Wednesday, July 29, 2009

TFS- Puppet Making Part 1- Designing Characters

Click on pic to make it big, although not much bigger, sorry.

So now that I've beaten to death the process of the story development, the next stage I thought I'd explore is Puppets. As with story, everyone has his or her own process of development. This is mine.

Also, I'm writing this for a reader that is eager, generally talented, but not very experienced in stop mo production (in short, my students!) At points I discourage approaching puppet-making in certain ways. That's based on the assumption that you (faithful reader) are not already practiced at this medium, and that you do not have a workshop full of power tools and mould-making materials and chemicals.

From teaching stop mo for a few years now, I've really come to approach the medium from the pov of "what can the average but very passionate person achieve?" So I don't tend to promote methods that require special machines (although sometimes there's no way around using a jigsaw, for some set building stuff), tricky chemicals, foam ovens, mould fabrication, metal lathing, and so on.

So please bear that in mind as you read all these puppet-making entries...I am always trying to get talented and passionate people excellent results, as opposed to miring them in financial debt to buy expensive stuff, so they can achieve poor results cause they weren't focusing on the important fundamentals.

As I now step down off my soapbox, ahem...

I first look at the finished boards, to confirm what the puppet in question has to do, specifically. This is an extremely important aspect of design. As a very basic example, imagine a scene in which the puppet has to reach up and grab an apple from a tree branch. But you've designed (and built!) a puppet with very short stubby arms. When you come to shoot that "grabbing the apple" shot, guess what? Your puppet simply cannot do the action.

So if your character has to (for example) balance on tip toes, then leap into the air, hover for 5 seconds, then suddenly stretch its neck out like a giraffe, you've got a lot of serious design issues to consider. Conversely, if your character has to basically stand in one place, make some facial expressions, be capable of solid but not particularly complex animation, move his arms around, and basically LOOK good, that's a far more straightforward issue. And that's the case with the puppet above. He's the Dad puppet for my film.

In the interest of moving along, I'll just say this about designing and constructing puppets: it's as much mechanical design as it is artistic design. This holds true especially when you are designing AND making the puppet yourself. Puppets take a VERY long time to design and build, even simple ones. All the puppets in my film are fairly straightforward, and the story was in part designed to allow for that fairly simple puppet making. Again, when you are doing it mostly yourself (even with a massively talented and helpful assistant like I had), all aspects of the production are really intertwined as you move forward.

And when they start getting tricky (puppets, that is), having to do very particular actions, it gets very complex and very NOT possible for a do-it-yourself-er. But the specifics of complex puppet making is not only for another posting, its for an entire lifetime of practice and craft...

As you are designing a character, here are a few very basic things to consider. You'll notice most of them concern how to get the puppet to stay still while you are animating he/she/it!!

Does the puppet have to have all its feet off the ground at any point? If so, that means you will somehow have to "rig" that puppet with a wire (that is secured to something out of camera) for those frames of animation. Later, you will have to digitally "clean up" those frames, removing the wire. Rig shots can be very simple (a ball landing in a glove), or very complex (10 witch puppets, all floating on broomsticks while juggling jack-o-lanterns). If a puppet needs a rig, it has to have that rigging point (where the wire will go) incorporated into the design.

In my story, there's a scene with two puppets sitting on a park bench. How to get them to stay still while they are being animated? My solution was to design very strong magnets (called "rare-earth" magnets) into their butts! So when the sit down, I can put another magnet under the bench, and they will stay put. But I only knew to install these magnets cause I carefully consulted the finished boards. Always refer to your boards before designing.

Here's a good example of functionality versus design. If you design a character with lovely, tiny feet, she will look beautiful. But she will be very tricky to stand up. And standing up is the one thing your puppet REALLY needs to do well. If a puppet won't stand up securely, you are going to go bonkers trying to animate this wibbly-wobbly creature. Since this puppet in question has tiny feet, you'll need to use little nuts in her feet, that you can screw a bolt into from under your set. This is the "tie down" method of puppet making. An easier solution is embedding a rare-earth magnet in her feet. Now she will stand very easily, just by placing another magnet under your set. But now, since the magnets are big, she has clunky clown feet. Which is more important, that she is easy to move, or that she looks lovely?

A complex area of puppet making, this. Is your character a human? If you look at the Dad puppet, he has long pants, and a short sleeved shirt. Pretty "normal" attire. The long pants are good, cause they cover a lot of skin. Under the pants can just be armature, and foam (for bulk). But the short sleeve shirt is tricky, cause it leaves exposed a lot of arm flesh. And since I was making the puppet parts from building up with liquid latex, getting a "smooth" look over all that area was going to be tricky. If he had long sleeves, that would be much easier. I'd only have to worry about smooth hands (as his arms would be under fabric). But the story was very much set in the summer, so he HAD to have short sleeves. So I HAD to pick up the challenge of geting smooth arms. See how costume hugely effects puppet making?!

Further, what if instead of a human Dad, he was a cat Dad? Imagine he still had these cloths, but was also covered in fur. What is that fur made from? How do you apply it to the puppet? Will it stay still during animation?

How about if instead of a cat Dad, he was a lizard Dad? Now you have smooth shiny scales to create. How do you do that?

There's no way I can really go into detail on this here! But suffice it to say (for now) that just cause you can imagine it, and draw it, DOESN'T mean you can build it. Sure, SOMEONE could build it (for you). There are hugely talented pros out there. But it will cost you quite possibly thousands. What can YOU make?

Personally, I can't even make the simple costume depicted! I know my weak areas, and constructing costumes is one of them. I can design, if it's simple, but I can't make. I PAY to get my costumes made. And they are beautiful, and done quickly, and function properly. It's worth it to me, to get nice puppets. So I always budget for costume fabrication. Simple as that.

I'll write more on the topic of puppet heads specifically, later. But in short, as you design, think about what your puppet head and face has to do. Let's say you have a tiger, and you design a character that will have a moving jaw. And he has lots of lip sync. You've just designed yourself into hell. The basic shape of that head (assuming it's fairly realistic) is enough of a challenge. Then a hinged jaw is very complex to design and fabricate (assuming you are working very indie). And all that lip sync will mean the very delicate structure of that jaw will be maxed out by all the detailed animation. The wires in there will break, and be very hard to replace. I always steer students away from this structural design for mouths. Again, it's about mechanical realities JUST as much as it about designing a pretty character.

In the example of the Dad puppet above, you can see he has a very simply little mouth. His character only has minor changes in mouth shapes, and in mouth positions. So for him, I designed a head that would be sculpted and hard (and stand up to frame-by-frame abuse by my hands), and that had NO mouth. Just a smooth space where the mouth would go. Then I used clay that was the right colour to match the head, that I simply pressed gently on to head. It could be moved and replaced and animated. This method of "hard head, soft mouth" puppet making is nothing new, it's used all over. It's slick and fast and effective in terms of conveying what you want, in a fairly simply technical way. It's the method I point most students towards.

Again, search your boards, see specifically what your puppet has to do, and go from there. If the Dad had tonnes of lip sync, using soft clay mouths that I whip up on set would not be practical. Instead, I'd make a "mouth kit" of mouth shapes that would be hard, and that could be tacked on with a tiny bit of wax. But still, it's the same basic concept- a hard hard, with external mouth pieces that get applied frame by frame.

Not saying this is the only way. Just saying it's a slick way that works.

Whew. I have a very strong feeling these puppet making postings are going to be rather technical, as opposed to philosophical. It's hard to resist falling into a "how to" approach, because with stop mo, there really IS a lot of practical stuff to learn.

Of course, in all aspects of the creation of art, there's room for philosophical considerations. It's just that production needs tend to take over (ie, deadlines) and now that story is locked in, it's usually a case now of "get it done".

Monday, July 20, 2009

TFS-Story Development Process, Part 5

So in Part 4, I provided a brief blurb as to the specific content of the story for TFS. Now I thought I'd share some more details regarding the specific process I used for developing the story.

It's a pretty tried and true process, I certainly didn't invent it. But there's a few personalized twists to the process, as you'll see.

You can click to make this bigger...

The above image was basically "Round 1" of the story development. I knew the story would feature a Narrator (me) who would introduce the story, and then pop back into the story, upon occasion. So I simply started writing the story out as if I was telling it to someone "live".

That's a method of storytelling I feel confident in (and in fact, everything I've made has a Narrator, in the first person). Different pieces I've made use that Narrator to a greater or lesser extent, but they all have a Narrator. I've always loved what a Narrator does to a story, the extra layer of character it offers. When every thing's being filtered through that character, there's a lot of tensions and juxtapositions that can happen. And there's an inherent intimacy that is created between the film and the audience, when someone speaks directly to YOU, the audience.

I know in part this is the result of my college training, that was very much influenced by Philip Hoffman.

His work is certainly more formal than mine, and operates within a more classical "Experimental" realm, and he's not an animator. So at first glance, you'd probably never see any connections between our work. After all, I make cute little puppet movies, that lightly touch on deeper things. He makes serious art house flicks that dig right into heavy, thought-provoking stuff.

But from him (and other faculty in the Media Arts Program at Sheridan, in the mid 1990s) I learned how powerful a personal, intimate approach to cinema can be, regardless of whether you're working in live action, documentary, interactive media, or animation. The film's content can be accessible, broadly appealing, easy on the eyes, traditionally narrative, and so on... but STILL be personally motivated and intimate in its approach.

I think I make stuff that grows out of the traditions honed by artists like Phil Hoffman, even though my stuff has rooted itself in a more commercial, broadly appealing form.

Anyway, moving on...

In an earlier posting, I said how lethal I thought doing all your story development via a word processor could be. If you check out the above scan, you'll see it's covered in very rough panels, arrows, scribbles, redirects, questions to myself, development notes, inserts... working this way was immediate and raw and real. And it always lets you see the process, how you got to where you are. When you see notes to yourself laid out right on the story, it points you to other parts of the story, it reminds you that perhaps there's motifs or story points that need picking up later in the story... and it all happens at a glance, right in front of you.

Even when you change your mind, and scribble something out, that remains on paper to remind you of the choice you made. And all this helps you grow the story. Well, it helps ME. It's a personal process that works for me, and I offer it here because seeing how others "do it" can help hone your OWN process.

I simply stapled all the papers together, and kept coming back to it as I developed it.

Then: below is "Round 2", which was a tightening of things from Round 1. It reads in columns, from top to bottom. At this stage, I guess it's basically the "Thumbnail" version of things. It takes into account the Voice Over, but more specifically depicts the visuals and how they will cut together. To start, I dash out a couple of columns, then start filling them in, with no mind to refining or keeping it clean. This is really about getting the visuals and audio to work together.

Click the pic to make it bigger...

And from this, it's a fairly boring step to "Round 3," which is tightening it up a lot, and putting it into formal storyboard panels.

Click the pic to make it bigger...

I call it fairly boring, because even though this stage is vital, the alchemy and the excitement of developing the story is essentially done. It reminds me of what an animator told me once of working with a director on project. The director would go over the shot with the animator, and together they'd build up great ways to stage the shot, dreaming up all the "goodness" that would go into the shot. This process would be filled with laughs, "what ifs," and real moments of creative storytelling excitment. Then the director would leave. And the animator would sigh, cause the FUN part was done. It was all dreamed up. Now, it was just about putting his head down and MAKING it. That's like this stage of boards. The fun is done, but not the work. And this stage of boards is work, for real.

With this final stage, it's about making it tight and clean and easy to reference when I'm shooting. It's these final boards that I put up on the studio wall, and use to reference when I shoot. These boards will have various production notes included, so that as I set up for the shot, the board reminds me of specifics. For example, a prop in this shot might appear in the board to be the same prop as in an earlier shot, but in fact, it needs to be altered somehow, for continuity.

So these boards have to be detailed, tight, easy to reference...but it's not creative. It's essential work, but not fun work. But in the end you've got a nice set of boards.

For me, Round 1 and 2 are so much fun, because they are so raw. Anything can happen at those stages, and there's an energy that lives in the rough panels that is inspiring. With Round 3's tight boards done, it's pretty locked in. But that's the way it goes. It's a necessary thing for story, it has to get tight. Effective production flow demands it.

With the tight boards done, I shot a still of each panel (I guess I could have scanned them instead, but it's easier for me to shoot stills with a video camera), and use those to create my leica reel, otherwise known as my animatic, or story reel (why they can't just call it one thing, I don't know, or care).

I refined the Voice Over on paper, then recorded it. This happened over several sessions, because I would cut some voice into the leica, sleep on it, and revise how I wanted it delivered. That's a luxury when you do your own voice work- re-recordes are easy to schedule!

Then I cut it all together with the storyboard drawing in Premiere (on my Mac), and thus concludes the story portion of the project. Of course, I spent quite a while editing the leica, getting the timing right, the flow of the whole thing... that's why you take the time at the stage, so that when you actually shoot you know exactly what you need from your shots.

So in the end, it followed a fairly traditional method of development for animation: rough story with sketches, leading to thumbnails, leading to tight boards, then animatic.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Life of Puppets

Recently a friend gave my son a small hand puppet, made by Banjo Puppets (they're in my Links column).

Of course, the next step was to play with said puppet.

For me, the best part of this video is not my amazingly strange accent (is this puppet from England? Australia? South Africa? Sweden? very mysterious, and slightly embarrassing).

It's the expressions on my son's face, throughout.

That puppet is as real to him as I am, or a cat, or a dog. It's just another creature in my son's daily life that wants to interact with him. Bring it on. Talking dishes? Sure. A tree that wants a hug? Why not.

I'll never have an easier audience, I should aim all by stuff at the toddler crowd.

But seriously- the full acceptance you can see in my son's face of that bit of fun fur with eyes as being alive is at the root of why puppets "work".

Old Trout/Feist Music Video

Lovely voice and song, lovely puppets, lovely mood, themes, and metaphors...

Can't embed it, but here's the link.

A Tidier Blog, By Gum.

For my three avid readers: I have spent a bit of time creating more organized labels.

Now you can delve greedily in the soft, velvety postings of the past, confident that your chosen area of interest, be it "Puppets," "Stop Motion," "Comics," "Books," "Story," "Home Electronics Repairs," "Taxedermy" and so on will be easy to find.

Delve often.

Delve deep.

War Horse

Months ago, I wrote about a production that came to Toronto, Famous Puppet Death Scenes. It's a wonderful and inventive show, overall.

Some of the most powerful moments in that show come in the conclusion, as the Narrator puppet is "laid to rest". The emotional connection between the audience and the puppet was remarkable, possibly the strongest I've ever witnessed.

That's part of the magic of theatre, of course- the amount of suspension of disbelief required in a live setting (to believe a puppet is living and breathing) can result in a huge emotional connection with that puppet, on the part of the audience. The audience so clearly KNOWS the puppet is just string and wood and wire, but that same audiences WANTS that puppet to be alive. So much has to be invested emotionally by the audience, and that investment pays off in a massive emotional connection with the character. And if something tragic or dramatically tense should involve that character with whom the audience has had to will into life (and of course something dramatic always does befall a character, if its good theatre), the toll it can take on an audience can be devastating.

In a good way, typically.

At a climactic moment in excellent puppet theatre, the engaged audience says to itself, "I knew from the start you weren't real, but I fell for you, I believed in you. And then I forgot you weren't real, and just loved you as a living character. So please don't leave me now. I've invested so much in you. I've fallen so deeply for you."

Of course without excellent puppetry skills none of this happens, but I don't think any puppeteers reading this will be upset if I gloss over their role (at least in this particular posting). After all, if he or she is doing a wonderful job, it's simply the character that is alive on stage. The puppeteer dissolves away...

Case in point: the New London Theatre's production of War Horse. Here's an article on the show. The article also has a link to a Youtube trailer that features the puppets in action.

I haven't had the pleasure, but what impresses me about the production (as its depicted in the article) is the emotional reaction audiences are having to the horse puppets. It sounds like some incredibly powerful connections are being created, with audiences in tears, stirred so deeply by it all.

I love puppet theatre, because its immediate and live nature can grab an audience's emotions in such a raw, magical way. But it also scares the pants off me, when I think of trying to create it- so much can go wrong when you're live!

Stop motion allows for a lot of control, and "reshoots" if things aren't right. It's safe to make, and of course, can then be shown the world over via broadcast or screenings. Theatre simply doesn't travel like motion picture!

But I also think stop motion (through its non-live, careful production method) simply cannot grab the audience in such a primal fashion as a live production like War Horse can. Stop motion certainly can create an emotional response from an audience, but it's just not going to be as magical and remarkable as something live.

Live puppet theatre is very risky, but the potential pay-off is huge.

Thanks to Mark Mayerson for the tip-off on this show.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

TFS-Story Development Process, Part 4

(Click the pic for a nice big image.)

So here's the story I went with. This is essentially how I "pitched" the project to Sheridan when I was applying for funding (more on that process later).

"The project I am proposing is a short (approximately 4 minute) animated film. More specifically, the animation will be in the form of puppet animation.

In terms of content, the film concerns itself with a real family event, that provides insight into how we help loved ones deal with pain.

In the summer of 1965, my oldest brother was bit by what my parents feared was a rabid squirrel. What followed were several weeks of painful curative needles for my brother, and painful worrying for my parents. The ending to this true family tale is a happy one, but the journey to that ending was difficult, to say the least.

How does a family come together during moments of sudden crisis? What lengths will parents go to in order to help their children through such times? What lessons can we learn from the inevitable pain that life brings our way?

In bigger terms, the story is about how we deal with loved ones as they suffer through physical pain.

The tone of the film will be lighthearted, but never frivolous. It will employ humourous visual storytelling (through puppet animation), and a narration that is written in a personal, heartfelt style."

So- why did I give this story the ultimate green light, when other story concepts didn't make the grade? For a whole number of reasons, and that is how I seem to proceed when developing projects. I have to weight a whole lot of factors. It's not just the story itself, it's finding a story that fits the process of production I envision following.

By that I mean, if I had a powerful Executive Producer who was officially standing by to handle getting funds together, I could start my job as writer by whipping up quite an epic tale. I could let my imagination run completely wild (and wouldn't that be fun). But the reality of my production process is that currently, I either fund these things myself, OR pull together a modest budget from external sources, somehow.

And so as I imagine a story, I have to also imagine HOW that story will get made. And keeping production schedules, sizes and budgets realistic is essential to me achieving my ultimate goal which is: see a short animated film on the big screen (or small screen, as the case may be). And it's not just imagining a story that can get made, in terms of production costs. It's a much bigger chain, that involves the use of facilities, equipment, TIME, assistants (if I can get any), other crew...

Maybe I shouldn't work this way, wearing all these different production hats at once. Maybe I should just be the writer when it's at the writing stage... then the producer when it's time to get money... then the director, animator...

But I personally can't work that way. Since I am doing so much if it myself, I see a project from all angles, at every stage of the project. And so it goes...

Experience thus far has proven that when you depend too much on outsiders (especially when money is involved), things get way too delicate, and can fall apart so easily. I just want to get a film on the screen, with my name on it (and that I controlled, creatively). And from that film on screen, I will become a better artist, who has a real VOICE. And then I can continue on, accordingly.

Anyway, back to why this story won the race to the finish line and went into production. Here's a short list of the "whys":

There is money available to profs to develop themselves professionally. You can use it for taking a course, to buy textbooks, materials that help you create art... The idea behind it is that through self-development, a teacher becomes a better teacher, and can pass that along to the students. I applied to this fund proposing to make a short film. I felt the content, tone, and overall message of this particular story would be well received by my "producers" (as opposed to a hardcore gore film with bloody entrails and naked girls on motorcycles. Although that would also be an exciting concept. Maybe my next film). And if Sheridan is playing a Producer role (although a very hands-off one, since profs have a lot of freedom in how they spend they development money), it's just common sense- KEEP YOUR PRODUCER HAPPY. If Sheridan's name is going to be on this (in some capacity), make it something that Sheridan will be happy to have its name on. A happy producer means an easier next project for ME.

I'm always on my students about "intensifying and clarifying"- that's the process of seizing a concept/story/situation and amping it up and making it VERY clear. Motion picture story telling is not "real life" (even when it's a documentary, docs are still framed and edited and staged to some extent). I knew immediately that this family story seemed ripe for this process. It was a basic story that was already pretty intense, that could be cranked up, made "cartoony," through the storytelling techniques at my disposal.

I realized that this story was always a hit when my family all got together- it had intense drama, action, suspense... and a certain amount of cruel (but ultimately well intentioned) humour. Also, since the story was personal (and true), it would naturally be delivered first person, which always makes writing easier for me. When I move into 3rd person storytelling, I have a tendency to lose my connection to the situation and characters. But 1st person keeps me rooted, emotionally. Maybe it's all the personal comic books I gravitate to, artists like Julie Doucet, Seth, Chester Brown...

As a new parent, I now saw other facets to the story. I could image what it must have been like for my parents to struggle through the event, how scary it must have been. I knew these fresh insights would give me an angle into the story, as I crafted it.

The story was visually "there" right away. Even as I began to imagine how I would convey the story, the shots were tumbling out of my head. The scenes presented themselves, and how they would cut together, what I would reveal and NOT reveal, and when I would do it... the whole story was right there. I had to work through a few scenes in terms of how to show the story, but a vast majority of the visual work was in my head. A very good sign.

Based on how it was visually conveying itself right out of the gate, I knew it was "doable" in terms of production costs and ambitions. With the limited time I would have to build and shoot (basically 6 weeks), it could happen. (Time Machine ahead in production and: In the end I got 80% shot, and 100% of the sets/puppets built, and will finish shooting in the Fall, but that's fine by me, MOST of it got shot, without too much to finish). It also was "doable" in terms of production costs. I would be alloted $800 in development money, and I can do a LOT with $800.

There's other reasons why this one "worked" but those are the main ones...

So to sum up, it wasn't simply the story itself that had to "fit". The story had to "fit" with the larger production process I had in mind. It's a very delicate path through the process, to see something finished on the screen. A misstep can cause ruin. That's part of what it means to make indie films- there's no simple and clear way through- you have to find the right path for each project.

I always use the term "get your ducks lined up." I use that term because it conveys how if you take care with your production issues up front, they can be knocked down with one "shot" (ie, a production can FLOW effectively).

Also, I hate ducks, and love the thought of shooting them dead.

FURTHER NOTE ON PRODUCTION SCHEDULE: I would have 6 weeks to build the sets and props and puppets, and shoot the animation. But the story was already completely done by then, as was an animatic, and the puppet heads were all sculpted (I love sculpting, but I'm SLOW). So these crucial 6 weeks were started with quite a bit of key work done already (I had been working away over the winter).

Thursday, July 9, 2009

TFS- Story Development Process, Part 3

You are to be rewarded, patient reader.

I now want to write about the specific story I ended up going with; the story that got the "green light," and wound up going into production. But the trick at this point in things (with the film still unfinished, until early 2010) is that I don't want to reveal the whole story.

One thing I constantly caution senior animation students against is guarding their ideas TOO closely, so let me expand on the "why" of my choice to hold the story a bit close (even though the story development part of the project is long done).

I firmly believe that if you don't get it (your story) on a table to get feedback at early stages, your story will have holes and problems and areas that lack clarity to the audience that you'll never catch. You need other eyes on it, right from the beginning. But WHOSE eyes? I think you need to be very careful about this. I'm in favour of a very selected few, to whom you return for further feedback, as the story develops. You need to share it, but in a controlled fashion, so as to preserve that raw, primal energy the story still has.

But my story is well past that early, embryonic stage, right? So why not dish?

I am certainly in favour of dishing out an entire tale to certain people during the development process. That includes the entire story, from beginning to end, and then rough storyboards, final storyboards, animatic... but beyond that, I am a firm believer that filmmakers are like magicians. The anticipation of that "ta-da!" moment when we unveil the finished piece to an audience is an undeniable part of the process. And so in a desire to have something special to reveal, I'm keeping a bit tight-lipped about the specifics of the story, at least on this blog. There are those that are in the know, and they've helped the story tremendously. They know who they are (and they know that soon I will have to collect them in a room and shoot them one by one, so they do not reveal my secrets).

A short aside on picking the "chosen ones" that will help with feedback on your story. I certainly do NOT think these eyes have to belong (necessarily) to MASTER STORYTELLERS. I think what's more important is that the eyes belong to people you trust, who will give you the straight scoop, and who have no sneaky motives, other than helping you develop a clear, awesome story. And so you could have as part of your story team a filmmaker, your Grandmother, and the mailman. In fact, I recommend someone who has no visual storytelling experience beyond what the average media viewer has (hence the mailman suggestion). That person will have the most honest eyes you can imagine, and will give you very straight and honest feedback regarding what is NOT clear or powerful.

Of course, having a powerful and experience storyboarding artist on hand to advise would also be a great idea, but not one that is always possible!

Anyway, without further ado- I say to you, dear reader, "Tune in for the next entry, if you REALLY want to know the specifics of the story idea I went with."

Look, I know I keep leading you on, but I can't help it that I have a lot to write about, and the last thing I want to do is post massive (more massive than what I'm already posting) entries that exhaust the reader and lose their impact, just cause they are novel-length. And it's my hope that even though I'm putting off getting specific, this stuff DOES all lead somewhere, and I'm pretty sure it has tidbits and thoughts that are helpful or thought- provoking in their own right. The innards of story development are so complex and multi-layered, and is of such interest to me, that's just the way it goes- I'm simply going to write a LOT, about something I am really passionate about.

Also- my little boy is soon to wake up from his nap. And since HE'S the real boss (and won't let me write on my blog when he's awake, cause he wants to play 24/7), and cause if I don't keep an eye on him he tends to destroy our home and/or his physical body, I have to wrap it up.

I hereby vow, the next Story Development entry will get down and dirty.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Curious Spoon

Had to bring further attention to this blog I recently discovered, by Vanessa Soberanis. Her work is wonderful for a lot of reasons. Be sure to watch her demo reel...

Whenever I see someone really "getting" the use of textures in motion picture (which usually happens to be stop motion), it makes me very happy. By texture I mean literally visual texture (as opposed to textures within story, or within animation), that are irregularities in surfaces that help define an object visually, and make it distinct from other materials. This artist is fully immersed in this exploration, it's a pleasure simply to LOOK at what she's crafting. You can almost feel it through the computer screen (and that's such a tangible, human thing to experience).

I also really love the "ugly and beautiful" style of her characters (and often her sets). I love the complexity this suggests, the maturity. Life isn't black and white, it isn't about "pretty=good, ugly=bad". If it was, life would be very boring. If you watch her demo reel, you'll see lots of great examples, but I especially like the ogre riding a trike. He looks like he could eat you (and might actually want to), but he's also happy and joyous. Maybe he'll enjoy his little trike ride, THEN eat you. What a complex and multi-layered character, expressed in just a few seconds of on-screen time!

The excitement in life often comes from contrasts, from tensions that are established. Again, these tensions can exist in story, in the actual animation, in lighting, in sound design, in set design. Vanessa is obviously fully aware of this, cause its shows in the complexity of her work.

Finally, I'll say that I am taken with the diversity of her styles, both in terms of design, and animation. It's easy as an artist to lock yourself into something, and master it (and there's nothing wrong with that, it's a valid path for development- pick something, and become the best in that you can be).

But it takes a certain kind of courage as a artist to step outside a comfort zone, and explore what else there is out there. Her work's varying styles reveal that Vanessa is working from this place, and that means so much in a world where there's simply not enough independent artistic voices.

I don't know Vanessa, other than through her blog. I just hope she keeps doing what she's doing.

Monday, July 6, 2009

TFS- Story Development Process, Part 2

It's a tough fact that when you're working independently, on your own film, the only way to test a story's worth is to work away at it with all your heart and brain and guts, to believe in it, and push it... and see what happens.

With the concepts I wrote about in Part 1 (and many others concepts I developed during this time period), I did just that. I believed in them, I nurtured them... but through the process of development, they proved that they just didn't have what it takes. Maybe in the future, but not for now.

And of course, this leads us to economics (?!)

When you're working for money, for an external client, you develop something as best you can as per the deadline, then hand it over. But when it's your own "baby" and there's no real deadline breathing down your neck, you can REALLY test a story's worth.

This is a blessing and a curse, because although it allows you to develop confidence that your story is "worth" taking into production, it can also lead to literally years of tweaking and pulling and testing, without anything actually making it to screen.

I'll probably post more about this tricky balance, probably labeled under "story".

And so, as I continued to test various concepts, trying to find one that would be meaty enough (for whatever reason) to throw myself at for a year or two, the final concept that I actually went with almost literally "wrote itself".

Now- when I hear or read of someone else using the term "the story wrote itself," I usually want to commit homicide, because writing a story is so incredibly difficult, 99% of the time. And the thought of someone having such an easy time of it makes me grind my teeth. But the term also drives me nuts because I KNOW it can happen, and I wish it would more often, for me!

It really can be that easy, a story can feel like it literally assembles itself in front of you, piece by piece, until it's done, with no more effort on the writer's part than to simply play the role of note-taker, jotting the story down, easy-peasy. The process can feel like someone else is actually assembling it, or that it's been presented to your mind pre-built. It can tumble out of your head onto paper, done.

It's rare for it to happen (at least it certainly is for me), but it happens. For me, it's happened exactly once before, on a live-action film I made years ago). Now I can say it's happened twice, and I swear, it feels like winning the lottery.

But to win the lottery means LUCK was at work. I don't think that's actually the case with story. I think this final story that "fell out of my head" on to paper was only able to do that because I had been testing and refining and pushing the other ideas, as I searched for the "right" story to produce. At least I like to tell myself that, so it doesn't hurt the feelings of the "failed" stories too much ("story is a living thing," as Buchbinder writes).

Don't worry, the next story development posting with actually address the particular story I went with, specifically.

Hey, it's my blog, I can stretch things out as much as I want! And there's only two of your reading anyway- my Mom, and someone in in Kentucky who thinks my blog is about washing machine repairs.

Actually, my readership seems to steadily climb, which is quite a nice feeling.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Canadian Cinema in Revue

Got a Facebook invite to this. I can't make it, but I can promote it! And I can promote the film too- here's the official website.

As with the Naked Frames Festival (a few entries ago), I strongly support any venue that provides audiences with something other than multi-stink mega films.

Opportunities to show interesting/ crazy/ exciting/ original motion picture work continues to shrink, so when something brave enough to fly in the face of the Walmart style theatres peeks its head up, it's a special thing.

For those that are not in the Toronto area, there's a bit of a pun in the title of this program, as The Revue is a local rep cinema that plays a big part in the cultural community of its neighbourhood.

Here's the quote from the Facebook invite:

"The Revue continues its new monthly program, Canadian Cinema in Revue. The series showcases features and short films made by Canada’s most interesting and innovative filmmakers. Directors, writers and actors involved with the films will be invited for question and answer sessions following the screenings.

Curated by critic and filmmaker Alan Bacchus, the series continues with Andrew’s Currie’s deadpan zombie comedy, FIDO.

After a successful festival run at TIFF, Sundance and SXSW, a broad Canadian theatrical release and a US release, Fido is ripe for a resurgence back on the big screen. Currie’s comedy smoothly combines Douglas Sirk-style 50’s suburban melodrama with a post-modern zombie subversion of “Shawn of the Dead”.

Complimenting the satirical theme is Jesse McKeown’s glorious send-up of Hollywood action trailers, The Big Charade, a full feature length story told with all the cinematic bravura of a multi-million production in only 6mins.

Following the screening writer/director Andrew Currie and his co-writer Dennis Heaton will skype in on the big screen from Vancouver for a Q&A.

Tickets are $10 at the door or $8 for Revue Members and sponsoring groups."