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Wednesday, 26 March 2014

The Phil Chronicles: Jose Antonio Cerro

On “The Ledge end of Phil (from accounting)” I had the luck of working with a character who supports the emotion and evolution of the over all film. I decided to focus on the acting and spent quite alot of time talking with Paul to find the character. The design gave a good idea of how he was going to behave, but we wanted to push it to really make the contrast between the workaholic guy and the one who dreams about freedom clear. Luckily we agreed in every point we discussed, which made me think all directors should always be like Paul Ó Muiris, because he has it all clear in his mind from the very beginning. We spoke alot about characters that already exist as references, as actual actors do.We talked about Phil being a nerd, really shy and not communicative at all. Someone who had his social skills deactivated.

So I started to search for poses that could show those kind of things. Like having his arms and legs as close to his body as possible. But we had to face the fact that Phil would need to stretch his body out to reach the sheet of paper on the windows ledge!! So, difficult but not impossible. We realised he had to be grabbing the window frame or the wall all the time to show his insecurity... Also we had to add a quick recoil to show his hesitation. These are the times where we can feel he is thinking. Where he is trying to solve his problem. Then once he remains out, the change starts. We had to be careful to show his evolution as gradually as possible. At this point, the mental process of the character is essential the audience needs to understand that he's thinking.

This doesn't need a special animation or move, just expressive poses, expressive faces. This is something that Japanese animation does all the time with wonderful results. Most of the time, a strong pose or expression is more than enough to show an emotion and its easier to communicate it if there is no movement at all. In this case the wind blowing through Phil's hair helped to make this even more clear. The character is not moving at all, but his expression tells us what he's thinking, the waving hair clues us not to perceive it as a frozen frame or a mistake, leaving the main attention to the expression, to the real soul. As you can figure out, I am not speaking about animation technique here. I am talking about acting all the time, assuming that the rest of the principles of animation are used somehow and as tool to reach the soul.. This is what this film is all about, in my opinion. About feelings and attitude in life. It is a piece or art, because the meaning is adorned by beautiful designs, color, animation and music. I am sure everyone who will have the chance to watch the film will agree with me!

Friday, 21 March 2014

10. Animation: casting the Animators

I looked through at least two hundred showreels before I found the right animator for Phil. Why his reel stood out is simple, when I first saw Sylvain Chomet's “The Illusionist” the animation in three shots specifically stayed with me afterwards. Two out of three of those beautiful shots were on Jose Antonio Cerro's showreel.

Like other members of the crew Jose worked remotely, which meant all of our conversations took place over Skype. Even so, Jose's passion for his work and for the film was clear in our first conversation, I felt that this guy was the one we'd been looking for

We spent alot of time throughout the production talking about Phil's motivation and body language, in the same way you'd talk to an actor about any character driven performance. At the start especially I'd write a very detailed outline for each shot, where i'd write out every breath every eye flicker every blink, not as a list of things for Jose to do but to help him see the character through my eyes, and then interpret it.

I wasn't worried about characters being perfectly on model it was about finding an emotional flow and letting the design bend and break where it needed to. When I felt the character had gone too far off model, (as above in the first rough) that the poses could be pushed further or the performance wasn't true to Phil i'd do a redraw over the animation poses, and then myself and Jose would talk about how we could make it better. It was always a two way conversation, whether in words or artwork.

The videos in this post show the different versions of the first shot we tested for animation. You can see Jose's beautiful rough's as we explore the character. How much Phil hesitates, how he uses his hands, and how out of his comfort zone he needed to feel was all in his characterisation in this shot and was an important one for us to get right.

We animated The Ledge End of Phil using TVPaint. It was a software the studio (Cartoon Saloon) were using for their upcoming feature "Song of the Sea". When i saw how the software
allowed the animator the same expression as a hand drawn line, I couldn't go any other way. 

The general consensus at the time was still that the quality we were aiming for was going to be unachievable within our timeframe and budget. I knew having Stefano and now Jose on board was a big step in the right direction. Another string to our bow on the production was that i have worked as a compositor for the last 3 years. So I was always there, I was always available, and it didn't cost a penny more to the production for me to do tests. So just like writing a script it came down to making our mistakes early and getting them out of the way. Whatever material we had I tested as soon as it came in.

One thing that helped greatly with tests was that we had an intern, Alex Bernas, who happened to start at the studio at the same time we got our first animation test in. Because we had Alex at hand all of a sudden it meant that the first tests that came in from Jose went straight into ink and paint. So on Jose's first piece of rough animation we tested the colour model, a coloured line, an invisible line, a rough pencil clean-up line, and a digital clean-up line. Having even partially coloured animation this early meant i could composite it with a blown-up panel from the colourboard and get an idea of where we were headed. (as you can see in the video below)

It also gave me something to show Stefano and Jose to spur them on to creating even more beautiful work. The excitement of seeing that first test and realising what our team of so few could be creating together was a great feeling!

Next week more ANIMATION line tests!

Friday, 14 March 2014

09. Stefano Scapolan: Colourscript

Next up is artist Stefano Scapolan!

Stefano originally came onto Ledge End for a month to work on the colourscript and backgrounds, but instead ended up staying on as my right hand man for the rest of the film!

Oddly enough planning the colourscript felt closer to working with the music for the film than to the storyboarding. It came down to harmony, rhythm, contrast and flow. I had already collected a lot of reference material which i gave to Stefano along with some bits and pieces i'd been working on myself.

I knew from the script stage that colour would be key in strengthening the contrast between the interior and exterior worlds. But within each sequence the colour always needed to be driving the emotion of the film. Above are some of the early panels Stefano painted where we explored the interior vs exterior worlds. Though many of these shots were eventually cut they were crucial in helping us understand what the film needed.

This sequence with the gull drinking coffee (above) had been something myself and Dan worked on that didn't make it into the film. But you can see here Stefano and myself were exploring how stylised the colour use could be. Luckily unlike many of the other crew on the film Stefano was working with me in the studio so we were able to work on the colourscript in a more intuitive way passing files back and forth strengthening each others panels.

Depth of field was an important element in the film. I wanted to emulate the focal length of live action lenses through our colour design so that it was inherent to the world itself rather than through post-production trickery. An important element of this was that we worked on the shots monochromatically to define depth in terms of tone. As you can see i was playing with in one of my early concepts (above) and with my concepts below.

During his time on the film Stefano drew the layouts, handled final prop design and painted all of the backgrounds you see in the finished film. So we'll be talking about him again here pretty soon!

Next week we get to ANIMATION! Where i'll be posting some of the early linetests

Meanwhile check out Stefano's artwork!

The Phil Chronicles: Daniel Christensen

"Last Christmas I worked for a short period on a great script called The Ledge End of Phil (from accounting). When first presented to me, it reminded me of Terry Gilliams Brazil and Tim Robbins character in The Hudsucker Proxy. It still does but it is also has its own sweet universe.

I worked with Paul before at Cartoon Saloon and when he asked me if I wanted to storyboard his idea, I think I said yes straight away (did you buy me a pint of Guinness first Paul?) It was the dark days of winter, I had just moved from Ireland back to Denmark and with no apartment of my own yet I sat in my parents kitchen, on a chair no back doctor would recommend, working away on a small laptop with my trusty square Wacom drawing pad feeling a bit like Phil! Luckily I had Skype and Paul was my seagull!

As I remember it now writing this from my parents kitchen, this time only as a visitor though, I think we were on the same page for the project. Paul had many ideas, some already boarded and timed, so it was a matter of getting all the pieces to fit together. A great luxury problem compared to a director with few notions of what he wants. On top of Paul's ideas there was also plenty of room for me to invent gags, especially for the Seagull. We experimented quite a bit with the level of zaniness and just how quirky the seagull could and should be. The play between square guy Phil and the loony Seagull was fun and one of those bits you could keep working on, like a comedian perfecting his act. We skyped, drew pictures and send them back and forth, trying to get to the essence of what Phil and his universe was about.

Seeing the film a whole year later I can honestly and proudly say that Paul took what I handed in, the first draft of the storyboard, tweaked it, cut, it, used it and re imagined some ideas to get his vision through. A first draft is meant to be re-cut and played with and I hope I delivered some good toys for Paul to play with, just in time for Christmas!"

Daniel Dion Christensen

Friday, 7 March 2014

08. Storyboards: Daniel Christensen

Crew member number two was Daniel Christensen on storyboards!

I'd worked with Dan on a couple of projects at Cartoon Saloon so I knew he was fast with a wacom, had a good sense of humour and that he had a strong opinion on pretty much everything. Which was good because even though we were on a tight schedule I didn't want the script to be written in stone, the film needed to be able to evolve at the every stage. Starting here

I broke the script into scene outlines so we could see what information we needed where and when. Because of our budget we only had Dan on the project for a little over a week. So it was a fun but intense process. Oh and to make it slightly more complicated I was working from the Saloon in Kilkenny, Ireland and Dan was working from Denmark. Skype time

The first thing I sent Dan was the script and the visual approach I'd written for the funding board. This outlined the uses of camera and lenses for the interior vs the exterior world and the use of compositional blocking in each.

We boarded straight into Flash so that we were working with shot sequences not stills. The rule was no pretty pictures just enough to get the flow of the story down. We worked at a screen ratio of 1:2.39 anamorphic. It became clear at the script stage that with 16:9 having become the standard for even preschool shows, the cityscape shots in particular would need a wider vista.

As we got into a rhythm it became a back and forth between Dan sketching out scenes based on my notes and outlines and me editing in my bits and pieces and re-ordering the different elements etc. It was trial and error, we came up with some great stuff that stayed, other stuff we lost along the way as it slowed things down story wise.

Here's an example where we were playing with the idea of Phil constantly self medicating to calm himself down which wasn't in the script. When we see his desk it's cluttered with pills for ulcers, focus enhancers and energy pills for working all nighters. This is a scene Dan boarded for it, though alot of the ideas were lost you can see we canabalised elements from it that ended in the finished film. (I've put a scratch track from ratatouille on this for the blog, but just to point out we weren't using scratch on these scene ideas while we were working on them)

Your first draft will as a rule be shitty, all you can do is make sure the next one's better, the key (in the words of Andrew Stanton) “is to be wrong as fast a you can”, get as much feedback as you can as early as you can and learn to listen.

I guess the point is not to be afraid when funders look you in the eye (by email) and ask

"is this what the finished film is going to look like?"

To give an example of how loose the boards would generally be this is an early version of the opening of the film, with Dan doing most of the phil stuff here and me doing most of the gull. This version was shown for feedback thus the scratch track and the timecode which gives note takers a more accurate time reference

One note that kept coming up was "we never see Phil in his “normal” routine before he goes out on the ledge so we don't have anything to measure his levels of anxiety against." It's something Dan had mentioned a number of times when we were boarding but i'd shot him down on it. I'd chosen to write the scene without the prologue and was sure we could make it work. But now that it was being brought up on all sides I obviously couldn't ignore it anymore it didn't work.

As i had never envisoned the film as opening with an interior scene before i found it quite hard to get my head around. I boarded a few versions but they were overly complicated and took too long to get to the point. Eventually I asked Nora Twomey (Co-Director on Secret of Kells and Director of the upcoming feature film “The Breadwinner”) who I've mentioned before here on the blog if she would board something for it and she nailed it straight off. Though shots were reordered and retimed, compositions changed etc the opening shots inside the office you see in the trailer are pretty close to her draft.

Carmen Hannibal who came on to intern for a week had an input at the boarding stage too. Though none of her shots made it directly to screen, while myself and Dan were focusing on the minutia of the sequences, Carmen sketched phil and the seagull in wider shots containing both characters. Showing the geography and immediate relationship between the two. Being able to edit these in during tests helped us open things out in terms of our shot choice for the sequence.

Obviously though the finished film wasn't boarded in a week! Working with Dan helped to put a shape on the film, and brought up loads of new ideas aswell as economy in the storytelling. But between different submissions, recuts and rejigs, I was re-editing, recomposing and reboarding pretty much up until the last week of post-production. As I said earlier, it's got to keep evolving

Speaking of which, next week Colourboards!

P.S. The picture of eyes up above is a panel from a Teddy Newton storyreel on the Iron Giant extras DVD. if you wana see a guy keep it loose while still getting his hilarious ideas across Teddy is the man!