Sabrina Karabaeva, screenwriter and animator
Our documentary animation series is called “What am I doing here”. In two years of the project’s existence eight short series about Yekaterinburg’s inhabitants were shot. We ask random strangers: “what are you doing here?” and animate their answers with the help of cardboard and plasticine. When the viewers watch our series, they often ask: «How is it made?» That is why we are eager to see you through all of the film productions stages-from the search of the character to the finished film being sent to the festivals.
Stage 1. The script.
In order to write a script it is necessary to find a character. When we were shooting the first few episodes, we picked a location-it could be a railway station, a park, a meeting-and approached random people there. The hardest part was to explain as quickly as possible who we were and why we wanted to have a conversation with them. “Ordinary” people, as a rule, refused at once or answered superficially and shortly, that is why it was the “extraordinary” people who became the first characters. In the course of time it became clear to us that all the characters would be “extraordinary” if we keep this up.
We wanted to make the task more challenging, meaning to interview the ones, who are not ready to pour their hearts out from the first moments of acquaintance. Then we decided to set up the appointments with the prospective characters in advance-it gave them the possibility to prepare for the conversation and if necessary to have a meeting once more to ask additional questions.
The most unsuccessful interview lasted one and a half minutes. I came up to the woman whose job was to rent the horses. In fact, we played well with each other. I asked the stupidest questions and she gave me the driest answers. Eventually we made a quite funny episode of that conversation. The first interviews audio recording turned out to be of extremely poor quality. I recorded the conversation with tape recorder and then the actors read the characters text. In the course of time we started to use live sound. In order to do that we invited the sound engineer Sasha Teder to join the crew. There has been three of us present on all the interviews since then: me (Sabrina Karabaeva), the director Masha Sedyaeva and Sasha. I ask the questions, meanwhile Sasha records the sound and Masha draws the conversationalist.
Sasha Teder, sound engineer
The most important thing when recording the interview is to find the right balance between the sound and the comfort of the person you are talking to. The greatest sound would be in the sterile, soundproof studio, but no good would come of it: a person does not open up, if he or she feels ill at ease. Being sincere is the most valuable thing in our business.
When we find the character of the movie, I decipher the interview, then mark in the text the most important points, and try to “glue” together “shreds” of thoughts in one monologue. If I succeed in it, it’s time to think about the accompanying video. The main advantage in working with animation is that the realization of any idea (a taking off plane for example) doesn’t require budget. It doesn’t matter, whether it is a bike or a plane that you shoot. Either of them would be made of cardboard, and, naturally, cost the same amount of money: God bless the wine shop around the corner, where they give cardboard boxes for free.
Stage two. The director’s script.
Draft shots-visual references-information on topic-staged shots-soundtrack, draft storyboard-directors script-animatic-final storyboard.
Masha Sedyaeva, animation director
The characters’ speech aside, there is a description of the action in the frame that appears in Sabrina’s script. I make draft shots in the attempt to visualize the result. Then we arrange a table read, I show the shots to Sabrina and find out, if my visualization was correct.
Each character, each story sets certain atmosphere and vibe of the movie. Being guided by this vibe, I look for appropriate visual and stylistic references, and all kinds of information on the topic. For example, during the production of the episode about Tanya I found looked up, how the Czech towns on Christmas Eve, the character herself and her friends, her room, etc. look like. For the episode about the director of the plant I studied the plant’s production, for the episode about the vet-the history of his profession, with the main focus on the bizarre treatment techniques, how the examination room and medical equipment look like.
After devouring all the information it’s time to draw the staged frame-colored picture that could become the actual frame of the future movie. Then comes the time for writing the director’s script and drawing the storyboard. It happens almost simultaneously. At the same time I edit the soundtrack, add some pauses or noises, filling or synchronic. When I am finally content with the result, I listen to the recording with my eyes closed and write down everything that I imagine-this is how the director’s script created. Then I put finishing touches on the storyboard, define the positions of cuts, think, how the camera is going to move, what angle to choose, think over the actions of the puppeteer, etc. After that I assemble animatic, meaning the edited sound illustrated by the framing. This is how the draft of the movie is made.
During the final stage it’s necessary to make the final storyboard. It differs from the draft by its neatness, detail, being clear to the cameraman and production designer, animator. The episodes, scenes, editing frames are marked, specific notes for the cameraman are made (panning, gating, closeup. Whether it is a video or an animation, etc.), direct speech and the detailed description of the action in the frame are featured.
Stage three. The creation of characters and set.
When the storyboard is ready, we start creating the characters and set. The process is as follows: our production designer Natasha Shitzalova draws the objects of the future movie on the scale 1:1 and paints them. It is necessary to do in order for the artists to have detailed illustrations of any props or characters. Let’s take, for instance, Mahmud. He is a snake charmer, works in the circus. He is one of the secondary characters of today’s episode. The scene with his participation is the most epic: the snake gets out of hand and does something unexpected.
Masha Sedyaeva, the director
Initially the idea of the scene in the circus appeared. We had to invent some ridiculous and absurd way of traumatizing some animal. As soon as we made our choice in “favour” of the constrictor, choking on the entire zoo, the snake charmer being in charge of the performance came to mind. Mahmud ibn Rashid is a kind of the collective character of the snake charmers, that I saw on the photos made in the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century. In addition to it, he was introduced to make contrast with the previous character-blue-eyed, youthful-looking magician.
Me and Natasha, the production designer, came up with the legend about him-how Mahmud was born in Saudi Arabia and was a sheikh’s son. Then he was kidnapped and sold into slavery. After numerous turns of fate and long years of roaming the world he ended up in India, where he mastered all the spiritual practices imaginable and unimaginable. But once he had a vision of a beautiful stranger who told him the she would be waiting for him in the circus in Yekaterinburg.
The snake charmer took off without hesitation. When we need to make characters very quickly we use cardboard. If the figures in the frame are needed to be three-dimensional, plasticine is used. Initially the corrugated cardboard was used. The toothpicks controlling puppets were easily placed in folds. It could have been painted in any preferable way, and the flat image could have been used as a special stylistic effect. It is seemingly quite primitive, but poetical at the same time. Later on the flat figures began to seem trite. Something that was considered the style turned into the poverty of the frame. The dimensions were needed by the camera person Masha. Flat, one dimensional characters are tiresome to film.
We faced the transitional period during the production of Tanya. That time only the heads of the leading characters were made three-dimensional of painted plaster. Later I got tired of fiddling with it and switched to plasticine. As it turns out, it is also possible to paint it, plus it has its own advantages when it comes to the animation-we can change the shape of the figure right in front of the camera without damaging the construction. Of course, with the plasticine being painted it’s undesirable to crumple it too frequently because of the appearing cracks of the paint. This is why we make the joints of wire to enable movement.
In “the double appointment” the main characters are fully made of plasticine. There is also 3d. I needed it to show the contrast between mechanistic, surrealistic, militaristic and humane, living, real. In the production of “Tomorrow ” I used cardboard, because making a hundred characters of plasticine would have been equivalent to suicide. Corrugated cardboard wasn’t the right fit in this case, because it was too rough for the figures of this size. I used pressed cardboard with its thickness being similar to the thickness of human body.
There were dozens of characters in the frame. It was impossible to synchronize all their movements on film, this is why frame-by-frame animation was used. The body joints were made of wire, that could endure the weight of the cardboard. During the production of “Eight hundred times” we were dealing with a strict deadline. So it was shot practically in one day. That was the reason for choosing cardboard (also pressed, but very thin this time, similar to the kind of which cereal boxes are made).
The size of the figures was very small (no bigger than five centimeters). For the new episode we don’t have specific time limit, and the script is very juicy and simply hilarious. That is why we went back to using painted plasticine, that allows to create spectacular characters. The set is again made of cardboard, with the exception of the ones that have to come in contact with water-in this case plastic is used.
Stage four. The filming.
Filming is done at the same time with the production of the set. When everything is ready for the scene, it is being filmed by the half of the crew, with another half continuing to create the props for the following scenes.
Stage five. Editing and mixing.
Masha Sedyaeva, the director
I prefer to edit myself. There were times that I delegated the task to other people, but I felt uncomfortable even with good editors. I saw the movie at the stage of the editing of the draft soundtrack. I couldn’t get it out of my head all the time while we were filming. Suddenly someone else took over and the result turned out to be not exactly like I envisioned. Being a soft, gentle person like I am it is not always easy to stand by your own ideas. When the editor says “it’s cool, isn’t it?” I am like “Yeah, I guess.” Naturally, I stay unsatisfied. As a result all the episodes of the series “What am I doing here” I edited by myself. Trailers, however, I delegate to other editors without hesitation.
Editing is all about the timing, the feeling of where to make faster or slower, where to cut. It is very different in animatic: when you see black and white still on the screen, the perception of everything is distorted. We use filming more frequently than frame-by-frame animation. That is why we make a lot of critical decisions while editing. Sometimes we improvise during the filming, and unexpected frames appear in the storyboard. There are times, when we can’t get the movements right. In this case cut-in scenes and other tricks are used. Frame-by-frame animation is also improved during the editing, some phrases are dismissed, some pauses are added. Something is cropped, something is retouched.
Normally, if everything goes according to the plan, it takes me one week to edit one cartoon. Then I give the final version with draft soundtrack to Sasha, the sound engineer in order to perfect the sound. The sound that is done right has the power to make the people believe in substance of the puppets made of corrugated cardboard.
Sasha Teder, the sound engineer
On the stage of filming the animators and production designers need noises and the sounds of what is going on in the frame. Some part they find themselves, and the other (the bigger one) is usually found by me. This is how draft sound made. There are special libraries for noises, some of them are recorded on set. The sounds are fake sometimes. For example the sound of footsteps on the snow are imitated with the help of starch bag.
When the editing is 90 percent complete I continue working with noises. I change the ones that were in the draft soundtrack if necessary. After all the sounds and music are found and placed, the mixing begins. It is a nuanced process, when you put all the elements together so that they contribute to the artistic image. Mixing also includes panning. Let’s say the plane flew by or the girl walked from the left to the right side of the frame-the sound also moved. A lot is initiated by the director, but I as a specialist also suggest some options to make the sound harmonize with the picture.
Stage six. Festivals.
Masha Sedyaeva, the director
It takes me an hour and a half to send the movie to one festival. Sometimes more, if the subtitles in some unusual language are required, the video in some specific format is needed or the list of dialogues has to be made according to the international standard. Sometimes we have to print and sign something. On average I send four to five applications per month. I simply don’t have time for more. Sometimes you have to read a never ending list of conditions for application only to realize that the movie is not the right fit for the festival.
When the movie is brand new you have to deal with the prioritizing of festivals. The fancy ones expect a premier, preferably a world one. This is when strategic planning starts: what festival should be the first on the list? I made a table of all the festivals in order not to get confused. According to the statistics the movie gets accepted to the one of thirteen fests.
If you have more questions about the project “What am I doing here” or you want to become a part of the team-write to us!