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Dublin: 10 °C Wednesday 17 October, 2018
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Here's how you bring an animation from page to screen

We went behind the scenes at Brown Bag Films to find out how they created Anya, their latest short.

Source: brownbagfilms/YouTube

HUGGLEMONSTERS, CHILD DOCTORS and rabbits are among the many brightly-coloured characters you’ll see scattered around the Brown Bag Films offices in Dublin’s Smithfield.

Whether it’s on the computer screens belonging to the staff creating these animated shows, on the cover of Disney magazines, or on the walls of the offices, the characters are everywhere you look.

Brown Bag Films

The award-winning Irish studio started off in 1994, the brainchild of Cathal Gaffney and Darragh O’Connell. Today, it has 180 staff members, across two offices, and the studio produces shows like the Octonauts, Doc McStuffins, Olivia, and Peter Rabbit.

The latter bagged the studio three Emmys earlier this month, while shorts like Give Up Yer Aul Sins nabbed them an Oscar nomination.

From page to screen

So how do you bring an animation idea from the page to the screen? We took a trip into Brown Bag and met with Damien O’Connor to find out what the process involves.

He is the man behind Anya, a short piece that was made to help raise money for the charity To Russia With Love.

Anya

The first steps towards making Anya – which isn’t an advert, but a short animated film, which it is hoped will encourage viewers to donate to To Russia With Love – came when the charity’s founder, Debbie Deegan, contacted O’Connor.

She wanted to make an ad, but he realised it wouldn’t be worth it. “Even a 30-second advert, you’re looking at incredible work, time and effort,” he pointed out. But he realised Deegan was “pretty driven”, to say the least.

O’Connor decided “if we’re going to do it we may as well to do it well, do something that people want to watch and share, and do something that hasn’t been done before”.

So they came up with the idea of a short film about a little girl in a Russian orphanage, and how her life is changed through her time there.

“What we’re making is a short piece of entertainment, and if they [viewers] like it they can donate after the fact,” said O’Connor.

Volunteers

To make the film, they gathered a team of 82 volunteers, which included not just Brown Bag staff but also staff from Infinite Studios in Singapore, which works on animation with Brown Bag.

O’Connor went to an orphanage that To Russia With Love works with, and made a presentation on his experiences to the Brown Bag team afterwards. He read Deegan’s book, and found that the stories of children helped by the charity held “an abundance of material, and all heartbreaking”.

Once you bring that emotion into it, the reaction was brilliant – people were like OK, let’s really come on board.

There were no finances at all behind the film.

Everyone who works here would have a genuine love of creating anyway. They want to see nothing turn into something.

The process

STORYBOARDS_STAGE_002 Anya storyboards Source: Damien O'Connor/Brown Bag Films

The first step in making the film was, of course, writing the script.

“After meeting the kids, the script changed slightly because the kids had so much hope for the future, and the success stories that had come through the orphanage,” said O’Connor.

The message of the film is one of hope.

Breaking down a shot

So, how does the process work? Let’s take the shot ‘SH016′:

The script is given to a storyboard artist with detailed notes on what the director is trying to achieve – in this case the script writer also happened to be the storyboard artist and director, so no notes required.Working with the director (or thinking silently to him or herself) the board artist decides on the framing of the scene and the character poses.The storyboard is the first visual rewrite of the script. The script needs to be enhanced through the boards – not just taken as a literal document to show what is happening.
Whilst the script simply states Anya runs down the corridor, we realised at boarding stage that we needed to be in tight on the door, the bear (PASCHA) plays a pivotal role in both Anya’s development and in the narrative, so we focused on him first; the nervous Anya uses him as a sort of periscope to check the coast is clear.

Remarkably, O’Connor storyboarded an orphanage that looked just like the actual orphanage he ended up visiting.

Storyboards and animatics

After you build your storyboards, you build your animatic. This is what O’Connor showed Deegan – it included temporary sound effects and temporary music.

Source: brownbagfilms/YouTube

Initially, the project had narration going all the way through. But eventually, this was removed.

The storyboard panels are taken to build the animatic, and they show how the film plays as a whole. This enables them to make any changes to camera moves and editing, and use some temporary music.

We cut the narration and swapped out the music for a piece with a faster tempo. Another edit or two later we had a film that we all agreed was working better. It is also a great time to get as many opinions as possible.

The next stage is to ship all the scenes to animation – they were sent to Frameworks Studios in Indonesia for this. The film really takes shape here, with the animators needing “to convey the emotion in the scene through simple gestures and movements”.

The blocking pass stage comes in now, where they refine camera moves and character positions, again make any more necessary changes, and send notes to the animators.

Source: brownbagfilms/YouTube

One big part of animation is figuring out how many interior and exterior shots you need.

In his 2D training, O’Connor “was taught to always minimise the amount of locations”, and he carries this through to 3D animation.

“You basically plan it all carefully to make it look bigger than it is,” he explained. Anya has four sets, but they are “done in a way that makes it feel like a bigger scope”.

Final animation

The final animation stage sees lighting come into play, after the temporary sets are swapped for finished, textured versions.

At this stage they make sure that characters integrate well with the backgrounds, that eye shines are natural, and what lighting is needed to embellish the shot. This is the fourth and final visual rewrite.

For SH016, Anya is leaving her room for the first time. “We needed a definite transition from the two locations so we have her going from a blue room, into a lighter brown environment,” explained O’Connor.

Sunrays were added to the windows, dust particles needed to be seen floating. A rim light was added to define the edges of the characters and to highlight the bear as it comes around the corner.

Then the shot is send to a render farm, from where it is finessed – this nine second shot took 13 hours to render.

Source: brownbagfilms/YouTube

How long did it take to turn two pages of script into a nine-second shot? Six months.

Music

The music features Lisa Hannigan – though first it was envisioned as sounding like “sad cello”, but this was discarded for being a bit too cliched.

Her haunting vocals come in during a turning point in the film, and help give it an “epic” feel.

Characters

There are 12 characters in Anya – and once that decision is made, it isn’t changed.

Each one in your script when you break it down you begin to think ‘OK now we need 12 characters and they all have to be designed, built, rigged, textured…’. It’s such a large job that if you did come back and say ‘actually, we’ve gone to 13 characters’, that would be a major problem.

A new approach

With Anya, Brown Bag is tapping into a new way of raising funds online. Instead of paying to view, people can raise money for To Russia With Love by paying after viewing. If Anya’s story touches them, they might want to help the charity continue doing its work.

“It’s a whole new business model and it was tapping into that basically, and saying ‘let’s see if this new business model works’,” said O’Connor.

Reaction

Of the little touches, like the flaky paint on the walls and lace curtains, O’Connor said they were there to make the film “authentically Russian”. While some might not have bothered with such small details, their inclusion shows how Brown Bag staff – even on volunteer projects – want to aim high with their work.

This authentically Russian feel was important because of who would be watching it.

Our other big worry was you’d have people [from outside Russia] making a film about Russian orphans for Russians, because it will be launched in Russia in four weeks.

When it was screened in the orphanage, “people were saying to us it’s Russian, it could be Russian”. The children “adored it” and “have it on a loop in their orphanage”.

Despite this, the children were initially surprised that they were the subjects of a film, asking “Why would anyone make a film about us?”.

To bring it back and say: ‘Here is the film we all made for you’, they were over the moon, they all loved it.
The real Anya of the film has apparently come out of her shadow, she’s blossomed from it. On that level it’s been a huge success for me, so any money in for the charity has been a huge success on top of that.

Want to see what the finished product looks like? Here you go:

Source: brownbagfilms/YouTube

Want to be an animator?

Brown Bag’s staff are all highly skilled at their jobs – and are proof that there are great jobs in animation in Ireland. “I don’t think anyone in here doesn’t get a glow of pride in any of the series we work in – it’s fantastic,” said a proud O’Connor.

The international success and the multiple awards are “a vindication of all the work you’ve done”.

If you’re not a fantastic artist, but want to get involved in animation, O’Connor recommends applying yourself to maths, the sciences, computer programming or similar subjects. “There is always a way in, in that respect.”

He also recommends learning as much as you can about all disciplines in film. “Even if you can’t draw, you will at least learn the language of filmmaking.”

Find out more about Brown Bag Films on its website.

Read: Peter Rabbit cartoon wins trio of Emmys for Brown Bag Films>

Read: This gorgeous film will move you to help abandoned children>

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