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Case Study: The Book of Life

Howdy! I'm very excited to be writing to you all today, typing to you from the comfort of the past, as you'll be reading this sometime in the future. And that makes me excited, you future person, you! But wait, that's not all! No, the other huge reason for the excitement is that we recently received the fantastic opportunity to work on the FOX and Reel FX animated film entitled "The Book of Life"! 

Um, and we took it!

This is an important animated film. It's entirely based upon Mexican culture's 'Day of the Dead,' the day in which you honor your deceased ancestors by remembering their lives and celebrating them! As long as you remember them, your loved ones are truly never gone. Within the context of this Holiday, the film's love story unfolds, filled with adventure, mayhem, laughs, and even the song 'Just a Friend', by Biz Markie.

It's a film that's got it all. And films that have it all need to have end title sequences that do, too (sweet segway). 

Enter CLAUS. We received a call from an old friend at Reel FX Creative Studios, Mr. Brad Booker, asking us if we'd like to take a stab and pitch the end title sequence to Jorge Gutierrez, the film's director, and himself.

I said YES, in big caps like that, and then he set up a date for me to watch a rough cut of the film. Going into a screening, knowing that the film is still being worked on, knowing that shots may be cut, tweaked, re-done, it's best not to key in on any tiny details. Just look for the overall tone, vibe, message, feel, story. Broad strokes.

I brought my notepad into Reel FX in Santa Monica, CA (four blocks from my studio!) and was set up in a screening room where the movie unfurled for an hour and a half. I took over 15 pages of notes, much of which consisted of incomprehensible doodle-nuggets and chicken scratch that would prove devilishly difficult to decipher later that day.

The film's definitely a labor of love. And the look! I was intimidated by the film's appearance. So damned intricate. Detailed. Colorful. Unique. I decided right then that our sequence needed to be the opposite. Play up their detail by playing down ours. 

Design. Design. Design. Go minimal. Use their story as a guide. Use their beautiful set pieces to key up moments for us to design around. Use both moments from the film and created ones to echo the film's story line. Show our hero's journey, as he runs from his father's designated career for him and into his own. Show our hero pining for Maria, the love of his life. 

When I met with Jorge one day on a sound stage in Hollywood (we did lunch, no big d), we spoke at length about the film's themes and story. A more likable guy I've never met. I brought with a couple of rough designs I'd concocted, to show my excitement and to share the idea I was mulling over. Here are a couple of those first images.

So, those were the first three images that Jorge and Brad saw for our direction, and luckily, they dug it. I was only going off of my memory of the film's character designs, so I super-stylized it all. But the colors, the textures, the boldness, was something that we could push, and a great starting off point, they thought. 

With this simple, yet designed approach, we could re-tell their story through large abstract compositions. This could be a mash-up between 'Catch Me If You Can' and 'Kiss-Kiss-Bang-Bang,' but for an animated film. Plus, I'm a Saul Bass lover, a lover of the mid-century modern minimal, and that direction felt right after sitting with their film. Budgetarily speaking, it was something that could be executed on their timeline, as well.

My good friend and fantastic animator Byron Slaybaugh did a motion test for that first scene up there, the one with Jorge's name, and it really sold the movement of the piece, got them excited about the direction even more.

Wellp, about a week later, we got the call to begin work! CLAUS rejoiced.

My first task was to create an animatic for our sequence. That would require storyboarding, something I don't really do, but something that every artist should be able to do. And working in the commercial world for so long, I pulled from that knowledge-base to dig down deep and rough my way through it. My drawings were too rough and terrible to show here, but suffice it to say, we got past that part of the assignment and onto the next stage: DESIGN.

(Worthy of note: I suggested the song 'Gone, Gone, Gone' by Phillip Phillips to run over the end titles. We even went as far as to edit our animatic to it. It was a seat-thumper. But FOX had a different song in mind, and one in which was better suited for the end titles.)

Retelling the story in this minimal style, with conceptual and iconic metaphors that play off of certain parts of the film, we all felt, could really leave the audience happy.

Wellp, we went back and forth a couple times of the amount of stylization Jorge would like for the simplified characters, and here's one page of those first characters I sent over.

I was taking some large liberties with the characters, in terms of proportions and size relations and angles. Jorge and Paul Sullivan, the film's ridiculously talented Art Director, were digging these, but ultimately, decided it best to serve the film by bringing them all closer to model. They'd spent many years on this film and here's this new dude that comes along and starts messing with their character designs! I'm surprised they were as nice as they were, honestly. But their decision was correct. We needed to be on model.

So, once we figured to stay on model, we got to churning on all the style frames that Byron could animate directly from.

I think we only went through a couple design passes in order to get to our final look, which was awesome, because the schedule didn't allow for much more! All in, we spent 6 weeks animating the two and a half minute sequence. At many points through the sequence, Manolo is seen running, and that run sequence, the way in which he rotated, was something that Byron felt very strongly about. I hand drew our hero in each pose for that run cycle! Byron insisted. All textures in the BG are hand done and catered to each scene, as well as the large scene wipes that we use from time to time in the piece.

So there you have it! Byron animated about 75% of the shots, with another talented animator, Justin Demetrician taking on the rest. And then Byron implemented the entire piece in stereoscopic, which was a serious feat, to say the least. It would not have gotten done without Mr. Byron, that's for sure. He was a rock. His website is HERE

All in all, we couldn't be happier to lend our voice to this film. You simply have to see it in the theaters! GO GO GO.

Until next time.

Justin HarderComment