What are you afraid of? My Reflective Essay

“What are you afraid of?” This simple question triggers the darkest, scariest, and most secret thoughts. Despite what answers the question might entail, “What are you afraid of?” was a staple for my Capstone project. A short animated narrative, Interviews in Monsterland answers this question and explores a monster’s fears and phobias.

            First, before I describe my narrative, I need to explain my background. I am an Illustrator. When you think of “illustration,” what does this word entail? Maybe you think of painting, drawing, and children’s books, or depicting real events with realism. Labeled as an “illustrator,” I refer to myself as a “story-teller.” To me, every aspect of film, animation, and illustration all boils down to the same infrastructure: story-telling and depicting stories, scenes, and characters.

            As an Illustrator, I design lively characters and create quirky stories for them to tell. I have always been fascinated by narratives and writing, so the body of my illustration portfolio is something that could very easily be animated. Even though I am well versed in figure drawing, anatomy, art history, and painting, I find passion through cartoons and colorful stories. Ideally, I want to pursue everything; to be able to draw my own characters, tell my own stories, and eventually, animate them.

            At Syracuse, I found myself especially drawn toward animation. I was privileged enough to have several animation experiences at Syracuse, and these experiences soon became the grounding of my pursuits.

            In my original Capstone Proposal, I sought to make a short, 5 to 10 minute animated narrative. I wanted to explore all possibilities of storytelling and undergo each process of animation in order to understand how animation and story-telling functions. These processes included: story writing, character designing, story art, storyboards, animatics, and animation.

            The time frame of my work went from roughly August 2007 to May 2008. In this time period I did several things:

  • Ideas and brainstorming for the project.
  • Conducting interviews and editing audio.
  • Planning my work at the K-6 New School.
  • Thumbnails and rough sketches.
  • Character Designs.
  • Storyboards (6 characters picked).
  • 3 characters and 2 sets built.
  • PIXAR visit and interviews for research.
  • Animation- in iStopMotion and Flash.
  • Making DVDS and booklets of the work.

In the very beginning, I began brainstorming my ideas in a sketchbook. Originally, I wanted to use an old idea that I had already established. A 20-page comic about dinosaurs was an idea I wanted to animate for several years, but I was unsure how to go about doing it. Last summer I spent my time writing a voice-over script for it and drawings out storyboards. However, in this time I realized the story was too elaborate and long for me to finish alone. I attempted to edit it; however, I did not want to compromise the story by making it shorter. I decided to think of a new idea.

            As a child, I grew up watching every Wallace and Gromit  movie shown on public television. (See Figure A. in Appendix) I was always inspired by these characters and their clever adventures. Later in life I learned more about the man behind the cartoon. In college, animator Nick Park began animating his story of Wallace and Gromit with clay. He fleshed out a story of his two loveable characters; Wallace, a cheese-loving inventor, and Gromit, his smart, faithful, yet slightly sarcastic pooch. (Lord and Sibley)

            In one of Park’s animated shorts, Creature Comforts, Park took interviews from people living in retirement homes. Then, using audio from the interviewees, he animated a series of zoo animals “talking” about their living conditions. (See Figure B in Appendix.) Amazing thought and time went into this production. Park, working with Aardman Studios, then went on to animate an actual TV show based on this idea.

            After seeing Park’s film, I wanted to try my hand at interviewing people and basing an animation off audio clips and sound bites. Inspired by Park’s ability to utilize audio in his animation—and, not only use it, but turn it into something humorous and brilliant— I decided to interview a series of people. Wanting to somehow involve my project on a greater scale, I chose to interview the community at Syracuse and at my home in Reading, Pennsylvania.

             After overhearing a conversation on silly childhood fears, I was inspired to make an animation about monsters. The interviews I would conduct would be based on childhood fears, phobias, monsters, and funny stories.

            I came up with the original idea of having monsters at a group circle, or AA meeting, and have each confessing a dark fear or phobia. I thought it would be interesting to ask people their childhood fears because, as children, we each had an irrational, silly fear of something. Some people were scared of the dark; some people were scared of actual “monsters” living under their beds. I thought, in the beginning, “What could be funnier then these monsters- the monsters in our imaginations that scared us as children- confessing their own fears to the world?”

            The idea developed from there. Originally, I wanted to use children as my voices.  While I did interview children in my group of interviewees, I also chose to interview neighbors, family members, students, teachers- and so on.

            One controversy surrounding using people’s audio is ensuring ethical and responsible usage. In Park’s case, he interviewed people without telling them how he would use their interviews. He then went on to use the audio clips in a funny, completely outrageous way. He did not intend for any of the animations to be hurtful or sarcastic, or harm any of the interviewees involved.

            In order to be ethically responsible, I made release forms for all of the children and adults I interviewed. I also explained to them, after the interviews were conducted, what I was doing and how I would use their interviews. I told them if they did not want to be part of the project, I would not include them in my body of work. No one protested against the interviews I conducted, so I collected a huge amount of audio clips.

I spent the fall interviewing and editing audio clips in a free computer program called Audacity. I also collected sound clips and effects from a free online website called Sound Snap, and began drawing thumbnails of stories to each person’s interview. To conduct the interviews, I used a video camera with a boom microphone, as well as an mp3 audio recorder. (See Figure C in Appendix.)

I narrowed down roughly fifty interviews I collected to the six I thought were the funniest story-wise and that were recorded clearly. These interviews included: a roommate’s fear of frogs when she lived in south Florida; a friend’s fear of getting a bad hair cut; a parent’s fear of the black, squishy muck on the bottom of her aunt’s pond; a neighbor’s vivid and descriptive fear of all the colorful monsters in her bedroom as a child; a neighbor’s fear of a giant nun attacking her; and a student’s fear of werewolves.

            After picking these interviews, I began to develop the characters.

I wanted to have characters talking about their stories. So, visually, I would have to animate the mouths of the characters moving and edit it so that it would look real. But, I also wanted to animate sequences of what was happening as they told the story either in a flashback, in their heads, or in a montage.

            After listening to the interviews and watching the footage several times, I began to sketch out character ideas and thumbnails. I practiced doing several loose sketches with charcoal and pencils. I continually drew characters again and again, sometimes using tracing paper to overlap ideas. I looked toward Peter de Seve for inspiration during this process. Peter de Seve makes all the character designs for the movies Ice Age and Robots at Blue Sky Studios, and he has also helped with character designs for Pixar’s films.

            There is no real explanation of how one settles on the “look” of a character. Once I began to love the way a character was looking, I started using color and experimenting with artistic mediums like ink, watercolors, dyes, and cut paper. I didn’t dwell too long on a character. If I got stuck in the same idea, I would scrap it for the time being and work on something else instead. Eventually, after a character began looking the same, or it visually appealed to me, I settled on the way I wanted each character to look and act.

            After I decided how each character should look, I began to thumbnail stories to go with them. Thumbnails, by definition, are tiny, one inch by inch drawings—literally, a thumb wide by a thumb long. Instead of sketching a huge drawing, I would be able to map out the story and characters quickly and easily.

            Once I finished the sequence of thumbnails, I made storyboards. Storyboards are a sequence of drawings that depict the movement of the story. They serve two purposes: “First, they allow a filmmaker to previsualize his ideas and refine them in the same way a writer develops ideas through successive drafts; secondly, they serve as the clearest language to communicate ideas to the entire production team.” (Katz 24) They are usually the “key frames” of the story; whenever an action happens, a storyboard is drawn to depict that event. (See Figure D in Appendix.)

            I created a series of storyboards for each of the six stories; drawing them out on 3 by 5 inch boxes and making visual notes for each board of angles, character movements, and voiceovers. Each of the stories, depending on the length of the interview, had a different amount of storyboards. However, at the very least, the shortest interview had 30 storyboards. For perspective, the shortest interview was 16 seconds long.

            After I drew out each storyboard, I cut and pasted them together in Adobe Photoshop CS for digital reference. I also tacked the boards onto display board, so I could physically look at how they needed to be edited in my room.

            Early in February, I had the rare opportunity and funding to visit Pixar, one of the world’s most prestigious and talented CG animation studios located in Emeryville, California. Through Sam Gorovtiz’s close family friend, Elyse Klaidman, the dean of Pixar University and one of Pixars’ shining lights, I was able to talk to several artists, directors, and designers about their work.

            Conducting research for my project, some of the people I talked to were story people for Pixar’s films. Andrew Jimenez, a director, story artist, and DP, was one of my first interviewees. He offered me great advice on working as a story artist. One of the first things he said, in respect to story art, is that only the best ideas can survive. The story and the characters are the most vital aspect of the movie. You need to have a solid story and characters you can empathize with, before you can begin animating it.

            Other advice from the story artists, including Mark Andrews and Nate Stanton, was to keep an open mind and be humble. For the betterment of the film, your ideas aren’t necessarily the most important ones. I was told to try everything and collaborate with other artists to get things done.

            I also learned the company’s story-making process. Pixar’s storyboard team per production can vary between 6 to 8 people- a small group, making thousands of storyboards, and working for years on a project.  I was told that 95% of what he makes in a day is scrapped- re-vamped, re-written, re-drawn. As a story artist, you cannot be too attached to your ideas.

            I also had the chance to talk to other talented artists in various areas of production, including: Bill Cone, a production designer responsible for the overall “look” of the movie; Tia Kratter, an art director who picks the colors and textures of objects in the film; Paul Topolos, a digital matte painter and sketch artist; and Becky Neiman, an art department coordinator.

            All of them described how artistic style in a movie is determined, the importance of collaboration and shared effort among artists and animators, and the “pipeline” of work at Pixar. They offered me countless suggestions about production, and above all, told me to practice, be a visual problem solver, and get my feet wet in all aspects of animation and film production.

            Probably the most inspiring advice I received was from some of the story artists and directors. I was amazed how they were able to completely scrap a day or weeks’ work and start fresh.

            Much like the processing of handing in a paper, you don’t turn in your rough draft as your final. You have to refine it; edit it over and over again until you get the results you want. Eventually, after tweaking your project, editing it, and changing parts of it around, you are able to get what you want.

            The people at Pixar put incredible time, energy, and dedication into their work. They refine the story and the characters so viewers feel as though they aren’t watching an animation anymore; the characters are living and breathing, and have actually become part of our world. The artists emphasize the importance of story and art in movies. Refine a story until it fits- it’s the last puzzle piece of your picture, and you need it to fit before you can get it to work.

            I came back from Pixar, with pages and pages of notes and advice. I was freshly inspired. It took me a while to figure out how exactly I wanted to pursue my story. I rewrote a lot of what I did and kept drawing storyboards and thumbnails until I felt happy about it. I did a lot of “tweaking” my project before I was satisfied.

            Before I went to Pixar, I had already begun to build my story characters. Building the characters and sets was actually the longest and most tedious part of my project. I realized, with the amount of work on my plate, that I wouldn’t have time to animate all six of the characters I storyboarded. So, I edited myself once again and chose to build only 3 of the 6 character designs.

            For each character, I made rough, homemade skeletons, or, in technical terms, “armatures,” to hold each character together. I made these armatures out of various supplies one can get at A.C. Moore and Home Depot, including foil, wire, wood, and foam. (See Figure E in Appendix.) After I build armatures, I added Sculpy Clay and a type of plasticine clay on top. Literally, I “fleshed out” my characters with clay, and I was able to make three, 6-inch tall by 5-inch wide creatures. When I finished making them, I painted them and added little details. For instance, my “grass monster” is covered in fake grass, dirt, spray paint, and flowers.

            Supplies for each set included things like wood, foam board, clay, and paint. Some sets were much more elaborate than others and included things like fake plants and moss. After I finished making small sets, I was ready to animate my characters with a MAC-based program called iStopMotion. (See Figure F in Appendix.) With this software, my laptop, and a digital video camera, I could take individual pictures one frame at a time. When strung together, these pictures would make my clay characters seem to move on their own; thus, bringing my monsters in Monsterland to life.

            Because of the time constraints on my project, I wasn’t able to animate as much as I planned in my proposal. In fact, my animation is unfinished- I only have clips of it animated. It is something I plan on finishing during the summer. I did, however, have time to animate in stop-motion an opening title sequence, as well as some of sequences of the characters talking. The rest of my animation was drawn in Flash, because it is a faster method of working. I also timed most of my storyboards to the audio clips, so that later it would be easy for me to figure out how I wanted to animate them.

            Despite this, I plan on continuing my animation over the summer for myself. I have all the knowledge and work I need to make a finished product; it is just a matter of having the time to do it outside of school to make it successful.

            One of the biggest turning points in my project was focusing on the art and the story before jumping into the main animation. Although I admit that I would have accomplished more work if I had directly began animating, I wanted to develop and flesh out a funny concept and make lovable, expressive characters to go with it. Inspired by the work and dedication pre-animation artists and storywriters put into their work, I spent more time than expected thinking out stories and characters. I realized that the art and the story are just as important, if not, more important, than the finish. So, because of my interests in the process more than the mechanics, my final project is geared more toward the art than the actual animation.

Another turning point in my project was my collaboration and effort with the New School. As part of the school’s Wednesday and Friday afternoon program, I was able to directly interact with a great group of 24 students. I basically reflected all of my animation knowledge onto these kids by teaching them how to design their own characters and stories, and then animate them.

I started working with the New School on January 14th, 2008, and my last day in the New School will be April 30th, 2008. What might be considered a “branching out” from my Capstone actually became a second project for me.

Originally, I had wanted to use kid’s audio for my monsters’ talking. I contacted Miranda Hine, a Business of Freelance Illustration teacher of mine in Fall 2008, and asked her if she would mind me coming in and interviewing her kids. She agreed, and later asked if I would want to be part of the program.

Originally, we intended for the Monsterand program to only last for two months; however, it extended throughout the semester. As the kids learned, developing animation is a very tedious process.

I helped the students each week by bringing in paper and markers for them to draw, making them talk about their monsters to me and if they could write about them, write stories down. I also brought in Sculpy Clay for them to build their monsters with and helped construct them.

When we animated our monsters in Monsterland, I brought in my own video camera, tripod, and laptop to record all the animations on my computer. I had six groups of four kids, so it was easy for me to work with them. I tried to assign each student a role in the actual animating segment of our movie—for instance, three kids would move their clay monsters a centimeter at a time, and one kid would be the “cameraman” hitting the record button for each frame. This method worked extremely well—I found that the kids were focused and excited to make something like the movies they saw on television, and even the kids with behavior problems collaborated to make it work.

After we each animated our stories, I took the footage home and edited clips together in iMovie. I burned each of the movies on a DVD for each child in the class. I also took the effort to make DVD covers and booklets for each of the kids’ parents and teachers at the school, just so they could have a copy of the work and remember what they made.

Although this experience is one of civic engagement, it was a huge part of my life for the last six months. I learned about the process of going through IRB in order to interview kids. I had to create my own release forms and letters of explanation for the parents, and I learned about jumping through the “hoops” of bureaucracy in a school system. I also learned methods of teaching and interacting with students. I have had several opportunities to work with children before—through the SU literacy corps and with a WRT 209 Service Learning course. However, this time was the longest, extended time period for me to work with a large group of children, and I felt as though by the end of it, I bonded with the kids and learned a considerable amount of teaching methods and processes. Most importantly, I know that I’ve greatly influenced all the students involved, and they enjoyed my Monsterland program the most out of the week.

I’ve always wanted people to appreciate the time and effort it takes to make a well-rounded animation. A good example of people directly seeing this process and comprehending it is my students at the New School. A lot of them, being very young, just wanted to get to the actual animation part. They enjoyed the drawing and building with clay, but were over-eager to see it come to life. When we did start the animation, some of the kids rushed through the stop motion. They moved their characters around too quickly because they were so excited to see it done. However, despite the long time we spent on everything, their reactions to the finished animations were priceless. Some of the kids were laughing and screaming. Others asked me how to do it on their own at home. They all came together and worked as a group to get the animation done.

Concluding my thesis, I want people to interpret my work as two projects in one; first, a silly, humorous animation to be appreciated by both adult and child audiences, and secondly, a learning and teaching experience at a local school. I would like my audiences to interpret my own animation and pre-animation work as something harmless—a fun, experimental cartoon. I would love to see a reaction in people when they see my project come to life similar to the reactions of my kids at the school— screaming and laughing and rolling on the floor, and wanting to see it again and again. I would also like my audiences to interpret the work I did at the New School not just as civic engagement but also as a huge learning experience for both me and my students.

            Again, I would like to acknowledge and thank the people who helped mentor me throughout the project and make it possible. Gail Hoffman, my experimental animation teacher, offered me limitless advice and suggestions. I want to thank her for taking the time and effort to meet with me and being there with me throughout the whole process.

Yvonne Buchanan, for being a mentor to me during my time at Syracuse. I want to thank her again for offering me advice on both my illustration work, animation things, and life advice in general. Thank you for taking the time to be a mentor for me.

            Thank you also to Miranda Hine, for making my time at the New School plausible. Without her planning, I would not have had such a great experience teaching and mentoring students. For me, this was one of my greatest learning experiences. I would also like to thank all of the kids I worked with at the New School, and their parents for making my time there possible. Thank you, for giving me such a great experience.

            I want to thank the Honors Department, for supporting me and advising me throughout the year, as well as Mr. Wise and Mr. Marcus, whose scholarship helped fund my project and make it possible.

I would also like to thank Sam Gorovitz, for his support and effort to make my Pixar trip possible, along wth Elyse Klaidman, for hosting me and scheduling my visit. Both of these fantastic people went above and beyond to assist me with research for my project. With them, I was able to learn so much more than I ever expected.  I would also like to thank all of the talented, brilliant people with whom I spoke at Pixar for taking the time to speak with me. Bill Cone, Andrew Jimenez, Tia Kratter, Paul Topolos, Becky Neiman, Mark Andrews, and Nate Stanton; thank you.

Lastly, I need to thank all my interviewees—the neighbors, the friends and family members, the teachers, the students, and the total strangers—who had the time and patience to be turned into “monsters.”