Sunday, 25 March 2007

Case Study #1: The Greatest Show on Earth!

I figured that to help shape an impression of where I'm coming from, I'd include in this blog case studies of numerous visual and stylistic influences on my work. So here's the first one. Hooray! As I'm sure you are all aware, YouTube is an invaluable resource for incredibly rare footage, shows you can't buy or watch, hard-to-find interviews, concerts etc. At least, it would be if those fuckin' narcs didn't constantly delete videos because of copyright infringement. In all honesty, how much damage could having a crappily-compressed YouTube video online do to DVD sales or HDTV viewing figures?
But I digress in that interminable way I often do. I had put online a video that got deleted as it's comprised entirely of clips from The Ren & Stimpy Show, the genius creation of contemporary animator John Kricfalusi, with me babbling about how great it was. I think that message frankly needs to be heard still, especially in this era of Loonatics Unleased, 6Teen and all manner of other uninspired dross. This was done as part of my MA course, as an ungraded exercise in putting together a presentation on our creative influences for the sake of getting comfortable with the concept. I decided to do it in a kind of documentary style so I could cram as many points and visual gags as I could.

Painting by Bill Wray, the show's distinctly nifty background artist

If I were to actually post a blog entry as to why Ren & Stimpy was the best thing to happen in animation since the Looney Tunes, it'd be the length of a goddamn novel. So I'll spare you all and stick with the 6 minute summary. My regret with the vid is that I sort of dismiss John K's ill-fated revival 'Adult Party Cartoon' as an afterthought at the end. This is mainly because I consider the two shows to be entirely separate beasts, and 'Adult Party' is laudable in its own right. I may very well give it an entry later on as a separate case study. Adding to the absurdity of Viacom ordering that the presentation be removed, when it was up I got a ton of feedback from people who had never seen the show - or had forgotten it - that had decided to go buy the DVDs after seeing this. So by having it up I was making the company money. Anyway... Have a look (wmv format)

As an addenda, back when this was on YouTube I was frequently asked why my voice was so affected. Unfortunately I really do speak in one of those not-quite-anything hybrid accents. Sorry folks.

Wednesday, 21 March 2007

Cabin Fever (Part Two)

An update on my doomed venture to put together a classy-looking set, contradicting the rough crudity of my concept art. With the foundations and walls already established, I've been working on a whole bunch of silly little details to make it all feel like a home. Out of context these images just look like (rather amateurish) interior design ideas, which I guess they kind of are. What I like about the work done with the textures is the bleak, dated look of the interior. The overall impression is that it was possibly inherited, with no refurbishment efforts made. I think with some more work I can explain an awful lot about the hunter's character simply by the despondency of his surroundings. Hopefully I'll be able to retain this sense if and when I decide to convert it to a less photorealistic, 'cartooney' look.
While this kind of visual style fits into numerous facets of the design and animation world, I don't really think my film is amongst them. Still, it's all learning...

Sunday, 18 March 2007

A Retrospective at 23? That's Kinda Dumb...

If I were the shameless sort, I'd use this particular blog entry to plug my musical altar-ego, Struwwelpeter. But that's not what this is about. There's a time and a place for Struwwelpeter, whose latest album 'Agnosticaust' is a veritable feast for the ears - but that time isn't now. And the place isn't here - maybe I'll start a seperate blog for Struwwelpeter (t-shirts along with other related merchandise and accesories available to buy online) but that's a project for another day.
*Cough* Buy my crappy records *Ahem*
On a completely different note, I thought I'd talk about two Struwwelpeter (add me on Myspace!) music videos I made to pass my BA and promote the records, which really are delightful. For some reason I felt compelled to do a variety of music videos for my final major project, rather than just one which probably would have sufficed. As it turned out I did six, handing in four, two of which were done with CGI animation.
We are all of us wiser with the gift of retrospect, and I can't help but feel that if I had just focused my energies on one video it could have been a far more impressive affair. That being said, I remain quite proud of those I ended up producing, for all of their flaws. It's when you can identify where you've gone before that teaches you the most - in these cases there's one issue that dwarfs all others: camerawork.
The coolest thing to me (and I'm sure to other newbs...noobs? whatever) about working in a CG environment is the ability to effortlessly change POVs, angles and perspective, more so even than with an actual camera. When you have a moving shot, like a pan or a pull-back, it accentuates the amount of effort that went into modelling the set and characters.
Having taken this into consideration, I made a fatal mistake as a consequence of rendering every shot out separately - there isn't a solitary moment in either video where the camera stays still. Not only is this piss-irritating, it detracts from the characters and subdues the impact of shots that would otherwise be quite impressive.
In the video below, 'Facial Mel', there are three zoom-outs that I was fairly proud of, but because the visuals that come before and after each one indulge in needless camera motion, the brevity of these three shots dissipates almost completely. They're still kinda cool, but they could have stood out so much more if I'd had the foresight to exercise some restraint elsewhere.

Struwwelpeter: "Facial Mel" Music Video

I feel I should mention at this point that when I refer to my own work in a flattering way I'm really applauding the capabilities of the software I use (Cinema 4D, if that's of any interest).
While 'Facial Mel' is perhaps more bright and bustling, 'Let Slip' is the more thought-through video of the two. For whatever symbolism that can be read into 'Facial Mel' (there was none consciously intended) there isn't a lot that happens. Robot wakes up, robot rolls along a walkway into a colloseum-type thing, robot gets nutted by a mirror and some windy shit goes down. In 'Let Slip' there are a couple of isolated scenes in which events occur, however minimal they may be. In one scene, the main rabbit is in a position to help another rabbit in need. Instead he walks away. I like that bit a lot because, as crude as it may be, it was the first time I'd created a personality for a character - the animation is minimal but you still get the idea that this rabbit is a bit of a self-serving dick.

Struwwelpeter: "Let Slip (Remix)" Music Video

The modelling is extremely basic and was originally going to be embellished until my tutor encourage me to stay with the more stylised, geometric look. I'm glad he did as this ended up resulting in the rabbit's face being the eventual album cover, an image that's sold more high-quality merchandise than any of my other designs.
I think if you were to take away the textures, the visuals for both videos would be on a par with the Dire Straits 1981 music video for 'Money For Nothing'. A goal of mine for this MA is to develop character designing skills beyond simply arranging shapes. Another is to refine the realism of their movement, because basically at the moment I'm just, as my current tutor fondly phrases it, 'moving shit about'.
With the creepy, trippy remix (courtesy of my favourite lesbian in the world, Alison Eire) of the song and the bleak, faux papier-mache visuals, this video got a lot of feedback from Solent University's more 'artsy' crowd when it was showcased. I don't really like to lend my work any kind of relevance or weight, it was just a case of me trying to create something cute and silly and winding up with something creepy and indulgent. I really wish I'd opted for a different ending rather than the final live-action shot of the rabbit, which frankly veers into pretentious territory. It may be with that self-awareness and desire to distance myself from the arthouse world that I've made this current film I'm working on so ridiculous. When I try to explain to people "Well, it's about a duck who's a zombie..." they look at me like I'm not only making it up on the spot, but also like I'm a little bit retarded. After a while it starts to dawn on me that they might be onto something...

Thursday, 15 March 2007

Cabin Fever (Part One)

Part of CGI's major appeal as a viable prospective option is the freedom it can grant with the construction of sets. A huge money-saver when put up against stop-motion which would warrant an actual physical construction, and far more likely to look satisfying over my shambolic, proportionless 2D drawings (see 'Concept Art'). Even if I decide to use traditional/digital 'cel' animation for the characters, a single set built in a CG environment can allow for multiple angles and camera/lighting effects without requiring a buttload of drawings that would probably look pretty ropey anyway.
The first step in putting the cabin (where the bulk of the action takes place) together is mapping out a basic layout that can work with the script. So for example, if a character emerges from a certain room, it needs to be adjacent to the primary setting of the scene. After a number of read-throughs of the script, I came up with this illegible drivel:
With some fine-tuning I worked out a better-proportioned scale layout, then used that as the foundation for my set.To give it a kind of rustic look, I lined the walls (save for the kitchen which will be tiled) with rows of parallel boards, each at a slight slant.
I then scoured a handful of free stock-image galleries and created about 100 different wood textures from photographs of fences and the like. I applied these to each board and presto! A needlessly photorealistic set of walls! It took a while, but my life is incredibly vacuous. What else was I gonna do? Go out and socialise? Bwahaha...
My major concern is that the fancy-dancy visuals may not be necessary, or may even be distracting. If there's a scene being played out that relies on crucial dialogue, you don't want the audience drooling over the hyper-realism of the background details.

Final Fantasy: Very pretty but ultimately pointless...

Here's a pretty obvious reference - I remember being astounded by the look of that Final Fantasy film. I can't remember one goddamn thing about what the hell happened in it, though. On one hand, just because you can do something photorealistic doesn't necessarily mean you should. On the other, why the hell not? For now, at least. With the assumption being that the textures and effects can or will be altered later, I think it'd be a good idea to soldier on with the rest of the set as I have done so far. If nothing else, it will teach me more about modelling, and the more mistakes I can learn from, the better. Plus, it passes the time and is genuinely fun once you get into it, working on textures, mapping them in, all that geeky shit. In fact, I think my next entry should be about just how professional things like textures and lighting effects can make films look (in lieu of any decent knowledge of animation) and how easy it is to get caught up in them.

Monday, 12 March 2007

Trial & Error...Mostly Error

I've been carrying out some tests as to what type of animation will best suit my duck movie. While I'm quite fond of the visuals created for the concept art, the idea of doing a whole film using traditional, hand-drawn (or even digitally drawn) animation is more than a little intimidating. So I decided to see if the characters work using 3D CGI, and after piecing together a basic model for the duck...well, I'm not really any further along in making my mind up.

There's something notoriously tricky about converting a still drawing to 3D. That old Simpsons episode where they do a CG Homer is a prime example of that, even though his character design is dependent on fairly basic geometry there's something not quite right about seeing those characters as anything other than drawings.

Perhaps a better example would be the action figures. South Park's characters are as basic as you get in terms of design and still the 3D figures have a slightly disproportioned, 'unofficial' quality. Believe it or not, all the figures in the still above are officially licensed toys, not ripoffs.

While I've done my best to replicate the proportions of the 2D design (working from a front view and profile view, lined up so the proportions match up, which is pretty hard when you know nothing about this type of thing), there's that unplaceable absence of character in the 3D translation.

Although that being said, it is early days and this is my first attempt at a character model. Doubtless better textures and some fine-tuning will help. Obvious flaws to work through are the mismatched and improperly-mapped fur textures, as well as the woefully modelled wing and beak. So I won't rule this out just yet, but will reassess the situation once I've added enough detail and just made the whole thing look less, well, rubbish.

Friday, 9 March 2007

Playing Favourites

While I suppose the character designs have already been established in the previous two posts' worth of concept art, I thought it'd be a grand ol' idea to throw in some of the various alternate designs for the four main players. This stage of pre-production was one of my favourites as I got to discriminately choose which were the best-looking characters to keep. It's like adoption, or more specifically, celebrity adoption. The fuglies don't stand a chance.
Of course all my characters are pretty grotesque, in this instance my goal was to pick out the least shoddily drawn ones. In all of these images the chosen designs of the batch are the ones on the bottom far right.
For the child character I wanted something that suggested a degree of antisocial awkwardness. This is easier to show in boys but I threw a couple girls in as well. Ultimately the androgyny of a kid meant there was no specification as to whether it be a boy or girl, but neither girl made the final cut. Guys rule.
The very early doodles on which the film's story was predicated upon saw both the child and hunter with very generic designs. The hunter especially was predictably barrel-chested and plaid-clad, with a chiselled jawline and so forth. This went down like a lead balloon and so I decided to run the gamut of class, creed and physique in a search for a less obvious 'hunter' look. The guy I chose has a sort of scrawny, try-hard vibe about him which I think goes nicely with the compensatory hunter lifestyle. Although I think I'll give the poor prick a shirt...
Ah, prospective lays. Y'know, the ones that could slip out of your fingers at any second? You don't? I guess that just happens to me.
Anyhow, the vital scene that severs all civility between hunter and duck depends on a reasonably pretty female character ditching the former for the latter. Now my characters aren't attractive, they're kind of awkwardly-doodled mishmashes of key features, so to sell 'pretty' is kinda tricky. As with the hunter design I decided to just churn out a bunch of widely-ranging plain Janes. The chosen design sort of teeters on that borderline of 'classy' and 'easy', which suits the character down to the ground. All that friggin' work and she has, like, three lines of dialogue in the whole thing.
Now the duck...well, this was obviously the most fun to do because I got to draw a bunch of dead, stitched-together animals, and as such there was a lot less restriction with the design. As pictured the character models range from surly to threatening to cheesey and out'n'out creepy. What I really wanted to have was an image that was a little bit disgusting and visceral, but also sort of retain the cuteness of an anthropomorphised duck. The closest I got to that was the chosen design, who I've since become enamoured of. I need to get more sunlight.
So as these designs were all mulled over and ruled out long before I posted this entry, it may seem moot to bring it up. But I wanted to document a key stage of preproduction and also show that I didn't just pull the chosen designs out of my beautiful, beautiful ass.

Monday, 5 March 2007

Story & Concept Art - Part Two, For True!

So we've previously established that our zombie-duck pal is a bit of a leech and a moocher, and has coerced the hunter into letting him stay for the night...
After an offer of one night turns into several weeks of scrounging, the hunter's patience wears thin. But this duck isn't going anywhere. You can't tell in this sketch because of the position of the wing, but would it be too disgusting and unpleasant to have the pizza he's just eaten be visible in his stomach wound? He is a zombie and I want him to be a little bit gross in a cute way, but I don't really want to make people throw up.

Personalities clash and the duck slowly starts to destroy the hunter's quality of life, through alienating his friends, constantly eating his food and, in this scene, stealing away his prospective lay. Bit of a smooth-talkin', Rico Suave mo'fo, this guy. For the hunter, it's the last straw.

Having had enough, the hunter chases the duck through the house, cornering him in the trophy room. Will he finish what he started all those months ago and kill the duck proper, or will our seemingly-doomed zombie friend smooth-talk his way out of it?

There is a final sketch for this first batch of concept art, which I won't include as it gives away my current ending. The reception these sketches have received so far have been positive on the whole, but my concern is whether I have the ability to maintain this style for a whole film's worth (by that I mean, like, 10-15 minutes). I don't doubt that a lack of fundamental artistic knowledge is evident with these drawings - the backgrounds are especially shaky and scribbled, while the characters don't really maintain much of a strict model. My plan over the next few weeks is to carry out some tests for what means of animation will best suit the visual look of the film. Whether or not traditional, 2D animation can carry it, or perhaps 3D CGI remains to be seen. Having seen its effectiveness on shows like Futurama, I'm quite interested in the idea of perhaps even marrying the two. One means can quite possibly cut corners of the other (for example, 3D CGI backgrounds with 2D character animation over the top, or perhaps the other way around) without jeopardising the film's aesthetic.

Thursday, 1 March 2007

Story & Concept Art - Part One, Baby!

Okay, let's get this shindig started.
As a fair bit of pre-production work has already been done for this project, I've been um-ing and ah-ing about what element to post first. I guess it kind of makes sense to start with the storyline, right?
Without going into too much detail (for by God that'll come later, and how), the film tells the story of a duck who, having been shot by a hunter, is brought back to life as a duck zombie.

Bear with me.

The story begins proper when the duck tracks the hunter down and, instead of exacting a traditional revenge, manages to guilt-trip his way into a permanent, rent-free scenario where he leeches off the hunter's conscience and goodwill. What ensues is a (hopefully amusing) sequence of events whereby the two personalities clash more and more over a period of several months, until the hunter snaps and sets out to finish what he started. The actual ending I won't go into just yet, as I don't want to spoil it and I'm not even sure I'm gonna go with what I have. So whether or not the hunter succesfully dispatches with the duck - well, I'll have to leave you on tenterhooks.
Given that meagre precis of the film I doubt I'm leaving anyone in agonising suspense. So here's some scratchy, ragged concept art to help sell it. Click each drawing to make them bigger:

A duck getting his ass shot. Note my complete lack of firearms knowledge as a double-barrelled shotgun is seen here firing a single bullet. For every other instance of these retarded little discrepancies, let's just refer to it as 'artistic license'...

A scene that may or may not survive further drafts of my script, in which the duck's corpse is stitched together by an introverted whippersnapper, then struck by lightning through an open window which brings it back to life. Given that the script is overlong at the moment, I may scrap the sequence and opt for a more succinct zombification explanation. Or not explain it at all.

The duck decides to mess with the hunter's head a bit before revealing he's just fucking around. What a dick, eh?

Over coffee and civil conversation the duck manages to verbally weasel his way into getting some free room and board. To shape the hunter's personality I aim to make his surroundings as dated and depressing as possible. That yellow wall is too vibrant, I'm thinking some drab blue tiles would work a treat instead...