Sunday, October 27, 2013

Progress and general thoughts

I have so far managed to focus my CoP3 title to something along the lines of: "how narrative, personality and mood is reflected through character and environment design for animated films". Although I think it sounds a little plain, I feel that this title is broad enough to allow me to study a range of films aimed at a range of audiences to really expand my understanding of the process and how different artists have entirely different work patterns. I will then be able to study more in-depth the reasoning behind designs, how history/technology/culture informs animation design, and the deconstruction of common tropes in cultural and historical contexts.

I will possibly be looking at the evolution of animation design and how it has evolved from being created for purely entertainment purposes to something more nuanced and artistic. Modern technology now allows for a wide range of animation methods: hand-drawn cel animation, stop motion, computer-generated 3D animation, Flash animation, etc. and each requires different approaches to design. For example, as stop motion requires the construction of actual puppets and sets, character designers need to take into account the three-dimensional aspects of the design and the manipulativeness of their expressions. I would possibly like to look at a selection of films that use entirely different animation methods so I can further investigate these differences.

As animated films frequently fall beneath the speculative fiction genre, and it is something I am very much interested in, this will probably feature as another over-arching them. I would like to compare different films' approaches to fantasy, sci-fi and/or the macabre within their narratives and how it is expressed in the film's tone and style, particularly the contrast between the depiction of mundane, 'normal' settings and supernatural settings. For example, films like Paranorman and Corpse Bride take place in some Earth-like town which becomes overrun with undead creatures. In Corpse Bride, the underworld is much more vibrant and fun than the normal world - similarly, Paranorman designs potentially frightening elements like zombies and ghosts to be more fun and amusing than scary.

This is to probably make the film more light-hearted and suited to younger audiences, but compare this to a film like Coraline, which fully exploits the contrast between mundane reality and the surreal, imaginative world to make the 'Other Mother' and her world very creepy.

There are also animated films that feature fantasy elements with a more realistic and (sometimes) serious tone, most notably from Studio Ghibli. I'm interested in finding some more animated films that seem to be directed towards a more general audience and seeing how this effects the tone and 'feel' of the film. 

Of course, this is the first mention of a film that isn't American - undoubtedly I will be referring to the cultural inspirations behind Ghibli films and what it is that makes them so uniquely visually appealing. An issue I'm having is narrowing my focus of films to a selection of case studies - should they all be from different countries to expand my experience of animation, or should I keep it to what is generally the most familiar and popular? (Which does generally seem to be American, Japanese, with maybe one or two from the UK). 

In terms of research I really need to make progress on my reading - I have collected numerous 'Art Of' books and books on general character design. I will also look at DVD special features and interviews with practitioners. I'm not sure of methods of primary research yet - I would like to interview practitioners myself but this seems a fairly daunting task. There is Leeds Thought Bubble coming up in late November which would give me an opportunity to talk to some successful artists, who although work for graphic novels still have to think about aspects of character and environment design. 

In a recent lecture we had on organising our project, we were told to really consider the purpose behind our project - what am I trying to achieve by studying this question? What do I want to get out of it?

I suppose I am interested in it as I feel that animation has the power to be a profoundly visually inventive experience - my very first moments of considering character design as a career came when I was a fourteen-year-old Tim Burton fangirl, poring over the pages of the Corpse Bride 'Art of' book. The drawings were so charming and stylised that I spent much of my youth trying to emulate Carlos Grangel's interpretations of Tim Burton's style. 

Since then I've been amazed at the inventiveness of animators and filmmakers - notably the sequence in Coraline where the Other World begins to collapse, and Coraline is rushing to the door as the garden and house slowly falls away into nothingness. Laika amazed me again in Paranorman when Norman confronts Aggie in one of the most emotionally (and visually) intense sequences I've seen in an animated film. 

I'm constantly aware of design choices in animations nowadays and I really enjoy investigating the intentions behind the 'look' of a film - after all, a film is a purely audio/visual experience and getting the look of the characters and environment right is extremely important. If I want to work in this field when I graduate, I have to really expand my knowledge and understanding of the process of creative visual development.

I'm not sure if this is enough to give my CoP project "purpose"... It really is mostly to build my knowledge of this field and to arm me with the tools to improve my own work, which will hopefully be apparent in the practical element of the module.

This is going to be a very big research project... I'd best start making some serious progress!

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Resource 2: Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (2009)

Another film I'd like to look at is Sony Pictures Animation's Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. This film is much more 'traditionally' cartoony than Paranorman; the conceptual artwork is very gestural and smooth. Most of the information on the film's design will probably be found in the art book, which will cost me quite a bit, but will surely be worth it!

In an interview with the director:

CS: I was wondering about the look of the movie because Ron Barrett's art from the book has a very specific look, but you guys went for something different, which I'd almost say is influenced by the Muppets. Is that possible?
Lord: For sure it's influenced by the Muppets. That was a very deliberate thing, because the Muppets are really simple characters, they're really well-designed, they work great in 3D and they're really expressive and those are all the things you want in a cartoon. I remember watching "A Bug's Life" and having it click in my head, "Oh, it's puppets. 3D cartoons, it's about puppets."
Miller: The thing about human characters is in CG, if you make them look too realistic, they get kind of creepy looking, so early on, we definitely knew that we wanted the character designs to have a more cartoony aesthetic so one of the many sources, including the book and classic '50s and '60s animation, was the Muppets, and that went across for all the characters, especially Flint and Tim with his monobrow. 


The directors wanted simple, well-designed characters like those found in classic animation and in the Muppets. I think in this particular example the appeal of the characters comes from their extremely exaggerated movements and traits - leaving their designs relatively simple allows more room for the over-the-top, classic style of animation the directors were wanting.

Resource 1: Paranorman (2012)

I wanted to look into the design of Paranorman because I found it's visual style to be unique and appealing in a 'wonky' sort of way.

I found an online interview with the film's character designer, Heidi Smith, which goes into a lot of detail about her intentions behind the design work. The film was Smith's first major project after graduating from the California Institute of the Arts in 2008. Her style features distinctively shaky lines and organic cross-hatch shading. 

Chris: The ParaNorman crew said they hired you because your work looked “scrappy and unhinged,” and had a bit of “nervous quality.” How would you compare the portfolio you got this job based on with the kind of work you ended up creating for ParaNorman?
Heidi: Because I worked on ParaNorman for so long, I think the style I used changed a bit as the project developed. My style changes, and I think that’s natural for an artist. You change and you grow, and I think that you get stronger. Your observational skills get stronger; your inspirations change.
Maybe in the beginning with that portfolio and my first bit of work forParaNorman my work was kind of more boxy; it seemed a little more rectangular and boxy. As time went on and I worked on it with the others, my style became more organic, especially in the line-work.
Chris: How would you describe the aesthetic in your work onParaNorman?
Heidi: It has a lot of asymmetry. That’s one of the things they told me they liked about my portfolio coming into this project; they liked the asymmetry and “nervous line” of my work, as you said. It had a scratchy looseness they were looking for. One of the things they pointed out that they liked was that, for instance, in a character’s eyes one pupil might be bigger than the other. They liked it being different.

The asymmetry is one of the things that drew me to the film's style.  Smith's art in general has a very loose, exaggerated quality which I really like - she also seems to work only using traditional mediums, most commonly pencil, charcoal and pastels. See her other work here .

Something I've noted about her blog is how it is an endless stream of small character designs - nothing time-consuming or fancy. I should really follow this sort of work pattern, and work more with traditional media, as I think it suits my style of working more (I struggle with spending long amounts of time on single pieces).


Chris: What’s it like seeing your drawings come to life — not drawn animation but as maquettes and puppets for this kind of stop-motion production?
Heidi: I thought it was amazing. It’s been amazing to work with Kent Melton, who sculpted all the maquettes. He was just as passionate as Chris Butler, and his work inspired my own work. He wasn’t afraid to take risks, which pushed me to do the same with my drawn work. I felt like he not only captured the spirit of the characters I designed, but he made them look better in his own way.
Chris: How did the process work between you two?
Heidi: Well, he would take a drawing and work from that. Sometimes he’d come to me and ask me to do a turnaround of a character to help him, usually of a specific feature like a nose or a helmet. He and I went back and forth to figure out what he needed, and for me to see what was possible with his work. We developed a really good communicative relationship.
Chris: I’ve been told that for the puppets, Laika went so far as to study the textures in your drawings for the clothing. Can you talk about the detail you put into those drawings and it being translated to actual fabric and puppets?
Heidi: One of the more memorable parts of this project for me was when Chris Butler asked me to do these sketches of textures. They would take those drawings and print them out and use them as fabric and what not in the costumes and sets.
Deborah Cook, ParaNorman’s costume designer, was amazing to work with. She would sometimes bring in interesting reference material she had found and bounce it off me to see how I could use it in my designs.  One instance that I distinctly remember was her bringing me this classical painting and she asked me to study the tree bark in the piece and develop a texture based on that. She really encouraged me to do really weird and interesting textures, and not anything I would’ve thought of on my own. It was really exciting to work with everyone at Laika.

Although Smith mainly works in character design, she contributed to the environmental design so that the designs were consistent. I do feel that as an artist I need to push my boundaries and start to work beyond my comfort zone; I particularly need to start practising drawing anything that isn't a human - buildings, animals, plants, etc. as I could be required to work in these areas as well if I were to work on a feature.

It would probably be necessary for me to invest in a copy of The Art and Making of Paranorman, as no doubt there will be much more info there than I can find on the internet.

Third and final year begins - CoP3

It's been a while!

This term we are doing the Context of Practice 3 module which involves a combination of research and theoretical writing in an extended essay and a practical artefact that relates to our writing. We were to spend the summer deliberating over possible ideas and come back and present to the class what our chosen subject will be.

Originally, as I was going through a phase of playing a lot of The Elder Scrolls games, I thought of using that as a potential subject - specifically the mythology and religion of the in-game cultures and how they relate to real-world mythologies.

Here's some of the slides from my presentation giving a rough overview of areas of interest:

Although I went into some depth whilst researching the topic I have actually reached a point where I want to completely change the direction of my subject. It should be relevant to our professional area of interest (which for me is probably character design / concept art / illustration, even though I still want to experiment with other things). So I'm probably going to abandon the whole mythology/religion context and think of the extended essay as more of a case study exploring the sorts of practical techniques I'm interested in. 

I've decided to look at stylisation in character design. I'm not 100% sure on a specific area to explore here: I have so far thought of narrative-based character design (where a character's appearance relates to their story rather than simply categorising them as an archetype); narrative-based design in fantasy RPGs, for example The Elder Scrolls cultures; types of stylisation, different ways of pushing designs and how they create a specific 'feel' for a film; character design specifically in relation to animated films; studying the entire visual development process, including storyboarding, design, animation tests, etc.

For the practical side I would probably create a series of design artefacts including concept art and turnarounds, expressions, storyboards and possibly hand-drawn animation tests for a character or a range of characters. The only problem here is writing the character - I'd probably have to write their backstory/personality/etc. myself which would leave less time to focus on the visual aspects (this is what severely effected my Responsive project last year). 

At the minute everything is a little bit up in the air, although I'm feeling more inclined to explore design for animated films rather than games. Animated films tend to be extremely stylised and vibrant, often in unique ways. A recent film I particularly liked was Paranorman, so I'm considering looking into that as some sort of case study, and perhaps comparing it to another film with a different stylistic aim (maybe Cloudy With a Chance Of Meatballs? And/or Tangled.....)

I'll write more about three practitioners/resources relevant to my topic in subsequent blog posts.