Director Jared White discusses his first experience directing for animation, and the differences he noticed from directing live-action. Jared worked with Eric Miller Animation Studios by writing and directing the MagicMeeMees 3D animated web series for Future of Play.
Written by Jared White
As a live action writer and director, but also a lifelong animation fan, working on the computer animated MagicMeeMees web series has been a thoroughly rewarding creative challenge.
MagicMeeMees are a new line of toys from Future Of Play, a Los Angeles-based toy company. Future Of Play approached Eric Miller Animation Studios about creating a web series to help introduce the characters and worlds from the toy line. I worked as writer/director of the web series, in addition to contributing to the storyboarding and editorial processes.
MagicMeeMees are cute, little creatures – 100 millionth the size of you, in fact – who live around your home, quietly making the world a better place. There are differently themed lands that the various MagicMeeMees reside in which correspond to their actual location in the home: Berryland takes place inside of a fruit bowl, and Holidayland takes place in a trunk full of decorations, to name two examples. Their motto: "No matter how big or small, we all have a purpose in this world." We were tasked with making four episodes of a web series, with each episode running two minutes long and focusing on one of the worlds and its respective characters.
This presented some challenges on its own. Typically in a series, be it for television or the web, the pilot episode establishes all of the main characters of the show and sets the premise of the series into motion. This frees you up in future episodes to explore the characters, relationships and conflicts without getting caught up in introducing everything. But here, each episode takes place in a new location with three completely new characters to introduce. In effect, each episode is its own self-contained pilot, making the writing process more similar to writing multiple short films, or an anthology TV series such as The Twilight Zone.
Another challenge was that, aside from the occasional buzz or purr, the MagicMeeMees don't talk. This meant that the show had to be written without the aid of any dialogue. I'm actually a big fan of this type of visual storytelling, and had previously made a few dialogue-free short films that went a long way to prepare me for this project. Animation is certainly a visual medium, and the more the story can be told visually, the stronger it is. But introducing three characters, showing what function they serve within their world, and establishing and resolving a conflict all within the span of two quick minutes is no easy task. One big lesson I learned over the course of this experience has been to keep things simple. The last thing you want to do is lose a viewer because they can't understand what's happening. And in working with Producer Eric Miller as well as the client, we discovered that keeping the plots simple made them that much more effective, and allowed us more freedom to explore fun visual gags and character moments.
This is my first time writing and directing for animation, and it has been quite the learning experience. One of the biggest differences has been the editing process. On a live action film, there are three main stages to the process: pre-production, where the script is finalized and the schedule and budget are worked out; production, in which the actual filming takes place; and post-production, in which the film is edited together, music composed, and sound and picture finalized. So the editing basically takes place in the last stage, after principal photography has completed. But in animation, editing starts at the beginning. Even while still in the writing process, the episode will be storyboarded, and those storyboards will be turned into an animatic. An animatic is essentially the boards edited together onto a timeline to see how they're cutting together and working for timing. Because animation is such a time- and labor-intensive process, it's important to work out as many of the problems upfront as possible. The storyboarding and animatic stage is a great place to do that.
Now, storyboarding is not unique to animation. I storyboard at least part of every project I direct. It's an essential tool to work out problems before arriving on set, clearly communicate a day's shots to all of the various departments, and streamline complex live action shoots. Storyboards in animation differ in a couple key ways: first, storyboards are both far more extensive (everything needs to be storyboarded in animation, whereas not all live action shoots require it); and secondly, as mentioned above, storyboarding actually kicks off the editing process of an animated film. Once edited into an animatic, the boards are then swapped out with shots from layout. Layout is the stage in which the character staging and camera placement are worked out before animation begins. After that, the layout is replaced with rough animation shots. Then those, in turn, are replaced with the final animation. And so on, through lighting, compositing, and final renders. Put simply, editing in animation takes place throughout the entire process, which is very different from traditional live action editing.
The client asked us to do these episodes on a relatively low budget, so we took on the challenge to work within their budget. In computer animation, there are certain things that can really drive up the cost. Things like fur, liquids, clothing, reflective surfaces, and other visual effects can all be cost prohibitive on a project such as this. This meant that in an episode like "Penny Gwen and the Iceland Intruder," we had to stay away from things like showing ice forming or characters falling into a pond and causing a big splash. I'm of the mind that constraints can actually encourage creativity. It can encourage you to avoid going with your first idea, and instead come up with a better solution that you never might have otherwise. Here's an example: in our first episode, "Piney Apple Saves Berryland," there's one part when a very frustrated Piney jumps up and down over and over, until he jackhammers himself into the ground up to his neck. Originally I had planned to show him drilling into the ground, but then found out that it can be very costly to show the ground being churned up. So I came up with a solution: cut away from Piney while he's jumping up and down to show the other characters' reaction, then cut back to reveal Piney's head sticking out of the ground. This created a nice visual punchline that we wouldn't have had if we had just shown him going into the ground. Creativity thrives on these sorts of limitations, if you let it.
Another big difference was the actual process of directing. Rather than working on set closely with the actors, cinematographer, production designer, sound mixer, etc., everyone on this project worked remotely. This can have its benefits, in that it allowed me to take some time to think about a particular shot before responding with my notes. (On a live action set, many decisions need to be made quickly and on-the-fly). But it could also have its drawbacks, as some notes that could perhaps quickly be communicated in person might take several typed-up paragraphs. I learned to work around this by including illustrated mock-ups with my notes. For one particularly difficult-to-communicate camera move, I actually filmed an example shot using miniatures and my iPhone as the camera. It proved to be invaluable.
Since there weren't any voice actors on this dialogue-free project, the performances came down to the animators. Rather than discussing a character's motivation and arc with each actor, these discussions happened with the animators. What these animators are able to convey in the tiniest eye movement, or using a character's full body language, is just remarkable. It was a pleasure working with such talented artists, and that goes beyond just the animators. From layout, to modeling and surfacing, to lighting and sound, the artists who I had the privilege of collaborating with on MagicMeeMees truly brought this project to another level.
My background working in live action was a big help in preparing me for this project, while also illustrating some interesting contrasts. I've always been in love with animation as an audience member, but now I'm smitten by the process of making it, too. At the end of the day, the storytelling process is universal no matter the medium. It's all about telling a compelling story.