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"...read 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.
production still showing the above painting being used in a final background design
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.)