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).