Innovative Thinking Pushes Animators to Make Intangible Real on the Screen

The looks in animated films combine lots of research, wild imagination and thought. For Pixar’s “Soul,” the artists had to construct the real world of New York City as well as the abstract world Great Before, where protagonist Joe ends up after he plunges down a manhole and hovers between life and death — that presented a whole new challenge: making the intangible concrete.

“One thing on this film, when we’re working with something that you can’t see or imagine, is you have to take it very seriously,” says production designer Steve Pilcher. They decided against going for “quick gags, like a soul world with soul cars,” but “you don’t go for gags, you go for, what would it really be like? And not in terms of reality, but how does it work contextually, visually, with the rest of the film?”

For the Great Before, Pilcher was inspired by the colors of the pre-dawn sky, while the function of the Great Before is simple: for souls to get their “spark.” “Everything is very soft, translucent, soft edges, particles. So again, all these things — if you look at them and break it down — you’ll see that they’re opposite of Earth.”

The Jerries run the Great Before, characters that look like Pablo Picasso and Joan Miró had fun with children’s art supplies. “What’s nice about the Jerries is they feel friendly enough, but they’re very weird,” says Pilcher. “They’re 2D in 3D space.” Pilcher says that one challenge was blending the bottom of the Jerries to the terrain. “One of our shader artists, Jonathan Hoffman, created a rhythm of movement with the particulate at the bottom [of the character] so it would blend into the particulate of the terrain. So they look like they’re these energies. And they can move and turn and the animators went to town. So much work. Albert Lozano, our character art director, did a 24- [to] 30-page style guide showing how you can turn them in different angles.”

In order to capture the look and feel of jazz clubs, the artists spent time hanging out at clubs, such as the Blue Note, soaking in the music, and sketching at the same time. Pilcher credits screenwriter and co-director Kemp Powers for the guiding the authenticity of the Black music experience in the film, as well as the pivotal barbershop scene.

Director Yonfan sought inspiration from his own apartment for the interior of Mrs. Yu’s Hong Kong flat in “No. 7 Cherry Lane.” 
Credit: Far Sun Film Co Ltd.

Far Sun Film Co.

Yonfan’s “No. 7 Cherry Lane” also depicted a big city and all its beauty, but for his first animated film, the director mined his memory of the city in 1967 and his love of color.

“We did thousands of those realistic drawings of Hong Kong in pencil and charcoal on rice paper, but I would not call it photorealism, it is my impressionistic view of my memory with a twist,” he wrote via email. “They were done with imagination and if you look straight into the drawings, they almost look unreal. I do believe good art should come in between both. We create, we don’t copy. 1967 can’t be copied.”

The gorgeous colors and backgrounds contrast with the people in the film, simply rendered yet blooming with life.

“I choose the flat paintings for all my characters because the best way should be as simple as possible, so the characters can stand out in this heavily textured background. There is no shadow on their faces, and you can concentrate closely on their facial expressions,” he says. “The characters’ movement was first designed in 3D and then hand-drawn into 2D.”

The interior of Mrs. Yu’s apartment offers detailed clues as to the backstories of the characters. “Mrs. Yu’s flat is almost identical to my own place in Taipei,” Yonfan says. “My 30 artists worked in that flat for four years and were inspired by the details of the flat. I had a lot of furniture and props of the ’60s in that place and they just played around with it.”

As for the flamboyant singer Mrs. May, “Well, Mrs. May’s flat is something else, it is the memories I collected from all the divas I knew, I am such a big Chinese opera fan and once upon a time I was also on the stage as one. I am certain I could make a better ‘Farewell, My Concubine.’ ”

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“Onward” depicted mythical and magical creatures living in quiet suburbia.
Pixar

For Disney and Pixar’s “Onward,” the artists had to merge American suburbia with creatures including elves, manticore, centaurs, dragons, unicorns, fairies — a hilarious subversion of myths and legends.

Character art director Matt Nolte says that the team pushed each other to create the relatable creatures inhabiting the film’s suburbs — especially after director Dan Scanlon told Nolte that he didn’t like anything Nolte had presented to him (“he was super kind” about it though). So it was back to the literal drawing board, “still trying to keep the spirit of what I liked about what I was doing, but really, really trying to capture what he was asking for, which was kind of to pull them into like proportionally where the eyes and nose and mouth live on a face. Make it so that [the features are] closer together and more relatable,” he says.

Nolte happened to notice a colleague, a new hire, who he thought embodied the mix of angst, awkwardness and charm of lead character Ian Lightfoot, and while in a meeting, did a quick sketch of the character. Scanlon “happened to just see that sketch and he said, oh, there’s something there. I mean, it was literally a quick thumbnail. But there was that spark of that person I met. And all the things I was thinking that Dan had been wanting, along with whatever shapes I was trying to push in, and it kind of worked that way. It was a fun experience.”

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“The Croods: A New Age” follows the Neanderthal clan learning to live with more advanced homo sapiens.
Courtesy of DreamWorks Animation

“The Croods: A New Age” built on the original prehistoric family’s adventures in a world with different kinds of fantasy creatures, including the Moomoths — black-and-white mammoths that are domesticated — and a more evolved family unit, the Bettermans, whose grasp of technology allows them to farm and create all kinds of labor-saving devices.

“Conceptually, we look at the Croods, and we have the first movie to go off of, which we take many cues from in terms of the characters. They’re a tight-knit family, there’s no personal space with them. They probably smell pretty bad. But they are physically capable and emotionally kind, and so there’s this this strength and warmth that comes from this. And we wanted to contrast that with the Bettermans,” says director Joel Crawford.

The Croods “follow their gut, and they’re very smart that way,” he adds. “The Bettermans are very logical and everything about the Bettermans was more controlled and purposeful in their design that it looks like they groom themselves, they take a lot of pride in the presentation.”

It was also about Neanderthals vs. Homo Sapiens. Head of character animation Jakob Jensen says the goal was to “optimize the contrast between the two families. The Bettermans, the homo sapiens, had a lot more refined gestures, were sophisticated in their behavior and also in their costumes. We also had a sort of visual rule that we adopted as far as how we portray the two families on screen and that sort of visual language.”

The Croods, with their herd mentality, are almost always shown as a group, sometimes overlapping one another, contrasting to the Betterman couple, with their white outfits, groomed hair and only one child.

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“Wolfwalkers” depicts the wild Irish landscape in bright colors.
Courtesy of Apple

Apple TV Plus’ “Wolfwalkers” also delves into history, but more recent: 1650 Ireland. The English have taken over Ireland, and they are represented in a style reminiscent of period wood-block drawings. Blunt, rather aggressive and in muted colors. But in the woods, the flora and fauna is gorgeously rendered curves and exploding colors.

“One of the things that [Parliamentarian leader Oliver] Cromwell did when he invaded Ireland was to smash all the stained glass windows in the churches. It was around that time when [the Protestant-led government] didn’t want any colors. Colors were too exciting. So they smashed stained glass windows, they got rid of statues, they got rid of decoration. They wanted everything to be very plain and dull,” says co-director Tomm Moore.
“But then in the forest, it’s much more organic with watercolor splashes and really sketchy lines and random shapes — so really just trying to build a contrast between the two worlds.”

Inspiration can come from anywhere, and on an animated film, Nolte says, “It’s a team effort. And I did very, very little in comparison to how many people work on everything. So that’s something I’ve learned through day one walking into a studio, just the collaborative nature of it. And it’s super enjoyable, people contributing and mentoring. That’s great.”

 

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