. Usually, the setup is in a dark room with only one light above the working place and a camera, that's it. When everything is set, and the clay figures are made, I start the long process of taking a picture, moving the clay models a bit, take the next picture, and so on. I usually use five frames per second - that's five pictures per second, so it takes a long time. Then I stitch the frames together, do some minor editing and record the voiceover.
My longest video on Asian longhorned beetle took 35 hours to produce.
Clay animation video by Max about the life cycle of Asian longhorned beetles, comissioned by The Hajek Lab group at Cornell University.
Wow, that is real dedication and craftsmanship! When can we expect any more of your work, do you have any new videos in the pipeline?
None in the pipeline at the moment, unfortunately, since my main focus at the moment is research for my PhD.
Also, I'm developing a card game called "Life for the Loam," which teaches the role of soil organisms in maintaining healthy soil. My long-term goal is to establish that into a web app game, and I've been writing a fantasy novel parallel universes, something I started as a child.
That's great! Well, good luck with all of that! We here at SPOTTERON are big fans of your work and hope to see more wonderful clay animations in the future! Thank you for the interview!
Here are some more of our favourite clay animation videos by Max Helmberg:
Check out Max's YouTube channel here.