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Behind-the-scenes: Animating “The Firebird”

Here at MAAN Creative we love the chance of working on anything that gets us out of the purely advertising world and into the content space so when Janni Younge – formerly of Handspring Puppet Co., the illustrious War Horse puppet builders – contacted us to do some animation for her newest creation, we jumped at the chance.

The Firebird

What ensued over the next several months would probably have put us off in hindsight. 70+ canvas paintings, 8000+ digital paintings, 1500 hours, several domestic flights and a bout of open heart surgery were all racked up during the creation of the animation for THE FIREBIRD. With a fantastically successful opening run at the Artscape in Cape Town and a sold out run at the National Arts Fest, however, all the hard work has paid off. And to cap it all off, the show is currently wowing huge audiences on its summer tour in the US.

Ofcourse, the animation is a part of a much bigger picture – THE FIREBIRD is a visceral theatre experience combining puppetry, dance and animation with, on its US leg, a live symphony orchestra. Loosely inspired by Igor Stravinsky’s progressive 1910 ballet of the same name, THE FIREBIRD unfolds an abstract narrative drawing on South Africa’s recent history of freedom and conflict, while also evoking a deeper personal conflict between creativity and reason, all conveyed simultaneously by the dancers, the otherworldly animal puppets stalking the stage, and by the animation sequences, projected on a huge white egg suspended over the action. The ambitious sensory smorgasbord climaxes with a great dragon looming over the stage, wings outspread, breathing fire.

THE PROCESS

It started with animation director, Michael Clark – who co-owns Maan Creative along with Johan Scheepers, spending time in Cape Town with FIREBIRD director Janni Younge to workshop ideas, visuals styles and themes for the animation. The basic brief went something like this: +/- 15 minutes of 2D animation to complement giant puppets in front of 10 000 people at the Hollywood Bowl. Not at all intimidating!!

Building the Puppets

At this stage, the basic narrative of the piece had been laid down – loosely based on the Russian original – and the puppet building was well underway. Janni conceptualized the content of the animation – she had very specific ideas for what she wanted to communicate – while Michael set about figuring out the style and the best way to execute the animation.

Style Frames

We eventually settled on the painterly, frame-by-frame style you see in the final piece which was a hybrid of very tactile canvas painting and tradigital animation. We felt this aesthetic fitted in well with the hand-crafted feel of the puppets and we decided to focus on the quality of the illustration rather than the quality of the movement in the final piece. From there we storyboarded the project in detail before doing a 2D frame-by-frame previs of the whole animation. This previs was used to create the painted key frames and also formed the basis of all of the rest of the animation in Photoshop. Some minor compositing in After Effects and final editing tweaks in Premiere finished off the process.

Towards the end of this process Michael spent time sitting in on rehearsals to see how the animation was fitting in with the rest of the show. There was a flurry of edits and frantic last minute replacing of images and minor tweaks were being made throughout the opening weekend of the show.

TECHNOLOGY

The technology used was, for the most part, fairly simple. As mentioned before, the emphasis on this project was to get a very tactile aesthetic, something that felt real without being interfered with by CG. As such, our most important tech was pencils, paper, canvas, brushes and acrylic.

Painting THE FIREBIRD

But ofcourse, we needed a bit more than that to realize the final product and, in fact, most of the animation was produced tradigitally with Wacom tablets, TV Paint and Photoshop. We used TV Paint and Photoshop to animate a 2D frame-by-frame previs of the entire animation. We then set up a purpose built (and surprisingly low tech) rig that allowed us to project the previs directly onto a canvas where key frames were painted by hand in acrylic and then captured with an DSLR and Dragonframe; sometime as stills, sometimes as sequences.

Animating-The-Firebird_06_Sequences

These were then taken back into Photoshop and worked on top of with digital canvas brushes in Photoshop to create the final picture. Minor compositing was then done in After Effects to complete the shots.

The video for the live show is then all driven by QLab.

CHALLENGES FACED

The biggest challenge was obviously the shear volume of work. To create 14 minutes of frame-by-frame animation within 3 months with a team of 3 – 5 people was no mean feat. Especially when it all had to look like a canvas panting! We tried all sorts of things to combat this, from working at 10 or 8 frames per second, to hiring extra freelancers. In the beginning we thought we would execute the whole piece in acrylic but it quickly became apparent that that was not feasible. (There is, incidentally, another animation project in production at the moment in Poland where they are creating a frame-by-frame painted animation of Van Gogh’s paintings.

The next major challenge was keeping the look consistent throughout the piece. Because painting as a medium / style is naturally so individualistic it was quite a challenge to keep the look consistent throughout. Our solution to this was to have one person do all the physical painting of the keyframes and those images then formed the basis of most of the shots in the piece.

Another challenge was simulating paint in Photoshop. We ended up buying a fantastic set of ‘wet media’ brushes for Photoshop and learned to get the best out of them. We also used the AnimDessin plugin for 2D animation in Photoshop (I still can’t believe we used Photoshop as our main animation tool for this project!).

Ofcourse, integrating the final videos with the live action (and, in some cases, live music) was also surprisingly challenging. First of all we had to find the right places to put each piece of animation (there is approximately 14 minutes of animation in a show that is 55 minutes in total) where it wouldn’t compete with the action on stage. Then we had to get our heads around finding the right cue points for the stage manager to cue so that hopefully the dancing, music and video all sync as closely as possible each time.

REWARDS

A standing ovation from a full house on opening night! Something I will never forget…

In the TV and commercials world we often become so isolated; all creating and consuming within our own little box where we have complete control. It was so refreshing to work with a live cast in front of a live audience – there are so many levels of visceral and emotional feedback that we usually don’t have. It was intoxicating!

THE FIREBIRD is currently touring the US. For more information on the show, visit janniyounge.com

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MAAN Creative.
A boutique creative studio based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and run by Michael Clark and Johan Scheepers.