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Beorn Leonard on the making of Glass Half

Did you use any artists as inspiration for the two aesthetics clashing in the film and the related animated paintings? Where did the idea for the duck come from?

Right at the start I did indeed have a couple of artists in mind: Francisco Goya and Australian artist Ken Done. However, we soon departed from them as more ideas emerged, and as the visual style of the movie developed. In the end I’m glad we mixed it up a bit, as it says more about the character’s personalities rather than simply their taste in art.

The duck started out as a can of soup and a window cleaner.

Let me explain…

Around the time when the script was getting complicated, Sarah suggested having an extra character that agreed with both of the main characters, and both of them hated him for it. I liked this a lot and when I simplified the story, this is one of the ideas I kept. Andy then suggested that he should be saying something completely random, but in a good natured agreeable way. From memory, his suggestion was a Warhol style tomato soup can. I was struggling with how best to do the reveal at the end, which at the time was by having a window cleaner come along at the crucial moment. It was then that I unified the ideas by replacing them both with a duck

Due to the use of “gibberish” language, there’s good effort dedicated to creating expressive animation. Please tell us how you approached this.

The idea was always to have strong, snappy animation with good clear posing and pantomime acting. As you say, the choice to use no real words in the dialogue made this more important. Essentially we approached the acting in almost the same way as a silent movie actor would. With this Hjalti was especially helpful as lead animator, as he has such strong ideas about how to make very clear animation. We shot a lot of reference of ourselves acting out the scenes as silent actors, then took the acting choices we liked from the reference and exaggerated them, plus adding new ideas as we animated.

Also, to complement the design style we chose a snappy style of animation borrowed more from the worlds of 2d and stop motion, where in many parts the animation is on 2’s, meaning the changes happen every 2 frames rather than on every frame. This is a technical necessity in 2d and stop motion, as it saves time, but it also when used correctly, it delivers more punch to the animation and helps deliver more clarity to the performances.

Staging feels especially playful, humor permeates the whole film Please tell us a bit how staging evolved to its final shape.

These ideas were definitely enriched by team discussions. As I mentioned previously, it was Sarah’s idea to shoot the whole movie from the point of view of the paintings, rather than just the last one. This was not only great conceptually, as the audience never sees the artworks, instead only seeing the character’s descriptions of them, but also visually as the frames provide a great motif to use for staging each shot. We could use them almost like comic book frames, which further supported the visual style.

You worked with improv actors Trista Mrema and Ryan Millar for the voices. How was the experience of working and rehearsing with them?

That was a bit scary, as I’d never done anything like that before, and due to the budget, time was short. I chose Ryan and Trista because I knew them from the local improv comedy scene here in Amsterdam, and had taken classes with both of them. The first attempt was not so successful, as I’d underestimated the need for rehearsal, and was still finding my feet as a director. As I mentioned I prepared an English dialogue script, which at first seemed like a good idea, but actually resulted in a not so good performance, as the actors seemed to focus too much on trying to scramble the dialogue rather than express the emotions of the characters. (Have you tried to spontaneously speak gibberish with conviction? It’s REALLY HARD!)

We ended up deciding to do a second session. This time I got them to rehearse a lot more beforehand, and focus on what the characters were thinking rather than what they were saying. Also, I asked for more subtlety, as the first session seemed to lack emotional range. This definitely worked better, with more light and shade and the result is what you hear in the movie.

The film was produced as an open movie project at the Blender Institute. How do you think this production method molded the final shape of the film?

Doing a Blender open movie means it was released to the public along with all the production assets for people to learn from. I had worked on a couple of these before and because the technical goals were so high, the production assets quite often ended up being unusable for the average user at home. This was due to them being very large and complicated, and requiring a very powerful computer (or bank of computers) to render them. I thought it would be nice to do something a bit more lightweight, that you could easily be rendered on a consumer laptop. This also steered me towards a simpler style.

Also, the production took place in the public eye, so as we were doing it we were showing our work the whole time, including recording all the daily animation critiques. This certainly put extra stress on what was already a tight deadline, as we felt the need to “feed the cloud” as well as do our regular job. However, this is what paid for the movie to get made, so we had to do it. In retrospect I wish we had have been more open with some of the more dry production aspects, like scheduling and budget, as these aspects are often overlooked by beginner filmmakers, but can actually make or break your production.

How did using Blender help in the production of the film?

A lot of people think that the main advantage of using Blender, and open source software in general, is the free price tag. Actually the real advantage is the openness. You get much better access to developers, and if you want to extend the tools yourself, there is a well documented scripting API, and it’s very easy to get help with making or refining tools. So in the end, it becomes a more powerful tool because of the openness, rather than the fact that it’s free.

What autobiographical elements do you find in the short?

My personality most closely resembles the “Max” character (the guy in black), and the question of a negative vs a positive outlook on life is one that constantly comes up for me in my own life. In truth I think both the pessimist and the optimist are equally delusional.

When did you see the film screened for the first time publicly and how did it feel like?

So far we’ve only screened it at the Blender conference, a week before we uploaded it to YouTube. The response there was great. It’s always an amazing feeling to make a room full of people laugh. Since it’s been online, the comments have also been overwhelmingly positive, and people seem to get the point of it as well. It’s been great!

Any interesting or funny anecdotes that you’d like to share?

During the production Ton came and told me about something I’d never heard of before: “dead duck day”. It commemorates the event when a duck flew into the window of the Natural History Museum in Rotterdam and died. What followed next was a little grotesque, but scientifically significant. I’ll let your readers search for more details, but apparently it’s every year on the 5th of June and this year was the tenth anniversary.

Also, I’ve been amused by a few requests I’ve had to subtitle the film. I considered doing it in wingdings, but decided against it.

Thank you for answering our questions.

Images are are (CC) Blender Foundation | Provided courtesy of Beorn Leonard.

 Don’t miss 

Watch Glass Half and read a film analysis

Glass Half's official page

Beorn Leonard's website

Beorn Leonard's animation reel

Blender's website

Francisco de Goya artworks

Ken Done artworks

Article published November 18, 2015


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