DC Shorts Film Festival and Screenwriting Competition

rotating reel

Behind the Animation: Spirited Storytellers at DC Shorts

This year we welcome over a dozen extraordinary animators to the festival selection.  The 14 animated shorts come from directors around the world, who each offer unique animation styles and various influences from their respective backgrounds and cultures.  I was amazed at the differing animation styles and techniques of each of the films.

One animator of particular interest, Grant Orchard, used not one, but three distinct animation styles in his short, A Morning Stroll, featured in the 5th showcase.  The film took a full two years to produce.  In Orchard’s own words, “Basically it [the film] is a love story between a man and a chicken, a love story that spans 100 years.”

 

 

Orchard elaborates on the animation styles saying, “We tried to use different aesthetic and animation styles for each section. The film is divided into 3 sections that are based in 3 different time periods. So we wanted each section’s style to represent the period it was set in. For example, the first part is set in 1959, so the animation has a certain Max Fleisher, traditional 2D feel. While the 2009 section was made using a lower polygon count; a bit like those Second Life avatars.  That was there to reflect the use of mobile technology and content that features quite heavily in that part.  The third section was just meant to look as real as possible, even though it’s the section that has the least bearing on reality.”

He cites “Flash, After Effects, Photoshop, Softimage” amongst the many programs used to make the film.

I was still wondering, though, why the chicken?  Orchard said that his inspiration for the film came from an extract of a book called True Tales of American Life, edited by Paul Auster.  A Morning Stroll is not an adaptation of Auster’s work, but rather provided Orchard with a thought that became the genesis for the animated short.

“It’s a paragraph story; really really short. And there’s one line in it that got me thinking – which is ‘a chicken walks down a busy city street.’ It’s a bit like the old joke – ‘why did the chicken cross the road?’  The thought of a chicken walking down a city street like Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy made me smile, and got me thinking about the blanks either side of that. Why is a chicken walking down a city street? Where is it going? Where has it been?”

Orchard also references a book by Raymond Queneau called Exercises in Style, as an equally influential source of inspiration and attributes it specifically to how he harnessed the idea of filming the short in three segments.

“It [Exercises in Style] retells the fairly ordinary story of a man on a bus 99 times in 99 different styles.  So, I thought telling this fairly ordinary story of a chicken walking down a city street 3 times, in 3 different time periods, in 3 different styles would be an interesting experiment.”

While it may seem like the film yields some abstruse message, Orchard says earnestly, “There’s no direct message. It’s honestly just an attempt to create something unique and surprising. It might or might not have achieved that, but that was the ambition.”  Orchard hopes simply that the film will “surprise people and make them laugh.”  The film is sure to do just that.

As part of the 8th showcase, another animator, Mike Liu, brings an Asian ninja to life in his short, Shinobi Blueswith computer animation analogous to that of a Pixar film  Amazingly, Liu created nearly the entire short on his own.  This exhaustive list of tasks comprises concept, story, design, modeling, animation, texturing, rigging, compositing, lighting and direction.  Liu elucidated on his filmmaking process and how he achieved such a feat, saying that he received “good advice” from senior filmmakers and had “great assistance” from a friend, Jeeah Huh, with the textures of the film.  This advice and assistance helped to “motivate” him to stick with the film and finish an impressive final product.  In fact, he didn’t even expect the film to garner any big audiences as the film was made in part for his Master’s Program in computer arts.

 

 

It did take more time to make without assistance, however.  Liu reported that he worked on the film for “nine to ten months.”  He elaborated on the film’s concept saying, “After getting a BFA in traditional animation from the School of Visual Arts in ’08, it was a rough time in the economy to find a job in animation.”  Liu’s storyline of a ninja struggling to find work in his chosen field is metaphor for Liu’s own experience.  In his own words of advice to aspiring filmmakers, “Don’t give up.  If you’re really passionate, keep going for it;” words Liu certainly emulates.

Another film is not only animated but it features the voiceover work of two major celebrities, Christopher Lloyd and Kathy Bates.  This is Jonah Ansell’s short, Cadaver, featured in Showcase 4, about a cadaver man, voiced by Lloyd, who comes back to life after a medical student, voiced by acting newcomer and fashion blogger, Tavi Gevinson, cuts him open.  Ansell’s younger sister, a med student at Northwestern University, served as the inspiration for the film, and he explains how his idea for Cadaver was prompted by a call from his sister:

“Two years ago, on the day before my little sister cut open her first cadaver, I received a frantic email. They were making the med students do some sort of creative assignment, like, ‘tell us what you think this cadaver’s life must’ve been like, write a haiku, or draw a picture,’ I think it was intended to get the kids to realize that the body that they were going to spend the next semester dissecting was once a living, breathing human and that they needed to treat it with respect. So, I wrote this little poem, a love story in fact, about a cadaver who wakes up and begs the med student to help him say a last goodbye to his wife — who he didn’t get to say farewell to, before he died. I didn’t think anything of it. I went on with my day. In fact, I think a whole year went by. But something in the story kept drawing me back to it.”  (See Ansell and his sister inset).

 

 

Cadaver also bears a comic book like animation style and remarkably the film was “entirely hand-drawn with Sharpie markers,” according to Ansell.  The hand-drawings were then animated “using Adobe’s After Effects.”  Ansell acknowledges Carina Simmons for Cadaver’s character design, and Eric Vennemeyer as the art direction lead and illustrator for “all of the non-character assets in the film.”  Of Simmons, Ansell says, “She has a lush, dark and gritty sensibility.  She was integral in creating the film’s emotional tone.  She visually ignited the voices to life.”  Ansell credits Vennemeyer for helping to “visually layer the work to give it an ancient, timeless nature.”

 

 

Finally, I spoke with Joaquin Baldwin, the creator of the short, The Windmill Farmer, shown in Showcase 13.  Baldwin brings an animation style he amusingly calls, “whimsical overly-textured silhouette,” then he quips, “That’s it, I think…” In truth, Baldwin’s animation style is in a class of its own; as a viewer it feels like a storybook come to life on screen, with textured drawing-like animation.  The film is about a windmill farmer, and its fictional absurdity mirrors the storybook feel of the film.  In the film, the farmer struggles to tend to his windmill farm after harsh weather patterns destroy his “crop.”  Thus, the film obviously lends itself to a “pro-renewable energy message” in Baldwin’s own words.

All the same, Baldwin especially hopes the audience will gain “the simple satisfaction of experiencing the story of the farmer, and to reflect on the cyclical nature of nature. It’s entertainment, plus hope, plus eye candy, plus inspiration for other filmmakers, but I don’t think that watching a film like this will change your mind about what you should be doing to now screw up the planet.”

 

 

Baldwin also elaborated on his image of the film’s storyline: “I wanted to convey the cycles of nature, of life and death, of farming, or water, or the spinning of the windmills, and how these cycles continue and even if we are powerless to stop them, we know that in the end things will return to a balance once more.”

In terms of the animation style used in the film, Baldwin solely used a Mac laptop, which allowed him to access a plethora of animation programs.

“The animation was done in Toon Boom, exported as vector SWFs files, and brought into After Effects, where I added the textures and colors. The backgrounds I painted in Photoshop (in reality I just painted textures, and used them to color vector shapes inside After Effects). I also used Maya to animate the destruction of the windmills, using a basic simulation and rendering as a flat vector SWF.”

Baldwin, also admits the animation itself to be a point of difficulty,

“One main challenge was to keep the film visually interesting, while working with silhouettes. I couldn’t have strange camera moves or change my compositions too much, so I went with a super stylized texturing and subtle glowing effects to make the images more interesting to look at in every frame. It was tricky, it was hard to settle between a point to pure simplicity and a jumble of non-sensical texturing, it took me a long time to figure out what the final look would be like. It was also quite complicated to find ways to show emotions in silhouettes, it taught me a lot about clear posing and depending on body posture for emotion.”

Baldwin certainly seems to have trounced those complications head on with his thoughtful, heartfelt and lively film.

Each of these four films brings its own variations in style and animation, and affords different connotations and implications.  The inspirations for these films commonly stem from a seemingly trivial impetus that then, upon further reflection, engenders greater meaning.  Films in animation, even short films, take an ample amount of time and are certainly more challenging than meets the eye, in my mind.  My hat goes off to these incredibly talented, resilient and resolute filmmakers.

 

By:  Hadley Fielding

 

The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences Copyright 2012 DC Shorts/DC Film Alliance

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