Saturday 7 December 2013

BFI Southbank: Disney's "Frozen" Preview & Director Q&A!

*This review will be spoiler-free! :) Sensitive spoiler material will be written in white text so you have to highlight it to read!*

Last Wednesday (4th December) I got the exciting opportunity to see a preview of Disney's latest CGI feature Frozen, as well as the short film opener Get a Horse! followed by a Q&A with the Directors and Producer at the BFI Southbank after work in London.

The part 2D hand-drawn black and white, part computer generated colour film, Get a Horse! (directed by Lauren MacMullan, the first female Disney animation director) was a treat to watch. The original steam-boat willie style animation was recreated beautifully and the CGI counterparts were also very closely animated to the same style. In fact in a recent Skwigly podcast with Eric Goldberg and Lauren MacMullan, Eric Goldberg said that they managed to fool Disney veteran John Musker that the old style, tea-stained black and white cels they were creating were actually authentic cels from the '30s, not "new" animation.

Most interesting is the fact that the clean-up artists actually had to unlearn their skills to trace back perfectly with a fine, clean line and instead learned to animate like the creator of Mickey, Ub Iwerks. In this short they actually had to leave intentional mistakes, at the cost of their professional sanity! Lauren MacMullan joked that this 'mistake pass' was actually painful for some of the artists. But the most gripping thing about it was its' inventiveness. The interaction between 2D and CG was flawless and truly showed off Disney's technical capabilities. There was a ton of laughs and lots of fun references, and of course Walt Disney's original recorded dialogue for Mickey Mouse! It was a lovely short and I can't wait to see what they do next with mixed mediums like in this and Paperman. 2D is definitely still alive.

But on to the main show! I first heard of Frozen a couple of years ago, it was first pitched as a 2D film based on the Snow Queen which would have been particularly exciting but what with the not-so-big success of The Princess and the Frog and the phenomenal success of last year's Tangled and Wreck-it-Ralph, the change in direction is understandable, but more-so, I don't think the style of 2D would have fitted this film quite so well. If it were a direct adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen, then I could have easily seen it as a hand drawn feature, but Frozen is a story inspired by The Snow Queen, not adapted from. From a technical standpoint, the snow and ice could not have been rendered quite so convincingly in 2D (at least not without a lot of time and a huge budget) and the CGI approach is highly suited to this gorgeous, heart-felt, modern and progressive film.

I originally had misgivings, the teaser they released a few months ago, featuring the sentient, talking snowman Olaf (played by Josh Gad) and another dog-like horse character (like Maximus in Tangled) in the form of a reindeer, Sven, seemed to reveal another whimsical, tongue-in-cheek comedy flick. And I wasn't that fond of the snowman character, but boy, was I wrong!

As much as I love 2D drawings, Frozen was stunning as a CGI feature.

Put simply, if The Princess and the Frog, Tangled, Wreck-it-Ralph and Pixar's Brave, were all leading up to something, it would be this movie. Frozen takes the lush CGI visuals of Tangled, combined with the 2D drawovers they did on top of the CG to bring appeal to the poses (Glen Keane notably did this process for Tangled, but since his departure from Disney, Mark Henn has taken over this role for Frozen); the feminist role reversals from Brave; the modern attitudes and humour from Wreck-it-Ralph; and the traditional fairytale roots of The Princess and the Frog and everything leading up to it, and ended up with the next step of Disney's legacy.

In a spoiler-free nutshell, Frozen is a story of two sisters, Anna and Elsa (played by Kristen Bell and Idina Menzel respectively), who are princesses of the kingdom of Arendelle in a country based roughly on Norway. The older sister, Elsa, was born with extraordinary powers to create ice and snow from her hands, but is forced to keep it a secret from her sister Anna, causing a rift between them. Eventually Elsa's secret gets out and she escapes Arendelle to keep her powers from hurting anyone, so Anna and a village boy, Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) and his best friend reindeer, Sven, go on a mission to bring her back.

A tale of two sisters, not a Princess looking for her Prince.
Like in Lilo & Stitch in 2001, and last year's Brave, it's really special seeing an animated movie centred on such strong, funny, entertaining and complex female characters. It's still appalling that this is a rare occurrence, but thankfully Frozen has all the empowering qualities a girl could ask for, complete with a feminist twist! Not to mention it is officially the first feature-length animated Disney film directed by a woman (!): Jennifer Lee (screenwriter for Wreck-it-Ralph) co-directed with Chris Buck (Tarzan, Surf's Up) and she also wrote the screenplay. If only this had happened years ago!

In the Q&A, director Chris Buck (and I'm paraphrasing here) explained that in the process of creating Frozen, Chris and Jennifer Lee wanted to explore what 'True Love' meant from fairytales, as often in stories and curses, the spell wouldn't specify that true love has to come from a love interest, when it could quite simply come from the love of a family member or platonic friend. So it became a question of what is True Love versus Romantic Love? Chris Buck joked that "Romantic Love only lasts about 6 months--sorry to break it to you!", but true love from your family that would do anything for you can be much stronger and last forever. This has been pointed out in original fairytales for a long time, so it's about time that animated features caught up!

BFI Southbank in London. Front left to right, Peter Del Vecho, Jennifer Lee, Chris Buck and BFI Interviewer
They were asked about the changes in the story of Frozen from the Snow Queen, as they are very different stories. Jennifer Lee explained very understandably that the changes were necessary to better understand the Snow Queen's character and make her more human and relatable and not just an evil villain. In earlier versions of the story, there was a more evil and older version of The Snow Queen that became problematic for them because she couldn't be connected emotionally to Anna, so instead they made them sisters and then royalty soon after that (which merchandising was very happy about!) to raise the stakes. Jennifer Lee said that she would refer back to the book by Hans Christian Andersen many times throughout production to make sure they were on the right track, but ultimately she said the original was too dark and episodic to turn into a Disney feature, but that the heart of Anna (or Gerda) was the true force of the story.

Ultimately I believe these changes were vital for the story they wanted to make and gives it such a passionate and important message. I was initially disappointed that Elsa wasn't the iconic snow queen I know from the book, but having seen the film, I now adore Elsa and the relationship to her sister Anna. I do think you have to go into this film not expecting a retelling of the Snow Queen and take the movie its' own right.

Concept art of Anna and Kristoff by Minkyu Lee
The Directors also spoke about taking the film to Ed Catmull periodically. In the ending of the film (I won't say what part it was, but if you've seen it, you'll know!) it was planned to end in a particular way from the very beginning, and Ed Catmull would say (to the Directors) that it was great and that they could take any path they wanted to get to that ending, but they couldn't change it and he had to really feel it. And it wasn't until June 2013 (not long before the film would be finished!) that he finally said he felt it. It's one of the best parts of the film so it's wonderful that is was there from the start of the whole project.

The powerful emotional core of Frozen is all the more strengthened by the utterly breathtaking soundtrack featuring songs written by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez (Winne-The-PoohAvenue Q, The Book of Mormon) and scored by Christophe Beck. The married song-writing duo turn Frozen into a true broadway musical, the songs blend perfectly from talking to singing and bring the power and passion of the characters out of the screen. The lyrics perfectly accentuate the themes of the film and there are lots of lovely details to pick up on repeated listens. Christophe Beck also went to great lengths to get the Norway inspired music, some of which was recording with genuine Norwegian instruments and choirs.

And do I even need to explain how amazing and catchy these songs are? I'm going to let this one sing for herself:

*Warning: You will not be able to stop listening to this once you start, also, it's really worth saving this scene for the big screen first!*

It also helps to have real broadway performers voice and sing for your characters, hats off to Idina Menzel, Kristen Bell, Jonathan Groff, Josh Gad and Santino Fontana, they all do an excellent job bringing these characters to life and of course singing their hearts out! When is the broadway musical coming out, Disney?

The producer, Peter Del Vecho, also explained during the Q&A that this film was made under extremely tight turnarounds, so that production had to start well before the script was even finished! It's truly marvelous what they managed to accomplish with such overlap between writing and animation (which is way too expensive to change so decisions have to be stuck with!) but the Directors said that they didn't have to compromise that much and production seemed to go quite smoothly despite the schedule.

Personally I felt that in some aspects of the story, the fast production did show, but only in respect to setting up the world and the characters, i.e. where did Elsa get her powers from? Does it run in the family or is it a 'one-off'? And for that matter, *mild spoiler* where do moss-covered stone trolls come from and why so they adopt Kristoff and his reindeer? And why did Elsa never reveal to Anna that she had nearly died as a child? It's not that important but could definitely have added to the drama! */mild spoiler* I also really do wish the first song, "Do You Want to Build a Snowman?" could have been that little bit longer! Elsa and Anna as children are so fun and adorable and I just wanted to see more! And the song is too short! More verses, another chorus... now! ;)

And really, all that means is that my main problem with the film is that I just want more, which is arguably a good thing for a film to leave a viewer wanting. So for now, I'm happy with that...

One aspect that didn't look rushed at all though, has to be the animation and effects. Everything that Disney has done so far has really culminated here, you can almost see the charming pencil drawings move through the CG characters, showing again that a traditional understanding of animation is vital in producing computer animation. It really pays off too, Elsa and Anna really do look like they are singing and they are so endearing the whole way through. They squash and stretch and move in intricate and dynamic ways. And Olaf the snowman (the one character I wasn't sure about) actually ended up being a lot of fun and it's clear that the animators loved getting his scenes to play with. Jennifer Lee mentioned that they loved breaking him apart so much (one of the perks of being a sentient snowman with no internal organs to worry about) that when it came to the more emotional scenes they would have to reign them in and say "can we keep his head on just this once, please?"

The art direction by Michael Giaimo (Pocahontas) demonstrates how a world covered in white snow can actually be multiple colours at once (never just white!) and the characters design and costumes show lovely traditional touches with great appeal. Frozen did have some prior criticism due to the likeness between Elsa, Anna and Rapunzel from Tangled, but in the film the likeness doesn't show. They have similar 'pretty girl' looks but the direct likeness is more apparent in promotional artwork rather than the film itself.

And then there's the effects which have really gone above and beyond what has been done with ice and snow thus far and created such a magical yet believable world. The effects department had to go in and create new software to create dry, powdery snow, or crystal clear ice, or wet, slippery snow, the possibilities were endless. Chris Buck said their first test looked like 'packing peanuts' so they must have really come a long way to reach this level. The ice palace sequence for Elsa's "Let it Go" song (the video embedded above) is the most stunning sequence in the whole film. On Disney's Facebook page, they posted recently that the scene where she walks out on the balcony for the first time is 218 frames long and in particular, one of those frames (just one) was the longest they've ever had to render for a film. It took 5 whole days!! Just for one frame! Thankfully the result is worth it and this is really one of the best CGI films to date.

All in all, we have a wonderful feminist film that is great for both children and adults (and those big kids in-between!) with instantly gripping music, beautiful visuals and a story full of heart co-directed and written by the first female Director for a feature and another for the short Get a Horse!, we have certainly been spoiled this Christmas! I sincerely hope Disney keeps this up with their future films. There really isn't much else I can say except to go and watch this amazing film and just--

-BRB, listening to the soundtrack for the 100+ time :3
P.S. expect a lot of Frozen fan art from me this Christmas. A Lot.

Tuesday 8 October 2013

My Thoughts on Downton Abbey, Episode 3

****Trigger Warning and Spoilers Ahead!****

Last night I sat with my family to catch up with the latest season of Downton Abbey on ITV player, as we had missed episodes the last two episodes of season four. Last year's season had tragically killed off two main characters from the show (and one on Christmas day, no less) and episode one was the grim aftermath of that death, but still we watched, expecting the usual upper class drama and light humour.

I clicked to watch episode three and received a minimum age warning to play the episode. Odd. Downton is normally a 12 certificate in the UK. The warning didn't explain the reason and I carried on regardless. As the episode played out, it slowly dawned on me what the warning was intended for. During the climactic end moments of the episode as the visiting singer Dame Nellie Melba performs, the kind and happily married Anna, is brutally raped by one of the visitors to Downton, unbeknownst to the rest of the house.

(Side note: I don't wish to glorify the subject, so will avoid the use of provocative words while trying to discuss my thoughts on this episode, for my own sanity and the readers!)

To my relief, the show spared the audience too many details, but needless to say it was cruel and violent and cut me to the core. It then returns to the warm, happy party upstairs and an utterly agonising wait to see Anna's fate ensues. Eventually Mrs. Hughes returns to her room to find Anna there begging for help. It was incredibly distressing to see, made all the more unbearable by Joanne Froggatt's spectacular performance.

It was a shocking and poignant, but I'm not writing this to criticise this episode, nor to applaud Julian Fellowes' 'tackling' of the subject, but rather to ask, why?

Earlier that day, I had watched the documentary 'Miss Representation' on Netflix, highlighting the issues of over/hyper sexualisation in the media for women and men and there were parts of that were difficult to watch. I won't go into detail but it's a very important and fascinating documentary that I urge you to watch. In a nutshell, seeing the effects of sexism in America was deeply depressing. Here in the UK statistics are significantly better for women, but even so, any abusive act towards women is terrible and seeing poor Anna in that situation really pin pointed what I had seen that day.

In recent years I've noticed that when the media highlights an issue, it is fully demonstrated for audiences for the sake of 'awareness'. So if there is a concern that someone wants to do something about, they tend to do it by showing how bad it is. This can be effective, but it's very difficult to then take the next step, which would be someone overcoming the issue or showing how it doesn't have to exist any more. When a popular show like Downton raises the issue of sexual assault, while it is certainly still prevalent, it is one of possibly many demonstrations of how bad it is. Furthermore, if you take the statistics from Miss Representation of the number of women who have been raped in America, that is potentially 1/8 of your audience who will relive a traumatic experience or more likely refuse to watch it.

Am I saying that all instances of abuse should be avoided in media for the sake of the audience? No. Of course it is important to remind viewers that these problems exist for a great many people. However, media should be taking extreme care and caution with these subjects so that they are not glorified. While I do believe this episode of Downton was skilfully and carefully approached, I still hated to see it happen. The dance outing to York with Rose and Anna, the punch-up at the dance venue, the stranger who came to Downton in the middle of the night to seek Rose afterwards, all of these subtly pointed to the horror to come. But for it to happen to Anna was truly heartbreaking.

Perhaps Julian Fellowes is pleased that myself and others suffered so much at the results of his writing, as writer, you want to stir emotions in the viewer, but is sexual assault really the best way to do this? Does it draw attention to the ugliness of it, or is it glorification? I don't watch a lot of Television, so I don't know if this episode is making any particular point compared to what else is on at the moment.

I admit, as horrible as it was to watch, it was very carefully put together. It was short and showed just enough to know that it happened without telling everything and the assault was definitely negatively portrayal and to be taken seriously. The question is, what will be done with it? From the preview for next week's episode, it looks like Anna and her husband, Mr. Bates are drifting apart, from Anna's trauma and inability to tell him what happened. Where they go with it will play a big part in what the whole point of that scene was. Why put the cast, crew and audience through this experience if you're not going to say something about it?

I patiently await what this Sunday's episode will bring as I try to shake off yesterday's feelings.

Sunday 18 August 2013

Princess Mononoké Animation Production Cel

This is a genuine animation cel from Hayao Miyazaki's 'Princess Mononoké' (1997) that I bought from the Japanese Gallery in London. ( This is one of the 144,000 cels that were hand inked and painted for production before being layered on top of painted backgrounds and sometimes other coloured cels (additional characters, props and special effects) and shot under a camera for the finished film. Miyazaki himself oversaw every cel in production and is said to have personally redrawn parts of 80,000 of these cels, so it is likely he had a part in producing this cel!

The colours are wonderfully vivid! You can see the pencil outline around the painted cel, it's slightly misaligned due to the positioning of the paper (the pegbar holes are not matched between cel/paper when mounted and framed).

Authenticity sticker on the back from The Japanese Gallery in London, UK, they are a really lovely shop with very friendly and enthusiastic staff and will hopefully have more stock soon, so keep an eye out on their website! They rarely get Ghibli cels, but they have great stock from Dragonball Z, Sailor Moon and sometimes Pokémon! They have a lovely Shinji cel from Neon Genesis Evangelion at the moment, too!

Mononoké is the last Studio Ghibli film to have been hand painted on cel (nowadays the films are still drawn, but coloured and put together on a computer instead) so this is a piece of cinematic history that I'm very happy to own (and it is one of my favourite films, too!). Animation cels are an expensive investment, as they are completely unique works of art and but they are beautiful pieces to own and it's an art form that doesn't really exist anymore thanks to digital colouring so they are also more valuable as they age.

An animation cel is produced by tracing the lines of the characters from an animation drawing in a dark ink onto transparent cel (so you can see through to the background beneath) and then carefully painting the colours (light and dark) onto the back of the cel. In this example, the line between dark and light colours are also drawn in a coloured ink (see close up below) so that the shade will not flicker between frames and the line will not show on the finished film. This is the result, but when you look at the back of a cel, it's an interesting mass of colour that is odd to look at but very revealing of the production process! Sadly the back of this cel cannot be accessed due to reasons explained below.

Here you can see an example of skin tone by Ashitaka's ear where they painted a corrective colour on top rather than scrape off the original tone from the paint and repaint it. You have to look very closely to notice!

The cel is mounted on top of the production drawing beneath (in Japan these clean-up drawings are called 'douga'). Sadly the two are completely stuck together and I'd hate to spoil either the cel or drawing in the process of separating them! This happens sometimes when the drawing and cel are shipped together, instead of being stored in special cel bags to avoid them sticking. Some of the red from Eboshi's kimino has also bled onto the drawing underneath which is a real shame.

The slight ripples in the cel are reflected here. You can also see the coloured pencil lines on the paper which are used to differentiate shading and/or different characters.

The cel is number B-16. The 'B' means it is the second cel layer/field (there are background characters and an effects layer in this scene, too) and the 16 denotes the 16th frame in the scene. The number isn't circled, so it is probably an in-between, rather than a key, but it looks like a key drawing when you see it in the context of the scene in the movie.

A personally captured still from Princess Mononoké (1997)

This is the exact frame of Princess Mononoké that this cel was used for. It's from my favourite sequence in the whole film where Mononoké enters Irontown to kill Lady Eboshi, but Ashitaka, who wishes for peace, intercepts their battle to return the princess to her forest. I cannot wait for the Blu-Ray release of this film! 

This is the first animation cel I've ever purchased, and hopefully not the last as I adore traditional animation and have a tendency for collecting things... I don't know when I'll find and buy my next cel, but I'll post more pictures when I do! :) If you have any questions, feel free to ask! :)

Monday 27 May 2013

Dr. Sketchy's Japan: FuturePast - Life Drawing with Hatsune Miku!

Last weekend I attended a Dr. Sketchy's life drawing event in Chester with my sister and friend Zara--a special "erotic" drawing class with a Hatsune Miku cosplayer, @DoitCosplayGirl and traditional Japanese dancer Kana Nagashima!

The poster for the event
Here are some of my drawings from the night, I found that drawing clothed models was a little trickier than drawing nude models like in other classes, as I concentrated too much on the costume, but once I started using a brush pen, my drawings relaxed a bit and the looser style fit the session a bit more.

A 'manga-fied' portrait of my sister

A 'manga-fied' portrait of me by Zara!

It was a really fun night with lots of artists (new and experienced) and was complete with vocaloid music. It was a great atmosphere and at the end all the artists put their favourite drawings on the stage to be picked by Madame Ex (the organiser), the models, and a wonderful guest artist, Jodie Wynne (who presented a great 'how to draw' manga style demonstration) for prizes.

One of my drawings actually got picked by Jodie Wynne for a prize, a lovely illustrated book called So Good for Little Bunnies by Brandi Milne, which took me by surprise! The drawings on show were amazing!

Drawings by Zara (bottom) and Edalie (top) 

Our lovely models!

My favourite drawing from the night and the awesome book I won :)

Dr. Sketchy's drawing events aren't too frequent but I can't wait to go to the next one this summer! :) I highly recommend them. :)

Funky Aardvark Life Drawing 17th / 24th April

Some life drawing I just got round to scanning from two life drawing evenings at Funky Aardvark in Chester. It's a great session of quick and long poses in a fun and relaxed atmosphere with tea and music! Unfortunately I only managed 2 classes before I started my new job in London as they are on Wednesdays... hopefully I can make it back there in the summer!

Watercolour + pen

Oil pastel

Back poses, the model had gorgeous wing tattoos on her back so they had to be included!
Funky Aardvark is a fantastic art shop in Chester where I'm looking to sell art prints + cards with my sisters in the near future so look out for that! :)

Sunday 24 February 2013

Acorns Wins 'Royal Television Society' Wales Centre Award for Undergraduate Animation!

On February 22nd 2013, my graduation film Acorns was awarded First Place in the Undergraduate Animation category from the Royal Television Society (Wales Centre Student Television Awards 2012). The award was presented at the Ffresh Student Moving Image Festival of Wales Awards Show taking place at Glyndwr University.

Although I had attended the festival and volunteered there this year, I sadly was unable to attend the awards show, but thankfully my fantastic friends Bryony Evans and Zara Williams (also nominated for the award) were able to collect the award for me (and surprise me with it at lunch the next day!), thanks guys! I was completely unaware I had even been nominated for this so it's such an incredible surprise!

The RTS Jury had this to say about Acorns on their website:
Acorns was also very accomplished and felt a very complete animation project. It was classy, enchanting and sophisticated, providing a captivating representation of the seasons through colour and it also featured a stunning piano score. Overall, Jury Members were unanimously impressed by its sophistication and high quality.

The first prize winner in each category will also be submitted for judging at the UK final of the RTS Student Television Awards, to be held in London during April.

For a full list and breakdown of the nominees for the award, please visit the Royal Television Society website.

I was absolutely astounded to have received this award for my film and am so thankful! Months and months of constant hard work and dedication went into realising it as well as the invaluable help of my crew without whom the film would never have been finished! 

As such, I give a huge thanks to Co-Writer and Colourist Emily Roberts, Lead Colorist/Additional Art Director Eleanor Roberts, a beautiful musical score by Ben Rusch, production scanning by Alex Huxley and Alex Brewer, additional compositing by Cosmo Wallace and Michael Alfred, my army of Clean-Up Artists and Digital Colourists, Nadine El Kheshen, Cassie Austin, Gemma Ursell, Ying Sun, Kojo Acquaah Harrison, Emmanuel Viscarra, Victoria Clark, Zara Williams, Nina Ashill, Sarah Huxley, Paul Littlefair, Eva Wagner and Stephanie Walker, my fellow film makers Rob Morgan, Jess Leslau, Zara Williams, Bryony Evans, Claire Spiller and Vikki Clark, my Uni lecturers for never-ending feedback and tutorials and of course my Mum & Dad, grandparents and friends & family for their unwavering love and support. <3>

Without further ado, here are some pretty pictures! 

And then our family cat, Mila wanted to get in on the fun!

Thanks to my sister Emily for my fab photo!
Thanks everyone for this amazing award, I still cannot believe it! :)