Friday, 30 January 2015

LIGHTBOARDS- part I

A quick one this time to introduce the artwork of Romain Jouandeau, our amazingly talented concept and lightboard artist.
I will go more in depth into this aspect of the film's artistic production shortly, with artwork and a conversation with Romain where he shares some insight into his work on the film, but for now I'm here to share his fantastic work as he has just started his own blog on the work he produced on Yellowbird.  

You can find the blog here:

The Art Of Romain Jouandeau on Yellowbird

Enjoy!


Thursday, 29 January 2015

STORYBOARDS part I- a conversation with story artist DEAN ROBERTS

As in all films the storyboarding process begins quite early, most times without the luxury of fully completed designs to help you along the way to finishing your sequence. So it is common to have the frustrating task to work through your initial versions of scenes designing sets, props and at times characters, until the approved ones are delivered to you.
Yet the first passes of the storyboard are also the most exciting and fun, when you're free to explore many avenues and possibilities which to take the story and characters.

The first job I undertook when leaping on to the Yellowbird project was to work through the changes I wanted to apply to the story and characters, and the best way to achieve this was through the storyboard.
I commenced working on very rough thumbnails, working through the many ideas I had for each scene, yet one man alone cannot storyboard a whole film in a few months, so I pulled together a small team who could achieve this in the budget and schedule we had at our disposal.
We had only 6 or 7 months to complete the whole film in storyboards, aiming to have the animatic done a few months after that.

The first story artist I approached is probably the fastest pencil I know: Dean Roberts, story artist on Corpse Bride, Gnomeo and Juliette, Tale of Desperaux, The Golden Compass, to mention a few.

I met Dean while working on Frankenweenie and, aside from the speed in which he delivered scene after scene of beautiful yet simply drawn shots, I was amazed by the quality of the ideas behind the drawings. I always felt that a storyboard artists best asset is not really his or her drawing skill but the strength of the ideas, the ability to solve story issues, untangle complex problems in the narrative of a film's story, its characters, and to visualize these in the best shot and edit options.

Here Dean gives us a little insight in his work process and the task of storyboarding Yellowbird's most challenging scenes.

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CDV- You storyboarded some of the most dramatic and also cute scenes the film? How do you begin to work a sequence as tense as the shipwreck, and jump to one as light and fun as the classroom? What are you're starting points, and where do you look for inspiration? 

DR- With the classroom scene I had the voice artists performance as inspiration. Its always easier to work with the final performance as I can draw my storyboard panels to reflect the voice artists' delivery. As the scene was about Delph being teacher I positioned the birds to look like they were in a classroom set up even though they were in the branches of the tree.
The shipwreck scene was all about drama and atmosphere.I had lots of reference of old rusting derelict tankers to help with scale and detail. I established that the two search parties went off in separate directions. The ship was on its end which made it interesting to stage . I wanted to show that the various locations the birds searched were at dangerous angles which meant avoiding shots with the usual horizontals. Doors were shown on their side , railings ran upward and the birds had to fly vertically up and down as they navigated the ship. I also wanted to show the scale of the ship compared to the tiny birds lost in its corridors. its great to get 'scale on the big screen' I also drew these boards with more tone than usual to create the scary atmosphere that would hide the oil covered sea birds showing them mostly in silhouette.


Below are the panels of the start of the shipwreck sequence.




















CDV- as a storyboard artist you have to have a pretty varied and eclectic CV, yet you're drawing style is specifically your own, you seem to come to your own shorthand for characters regarldess of the visual style of the film; do you focus more on a films' cinematic style and how do you come to recognize this, and apply it to your storyboards?

DR- I worked as a traditional animator for many years and learned all the posing and staging rules that make 2d drawing clear. I learned from many great animation artists and you pick things up as you work. Eventually all the little things you learn become your own style. I also have my own strong values of storytelling and staging which I try to apply to my sequences. Good reference always helps. I like to have model sheets of the main characters at hand . yellowbird had pretty much all the main characters designed when I joined the production so it was easy to slip into the style of the film. Knowing the locations makes designing your sequence easier . It can also highlight staging problems too.




CDV- I always prefer to make an initial editing pass on my storyboards even though I know a lot of storyboards rely on an editor to cut their storyboards for them; how much importance do you give to cutting your own work, and how do you find the 'rthythm' within a scene?

DR- I've been storyboarding for so long now I tend to self edit as I draw . A lot of board artists thumbnail first but I tend to dive in with final boards. This may seem foolhardy but I find I draw better when I commit . If I thumbnail first my finished panels tend to become stilted versions of the thumbnails. This doesn't mean I never thumbnail . I still need to work things out on complicated sequences such as 'shipwreck.'
I work on toon boom's storyboard Pro which is a superb program for drawing panels and seeing sequences play as you work on them . It has a timeline across the bottom of the panel which allows me to quickly see my sequence running more or less as an edited scene . This way I pretty much know that my seq works as I intend it when I turnover to edit . Of course story edit decisions are made which can mean things get chopped but that's part of the process. You tend become thick skinned as a storyboard artist.The panels are there to function the film not to stand out as little illustrations.
CDV- Your involvement in the film was early on, as one of the first storyboard artists. How do you view the final cut of the film now that it is complete, compared to your original storyboarded scenes?

DR- I was very pleased that my sequences were pretty much intact in the final film . It helped to have a good relationship with Christian, the director. We could talk about the scenes and work out how we wanted each beat play . I got closer to where the scenes needed to be a lot quicker this way. It was still then down to me to get drawing!

CDV- What was your favourite experience on Yellowbird?Favourite scene/moment? 

DR- I think my favourite moment was in the shipwreck when Karl was arguing Delph on the loose girder. I had the voice track and got to do a bit of broad acting . Karl was very funny to draw. 

CDV- And is there something specific you'd like to add to the post about your work? 

DR- I am proud of my work on Yellowbird and several of the sequences I worked will be part of my portfolio in the future . The story and characters allowed me to produce some of my best work I've done over the past few years.




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In the coming posts, as well as continuing to delve into the design and characters of the film, I will now discuss some of the pivotal scenes in the film through the storyboard, then lay-out and finally animation.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

CHARACTERS part III- YELLOWBIRD

When I started reading the script and getting into the story and characters I was instantly drawn to the protagonist, this tiny frail orphan yellow bird with no name.
He was so different from the other main characters, all confident flyers, and with the exception of the youngest children, experienced migrators.
Here was a character who not only had never known his parents but was brought up in an abandonded house by a ladybird who, although a flying creature and full of the best intentions, could never impart the valuable lessons a bird needed to take spread its wings and join the others in the wide open skies.


The more I read the more I realised there was something interesting that could be pulled out of these frailties: how would a person behave if they had grown up away from other people? Who would you be if all you'd learned of the World and others was from books and magazines? If your whole World was enclosed inside the four walls of an abandoned house in the middle of a thick forest?

It was these frailties that attracted me to Yellowbird and we played a lot on it during the development of the character and then in the brief to the storyboard team firstly then animation team.

Below is the initial character description I wrote for Seth Green, the actor playing Yellowbird in the English version, then later recorded in the French version by the excellent and energetic Arthur Dupont, and for the storyboarders and animators.


It is in these key passages that Yellowbird's character emerges from:


''Yellowbird has grown into an impossibly idiosyncratic teen, full of frailties and quirks. He is at times a bit shy, clumsy, adorable, scared, frail, happy, sad, positive, genuine, sincere, and content with his life, yet dying to discover the wonders of the World.''



''In his voice there needs to be shyness and a gentle kind of frailty that is borne from the fact that he has had very little contact with other people. He is almost socially inadequate, not dumb or stupid but maybe a little naïve at first, even if his attitude to everything is positive. Yet he does grown in character and courage.''

So we started to evolve the design to incorporate these traits, these mannerisms, but also to work into the design and model elements from non migratory birds. 


Even though the initial idea from the writers and producers was to create non specific birds for the main characters, I needed to work out what birds they were: a starling flies and moves differently from a penguin.
I needed to know, the storyboard artists needed to know and the animators needed to know.
It's not just the design that influences the mannerisms and movements of a character, it is also the input the actors give, the ideas of the writers, the director, but in the case of an animal I feel it is the characteristics of the creature itself.
So defining what type of bird Yellowbird was, and then the whole flock, was very important to me.

Throughout the process we worked closely with an ornithologist, Guilhem Lesaffre , author of many books on French and migratory birds, in order to work out migrations, bird movement to aid the models, and the animators, but also to try and find some interesting facts we could work into the story and characters.

It was after one of these conversations that I went away and started to study a variety of non migratory birds to find which one would be Yellowbird.
I settled on the marvellous Crested Lark.

Below find my information sheet I compiled for the animators once my research was done.


Yellowbird is not such a bas sort after all, as you've read in the notes, and I discovered in developing the story and him as a character, his heart is in the right place and the motivation for his actions is genuine and heartfelt:

 ''His yearning for a real family, to be part of a flock, is much stronger than his sense of reason and this clouds his judgment preventing any thoughts of anything tragic happening.''

''In his naivety and inexperience, Yellowbird simply doesn’t see what harm what his actions can bring to the flock and what repercussions they could have.''

There is a genuine reason of loss and wanting to belong that drives him so even though some of his actions seem dishonest, underhanded and even cruel at times, he is driven by the yearning to become a real bird and be part of a real family.

It is this great ambiguity, these quirks, these frailties and idiosyncrasies that make Yellowbird a very interesting character to have in a film and to work on, as the are they base for an unsual and uncommon lead in an animated film, where usually the leads are strong and well defined. 

I enjoy characters on the outside.

Below you can see the evolution of the character from initial sketches to completed model along with phonetic mouth charts for the lip-synch, a work which posed obvious challenges as birds have beaks and not mouths.
 


As mentioned the mouth shapes for the lip-synch were especially challenging as I chose very early on that our characters would not have teeth (birds don't have teeth and I wanted to keep some very realistic and natural aspects of real birds in the design and animation), and teeth are an important component of lip-synch as they define some very specific mouth shapes used for certain sounds. Also I wanted the beaks to retain a certain rigidity, and not be too malleable; I didn't want them to move like rubber but still have some stiffness in them, which added to the task the animators undertook in giving the birds expressions and making them talk.



Every expression and facial movement needs to be accounted for when preparing a design for animation as it will be the animators job to translate these 'shapes', these expressions on to the model once it is rigged and set-up for animation. It is the rigger and modeller's job to look at the 2D expressions designs are create a model that can achieve these.

Below are just some examples of the many expressions drawn for Yellowbird prior to model.






To conclude this post I would like to add a brief word about the wonderful actors that, with their energy, charm and sensitivity, brought the animated character to life. Without the right voice an animated character looks beautiful, well design and does indeed move, but lacks soul. 

Can you imagine anyone else voicing Scar but Jeremy Irons? Are you able to hear any other voice but Jack Black's for Po in Kung Fu Panda? What about trying to imagine the Genie with any other voice but the great Robin Williams? Or anyone else instead of Phil Harris for Balou?

Too many times I see animation characters voiced by actors that don't suit the desigm, or by actors who have difficulty imagining a World that does not yet exist and will not for perhaps 2 more years. Locked in a recording studio, the actor has perhaps a week, a year or, in our case, a few days to record a whole script; this is by themselves with no other actor there to feed off; the director and voice coach the only people briefing them on the tone, the mood, the setting of a scene and the emotion needed. It is a daunting task and some actors not used to the process or not able to 'let go' simply fall short and deliver flat performances.
This was not the case for Yellowbird. 
Seth Green was my first and only choice, his experience in animation was invaluable, his charm and humour but also a distinct sensitive side, were the key points I was looking for in the character, and Seth delivered this with aplomb, and at times improvising lines which in fact made it into the final cut.
Seth work with only the storyboards and myself to direct him and I couldn't be more please with the way he brought this little frail, funny, awkward bird to life.

Then, back in France, once the animation had finished, we recorded the French version, and although I was less involved in this casting, I was wonderfully surprised by the discovery of Arthus Dupont, an actor I did not even know until I met him at the recording studio in Paris.
His performance has the same lovely tenderness we sought all along, and his boundless energy kept us in stitches for most of the recording.






Tuesday, 20 January 2015

CHARACTERS part II

Before I delve into Yellowbird and a description of his character, personality, his cast choices and how we arrived at his final design and model, I wanted to share a few more of the handsome images from our character design and development.
Some of which never made it to the final cut of the film, some due to budget restrictions obviously, others to scenes being cut from the movie.

As in all films, after the first draughts of the script, we had to draw our cast into a kind of shortlist, based on the amount of primary, secondary and generic characters we actually could afford to have in the whole film.
As we had 13 main characters in our flock, the family that under the guide of the hapless Yellowbird attempts their annual migration to Africa, we already started at a disadvantage in terms of the secondary and generics we could achieve. So we needed to 'double-up' or create designs and models that could be derived in order to create other characters.




 Below you see some character designs for our human cast. We established early on that we did not want the humans to be fully visible in our film, that although they were a invading influence in the World of birds, they should not be fully seen or even heard. I wanted the humans to have a presence but to be almost shadows, forms, shapes, that made sounds but with no specific lines of dialogue. So I cut all the lines from the humans at edit, and aside from some shouts, muffled voices and such, we rarely hear them. But their presence is very strong as our way of life invades and permeates over the life and habitats of all birds... And most times not for the best!


















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 Some character derivations were only by colour, thus achieving a higher number of generic birds for example, when their shape and model was non-specific or common enough; a crane or flamingo would always look like a crane or flamingo even if they were coloured blue or yellow.

Other models needed to have some shape derivation, so we designed then built models which, with a little tugging here, and a little pulling there, and perhaps with the addition of a few head feathers, would look different from each other even before the colour alteration. These shape derived characters allowed us to increase the number of our generic cast considerably.

Of course in a road movie, which Yellowbird essentially is (except it takes place in the sky, and the land, and some beaches, but mostly in the sky) you need variety and there's is plenty of variety when your film is about animals and you travel to a different continent.

Africa was one of our biggest challenges as it is a relatively small scene, yet it is pivotal to the story, the culmination of the journey, so we had to create a setting, a location, and characters to populate it with the same budget Madagascar 2 spent on their coffee.

Let me tell you there's nothing more ridiculous than spending a 2 hour meeting try to work out which animals will populate your Africa, and which characters from other scenes are you going to cut from the film in order to do so. 
My producer Corinne was fond of flamingoes, so these had to feature, but I fought hard for my elephants, the intelligent and noble beasts of the Savanna had to have a place at the end of the film.
For me the size and presence of the elephants and the giraffes were the perfect counterbalance to the beauty and poetry of the flamingoes and other tropical birds we populated the scenes with.

When looking carefully at the end scenes you will notice that some of the tropical birds are in fact generic French birds we use at the start of the film and we see migrating South half way through the film... We just painted them with more fun and tropical colours!


The saddest decisions you have to make as a director are the cuts. What and where to cut is at times even more important than what you decide to keep. You risk making an awful mistake if you cut an item, a character, or scene on which a pivotal part of the film rests.
Unfortunately for our production, and more importantly unfortunately for mister Nutria and Lucille the centipede, one of the biggest cuts I applied to the film was scene 5. 
This was the first scene we completed, in full animation, and close to being fully rendered. And although the character design was strong, the scene was one of the funniest, involving Karl getting his fortune read before the migration by a cunning Nutria living under the flock's tree, ut did not add anything to the story. It was a strong character scene for Karl but the main story point could be told in one line of dialogue, so I opted to cut the scene and add a line to one of the following scenes in order to keep the story point.

I'll post the cut scene in a later post once we start looking at storyboards.

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Thursday, 15 January 2015

CHARACTERS

On Yellowbird we were quite blessed to have a wonderful cast for such a small indipendent film.
It was definitely one of those situations where you couldn't quite believe you were lucky enough to be working with such terrific actors and how their performance would really help give our characters life.

 
But I'm jumping the gun here a little as we had to settle on our designs first and take them to model.
Our design team started by exploring all possible options for creating the look and give the characters charm and appeal based on Benjamin's first development artwork.
We had to make sure these characters had appeal yet worked well in animation, their inner workings as well as the out skin and plumage being able to retain the 'paper' quality we wanted for our stylized look.
Capturing the right look for each character goes very deep into the emotional core of the character itself and of the story; it allows audiences to connect with them, root for them, or hate them if they're a villanous individual.
Even before we found our cast we knew we had to pin down our main characters... And along with assorted secondary and generic ones, we had 13 main characters in our flock to create!

 

 
Once we settled on the designs our team of modelers, look development artists and Character Tds.
Of course before the animator can start using these characters the models need to be constructed, much in the same way a sculpt is made.

Our modelers were responsible of building not only our very complex 3D characters, but also all our sets and props. The paper style look ran through all departments so as well as adding that look into the textures of the models once they were finished and coloured, they added some little creases and folds into the volume of the sets and props.
Once the modelers had finished each character, it was given to our charactsr TDs in charge of creating the articulation rig, a digital skeleton bound to the 3D mesh, to the sculpt of the character, which allows the animators to manipulate and move them through its highly complex set of articulations and controls.
What we wanted to achieve in Yellowbird was a very realistic natural look, having our characters behave and move like real birds and not in an anthropomorphic way, and our team not only built rigs which allowed this but also created the animation interfaces, establishing muscle, skin, and father behaviors, which all allow for a broad range of realistic physical movements but also very cartoony squash and stretch.
It is a cartoon after all and I love big broad exaggerations and movements, especially in comedy settings, and anyone watching the film will see the balance between our realistic bird mannerisms and some very very cartoony animation.


Above and below some of the progression of the character work on Darius, one of our most charismatic characters voiced by the charming, sombre yet fatherly tones of Danny Glover.

 



We allowed only one exception with the anthropomorphism in our characters, and that was the Owl in the hotel tree scene.
Voice by Elliot Gould the owl needed to use his wings a little more than the others, and it really helped round the character off. It is one of the funniest scenes in the movie.





The unsung heroes of any computer animated film are the Technical Directors and all the tech and soft departments, who's tireless work, with artists, helps plan and create the best solutions and strategies for the whole production.
Aside from helping create the tools to build each character, aiding with the difficult task of making the plumage of each bird move indipendently if needed, or in unison at the breeze in the air as they fly, we developed and achieved our own toold to create moving clouds that retained a stylized look yet moved like real clouds.
All I have to do is make a drawing of what I would like, then hopefully if it's achievable in the budget, these guys find ways to make it happen!



  



 
In the next post I'll talk specifically about Yellowbird and go over some of his characteristics and the decisions made in finalising his design and model, before heading into the storyboard process.