Thursday, October 28, 2010

Animation, in short. (or how I made "...of Reynard & Emmeline" and why it matters to Burp's Christmas

Hello everyone,

As I mentioned in my last post, I've spent the past month and a half or so working on a secret mystery project.

Well, here it is:

...of Reynard & Emmeline from Michael P. Heneghan on Vimeo.

Yes, the secret mystery project that has been keeping from my Burp's Christmas work is, indeed, an animated short film. One that is very special to me. On October 23rd I used it to propose to my now fiancée, Sarah Holt.

I want to write about it here because I think offering insight into it's creation will offer you insight into how Burp's Christmas will be created. The two films will look very different, this is true, but in many ways "...of Reynard & Emmeline" allowed me to experiment with a couple techniques that will make their way into BC. It gives you an idea as to where I'm headed, based on where I've been (The Romantic).

First, the idea: Originally I was going to do a silly narrative with pretty absurd humor (almost like this but with a very different ending), but I wasn't able to piece together an engaging enough narrative that actually spoke to how I felt about the whole thing.

After chewing over the matter for quite some time and sketching out a few rough ideas, I at last settled on doing an ernest, dialogue-free film set to music... something folky & whimsical yet tempered with some gravity. Something that had charm and spoke to what I value most in our partnership. I wanted the story to be told through the visuals with lyrics that complemented the action instead of parroting it. I appealed to my dear friend John The Old Tree Mallinen, an extraordinarily talented bard in his own right, to craft the music for the film. Much to my endless joy and gratefulness, he obliged and began work on the tune.

During this time I distilled the raw idea into some solid narrative structure. I envisioned each of the separate scenes and wrote some mock up lyrics that John would use as the launching point for his own.

Second, the realization: At this point I gathered up the raw sketches and notes and turned them into storyboards. I drew my boards completely digitally using my WACOM monitor. I goofed at the aspect ratio though, so these are a bit squarer than I would have liked. As usual, my boards are pretty sketchy. Since they are mainly just for me, I can get away with it.

As you can see, there were a few changes made to the film between the boarding process and the final animation. Most notably I changed a sequence of Emmeline and Reynard building a house (and subsequently a life together) to them planting, nurturing, then growing a life together. I was inspired to do this after I heard the final music for the first time, where John included the line "brother Sun, father God, sister Moon, I'm alone in this world without You." It was a beautiful line and didn't seem to fit in with the industrial, man made tone of the building sequence (which I was never that fond of anyhow). I view our relationship as more organic than schematic, anyhow. And changing the building to a plant allowed me to slip in some lovely alchemical symbolism.

After I finished the boards I began to design the characters. Normally I create a handful of sketches and doodles of a character then create a tight, well rendered pencil sketch before I ink the image. For this film I was on such a short deadline that I skipped the well rendered pencil step and wound up inking most of the puppets off of a very rough doodle. I think this was very effective because when I make a tight pencil drawing, I always fall in love with it and want to try my best to replicate it in ink. Therefor I work the ink very maticulously and mechanically, trying to replicate the pencil lines as best I can, attempting to preserve the integrity of the original concept yet altogether warping it by my own concern for it. I kill the spontaniaty. Great inkers are able to dance with the pen, giving energy and vitality to their lines. I'm not there yet. I gained some good ground this time, however, by saving my final spontaneity for inking. Since the underlying sketch was very loose, I was still imagening the character for the first time while I completed the final, permenant appearence.

I inked the characters digitally using my WACOM monitor. This time the outline for the character was only a thin guide - the same lineweight as the interior rendering. I much prefer this to my previous style (click here to observe Charles Burp and compare him to Reynard) - varying line weights within the same character (generally with a pretty thick outline). Thinner line weights make everything look like a moving picture book and less like a traditional cell cartoon, which is the tone I was going for here.

I originally inked the characters in black, but thought that was too contrasty and harsh. To fix this, I duplicated the underlining layer of color (I color the blacks and the colors on seperate layers) and moved it above the ink layer. Then I turned the opacity of the top color layer down pretty far, giving the underlying blacks a slightly augmented and muted tone, while my colors remained the same value.

I worked on the backgrounds and the characters simultaneously. The backgrounds, however, were rendered very differently. Instead of inking them, I did a semi-polished pencil drawing that I colored and added effects to in photoshop. The result is a tightly illustrated character on a loose, organic background. I used this same motif in The Romantic (only the backgrounds weren't as well rendered, nor were the characters). I think it works here, but I'd like to switch things up for Burp's Christmas. In BC I want to experiment with very detailed, fully inked backgrounds. In animation it's important to separate your characters from their backgrounds (or risk the movement, and subsequently the drama, getting lost in a canvas of similar information). In ...of R & E, the different rendering styles helped make the characters pop. In Burp's Christmas, I want to use colors and value to make the characters pop.

Third, the production. Now that I have my characters and backgrounds finished, I can begin animating. All animated was done in Adobe After Effects. I'm still using vs. 6.5. I've meant to upgrade, and have, actually, but the latest version runs slow on my computer, has new features, and I've never been able to motivate myself enough to get used to it.

For Burp's Christmas, I'll motivate myself.

Animating the film probably took about half of the time it took to make the characters and backgrounds. That's part of the reason I love this kind of animation. It's smooth sailing once you get over the hump of making the bits and pieces that will be brought into After Effects. Because your images are already colored, you get instant payoff when you're finished animating.

One thing I wish I could have done more in this film is had the characters move in perspective towards and away from the camera. Because of time restraints, I had to resort to side scrolling animation ( a trapping of After Effects) for most of the film. Since this is a short film, however, it's not entirely noticeable or annoying. At the feature level, though, having your characters move only from side to side can be grating. Burp's Christmas will not suffer from this, I promise!

I had a lot of fun animating the ocean sequence. The waves are made up of one singular wave image, animated in a circular rotation, looped, then duplicated over and over with small variations to the loop (so that they all crash at different times).

Finally, the finishing touches. After I was done animating, I exported my animation as separate 1280x720 uncompressed .mov files and strung them together in Final Cut Pro. Editing was pretty easy - with animation, there's very little "extra footage". I synced everything up with the song, added a couple cross-dissolves, through in some light sound effects, and then viola, I had a finished film.

So there's not really much more too it than that, just a lot of work and some imagination.

I look forward to the day when I can make something like this during my 9-5, instead of fitting it in when I can in my spare time. I can't help look at all my work these days and think "if only I could really work on this, then I'd have something". This is the reason I refuse to make Burp's Christmas without a budget - to be true to my own abilities I need to nurture them with time. Without the money, there is no time, and without time, I can't make the film that is waiting inside my heart.

So we'll see!

Now that this short film is done, I'm ready to focus my energy back into finishing the first phase of our production - Getting Our Face On.

Will write soon and let you know how that is going!

much peace,

PS - She said yes!

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