"Fragile Things" is a personal project completed while part of the Mograph Mentor Program. With a nearly blank slate with which to work– simply a "Visual Essay" of 40-60 seconds in length– I developed, illustrated, and animated this short alongside valuable feedback from my mentor and classmates.
Below is a peek (or rather, a lengthy gaze) into my process and some of what I learned along the way.
From Day One of that semester, my mentor, Ryan Summers, hammered into our brains the importance of research, development, writing, and preparation. The story is king. It's an obvious idea, but a difficult discipline to master. We all often get so excited about working on the cool pizazz and visuals of a project that we forget about why we're telling this story in the first place.
As I spent these weeks obsessing over the details of effective storytelling and communication, I recalled a TED Talk by Pixar writer and director Andrew Stanton (Full disclosure: WALL-E is my favorite film of all time, and it's not even close).
There's something beautiful and wonderful about the story itself. Not just the plot or the characters, but how those came to be, and how they endure; how the ritual of storytelling is in of itself an important, impacting character in our own lives.
This thought set up camp in my head. When it came time to do begin development on our final project of the semester– an open-ended "Visual Essay"– it practically screamed at me.
I began with a word list– ideas, emotions, and visuals that could potentially form the foundation of the piece. Word lists are an opportunity to dig beyond the obvious, ordinary, concrete and to chase rabbits and find new angles. The exercise seems so simple and can easily be taken for granted, but its importance cannot be overstated. Perhaps more than anything else, word lists have transformed how I develop projects.
style & Visual reference
Development of this list led me to reflect upon story time with my children; how so much of their initial learning about the world around them comes from the simple words and pictures of bedtime stories. That, too, reminded me of a time when I was really struggling for inspiration artistically, and how, when spending a lot of time with my son in the Barnes & Noble children's section, I fell in love with the world of children's book illustration. At that point, I knew, without a doubt, where this piece should go visually.
I spent hours combing through the work of some of my favorite illustrators, both inside the "Kid's Lit" world and beyond. People like Cale Atkinson, Zac Retz, Brian Edward Miller, Luke Flowers, Rafael Mayani and others– amazing artists whose skill I can only hope to approach through many more years of hard work. My aim was not to emulate them, but to learn as much as I could from their work (in a very short period of time) about composition, lighting and atmosphere, color, and mood in the context narrative illustration – which can be strikingly different from the motion graphics world in which I was most comfortable.
Alongside these illustration references, I did some further visual research – mostly photographs, from sources such as the users on Flickr, 500px, and Tumblr. Here, I was looking for specific scenes and emotional ideas. I knew I wanted magic, above all. I knew I wanted to be able communicate the passage of time, feelings of community, childhood, and the warmth of a bedtime or campfire story.
These photographs had a substantial impact on the overall look and direction, even down to the framing and composition of the final piece. While seeking out magic, drama, and wonder, I wound up with a collection of images that were very "cinematic," for lack of a better word. Children's books don't typically fall into that category. I took this as an opportunity to deviate course and create something unique.
For the script itself, for a while I just assumed I would be adapting Stanton's TED Talk. Within it were so many of the ideas I was looking to get across. However, it didn't take too long to realize that this was too direct and a little too technical.
I weighed equally the possibilities of writing an original script and adapting from another source. Knowing that I was under a time crunch, I first looked at other sources– books, articles, and quotes by artists and authors I admire on the subject of "story," (somewhat blindly) hoping I'd find something that fit the story I wanted to tell.
During this search, I came across the preface to Neil Gaiman's collection of short stories, Fragile Things. Quite honestly, this was a eureka moment. In this, I found the perfect passage, one which poetically reflected upon the contradictory nature of a story– a mere collection of words for a moment in time, yet somehow alive, powerful, and everlasting.
I ran with this passage (slightly adapted for time and clarity) full-steam into storyboarding. At this point, I was certain about a few key construction pieces: I knew that I wanted this to be cinematic, and opted for an ultra-wide aspect ratio. I knew a child at the beginning reading the book would be the emotional core. And the "story" would be a persistent character– always centered, transforming and transitioning from object to object, following along with the voiceover.
Armed with some valuable feedback from Ryan and my fellow classmates, I moved into the animatic. In most projects, the animatic is vitally important. It's that moment when client and creator can (hopefully) come together and say, "Yes! I can see what we're trying to make here!" Or, "This isn't it. But here's how we get there." The story's effectiveness (or lack thereof) should be plenty clear at this point. You get an idea of how it will sound, how it will move, how it will feel. The execution is just details (though, potentially, many, many days of details).
With this animatic, getting a feel for the camera movements was a big step. I don't always go for such detailed camera moves in an animatic, but I'm glad I did here. The gently flowing, almost organic nature of the camera was something that needed to be communicated at this stage – particularly in a piece where the characters and elements themselves wouldn't necessarily have a lot of moving parts.
At this point, the task was simple: Illustrate and animate. A lot. Up to this point in my career, I'd not attempted a project with anything close to this amount of hand-drawn illustration. I knew what I was getting myself into, and relished (and was terrified by) the challenge.
Step one was the illustration of the child at the beginning. Not only is that the emotional core of the piece, but also what would define the overall illustration style. I really didn't know what I was going to draw when I started– what age, gender, ethnicity the child would be, or how to approach their look. So I just started scribbling, very roughly, trying to vary shape and attitude as much as I could which each one.
It's usually a good idea to keep drawing and iterating even when you've landed on something you like. Admittedly, I did not do that here. I liked the last drawing and just had to take a shot at pushing it to full illustration.
Not that this illustration is in any way amazing, but it did capture the necessary feeling exactly how I wanted. I shared it around, got an enthusiastic response, and decided to go with it.
Once in the execution stage, I'd estimate that at least 60% of my time was spent on the opening scene, as it contained many unique challenges. How do I make it look like an illustration, but also have depth and life, and also hit that cinematic look? I've never done hand-drawn, frame-by-frame character animation, and clearly the bird needs that– can I do it? And will I be able to make this scene full and convincing, with a very limited window of time in which to actually draw the elements?
It would take far too long to get into the gritty details of pulling all these hundreds of tiny parts into a cohesive whole. But here's a sample of the challenges and lessons learned along the way.
Depth and light
By utilizing many layers, I was able to create, out of a few simple 2D illustrated plates, a parallax effect that gave the world depth and life. Lighting was a surprisingly difficult challenge, and rather than placing a bunch of lights where I thought they should be, I utilized only a few After Effects lights and instead relied upon color within the illustrations themselves and in some separate color layers to convey the idea of dynamic lighting. Shallow depth of field was also crucial, to place focus on the girl and separate out the background layers. However, rather than using depth of field tools within the AE camera (which can sometimes be trial and error), I manually applied and keyframed an out-of-focus filter on adjustment layers for the layers that needed it. Finally, a simple diffusion layer helped tie all of the lighting together and make the scene feel like a bright, sunny morning.
As an introduction to hand-drawn, frame-by-frame character animation, the bird was easily one of the tougher challenges. But the process was simple– take the animation principles I know, study bird flight and landing patterns obsessively, and go. There are some less-refined frames for sure, but the child-like, illustrated nature of the visuals allowed for some roughness.
If this piece works at all, honestly, it's thanks to the audio. Never, ever let the audio be an afterthought.
(Did I place it at the end of this article? Yes. Touché.)
After demoing a number of pieces, in the end I licensed an instrumental song called "Erste" by Steven Gutheinz from The Music Bed. I can't imagine "Fragile Things" without this music, and I'm enormously grateful for Steven's contribution.
The voiceover, though– that was a biggie. And something I was really nervous about. I recorded the initial scratch track on my iPhone with my own voice (refer to the video animatic above), and, while it's clear that I'm not going into the voiceover business anytime soon, getting the timing and tone down was an important step.
Ryan and the rest of my cohort felt strongly that a child's voice would be best, and I couldn't have agreed more. I just wasn't sure that I would be able to find A) The right voice and B) A child who could take direction and read the script confidently. I put an audition request on Voice123, a VO hiring site with which I've had a little bit of success in the past. I was very skeptical about anything turning up– I wasn't aware of any child voice actors in their directory. As a backup, I also requested "Helen Mirren"-type actresses give it a try. I got a few good auditions of that type and was about to settle on that direction, when, at the last moment, a little girl named Mira Sullivan submitted an audition. And she was perfect. Her recording setup wasn't great– I'm convinced that they were just talking into a laptop microphone– but I didn't care. She brought the ideal mixture of childlike wonder and confidence to her read. I had my friend JJ Brummett at Skyburst Media clean her VO and give it and the music a mix. He wasn't able to clean all of it up– some of the reads had a fair bit of noise– but he got me much closer than I could have on my own.
This project was a meaningful stepping stone. Like most artists, I'll never be able to look at something I've made and declare "This is it. I have reached the peak of my potential as a creator and storyteller." This is miles away from that. But, up to this point, nothing I've created has so clearly expressed my voice. This is something to build on.
I can't express enough thanks to Ryan Summers, Michael Jones, and the rest of the Mograph Mentor community for the lessons, feedback, and encouragement.