Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Directing Animation: Sule and The Case of the Tiny Sparks

Sule and The Case of The Tiny Sparks (Trailer) from The Gibbs Sisters on Vimeo.

People always ask us about animation. How'd we get into it? (We've been drawing since we were children, but started creating cartoons in college) Why we do it? (It's so much fun creating worlds and characters from scratch; with a stroke of your pen you can make a character taller, fatter or toothier, or change a location from China to Outer Space) But most often, people wonder--baffled--how in the world do you direct for animation?

Our answer: Very carefully.

Live Action vs. Animation

Directors for live action and animation reach the same goal, but take slightly different paths to get there. Just recently, we directed a sketch for Purple Stuff TV, one of our first, large live action projects since film school, after having done a bunch of independent animation for the last few years. In working in live action, you're juggling many aspects of production simultaneously: approving actor's make up and wardrobe, guiding them to the right tone in a performance, making sure the lighting is as you need it and the camera angles are just so, communicating with the DP, setting up and resetting cameras, actors and lights, making sure you get the exterior shots you need before the sunlight changes, etc, etc.

Live action is very of the moment, and sometimes you have to begrudgingly grab the final take and move on because the sun has set or because you only had the location for so many days. Because we create the worlds in animation, we are able to isolate and control each component of a scene individually, which eliminates just a few of the worries that live action productions may run into. Instead of rolling with the elements, we create them, and that in itself produces its own set of challenges.

Friends helping Friends

Our current short film, Sule and The Case of The Tiny Sparks is amazing for many different reasons, (it's a wonderful project with a humanitarian message inspired by Nelson Mandela, set in one of the most beautiful continents in the world), but equally as important, it allowed us to work with many friends that we've met in Los Angeles over the years:

Screenwriter, Rene Rawls, brought us the terrific screenplay about our tiny proverb detective, Sule; Dahveed Kolodny Nagy, our Animation Supervisor, whose servers we pushed to the limits over the months, powered the muscle at Smorgasbord Productions and burned the midnight oil way past midnight; Jose Guillen spent many a late night with us in pre-production, creating our wonderful storyboards over pizza and miscellaneous takeout; Editor Christopher Alexander slept on our couch when the nights wore on and the coffee went cold; Animator Ajamu Frasier said yes before even fully knowing what the project was about and we love him for it; our Post Supervisor, Kim Williams, called in favors that truly saved us as we neared the finish line; and friends John Allison and Marion Lane donated their VFX expertise in our opening and closing titles.

In productions, as in life, nothing is possible without a team, and it's always grand to have people you've developed relationships with over the years to call on and help you reach your goals. Since Sule is a story about proverbs, the old tried and true one applies: 'It takes a (real) village' to create a fictional one. And after months of working with so many wonderful & talented people, we now have new friends to call on in the future!

Directing for Sule

Before a single drawing was created for the project, we immediately began research. We haven't yet visited the continent of Africa, so we had a lot of catching up to do. We studied photos of villages, people, nature, landscapes, fabrics and skies and used these images to help build Sule's world.

Sule lives in a small hut in a region similar to Ghana, so we studied huts from all over Africa. Finding interior shots to use as inspiration proved challenging, but we miraculously managed. Thanks, Google!

There haven't been many animations set in West Africa, but we did keep two of our favorite cartoons set on the huge continent in mind: The Lion King (1992) and Kirikou and The Sorceress (1998). Both are beautiful, 2d animations that really immortalize the sweeping beauty of Africa, and served as big influences.

(Films, The Lion King and Kirikou and The Sorceress)

(Our memories of Alice in Wonderland inspired a scene in Sule, where main character, Yaa, feels gigantic in Sule's tiny hut)

We’re often asked what inspires us, and we’re most inspired by life, but as cinephiles since our days studying cinema at San Francisco State, we truly love being enchanted by motion pictures, anything from a scene in Alice in Wonderland (1951) to the recent Secret of Kells (2009), which happened to be released as we were in production, may spark something in our brains.

Secret of Kells
(We're inspired by many films, including the Academy Award nominated animation, Secret of Kells, which began a theatrical release as we were in production on Sule)

(Master background artists prove additionally inspirational; the art work of Walter Peregoy, Eyvind Earle, Ralph Hulett, Disney's The Lion King, The Black Cauldron, and Samurai Jack's Dan Krall)

We researched a lot of great, master background artists for the project: Disney and Hanna Barbera artist Walter Peregoy, Disney's Eyvind Earle, and Ralph Hulett. And the clean, stylish work of one of our favorite contemporary Art Director's Dan Krall (of Samurai Jack) was a huge motivation.

It takes a whole 'lotta Character

(Still of characters from "Sule and The Case of The Tiny Sparks designed by Britnie Bruner)

Shawnelle deserves a lot of credit for finding our character designer, Britnie Bruner, whose artwork captured the essence of the story we wanted to tell. Though we received some fantastic submissions for characters, we were all blown away by Britnie, who's doe-eyed, full-of-life creations practically danced off of the page.

As the characters were being designed, we began creating early concept background art, sketching our very rough directors storyboards and discussing ideas for key moments in the animation. Having an early blueprint of your ideas are extremely helpful because communicating visually for any film is important, but especially so in animation. Sometimes you find yourself speaking to other artists in pictures; specialized artists who can transform your rough sketches into something much more dynamic.

Early Directors and Actual Storyboards
(Shawnee's rough storyboards re-imagined by Mark Hernandez. The bee sequence was one of our most challenging scenes.)

(Shawnee' and Shawnelle's concept background art, later translated for the screen)

Working closely with our storyboard artists, we created the boards (shots, angles, mood, blocking, dimension), and subsequently the animatic (timing, pace), which our animators used as their guide to animate the story of Sule.


We and our dedicated producers Rene, Krystal and Dahveed worked filling in the team of animators, watching reel after reel to find the right artists for the project. Finding artists is a pretty neat part of the job and with so many young and talented animators here in the US, you wish you could hire them all. The job of an animator is crucial to a project; Animators play the role of the artist and actor at the same time, because they're physically giving life and movements to the character.

Our Lead Animator, Krystina Haggerty, was there with us from the first frame of animation to the last, and kept our jaws dropping for every frame in between. It's really great to have terrific animators who have good instincts, and we had a great team of awesome animators and assistants, without whom, there would be no Sule. Thanks guys (and gals)!

Storyboard panel (L) by Jose Guillen. Actual frame in film (R).

There’s not enough that we can say about animators. Not to diminish the work of excellent film Directors of Photography, because operating a camera, lighting and framing a scene is a lot of work. But imagine being given a blueprint of that same scene, and having to physically fill in the motion a frame at a time, for 24 frames a second. It can be as exhausting as it sounds.

Though our medium was Flash Animation, and it is a wonderful time saver, contrary to popular belief, Flash animators still do a lot of heavy lifting and we are eternally grateful for their work.

Kismet and Backgrounds

Months before we began on the Sule project, we got an email from Hasani McIntosh (from our home region of the San Francisco Bay Area!), who recently finished grad school at NYU. He was an artist new to LA, who found our work online, and wanted to chat with us about animation and our projects. We met at a coffee house and found out he was an amazing background artist. We parted ways promising to work together again. When the Sule project was approved for a grant from the Tribeca Film Institute and we started the process of looking for background artists, Hasani's was the first name off of our tongues and boy did he hit it out of the park. Along with background and prop artists Deke and Mark, Hasani created art worlds that took our breath away. With pen and ink, they brought an African paradise to Los Angeles-- and we didn't even need a passport stamp!

Directing Voice Actors

Some of the really fun stuff of directing for animation comes with working with the actors in the recording booth. Without having to worry about lighting or hitting their marks, the actors are allowed to fully play, and when we're in the booth, we draw as many varied performances as we possibly can. When we first heard the voices of Kameshia Duncan as Sule, and Ochuwa Oghie as Yaa in their auditions, we knew we'd found our leads, and the rest of our cast were superb and so much fun to work with. We had a ball recording at Innersound Studios (where our wonderful music and sound design was also created!).

Voice overs can initially be a little challenging for actors used to film, because it's less about a physical performance and all from the belly and throat, but it's truly a liberating experience for both Director and Actor, because freed from the confines of a set, we're given permission to really let loose!

A Journey

(Mixing Sule at Larson Studios in Hollywood)

We spent over seven months from pre- to post production directing Sule, in between full time gigs in television and working as Staff Writers at Purple Stuff TV. Though we didn't have an expansive budget, we worked day and night and with the help of dedicated producers, artists, editors, musicians, and supporters who believed in Sule's message, we cleared hurdles that could've stopped any production in its tracks.

We're proud of the work that the entire cast and crew put forth and, with the project, we look forward to erupting ‘tiny sparks’ in audiences across the world!

Watch "Sule and The Case of The Tiny Sparks" in its entirety at the Tribeca Film Institute's website.

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