Wednesday, October 1, 2008

It's a Small (Friendly) World

Signe Baumane's "Teat Beat of Sex" (L) and Greg Ford/Mark Kausler's "It's the Cat" (R)

I've said it before and I'll say it again: being an independent animator can be lonely, difficult work... until you get yourself out there and meet other independent animators!  One of the great things about living in New York is that there are a lot of them, and if you know where to look, you just might find a few.  Over the past year I experienced a real challenge in leaving good paying work and a "career" behind to do my own films, but the extraordinary friendliness of some of New York's best animators has really helped me keep my head up.  By going to ASIFA events, showing in festivals and being sure to say hello whenever the opportunity presents itself, I've met and gotten to know many artists whose work I had admired for years.

Today was particularly special as I managed to visit both Signe Baumane and Greg Ford's studios.  Signe has been one of New York's best independents over the past decade and shared an unusual perspective on her work habits.  She said she is inhabited by three people: a child whose endless curiosity drives her to bounce out of bed and get right to work at 6 am, a mother who reminds her to take a break and feed herself at lunchtime, and a father who cracks the whip and rails against anything that might look like laziness.  I think I could use more of the mother in my own personality: I often go on a tear with work where showering, eating, exercising and doing laundry falls by the wayside.

Greg seemed similarly hellbent on personal sacrifice.  He is currently producing a sequel to "It's the Cat", the phenomenal 2004 short he created with Mark Kausler.  Well, Mark is back and so is that cat.  These guys are doing it for real: everything on hand-painted cels shot under perhaps the last surviving Oxberry animation camera in New York City.  Greg played three versions of the film for me, explaining that the timing of the last two versions were adjusted by 1) three frames and 2) a single frame (that's 1/24th of a second over a 3 minute film).  I pretended to see the difference as it allowed me to watch Mark's virtuoso performance with a pencil several times over.  Who has the sixth sense developed for detecting such a singular slice of time?  Amazing.  Special thanks to Adrian Urquidez for arranging my visit and Larry Q., the Ford Studios cameraman for showing me how an Oxberry works (one more childhood dream fulfilled).

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Meeting the Littmans

Tim, Joshua and Mike: 3 people, 3 pairs of glasses

The next Rauch Brothers film, another collaboration with the StoryCorps project, comes from a conversation between Joshua Littman and his mother, Sarah.  They live in Connecticut, not far from our Brooklyn studio, and we were very pleased to be able to meet them this past summer.  Mike and I were happy to hear they liked the storyboard and felt we had really gotten some aspects of their character right, including some of their unique mannerisms.  They were as delightful to meet in person as they are in the recording and we really appreciate their support!

Besides being a delightful person and a loving mother, Sarah is an accomplished children's author.  She recently published a novel about a teenager battling bulimia and writes about life as a single mother here.

Looking at the storyboard drawings

Joshua meets computer 

People who will treat you like you're normal when you need a shave, are barefoot and have forgotten to finish buttoning your shirt are good people

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Calling All Interns

"Cockroaches are just the insect we love to hate."
-Joshua in 'Q&A'

Rauch Bros. Animation is looking for interns to help on our new short, Q&A.  Anyone interested please get in touch with me by email at

Looking forward to hearing from some of you!

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Rauch Bros. & DoubleTriple @ AENY

Rauch Bros. & DoubleTriple : quite a combination

Thursday, August 28th, Mike and I will be joining Phillip Niemeyer of DoubleTriple to speak at a meeting of AfterEffects NY, "an association for professionals and enthusiasts using Adobe After Effects and related software to create imagery for video, film, and other media".

We're going to be showing Germans in the Woods and explaining how the backgrounds, effects and hand drawn animation were layered together in AfterEffects.  There will be a Q&A and a little preview of our next film.

Phillip will be discussing his work with Ryan Junnell.  Together, they created a fresh, fun 2D stop motion music video for Spoon's hit song "You Got Your Cherry Bomb".

Thursday, Aug. 28th
6:45 - 9 pm
P.S. 41
116 W. 11th
(corner of 11th and 6th ave)

ALSO: Special thanks to Brett Thompson and ASIFA-Atlanta for awarding "Germans in the Woods" Best Dramatic Animated Short at this year's Animation Attack!  Sounds like a great event, one that I'd love to make it to next year...

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Interview with Mike and Tim

two knuckleheads and a fish

Mike and I recently did an interview with Toni Pennacchia of Spoiler Alert Radio (88.1 in Providence).  We talked mostly about our work with StoryCorps, and Germans in the Woods in particular. Toni had some great questions!  The show aired on August 3rd, but you can find the podcast here. Listen to learn more about what we've been up to, how we got involved with StoryCorps and where we're hoping to go from here.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Rauch Bros. Web Update

Hello all!  Mike and I have recently updated the Rauch Bros. Animation website.  Go check out to see more on our next StoryCorps film, Q & A.  From the site:

"In February 2006, then 12-year-old Joshua Littman and his mother, Sarah, took a day-trip to New York City.  In addition to eating at a Martian-themed restaurant and visiting Nintendo World, the pair recorded an interview at StoryCorps... (Joshua) interviewed his mother on everything from animals to her feelings about him as a son."

Reactions to the animatic for Q&A have been overwhelmingly positive thus far and Mike and I are really looking forward to kicking it into full production.

As for our first film, Germans in the Woods (also created in association with StoryCorps), you can catch it this weekend playing at the Animation Block Party, one of New York's biggest annual animation festivals which will take over the Brooklyn Academy of Music and Habana Outpost for what promises to be a great party.  Tickets are available here.  

Monday, June 30, 2008

Designing Our New Film

Concept art from the next Rauch Brothers film

In designing our new film, a humorous but sincere conversation between mother and son, I looked to the two films posted below and the beautiful artwork in Jean and Laurent de Brunhoff's Babar.  The first film comes from Russia's Soyuzmultfilm studio, the second from Rembrandt Films, and Babar is the beloved series of children's books featuring a family of elephants.  More on Babar in another post; for now, the two films that best match what we would like to do with our new project.

The first film is "About Sidorov Vova" (1985) by the great Russian director Eduard Nazarov whose incredible touch with humor I first discovered in "There Once Was a Dog".  Nazarov's humor in these two films comes from characters suffering the follies of interdependence.  Visually, the look of our film will very closely resemble "Vova", which is the story of a pampered young man drafted into the Russian army.  See the Youtube version:

About Sidorov Vova (1985)

"Munro", the second film, is about a 4 year old drafted into the US Army (how's that for a crazy parallel?). This film was directed by Gene Dietch and adapted from the story by Jules Feiffer. They won an Oscar in 1960.  The humor here is also soft but strong, thanks in large part to Feiffer's extraordinary talent with dialogue and narration.  Deitch did an amazing balancing act as the director: maintaining the humor of the original drawings with a very spartan approach to the animation.


Munro (1960)

..and to whet your whistle when it comes to Babar, I posted a few images from those lovely books.  We're hoping to acheive the light touches of line and color you see here.

pen and watercolor spread from Babar Comes to America (1965)

watercolor study from Babar's Visit to Bird Island (1951)

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Rome Sketchbook

Three years ago I was studying abroad in Rome.  It was a chance to get away from New York and my professors at St. John's and see what kind of work I would do with that new freedom.  One of the things I did was continue to keep a sketchbook that I drew in several hours a day.  In Rome, that meant drawing people on the subways and trains as it had in New York (post) but I also drew churches, museums and public parks.  The following images are just a few pages from one of those sketchbooks.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Looking Ahead

Concept art from the next Rauch Brothers film

Every morning I wake up around 11 am on a futon that nearly fills up my tiny bedroom and roll over toward the curtain to see what kind of a day it is outside.  Life becomes quite mushy when you work only part time because there's very little in the way of a daily schedule.  Somehow, the world keeps on turning.

Mike and I are continuing to hear from festivals:  Germans in the Woods, our collaboration with StoryCorps, will be playing a few good ones in July and August.  First, we will be a part of Rooftop Film Festival's big event July 4th. The night will feature "Food, drinks, live music, fireworks and film...using artfully-told personal stories and carefully-crafted craziness to address the breadth of the American experience."  The party will be on the pier at Solar One, right down by the East River where I'm sure the view of the fireworks will be spectacular.

Then, in August, we will be playing two great festivals: Rhode Island International Film Festival (Aug 5-10) and Palm Springs International Shortfest (Aug 21-27).  Looking forward to both!

Still, the event I am looking forward to the most is this coming Monday when Mike and I will have a chance to meet the mother and son who are the subject of our next film.  We were never able to meet Joseph Robertson, the soldier who shared his memory from the Battle of the Bulge for Germans in the Woods.  Hopefully, meeting the subjects this time will add to our ability to tell their story.  The image at the top of this post is a design for the boy.  Despite how glum this image may look, it promises to be a very funny and lighthearted piece that I can't wait to animate.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

10 Characteristics of Creatives

From my brother, Mike:

I'm currently re-reading Ellen Shapiro's "Graphic Designer's Guide to Clients: How to Make Clients Happy and Do Great Work" . Although she speaks specifically to designers, I've found that a good many of her ideas would apply to just about anyone working in a creative field. Read below where she notes Ed Gold's "10 common characteristics of great designers":

1. talent (their work flat-out looks good)
2. advocacy or sales ability

3. curiosity
4. dissatisfaction
4. perfectionism
5. energy
6. confidence

7. idealism
8. realism
9. wit

10. they just love their work

"A designer who can't sell an idea is probably not going to be very successful," [Gold] says, adding, "I'll go a step further. A designer who can't sell an idea will never be a great designer."

Monday, June 9, 2008

There Are No Strings On Me

For the past six months I've been working only part time as a swim instructor to allow more time for my films.  The paycheck I receive twice a month usually has about 15 hours a week on it and does not cover my monthly living expenses.  At this point, I'm slipping into debt.  Why put myself into what looks like a constant downward spiral of financial woe rather than get out there to find more substantial work?

When I had a job working on a TV show, I was miserable.  The task I was asked to do did not appeal to me: I was working every day on three characters who all had very similar body mechanics, the style of animation had limited capacity for emotional range, and by the time the shot landed in my lap most of the challenging creative decisions had been made further up the pipeline by the writer, director or storyboard artists.  I frequently found myself literally falling asleep as I poked and prodded the characters into place.  Eventually, my lack of curiosity about the job brought things to a head and I found myself back in the line of work I'd first taken up as a high school sophomore: encouraging toddlers to blow bubbles and put their faces in the water.

Perhaps ironically, I was more challenged, rewarded and excited to go to work as a swim instructor than I had ever been in my one year of "animation industry" experience.  I was ecstatic to be free of the animation factory that had been my first and only nine to five.  There was twice as much time to dedicate to Germans in the Woods, which had been in limbo somewhere between a sloppy storyboard and something that vaguely resembled animation.  The project was finally becoming a cohesive film whose direction I could control.

The finished film has really changed how I think about my place in the "world of animation".  I feel like someone who has found his corner of the sandbox instead of an outsider looking in.  At this point, I am curious about finding more substantial work but as long as I can at least keep my finances on life support while continuing to work on my own films I have no great desire to get back into a regular nine to five.  I'm young, I'm healthy, I'm just getting started, why not take a few risks?  I'm willing to bet the rewards over the long run will make all these peanut butter and jelly dinners worthwhile.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Nine Dangers of Story

From my brother, Mike:

While teaching English as a Foreign Language in Istanbul, I came across a wonderful book titled The Art of the Story-Teller by Marie L. Shedlock. Although she discusses telling stories to children in classrooms, many of her ideas are relevant to story-telling for any audience in any fashion. I thought I would share one part of the book where she lays out nine dangers of story. I think of this list often when editing interviews in my work at StoryCorps. For full explanations of each item, you can visit Penn's digital library where the book is available in its entirety. Lots of great stuff to dig into, especially for those of you involved in developing animation and other media for children.

1. Danger of side issues.
2. Altering the story to suit special occasions.
3. Danger of introducing unfamiliar words.
4. Danger of claiming cooperation of audience by means of questions.
5. The difficulty of gauging the effect of a story on its audience.
6. Danger of over-illustration.
7. The danger of obscuring the point of the story with too many details.
8. The danger of over-explanation.
9. The danger of lowering the standard of the story in order to appeal to undeveloped tastes.

- Mike

Thursday, May 22, 2008

One Big Happy Blogosphere

The Lonely Artist pre-blog-discovery

When I got back into animation two years ago, after 4 years as an "Artist" (ugh), I quickly discovered the world of animation blogs.  There are all kinds of blogs: production blogs, blogs focused on fan-boy ranting, I-just-made-a-drawing-and-here-it-is blogs, analysis and criticism blogs, and blogs for sharing cartoon-miscellany.  Anyone with a computer and internet access can create a blog or post comments, which has created an incredible flood of content (not all of it worth your time).  Thankfully, this also means there is a lot of quality information and commentary out there to read and a thriving community that makes the physical isolation of being an independent animator less palpable.

The blogs I follow might be described this way: my friends' blogs (it's good to know what they're up to), blogs that provide valuable information and insight (Animondays), blogs that have a strong critical viewpoint I appreciate (The Splog), and blogs that expose me to things I would otherwise miss (CartoonBrew).

My biggest reservation about blogging is the inevitable nasty side of many posts and comments.  The blogosphere is like a large, crowded room and when someone in that room provides rude "criticism" things can get awkward fast.  Where exactly is the line between rude and reasonable criticism?

One of the most important functions of this "crowded room" is to provide support to the little guys: the students, the frustrated artists, the independents.  While it's reasonable to make thoughtful criticisms of a studio product, at what point is an artist's ego fragile enough that we should avoid going out of our way to provide negative feedback?  You wouldn't walk up to a three year old working with crayons on his kitchen table and poo-poo his choice of color.  I believe the same kind of "protective zone" should be extended to non-professionals or professionals doing personal projects: respect their desire to create and provide negative criticism only when it is asked for and can be constructively received.  Leave the wrestling-match of serious criticism to work that has entered the wider world in a more public way; but please keep in mind that individual artists have been involved and resist the urge to slam, insult or generally denigrate their contributions.  If someone's heart was in it (and even schlock can be made with dedication) tearing them down does no good.  Why not congratulate their effort, make your point, and encourage them to improve?  I'm looking forward to the "future of animation", and it won't come from base negativity.

Here's to a supportive, positive, and, yes, sometimes critical blogosphere: may it make us all better artists and, more importantly, happier people.  Keep your elbows sharp and your skin thick but don't forget to smile and say hello.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008


concept still from The Park Bench

I've just finished my first film (ever) and received a stronger response from it than I might have originally expected.  Now what?

I'm beginning to discover the frightening gap that comes between the completion of films.  Mike and I began "Germans in the Woods" almost a year ago (June '07) and its first public screening came less than two weeks ago.  While there are more "documentary" shorts in the works here at Rauch Brothers, I would like to use the time I have right now to put a four-year project to bed: The Park Bench (see these posts: 1, 2).  Five of the final six minutes have been animated to pencil test and are ready to be inked, painted and composited.  This will be three or four times the effort required to complete "Germans", but at least there seems to be an end in sight.

This project began when a professor told me to take a nap one exhausted morning: "What are you gonna come up with in an hour, anyways?"  Well, I rather stupidly got myself into a big mess in that one hour.  The little story I sketched out was of a man waiting on a bench while bizarre dramas unfold around him.  This thing has been through several evolutionary stages.  In fact, there is an earlier version which was nearly completed... until I realized it was utterly boring to watch.  The whole thing took place over 6 minutes with up to six characters on the screen at a time and the camera NEVER MOVED.  I guess this was some kind of clever, art school challenge I made for myself.  It fit right in with another film I did at the time where a man makes a phone call (no discernible dialogue can be heard, only vague phrases like "Pretty good... you?") and the camera never moves for the whole three minutes.  What's clever about that?  The way he scratches himself?  The way he looks into his empty water glass at the end of the film?  Yuck.  Funny thing about clever personal challenges is they may not interest anyone other than you.

With that in mind, The Park Bench has been redesigned with a constantly twisting, turning, zooming and cutting camera.  The colors are bright and the backgrounds are full of repetition.  The image at the top of the post and those below should give you some idea of what the final look will be.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Our First Award

Dave Levy looks on as Mike and I accept

Mike and I were honored to receive an award at the premiere of our very first film. Many thanks to ASIFA-East for awarding "Germans in the Woods" 2nd place in Independent Animation!  Mike and I had a blast watching our film with a theater-full of people, especially our friends who seemed to come from all over to support us tonight.  As always, Linda Beck, Jen Oxley, Dave Levy and the rest of the ASIFA board put on a great event.  Special thanks also to Candy Kugel, who does a great deal for the festival itself as well as giving ASIFA-East a home at her studio for our monthly meetings (I'm a member, of course).  Cartoon Network and Michael Grover sponsored the wonderful after-party. 

The festival is voted on by the entire ASIFA-East membership and to be put second only to Bill Plympton in our category was an honor Mike and I would not have imagined a year ago.  The big winner of the night was Arthur Metcalf's "Fantasie in Bubble Wrap", which seems to be a huge favorite wherever it goes.  The audience laughed from one joke to the next with barely a breath in between.  Besides being brilliantly funny, Arthur's a friendly, enthusiastic guy and to see him take the top prize was fantastic.

One point of criticism for the festival: I was a bit disappointed a few of the films awarded in the Student category weren't included in the screening.  Would have been nice to see what these filmmakers had done to receive their honors...  Still, a great event, and we were happy to be a part of it.

A big thank you is due to StoryCorps, our partners on the film.  Mike Garofalo did a superb job editing the audio for the film: there is really no slack in the sound and it's an incredibly riveting two minutes.  The theater was so absolutely silent while it played that we could hear the occasional faint gasps coming from around the room. A big thanks to Mike G, Dave Isay, Kathrina Proscia, Sarah Kramer and Lisa Janicki for their faith and support. My brother and I are honored to have had the chance to help share Joseph Robertson's story.

As Mike and I have been promising, our next film will make you laugh.  It's about the relationship between a mother and her son... more on that later.

concept art from the next Rauch Brothers film

For more about the 39th Annual ASIFA-East Animation Festival, see the following blogs:

Sunday, April 27, 2008

"Germans in the Woods" @ ASIFA-East

I'm happy to report that "Germans in the Woods" will have its festival premiere at the 39th Annual ASIFA-East Animation Festival.  Mike and I will, of course, be there.  This is our first film in it's first festival and we're excited to see how it is received.

concept art from "Germans in the Woods"

The responses we've been getting so far have been amazing. I was visiting my family in Boston for Easter and we had saved dessert for after we screened the film.  They watched it three times.  The first time, my 28 year old cousin, Katie, started crying halfway through the film. By the end she and her sister Holly were sobbing. The third time, Katie had to leave the room because she couldn't bear to watch it again.  She was washing dishes in the sink and sobbing, saying hysterically "It's just SO sad!", which was actually kind of funny as she was up to her elbows in soap bubbles, crying over a 3 minute piece of animation for a full half hour.  Everyone agreed it had killed their appetite for dessert and, for the rest of the evening, the only thing they seemed to want to talk about was the film.

I've seen a lot of people cry, some gasp at certain scenes, and many stare in an unusually fixed way at the screen. The end is often greeted with reverent silence.  I take all of this to mean that the sadness of Joseph Robertson's memory was represented well in the film.

We're flattered by this kind of response and, though we feel good about what we've done with the animation, we also know how much any eventual success of the film will come from the greatness of the audio.  StoryCorps' weekly radio segments have moved me and many people I know to tears or laughter on a weekly basis.  (Don't forget, StoryCorps can also be very funny.)  It has won a Peabody, spawned a book, and is one of the most downloaded weekly podcasts on iTunes.  Hopefully we are able to live up to that kind of success with the film.

Looking forward to next weekend!


ASIFA-East Presents - The 39th Annual ASIFA-East Animation Festival

Sunday May 4th, 6pm

Our most anticipated event of the year, the 39th Annual ASIFA-East Animation Festival is here! Awards, films and a glorious reception afterwards (thanks Cartoon Network!) - come join us for a wonderful evening of animation celebration!

Tishman Auditorium
@The New School
66 W. 12th St
(bet. 5th/6th)

FREE ADMISSION to both festival and after-party

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Letter to Brett

early storyboard drawing from "Germans in the Woods"

About a month back I had the opportunity to meet Brett Thompson, the energetic and extremely friendly president of ASIFA Atlanta. I was able to show Brett our film "Germans in the Woods" and began exchanging emails. Having just finished the film, it was a great opportunity to share about the process and try to make sense of it for myself.  In previous posts I've gone into detail about the design of the film but I hope this post will offer a broader view of the whole process:  please enjoy an edited version of that conversation.


You ask how long did it take to animate, so let me describe our process.

We started with a piece of pre-edited sound (approximately a 2 minute clip cut from a 40 minute StoryCorps interview in which a World War II veteran recalls his "saddest memory" about the sound here). This piece had aired on NPR and was included in the recent StoryCorps book.  Like many of the SC pieces, this story brought me to tears.  There was incredibly strong emotion in the voice and yet we knew there had to be something we could add with animation. I started by listening to the piece on a loop for hours, trying to really get the rhythm of the sound and the emotion of the language stuck in my head. The recording began to break down into passages and I made thumbnails of possible shots to use.

storyboard roughs for the "Levitation Sequence": a discarded idea in which the dead soldier would be lifted by angels

When considering how to draw the characters I had to think how much should they look like the real people: what is essential to the story and emotion versus what is essential for historical accuracy. My brother went to the New York Public Library Picture Collection and brought back a stack of photos from the specific battle talked about in the story. Those photos inspired the tall and forbidding look of the forest, the thick blanket of snow, and the soldier's heavy face.

research photo of the Ardennes forest; finished background design

research photo, concept art, production still

I draw sort of cleanly, evenly shaped characters, and felt we needed to get backgrounds they would sit comfortably on that could also provide the rich texture missing in the character design. That led to designing backgrounds that had a kind of subtlety in value and texture yet were still abstract enough to act more as shapes supporting the composition of the movement. Looking at Willem Den Ouden's etchings of the Dutch countryside helped establish that look. The film's events took place in Belgium but the terrain is similar and the mood they set with enormous, dramatic clouds and gracefully passing light was just perfect.

etching by Willem Den Ouden

finished background design

"Germans In The Woods" was being visually designed constantly over the course of its creation, but the basic work for that was done in June, July and August 2007. I had never made a film before, so frequently I would make a speculative "production-still" in Photoshop and say, okay, that's what I'm doing, but really have no idea how to actually execute it.

In August, I did the majority of the animation, working furiously to do about two minutes worth of work and not always being sure exactly how the drawings would fit into the final shot. The speed I wanted was determined very early on: much of the film is in slow motion to match the drooping, warm voice and hold out the inevitable, painful conclusion in all its tragedy. Still, how I would ink and paint and combine the drawings with special effects and background was not yet settled.

Concept art, final image

Also in August, Tom Witte created the special effects animation of the snow and did some drawings of the forest. His sketches made me determined to get strong atmosphere into the film. A big part of achieving that was a series of ink-wash paintings created by my friend Iandry Randriamandroso. Iandry's paintings were commissioned with specific sequences in mind but were never used strictly as painted. Instead, they formed the foundation of Photoshop paintings I created by combining scans of flour, eraser bits and pencil shavings with his paintings on top of penciled layouts. This process was something that I had to experiment with and nailed about 6 weeks before the film was finished. We were playing with it right up to the end, constantly throwing out old backgrounds and trying new ones.

Iandry's painting

production still showing the above painting being used in a final background design

(Read more about the process of creating the backgrounds here, here, and here.)

In the end, we felt confident about what we had created.  The emotional toll some of the work took on me came as a bit of a surprise, especially the crying sequence in which the narrator talks about "waking up at night crying over this kid".  I tried to identify with the extraordinary emotional weight he was carrying and felt my own face and shoulders being stretched with his sadness.  This feeling was drawn out over the week it took to animate the sequence and was by far the most intense experience I had while making the film.

concept art and production still from crying sequence

Hopefully the emotional quality of the recording has been matched in the animation and the narrator's message, about the tragedy of this individual death, comes through in the film.

(Read more about animating the crying sequence and see a pencil test here.)

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Germans in the Woods: Our Partnership with StoryCorps

The first film created under the banner of Rauch Brothers Animation is "Germans in the Woods".  See a teaser here.

Our partner on the film is StoryCorps, the national oral history project.  What is StoryCorps?  In their own words:

"By recording the stories of our lives with the people we care about, we experience our history, hopes, and humanity. Since 2003, tens of thousands of everyday people have interviewed family and friends through StoryCorps. Each conversation is recorded on a free CD to take home and share, and is archived for generations to come at the Library of Congress. Millions listen to our award-winning broadcasts on public radio and the Internet. StoryCorps is one of the largest oral history projects of its kind, creating a growing portrait of who we really are as Americans."

Heavily influenced by Aardman's Lip-Sync series and films like "Creature Comforts" and "Going Equipped", Mike and I had been thinking about doing documentary animation for years.  During an internship at StoryCorps, Mike was encouraged by Dave Isay, SC founder, to try adapting the recordings into animation.  Two months later we brought him a pair of animatics, one of which would become "Germans in the Woods".  In GITW, World War II veteran Joseph Robertson recalls shooting a young German soldier at The Battle of the Bulge, his "saddest memory".

The recording is so packed with emotion that we always felt if we did a halfway decent job on the design and animation we'd have a pretty good film.  Still, the idea of translating such a raw and personal story was daunting.  How could we translate this man's memory without getting in the way of his message?  How could we tell the story with respect and dignity for Joseph Robertson and the young man he was forced to kill?  The story tells us that each death in every war is a unique and sacred event of profound tragedy, not only for the dead but also for his killer.  Robertson says "I still see him in my dreams and I don't know how to get him off my mind", 60 years later.

Who was the soldier he shot?  A member of the Hitler Youth.  To prepare for the film, I read "A Child of Hitler: Germany in the Days When God Wore a Swastika" by Alfons Heck.  In this memoir, Heck describes his life in a German town during Adolf Hitler's ascent to power.  Reading this book it becomes clear how enticing the Hitler Youth would have been to a young German boy: it offered comradery, purpose, a ticket to higher education, the facade of authority and, most of all, the seductively fiery rhetoric of Nazism.  If an entire nation was brought under the sway of such madness, how could impressionable boys and girls fair any better?  Toward the end of the war, with the "regular" German army nearing defeat, Hitler and his commanders cynically called on the teenage boys of the Hitler Youth to defend against the advancing Allies.  The soldier Robertson was forced to shoot was one of these young kids.

I won't bother to get into the design of the film here, you can check the studio site and previous posts to read about that, but I would like to talk about the responses we've been getting.  When you work on something like this for six months, it's easy to forget how strong your first emotional response was.  All of that has been brought back to me in watching the film with others: their eyes open wide, mouths part and gasp, and we frequently see people break into tears.  My cousin sobbed for half an hour after watching the film.  We are humbled at this kind of response and feel extremely indebted to Joseph Robertson for his service, his sacrifice, and his willingness to share this story with us.  If the film has any power, it comes from that man's voice.

You can see a teaser for the film at our website here.

The video posted below is an interview with Dave Isay in which he describes the StoryCorps project and his goal of making us into "a nation of oral historians".  There is also a longer, maybe more complete video from ABC News that profiles Dave and the StoryCorps project available here. 

Hello Again

Wow, it's been a while.  Why the two month gap between posts?  Well, Mike and I were finishing up "Germans In The Woods", building our websites and then trying to breathe easy for a bit.  I had no idea how exhausting that would all be, but it's been a great ride and I can't wait to do it again.

I want to talk more about our new film in my next post, but for now, enjoy the sites.  The first site is our "studio site" where you will find information about our new film.  The second site is my personal portfolio site (yes, I know the "Clips" link doesn't work, something will be there soon).

Monday, February 18, 2008

Designing for Appeal in "The Parkbench"

model sheet for The Birds in "The Parkbench"

Dave Levy recently posted on his blog about the 3 main categories he sees in modern animation design.  He calls them "Appealing Design, Grotesque Design, and Appealingly Grotesque Design".  About "Appealing Design", Dave writes: "it's a simple design, rooted in classic appeal but with just enough modern quirks to give it a little edge".  Dave also writes that he sees an emphasis on "moving characters in interesting ways" and "playfulness in story construction", though he wonders if that "maybe reveals an attempt to overcompensate for simplistic graphics".  I was flattered to be called one of "this movement's artists", and I did recognize some of the strengths and weaknesses I see in my own work in what Dave had to say and would like to respond to it here.

As I mentioned previously on my blog, the designs for one of the films I am currently working on were inspired by Owen Jones' The Grammar of Ornament (see the original post).  In the book, Jones talks a lot about bringing everything to a perfect balance of shapes.  The focus is on pleasing proportions, symmetry, and repetition.

Plate XLIII, "Moorish Ornament" ; 
The Grammar of Ornament(Owen Jones)

I applied these design principles to my characters as you see here:

Plate X, detail "Egyptian Ornament" (Jones) and The Son from "The Parkbench"

This approach was helpful for several reasons.  The film is about seven individuals whose paths cross and some walk away winners and some walk away losers.  The Father and Son, The Balloonseller, The Birds, The Man on the Bench, The Other.  No one speaks and everybody's costume is fairly nondescript, and since I was going to move the camera around, showing every character from extreme close up to extreme wide, sometimes even in the same shot, they would have to look as unique close up as they did from a distance just based on shape.  To demonstrate this, I've posted two different shots of the birds here:

Close up on one bird ;
overhead shot of both birds surrounded by other characters

So that the viewer will never be confused, each character has a distinct hand, distinct nose, distinct leg; but that hand, nose and leg all make sense on the same body by being somehow similar to one another and expressive of a personality.  For instance, the design of the boy emphasized circles... notice, even his knees are circular:

The boy's face is dominated by perfectly circular lenses, repeating the large circles of his head and body.  His shirt cuffs and pant legs are circular; even his hands have rather circular fingertips and palms.  By comparison, his Father has a more grotesque, dripping body with long, jointed, fingers and a large nose falling over a large chin. We still know they are related because their postures match and they both wear glasses. 

That makes shots like this work:

The hand that comes on is immediately identifiable, there are only two hands with long bony fingers in the film and they both belong to the Father.

This kind of quick recognition was needed throughout the film as most cuts are jump cuts, you are suddenly thrust beneath a smoker's chin, between two eyes and a giant nose, staring out from under a pigeon's belly.  Whose chin?  Whose eyes?  Whose belly?  They all need answers.

The Ballon Seller's Chin ; color concept

Man's Face ; pencil test

The Bird's Belly ; pencil test

The designs had to be simple enough to draw the six minute film by myself, to create instantaneous character recognition in every shot, and to allow for playfulness in pantomime given the lack of dialogue.  Sound effects will come in later and further separate the characters by giving each one a unique library of sound: the falling of their feet, the tapping of their fingertips, the drag of their cigarette, the swing of their hips will all be unique.

Their body language was just as important to establishing character.  The Man on the Bench is totally normal, his walk is just an averaging out of Every Walk.  The father has a big stride to match his overall bigness, but stays low to the ground for balance.  The birds are clumsy, their feet slap the ground as they go, and one can be identified as easy going, the other touchy, all with the body language of their walk.  I've posted pencil test animation of them both:

The Pleasant Bird

The Touchy Bird
And while I generally wanted my characters to have "appeal", there were some I wanted to be more appealing than others.  I had a special interest in designing the birds and the balloon seller as sympathetic characters: they are going to lose the most in the film, and those losses should be felt.  They have eyeballs and mouths to show their emotions, a big leg up on the other guys, as it turns out. The Father and Son are meant to be more emotionally removed: they are entirely non-sentimental, staring out blankly from behind large glasses.

The Balloonseller and his very unemotional counterpart, The Father

And what about the story?  The version currently up on YouTube is incomplete, but I hope the finished film will indeed have what Dave calls "playfulness in story construction".  Still, the story has been fixed for some time now and its consideration has admittedly become secondary to considerations of the way I wanted to tell it.  I don't know how wide an audience this film will have, and it is not really for a wide audience.  I made it for me.  It continues to be an extremely pleasant process, working on it is a meditation for me.  Every part of each character and each movement is so controlled and predetermined, it becomes very easy to luxuriate in the process and really dig in.  I hope what's left at the end can still make a mark, but that is not as important to me as what I've learned in doing the film.

Moving ahead, I am beginning to work on what will hopefully be a series of films much more capable of finding a wide audience.  The stories for the series, which I can not currently announce by name, are told by people from all over the country, of all ages, races and genders.  For this series, I will be taking a lot of the lessons I learned in designing "The Parkbench" forward to apply to more specifically characterized personalities.  Their universe will hopefully still have appeal but will have the other foot solidly in reality.  I look forward to sharing more with you about this, but in the mean time let me present a few of the characters designed for that project.