In this two-part guide, Myles McLeod of the award winning, BAFTA nominated Brothers McLeod, offers a series of practical hints and tips to help you start animating.
So you’ve had some ideas for your animation, you’ve worked them into drawings, a script, storyboards and now you’re ready to produce the animation. That must mean it’s time to develop some really diverting displacement activities. Alternatively you could actually make something.
1 Silence is Golden
It’s time to record the dialogue, but “whoa there” you say, “my film is non-dialogue.” Great, you get to skip to point 3, and reap the benefits at international film festivals – your story, told in pictures, sound effects and music alone, will be understood without language or subtitles. This is the approach we took for one of our first short films Dog Tired and again for our most recent short The Moon Bird. It’s a great way of honing your visual storytelling skills because it doesn’t get any more “show don’t tell” than this.
2 All Talk
It’s time to record the dialogue. You’ve written some sparkling words and you need to find the right people to say them and bring your characters and story to life. But hang on, maybe you are the right person for the job? It’s amazing how much fun you can have pretending to be a sheep from Bristol. Or a ninja who only says, “Fuggy Fuggy!” But it’s not for everyone, and there are plenty of talented actors and voice artists out there who can add something amazing to your animation. Ask actors to audition for the part. Let them read the script beforehand so they can prepare and give their best effort. Be prepared to hear their thoughts and accept useful ideas, but remember it’s your film.
An animatic is a rough version of your finished animation. Putting one together from your voice track and storyboards is about as much fun as being Simon Cowell’s hairdresser. It’s a tedious drudge and not very satisfying on an artistic level. But it’s useful and it could save you a lot of frustration later on. I think of the animatic as part of the script and story phase. Once you’re able to see a rough version playing out you can tell what is and isn’t working. Perhaps the story doesn’t get going fast enough? Maybe one of your characters isn’t coming alive in the way you hoped? Perhaps there are moments where things are confusing, or where too much is happening at once? It’s also useful to see if the shots you’ve chosen are the right ones, should you add in a close up here, or a wide shot there, or maybe you just need to leave the shot locked off for the whole story? The animatic will help you sort out these problems before you put lots of effort into creating the finished animation.
4 Animation and Collaboration
Yes. It’s finally happened. You’re ready to scribble with those crayons and paper, or start moving pixels with your funky digital pen and tablet. Let joy be unconfined as at last you begin to actually craft the visual masterwork. The time has finally come for you to get up at 5am and go to bed at 1am and work all the hours in between in an attempt to hit the deadline set by your producer / funder / film festival / competition / self. Yes, this was your decision to become an animator. But there is help! Collaboration can be a wonderful thing. You don’t have to animate the whole thing yourself! No really, let go, just a little bit!
5 Displacement activities
The animation is underway and you are busy, busy making tea, watching TV, going to the supermarket, making another cup of tea, looking at the sky, wondering about the weekend, browsing shops online, making more tea, cleaning the house from top to bottom, making to do lists, making tea. Stop it. Get on with the animation. Go on.
Somewhere around here you start to lose all sense of perspective. Doubts creep in. Once upon a time you were so sure that your animation was a good idea, that the script was good and the designs were good and that it would all be good. But now you’ve been staring at the screen so long, and watched every scene so many times that you could just as easily be watching a brick wall. You have no idea if your labour of love is brilliant, okay or an absolute pile of effluvia. One thing I’d advise here is to trust your first instincts. When doubts creep in, you often feel like redrawing everything, changing the story completely. You’ll try to reinvent everything and think about things too much. Usually the first ideas you had way back when this thing was new and exciting are the ones to stick with. But anyway all this doubt means it’s time to find someone you trust to give you honest feedback. And I’m not talking about people that look at it and say, “yeah it’s great” and then walk off. Those people are not your friends.
Accepting feedback and acting on it is one of the hardest things to deal with. One reason it’s so hard is that it’s not nice when people criticise your work. It can feel like a criticism of you (sometimes it is – they’re not your friends either). The second reason it’s so hard is that sometimes the advice is like manna from heaven, and other times it’s like something dribbly from the bottom of a bin. You have to work out which one it is before modifying your animation. Often you’ll know the good advice, because someone will say, “this bit isn’t working for me,” while something deep inside you like a small grumpy voice will say: “Bugger. I knew that wasn’t working, and I’ve tried to ignore it in the hope it will just fix itself… but now I’ll have to do something about it. Bugger! Bugger!”
I’d like to give you lots of technical sage advice about editing, but the truth is I don’t know what that would be. We’ve never used an editor, because we’ve always done the edit ourselves. Often you’ll have the basic structure already in place from your animatic (you did do one right?) For me, the edit is all about feel and instinct. You watch the story unfold and listen to your feelings, could that scene be shorter? Do we even need that shot? If that shot came earlier would it make this scene clearer? It’s not very sophisticated advice, but then Heinz treacle sponge isn’t sophisticated either, but it is good.
9 Sound Effects and Music
This can be a truly magical phase of making a film. Sometimes adding the sound enables you to see the film as though for the first time again. Slow sections suddenly seem faster. Jokes that seem to have fallen flat suddenly sing and make you laugh. Long boring sections are suddenly filled with melancholy and meaning. The choices you make for sound effects and music can have a dramatic effect on the tone, emotion and atmosphere of your film. If you’re not sure what to go with then you can always use existing music from your own collection to see what works best for you. Then write something yourself, get a composer to write something for you or download a rights free song that does the trick. Just remember you can’t use published music unless you’ve sorted out the copyright. Some other advice is get thee to a search engine and type in “diegetic and non-diegetic sound”. You might learn something and also be able to impress (bore) people at dinner parties.
You did it. You finished. It is a strange moment. You didn’t believe this moment could exist. But here it is. The whole thing is over. The film is in the can or on the hard drive or something, but it’s finished. Now celebrate. Artists always remember to drown their sorrows, but often forget about celebrating their successes. It’s important for your mental wellbeing that you allow yourself to feel good about completing something because it will help you do it again!
11 Turn it up to eleven
Hang on! This is a ten-point plan. What’s with the point eleven? Making your animation is about 50% of being a filmmaker. The other 50% is telling people you made an animated film. Really, what is the point of putting in all that effort if you don’t then promote what you’ve done. Yes, you may be shy. So am (was) I. Yes, you may be worried people won’t like it (and yes some won’t like, but others will). But no, you are not allowed to work really hard on something and then not show it to people. That is daft. You’ll miss out on some important moments. Like seeing your film screen at the Grande Salle cinema in Annecy in front of an audience of 1000 animation fans. You’ll miss meeting new and interesting friends from around the world who also make moving pictures. And you’ll miss standing under the portico of the National Gallery seeing your film on a giant inflatable screen under Nelson’s Column with Big Ben chiming away in the background. You don’t want to miss that. Believe me. So good luck!