Director and ASIFA-Hollywood president Frank Gladstone discusses the benefits and challenges of remote collaboration on his new indie preschool animated feature.
With animation production spreading rapidly across the globe, opportunities continue to grow for artists to work remotely on a variety of projects. Larger studios can afford to setup facilities in various countries, taking advantage of bigger production budgets, regional financial incentives as well as established pockets of creative talent. Independent producers not only struggle to fund their projects, but cobbling that financing together usually necessitates spending money in the country of that financing’s origin. International TV and film co-productions have employed this economic model for decades.
But what about an independent production that can only bring together certain talent by allowing them to work remotely? Many talented artists simply aren’t interested or able to pack up and move halfway across the world for 1-3 years or more. Additionally, it’s not economically feasible for small budget productions to house their entire staff under one roof for any extended period of time.
Enter Frank Gladstone – producer, animator, teacher and ASIFA-Hollywood president. He’s also the director of the recently released independent animated feature The Hero of Color City. As Frank and other senior members of his team demonstrated, with Skype, email, a fairly decent Internet connection and a bit of patience, even a fully animated feature can be managed remotely. I recently spoke with Frank about his work on the film and the seemingly insurmountable communication challenges of directing an Indian studio from his office in LA.
Dan Sarto: It’s one thing to work remotely as an artist on a project. But directing remotely is something completely different. Tell me about how you first got involved in this project?
Frank Gladstone: This project has been very interesting. It came about several years ago as a concept and soon went into production. My son was editing the film. I wasn’t involved at that point. Later, they [the producers, Max Howard (The Iron Giant, Igor) and John Eraklis (Igor)] decided to change the focus of the movie somewhat and so they called me to do a script treatment. So I worked on it with some other writers as a sort of script consultant. We finished and at that point, the movie stopped. I figured that was the end of it. Three years later, I got a call back and they asked, “If we get started again, will you direct the film?” I said yes and we began production.
It was not a big budget film at all. I worked on almost the entire film long distance from my office here in LA. The film’s production studio, Toonz, is in India. They’d done a lot of TV and long form, but no long form theatrical. I went to India to launch the show, which was the only time I traveled there.
I worked via Skype, emails and using my Cintiq. The animation studio would send me shots. I’d pull frames and do draw overs where corrections were needed – using arrows and notes. We made the whole movie that way.
The storyboards were done in Orlando by Erin Humiston, who had previously done work for Max and John. Industry vet Phil Cruden did both the production design and art direction. His company, Go For Launch Productions is in Phoenix. The composers were here in LA. One, Zoë Poledouris-Roché is the daughter of renowned film composer Basil Poledouris, who passed away some years ago. Her husband and composing partner, Angel Roché Jr., was the percussionist for Ziggy Marley for more than a decade. My son Josh came back as editor.
Many of the original cast were still set to do voices. Christina Ricci, Rosie Perez and Craig Ferguson had originally been cast and came back to redo their roles. A lot of new voice talent in LA came on, like Jess Harnell and David Kaye. We also got Wayne Brady to take over one of the main characters from an actor who didn’t return.
Eventually we hooked up with a charity called the Crayon Collection which collects crayons from places like restaurants and distributes them to schools and kids that can’t afford new ones. That relationship led to a few more key actors doing some smaller parts like Owen Wilson, Jessica Capshaw and Sean Astin. We were really happy to have them involved.
DS: How much of the production done prior to the work stoppage were you able to use?
DS: So you basically started from scratch.
FG: We pretty much started from scratch. The first iteration of the movie was somewhat different. The character designs were different. The environments were different. In redoing the film, it changed. It became more a film for preschoolers. We used a more primary palette, a more cartoony approach. At first we thought we might be able to use some of the original work, but by the end of pre-production, we realized we had to redo everything. No animation had been done before except some experiments. The final script changed a little bit from what we started with, but they always do.
DS: Did you use the same animation studio this time?
FG: No, we moved to Toonz when we started up again.
DS: Describe the dynamic directing a movie remotely, using basic remote communication tools like Skype and email? It might be a new way to direct a production, but it’s certainly not the usual way.
FG: Part of it was great because it opened up the idea of working with people located all over. That’s a great thing to be able to do. But there were two frustrations with that. First of all, I often worked alone, by myself in my office. The other thing that was at times liberating and at times frustrating was when I wanted to change something, say during previs or animation - had I been working physically next to the artist, I could have given them my ideas, had that 30-second discussion right then and there. I wouldn’t have had to wait until they’d completed something before I could comment. I couldn’t point at their computer screen to say what I wanted to have happen. I had to do that on frame grabs and do draw-overs. So, a 30-second conversation became a 2-3 hour effort where using visuals, I tried to make sure I was explaining things correctly.
At the same time, it really pushed me always to consider what was really important – what I spent time on as well as what I could just let go. It made me more careful about what we did or didn’t change. It also made me really think hard about what I wanted to do, rather than just toss off a comment. At the end of the day it also made me a better artist because I had to do a whole bunch of drawings.
DS: I would imagine this made you a much better communicator as well.
FG: Even though we all spoke English, I had to worry about how well I was understood. How fast I spoke. The idioms we use are different. The accents are different. We had to be quite careful in our conversations to make sure we understood each other and didn’t go down the wrong path, which you wouldn’t find out about for several weeks. I liken it to a photographer. In the old days, a photographer had 36 shots before he had to change film. He had to be very careful in determining how he composed his shots. Now we have digital – you can sit and shoot dot dot dot dot dot. You can take a zillion pictures with the press of a button, which you save and never look at. In a way, even though we were using all brand new technology here, I had to be old-fashioned in thinking about shots very carefully and what I was going to do to explain them.
DS: All told, how much time did this production take, from the time you started back up until completion?
FG: 22 months. That included everything - going through the script one more time, production design, character design and storyboarding all the way up to finishing the mix. That’s about half the time of a normal show. This was a true indie film. We had to live within a short time span and a tight budget. Everyone was doing four different things they would normally delegate to someone else. Our production designer was also our art director was also doing notes on lighting. Our editor also supervised the mix and color correction. This was a film for preschoolers, not for a PG audience. Our budget was very small. But artistically, within the design, for what it was, I was very happy with how the film came out.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.