Animation is not a fast process. It generally requires careful thought, planning and hard work to realise. There are happy exceptions however, when a simple idea and uncomplicated execution coalesce into something fast and fun. Yesterday my partner, a nursing student, was studying acute kidney failure and a blackly comic pun occurred to me. a few hours later, I had finished this gif and posted it online. It got way more hits than any of the worthy, significant projects I've done. Hmmm. Perhaps I should do quick and silly more often...
"Can you create 5 x 30 second animated shorts with the theme How not to travel?" asked Harry from Irresistible films. "Absolutely!" I replied, and we did. That's the short version. Here's the long version:
Good animation is not quick and it's often not cheap, but crucially, it can be cheaper than live-action, doesn't date as fast and affords a huge array of possibilities. In this case, it was to give a retro feel to comic depictions of nightmare holiday scenarios - the arguments, the tipping, the rush to the airport.
The first stage was to establish a style for the series. Crucially, we had to sympathise with the characters - we've all made poor choices on holiday so we agreed that we didn't want a cast of grotesque caricatures, but a recognisable, representative group instead. Face-to-face meetings and conference calls were crucial to manage the visual development, expectations and establish a rapport between myself, the producers, the agency and the client. Communicating visual ideas over the phone or email can work if there's a solid, existing relationship and shared understanding of the language, but it's easy for projects to go awry, and nothing beats sitting down together in a room with sketchpad and pencil.
Once the storyboards were approved, it was time to enter production. The cast of 21 characters were built in 3D but carefully proportioned and rigged to bring a traditional visual sensibility and rendered in flat colour. 2D animation traditionally requires multiple rigs per character depending on whether they are seen from the front, side, or at an angle. Only a single skeleton per character was required for 3D. However, to reinforce the 2D style, the facial animation was entirely 2D and tracked onto the 3D renders in post.
With the characters established, the next step was to create storyboards for each short film. It was great to draw on the traditional schools of animation, framing the protagonists and events in a formal, theatrical style against scrolling backdrops.
The inimitable Werner Herzog describes the use of storyboards as cowardly, but when dealing with several layers of producers and clients, they're truly essential to manage everyone's expectations and expose any flaws in the narrative.
In the second film 'The Perpetual Honeymooners', we had to convey a young couple pretending they were newlyweds over and over again, holiday after holiday, to blag an upgrade. By using a split-screen and the fast cutting of a heist movie, we got the point across in superfast time.
The backgrounds were all digitally painted using the storyboard stills as a basis. Early on, it was planned to give each animation a distinct visual identity through a strikingly different grade. However as production progressed, it became clear that the huge variety of locations and lighting conditions brought their own identity and mood, as did the distinctive characters, and there was no need to apply a stylised grade.
With the pipeline in full flow, progress was good.
Of course, nothing ever goes quite without a hitch, and late in the day it was decided that the mum from final animation 'The Cheap Skates', was a bit too dowdy and needed some glamour. We went back to the drawing board and built a whole other mother. The advantage however of using 3D-rigged characters was that we could copy the biped animation across to the new character and re-render.
Everything was coming together nicely! Two crucial elements remained. Firstly, Rachel Salmon - typographer and graphic designer - created titles with a distinctive look to complete the homage to vintage 'Merrie Melody' cartoons. Secondly, Jamie Robertson provided sound design and score. It's said that animation is 40% visual and 60% audio. It's true. Animation never truly comes to life until you can hear it and Jamie has a gift for finding the emotion that underpins any story.
A few tweaks here and there were all that remained and the files were delivered. It was one of the most varied and fun jobs I've been involved in and working with other exciting, engaged creatives along with inspiring producers makes all the difference. If I had to pick a favourite, it'd be the Perpetual Honeymooners. Watch it below. Thanks for reading!
As an animation director, much of my work lately has been to create explainers (concise, entertaining and informative films demonstrating what your service offers) and other promotional visuals for businesses large and small. If you’re thinking about commissioning something of the sort or indeed any kind of innovative marketing, here are some tips to help you get the best results from collaboration with creatives
- Tell your creative why you love what you do. If we’re to inspire viewers and potential customers on your behalf, we need to convey that passion to them.
- Know your audience. You know your business inside and out, but your customers don’t need to. Keep your message simple, concise and targeted – invite them to learn more, don’t bombard them with too much info. 2 minutes is optimal for a video, 3 at the very most!
- Tell a story. Mercifully gone are the days when pie charts and graphs constituted a message of success. Audiences want to be inspired by a story they can relate to, whether your customers’ or your own.
- Trust your creative. As with any employee, we do our finest work when we’re given enough space and information to be the best we can. Don’t micro-manage – you’ll get micro-results!
- That said, disagreements happen, so explain why you don’t like that picture/that graphic/that font, rather than simply saying “That doesn’t work for me.” By understanding why, we can improve our work. (However, remember #2, perhaps the artist or marketing person knows the audience better than you do?)
- Finally, be brave. On social media, we share things that are funny, cute, spectacular or surprising. When I pitch a series of ideas I urge clients to be courageous, but all too often they choose a safe choice, and safe choices get the fewest hits.