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Friday, 31 January 2014

04.The Funding Pitch: This is not America

One of the reasons for the title of this post is that in Ireland and i'm assuming most other European countries we rely on funding from government agencies rather than the studio or private funding we usually hear about in animation. So even though i had the backing of Cartoon Saloon we then had to pitch to Bord Scannán na hÉireann/The Irish Film Board. In Ireland we are very lucky to have the "Frameworks" scheme, which a is funding scheme specifically for the production of animated short films in both English and the Irish language.

The other reason for the title is that it applies to one of the main issues i had pitching the film. In a story with skyscraper style buildings, a jazz influenced soundtrack and a vast metropolitan cityscape it was easy to assume from the script that this was a story set in 50's america. A major part of the pitch was getting across that it wasn't that the film was set in America it was simply that the films that inspired and informed me growing up were predominantly American films. Especially Looney Tunes, the Disney features, Don Bluth's features (which continued the american sensibility of Disney) and the beautiful 50's UPA stuff. It makes sense that the iconography would bleed into my storytelling, but that does not mean that it defines it. Luckily i was able to outline this in a directors statement of creative intention i had to write for the application, where i assured that what i wanted to create was a self contained world based within it's own time and place.

An important thing i haven't spoken about on the blog yet is that when this project began The Ledge End of Phil (from accounting) was intended to be made as a CG film. During the entire process through concept and script, up until now we were pitching Cartoon Saloon's first fully CG project! Here are some of the very first CG tests modeled and lit by Ian Claffey.

For the actual pitch itself, on a cold April morning myself, my producer on the film Pearse Cullinane and Cartoon Saloon's Paul Young (executive producer on the project), bundled into a car and set off for Dublin. We showed the artwork you've seen so far here on the blog as well as my concept pieces in this post. Paul with his usual enthusiasm gesticulated wildly on the excitement of making such a project, Pearse did his more laid back version of how we could achieve the film within the budget, then I mumbled about contrasting worlds, the power of an image and the camera reflecting Phil's narrative conflicts. Mainly though i spoke about what it was inside the story that was important to me. A man fighting his inner fears of the depth of the world around him, of losing his control. We also played pieces of the reference music to set the tone.

Fortunately the interviewers liked the script, they loved the seagull and the artwork, and were split down the middle as they had a passionate open debate about the hidden meaning of the title and what the ending "really" meant with each other as we sat there in pleased bewilderment.

What made my day though was that one of the interviewers asked that if we received funding that i make sure to keep the "(from accounting)" in the title, something i thought would they would immediately object to!

Obviously considering i'm writing this blog, it all worked out, we got the funding. So now we could finally start pre-production! So goodbye writing, hello artwork! In the next post we'll start looking at some early artwork and i'll talk a little more about the change from CG to hand drawn, catch you all then!

NEWSPAPER ARTICLE: Cartoon Saloon short selected for film festival

Phil has been getting some local attention this week in the run up to the Jameson Dublin Irish Film Festival!

You can read the article HERE!

Friday, 24 January 2014

03. The Script: Making the Ledge End Legible (Part Two) AKA He wrote his name in bullets in the history of crime!

F. Scott Fitzgerald said that if you “Begin with an individual, before you know it you find that you have created a type; begin with a type, and you find that you have created–nothing."

When i started to break down the elements of the story, i realised there are a lot of features and shorts about office workers out there. I hadn't really thought about it up until this point but if it was in fact a “clichéd” character, i wanted to acknowledge it head on.

One major plus is that a cliché presents a character type people feel they recognise or understand at first glance. It works as an immediate shorthand. Understanding the baggage that comes with a preconceived archetype, it's then up to the writer to work with or against the audience's expectations. What was important for me was that i was writing about Phil, a character i found myself connected to in a scenario i wanted to explore.Though Phil is a man whose life revolves around his work, he still had to go home at night. He still had to travel to work every morning. He had a relationship of sorts with the other people in his office, with his parents. He had aspirations of who he wanted to be. Because he never speaks it doesn't mean there isn't a through line of dialogue running in his head. I wrote alot of notes about these parts of his life I've never shown to anyone and i never will.

Something that changed for me on Phil was i found myself writing for a reader for the first time. I have to admit when i write scripts at least the first draft is always a shooting script, i tell the entire story in script format but shot by shot, every camera move, character inflection sound effect in a shot sequence written linearly to pace for editing. Because it's the way i think it's easier for me to write that way, and i tend to leave it with that amount of description. But what i hadn't considered is that for a non production person or script reader it reads like an instruction manual. Luckily for me Nora Twomey (One of the heads of Cartoon Saloon) quickly pointed this out in her notes

... the primary function of the script at this point is to entertain the reader enough so that they want to see it realised on film....don't get too involved in camera description that breaks the flow of action

I started to work on differentiating between the narrative flow of visuals versus a combination of visuals with a more literary narrative approach.

I mentioned the origin of the name in the last post , I'm pretty sure the name “The Ledge End of Phil” actually comes from a story about my mother reading cinema listings to my father when they were first dating, she announced the "Leg End of Machine Gun Kelly" was playing that night. My father thought it was hilarious and so I heard that story a hundred times growing up. So basically if you think about it, Phil originated from:

I find music/sound is really important for me when i write. During the initial drafts for Phil i was listening to pieces like Billie Holiday: Comes Love, Fanfare Ciocarlia: Born to be Wild, and Juzzie Smith: Good Morning, as well as the usual pile of soundtracks.

Depending on what i'm writing or working on i generally have a radio, a soundtrack score, and a film I've seen a thousand times on (something like Jaws, Nightmare Before Christmas etc) and i switch between these constantly as i work. Depending on whether i need stimulation, distraction or focus. I realise this may sound a little ridiculous, but it doesn't really matter. For me it works. The paradoxical thing I've learned from studying writers and directors i admire is they all have wildly different views on the only way to approach practically everything in their lives. Whether it's editing, syntax or framing. They all have “The Answer” that says i do it this way because any other way is madness. Everyone who works with them says their technique is great and defines their work because of “The Answer”. But they all make great work. It's important to understand why people choose other methods, but there is no right or wrong answer. As long as the outcome is (as Hemingway would put it) “true”.

Any element that inspires or helps you create, build on it. People don't have to get your workflow. If you make great work (or even good work) they'll accept it.

In the next post I'll be talking about our trip up to Dublin to pitch Phil to the Irish Film Board!

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

JDIFF Official Selection!

Hi everyone, so The Ledge End of Phil has been selected for the prestigious Jameson Dublin International Film Festival!

We'll be screening in the Official Selection of Irish shorts on Friday the 14th of February

If you want to check out the programme or pick up some tickets you'll find everything you need HERE!

Sounds like the perfect date for valentines day! Hope to see you all there!

Gary Goldman Visit

A couple of weeks ago I had the great opportunity to show The Ledge End of Phil to Gary Goldman, a man who produced some of my favourite childhood films; American Tail, The Land Before Time, and All Dogs Go to Heaven! He shook my hand and told me he loved the film, how great is that!!

Friday, 17 January 2014

02. The Script: Making the Ledge End Legible (Part One)

I realise alot of people reading this won't have actually seen the film yet, so for now what you need to know is The Ledge End of Phil (from accounting) is the story of Phil, a meek office worker who after chasing a page onto the ledge of his building finds himself trapped outside. Phil quickly realises his only hope of getting back inside is a seagull who has conversely been trapped inside. The gull however is too busy picking apart Phils life i.e. the items on his desk. But as night falls Phil begins to take notice of the world beyond his office.

Up until now my focus had been on writing funny scenario's for Phil as he tries to get back inside. But now there was a chance i may actually get the film made I started stripping down the story to find what it was beneath the surface I was connecting to. Not just that, i realised i wanted to make a film i'd like to see. This seems obvious, but the shorts i'd made in the past where film's i wanted to make, but not necessarily watch. So i wrote some guidelines on what i did and didn't want to do

No dialogue. Phil never had a voice in any version of the story. He never needed one, it was more about his actions and reactions
No narration. I find narration is used too often as a crutch for poor storytelling. There are of course great examples (Gerald McBoing Boing is still a masterpiece) but Dr Seuss i am not.
A film that is self contained. That all elements of the film would be organic to the story. No references to popular culture or other films. (ok i got this one from pixar, but i agree with it) and that it would be a world existing within it's own time and place.
Character evolution: I realised i was writing the story to show Phil grow as a person, i wanted to push him outside his comfort zone and force him to confront himself.
The story to be about five to six minutes in length. I like to have boundaries when i write, it's nice knowing i have 5 pages to fit everything into, it forces me to cut things out. Which is a lot harder than putting more in.

As the adage goes writing is rewriting. I went through at least twenty drafts of the script boiling down the ideas before we came to the pitch version. Along the way there were lots of variation on the characters, how cartoony the animation would be, who the emotional focus was on from scene to scene.

At points there was an oblivious janitor character. Stylised animated dream sequences showing phil's inner monologue. The seagull going on a wild ride through the office on a fire extinguisher powered office chair. Two other seagulls who sat on the ledge above Phil watching his ridiculous scenario unfold who in subtitled french conversed on the futility of man's endeavors, and then were crushed by a rock. I even at one point had the idea for a woolen stop motion puppet playing the part of phil's ulcer... These were all cut because they were funny but none made the story stronger.

Even though it's Phil's story I at one point rewrote the entire script from the seagulls point of view, it wasn't a bad idea, he's a fun character to follow, but in a strange way it dampened the seagulls character and left us feeling a detatchment to phil.

The page you see Phil follow out onto the ledge in the trailer caused rewrite after rewrite because the film originally began like this

In the script there was never an opening shot of Phil inside the office (it came later in storyboarding). This being the case we needed to understand why Phil would risk his life for a sheet of paper. What the page represented to him. One of many variations on the page was a version where a girl he like's in his office gives him her phone number on the piece of paper with a lipstick kiss, she leaves and the page ends up getting blown out of the window, later when Phil's trapped out on the ledge it became about him trying to get her attention as she waits on the street corner for their date looking at her watch etc. When Disney's Paperman came out we were about half way through production, really glad we didn't go down that route!

The seagulls awareness/sentience were also a big talking point at the beginning. The gull was kind of the fly in the ointment for phil, his alter ego, completely free and constantly messing up phil's opportunities to get back inside. But how aware was the seagull of phil's situation? in some scene's he seemed to be purposely helping him in others hindering him. The question became if the gull is sentient why is he choosing not to help phil? This being the case he seemed a little malicious which didn't make sense for his happy go lucky character. Nora Twomey gave me a great note on this which was “Make a logline for your film and stick to it. If you find yourself writing about sentient seagulls with a vendetta against office workers ask yourself what it has to do with your logline.”

Also in the early drafts Phil was much more daring, he would run wildly around the building swinging around corners almost falling off. Though they would have been great fun to animate and watch they confused Phil's growth and caused a more serious problem, if the animation can be this wacky how do we know if Phil fell off the building he couldn't just get up and dust himself off ala wile e coyote? Your world needs rules and it need's them early. In animation we are world creators. We control gravity and wind, so if a character can get hurt we need to show that through the characters reactions to physical events. There's a great scene in the Iron Giant where Hogarth terrified runs straight into a tree branch. It's set-up so well that the whole audience really feels the hit with him, and when we see Hogarth again there's no cartoon stars twirling round his head, he lies on the ground with his nose bleeding. That's the physicality of this world, if he can bleed then he can die.

IRON GIANT REF from The Ledge End of Phil on Vimeo.

password: PHIL_BLOG_IG

Each one of these ideas and a dozen others were crucial to the final story because of the questions they brought up, forcing me to get a clearer image in my mind of the story i wanted to tell. In the end it becomes not about adding things but about taking them away. To quote Mamet “Take everything out of a story til you get to the point where if you took out one more thing it wouldn't make sense.”

After awhile though i realised i was committing the cardinal sin of screenwriting, i was writing and rewriting the 1st and 2nd act, over and over again... there was never an ending. It would come to a point where Phil had realised the error of his ways but then i would just try to make the realisation stronger or the pacing tighter, anything was easier then actually finishing it. I'd love to say i wrote 20 versions of the ending too, but in reality one night as i was drifting off to sleep it came to me all at once, i thumbnailed the 3rd act out on a scrap of paper beside the bed and it stayed pretty much unchanged all the way into the finished film. Every element in the script should be scrutinized but when it feels right it feel's right.

In part 2 i'll be talking about musical influences on the script, my trying to address the problems in the story rather than just talking around them, writing a script not a shotlist , and where the name came from

see you then!

Friday, 10 January 2014

01. How it all began

A couple of years ago i was working from home as a freelance animator. Each morning I'd wake up, grab a cup of coffee, do some animating and then sit down for a chat with my good friend Ian Claffey. He was in Berlin, I was in Ireland, we'd chat online about the films and stories that inspired us and we would pitch each other story ideas.

Eventually I found myself focusing on the simple story of an office worker getting trapped outside on the ledge of his building, fifty floors up, locked out and trying to get back in through a window.

Soon after I moved to Kilkenny to start working with Cartoon Saloon. So now i was writing and doodling for the film at night and during the day I had the great opportunity of working on a project for Saloon's Nora Twomey. Nora just happens to have directed two out of three of my favourite irish shorts, Cúilín Dualach and From Darkness (and by a weird co-incidence was an animator on the third, brown bag studio's The Last Elk) She was also co-director of the oscar nominated feature The Secret of Kells.

A couple of the artists in the studio took notice of my little side project and started contributing sketches. These are a couple i found from my friend Miki Montlló (he comes back in again a little later in the story!)

After awhile the heads of saloon became aware of my side project, Nora even offering great script notes and advice. Apparently without really realising i now had some of the best artists in the studio working on my film in their spare time, so the saloon asked me to pitch them the film. According to them if i could inspire that in people i could direct.

I pitched them some artwork and the idea that “The Ledge End of Phil (from accounting)” was the story of a man battling his constriction, trapped between two worlds; the safety of the interior world versus the danger of the exterior. Phil was a man trapped on a thin strip of ledge between the two. Oh, and there was a seagull...

Luckily for me they liked the idea and came onboard to give me studio backing for the funding pitch to the Irish Film Board.

So now things got scary, i had an opportunity to pitch my idea, a fantastic studio to back the film, I had some sketches, a strong first act, a meandering 2nd act and no ending.....

It was time to start nailing down the script! See you in the next post!