New Year’s Resolution

I have not spent time with this blog since last July, but not because I have been idle on the short.  With the New Year, I will start a series of posts to try to do some catch-up to where I am now, which is just about finished drawing a solid storyboard for the film, in a way I hadn’t been able to achieve in the past. I’ve been pitching it to anyone who will give me a couple of minutes, and it seems to hang together well.  So, watch for the new posts starting Tuesday, January 1, 2013!

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Making progress again

I’ve been working on learning more about storyboarding this past month, and haven’t done as much directly with “Blue Blazes,” but I’m finally back on track, and will have some new storyboards to show in the next couple of weeks.  I need to make sure that I have all my characters designed, though, and finally had a breakthrough on Mary Cummings, sister of the dingbat Tom Andrews, who suggests the specific cure to “release the fire from the belly of the mare.”  She is basically Tom’s head, but with a scowl and a bonnet:

Mary Cummings and her brother, Tom Andrews, from the storyboard

Here are some shots of the basic maquette of Mary Cummings:


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Reverse Storyboarding

I am taking another class at RISD|CE this summer, this time on storyboarding. One of our ongoing assignments is to “reverse storyboard” a couple of movies each week.  I think I’ve already overdone it: I picked Ralph Eggleston’s For the Birds (Pixar, 2001), which is “only” a little over two and a half minutes long, but it took me a whole day and 107 separate thumbnail drawings to do it!

I was exhausted by the whole process of looking so carefully at every little thing going on in the frames and the edits that I think I have to wait a day or so before going back and being able to process, as an overview, what I was seeing at such a detailed level.

For the Birds had a lot of cuts, but surprised me in that with a minor exception, the “camera” stays in just about the same spot, and just shifts sideways and zooms in and out.  I am reading Joseph Mascelli’s  The Five C’s of Cinematography for the class, and it’s really helping me understand what I’m looking at, and to have some vocabulary to use to describe it.

I had been thinking about trying Doug Sweetland’s Presto! (Pixar, 2008), but it’s over five minutes long, and I thought I’d start with the shorter one first. Whew!  I read that Presto! had to be pitched 10 times, and they did over 3000 storyboard drawings to get it to where it is now.

I think I will attempt a briefer reverse storyboard of it, constraining myself to look at only the different camera angles, and not work so closely with all the action, etc.  See if that can make the process go a little more efficiently…?

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the Fleischer Studios’ “Standard Production Reference”

I have been looking back at the work I’ve done on my film over the previous three months, and I am struck by two things: the chaos and the order.

When I started out committing to make this film, I glibly plotted out a sequence to produce it – all in a very linear, sequential, hierarchical way. Efficient. And totally undo-able. It fell apart almost immediately, because I hadn’t gotten even close to having the story laid out, even though I thought I already knew what the story was. I’ve been telling and retelling it for many years now. Switching from oral storytelling to a visual medium was difficult. I haven’t been able to really plot out how much time it’s taken me, because the story just percolates at odd times, sometimes when I’m actively trying, and other times, it just pops out totally unpredictably. This doesn’t lend itself well to scheduling, although my experience tells me that co-authoring is easier in that regard: making a date or deadline to hand the work-in-progress over to the other person, or teasing things out together, bouncing ideas off each other.  So I haven’t really had this in writing this film – a few people to talk to, some more insightful and helpful than other, but still not a collaborator, and I feel that is a drawback.  I think about how many great animation duos there have been out there – Ub and Walt, Joe and Bill, Frank and Ollie, Max and Dave, Hugh and Rudy, Trey and Matt – and I wonder if some of the chaos could recede with collaboration.

The order has been interesting in a different way.  I do feel like when I go at each piece to work on it, I have specific goals, and I can keep polishing it in very specific ways.  I realized the other day when I wrote my post about the pig flip that I had every drawing and sequence for that small scene, and I pulled them all out and looked at the progress I’d made, starting with one small doodle, and where I’d gotten with it over time. I also looked at where the pig flip was, and that although I know that it still have some details to go, I already have my list in my head of what still needs to be done – figure out the padding at the beginning and end, and make the piglets slightly more piglet-y at those points, maybe add a head-flop to the sow in the end.  But I have a clear sense of what I want it to do.  And each revision gets closer and closer. I also noticed that I made a decision to change the “camera angle” on the sow at one point, which changed how the flip read, but it also introduced the piglets, and that complicated the scene. A two-second scene got complicated. This was when having people look at the bit was really crucial: I hadn’t really thought about how people might be horrified by the prospect of the mama squishing her piglets.  But I was able to figure out a solution by thinking it through and actually drawing all my arcs for their individual trajectories and vary the landings. And this was a bit of a revelation to me: that this was possible.

I look at my storyboards – mostly drawn quickly on blank 3×5 index cards – and I can see a sequence, but I don’t think they necessarily communicate a whole lot to other people until after I’ve animated them. In some respects, even I don’t know what it will really look like until I start animating it.  Watching the pig flip develop over time has been encouraging to me, to trust my judgment. Now that I’m working on the scene with the cow choking on the turnip, and I’m still with the storytelling drawings and it looks all choppy and unfunny, that the chances are increasing that I will be able to make that scene funny, too. The cow’s tongue has special potential.

So how does this fit with the title of my post, the Fleischer Studios’ Standard Production Reference? I came across a digitized version of this typed document on-line through a link on the “Support Hand-Drawn Animation” FaceBook group – I’d heard about The Bible a while ago, and had been really curious to see a copy, and lo and behold, there it appeared. What I was struck by as I flipped through the various pages was that it was probably really necessary when having so many people collaborating on each cartoon. One of the comments even said something to the effect of “If you take drawings/layouts/sheets off someone else’s desk, leave them a note to tell them where they are.” Just rules for making sure that people communicated and were all on the same page.  But there were also recommendations for how to achieve efficiency.  One note recommended putting scenery overlapping crowds to reduce the need to draw so much detail. Some of these struck me as just good business practice – to reduce the time and expense of a picture for the business, but it also seemed to help reduce tedium, which is ironic when discussing a medium that is already pretty tedious to produce in the first place!

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The pig flip

My work yesterday evening was to try to work out the timing for the pig flip with five main positions: start, up, rotate to 90°, rotate to 180°, down. Very brief – two seconds max. In the first attempt I did of this last week, there was a lot of concern by my test audience that the sow was squashing the piglets, so I’m making them fly out of immediate danger of that consequence – see the red arcs.  I tried this before running the sequence, so it was a start, but only two of the piglets remained in the frame!  There’s a lot of squash and stretch on the sow, which I think works well.  Not sure yet what to do with the farmer standing on the left, witnessing this. He is there for scale and composition – I’m not sure I really need him, but I do think about having him catch one of the flying piglets, or have one bounce off of him, if I decide to include him in the final shot.

Preliminary extremes for the the pig flip

After running it, I decided to work on the flying piglets separately:

Timing the piglets – they all land at different times.

And this is the end result. The sow is (mostly) on twos, and the piglets are on ones, landing separately, and with a little bounce:

I’ve posted this 2-second working clip publicly to tempt folks to join Vimeo, and let me know they want to see more of the work I’m doing.

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Milt Kahl

Milt Kahl, answering Richard Williams’ question.

It’s totally wrong to even presume to compare myself to Milt Kahl, but so often in recent weeks, I’ve been reminded of the bit in Richard Williams’ book when he describes asking Kahl if he ever listened to music while animating, and his mentor erupted, claiming he wasn’t “smart enough to think of more than one thing at a time”… I’m feeling like that.

Considering the huge amount I’ve had on my plate with the end of the academic year upon everyone at work, my ability to concentrate on anything of my own has simply gone right down the toilet. I know I should be trying to work in small bits, but in many ways, it’s like when I program: I’m in a place where I need to clear out everything else from my skull for some big chunks of time to be able to do it, because it just takes up every bit of my brain’s capacity to figure things out.  I don’t think it really was that Kahl wasn’t “smart enough” to do it, but that that kind of concentration demands full access to every spare synapse I have, it seems.  I know I get cranky if I’m getting into that zone and something intrudes and demands I divert my attention, even if it’s just a cat, just wanting a little cuddle time: it’s hard work to get into that zone, and when I’m struggling to get into it, it’s a real pain. I can’t imagine ever getting back into it again – although another part of me is certain that I will, since I have done so in the past. I laugh when kids tell me they can “multi-task” – to me, that means one isn’t concentrating, and concentration is the goal.  I don’t think one can concentrate when constantly being interrupted, though. I can’t.

Hence, my motto for the summer, when I will not have people demanding my attention every time I turn around: ANIMATION IS CONCENTRATION.

Richard Williams’ shirt: Animation is Concentration

I’ve started pinning things on the walls around my drawing space, to keep me focused. The reason I was even thinking about Milt Kahl at all was because I ran across this amazing sequence on Sandro Cleuzo’s blog, and I felt like I was just kicked in the head:

Edgar, from The Aristocats, by Milt Kahl

I need to be drawing more, but I come home so exhausted from work, all I want to do is sleep. I need more stuff to keep getting under my skin like this, so I can’t help it, with whatever time I have and don’t have, so I just HAVE to make my stuff BETTER. Crit is in only one week. I have to make the most out of whatever feedback I can get from it on what I’ve done so far with the film, so that when my Kahl-brain finally has a chance to concentrate fully this summer, I can make the absolute most of it.

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More on voices

I was listening to This American Life Saturday with a story by Welsh writer/journalist/humorist Jon Ronson reading from his book about the Psychopath Test (I’ve heard it before – it first aired a year ago) and I was captivated by his voice. I didn’t recognize the accent, and had to look him up, to make sure I knew who was actually reading. (Turns out he’s the guy who also wrote Men Who Stare at Goats.) There’s a devious but anxious/wincing tone to it – although that might have to do with the subject matter: interviewing someone he thought might be a psychopath! Great voice!  I’m still not sure how I want the voices to work in the film – narrator, farmers giving depositions…  I should try to firm up the script this week so I can go collect some voices again, but this time, I think I’ll try to direct the people a little more – there was such a wonderful quality in Ronson’s voice that added so much to what he was reading, it may not matter as much about WHAT they say, but HOW they say it.  I will probably have much shorter things for them to say, besides, so I can have them read the lines with different inflections.

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Once upon a time…

Once upon a time, there was a woman who everyone thought was a witch…

I am trying to figure out how much time I have to establish the series of past accusations against Elizabeth How. I have started drawing a series of poses for the cow that chokes on a turnip. Like the sequence in My Grandmother Ironed the King’s Shirts I discussed a few posts ago, one that took 24 seconds to tell the history of the demise of all the former kings of Norway, I’ve been studying the brief sequence in The Incredibles when Edna Mode puts her foot down with Mr. Incredible about his new supersuit, announcing definitively, “No capes!” It takes her all of 30 seconds to tell the stories of the deaths of five different supers because of accidents with their capes:

This is how I’ve timed it out:

Timing for the “No capes!” sequence in The Incredibles

As the film stands now (Take #8), I’ve got the opening devoted previous accusations – three of them: afflicting Hannah Perley (6 seconds), the cow choking on a turnip (3 seconds), and the sow leaping in the air and falling dead (2 second) – followed by the ministers defending her from those accusations, before the trial deposition sequence begins at about 20 seconds in (counting the time for the titles). As I’ve got the cow sequence drawn right now, it’s gotten to 6 seconds. It may depend on what kind of narration goes with it – how long it actually takes to say what it is. I have a couple of other bizarre accusations in the records, too, that I may be able to put together in a few seconds of storytelling.  The “no capes” sequence starts with a 17-second beginning to establish the theme of the danger of capes, then the following four “stories” take progressively less time: 6 seconds, 3 seconds, 2 seconds, and 2 seconds.  I’d like to spend the longest time with the initial accusations regarding Hannah Perley. Then I have the cow choking on the turnip, and the pig leaping up and dying.  I don’t know that just three will do it for the lead-in. I probably have enough stories in the records to do a couple more, but they’d have to be really quick.   I don’t think I should spend more than 30 seconds on the intro. If I can get Hannah Perley in 15 seconds, the cow in 6, and two to three more deftly in 2-3 seconds each (the pig should go that quickly), I’d be in that timeframe, and ready to tell the BIG story, about the mare. That’s when I can switch to the true-crime format and have the four witnesses tell their parts of the story. Hmm…  I’ll have to go back and see what else I can find…

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Music Track for Take #8

With Take #8 posted at Vimeo, I suddenly realized that at about two and a half minutes, it’s about the duration of the main part of “Germany,” the musical composition by Ryan Love that he had sent my way back in March, so I’ve made and posted a second version of Take #8 with a music track laid in.  There are places where it really works, and others where it’s just “off” but that’s something that can be tweaked as I animate so that the various hits come on the beats, etc.  I’m still thinking there should be some vocal work in this, with the music ducked, but this feels like progress.  I think this is where using bar sheets will have to come in. I’m not certain that this is definitely the music I want to use – I may want to see if Ryan can come up with something that works  musically closer to the rhythm of the story, but we’ll see!

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Another Pencil Test

For all the drawing I’ve been doing this past week, when it’s come to doing my first pencil test of a character, I feel like I’ve seized right up again!  Arrgh!  But I still have something, as a place to start, and I can keep pushing it from there. The motions feel stiff and artificial, although I do like the way the “take” is starting to work, and I think I’ve gotten to a better place with the “no” head shaking – I had the head turn farther on one side than on the other, so it isn’t so totally symmetrical.  Duh.

I had to do two versions of the pencil test, the first one with just the extremes, and then I used those drawings to work out the timing in the computer. I went back and redrew what it seemed I needed.  I expect that over time, I’ll have a better internal sense of that without having to do quite as much of that. I also added multiple “identical”drawings to cycle through for the holds, and I like the way that feels. I’d done that for the pipe hold early on, and liked it.

I also tried using an exposure sheet for the first time this week, and it really helped me keep everything organized as I went from the first extremes-only version to the second one with the inbetweens – except that when I shot the drawings, I cut off the corner with the drawing numbers. I was able to figure out which drawings went with which the numbers and fix it in the computer, but I won’t make THAT mistake again!

Exposure Sheet for the pencil test of Isaac Sr.’s “Take”

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