J&D R&D

I originally posted this back in 2005, after getting a lot of questions like ‘What it is that you DO all day, anyway? Goof off or what!?’

The people asking were/are mainly civilians who had no idea how animation is produced. I lost this article after my site got hacked, but thanks to the Wayback machine, I’ve recovered it. I’ve been getting the same question a lot lately, and since this writing also got me noticed by the editor at Apatoons, I thought it was worth a re-post. I should also mention that this storyboard gig was done in 2003, in ye old-fashioned pencil on paper. Remember those days?!

I’ll have more interesting news in a couple of weeks, but in the meantime, enjoy!

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(Look out, it’s a long one!)

© Nelvana/WETA Workshop

So I guess I’ll start up a post about something I’ve worked on and things I used for a job that you might find useful. I’m just going to try to bring up the stuff and why I needed it – because there are folks reading this blog who don’t know much about animation production and were asking questions (hi Mum! and those Collingwood bloggers!)…and this show was kind of unusual in it’s execution, so why not write about this one?

If you’re working in animation, just zip through to the pics & links highlighted, the rest are things you’ve probably heard a bajillion times already. As an aside, this post risks sounding like “Me, me, and more about me,” but that’s just because I did this gig from a home studio. Nobody else was around! Drop by on my next job, then I can talk about you for a whole post – your cute little sweater, what colour you dyed your hair, how we had a pop-tart eating contest…(cont’d after the jump)

For this TV show ‘Jane & The Dragon’, I had a bit of a learning curve, as I’d never really worked with motion-capture shows before. It originated from Weta Workshop, the bigshots in New Zealand who, with Weta Digital, did the special effects for those Hobbit, Blue People and Ape movies – they had optioned a book from a New Zealand author Martin Baynton and decided to go with Nelvana, Canada’s largest purveyor of kiddie shows, as a co-production partner, and to handle most of the pre- and post-production. Weta Workshop was building the virtual sets, designing the characters, and doing the motion-capture rigging for the show – while Weta Digital was pre-occupied with a big ol’ monkey. They were also going to use the proprietary software for motion-capture they developed for LOTR, but had to alter it a bit for TV production (more on that later). I got a call from the director at Nelvana, Mike Fallows, and we were off and running. Afterwards, we sat down and got to work.

Four steps in production – from boards to basic render ©WETA/Nelvana Ltd.

For the entire process used, see this article HERE where Mike outlines the details of the production. My job was to storyboard it out, so we’ll stick to that – this’ll get long enough. I guess I should also say here that I do whatever research I can on just about any of the shows I work on. To me it just doesn’t feel like I’m doing a decent job until I know as much as I can about the influences on the art direction, the story, and whatever else makes the show unique. That way I can sleep, knowing I’m not toiling away for days in the wrong direction, or adding stuff that doesn’t suit someone else’s idea of the show.

First off, I had to acquaint myself with the rigging set-up and what the process meant for my job. Basically I had to avoid a few things due to budget/technical restraints (see more on what Weta was facing HERE), and then board it as if it were a live-action movie – dollies, trucks, tracks, etc. but keeping it simple – and folding in some visual story cues and layers as I saw fit. Mike told me he would only check it when I was done – no rough pass for approval. No pressure either, we were only working with one of the best special-effects shops on the planet. (That last comment just about gave me a fit.)

the Miyazaki boards! Ooooh…ahhh…owch!

So I went running to these books first – reprints of the original boards from my favourite Hayao Miyazaki movies. So much information in there I got dizzy! If I could read Japanese, I would have blacked out from the overload. The man is a genius for achieving truly cinematic stories on a relatively small budget, and that’s what this television show I was working on was all about – more for the money.

If you ever get a chance to buy one of these books, do it! I think you have to go to Japan to get the books, but you can see the boards on the re-released DVDs too. You also have less chance of blacking out and hurting yourself because you’re probably already on the couch, and not walking down stairs with one of those books like I was. Ahem.

I also started up an e-chat with a super talented co-worker, Andrew Tan, who was also doing boards on the show. By following his lead and chatting about influences and movies, I got a feel for the show a lot faster than I would have stumbling along alone in my little room at home. In there I could only feel my stubbed toes as I stumbled for the damn light switch so I could e-mail someone who knew what the hell they were doing. This was the first season for J&D, but Mike Fallows had said Andrew was setting a great storytelling style, so I thought it behooved me to approach Andrew. Andrew got nominated for an Annie in 2005 (storyboards) for another show – it gives you an idea how good he is…no online presence from him though, or I’d link it. Helluva nice guy too, he had the two of us talking shop once every few weeks or so from Taiwan or Toronto. I could never predict where he’d be, but somehow he was always in Taiwan when I suggested going for a beer…probably just co-incidence…heh…

Swoggle me eyes!! ‘Captain Blood’ – what a great film! Errol Flynn’s duking it out for supremacy as Cap’n. © WB.

I also wanted reference for European sword-fighting with great staging – and went to the screenshots from ‘Captain Blood’ that I had saved from my days at Disney Canada. Oh, and this series on History Channel was ridiculously good – mainly because the host was a freakish zealot who got so excited his eyes would bug out and he’d spit while talking. Not only that, but posing out sword practice scenes with the knights in ‘Jane & The Dragon’ got a lot easier after watching all the scrapping they did on that HC series. And for good measure, I reread some old King Arthur legends I had kicking around the house (ye olde Englishe hath funnye myrth to mye). ‘Jane & the Dragon’ was about knights and their codes of living, after all – although I have to admit that I found some great story threads in those legends that could’ve been revisited in the show’s scripts – maybe that’s next season, hmmm?

More of the great ‘Captain Blood’! © WB! Get ‘im Cap! Get ‘im! Look at those sad sacks in the lower left. That’s who they’re fighting over! The winner will be ‘Captain Loser’.

I also got this book on live-action camera work called ‘Film Directing: Cinematic Motion’. Now, I know I could have just winged the camera work by watching some great films and ripping them off, but after a few years, that’s no fun anymore. I wanted to rip off a book for a change – one that would suit the show’s needs. This book was an alright way (the diagrams were ugh) to get re-aquainted with using the camera as an invisible character in the story…something you just don’t get to do on most kids’ 2D shows, primarily due to the budget, or the directors’ inclination, or the show’s… um… ‘divergence in cinematic style’. Besides, I needed the tax-deductible write-off. Screw you, ol’ man Harper.

Nyahhh, master THIS.

Since this job, I’ve ordered this DVD set online – ‘Hollywood Camera Work’ and, in spite of it’s obnoxious title, I can’t recommend it enough if you’re at all interested in staging for film. It’s pretty dry and straight forward, which I like for this kind of technical advice. The fun part is figuring out where your story needs it and sticking it in. I mean, who needs: This camera move is for the moment where our hero learns from his wife that the gardner is better in bed than he EVER was! “, other than ‘our hero’? Well, ok, it has some of those moments which can come in handy (I fired our gardner), but it’s a decent set if you’re serious about staging and blocking. And brother, for that price tag, you’d better be serious – and then just write it off and laugh and laugh and laugh, like I did.

a sample of my stuff from the show © WETA/Nelvana Ltd.

Now all I had to do was figure out how to alter my drawings to suit the show more (I’m always told I’m too cartoony – but that’s for another post), and to squeeze it into panels that were a knuckle-crunching 1.5″ x 3″…and seeing as I had to do 60 to 75 drawings per day, 5 days a week, I’d better figure it out, like, quick! I found what inspiration I needed in Andrew Tan’s work, the Miyazaki books, and in this site: ‘The Look of Love’ – it details the artists, strips and styles that evolved in photo-real newspaper strips through the 50s and 60s, following it from the heyday, to the reduced format, to the demise of the strips due to TV’s popularity.

For me this was great, as I could track just how few lines it took to give the reader an impression of the backgrounds in those panels…the ol’ ‘less-is-more’ switcheroo. For this show, the sets were restricted to the castle for the most part, and already built in the computer. No one was redrawing the storyboard backgrounds I did for the finished show’s painted backgrounds, so I could ease up on being so literal. If you’re into that area of pop culture (50s, 60s illustrators and comic strips), check out the rest of ‘The Look’ site HERE and this other site HERE – a promo for King Syndicate’s stable of comic artists in the 50s. And of course, there’s always Shane Gline’s paysite, Cartoon Retro. Amazing crap! I’d love to be able to draw like that. Those artists were such crafty draftsmen.

A dragon’s sneeze can be risky business…© WETA/Nelvana Ltd.

So, during my own ‘research’ for the show (which coincidently meant watching a lot of TV), I settled into sketching up the script into a visual version, like a comic strip that would be scanned and assembled with sound into a story reel. My job was showing the audience who did what, why, when and where, and then underlining the themes through the characters’ poses and expressions, adding camera use diagrams in key story scenes, punching up gags via cutting and staging, making up a few new jokes where I could, and also keeping an eye out for unnecessary lines or scenes – all the while keeping the pacing of the 22 minute show in my head, for 60 to 75 drawings a day, 5 to 6 days a week for 5 weeks straight – for every episode I was slated for. That there’s a lot of coffee. Not every show requires all that – every project is different, but this one had me hopping.

I kind of got to draw my own version of the characters keeping the same proportions, clothes, height, and style of movement (hey – I said ‘kind of’), because the drawings would be replaced by the rendered models Weta had made. I couldn’t draw exactly like the models looked anyway. I had to simplify them to accommodate the panel size, economize the line and get them to read clearer for the story reels.

The angry merchant. The rendered one above is a screen capture from the final series. The drawing below it is my scribble for the story reel in another, more ‘intense’ scene.

Both © WETA/Nelvana Ltd.

And I did other things like draw Ivon, the mean ol’ master-at-arms, as a take on Lemmy Kilmister. Anything to keep me up at 2 a.m. and delivering on time. Too bad Lemmy wasn’t in the show – would’ve spiced things up! He has that effect everywhere he goes! Maybe even let him write the theme song? I know kids in my neighbourhood who’d watch it just for that.
Ivon after Lemmy Kilmister of Motorhead – my apologies to both.

In spite of my most righteous music suggestions, Weta and Mike Fallows pretty much stuck to the boards even though they could have the actors improvise anything they wanted to while on set in New Zealand – that notion of improv actually took a lot of pressure off of me because I knew they weren’t stuck with what I did. I couldn’t do everything I wanted in a panel the size of a couple of stamps. I know I know, get a computer…

Ivon pays for shooting his mouth off. © WETA/Nelvana Ltd.

Weta Workshop handled the 3D models, the motion-capture and the final rendering, and smoothed out a few of strange things that can happen in motion-capture. One thing I noticed was the limited facial expressions got pretty ‘uncanny’, but seeing as it’s Weta – a place that doesn’t know the meaning of the word ’stop’, ‘arrete’ nor ‘zut alors’ – I imagine they already have fixed it for the next project. Check this article HERE to see where the ‘Gollum-quality mo-cap’ (actual phrase I heard once) went to. I’ll bet that by the next season, if there is one, they’ll have those things totally solved. Just go watch the show and tell whomever aired it that the show was awesome – even if you have to lie, because I like to work.

Saddam Hussein’s only kids’ show cameo after coming out of the spider hole…Really? No, not really. © WETA/Nelvana Ltd.

Please bear in mind I was drawing as fast as I dared in tiny little panels, and these are really more ‘functional’ drawings for the rest of the process to build on. I doubt you’ll see everything I was just blabbing about in this one bitty sample, but anyways. Typically, just as I was getting the hang of the stuff, it was over; and I was on to a totally different show with a totally different look, and more research (watching TV). But I learned a lot, and it’s a good thing this has happened with other shows too, ’cause I need good learnin’.

So, that’s that. I’d do the same thing for other projects I was on, but most of you already know of the resources out there. But, if you don’t work in animation and actually found this interesting, let me know! We’ll get you a doctor’s appointment immediately. Btw, I can talk shop all day. Well…some of the day. Ok ok, for as long as it takes to type this.

(Thanks to Pam Lehn for the clearance).

PS – this just in: I was talking to Mike Fallows on Friday and it seems that an episode of ‘Jane and the Dragon’ has won in the Animation Program category at the Banff World TV Awards. Congrats to everyone who worked on that episode! And yes, there will be a second season.

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NEW NOTE – Since the original writing of this article in 2005, The Jane & The Dragon series has since went on to win the following:

ASIFA/Annie Nominee – Best Animated Television Production
Banff World Television Award – Best Animated Program
4 time Gemini Award Nominee – including Best Animated Program or Series

…not that I had anything to do with that. There were 200 or so other people working on this who made that happen!

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