It has been a long and exciting semester; fifteen weeks and over a thousand hours of work on the most ambitious film this course has ever attempted.
We expected to release the Fall 2011 film weeks ago, but we delayed for the best possible reason. Our client, the Child’s Play Charity, far exceeded all their previous donation records with a whopping 2011 final tally of over three and a half million dollars!
Read more here.
We could not be happier for CP and all the hospitalized kids they will help, and we are very excited to support their efforts in 2012– they have a high mark to beat this year!
So now, without further delay, we are proud to present the final Child’s Play film by the Fall 2011 NEiA Animation Production Team: “How can YOU help Child’s Play?”
Art and Animation by: Jade Paquette, Holly Thompson, Neil Gradozzi, Edric Perkins, and Myriam Aburto Advisor: Jason Wiser Audio by: Akash Thakkar
With pre-production done, a clear storyboard and character designs approved by the client, and scenery research completed, we began full production on the film. Each member of the team took on at least one shot for 1-2 weeks and then rotated who worked on which shots, to keep anyone from spinning their wheels on the same problems for too long.
As a hybrid 2D/3D project, the team used a lot of different tools: Adobe Flash for 2D shots and Autodesk 3ds max for 3D shots, and Adobe Photoshop for 3D art textures, 2D backgrounds, HUD designs, and credits. We rendered everything as PNG sequences and used Adobe After Effects for putting it all together into a single film. Effects work used all of these tools, and we used dropbox.com for our production and render storage.
Daily communication became even more important once full production began. The final film needed to be collected each week on Tuesday to be ready to revise and show in class on Thursday, and this meant the majority of the work– easily 10-20 hours a week by most of the artists– had to be done Friday-Monday each week. The artists learned that they needed to get drafts up on the department forum as early as possible to get feedback and avoid problems that would only get bigger the further they revised in a wrong direction. Those who got draft up Friday and Saturday were the most successful; those who waited until Sunday often struggled with late work, occasionally holding up the entire project. As the team practiced their weekly deadlines they got better about communicating their progress and showing drafts, and the production went much smoother by the last month.
For the audio on the project we had the pleasure of working with Akash Thakkar, head of the Game Audio club at Berklee College of Music. The Production Team class has worked before with Berklee students in general and Akash in particularly and we are always thrilled with their work. This semester we are enormously happy with the results of Akash’s efforts and appreciate his bearing with us through many revisions as we struggled to communicate what we wanted from the audio for this film.
As a course dedicated to teaching good teamwork as much as the production process, we held a number of exercises to establish trust and to learn to work better with each other:
* To promote conversation on how the team could be structured and what members wanted and worried about for this class, we held discussions on past team and leadership experiences. We learned methods for facilitating meetings and rotated meeting leadership responsibilities throughout the semester.
* To discuss bad practices in meetings and how they can be overcome we roleplayed a meeting where each participant got a slip of paper with a description of a particularly bad way to treat others, and then spent a hilariously miserable 10 minutes trying to agree on a pizza order.
* To explore ways to deal with issues before they become more serious problems we learned how to speak using I-messages and roleplayed difficult co-worker discussions from imaginary bad odors to bad performance.
* To help the team establish a space safe for talking about needs and what helps each of us to be most productive, we discussed Gary Chapman’s Five Love Languages and re-interpreted the relationship concepts into ideas appropriate for the workplace.
* To examine office politics we played Witchhunt, a variation on Dimitry Davidoff’s famous Mafia game.
The only tangible way the artists get paid for this huge amount of work (we estimated 1000 hours by this team of five by the end of the semester) is in their grades. In order to incentivize both good work and good teamwork, all artists write Peer Evaluations for their teammates at midterms and finals, and a significant percentage of their grade are determined by those evaluations.
6. GOING TO COMMITTEE:
Once pre-production is done, our course demands the full animation be drafted in just three weeks, in time for midterms. This is so the film can be shown to a committee made up of the animation faculty and department chair. The committee is given no information on what the film is supposed to be about; just a link to youtube and a request for feedback. This means all major elements needed to communicate the story must be completely clear by the end of those three weeks: all revised 3D animation, 3D character and setting models, clear 2D backgrounds and at least 5 frames per second of 2D animation. Considering the exceptionally large scope of what the client asked, the team did reasonably well, with only a few big elements missing:
The film-in-progress at Midterms,
after three weeks of full production
The feedback we received from the committee helped us to focus our efforts on rendering and texturing styles that would help differentiate each sequence, and also emphasized for us the need for a game-themed Heads Up Display (HUD) that would make it clear when Emma was in a game world. After a number of attempts over many weeks we decided to use a unified HUD rather than changing it for each game, and this led to the idea of a progress bar and text that identifies the specific event in support of Child’s Play that each game is supposed to represent.
In general, we found it more challenging to reproduce the motion of 2D games than 3D games. The 3D games at early stages of animation looked mediocre but still recognizable, but when the 2D games were off they felt REALLY wrong. The Emma-Mario felt completely off when she ran with fully articulated legs, and we needed to examine the original Mario’s motion much more closely. The Emma-Pacman’s munching tended to go too fast and the pigtails we added looked at first disturbingly sperm-like. The term “Uncanny Valley” in animation refers to near-miss attempts to reproduce facial expression motion in animation, where characters in movies like Polar Express tend to feel exceptionally creepy when they look close-to-reality but fall short, and the argument goes that we as humans are programmed to know faces so well that slight discrepancies feel huge and alarming. It seemed to us, working on the Child’s Play film, that the real 2D Mario and Pacman have become similarly engrained in us, so that slight problems felt terribly wrong, and we ended up tossing lots of revisions before we felt we got those scenes right.
7. THE PROBLEM IS YOUR FACE:
While the team worked all semester to animate their characters so that body motion told the story in each shot, the opening and closing sequences needed the main 3D version of our protagonist, Emma, to be able to express a lot with her face.
It is possible to set up facial animation systems on a 3D character so as to allow the animator to have unlimited options for expression. We decided not to do that. Instead, we only created the few expressions we knew Emma needed for this particular film: various degrees of sadness, pain, surprise, and joy for the first sequence and happiness for the final sequence, along with eyeblinks.
This seemed like a good plan, but in our early attempts at the first sequence–which calls for Emma to appear miserable lying alone in her dark hospital room–she did not look particularly sad. We thought we could communicate misery with just closed eyes and a down-turned mouth, but she felt only sort-of sad. Still, with so much else to complete on the film, we might have decided that was enough and never fixed these critical establishing shots.
Then we took a field trip. As a class we attended a presentation by Chris Landreth, the Oscar-winning animator behind the extraordinary face-driven films “Ryan” and “The Spine.” We spent an evening with him studying which of the fifteen major facial muscles are critical to express various degrees of human expressions. At the end of the workshop we consulted as a class and decided Emma’s glasses were the problem. They were on her face for all the opening shots, and we needed to see more of her eyelids and especially her eyebrows to make her misery clear. We decided to start the sequence with the glasses sitting on a nearby table so there would be no barrier to her expression, and have her put the glasses on as part of her surprise when the TV activated to pull her in.
Once the glasses were removed, the animator on that sequence nailed the expressions in the first few tries, and suddenly Emma’ unhappiness felt very real. Interestingly, once the face worked we had to re-think some of the body poses and motions. Without the blank face as a distraction, we noticed the body was often too-much animated. When Emma rolled over in bed, her right arm moved so much it distracted from her face. Similarly, after sitting up in surprise and putting her glasses on, she originally threw back her hands to support a backwards lean on the bed–far too much motion when we wanted the audience to focus on the growing joy in her face. The animator found the fix by letting the hands drop gently downward after putting on the glasses, a perfectly subtle gesture.
8. HOME STRETCH:
Week eleven came up fast. While the 2D sequences only needed to be at 5 frames/second for midterms (week 8), they needed to be 12-24 frames/second to show the client at week 11. Similarly, the 3D sequences needed polish and effects. The artists pulled together to get the film done before Thanksgiving and, after eleven 7-day weeks of work, enjoyed a full week off. When we came back the client had only a single timing request, that the social media bubbles in the first game needed to stay longer on screen to be readable, an issue we predicted. In addition to planning solutions for this issue, we spent week twelve on a major critique of every shot, and came up with a list of over 30 changes to the project, including adding a total of five and half seconds to the film.
Our goal was to move every shot from bring a strong student film to the level of a broadcast-worthy professional production. Most of the shots began to work around midterms, like the Intro/Outro, 2d Mario, and Pacman and so with a month to revise we were able to get them to a high shine. Others. Like Guityar Hero and Mario Kart, only began to work around week 11 of the project, and required an exceptional push by the team, but the difference in polish is still visible between the shots that mostly worked around midterms and those with which we still struggled in the last few weeks. Overall though, we are very proud of this entire film and this team of filmmakers.
Last Thursday, December 15, was the last meeting of our class. For our final Skype presentation to Child’s Play we met at the teacher’s home for dinner and games. We sent Jamie Dillan the link and studied her face as she watched the end result of three and a half months of labor. We saw her smile grow throughout the film, and at the end she gave us the best compliment we could hope for:
“This represents us at Child’s Play, and what we do.”
There are opportunities that fill artists’ hearts with joy and their heads with the long thin scream Don’t screw this up.
This was how we felt this past Fall when we first learned we would be making an animation with Jamie Dillon, Project Manager at Child’s Play. CP is a charity that has raised millions of dollars–donated mostly by gamers and the video game industry–to bring video games to sick kids in hospitals. We love the work that Child’s Play does and are so proud to contribute in any way to that effort. This is also a client that works directly in our fields of interest–video games and animation–and so our excitement at the beginning was matched by nerves, as we expected exceptional scrutiny to be paid to this project.
Our past team films for Teach for America are being viewed by tens of thousands of teachers across the country, very few of whom–we assume–have an animation background. Similarly, the film we made Summer 2011 for the Riverside Language Program in New York was shown at government meetings this Fall to decide the future of ESOL education in that city, but we assume even fewer of those watching it started their political careers working for Bungie or Electronic Arts.
The Child’s Play community, on the other hand, all either spend much of their time watching video game animation or creating it, and so, while the goal was the same as past semesters–make the best film we can to meet the client’s needs–the stakes felt higher. Added pressure came from our department. All the students and faculty were excited about this project and stopped us in the hall to say what we were already hearing from that small cry in our brains: “Don’t @!#! this up!”
2. WHO ARE WE?:
We are advanced animation students enrolled in a one-semester course at The New England Institute of Art called Animation Production Team, where we are partnered with non-profit clients to create free promotional animated films. All of us are skilled in both 2d and 3d art and animation, with specific specialties in one or more aspects of these fields:
* Myriam Aburto (2D clean-up and color)
* Neil Gradozzi (2D and 3D Art and Animation)
* Jade Paquette (3D Art and Animation)
* Edric Perkins (3D Modeling and Texturing)
* Holly Thompson (2D art and animation)
* Faculty Advisor: Jason Wiser
The production Team course is divided into three parts: (1) A month of intensive pre-production working weekly with the client to develop story, characters, and visual style. (2) Six weeks of production on the film (with a full draft due after only three weeks and a polished version due at the end of the six). (3) Three weeks of further polish based on client feedback. If the client is local, we meet with them in person after the first month and at the end. With Child’s Play, we used Skype.
Our clients are not required to use the films we make at the end, but they must work with us with the intent to use them if we succeed in meeting their promotional needs. Typically we focus on character-driven, emotionally impactful storytelling, but these films are not just art for art’s sake; the key ideas the client wants shared must be communicated or it won’t matter how good they look; the client won’t be able to use them.
3. HOW DO WE BEGIN?:
To start the semester off strong we ask the client to prepare a one-page proposal for the team to receive on the first day of class. This document includes information on the mission and history of the company, their goals and ideas for this project, and a description of the company’s audience to inform decisions on style and content. In their proposal document, Child’s Play asked us to help them respond to the thousands of people who email them every year with the question: “What can I do to support Child’s Play?”
In the first week of class the team brainstormed pitch ideas. We came up with many concepts that we narrowed down to five. We needed five so each artist could create a very different story from which the client could choose the direction of the project. The artists in Production Team are required to be in contact seven days a week, so using email and our department forum we shared our progress and got feedback for revision long before class the following week.
In those first seven days we also read David Mamet‘s book On Directing Film to act as a lens for revising our storytelling. Mamet discusses, for example, the idea of a “Superobjective”–a guiding intent of the main character that shapes everything in the film. This Superobjective is typically the desired resolution of the chaotic state of the protagonist at the story start. By class #2, all five artists had communicated in their first storyboards a basic element of their client’s mission, but their characters had not all clearly moved from a place of chaos to resolution, lessening the impact.
So we asked ourselves: What effect does Child’s Play actually have on the lives of sick kids? CP does not raise money for cures, so we cut stories and shots showing kids cured by the end. CP treats isolation, boredom, and misery. This gave us the start and end of our film pitches: children in the hospital who start miserable and end happily playing games, though still in the hospital.
We also used Mamet’s explanation of shot construction to give us a disciplined approach to each sequence. We worked to tell each story moment in the cut between shots rather than in a single image. For example, in the first pitch below, how do we communicate that a garage sale would give the sick kid a weapon to beat a dragon? The key idea, as with all of our cinematography, was to show only one small idea in each shot, letting the sequence communicate the whole:
Wide shot of a garage sale in front of a home. Medium shot of a buyer giving money to the seller (who wears a CP T-shirt). Close up shot of money in seller’s hand being counted, revealing a Wii-mote controller. Close up of Wii-controller now in kid’s hands (different angle, red background). Medium shot of kid with energy sword rising out of the Wii-mote. Wide shot of kid attacking dragon with sword.
Here are three of the pitches we presented in that first round to Child’s Play. Pitch A shows a kid facing their misery in the form of a dragon, using weapons of hope provided by Child’s Play supporters. Pitch B shows a kid’s hospital bed transform into a mech to zap the public with CP awareness, ultimately bringing back games to the other kids in the ward. Pitch C shows a sick child pulled into a TV to enter various recognizable video games, each of which represents a way the public can help Child’s Play.
4. WHICH WILL THEY CHOOSE?:
Jamie and her team then considered which pitch they felt best communicated the spirit of their organization and their message We waited a few days, holding our breath, and then learned which general direction we would devote the next three months to developing.
CP chose Pitch C: a kid being pulled into the TV and entering a series of popular games to represent different ways to help Child’s Play.
Once again we were both excited and apprehensive. Of all the pitches, this was the most work, with the most different settings, styles, and characters, exacerbated by the challenge of making all the games recognizable as the originals. The artists went home and created a significant variation on the chosen pitch, to explore the space of the chosen direction and come up with the best possible execution, and two rounds later we had our final, client-approved storyboard and we were ready to design characters.
The Final Storyboard:
CHARACTER DESIGN: Our main character design exercise is inspired by international short animation. Each student chooses a year from the last decade and closely examines the style of animated short films produced in that year, choosing 2-3 films to use as template for stylizing our chosen characters. The results are not intended to be perfect copies of the style of the referenced films, but to push our artists to try different directions in body and feature proportions, line weight, and use of color. In the end, these different directions get filtered through each artist into new styles of character from which the client chooses.
Art by Myriam Aburto, Neil Gradozzi, Jade Paquette, Edric Perkins, and Holly Thompson
After much deliberation, the client chose a few from our list and gave us the final choice, and we decided we best liked the African American girl with the pigtails and big rectangular glasses (#6). We liked the vulnerability of the sketch and how the glasses could easily be used to identify her even as she was transformed into many other game versions of herself. For the shots with more characters, however, we found homes for our other favorites from this list.
SETTING DESIGN: Normally, the character style then dictates the setting designs, but for the chosen Child’s Play pitch we instead had five well-known video games to emulate. Rather than engage in the painstaking and artistically unrewarding task of reproducing those games photographically, we decided early to strive for a version of each game that merged hospital objects into the landscape–bandages, stethoscopes, pills and tongue depressors– both to maintain the medical theme and to allow us some room to stylize these settings rather than force perfect fidelity, which gave us more time to focus on character performance. So our Ms Pacman is in a maze of bandages and the musicians in our Rock Band all wear hospital gowns. We decided our non-game framing sequence would be 3D mostly to have clear contrast with the first game world, and with that choice we were ready to research reference material and begin production.