Living for the City

This summer I was working on an animation project for the Brighton Photo Biennial, working in partnership with Photoworks, Brighton & Hove City Library Services and the Youth Arts Project, part of Brighton & Hove City Council’s Youth Service. The brief was to provide a series of animation workshops for young people exploring the Biennial’s theme of the Politics of Space and to create digital stories for an exhibition at Jubilee Library. The project is called Tales of the City.

As an animator I am drawn to methods that are comparably low-tech by today’s standards. I’m fascinated by antiquities such as Zoetropes and Magic Lanterns and I love the organic nature of traditional drawn animation and stop motion puppetry. I think it’s important to be hands on and to have a physical connection with your work. Animation is a method of performance because your work is the result of your own personality. Your characters are born of you. The relationship between the animator and the world that they create is one that is very personal.

I was eager to introduce the young people to as many different animation techniques as possible so as to really allow them to experiment. Experimentation is what animation is all about. It was through experimentation that moving image was born and that experimentation allows the medium to evolve constantly. I wanted to include some examples of this evolution in my work for this project.

I started with simple optical illusions based around the concept of persistence of vision – thaumatropes, zoetropes and flick books. It was important to me to begin by demonstrating how animation can be created without the use of cameras and computers, especially when working with young people who may not have access to such equipment at home.

For me, the digital process is necessary to my work, but secondary to the drawings, puppets and sets that I create. The computer is there as a capture device and to refine the work in post-production but what an animator can produce with their own hands is the true magic of the medium.

The young people began by making thaumatropes – optical toys that create an illusion by combining two images on either side of a disk when it is spun quickly. I wanted to start with something small and simple that would produce an instantaneous result. Animation can be so time consuming and requires such patience that it can be off-putting for beginners and the real joy for someone having a go for the first time is to see their creation come to life in front of them. As important as it is for people to understand animation methods and techniques, it is vital for them to experience that little bit of magic for the first time.

As well as an understanding of techniques, it was important to also build an understanding of the Biennial’s theme into the work. The Politics of Space is a difficult concept to engage with and the challenge was to distil it into something that would engage young people and lend itself to creative work. The key was to make it relevant to them, to allow them to engage with the ideas and relate them to their own experiences. I decided to focus on local identity and the relationship that the young people had with their environment, using this to introduce them to the underlying politics within their space.

To begin with, we explored Brighton’s identity through discussion and drawings, creating a palette of Brighton iconography to draw into our animations. The young people created imagery that typified Brighton and then translated it into a beautiful hand drawn animation.

We then explored particular spaces on a closer level, discussing where the young people felt safe and welcome, where they liked to hang out and what places they avoided. It was interesting to explore Brighton from their perspective and to examine the different atmosphere and personality that you will find in different areas around the city. I wanted to make the young people aware of the politics of space by getting them to consider the rules and social norms they observe around the city and how these can change or influence their behaviour differently in different places.

After discussing Brighton’s various neighbourhoods I asked the young people to choose one space which they had all been to and that they thought had potential to explore through animation. The young people selected Brighton Marina, which is close to where a number of them live.

Brighton Marina is an interesting example of the politics of space at work in our local community. By its very location it is separate from the city with only one main route in and out by car and minimal pedestrian access, making it an almost self contained space. There is the obvious geographical divide between land and water. The residential part of the Marina is gated, restricting access to only those that live there, creating a landscape of barriers and exclusion. There is also a social divide as the expensive boats of the Marina are symbols of a lifestyle that only few can afford and yet its location, just south of Whitehawk means that some of the city’s least affluent residents use it as their nearest source of leisure.

The young people explored maps and aerial photos to create a bird’s eye view of Brighton Marina, which they animated using paper cut out techniques. We started by creating our set and then breaking it down into moving elements such as the sea, cars, buses and boats. All of these were then combined to create a day in the life of Brighton Marina.

The young people then discussed their own relationships with the Marina – how they get there, what they do when they’re there and where they do and don’t go. These experiences were recorded as voice over, so that each member of the group could tell their own story. Finally, each member of the group made a paper cut out version of themselves to animate their part of the story.

Every Saturday throughout October the young people will be sharing what they learnt through drop in animation workshops at Jubilee and Whitehawk Libraries. The sessions will run from 10am-12pm at Whitehawk Library and from 2pm-4pm at Jubilee library. The sessions are for children aged 5-11. They are free to attend and no booking is required.

There is currently an exhibition of all of the work created for this project in the Young People’s space at Jubilee Library. The work will be on display from 6th October to 4th November.

 

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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.