Wednesday, 21 January 2015


When I started reading the script and getting into the story and characters I was instantly drawn to the protagonist, this tiny frail orphan yellow bird with no name.
He was so different from the other main characters, all confident flyers, and with the exception of the youngest children, experienced migrators.
Here was a character who not only had never known his parents but was brought up in an abandonded house by a ladybird who, although a flying creature and full of the best intentions, could never impart the valuable lessons a bird needed to take spread its wings and join the others in the wide open skies.

The more I read the more I realised there was something interesting that could be pulled out of these frailties: how would a person behave if they had grown up away from other people? Who would you be if all you'd learned of the World and others was from books and magazines? If your whole World was enclosed inside the four walls of an abandoned house in the middle of a thick forest?

It was these frailties that attracted me to Yellowbird and we played a lot on it during the development of the character and then in the brief to the storyboard team firstly then animation team.

Below is the initial character description I wrote for Seth Green, the actor playing Yellowbird in the English version, then later recorded in the French version by the excellent and energetic Arthur Dupont, and for the storyboarders and animators.

It is in these key passages that Yellowbird's character emerges from:

''Yellowbird has grown into an impossibly idiosyncratic teen, full of frailties and quirks. He is at times a bit shy, clumsy, adorable, scared, frail, happy, sad, positive, genuine, sincere, and content with his life, yet dying to discover the wonders of the World.''

''In his voice there needs to be shyness and a gentle kind of frailty that is borne from the fact that he has had very little contact with other people. He is almost socially inadequate, not dumb or stupid but maybe a little naïve at first, even if his attitude to everything is positive. Yet he does grown in character and courage.''

So we started to evolve the design to incorporate these traits, these mannerisms, but also to work into the design and model elements from non migratory birds. 

Even though the initial idea from the writers and producers was to create non specific birds for the main characters, I needed to work out what birds they were: a starling flies and moves differently from a penguin.
I needed to know, the storyboard artists needed to know and the animators needed to know.
It's not just the design that influences the mannerisms and movements of a character, it is also the input the actors give, the ideas of the writers, the director, but in the case of an animal I feel it is the characteristics of the creature itself.
So defining what type of bird Yellowbird was, and then the whole flock, was very important to me.

Throughout the process we worked closely with an ornithologist, Guilhem Lesaffre , author of many books on French and migratory birds, in order to work out migrations, bird movement to aid the models, and the animators, but also to try and find some interesting facts we could work into the story and characters.

It was after one of these conversations that I went away and started to study a variety of non migratory birds to find which one would be Yellowbird.
I settled on the marvellous Crested Lark.

Below find my information sheet I compiled for the animators once my research was done.

Yellowbird is not such a bas sort after all, as you've read in the notes, and I discovered in developing the story and him as a character, his heart is in the right place and the motivation for his actions is genuine and heartfelt:

 ''His yearning for a real family, to be part of a flock, is much stronger than his sense of reason and this clouds his judgment preventing any thoughts of anything tragic happening.''

''In his naivety and inexperience, Yellowbird simply doesn’t see what harm what his actions can bring to the flock and what repercussions they could have.''

There is a genuine reason of loss and wanting to belong that drives him so even though some of his actions seem dishonest, underhanded and even cruel at times, he is driven by the yearning to become a real bird and be part of a real family.

It is this great ambiguity, these quirks, these frailties and idiosyncrasies that make Yellowbird a very interesting character to have in a film and to work on, as the are they base for an unsual and uncommon lead in an animated film, where usually the leads are strong and well defined. 

I enjoy characters on the outside.

Below you can see the evolution of the character from initial sketches to completed model along with phonetic mouth charts for the lip-synch, a work which posed obvious challenges as birds have beaks and not mouths.

As mentioned the mouth shapes for the lip-synch were especially challenging as I chose very early on that our characters would not have teeth (birds don't have teeth and I wanted to keep some very realistic and natural aspects of real birds in the design and animation), and teeth are an important component of lip-synch as they define some very specific mouth shapes used for certain sounds. Also I wanted the beaks to retain a certain rigidity, and not be too malleable; I didn't want them to move like rubber but still have some stiffness in them, which added to the task the animators undertook in giving the birds expressions and making them talk.

Every expression and facial movement needs to be accounted for when preparing a design for animation as it will be the animators job to translate these 'shapes', these expressions on to the model once it is rigged and set-up for animation. It is the rigger and modeller's job to look at the 2D expressions designs are create a model that can achieve these.

Below are just some examples of the many expressions drawn for Yellowbird prior to model.

To conclude this post I would like to add a brief word about the wonderful actors that, with their energy, charm and sensitivity, brought the animated character to life. Without the right voice an animated character looks beautiful, well design and does indeed move, but lacks soul. 

Can you imagine anyone else voicing Scar but Jeremy Irons? Are you able to hear any other voice but Jack Black's for Po in Kung Fu Panda? What about trying to imagine the Genie with any other voice but the great Robin Williams? Or anyone else instead of Phil Harris for Balou?

Too many times I see animation characters voiced by actors that don't suit the desigm, or by actors who have difficulty imagining a World that does not yet exist and will not for perhaps 2 more years. Locked in a recording studio, the actor has perhaps a week, a year or, in our case, a few days to record a whole script; this is by themselves with no other actor there to feed off; the director and voice coach the only people briefing them on the tone, the mood, the setting of a scene and the emotion needed. It is a daunting task and some actors not used to the process or not able to 'let go' simply fall short and deliver flat performances.
This was not the case for Yellowbird. 
Seth Green was my first and only choice, his experience in animation was invaluable, his charm and humour but also a distinct sensitive side, were the key points I was looking for in the character, and Seth delivered this with aplomb, and at times improvising lines which in fact made it into the final cut.
Seth work with only the storyboards and myself to direct him and I couldn't be more please with the way he brought this little frail, funny, awkward bird to life.

Then, back in France, once the animation had finished, we recorded the French version, and although I was less involved in this casting, I was wonderfully surprised by the discovery of Arthus Dupont, an actor I did not even know until I met him at the recording studio in Paris.
His performance has the same lovely tenderness we sought all along, and his boundless energy kept us in stitches for most of the recording.

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