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The Integration of Animated Feature Design

Joseph Gilland looks into how artists integrate various design styles into one cohesive animated feature.

A research trip to China for the animation team of Mulan was extremely worthwhile and contributed greatly to the films fantastic overall look and stylistic integrity. © Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.

A research trip to China for the animation team of Mulan was extremely worthwhile and contributed greatly to the films fantastic overall look and stylistic integrity. © Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.

Have you ever watched a beautiful animated feature film and wondered, How did this vision become so unified, and so appealing? If you are like me, these kinds of thoughts have been bouncing around in your head ever since the first time you were hypnotized by an animated feature film. For me, it was when I was watching Disneys The Sword in the Stone as a child back in the early 60s, that I first got an inkling of how much good design could hold a film together. Something about The Sword in the Stone made every character design, background design and special effects design, feel like it was created by the same force, or the same artist.

As a result the film was more successful at pulling me in to its magical, mystical world of wizardry. This was no accident of course, but a result of the director and artistic leadership of the film being on the exact same page stylistically, and seeing to it that the aesthetic vision was followed through by every artist working on the film.

Thirty years later, I found myself at Walt Disney feature animation in Florida engaged in trying to adapt an ancient style of Chinese artwork into a contemporary version of the legend of Mulan. Months earlier the studio had sent a team of artists (myself not included) on a research trip to China. There was quite a buzz about whether or not it was worth it to spend so much money sending a large group to China, when much research material was readily available in books, films and documentaries. As far as the films art director, Ric Sluiter, was concerned, the research trip was extremely worthwhile, and contributed greatly to the films fantastic overall look and stylistic integrity. And I have to agree.

Although Mulan was ultimately an American film, and many were quick to point out where it failed in its authenticity, it was an extremely, elegantly designed film. Every little detail in that film reflected something real that had been absorbed during the trip to China. From uniquely shaped flowers and trees that reflect the Chinese countryside, to a uniquely Chinese approach to story-telling, Mulan carried with it an authenticity that the naysayers simply couldnt fully appreciate from their popcorn littered, caffeine addled, western point of view.

Getting the flora and fauna right was one of the benefits of a Hawaiian research trip by the creative team of Lilo & Stitch. © Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.

Getting the flora and fauna right was one of the benefits of a Hawaiian research trip by the creative team of Lilo & Stitch. © Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.

As a special effects animator on the film Mulan, along with my gifted colleague Garrett Wren, I was given the privilege of animating the majority of the special effects in the epic avalanche sequence, in which an army of marauding huns is wiped off of the side of a mountain by an avalanche. Months were spent perfecting the design of the effects drawings so that they reflected the same designs inherent in the Chinese art of some 4,000 years ago, which are found in their paintings, sculptures, clothing, architecture, and even their hairstyles.

Was it worth it? Well, almost eight years later, I cant tell you how many people have remarked to me what an incredibly beautiful film Mulan is, and I attribute it greatly to the wisdom of sending a group of immensely talented artists to China to get a feel for the real thing.

Luckily for me, years later I was fortunate enough as the supervisor of visual effects, to join the directors and creative leads on a research trip to Hawaii to inspire us for the feature film Lilo & Stitch. Once again, many people saw the trip as a frivolous romp in Hawaii, but the payoff was that we were intimately familiar with the Hawaiian reality, and thus far better equipped to portray it artistically. Making the flora and fauna in the film truly reflective of the actual location, added a lot to the appeal of the film, and it certainly wasnt lost on the residents of the island of Kauai, who loved the final product!

Pixars extensive research into the underwater world can be seen in Finding Nemo. © 2004 Disney Enterprises, Inc./Pixar Animation Studios. All rights reserved.

Pixars extensive research into the underwater world can be seen in Finding Nemo. © 2004 Disney Enterprises, Inc./Pixar Animation Studios. All rights reserved.

Of course what I am getting at here isnt that every feature film producer needs to send his/her artistic team off to whatever exotic location the film is set in. The idea here is to do as much research as is humanly possible, and if that means visiting an actual location, do it! Go that extra mile and the end result will be a far greater degree of artistic integrity in the final film.

In DreamWorks Madagascar and Pixars underwater world of Finding Nemo, the fruits of their extensive research can be seen and more importantly felt. In purely fantasy settings such as Shrek or The Incredibles the same integrity of design can be achieved, but it is more important in these cases to look for a stylistic hook, or artistic style, or design era. I have worked on feature films in which this principle was not exploited, and films in which it was, and the difference is monumental. The importance of finding an underlying design theme cannot be overstated.

Strength of conceptual design is nothing new, and filmmakers of all kinds are often after a look that will set their work apart. Keep in mind though; a few great looking conceptual drawings hanging on the wall are not enough to set the style of a film. Ive seen that happen far too many times. Once those beautiful designs have been approved, it takes a dedicated art director to keep the look on track throughout the production, and not allow outside forces to homogenize the look of the show, which can happen when trying to cater to too broad of an audience.

Immersing your crew in the look, be it a period or region, or an imaginary world, can be very helpful, as well as being a lot of fun! Decorate the studio as if it is a set for the film, and make every Friday Jungle Day or Arctic Day or Medieval Day. Take field trips to see movies, which may be influential, have lunchtime screenings of relevant films or documentaries. Any and all ideas to immerse your crew in the look of your project will pay dividends!

In fantasy settings such as The Incredibles, it is important for the creative team to look for a stylistic hook, artistic style or design era. © Disney Enterprises Inc./Pixar Animation Studios. All rights reserved.

In fantasy settings such as The Incredibles, it is important for the creative team to look for a stylistic hook, artistic style or design era. © Disney Enterprises Inc./Pixar Animation Studios. All rights reserved.

As far as finding further resources is concerned, if the studio youre working in doesnt have its own resource library like many of the bigger studios do, try a trip to the local public library. You might be amazed at what you find there. Sometimes the greatest resources are right under our noses. Check into your local anthropological museums, museums of natural history, art museums, and traveling museum shows that may be passing through your area. Botanical gardens, aquariums and zoos are fantastic for field trips to sketch, photograph and observe exotic flora and fauna that might be native to your films far off exotic setting! The possibilities are absolutely endless.

The Internet, used wisely, can be a truly amazing resource that is frequently under utilized. (Believe it or not!) A determined researcher can find anything. Many major universities maintain extensive research sites covering every conceivable topic under the sun. Geographical, historical, anthropological and social information is readily available, far beyond the typical Google search that we have all become so dependent on. And a determined Internet researcher can find international travel photo albums galore, with photos from every corner of the globe. Dont limit your research techniques. Try everything. Exhaust every possibility.

Integrity of design takes a really concerted effort. It takes time, dedication, research and resources to really make a difference. Take the time! Make the difference! Big budget or small, the extra effort will be worth it.

In his 29-year animation career, Joseph Gilland has utilized his traditional and digital animation talents at such studios as Walt Disney feature animation, Don Bluth Animation, Nelvana and the National Film Board of Canada. At Walt Disney feature animation, Gilland served as supervisor of visual effects for the features Lilo & Stitch and Brother Bear. He also served as head of Disneys Florida special effects unit and was special effects animator on many notable titles, including Mulan. In addition, Gilland has designed and supervised 2D/3D visual effects for a television series and has directed many television commercials as an independent director. He is currently at work on an independent short film and is also writing a passionate book about animation, while he heads the classical animation and digital character animation programs at the Vancouver Film School.

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