And Now For Something Completely Different…

The third and final First Light funded Worthing Youth Media project was the animated short film Happy Cloud. I ran this project, leading workshops that took the group through the process of developing their idea into a finished film. I helped the group to write and edit their script, design the characters, draw up storyboards and put together an animatic, then led them through animation workshops before the shooting of the film itself. In this post I’ll be discussing the look and style of the film, as well as showing you some of the initial character designs.

Happy Cloud was an idea that went through a lot of development. It was originally a short project that I ran workshops for in the summer term of 2008, but when the group’s application for First Light funding was successful, they decided to develop it further.

The original Happy Cloud was a short viral ad in which Happy Cloud smiled gleefully while a narrator spoke to him in voice over. The group had to develop the character in order to find a story for their film. The concept that they settled upon was the idea of a show within a show. Happy Cloud became the star of a children’s television series.

We animated the film using paper cut out animation techniques. We created backdrops and characters using bits of paper, plastic and fabric that we manipulated and swapped between each shot. The whole film has a flat, simplistic style. I really enjoy paper cut out animation as you have to think in different dimensions to stop motion puppetry. Although it looks easier, there are far less options available to you for movement and so bringing things to life can be quite a challenge.

The idea for Happy Cloud’s TV show was to create a playful and colourful world in the style of narrated cartoons such as the Mr Men and Mr Benn. The group decided that this would be a pastiche of children’s TV’s patronising tone and inane characters. We designed a title sequence for the show that would introduce the characters and the premise of Happy Cloud’s TV show and serve as an intro for our film, before pulling back to reveal the set, leading the audience into the ‘real’ world of the film.

Happy Cloud’s narrator speaks over the titles describing Cloud Land as the happiest place in the world, where ‘Happy Cloud makes everyone happy.’ To demonstrate Happy Cloud’s powers, we designed a factory conveyor belt of people forcibly being made happy one by one by Happy Cloud. We wanted to establish the subversive tone of the humour from the outset.

Happy Cloud’s character also needed fleshing out. A cloud who is happy isn’t much to work with. With that in mind the group thought about subverting the idea. They decided that to the viewers of his show Happy Cloud would seem like the perfect role model for children, but only until the cameras stopped rolling.

Offscreen, Happy Cloud is the pampered star of the show – grumpy, vain, money hungry, alcoholic and demanding. We created three different sizes of Happy Cloud to allow us to alter his proportions to suit each shot’s requirements.

We then turned our attention to developing a cast of characters around Happy Cloud. The first was his costar and onscreen nemesis Storm Cloud. We designed Storm Cloud as a foil for Happy Cloud. Storm Cloud looks tough but isn’t. He is a somewhat depressive character who gets pushed around by Happy Cloud.

Next we designed the Director of the show. The Director is the voice of authority for the characters, almost a parent figure. We decided to only show him in silhouette to give him a mysterious anonymity.

The main conflict of the film comes into play when the Director brings in an image consultant to give the show a ratings boosting makeover. He introduces Jiggy Bigwig, an enthusiastic character who claims to be down with the kids.

The team had a lot of fun writing and designing Jiggy’s character. They envisioned a man who wears clothes that are far too young for him, tries to act like he is still a kid but is hopelessly outdated and clueless.

One of Jiggy’s quirks is his attempts to speak like young people so we made a point of highlighting some of his jargon in cut-away shots.

Happy Cloud hates Jiggy but is convinced to accept his input when the Director hints that it could lead to more money and awards for the show. Then there is an accident on set which sends Happy Cloud crashing through the stage.

Unconscious, Happy Cloud has an out of body experience, floating up from the stage as a ghostly form of himself. We had fun designing the Ghost Happy Cloud, who we made out of translucent paper to give him an ethereal quality.

He meets Zany Funhouse, the awards fairy, who acts as his ghost of Christmas future. Zany was partly modelled on Amy Winehouse (this was 2009) and styled as a partied out veteran of awards ceremonies with a tall beehive of hair that’s full of trophies and awards statues.

We decided to introduce Zany with a slow tilt, travelling up and up and up to emphasise the height of her hair. The hair was a character in itself, so we decided that for an added punchline we’d make it exactly that, giving it a face and making it growl and jump off of her head at the end of the shot.

Zany waves her magic wand and whisks Ghost Happy Cloud away to see a vision of his future.
Ghost Happy Cloud finds himself at a glitzy awards ceremony, watching his future self arrive in a limo. This is my favourite shot in the film, as drunken Happy Cloud tumbles out of the limo. Happy Cloud’s anarchic behaviour was great fun to film.
One of the features of the red carpet scene was the paparazzi, snapping pictures at the side of the red carpet. We designed something very simple of this, using two rows of people and then moving silver paper in and out of each frame to represent the camera flashes.
The group used the opportunity of the awards audience to make nods to some familiar cartoon characters.

Paper cut out animation works by moving pieces of paper, or changing and substituting them frame by frame. Substitution is particularly effective for facial expressions and dialogue. We had a range of eyes, eyebrows and mouths in different expressions and mouth shapes for each character which we then duplicated for each different sized version of the characters.

The shots below show a drunken Happy Cloud falling asleep at the awards ceremony.

With Happy Cloud asleep, Storm Cloud has to accept the award on Happy Cloud’s behalf, but just as he is doing this, Happy Cloud wakes up and storms the stage, hurling abuse at Storm Cloud and the shocked audience.

Then, to make matters worse, he throws up.

I was delighted when Happy Cloud won the award for Best Comedy at the First Light Movie Awards 2010. We attended the ceremony at the Odeon Leicester Square, where the award was presented to our young filmmakers by Bill Nighy and Nick Frost. Thanks to First Light, the film has been screened at film festivals around the world and picked up the Small Film Award at Canterbury Anifest 2010.

If you want to see more from behind the scenes then have a look at how the finished film compares to the animatic. The opening sequence in particular is very close to how we shot the finished version.

An animatic is when you put your storyboard together on a timeline. It can include test shots and sound, although we recorded our sound after the animation shoot. On a larger production the animatic can be used to fill in gaps when full scenes haven’t been shot yet. You might notice shots in the animatic that weren’t included in the film. This is because we had to cut a couple of scenes from the script to fit our shooting schedule.

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Master Of Puppets

I was asked recently for a portfolio of the puppets that I have made. Having looked at the sets and production design of two of the short films I’ve worked on, I want to briefly talk you through some of the puppets I’ve made for my animations. Above is a quick showreel I put together to show my puppets in action.

My two favourite puppets are the Wolf character from The Hunger and the Rocking Horse from Elysium.

The Wolf has a special place in my heart because he was the first puppet I ever made. I constructed an armature using wire, styrofoam and wooden dowels. I modelled a muscular torso out of styrofoam and rather than attach a neck at the top, I sank it into the chest to give the wolf a hunched and imposing figure. I had to give the armature really big feet to support the weight of the upper body. Stop motion puppets generally need big feet to support their own weight and to accommodate pins and supports which attach your puppet to the set as you animate.

Once I completed the armature it was covered with grey fleece, which gave the wolf a texture that I really liked. Traditionally the wolf is supposed to be a fearful figure in folklore, but our inversion of the story turned the wolf into Red Riding Hood’s prey. I liked the way the fleece softened the wolf’s image and made him less threatening.

We used paper to provide the wolf’s facial features – teeth and eyes were either glued or pinned on and then swapped between shots to change his expressions. We also used red cloth to create a tongue which was cut to different sizes as we animated it. We used the same method for Red Riding Hood’s facial expressions. I like mixing my media so it was nice to borrow these techniques from paper cut out animation. This swapping technique is a really simple way to create effects in animation and one I employed a great deal on later paper animations, such as Happy Cloud.

The next ‘puppet’ on my showreel is the clippers which Red Riding Hood uses to shave the wolf. I like to think of these as a character in their own right. I’ve already talked about the construction and animation of the clippers in my earlier post about The Hunger. It is common in stop motion animation to build larger scale versions of your puppets, or parts of your puppets to use for close up shots, it makes it much easier to animate small details.

To create the shaving effect we used large pieces of grey fake fur, which we trimmed between each frame and then manipulated the offcuts to make them travel around the clippers. For the close up shots of Red Riding Hood with the fur flying around, we moved clumps of fur up her arms and over her body whilst also sprinkling more clumps of fur in the background each time we captured a frame. We had to experiment a bit to get it to look right, but those experiments and little challenges are one of the things I love about animation.

Next came the reveal shot, that underneath his fur, the wolf was actually a man. The naked man was a fun puppet to make because we knew that revealing him would be the biggest twist in the story.

He still has a wild edge to him with his body hair and the fact that he doesn’t speak and still makes animal noises.

The next puppet on the reel is Chris from Elysium. The challenge with Chris was in trying to make him look like Evan Locke, who plays Chris in the live action segments of the film. We learnt the hard way on this film that plasticine doesn’t retain much detail under lights, as it melts in the heat. Most of the resemblance was achieved through the costume. I remember spending a lot of time trying to model Evan’s face in plasticine but I think a lot of this detail was lost as soon as we started filming the puppets.

Elysium also saw a change to the design of my armatures, as I began using plastic tubes in the place of wooden dowels to create the puppet’s limbs. This enabled us to have lighter, slimmer puppets, which looked great but made them much harder to animate! We had a lot of broken limbs on this production, but we put the puppets through a lot, expecting them to climb stairs, fight and fall over, none of which are as easy to animate as you would imagine. I also chose not to use paper for the facial features on this production and set plastic eyeballs into the skulls of my armatures instead. I then created the pupils using a small ball of plasticine that I could then move and widen as and when I needed to.

One moment I particularly like from the film, is when Chris’s tie blows in the wind. I achieved this effect by lining the tie with wire that enabled to manipulate it into position shot by shot. It’s these sorts of tiny details that I really like to take my time with in animation.

The next puppet on the reel is the Rocking Horse. This is one of my favourite puppets because it is so different from any of the other puppets I have made and I spent a really long time trying to get the details just right. As the horse moved on rockers the armature only contains one joint, which is at the neck. The horse’s body and rockers are constructed out of styrofoam which was cut and then sanded. I spent hours sanding the horse’s legs and body to make it look authentic. I sank shiny black beads into the horse’s skull to give him his eyes, then the whole armature was coated in plasticine.

It took a long time to get the details of the horse’s face right. It was important that the character, though mysterious, came across as a benevolent and protective figure. As it doesn’t speak this all needs to be conveyed in the look and the movements of the character.

The final puppet on the reel is Doppelganger Chris. The puppet needed to look like an aged and monstrous version of Chris. I constructed the armatures for both at the same time so as to keep them in proportion to each other.

Doppelganger Chris was given yellow eyes instead of white, and we used a dirtier skin tone for him. His fingers were thin and spiky, his features more severe and I etched lines into his face to give him a grizzly, wrinkled look. Unfortunately Doppelganger Chris didn’t survive the shoot as we ended up using various parts of his body and costume as replacements for the Chris puppet.