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Animating the Hopes and Angst of the 'American Teen'

Joe Strike talks to the creators of the new documentary American Teen about turning teenage fantasies into animated vignettes.


Nanette Burstein uses animation to get inside her subjects' heads in the new documentary American Teen. Here, Über-nerd Jake imagines himself as a video game hero. All images © 2007 Paramount Vantage.

It ain't easy being 'teen.

That's the takeaway from Nanette Burstein's new documentary, a fly-on-the-wall look at a handful of high school seniors in the all-American Midwestern town of Warsaw, Indiana. After spending one year and a thousand hours of video on her subjects, Burstein turned to animation to get inside their heads. "I asked them about their fantasies, about how they wished their lives could be. Those thoughts became the inspiration for the animated sequences."

In those segments, interspersed throughout the film, star jock Colin sees himself as a cosmic b-ball player sinking a basket into the heart of a galaxy; cheerleader Megan pictures her dream college as a place of joy and harmony; Über-nerd Jake imagines himself as a video game hero, while bohemian outcast Hannah battles her horrific self-image. The wildly differing styles for each piece -- from scratchy cel animation to CGI to candy-colored paper-flat cut-outs -- were inspired by the kids' own descriptions of how they saw themselves and the world. "I took my cues from them," says Burstein, "so it would feel like it was coming from their imagination, rather than me assuming what they were seeing or feeling."

Burstein was no stranger to mixing reality and cartoons. Her previous film The Kid Stays in the Picture made extensive use of photo animation via After Effects and Flash. "In Kid, we used a cut-out style. We separated the foreground and then pasted it atop the backgrounds to put moves or a blur on it. You can isolate anything you want that way, then move it to give it depth. It's much more sophisticated than pan and scan.

"Visually, we wanted to make it interesting to look at," she says of her documentary about Hollywood producer Robert Evans. "We wanted to make the storytelling larger than life and decadent, make it clear he was an unreliable narrator. We wanted it to be surreal -- not purely factual."

For American Teen, Burstein needed an animation company that could deliver a variety of styles; New York's Psyop studio came to her and producer Jordan Roberts' attention. "They had the most impressive reel I'd seen," she explains. "We didn't have a lot of money and I wasn't sure they'd be able to work with us. We showed them twenty minutes of footage we'd cut -- and they really fell in love with it." Psyop connected Burstein with their sister company Blacklist -- a boutique shop for more cutting-edge, newly rising talents headed up by Adina Sales, Blacklist's executive producer and founder.

Psyop works out of an anonymous-looking black glass-and-brick building in the heart of Manhattan's Lower East Side, a neighborhood that a century ago was home to an enormous community of Jewish immigrants. Today the synagogues and kosher butchers are all but gone, replaced by trendy bars, high-rise condos -- and outfits like Psyop. Sales' office is at the top of four flights of stairs that take a visitor past rows of workstations and staffers' desks. Two of Psyop's artists are taking a break from their computers and enjoying a game of tabletop soccer set up in the middle of the studio's ground floor, and every day seems to be "take your dog to work day" -- several people are heading out the door with their pets for a mid-afternoon walk.

Each teenager was matched with an animator to achieve the right style. Burstein found David Lobser for Hannah's nightmare.

Sales describes Psyop as an internationally focused outfit and its founders as "more foreign than not. Artists come here to work with Psyop for a few years, then return home. The company's built up a large global network. The idea behind Blacklist was to capitalize on those connections -- talented people going back to their own countries and setting up their own studios, or their friends who run small operations but are really talented.

"We handle a small group of people whose work we think is exceptionally interesting. On their own, they wouldn't be approached for large-scale projects or commercial ventures. A lot of them are artists first; they do some commercial projects to finance the rest of their work."

The first step in the animation process for American Teen was matching animator to teenager. To find just the right style for each piece, Burstein screened a DVD set that Roberts found. "It had hundreds of pieces, it was a 'best of' compilation from the last couple of years. There were so many different styles that I could refer to, to give them an idea of the kind of animation I wanted to use."

On one occasion though, Burstein went directly to the animator she found on the reel. "That's how we found David Lobser," the creator of Hannah's nightmare. "He'd never worked with Blacklight prior to that. They were open to working with new animators that we found and I think he's still doing work with them as a result."

Sales approached the process from an opposite perspective. "Part of it was considering which [teenager's] story would resonate most with our directors. Sometimes we would suggest directors we thought would be interesting, showing their reels to Nanette and Jordan and seeing what they responded to. Sometimes the decision was style-, or content- or sensibility-driven. It wasn't just a visual decision -- it was much, much more conceptual.

"Againstallodds [the Stockholm-based creators of Jake's videogame-inspired fantasies] have a funny sense of humor. They do a lot of work in CGI, but they hadn't done gaming-type stuff before. It doesn't really represent the majority of work they do, but it did seem to fit within what I knew they could do and would find interesting. [As their executive producer, I thought it would be good for them to] do something very narrative, so there'd be educational value there for them too.

"I also wanted to discover what resonated with Nanette and Jordan. I gave them more than one thing to look at to see what they'd be interested in."

Designer Diogo Kalil, best known for his work with the Brazilian commercial director Lobo, created Colin's sports fantasy, with a spindly-legged, simply drawn version of the teen outshining his competitors through a series of suddenly changing environments. "I knew Diego would be perfect for this," Sales continues. "He'd done a sports-based piece before with a lot of athleticism -- it was language he understood." Burstein agrees with Sales' evaluation, adding that his work is "eclectic, but with a consistent thread of thinking through transitions, creating dynamic graphically driven and very design-y pieces. Those seemed to be qualities that suited this segment perfectly."

David Lobser's rendering of Hannah's nightmare was a mix of CGI and frame-by-frame. Reminiscent of Tim Burton or Henry Selick's work, the animation hurtles down a narrow, claustrophobic (and CGI-generated) hallway and into an attic where a sad, doll-like girl (also done in CGI) contemplates her anguished reflection in a mirror.

"We built a set for the attic, and one for the high school hallway that appears in the nightmare," Sales recalls. "We used imagery from the film and animation elements that we composited into our live set. Ironically this was the most difficult to do, even though David was based in New York where Nanette works. It was the first one we tackled, early in the editorial process, back when the edit was three hours long. We followed the initial creative direction and got it close to finished, but when they were cutting the film down, they realized it didn't work -- visually it had too much of a narrative thread to work in the context of the footage on both sides of it. We had to take a step back and figure a less narrative way of using it. It was a daunting process."

Designer Diogo Kalil created Colin's sports fantasy using a spindly-legged, simply drawn version of the teen outshining his competitors through a series of suddenly changing environments.

Geeky Jake's story contained three of Psyop's six animated segments -- the two CGI pieces from Againstallodds and their downbeat counterpoint, "Chili." In contrast to Jake's pimply video game hero, the moody "Chili" depicted him as a morose outcast. The piece was produced by a designer/director team on loan to Blacklist from Psyop, Zoe Wishart and Lutz Vogel. "They did my logo and I worked with them closely on branding my company," says Sales.

For Megan, the film's spoiled, rich cheerleader, her one dream was being accepted by Notre Dame, her family's alma mater. The segment illustrating her starry-eyed fantasy of college life was created by Nanospore, an L.A.-based design shop. "It was CGI animation done with flat graphic textures, but always beautiful and slick with high production values, very fashion-y," says Sales. "I thought [Jake's videogame fantasies] would be the funniest segments, but this turned out to be the funniest one in the film."

American Teen also contains a few non-Blacklist pieces, reminiscent of The Kid Stays in the Picture and created by photo-animators Burstein had worked with in the past. Burstein met David Kelley through Film School, a reality series that ran on IFC, and worked with Wyeth Hanson on NY77: the Coolest Year in Hell, a two-part VH1 documentary for which Hanson received an Emmy nomination for his art direction. Rather than try to match the Blacklist pieces, Burstein decided to go for a simpler look. "We weren't trying to get inside their heads -- we were just putting information onscreen as visuals. It was more a matter of reportage and we didn't want to get too flashy with it."

Because it took a year for the film to come together, Blacklist's animators were able work on their segments in their free time between their high-end commercial assignments -- but the extended schedule had its downside as well. "We were commissioned to do 11 segments," Sales explains, "only six of which made it to the finished film. That's part of the peril of starting early in the production process. When things were getting delayed, we started losing availability."

Burstein agrees that "we made the mistake of starting animation too early. We thought we were ready and we weren't. A beautiful piece was lost when that part of the story was cut out, even though the animation was incredible." The segment is still listed in the film's credits: titled "Love," it was produced by Blacklist's Pistachios, a Stockholm-based motion graphics studio. In all likelihood it will be found in the film's eventual DVD release, along with the missing storyline.

Sales says she wouldn't mind doing more feature and documentary animation, even though she found out that film is structured in a very different way from the commercial world. "We [usually] get things that are locked up; we know what the script is, we're ready to go and put a team on it. The film process takes so much longer and they're rarely budgeted in the same manner. To take on a project that lasts months and months, you have to have people doing it out of love, or be incredibly well-funded on everything else going on at the time. This project definitely fell in the 'love' category. But it also felt good for us because we were just starting out as a company at the time. [Blacklist began work on the film in November 2006, just short of a year after the company's birth.] It felt like a good, sexy opportunity for our directors.

"I'm practical. The experience of having three films on the cutting room floor is heartbreaking for the directors. What they were getting paid wasn't even covering their costs. It can get a little sensitive." Even so, Sales bottom-lines working on American Teen as a valuable learning experience. "In the end it was positive -- it was great."

Joe Strike is a regular contributor to AWN. His animation articles also appear in the NY Daily News and the New York Press.