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Calypso and 60s Cartoon Design Collide in ‘Guava Island’ Opening Titles

Six Point Harness animates stylized opening for secret Donald Glover and Hiro Murai 55-minute musical that just premiered at Coachella.

For Los Angeles-based animation studio Six Point Harness, Hiro Murai’s 55- minute musical, Guava Island, starring Donald Glover and Rihanna, presented an opportunity to create a title sequence where their highly stylized animation would provide an important narrative prologue that established the film’s setting and underlying mythology.

6PH was initially contacted directly by Glover, one of the film’s writers and producers, and Murai, the film’s director and Atlanta TV series and Childish Gambino This is America music video cohort. The pair were looking for a throw-back designed, 2D animated title sequence for a top-secret film they’d just shot in Cuba. According to Greg Franklin, 6PH founding partner and creative director, “They envisioned a bouncy and exuberant title sequence, inspired by the Pink Panther films and other '60s comedies, as well as a more somber storybook prologue which would serve as a backstory of the fictional Guava Island.”

Franklin was initially provided a three-page outline of the prologue and credits, and a small jpeg of a piece of wall art by Robert Lyons, as a jumping off point. “As an artist, Lyons is relatively obscure, but well-known to collectors of mid-century ephemera,” Franklin explains. “So, I hunted down more of his works, and collected other pieces as well, including Pan Am travel posters, ‘calypso-styled’ illustrations, old school '70s paintings by African American artists, and as much Caribbean folk art as I could gather for inspiration.”

After soaking up the gathered reference materials, Franklin and his team of artists began designing the film’s main characters, Deni (Glover) and Kofi (Rihanna). “We showed an array of designs to Donald and Hiro, and they particularly gravitated to the work of Brie Henderson, whose designs not only captured the required nostalgic vibe, but also a superb design flow, and dynamic sense of movement that leapt off the screen,” Franklin shares. “Once we booked the job, Brie went on to design all the lead characters. Our main background artist Miles Thompson started painting, and our team was off to the races.”

6PH quickly formed a close relationship with Glover and Murai, working directly with them and their creative team. “We had the great privilege of working with Donald, Hiro, and key members of his creative team throughout the project, as they seem to be very hands-on in all of their productions, from music to television to films,” Franklin states. “Although they have somewhat limited experience in animation, Donald and Hiro share a great love for classic cartoons. We quickly formed a great working relationship where we had a lot of freedom to experiment and try new ideas, and they'd invariably give us instructive feedback whenever something didn't align with their ultimate creative goals.”

“While the rest of the team was busy with design, I drew up a rough board pitch,” Franklin continues. “After the first pitch went smoothly and the team was excited, we created the animatic with a temporary music track, a rough mix of an unreleased Childish Gambino song. We soon saw that the amount of credits and gags were too much for our 30-second track, so we looped it a few times to extend the running time. Once that animatic was locked, we began drawing character layouts for key scenes, background painting began in earnest and animators started to break down and rough their scenes out. As the work completed, it went to our editor/compositor, who placed animation on top of backgrounds and added camera moves, color correction, textures and a variety of subtle effects. Finally, we assembled the footage into our same animatic timeline, trading out my rough boards for completed color animation.”

The filmmakers and 6PH were looking for an animation style that combined mid-century design and ‘60s cartoony elements. “One of our goals for Guava was to evoke the feel of a hand-crafted 2D piece that didn’t look like it was digitally produced, even though it 100 percent was,” Franklin shares. “We achieved this by letting the animators rough animate each frame by hand, and not using digital shortcuts like smooth, mechanical tweens. Using organic textures on top of our color work - for example, the real wood textures on the characters' skin - visually suggests a cut-out technique, but the final colored animation underneath the texture allows for far more cut-out ‘pieces’ than would ever be practical in traditional cut-out animation. The dazzling and complex clothing fabrics were rendered in a similar fashion to design-forward, mid-century modern UPA cartoons, with character animation flowing above ornate but still textures.”

The final look was partly achieved through distinctive touches added during compositing as well as a scanning process that introduced an old “film” feel to the entire movie. “Our compositor, Tony Christopherson, added very subtle effects, like tiny drop shadows, to help create an imperfect look,” Franklin adds. “On top of all this, our piece, as well as the entire film, was scanned onto a 35mm film print, and re-scanned back to digital for distribution, which gave every frame a unique, organic film grain and a sense of true analog warmth.”

The project, from booking to completion, took the small 6PH team a scant 10 weeks. “We had two designers, around eight animators, three background artists, one director/board artist, one compositor and a couple of producers,” Franklin notes. “The animation was all done in Adobe Animate and comped in After Effects.”

Creatively, the biggest challenge was finding a satisfying and “appropriate” way to depict how the characters danced. “One slightly unusual directive we'd gotten from Donald and producer Fam Udeorji was to pay particular attention to the dancing sections,” Franklin recalls. “They had been disappointed by animated portrayals of black people dancing, in their own past projects as well as historically in general.  They felt this hadn't really been adequately captured in the medium. The one reference Donald could remember liking was, amusingly, The Goofy Movie. I knew that while animators can generally draw anything, the one thing we animators all have in common is sitting on our butts all day and, generally, not dancing.”

Knowing the dance scenes would come under heavy scrutiny from the filmmakers, Franklin brought in an expert to help them study and better understand how to animate dance movement. “We reached out to Sherrie Silver, the genius choreographer of This is America and multiple Donald Glover projects, to come to our offices and help us break down Childish Gambino dance moves and theories,” Franklin recounts. “We ended up filming her for reference as she performed ‘in character’ as Dani, Kofi and Yara [Letitia Wright]. At the same time, while we were armed with such great knowledge and specific breakdowns of every move, as animators we still strove to push silhouettes and poses to impossible, yet still visually believable, performances.”

The film, which debuted last month at Coachella, and is now available on Amazon Prime, has been warmly received – the beautifully animated titles deftly setting the proper tone and vibe for the story that then unfolds. Franklin is understandably proud of the finished product, concluding, “In the end, we at Six Point Harness are incredibly proud of our work on Guava Island, and it's an honor to contribute to such a beautiful piece of film-making and collaborate with the absolute top talent in the world right now. I am so excited that the rest of the world can now see this gorgeous, captivating film.” 

Dan Sarto's picture

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.