For more than 90 years, children’s education charity The Smith Family has been supporting disadvantaged Australians through various efforts and activities, all aimed at helping the most vulnerable members of their society – kids.
Together with award-winning Sydney creative agency The Solid State, The Smith Family has launched Alice and the Giant Emptiness, the first animated short in their “One in Ten” series highlighting case studies of inspiring stories of children overcoming adversity.
Alice’s story is typical in a world of “haves” and “have nots.” Kids who are different, kids who get picked on for being “poor.” They can fall behind in school, their feelings of isolation and lack of self-esteem hampering their ability to approach the world, and their future, with needed confidence and hope. Often, the first step in solving such a child’s problems is simple: they just want a uniform that fits, or a backpack just like their classmates. They don’t want to be different – they want to be like everyone else. And while a few new items doesn’t fix everything, it’s often a step in a positive direction and directly impacts a child’s outlook on life. The film’s symbolic message is that children can and do change when people come together to provide help and support.
In discussing the first film of the series, The Solid State’s creative director Danny Lachevre said, “It is hoped that this heartfelt film, and the universal character of Alice, will raise awareness about this issue of disadvantage. The series will continue with further stories of others who have struggled against the effects of disadvantage yet with the help of others, have also triumphed against it. Each is a story of hope.”
The creative process began with a search for an animation style best suited to the story. They needed an approach that was simple but still able to capture the fundamental emotions the characters had to convey. As Lachevre described, “We decided on a basic vector style of illustration but with some texturing to give it a more natural feel.”
Lachevre and his team then mocked up some characters in Illustrator and worked them into a series of style frames in Photoshop to show mood and tone. Once they felt they had a style they could animate they used these style frames as the basis for a series of storyboards. These were quite specific in terms of the number and type of camera angles used in the final piece.
Then they cut these storyboards together into an animatic with music and sound effects to get a sense of flow and storytelling. According to Lachevre, “The piece suddenly came to life and we loved the way many of the shots even worked as stills. It made us think 'how simple could we keep the approach and still get people to feel something?’ We loved the challenge - could we move a few circles and vector shapes around a screen and capture the essence of these heartbreaking stories of disadvantaged kids? Could this possibly have more impact?”
Since the style was super simple, Lachevre felt they needed some specific references for how Alice would move and behave. While they could all guess at how a child with low self-esteem might physically act, they really felt they needed to see something specific to get the team on the same page.
So, Lachevre decided to call in an actress who regularly worked with young kids to act out the scenes shot for shot. He explained that, “We worked through the boards with her and filmed the entire story shot for shot…no lighting or anything, just a simple setup to capture her facial and body movements. She had a really great sense of the story and captured the fear and loneliness of Alice with some simple and subtle acting.”
Lachevre continued, “Once we cut her into the animatic side by side with the storyboards we really had a foundation to build on. Everyone was now on the same page - the client could 'see' and feel the story and the animators had a common understanding of 'who' Alice was.”
From here the team split up into illustration, rigging, character animation, set construction and VFX. The rigging of the characters made the animation process easy. A series of puppets was created that essentially “walked around a stage.” The character animators referred to the actor quite closely and kept everything 2D in After Effects. The next stage was placing these renders into 3D scenes with background elements, lighting and particles.
A few scenes like the word cloud and the curtains needed a more sophisticated approach and were done in Cinema 4D. Like the characters, they were rendered out as separate animations and composited into After Effects. As each scene was rendered out they cut it into the animatic until eventually each storyboard and actor reference was replaced.
It seemed to work. However, as Lachevre described, “The biggest problems were the shot sequences. Because the puppets were quite simple they could never turn from a profile to a front shot. However, we had about 30 degrees of 'faux' turn in the front facing puppet so we used this to create a new one that was a combo of a profile body and a front facing head. This got us out of trouble for all the scenes we're we needed a convincing turn.”
Finally, they added all the new overlay organic effects, graded it all and did a few small tweaks to the edit. Ready for mixing, Lachevre turned to the folks at Zig Zag Lane who “did a great job of bringing the scenes to life with ambient sounds and spot effects.”
Lachevre summed up the effort by saying, “All this happened in about 5 weeks alongside a number of other projects going through our studio. It nearly killed us but we were all proud of how it turned out.”
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.