Wild Brain's Dave Marshall, co-director of FernGully 2, discusses how he tailored the pre-production process of FernGully 2 to guarantee the best final film for the budget.
Editor's note: In 1990, Bill and Sue Kroyer directed an animated feature called FernGully: The Last Rainforest for Twentieth Century Fox and Interscope Communications. This month, Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment will release FernGully 2: The Magical Rescue, a direct-to-video sequel produced by San Francisco-based studio, Wild Brain. With the current growth in the direct-to-video animation market, we decided to take a closer look at the production process. Exclusively for Animation World Magazine,FernGully 2 co-directors Dave Marshall and Phil Robinson generously share their experience overseeing pre-production for the film. Also included is a visual supplement with several storyboard panels from the film.
We recently produced our first direct-to-video feature, FernGully 2: The Magical Rescue for Twentieth Century Fox. All pre-production work including character design, layout, storyboard, timing, background and color key was completed in our San Francisco facility, while animation production took place at Wang Film Productions in Taipei, Taiwan. Wild Brain directed all other aspects of pre- and post-production in both San Francisco and Los Angeles including editing, music composition, voice talent casting and all sound recording and mixing.
We knew from experience that the only sure way to hit our budget and meet the schedule would be to solve all unanswered questions in pre-production. There are several key factors that are essential to the pre-production process that we established as priorities including: good communication with the production facility, a strong script and a great storyboard.
Of course, our very first priority was creating a realistic budget for the job and then designing for that budget! (For instance, if one has a low budget, simplify the writing and design, and limit the color palette, but, in our opinion, do not skimp on the storyboard!) This went hand-in-hand with having a thorough understanding of our production facility's needs strengths and weaknesses. Our expectations had to be reasonable.
Here are some suggestions we can make to help you produce the best possible final product based on 17 months of that good ol' tried and true combination of blood, sweat and tears:
Communicate with the Production Facility
Allow your facility to become a part of the process as early as possible. Encourage them to be honest with you about what they can do for the budget, within the schedule. Be clear about the production standard you need to meet, and talk openly about your mutual goals. What are their concerns? Find out. Production facilities usually have more actual production experience than the pre-production crews. They can help spot potential production hazards ahead of time. Do not, however, expect them to take the leap into creative decision-making. This is an area that often leads to disappointment. It's up to you to communicate exactly how something should look. Production facilities are good at getting the job done, not designing the job.
Both of us have overseas production experience [Dave spent eight years at Wang as the animation supervisor; Phil has experience in Korea, Taiwan and three years in the Philippines], so we are familiar with the tendency for the American side of production to design things that are difficult for the overseas artists to reproduce. In the case of FernGully 2, we were able to design the production to complement Wang's strengths and minimize the weaknesses.
We deliberately designed the film to be fast-paced but eliminated complex sequences, crowd scenes and scenes that would require good acting on the part of the animator. We were pleasantly surprised, however, at how good some of the animators were. Taiwan is familiar enough with American culture to understand the Western mannerisms of the characters. We tried not to add too many locations and we limited the amount of lighting changes which saved additional design time as well. We also avoided costly effects scenes and complicated camera moves that would snarl production once it got to the camera department.
We had two animation supervisors and one background supervisor in Taiwan for the duration of the production. They worked very closely with the Taiwanese directors in a collaborative way, not as bosses but as co-workers. There was a conscious effort on the part of both Wild Brain and Wang to create a joint effort. We believe that our combined efforts, careful planning and close working relationship were responsible for getting a great looking film for the time and budget. We were a team.
If the script is weak then even the best animation can't engage the audience, so we decided to play on our strength as storytellers in the scripting process rather than rely on expensive production techniques down the road.
A good script must read well. The story arc must have its high points and low points building up to a finale where the viewer is truly interested in what will happen to the central characters. An erroneous assumption is that animation will make the characters more likable and believable; that when the characters are in motion, the clichès of the dialogue and plot will disappear. This is wrong!
We capitalized on our studio's collaborative approach to production while simplifying the original script in ways that would best benefit the animating teams, design teams, and color designer. We opened our twice-weekly story meetings to all studio personnel: directors, animators and designers. During six weeks of "open door" brainstorming sessions, we made the story objectives clear: straightforward, action-driven sequences and sympathetic characters with depth. We also aimed to establish character development through visual means and not rely solely on dialogue.
We eliminated sequences too complicated to be animated on our schedule. If there were action sequences, we prioritized our location designers to start on these areas first. These were our first storyboards. The diverse story team also kept us from falling into stereotypical "cute" solutions. As soon as we nailed a sequence, we put it into storyboard.
We could not afford to wait until we had a complete script, so we had to start storyboarding right away. We knew that storyboarding before the script was complete would result in some re-do, but we had no choice. We were racing against the clock. In the end, we were pleased with our risk-taking and we did not have too much re-boarding to do.
The storyboard is the visual blueprint of the film. Whatever strengths or weakness appear in the storyboard will almost certainly show up in the finished film. If you want to see it in the film, it must be in the boards, every pose, every expression, everything.
We were careful to cast the board artists to compliment their individual strengths. We gave the preliminary script to all of our board artists as early as possible. They got to spend this additional time familiarizing themselves with the whole story. Whenever possible, the artists made requests for sequences they were most interested in working on. This was helpful in the long run because they usually got the sections that they felt most comfortable with and the end result was great. When an artist is happy and feels that their contribution is making the picture better, they're willing to go the extra distance when you really need them to.
We concentrated on strong character expressions that told the story in an uncomplicated way. Rarely does a bad storyboard expression, weak pose or off-model character end up looking better after it is animated. It is most important to keep your characters in the storyboard on model and the expressions correct.
Background artwork contributes greatly to the overall warmth and emotions of a film, as well as adds richness to the final product. Color tends to dominate the frame. All background color has to be determined before the production facility starts painting. We roughly painted the storyboard to give us the general color direction. We solved almost all of our location color styling using this method. Working directly on the storyboards allowed us to experiment with different color schemes before hiring top background painters. Once we were set on the colors, we then had background artists paint small, highly rendered location backgrounds which were then shipped to Wang to be used as guides in the actual production. This was done for every location, day and night, that would appear in the film.
The coolest looking characters are only cool if the animators can animate them. The first film had a set look that we had to follow, but we still had a bunch of new characters to design. We tried to make these new designs simple with a definite style. We wanted to add a fresh dynamic look that would blend nicely with what had been done before, as well as inspire the animators. All animators seem to love meaty, fun characters to animate.
Try to limit the number of colors in your palette. We worked from Wang's color palette to avoid having them mix special colors for our film.
Character and Model Design Pack
Basically every character, every object, everything that moves needs to be designed and drawn from all angles. The animators need to know exactly what characters and objects look like in order to animate confidently. There is tremendous pressure put on the animators. Not only are they expected to animate in the neighborhood of 50 feet per week, they only get paid per foot of finished animation and not having enough information can really slow them down. We supplied every expression, every mouth position used for every character in the film. This was to keep the animators from inventing their own interpretations. We supplied completely detailed x-sheets (exposure sheets) with all timing, lip sync, behavior and actions clearly marked.
We also built our main characters and vehicles with CG. We animated 200 scenes of the characters flying and vehicles moving in order to help lighten Wang's burden. We believed that by solving the flying mechanics and vehicular movement for them, it would give them more time to concentrate on the acting scenes. The scenes animated in CG were then printed out on registered animation paper and shipped to Wang for clean-up and detailing. The CG animation still needed facial features, hair and clothes added. They were then inked and painted, the same as the rest of the scenes.
There are numerous other elements to a solid pre-production process, not the least of which are backgrounds, layouts and exposure sheets. Without going into each one of them, we can say this: our crew worked hard and had to jump around a lot to cover all the bases. We had a small team and very few department managers.
As directors, we covered a lot of territory, more than for a normal production. We were the quality control. We tweaked storyboards and corrected poor layouts. We were involved in CG reference, location design, color design, x-sheet and (exposure sheet) timing. Phil spent three months in Taiwan approving pencil tests, reviewing layouts and checking color, and he even did one of the voices. We worked closely with the songwriters, musicians, actors, composers and sound designers as well.
The production managers stayed late many nights to ensure that shipments overseas were made on time. However, we never shipped until the work was completed to satisfaction. That was our golden rule.
Ultimately, we worked bloody hard and that's the most important step.
Dave Marshall and Phil Robinson co-directed FernGully 2: The Magical Rescue for Fox at Wild Brain in San Francisco.