Director and After Effects:
Storyboarding Innovations on The Iron Giant

by Brad Bird

Editor's Note: Due to the sensitive nature of the material in development, Warner Bros. was unable to provide artwork from The Iron Giant or photos of the studio. So, readers: use your imaginations and wait for the release in 1999!

Many years ago, I had an argument with a fellow animator (now a Disney director) about the way animated features were storyboarded. This artist had been trained in the Disney method, as I had, and was convinced that it was the most effective way to plan an animated film. Simply put, the Disney method is to develop the "business" of the story (gags, situations, emotions, etc.) completely before dealing with how the business is to be presented. To consider the staging of a scene at this early point was seen as a straight jacket; a restriction of possibilities and a liability to the healthy growth of a story.

While I believed in the effectiveness of the Disney method (it's hard to argue with Walt's results), my insatiable appetite for well-directed movies had begun to have an effect on my own thought process. It became increasingly harder for me to have an idea without simultaneously imagining how the idea was staged. "Why separate it?" I challenged. "If someone comes up with a better way to do a scene, you can always change it!"

While staging is no substitute for story, I felt then, as I do now, that the camera is an unseen character, the eyes of the audience. It can assume a million different natures: a restless child, a cold killer, a fly on the wall...

Developing Story and Scene
I had no idea at the time that my impatience with the process would save my hide a few years later when working on The Simpsons, with its demanding mixture of priceless material and merciless schedules. In almost every episode there was a gag that was difficult to stage as written, plus, the comedy was more complex and the show's pace more accelerated than any other comedy, live-action or otherwise, on television.

At the time, all animated shows were staged in the same boring way: a wide establishing shot every time a location was introduced, medium shots anytime someone was moving around, close-ups whenever the characters were talking -- all rendered at a consistent, and dull, eye-level.

It quickly became clear that the ambitious nature of The Simpsons scripts, where the average half-hour contained an hour's worth of twists and turns, demanded more elaborate staging than the delightful "one-minutes" for The Tracy Ullman Show from which they sprang. The script's wild veerings between the lowest butt-crack jokes and Noel Coward references demanded a visual equivalent, and I started pushing the storyboard artists, many of whom had trained on "Saturday morning animation," to think of each episode as a movie, and to look toward Hitchcock, Welles, Kubrick and Scorcese for inspiration rather than other animation.

Many of the techniques these master filmmakers used to heighten drama could also be used to heighten comedy. We also tried to push the pace; doing long takes (a tremendous hassle when one is filming one frame at a time) one minute and then, going into a rapid series of jump cuts (also a hassle) the next.

Camera movement is always kept to a minimum in TV animation (pans are discouraged, except to follow a character in a walk or run cycle), but I felt camera moves were an important story-telling tool, especially because we had to keep our drawing count down. I pushed the use of short pans to get more movement into the shows, and as a way to reveal information in a comedic way. We had no time to ponder how a show was to be depicted, we had to get it out now because another episode was coming down the conveyer belt.

A Perpetual Battle
While I'm very proud of having been part of The Simpsons for so many years, I missed the finesse of full animation, on which all of my early training had focused. Many of my ambivalent feelings about the animation business spring from a Sophie's Choice between:
A) the project with plenty of time, money and resources to execute beautifully a narrow range of tired old material...or...
B) the project with almost no time and money to execute fresh and exciting material.

Given this awful choice, I've reluctantly chosen the latter, and found myself in television (i.e. The Simpsons), more often than not with material superior to anything I'd encountered in feature animation. Then, however, I was tied to a schedule that allowed us only to fill a few boxes with drawings and detailed instructions before we had to send it overseas.

Fortunately, with The Iron Giant, Warner Bros. has offered me my first opportunity to do something in feature animation outside of "the familiar tale set to Broadway music" formula, but with a budget sufficient to execute it here, in this country, under one roof and in full animation. Still, our parameters are tight. With a production schedule a year shorter and a budget less than half the size of our friends at either of the two D's (Disney and DreamWorks), our margin for error is minuscule. However, we are determined to tell our story as effectively as we can.

Adobe's After Effects is becoming a key tool for a variety of stages in animation production. It is now used as the main storyboarding software on The Iron Giant.."

Enter the New Technology
One of our most useful tools has been the use of After Effects, an off-the-shelf software technology by Adobe. My first exposure to this technology was several years ago, when I was up North visiting a friend of mine, Matthew Robbins, who, when not writing or directing feature films often directs commercials for Industrial Light & Magic.

He asked me if I wanted to "see something cool" and proceeded to show me a "moving storyboard" that had been executed just the night before by I.L.M. effects supervisor John Knoll, co-author of Adobe Photoshop. Using only the pre-existing storyboard drawings Matthew had been faxed by the ad agency, a Macintosh computer and the program he'd co-created, Knoll had added tremendous dimension and motion to the sketches, quickly transforming them into real movie shots.

Tree limbs swayed in the wind as leaves blew through the air. Camera moves turned flat drawings into dimensional multi-plane shots. I was hooked. I began to imagine how I could use this fabulous technology in animation and now, with The Iron Giant, I've finally gotten the chance.

Using camera moves on pose test reels is certainly nothing new, (we even used them on The Simpsons to try to get our timing down before we shipped the shows overseas), however, they have significant limitations; the artwork is semi-transparent, and has to be carefully registered on animation paper.

Traditionally in feature animation, camera moves were developed much later in the process, most often after animation was complete, and if the idea of the shot wasn't solid, much more time and money had been wasted.

What is unique about After Effects, and another comparable program Macromedia's Director (which we actually began with before switching to After-Effects full-time), is the speed and flexibility of the program. One can simulate complex camera moves with remarkable accuracy, using simple, unregistered artwork that is opaque like finished animation.

Macromedia's Director was first used as the storyboard software on The Iron Giant, which explains why that department at Warner Bros. Feature Animation is called "Macro."

Applying It To The Giant
Led by Jeff Lynch, our Iron Giant story team quickly grasped how to prepare storyboards for Director and After Effects shots. In fact, once they got it down, it was actually less work for them than conventional storyboards. Soon, thanks to our gifted Macro (by the time we switched from Director to After Effects, we had already coined this new department `Macro' after the software manufacturer and somehow that never changed!) artist Andrew Jimenez, some surprisingly effective shots were dropping into our story reel. This was a very useful tool, not only for explaining the film to Warner Bros. executives, but also to our own crew, which was growing rapidly.

Because it allowed us to introduce much more movement into our story reels, which can become almost painfully static, it enabled us to get a much better approximation of the finished film at a much earlier point, particularly when combined with a non-linear editing machine like an AVID, which can easily speed up or slow down moves, lengthen holds or pluck out frames.

Working with Jeff, who was part of that early Simpsons storyboard team, and his stellar crew, we solved many timing and staging problems before the scenes even started layout. This new process also occasionally influenced my editing decisions, where the kinetics of certain shots suggested their marriage, the way it often does in live-action films.

Many were skeptical of this technique, seeing it as an extra and unnecessary step. Others were slow to embrace its usefulness as a tool, preferring more familiar methods.

Did this process save us tremendous amounts of money?

No, but it gave us a chance to try things that were more ambitious than our schedule and budget really allowed. We could imagine the pace and the unfolding of our film accurately with a relatively small expenditure of resources. We were free to make the big mistakes in the cheap part of the process.

We were only able to implement partially the process I imagined on The Iron Giant, but based on my experience, I'm committed to implement it completely on the next opportunity I'm offered.

Will other people adopt this process? Who knows? Maybe my old Disney friend is reading this article right now...

Brad Bird started his first animated film at age 11, finishing it at age 13. The film brought him to the attention of Walt Disney Studios, where, at age 14, Brad was mentored by Milt Kahl, one of Disney's legendary Nine Old Men. In addition to working as an animator at Disney and other studios, Bird has written screenplays for both live-action (*batteries not included) and animation. He has since served as executive consultant on The Simpsons and King of the Hill and was the writer, director and co-producer of the original Family Dog for Steven Spielberg's Amazing Stories. Currently, Bird is the director and co-writer of The Iron Giant, an animated feature being produced by Warner Bros.

Text © 1998 Brad Bird.

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