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Beorn Leonard on the making of Glass Half

We interview Australian artist Beorn Leonard on the making of Glass Half, and his experience of writing and directing the film. The production of the short was completed in around 7 weeks at the Blender Institute in Amsterdam, using the open source software Blender.

The Interview

You’ve been working as a character animator for some years, what motivated you to embark on your own short film project?

I’ve always been a storyteller, drawing my own comics and writing short stories in my own time since I was a kid. I just always liked the feeling of creating characters, bringing them to life and using them to tell a story, make a point or make people laugh. Professionally I got started as a 3d generalist and motion graphics artist. I worked at that for years but eventually got frustrated with the lack of storytelling and acting possibilities in this field, so I decided to specialise in character animation. Over the years I contributed story ideas to a few shorts, eventually writing the original script for the Blender Foundation’s “Caminandes: Gran Dillama”. With this trajectory it was inevitable that I would end up wanting to write and direct my own movies. To me it’s not so much a change of direction as a return to what I always wanted to do.

How did you come up with the idea of focusing it on the subject of art and people’s different views on art?

Originally the idea was not about art at all. It was just about people’s different perspectives on life. The idea started life as a single panel cartoon I drew years ago which featured two characters looking at a cylinder from different angles and arguing about whether it was a circle or a square. This cartoon was never published and since then I’ve seen exactly that idea independently created by other cartoonists, but I still thought that the theme was worth exploring.

I wanted to make the point that everyone has a different perspective on reality,  that many (or most) of us are totally convinced of our own perspectives and that even when two perspectives conflict they can still both be right (or wrong) at the same time. Basically, nobody has a monopoly on reality and that quite often the truth has more nuance than can be understood by a single limited perspective.

In 2014 I made a plan to come up with three good story outlines by the end of the year, and to pick the best (or at least most achievable)  and make it during 2015. Around that time I was regularly getting together with fellow animator Hjalti Hjalmarsson and discussing story ideas. It was during one of these discussions that Hjalti suggested that the perspectives story could be played out by two artists trying to paint the same object, but coming up with totally different pictures. I tried that out, but had trouble turning it into a satisfying short film, so I tweaked it slightly to be about two critics looking at the same pieces of “art”.

You dedicated quite a bit of effort to the story. Please tell us a bit what the process of developing the story was like.

In March I started working as an animator at the Blender institute where Hjalti and I kept the story meetings going along. We and some of the other artists were getting together every week to discuss our various story ideas. This was when concept artist and animator Sarah Laufer came up with the idea of shooting the whole film from the perspective of the paintings themselves (previously this was only going to happen on the final painting). This suited the concept so well and allowed for great opportunities for interesting staging, so we went with it.

I started storyboarding the ideas and pitched the idea to producer Ton Roosendaal, who liked it. So I started writing the script. This is when the danger of over complication started. Through all the story discussions we had started to add gags involving extra characters and extra subplots. The script was becoming overcomplicated and the original concept was being watered down. This culminated one evening when I pitched the script to the whole crew and everybody stayed silent, looking at their shoes. Ton said “What happened? It was a nice little story, now it’s too complicated!”

I remember reading an interview with the great animation director Chuck Jones, where he says that since cartoons are a visual medium, they should have visual scripts. So I abandoned the idea of a written script, set about removing all the extra stuff that wasn’t necessary to the plot and drawing a really simple animatic in Blender. When you’re writing a script it’s easy to just keep adding ideas, it’s as easy as typing them, but it’s when you actually draw the ideas that you can see not only if they will work, but you also get a better sense if they are technically achievable.

Blender has a very simple “grease pencil” drawing tool that was originally added to allow drawing in the 3d viewport for the purpose of giving feedback notes to animators. Since it was simple to use and had animation features, I and a few other artists had been experimenting with using it to do basic animatics. Since then the grease pencil tool has been further developed to better support this sort of use and is now quite powerful for this.

This proved to be the best approach; doing the story in this way allowed me to quickly sketch an idea and test it with timing immediately, which was great for seeing if the idea was going to work. It basically shortened the time between having an idea and seeing it play as a movie. The other advantage is that it enabled me to do the whole thing natively in Blender, which was the chosen software for the production of the movie.

In the end the animatic was much simpler and had more impact than the script, and it made people laugh.

You mentioned that the aesthetic (a non-photorealistic rendering style) was one of the main goals of the short. Which were the main guidelines you used for the aesthetics of the film, character design and the motion graphics? How did these evolve through working with Sarah Laufer?

A stylised look seemed to fit the story better. I knew that it could probably work with a more realistic style, but it would actually be better if it was more stylised, driving home the point about reality being something more detailed than an individual’s limited perspective, including that of the audience.

More generally, I like the trend that’s emerging in modern 3d animation of being more playful with aesthetics. Recent movies like “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs” “The Lego Movie” and “Peanuts” to name a few, have their own styles, both in how they are designed and how they’re animated and I really like that. It feels like 3d animation is maturing and diversifying a lot in recent years. It’s very inspiring.

I discussed these thoughts with Sarah, who reacted enthusiastically, and set about exploring different styles. Sarah is a fantastic concept artist with a very strong sense of aesthetics. She would generate a bunch of ideas, and we would discuss them, and she would further refine them until we reached the look that we thought best fitted the story. That process was a lot of fun.

The motion graphics were a bit more difficult, because they were more abstract and a bit different from what had been done before in cartoons. I knew Andy Goralczyk to be a fantastic designer and artist already, but even though his early tests were great it was still a challenge to come up with designs for all 21 frames that supported the story rather than distract from it, and avoid repetition. One thing that helped was the “dialogue script” I wrote for the voice actors, which contained suggested English translations of what they were to say in gibberish. Andy took several ideas from that for the picture frames. A particularly tricky challenge was the design of the final image and how it relates to the big reveal outside. He had several attempts at that and was working on it right up until the end of production. In the end I think he did a great job with that stuff. It looks amazing and really supports the story well.

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