1. A BIT OF TERROR:
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.
NEXT TIME: Production!