a long story about a short film
Every production is different. That's not just a cliché, it's a truth. Animation is process of infinite experimentation, arrangement and development. There may be constants but there's nothing more constant than the need to "figure it out" each time.
Still, there tends to be a general framework to most projects. Our recently completed film "On the Record" done with StoryCorps is a good example.
In the Autumn of 2014, StoryCorps reached out for new animation directors to continue the great work being done by Rauch Bros. Animation. We prepared a full pitch -storyboards, budget, schedule, written treatment. Ultimately they contracted Julie Zammarchi and Gina Kamentsky to produce the next round of films. They're brilliant artists, so this was a great idea.
We kept in touch with the folks at StoryCorps after the bidding process by inviting them to screenings and parties and by sharing new films we'd complete. It wasn't surprising to get an email from them in February of 2016, it could have been an update on their work or a general animation question or even just a regular "hello". It was surprising to find that they wanted to discuss working on their new season.
From there we had a long conference call which featured, notably, the confession that we didn't really like to do schedules anymore but wouldn't have any problem meeting just about any deadline and that as great as their productions have been we probably would have done a lot of things very differently. So we weren't really expecting a call back. Apparently "honesty" is an effective sales pitch, a couple months later they asked if we wanted to work together.
Although the next full season of animated shorts wound up pushed into the future, they did have one series that was ready to go: the #whoweare initiative in partnership with UpWorthy. These were text based pieces each produced in under two weeks.
The Next Thing
As these pieces were finishing, StoryCorps asked if we could a budget for a film that would fall somewhere between the lower cost of the Who We Are bits and the more full productions of their earlier films. The Justice Project was a specific initiative and the animation work needed to fit within the schedule and cost parameters of its funding.
We discussed levels of complexity and look. Thinking of "limited" animation to fit a budget isn't the most effective way to approach a project. Instead, it can be helpful to develop an overall approach to narrative and motion which doesn't feel limited. John and Faith Hubley's films are a great example of this. They were made economically without economics as the driving factor behind production.
Everything has limitations. One limitation is delivery date. We had about two months to make the film. With that knowledge we could determine that two animators could each put in roughly three to four weeks and that one person would handle the bulk of the design. These factors determine the "level" of animation -what can this team accomplish in a given timeframe. Budgets are not abstract numbers, they are inextricably tied to labor. The cost of labor is tied to the cost of living and the scarcity/skill of the laborer.
Around the time we were finishing this film, another client contacted us about a production. The amount they were willing to spend would equal one artist working for one week. The briefing suggested, in order to do it right, it would take three to four times that figure. When budgets are large -say, over $60k for 30 seconds (though not too long ago this was the low-end standard) or even $250k for 20 minutes (a common figure these days) -discrepancies can be figured out. If a task needs twice the effort, there are always ways to work the budget to address it. If a client can't provide reasonable compensation for labor, then a production can't reasonably work. This project we declined.
Other than "level of animation", the key element we discussed with StoryCorps was visual style. There were a few governing factors at play, mostly we wanted to reflect the truth of the story within the visuals. A few years back Keenon Ferrell had sent us his website portfolio. His art demonstrates a great mix of caricature and graphic style with nice line work that is very "animateable". StoryCorps concurred and he was fortunately available to contribute.
Design and Storyboard
Keenon came to the studio and we had a long discussion about the film over lunch on a snowy Friday. He began to sketch out the characters.
Meanwhile we created a rough storyboard.
From there, Keenon developed the illustration style and full character designs.
Looking back at his drawing, the animation could have benefited from looser lines. The fluidity of the arm here, forming the sloping back, the Hirschfeld-like curves in the elbow all make the drawing great. That's another artifact of budget/schedule. The one thing that's lost in the constraints of contracts (or, more clearly, the confines of creation under the auspices of capitalism) is the freedom to experiment, to try and and re-try techniques to find the best and not the merely acceptable.
Animation to End
These boards were timed against the track. Notes put in as reminders for the animators.
The movie file will be imported into Adobe Animate or Photoshop, the annotations provide additional information to the boards and written notes that accompany the scene.
In this manner the film is built through several stages. The storyboard takes a few passes from rough to clean, that provides the basis for animation, which also begins as rough. Pilar Newton did this scene.
After the rough animation, we clean it up, paint it and composite it against the background. Taisiya Zaretskaya did the painting and compositing here.
Every scene (pretty much) is approached like this.
As we go along, we're constantly editing and replacing in the master cut. Traditionally we use Final Cut Pro to edit, it's ideal for animation editing. On this project we moved to Adobe Premiere, since Apple no longer supports FCP7 and newer OS and hardware may not run it at all. We'll continue to use FCP7 but will be trying out other tools. Avid Media Composer will be the next up.
This shot wasn't finished yet.
Rachel at StoryCorps suggested the color development through the whole film could be sharper. This scene, for instance, takes place at early morning and follows a "sunrise" scene. On her advice we altered the color systems from here through the next couple of shots.
"On the Record" was completed the last week of April 2017 and launched online May 1.
directed by Richard O'Connor
executive producer: Dave Isay
producer: Rachel Hartman
audio producers: Michael Garofalo, John White
design: Keenon Ferrell
animators: Taisiya Zaretskaya, Pilar Newton
production assistant: Milan Chambard
original music: Joshua Abrams
music performed by
Joshua Abrams, Hamid Drake, Marquis Hill, Emmett Kelly, Adam Thornburg
music mixed by Joshua Abrams, Neil Strauch
Special Thanks to
Jamal Faison and Born Blackwell