Director Robert Valley teams with Passion Pictures to bring his gritty graphic novel to the screen, garnering an Oscar nod and Annie win along the way.
Director Robert Valley reports that when he found out his short film, Pear Cider and Cigarettes, had been nominated for an Oscar for best animated short, “It was a surprise that came out of nowhere. We kept our expectations to a reasonable level with this film, because it was a long film. Stylistically, it's not typical of something that would have any success. You know what I mean? It just is what it is.”
The 35-minute film, which Valley describes as “a documentary that happens to be animated,” is quite unique. This film, which won an Annie award for best animated special production this past weekend, began life as a graphic novel five years ago as a way for the director to tell a very personal, true story about his efforts to save a self-destructive longtime friend named Techno, who had finally hit rock bottom and called out for help from a military hospital in China.
He explains that shortly after the ordeal, he met up with another friend in London who encouraged him to write a book or film about Techno. Valley resisted the idea at first. “But he kept hammering away at me with emails and phone calls over the course of the next few months,” notes the director. “A couple years later, the night that my son was born, they gave my wife an epidural and it made her contractions subside for about 12 hours. So, I was sitting next to her in the maternity ward, and I had my laptop, and I just started typing the story. I wrote the whole thing in about six or seven hours.”
Although first written as a graphic novel, Pear Cider and Cigarettes was always intended to be a film
“The whole thing was meant to be a two-part process,” says Valley. “It was going to start off as a book, and end up as a film. The book was going to serve as the storyboard for the film, and the idea was to make the graphic novel first, then the film. If you look at the graphic novel, all the panels have the same aspect ratio, like a letterbox aspect ratio. All the artwork was set up in animation sort of layers, like foreground, background, mid-ground and effects, and that kind of thing. So the process of working on the book moved the animation pipeline forward quite a bit.”
Valley made a thousand copies of the book and the idea was that if he sold all of the books, he’d have $20,000 to invest in the film. “The mathematics never really worked out properly,” he admits. “So I had to do freelance work. That's why this was a five-year project, because occasionally I'd have to pull out and get cashed up again, and then take another run at it.” Along the way, he was able to pick up freelance design work from Laika on a part-time basis, which allowed him continue financing the film production.
According to Valley, he went to great lengths to maintain the graphic qualities of the book in the film, in many cases animating the actual panels right from the book, which gives it it’s unique look.
For the first half of the film, the audience doesn’t even see Techno. That’s quite deliberate. Valley notes that everyone knows someone like Techno, and he wanted the audience to substitute their own Techno. “In the the second half of the story, he's in almost every frame of the film, or at least in every scene, so you really get to know the character, because that's what it felt like for me going to China. I felt I really needed to get to know this person again.”
Valley describes that since he had done all the files for the book in Photoshop, when he was ready to do the animation, he started playing with Photoshop’s Timeline feature. “I liked the idea of keeping it all in Photoshop because it would have all the same color profiling and noise textures I was using. So I felt confident that I could basically just transition right from book to animation using the same software.”
“So, for the most part, I just animated the whole film in Photoshop,” he says. “Some of the more complicated scenes needed to be composited in After Effects, but I was able to get most of the scenes, if not done, to about 95% completion, and then I would finish them off in After Effects.”
In the end, Valley relied on Adobe Premiere for editing. “I basically just used those three programs: After Effects, Premiere and Photoshop, which I had on my computer. I didn't have to pay for any expensive animation software. It was just the tools that I had available.”
Valley explains that over the course of two-and-a-half years, he painstakingly pieced the animation together, frame by frame, and his biggest challenge was staying the course. “Even though you're only doing a second a day, which doesn't seem like much, it’s about seven seconds a week, and that's about 30 seconds a month and soon, you can start to see the accumulation of the animation happening. And the months went by pretty quickly. It just felt like I had to stay in it to get the film done.”
Facing such a daunting task, he had to give himself short term goals along the way, “to artificially give myself a little boost of confidence here and there.” It also took a certain amount of restraint in order to pace himself. “I would never do too much in a day. I would never work all night,” he says. “I just had to accomplish one thing every day and make sure I didn't have to go back and re-do it later, because that's really demoralizing.”
Along the way, he drew inspiration from music, using it as “a way of drawing out a lot of the imagery.”
“I'd stick a song in the edit and put some images from the book in there and see which way it went,” Valley notes. “And sometimes nice things would happen, so when that presented itself, I just continued to go on in that direction… I would say that music was probably the biggest inspiration for me in this film.”
Eventually, he hit the point where it was time to enlist the aid of a studio as a co-production partner. He had been working with London-based Passion Pictures, and known executive producer Cara Speller for over 20 years, so he brought the film to them. Valley explains, “It was far enough along that they could see how it was going, but it wasn't really done yet, so [EPs] Andrew Ruhemann and Cara Speller had to use their imagination, but they said, ‘I'm not sure if this will make any money, but it's a story we could get behind.’”
“It was a perfect little arrangement between Passion and myself, and quite frankly, when it got towards the end, there were a lot of parts of this production, like the music licensing and the completion of the film that I had really no idea how to do by myself. So that's when the partnership with Passion really kicked in,” he says.
According to Valley, Passion also helped fine tune the film. “At one point, we were up past 40 minutes and then Cara started doing some research, and we needed to pull it back a bit in order to qualify for the Oscars, for example. And the shorter we were able to get it, the more festivals it would qualify for.”
But throughout the process, Valley always tried to stay true to the original script, written at his wife’s bedside while she was in labor.
“I always went back to the original story because life isn't a perfect movie, and I wanted to make an imperfect film because that's a reflection of a more accurate telling of someone's life,” he concludes. “In other words, I didn't want to manipulate the events to try to make for a better film, because I don't like stories about historical events or biographical events where you manipulate things to make it more interesting. To me, that takes away from its authenticity.”
Scott Lehane is a Toronto-based journalist who has covered the film and TV industry for 30 years. He recently launched VRNation.tv -- an online community for VR enthusiasts.