How an off-Broadway playwright made his way into an award-winning Filmmaker. – Nicholas Korn shares his experiences and tips
One of the most exciting cultural shifts that have resulted from the current digital revolution is this: that we all now have the opportunity to be our own filmmaking and broadcasting studios.
The social media platforms give us the channels to potentially reach millions of viewers, and the wide slate of applications now provide artists and storytellers with an unprecedented ability to create productions of amazing quality.
I know, because I produced my own animated film called Revel’s Rivals, and I was fortunate enough to have it win the Best Animated Feature award at the 2012 Louisville International Festival of Film. I spent eight months in 2011 working on that project, and except for the motion graphics in the title, every scene in the project was created with Reallusion’s CrazyTalk Animator.
I did not start out intending to become an animator, instead, I was (and remain) a playwright. But as the world and my skill sets became more digital, it seemed to be not only a natural next step but also an incredibly liberating concept to move your own script into production. I embraced this new mindset and was willing to take on the roles of designer, director, and animator, as well as all of the character voices.
In 1998, I created my own troupe. It was there that I started writing original scripts to add to our seasons of classical fare that featured plays by Shakespeare, Moliere, Chekhov and the ancient Greeks. After closing the troupe in 2003, I continued to write scripts for myself and for small performing groups, as well as a few film scripts.
As you might imagine, running a theater company or writing my own scripts never really paid much, so I made a living in marketing – which I still do. This line of work has allowed me to follow a budding interest in digital design, and over the years my knowledge of computer graphics, HTML, and video production increased.
So when I came upon the idea to create my own animated film, I was not starting from scratch but building on a personal history that bridged my experience as both a solid designer and a fairly accomplished man of the stage.
I had written the script for Revel’s Rivals in 2009 – a classically-styled comedy about a rascal named Revello who agrees to help a few of the local youths with their romantic hopes but ends up with the ladies in question falling for him instead.
In my own rough and tumble version of pre-production, I tested a number of the usual 3D figure programs and a few of the current 2D options that were available. The rendering for 3D animation just took far too much time and I would have spent years working on the project if I had decided to go that route. The 2D apps were a closer fit for what I had in mind, but nothing felt like the right fit.
Fortunately, CrazyTalk Animator 1 was just being released and even though that initial version was released for PC only, and I was Mac-based, I loaded up BootCamp and a copy of Windows to test the program. It didn’t take long for me to decide that CTA was going to be my best bet.
Here’s what won me over:
- Ease of use. Every animation application is going to have a learning curve, but I just seemed to be able to get nice results rather quickly
- The ability to create and animate character faces from photo-style images
- Lip-syncing that worked right away
- The quality of the output. The video resolution looked crisp and the colors had a nice vibrancy to them.
The birth of my first film- Revel’s Rivals
I think my situation is a little different from many CrazyTalk Animator users. Most seem to be illustrators who are looking to animate their own original characters – which is something I deeply respect. My way however, was to have the script and story first, and then look for ways to create the characters that could populate a digital stage space.
For Revel’s Rivals, I decided to use Poser 7 to create the characters. That version of Poser still had a feature which it has since been dropped: the Poser 4 render engine. I liked the glossy, candy-like look of the Poser 4 rendering over the realism of the FireFly engine that was meant as an upgrade.
Once I had my characters and costumes designed, I would export the heads and bodies separately and created the sprites for the body parts in Photoshop, then I reassembled the figures in CTA1. I spent a day recording all the dialogue, focusing on all of a single character’s lines in one stretch, then organized them in sequence with the script. CTA1 made it pretty easy to select a character, import the audio file to lip sync, and then move on the next line by selecting the next character to speak and repeat the process.
From there I would add the facial and body movements to bring the moment to life.
I must admit that the first few months were slow going. I was learning, but it was really exciting to actually finish a scene. As mentioned earlier, it took about 8 months to finish the whole project, but by month four I had a deeper understanding of how long a scene snippet could be and I had found ways to pick up the pace for animating the characters. If I had started the project at the more advanced level I reached later, it would have only taken about 4 months.
At the time, I used Apple Motion 4 to combine all the scene snippets into one, and then used Final Cut 9 to assemble those into the entire film. These days, I would do all of that in Final Cut X.
If you are interested in seeing the final result, Revel’s Rivals is available on Amazon (free for Amazon Prime Members).
I don’t get many views here in the U.S. – but I’m surprised how often people have watched it in the UK.
My Coming Attractions “His Immediate Majesty”
Although it’s been almost 4 years since finishing that film, now I am finally getting started on the next animated feature. Other projects can partly be blamed for the delay: I decided to write a more standard film script last year and was also fortunate enough to have a stage comedy of mine run Off-Broadway in NYC in the fall of 2015.
The Off-Broadway show is called Delirium’s Daughters – and I have page on my site that covers that production here.
As for the upcoming film, it will be titled His Immediate Majesty. Fortunately, Reallusion has recently released CrazyTalk Animator 3. I am still testing the new features, but I am most excited about the new bone rigging system which will make generating characters a great deal easier. The character design for this piece will be less Cirque du Soleil-inspired than Revel’s Rivals and will go for more of an Italian Renaissance look with some modern updates.
Here’s a breakdown of how I will create the characters:
1. I’ll create the head and hair images separately. Since I’m working on a Mac, I’ll use Daz3D, but if you are native to PC, then iClone’s Character Creator will fit the bill just as well. Below are images of the face with and without the hair, pre and post rendering.
2.Then I’ll open the rendered image files in Photoshop and create a face layer and hair layers for front and back. I’ll save these as PNG files to preserve the transparency, which I’ll pull into CTA3.
3.For the figure, I’ll render a garment that aligns with what I am looking for. Usually, I’ll choose to create a different texture from the one that’s standard for the object file. Since the female characters will be wearing dresses, I will only have to create torso, arms and hand images to pull into CTA3.
4.Even though Reallusion has developed imaged-based face animations for their G2-and G3-type characters, I still like the G1 morph-based face method of facial animation, so I’ll process the face image that way.
5.Finally, I’ll replace the face and body elements, including the hands and the front & back hair.
I’ve put together a quick video on this process, which you can view below.
Two years ago, I attended a marketing and design conference here in town (OFFF Cincinnati 2015) where an executive from LAIKA studios presented on the production process of their own stop-animated films. Using Coraline as the centerpiece, he showed a video that gave a first-hand perspective to their set and characters, and it was quite an eye-opener to learn that they built and used somewhere between 30-50 figurines of the lead character. While I probably won’t design that many versions for my own digital cast, I plan to create quite a few G3-hybrid versions of the main characters to trade out depending on the camera angle.
That’s a Wrap
Although I am still in the pre-production stages for His Immediate Majesty, I am really hoping that this project will be ready by June 2017.
CrazyTalk Animator 3 will be at the heart of the production process because it makes creating character animation about as easy and flexible as any software on the market. Every artist chooses his or her own tools by how they feel and speak to them, and after trying pretty much everything out there, I can say that CTA just gives me the look and feel I want for my characters.
After that – on to the next show!