'Work In Progress'

The process of making my short animation film

Sound Design

Sound is an integral part of our life, but it is an aspect that most of us don’t register. It is something that subconsciously registers within our mind and subtly plays with our emotions.

In film-making, it is the duty of the sound designer to play with and manipulate the sounds which in turn directs the audience, yet all this happens unobtrusively and almost behind-the-scenes so to speak.

Sound is a very powerful tool, especially in an animation film.  Here each and every sound is created from scratch. Be it dialogues, sound effects of  the things we see happening on-screen, or things implied off-screen, and not the least of which is non-diagetic sound, which acts upon the emotions of the audience without them even realising it!

In a short animation film, sound has a further role, wherein it eases a load off the animator from having to show/animate literally everything, but rather to ‘show’ through sound and let the imagination of the audience take over. This not only alleviates the boredom of having each and every bit of the story being spoon fed to the viewer, and also saves time/budget/effort of animating some sequences or characters.

For my story, from the initial plot itself, it was obvious the sound had quite a major role to play. Hearing the girl’s thoughts was essential for the audience to understand what drove the character, the reasons behind her actions and understanding her issues.

A lot of the concept behind the sound design of my film was about the everyday sounds appearing different to different people, especially when they are in an emotional state.  Another factor in sound design is about how to communicate certain emotions of feelings which can’t be articulated in the visuals. This was the non-diagetic sound. Sound also defines the place/environment  by giving us audio clues about  the atmosphere (crowded or quiet), the weather (calm summer, rainy, winter storm), the location (fast paced city, main road, small quiet street or a  slow town.)

With a small recorder, I tried to explore the sound-scape of various environments, walking from a quiet workspace to a loud street, lunch-hour at the canteen, the sounds in a workspace in the city. Many sounds that are produced go unnoticed by us because we have conditioned ourselves to ignore them, like the constant buzz of a traffic in a city.

I also decided I wouldn’t have any music/background score for my film, as I didn’t want to rely on music to build a mood. I wanted the film to be as true-to-life as possible, and use the ‘regular’ sounds in different ways to suggest meaning; whether it was the sound of a radio playing, the fan squeaking or a person humming.

While working on the animatic, at every level of change, I tried to work with sound as well. I made a scratch soundtrack using recordings and downloaded free sounds to make the scratch soundtrack. I received a lot of feedback about my story/film/visual etc, but one of the major points people had to talk about was sound. If the sound is bad, even a non film maker could recognize it, because they percieve that something is not working quite right even if they cannot pinpoint it.  And the consensus stated that my sound design was quite poor.

I watched films, read books and tried to analyse every documentary I could find. My guide also suggested certain films to study, and gave me feedback with each change. A major challenge was the voice acting as well. I myself was doing the voice-acting for the character, and whenever I was in front of a microphone, I just could not express myself well. It was weak, cliched, dull, and fake. But as the story grew, so did my confidence, and while I was working on the final animatic, I was able to write out the dialogues that I felt were good enough to be used in the final recording, and was also able to do a better recording than any of the previous attempts.

Looking at technicalities: II (Rotoscopy v/s Hand drawn)

To rotoscope or not to rotoscope: That is the question!

The initial opinion on rotoscopy in the animation field is to scoff at it as not being truly an animation technique, since it doesn’t involve ‘real’ animation drawing, but rather to shoot live action and trace over it.

But then my guide introduced me to a film by Richard Linklater, ‘Waking Life.’

It is a film focusing on the nature of dreams, consciousness and existentialism. It consists entirely of live action footage/interviews shot with a camera and then redrawn frame by frame on the computer in a variety of styles.

But the rotoscopy was quite path breaking. It had truly become animation in this film, when the tracing of live footage morphed and moved about to illustrate the dialogues. It broke the notion that rotoscopy involved no real animation thinking/movement/ action etc.

In my film, at that point the story revolved around a central character, an animator, trying to complete a project. It had two clear cut divisions within the story space, that of a ‘real’ time, and that of the ‘unreal’ nightmare where her demons attack her.

To differentiate between the two, I decided to execute the two parts with different animation techniques; the ‘real’ being rotoscopy so that it would suggest the constraints the character faced; and the ‘unreal’ in 2D hand drawn animation so that it could be as amorphous as the nightmare scene itself was, and hint at the fact that it was in fact all in the mind and not physically happening.

To this end, I looked at even more rotoscopy, done from the early age of animation to the latest, another film by Richard Linklater, ‘A Scanner Darkly’ I also tried to figure out how exactly I would do the rotoscopy myself, taking a test shoot of live footage and tracing over it at various speeds and figuring out a style.

Ultimately I did not choose to use rotoscopy anywhere in the film. The story changed and the concept of two seperate spaces merged into one confused realm, the hallucinating mind of the character. I realized that traditional hand drawn animation suited the temperament of the story better. It begged for boiling lines, heavy textures and wild movements.

 

Looking at technicalities: I

When I decided to make a film (Oh! so long ago!)…

One of the thoughts which occupied a prominent part of my mind was what kind of film it would be.

Of course an animated film. But when you look at the possibilities in animation, eyes pop out and fall 6 inches away!

There are so many types of animation, starting with the basic 2D and 3D. These then split into further branches of things like hand drawn or CGI or both, which style if hand drawn, with or without light box, ink or pencil, mouse or tablet, which software to use, and on and on!

I made exhaustive lists of what were the options that were out there, then categorizing the ones that were interesting, being used in the industry, difficult levels, what would be possible for one person to work with, what would be visually interesting, and more.

But in the end none of the lists were important in deciding which medium to choose.

The story dictated the medium. Once the story was finalized, the realization dawned that it couldn’t convey all the emotion and meaning I wanted it to in just  any medium.  Yes, different people are masters of different techniques, and any other person may have found a better way to tell/execute the story. But in my journey on this project, the story gave me clear indications on how to proceed.

I had a few ideas, including rotoscopy and hand-drawn 2d animation. Ultimately I decided to do it all completely hand-drawn, with one particular sequence drawn on the computer, and the rest on the light box.

Writing the ‘final’ Story: Part 1

‘Final’ Story? What final story? Nothing is ever final, it keeps changing, morphing, evolving… But there has to be direction in one’s own mind as to where exactly the winding road led. The first time I thought I had got it right! The sequence of events went a little like this:

  • Fade from Black to Mid Shot of Ahmedabad city, sounds of nature, birds chirping, calm and soothing. Outlines of buildings are seen across the river, as well as the tall chimney of a factory/textile mill.
  • Suddenly the factory siren rings, signalling the beginning of the work day.
  • Simultaneously with the siren ringing, swift pullout reveals the previous shot to be the view from the window next to which the girl is sitting. She is at a table with books, papers laptop etc, working.
  • She is writing/scribbling something on paper, her table is a mess of books, pencils, sheets etc.
  • She picks up what she just finished drawing and talks to herself. “hmm.. I guess it will do..”
  • Close up of the drawing: Suddenly the drawing comes to life and criticizes her, “You think this is decent?! Hah!”
  • The girl is shocked, and tries to crumple the paper, but before she can do so, the character itself walks off.
  • The angry girl throws the blank paper in frustration. It misses the dustbin and falls outside, irritating her further.
  • She reaches for her computer and looks through older work, wondering if she can use any of it at all.
  • The computer screen suddenly goes black and reports an error message.
  • Then the large letters of the word ‘Deadline’ flash across the screen
  • She pulls back in shock!
  • Now as she looks everywhere, reminders of deadline appear everywhere!
  • The deadline reminder is visible on the timetable on the wall, ants seem to form the word deadline, the chips are branded Deadline and so on!
  • She starts panicking and picks up a pencil from the table, promising to work harder!
  • In her frenzy piles and piles of papers pile up all around her as she works, and suddenly crash down upon her!
  • Fade to black.
  • Slow fade in to the room at night, she wakes up, disoriented, looking here and there.
  • The room is a mess, things lying helter-skelter.
  • The window shows the scene of a devastated land, post-apocalyptic, an explosion in the distance.
  • She flinches from the light emitted.
  • Suddenly she remembers her phone and looks for it, but there is No network coverage.
  • She hears some faint slithering sounds, when she looks, it is being emitted from the overflowing dustbin in the corner.
  • Ghostly shapes emerge from it, voices emanating, the forms of her teachers, parents, and peers.
  • They morph into horrendous monsters while continuously telling her about her weaknesses, he shortcomings, her failings, all the reasons why she is a failure.
  • She screams in fear
  • the forms finally morph into the words DEADLINE!
  • The deadline monster advances towards her, screaming and snarling, until it overpowers her and the screen goes black.
  • In the black screen, sound of screaming is heard followed by chomping sounds and a burp.
  • Then we see the girl falling through an endless tunnel, her arms and legs flailing crazily
  • Suddenly the frame freezes.
  • A real hand comes across and flips the page and the camera pulls out revealing the girl herself sitting at an animation lightbox, and animating that very frame.
  • Title appears on the screen and credits roll.
Rough thumbnails for the same:

Visual Sequencing: II

Back to rough-and-tumble style of drawing my thoughts out quickly on paper…

And then finally I got really tired of the repetition of  drawing pretty much similar sequences over and over again, and started drawing thumbnails within which even my thumbnail barely fits!

Visual Sequencing: I

A few more attempts to get the story straight while also working out the visual aspects…

 

(One where I went all over-zealous with markers!)

Another scribbly sequence..

From nothing to something…

Story to screen: 

Once I had a basic plot to work with, I started simultaneously writing the sequence of events, and drawing rough thumbnails to help me visualize.

Since I’m by nature more of a writing person than visual, I generally tend to draw very rough thumbnails, and then depend on the scribbled notes accompanying it to understand them later! I would write the story down in detail, writing how she had to feel, emotions, mood, tone etc, and then simultaneously note down if at that time I felt any particular visual look/angle/colour etc would support what I was trying to convey.

Eventually I filled an entire notebook with writing, and another entire sketchbook with thumbnails. Slowly my drawing degenerated as I tried to put down my thoughts faster. This resulted in smaller and smaller thumbnails! And some of them went really tiny, down to the literal size of my nail! ( 2cm X 1 cm!)

Then the story began to get more complicated. I kept making tiny changes, which no one other than me seemed to be able to see, but these kept increasing in number in every round of the storyboard.

At that point, my method of working was to

  • – write down the sequence of events,
  • – draw storyboards/thumbnail versions
  • – review

But eventually I became dissatisfied with this method of working, as I wasn’t able to really see the way it would work/move/play.

Then I started to draw rough gestures along with the thumbnails, and these I took to Adobe Premiere and put together to form a rough animatic, with scratch sound, downloaded from free sites on the net, and also rough recordings of dialogue done on my laptop.

With every round I went to my guide, who sat through it all with infinite patience, and gave me directions to move on, pointing out the problems that were staring me in face, but I couldn’t see because I was too close to the story now.

At the end I had 9 rounds of storyboards/animatics and it seemed I was slowly inching towards the next phase. (I hoped!)

One of the earliest storyboards:

(At this stage none of them were properly finished boards with the necessary details. They were more of a visual way of looking at the story)

 

 

More on Story!

“Hey! You are still here? Working on diploma?”

“..Umm.. yaa.. its going on..” (shameface!)

“So, whats the story about?”

“..well.. its about this girl, and that she is trying to make a film.. and well.. err.. its about her trying to make the film.. its actually about my story you see.. my struggle.. umm…”

Silence.

This was about the standard reaction I got when I spoke about my story to anyone.

The painfully obvious reason was that I myself wasn’t confident about my own story. Not sure of it enough to say exactly what was happening in there, in my head, or on the paper.

Ok, so I have my story. But a one liner is not a story, is it? It was the premise, or the theme, or the plot synopsis, but definitely not the whole story!

Thus began the second phase of this project. Finalizing my story.

While the first phase, (deciding on the story) took me almost 3 months, I thought that once I had this main beast under control, the rest should be easy! Well at least easier!

BEEEEP! Wrong again!

I must sadly confess, that the meandering route I have taken, winds about the mountains of despair, leads through the jungle of multitude choices, via the murky waters of indecisiveness and the past the fog of nightmares, and leads finally up to the plains of resolution, but only after having fought through each of the previous obstacles.

After writing about 5 different scenarios, I decided to start storyboarding it to help me visualize it better.

After about 6-7 thumbnailed storyboards, I decided to start making it into an animatic, so that my guide would be able to understand my point more clearly without me having to do live sound effects and such as I explained the sequence to him.

Well, May progressed to July. I had 14 storyboards with a variety of drawing styles, shapes, aspect ratios (!!), ranging from sizes of 2-3 inches high to as small as literally the size of my thumb nail!

I myself got so confused that at any given time I didn’t know what the character would do next, and the storyboards became like a huge contest of ‘Spot-the-Differences!’ as each version had some minute change which seemed to make the world of difference, but which I couldn’t keep track of anymore.

Then we had our 4th semester jury, where I recieved feedback from the faculty, who seemed to find it interesting, maybe a tab superficial, but had potential. I had the go ahead to finally start animating the film, what with it being my 9th animatic and what not!

But then I took a long awaited break from the project to go home, where I enjoyed a month long vacation of doing absolutely nothing!

When I came back, I originally came with the plan of finishing this film quickly ( sort of like a trial run) before embarking upon the major project, the diploma film. I started working on the character design, style and treatment, finalizing the small details before actually starting the animation. But at the same time I got the opportunity to work for a real live client project, working with experienced animators from my alumnus as well as Isabel Herguera, our visiting faculty, on a short animation project.

I realised I would have too much on my plate, and that if I wanted to do justice to all the work, and thought, (mostly thought!) that had gone into the project so far, I had to make it a good film. And to do that, I needed time.

So with the go ahead from my guide and coordinator, Sekhar Mukherjee, I officially registered my classroom project as my Diploma.

Wow, just like that, I went from lagging in the second-to-last project to being smack-dab in the middle of my diploma!

But with the fresh learning from the other project, and the time and distance away from my own work, came a new perspective.

The story was no longer ‘okay’ for me. I could only see the silliness, the desperation to be funny, the lack of cohesion, the superficiality, the flat and boring tonality of the story.

Out came the papers with 16 by 9 frames drawn on them. I was back to drawing more storyboards! (Only this time I tried to keep them larger than 1/2 inch and legible.)

It felt like I was trying to come up with a new recipe for a classic dish, adding ingredients, putting in a dash of nuance, removing a tablespoon of gag, adding a layer of subtext… but all I ended up with was a mixture of this and that with no real substance.

I also went through this process rather slowly. I read blogs, got inspired by other peoples work that I saw in the library, on the internet or through film club, so inspired that it made me demoralized.

I then had a sudden strike of brilliance one day. It blind sided me, and I ran back to the table, scribbling out a storyboard, and running after my guide to see it, almost harassing him! Within 2 weeks another of those days happened, and I veered off in some completely other direction.

But the third time, I realized that these thoughts were not completely useless. If I compared the initial versions to the later ones, there was a marked difference. (Yay! I was getting somewhere!)

After much pruning.. summing up the stages of story:

1. Originally the character appeared to be lazy and restless, not completing her work on time, infact wasting her time and ultimately not doing anything. Things around her remind her of her fast approaching deadline, and her last minute panic makes her slip into a post-apocalyptic nightmare where demons haunt her and discourage her from finishing her work, plauging her with doubt and filling her with insecurities.

2. Same story, with a touch of over exaggeration added to make it funny (didn’t succeed), but the demons were one dimensional, unrealistic and not fully fleshed out characters.

3. The sequence of events changed, becoming crisper and more concise, eliminating superfluous details, improving the character of the lead, helping us realise that she wasn’t a no-good, lazy creature, but rather a hard-working, but misguided artist suffering a creative block of sorts.

4. The story became over-worked and flat, monotonous, and boring. The character of the girl was established, but the nightmare sequence was too unreal, and the demons were transformed into one single monster, which would be a demonic version of herself, repeating all the discouraging words she had ever heard, and reinforcing her self doubts.

At this point I realised that  the reason for all the confusion was that I could not define the character of the monster accurately. This led me to realise.. that there was no need for a demon or monster. The problem with the character was all in her head! (just like me! what a coincidence!)

Thus emerged a new version…

5. The character was quickly established, including a bit of back story revealing that she alone was not responsible for her lack of progress. The frustration and confusion were also emphasised without being repetitive. The pacing was slow in the beginning leading to intense confrontation, which led to the climax and then resolution.

But the main change, was the ‘monster. I found it difficult to visualize the exact behaviour of the creature because it didn’t exist; and I couldn’t bring any realism in its existence int he film.

But there were doubts and insecurities plaguing her. They were plaguing me! It was my own voice in my head.

It made me do things I didn’t need to, doubt my own capabilities, be under confident of my work, and was an overall downer!

It is said that art imitates life. Well that was the hint to do a bit of ‘copy-and-paste!’

The monster was tossed in the bin, the demons were banished, what was unleashed was the power of the mind. She had to fight her own self, her own doubts and insecurities, that was her biggest enemy.

Thus ended this phase, with the film ultimately being centered on the character, putting all her thoughts, feelings and emotions out there, for all to see, and for herself to fight against.

Looking for a story…

Before I try to explain my current conundrum, I should explain why I finally took the cliched, ‘everyman story ‘ route.

What were the thoughts that ran through my head before? Why couldn’t I come up with a story? Why so much struggle when others pop up with brilliant ideas overnight?

Maybe its my destiny (said with due dramatic emphasis!)

Or am I the worlds biggest indecisive idiot?

Whatever it was, I came up with millions thousands hundreds  many ideas, each of which was considered, the problems pointed out and immediately discarded. Some were re-considered, and then re-discarded! One thing I am an expert on, is to over-analyse and spot the problems any idea could ever have!

Let me review..

There was the girl who thought she had no imagination, the story of a balloon man with an emotionless face, the poor little  misunderstood snob, the satire on resource wastage, the provoking statement on communalism within a so-called liberal society, the child whose sandcastle gets trampled on repeatedly, the story of a child who is prescribed glasses after watching too much TV, maybe she has some distortion, giant hands, twisted face, a voice like a lion’s roar? The list could go on and on, but that’s the gist.. many thoughts, most not fully coherent, many which I wasn’t able to progress upon after a point, some which I didnt really believe in as well, and some which were just plain stupid!

My default thought process veered towards character that were whiny, so-called misunderstood, slightly pretentious, and maybe shunned by society, due to a mistake on her part or society’s, but all my stories had no resolutions, just an understanding. Basically the arc went like, character suffers, finds out the cause of her suffering, accepts said suffering as payback for her life! How unnecessarily dramatic! And I’m the type who loves the happy ending.

Basically I was unhappy with almost every story, and none of them were so close to me, or that I had any faith in, that I could eliminate all other ideas and sit down to work out the problems with just that one. Nothing was ever ‘IT!’ Every idea I sat to work out in detail, another maybe better idea would pop up, and I couldn’t decide which was better, which had more potential, nothing!

I lost objectivity completely, each further new idea seemed like more and more recycled than before, nothing was original, everything was either stupid, or lame, or done before, or unrealistic, too idealistic, snooty, too dumb, or just plain uninteresting.

Personally at this point I started to get more than a little worried and completely dejected. All my batchmates had easily fixed upon the ONE idea they wanted to expand upon, their stories at least had a baseline, they knew what they wanted to say! I couldn’t even decide which of those myriad thoughts to work upon.

Panic mode is sometimes good, like when it helps you focus, think clearly, stop procrastinating, but not so good when it makes you run around like a headless chicken. Usually I fall into the former category, but this time I WAS the chicken, flapping about, clueless and lost!

I ran through more and more thoughts faster than a speeding bullet, rejecting all left and right, I tried to make a funny story, it ended up as a bad farce, I tried to be serious and profound, it ended up unintentionally funny, I tried to be sarcastic, intelligent, ironical.. I didnt fit into any of those roles. I was headed down the path of doom!

Thankfully, there was a ray of hope. My guide, Sekhar Mukherjee brought me back from the deep end.

He had tolerated me with endless patience, listened to my whining and groaning, and finally clicked the tubelight on in my head.

I was trying to tell a story from my own experiences in life, but it seemed like I hadn’t had any such great life changing experience worth making a film about. But this, this hunt, endless pursuit of a story, that was a story in itself.

Yay! There it was, my basic premise was ready!

But.. Wow! Talk about a whole new can of worms.

Animator struggling to tell a story.. how do I go about doing that? Should it be funny? Sarcastic? Should it be wildly exaggerated? (it was animation after all) or simple and clear? That.. was another chapter…!

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