Wednesday, 29 June 2016

The making of 'Alphabet Patch'

Preview clip from Alphabet Patch 

This year I had the amazing opportunity to direct my own animated project as part of my final year on the Animation & VFX degree course at Falmouth University. I first started developing my idea 'Alphabet Patch' in second year. It's a preschool TV pilot episode animated in CelAction and with a distinctive aesthetic design. Prior to this project I had no experience with the preschool genre so the whole experience has been a steep but very rewarding learning curve. 
In September 2015 I had the chance to pitch Alphabet Patch to an audience of students and an industry panel. Happily AP was greenlit for production and I began to build a crew of animation students to help complete the episode by May 2016.

Script & Storyboard
First of all the script and storyboard needed to be developed to a strong enough position for production to start. I had spent the summer creating a script and storyboard however this was soon scrapped and I began over. At this point I researched the genre more thoroughly, watching existing preschool episodes over and over. Writer James Henry was of huge help during this time and throughout the project as he was experienced writing on Hey Duggee and Shaun the Sheep. 
I soon realised that storyboarding for preschool was also different than what I've done before, layouts needed to be simpler and more readable for a young audience.
Looking back, this is the stage that I would like to have improved most but as I only had 9 months to complete the whole project I couldn't spend as much as time as I wanted here. Because of my self doubt over the script I had to accommodate several changes to the storyboard and script throughout the project which is something was sure to I factor in when making schedules. 

Creating the characters


There are 6 characters in the pilot episode and each one needed a turnaround (see above) which then needed to be broken down into separate parts that could be reconstructed for animation (see below) - this included creating extra parts such as different hands and expressions. I created these in Photoshop and Illustrator. It was challenging learning each of the software also how they worked together as a pipeline - i.e. making sure I was building and exporting files in the most efficient format. Also challenging was getting my head around how exactly the characters could move fluidly and in three dimensions. Read more about character construction for AP here


Producing
Whilst producing AP I also worked as a producer for a 2D TVPaint short animation called 'Falling in Love' I could reuse many of the production documents I created for FIL with AP and vice versa, however there were some key differences. FIL had a crew of around 20, whilst AP was a much smaller operation with under 10 crew members and only 5 regular animators. The pipelines were also very different - FIL required many stages for keying, clean up and inbetweening etc, whilst AP was a cutout production which didn't require cleanup. Some shots were passed between animators so that individual animators could focus on one particular character - for example, Leigh Juggins did the majority of animation for Beanie the chicken and Sophie Rippington was the lead animator for Dotty the ladybird.
I think that time management is one of my strengths as both FIL and AP were completed ahead of schedule with extra time to make improvements.  

Crew

As the crew for AP was so small I stopped having weekly crew meetings and instead just spoke to the animators on a daily basis at the studio. I spent time at the end of every week preparing the scene files ready to be handed out to the crew on Monday morning and also checked that everything was running on schedule.
At the beginning of the project I put together a CelAction training session which offered a chance for the crew members to catch up on CelAction, be introduced to the AP rigs and also the AP pipeline. This was a great opportunity to solve any pipeline issues and to check that it worked across multiple computers.
I was lucky enough to have some very hardworking and talented animators working on AP.

Animation
Prior to working on AP I was not a hugely confident animator, however it became clear that due to a shortage of crew I would have to commit myself to developing my skills. This was challenging and to begin with was very difficult, however the use of reference videos greatly helped as did talking to the other animators to see how they worked. CelAction can be a very fluid and fun program to work with once you get used to it. I especially like animating in a cut out style as there is a lot of scope to be innovative with the character's movement instead of being limited. When designing and animating the characters I was greatly inspired by the preschool series 'Abadas' as the animation is so fluid and an amazing example of the type of movement that can be achieved in CelAction.

Dialogue & Lipsync
AP was unusual as a student animation at Falmouth as it included extensive dialogue from multiple characters with lipsync.

I was quite daunted at using dialogue but I recieved lots of help, particularly from Falmouth Uni sound technician Richard Butler who was kind enough to spend time showing us how to set up and use the reocrding studio. The other issue was finding voice actors. I ended up recording many different versions of the voices (plus due to script changes, many more over).
Getting voices recorded in time was a big worry but thanks to a false deadline I set myself it was sorted in time. Because the voices were recorded at the end of the animation process I went back through almost all of the shots and added in lip sync after. This was not the most effective way to do it but I ended up with little choice.

Music & Sound
I was lucky enough to have a sound design student volunteer to work on AP - Freddy Houghton-Connell. I'm really pleased with how well the sound works on the episode and I would recommend the next year of animation students to look to the sound design course for help.
Music was another issue for the episode. I had originally contacted a musician and she agreed to work from September developing music, however I let this slip and by April we still had no music complete. At this point I looked elsewhere to find music and again, found the answer at Falmouth Uni. This time Lois Brown who studied on the music course. Lois really took the time to understand what was required and how music was used in preschool, and as a result I was really happy with the music she created.

What's next?
Now that the episode is complete I have started submitting it to various animation festivals all around the world and I am also looking into pitching opportunities in order to develop and make a full series one day. I have not yet uploaded the full episode online, however I will keep this blog updated with preview clips and details as to where the episode may be screened.
And finally, a big thank you to all of the crew that helped bring AP to life:

Voice Actors
Dotty the ladybird - Nelly Wason
Cecil the snail - Katie Wyman
Paddy the gnome - Leigh Juggins
Tony the cat - Ryan Orgill
Beanie the chicken - Giacomo Ghigo

Voice Recordists
- Dan Bowhay
- Giacomo Ghigo
- Abi Wason

Lead Animators
- Aaron Donlon
- Leonie Isaacs
- Leigh Juggins
- Elitsa Nedyalkova
- Sophie Rippington

Assistant Animators
- Holly Herbert
- Connor Schrader
- Olly Street
- Ellie Walsh

Designers
- Leonie Isaacs
- Giacomo Ghigo

Vector Artists
- Leonie Isaacs
- Aaron Donlon

Musician
- Lois Brown

Sound Designer
- Freddy Houghton-Connell

Writers
- Midnight Sparkle
- Leonie Isaacs
- Sophie Rippington

Production Assistant
- Midnight Sparkle

Editor
- Sophie Rippington

Producer
- Leonie Isaacs

Director
- Leonie Isaacs

Thursday, 23 June 2016

The making of 'Falling in Love'

A short preview clip from 'Falling in Love'

'Falling in Love' is a 2016 animated black comedy short film directed by Giacomo 'Jack' Ghigo and produced by me at Falmouth University. The film took around 8 months to complete (excluding the time Jack spent himself developing his initial idea) and had a crew of 20 students.

Initial schedule
The film was greenlit for production in September 2015 after Jack pitched his idea at the Poly theatre in Falmouth to an audience of animation students and an industry panel. At this stage Jack had a rough outline of the story, character concepts and early draft of the animatic. With the deadline for completion set for May 2016 my initial production schedule was as follows:


This chart relied heavily on loose estimates as I did not yet know how long certain processes would take and how exactly the pipeline would run but it was a helpful starting point. Items such as the script revision and animatic were particularly uncertain as these could potentially require many revisions before the director and lecturers were happy. I was willing to be very flexible with the pre-production stages as long as production could be started a week or two before the Christmas break. The course required that each student film had completed a 'vertical slice' or test shot to show at the pre-Christmas course screening.

Thanks to Jack's hard work on the script and animatic we were ready to move into production a few weeks before Christmas. He was also hard at work creating character turnarounds for the animators to reference. Of course the script and animatic would require further alterations throughout the project but we were confident that these could be worked into production with minimal disruption.

Shot breakdown & costing
Next up for me as a producer was to create a shot breakdown from the animatic.


In total there were over 90 shots in the animatic. You can see on this chart that the crew began to grade the difficulty of each shot to animate. I used this information to put together a costing for the project.


I put this chart together by breaking down the stages of production required (i.e. keyframing, inbetweening, colouring etc) and estimating how long each stage would require. I then calculated how many crew hours we had (most crew were only available one or two days a week) and whether the amount of crew hours covered the amount of hours required. Initially Jack had been confident that him and 2 or 3 other students could work extra hard to complete the film but this 'costing' proved otherwise and prompted us to enlist more 2nd and 1st year students to our crew.

Tracking form
The final chart to create before production started was the tracking form. 


(All green now that production is finished). I updated this chart regularly throughout production to show what was assigned, completed or approved and also if any shots had problems. 

You can see from this chart that many of the shots had multiple stages to go through before being completed - some such as backgrounds could be done out of order but mostly the shots went through the following stages in order: layout > keyframes > clean up on keys > inbetweens > final clean up > colouring > shadowing > vfx. 

Different crew members handled different stages - for example, James White and Leigh Juggins keyframed many of the shots, whilst Jack cleaned up the majority and Dan Bowhay concentrated on colouring. Chris Lewin and Rob Owen did all of the VFX for the film. 
My job as producer was to assign shots and to keep the pipeline running smoothly so that no bottlenecks appeared and that shots were passed correctly between crew members. 

Vertical slice

The vertical slice was a test shot taken from the middle of the film that could be used to check how the pipeline worked which was essential for me to create a more accurate schedule, tracking form and costing. 

Communicating with crew
Crucial to this project were the weekly crew meetings in the animation studio. These meetings helped me to keep track of process and provided a weekly milestone. Jack could provide feedback and see work in progresses. For a more complex project I can see the benefits of having a crew meeting every day. 
We also used Facebook and Google Drive as tools for assigning shots, giving feedback and staying in contact. Partway through the year we received an induction to Shotgun production software which I would try to use next time as it seemed very effective. In general our crew were very reliable and hardworking, often working in the animation studio everyday whereby it was easy to stay in constant contact with them. 
  
Sound and music
From the beginning Jack was keen to have a strong soundtrack to the film as he felt this had been a failing in previous student animations from Falmouth. Initially he wanted to try recording sounds himself but after meeting a sound design student at Falmouth University - Freddy Houghton-Connell - we realised that it would be much better to make use of his expertise. Freddy was incredibly professional and we arranged multiple briefing and feedback sessions in order to get a great soundtrack. 
Jack managed to enlist a musician from outside the university - Ashleigh Blackledge - who also did an amazing job composing and recording music for the film.

Deadlines and pressure
One of the most effective strategies I found as a producer was to create 'false deadlines' whereby I gave a deadline to crew that was slightly before the real deadline. I also kept the pressure on throughout the project - even when things were going ahead of schedule just in case any unexpected problems arose that would require more time. 
These strategies really worked, so much so that Falling in Love was finished on schedule with spare time to improve shots that Jack wasn't quite happy with and also gave our editor Sophie Rippington ample time to work on the final edit. 

Crew
Of course, non of this would have been possible without the hardwork and dedication of the crew, huge thanks to everyone who helped create this film:

Animators:
- James White
- Leigh Juggins
- Giacomo Ghigo
- Sophie Rippington
- Sam Humphreys
- Luke O'Sullivan
- Thomas Poole
- Robin Neylan-Francis
- Lucie Zix

Colourists
- Dan Bowhay
- James White
- Leigh Juggins

Shadow Artists
- Emi Morgan
- Katie Wyman
- Giacomo Ghigo
- Prawta Annez
- Sophie Rippington
- James White
- Leigh Juggins

Clean up
- Giacomo Ghigo
- James White
- Leigh Juggins
- Krissy Ewins
- Anni Kaikkonen

Background artists:
- Giacomo Ghigo
- Megan Ryder

VFX
- Rob Owen
- Chris Lewin

Musician
- Ashleigh Blackledge

Sound Designer
- Freddy Houghton-Connell

Editor
- Sophie Rippington

Production Assistant
- Midnight Sparkle

Producer
- Leonie Isaacs

Director
- Giacomo Ghigo

Festivals
The next stage for Falling in Love is the animation and film festival circuit. For this reason we cannot upload the full film online for some time. I've submitted the film to many animation festivals already with the hope that it will be screened to worldwide audiences. I will keep this blog updated with any festival news in this regard!