Talk about a fractured fairy tale. Nicky Phelan, an animation director at Ireland's Brown Bag, knew that Granny O' Grimm's hysterical comedy routine would make a grand animated short, so he convinced Granny creator Kathleen O'Rourke to make it happen with him. Phelan describes the making of his first short and the road to Oscar with the bitter old Granny.
Bill Desowitz: Well, Irish animation is certainly well represented between The Secret of Kells and Granny.
Nicky Phelan: Yeah, we were all whooping and hollering when we heard that Secret of Kells was nominated -- it was great. And then when we found out about Granny, too, we nearly fell over. It's really great. Tomm went to the same college [Ballyfermot College in Dublin] and left the year before I started. So I remember seeing their Secret of Kells concept stuff up on the walls to inspire us and it did.
BD: So Granny is your first animated short after working in commercials and TV projects for Brown Bag. How did it come about?
Well, it started when I met Kathleen O'Rourke at the time we were attending different colleges. I was friends with her sister and she was part of this cabaret group called The Fallen Angels, and she had a few different characters in that sketch show and one of them was Granny O' Grimm. She would tell these fairy tales from a particular not so happy point of view. And The Sleeping Beauty one was the first one I saw and it really jumped at me when I saw her doing it. And I could really picture it in two worlds with Granny in the bedroom and the fairy tale unfolding. I'd seen it a while before the Framework funding scheme came up so I went to Kathleen and asked her about writing her sketch for a short. So she sent in the script after a bit of pestering and then I sent it to the guys at Brown Bag and asked them if they'd be interested in producing it, and they say, yeah, and we gave it a go and it got selected then and we got the funding to go ahead and make it and so it was great.
BD: How many people worked with you?
NP: By the time it was finished, there were about 30 credits, including eight animators: three of them were 2D and five were 3D. And with texturing and modeling and everything and sound guys, it extended. But a lot of the team worked on commercials together, so it was good to do something fun and crazy, with her being the lunatic Granny.
BD: What inspired the design of Granny?
NP: It sounds bad to say my grandmother inspired the look of her because she was such a lovely granny, but she wore the same kind of clothes as Granny in the film and she had a hair style that went straight up, so it kind of influenced, I suppose, the starting point to make Granny look more interesting with that six-foot monstrosity, and probably, subconsciously, Bride of Frankenstein, was in there somewhere. And Annie herself, originally her design had kind of a little bob haircut and I just wanted her to feel more vulnerable and different stylistically from Granny, where she has a big sharp shape and Annie's is softer and more circular. And Kathleen told me when she was a kid she had a little Afro but her mother cut her hair short, and that's where Annie's look comes from.
The bedroom itself is rooted in vague memories of one of the rooms in my Granny's house that nobody really used and it was dark, and she had a few sacred hearts around the place so that influenced it.
BD: And what inspired the 2D look of Sleeping Beauty?
NP: A few things stayed with me: the illustrations of Errol Le Cain for The 12 Dancing Princesses had been around the house when I was young, and when I was thinking about it, it jumped in my head: the style of the costumes and the Maria Antoinette wigs. I think Yellow Submarine is an influence: the shapes are simple and graphic and have those S curves in them. Another big influence is Twice Upon a Time, directed by John Korty and [exec] produced by George Lucas. That iconic style, when working with Flash, sort of suited us.
BD: What other software did you use?
NP: All the backgrounds and characters were colored using Photoshop texturing and the backgrounds were traced off of Flash and kind of collaged in Photoshop. And then the scenes were comp'd together in After Effects. And for the 3D, we used Max and it was com'd together in After Effects as well.
BD: How difficult was the hair?
NP: Well, simulated hair itself wouldn't have really worked, given how weird their shapes are. And mass modeled hair wouldn't have either, so there was some toing and froing and messing around where the guys would have a certain level of control with it and then be reactive to their movements so it wouldn't be static. It's more of a stop-motion style of hair design than the traditional 3D style, but I think it works well in the end.
BD: What about other technical challenges?
NP: There were challenges with textures and stuff looking right because they're creepy, I suppose. The quilt cover as well took some figuring out in terms of the consistency of it and we rigged it for Annie to be able to move it around. And there were challenges with lighting and getting the shots working with the mirror where Granny is interacting and stuff like that. I think managed to deal with all these challenges with the resources we had.
BD: And the challenge of pulling off the story?
NP: Yeah, Kathleen's script wasn't changed that much originally from what it was on stage. But it was challenging getting something that worked so well as a live performance in set, constructed, short time: making sure it breathed where it needed to and it hit the coming timing. It took a few boards and lots of animatics where it felt as well as it did on the stage. And it was really important to me that audiences got to appreciate the humor in the same way.
BD: What was it like directing Kathleen as Granny?
NP: It took us a while to get there because, again, it's very different performing to an audience as opposed to going into a booth and reacting to somebody saying, "Let's do that again." But we found that she needed to be more exaggerated than she was on stage because it didn't play as stylized in animatic that it needed to play in animation. I suppose the world itself has become more caricatured and stylized, so we listened to The Simpsons and stuff like that. Looking at the pictures and listening to the voices, they're pretty extreme. So that's where we arrived at Granny.
BD: What do you think about the other nominated shorts, considering they're all comedies and several feature elderly characters?
NP: Yeah, it's interesting, isn't it? I haven't seen all of Logorama, but what I've seen looks amazing. And the style is really cool and I'd love to see it. And I'm a huge fan of Wallace & Gromit, so for Granny to be on any list with it is crazy and I really enjoy the work of Nick Park and Aardman so much. French Roast is really beautiful and the design and I love the mirror shot, and I think it's really, really charming. Same with The Lady and the Reaper: the design is really impressive, but, again, I've only seen the trailers.
BD: What other projects are you working on?
NP: There are a few shorts that I would like to do or other ideas that I have to develop. I'm still with Brown Bag for TV series that I'm animation director on. And it's good that I'm enjoying it.
Bill Desowitz is Senior Editor of AWN & VFXWorld.