Tuesday, 24 February 2015


As the design team was picking up steam and churning out the fully fledged characters and environments, I started to work the script into storyboards, massaging the scenes I felt needed still some adapting for a younger audience.
As I mentioned in a previous post, the project I stepped into was much darker and moodier than any usual children's film, and it was a general consensus that it needed lightening up. It needed some humour but also some heart.

The main character was lacking likeability, and although he came across as vulnerable, you didn't warm to him yet. Rather than go through another script rewrite I opted to rewrite come of the passages with the storyboards.
This is a standard process in feature film animation, especially if the budget allows to develop the story and rework the scenes a number of times until you find the perfect solution for all scenes.
Obviously on a much smaller budget you don't have the finances to explore these different paths for lengthy periods of time, so you have to push hard to get the scenes you want, compromise a lot and at times settle for something you're not a 100% comfortable with, knowing you can tweak things in lay-out if needed.

Animation is a very organic process, and with every step another layer is added to the film, but also you have the possibility to make changes as you go along. You may get a different idea further down the line, or there may be a technical reason why you can't achieve a concept you storyboarded. Or simply you don't have the finances to achieve that beauty shot you want.

So your project grows and evolves and changes.

I did not insist in super neat drawings for our storyboards. Time was of the essence and we had around 6 months to storyboard a whole movie, with some of the scenes to be reworked completely from the script version. 
This is not an easy task, and after a month planning the scenes, a small team or artist joined the production, including Dean who I've already mentioned... The others I'll give a proper credit to in another storyboard post down the line; for now I want to concentrate on a few of the initial scenes I tackled.

NOTE: The following passages and storyboards contain spoilers, so if you haven't seen the film and don't want to spoil it, look away now!

The first was the death of Darius, which wasn't the first scene I storyboarded as I took my time boiling down all the ideas I had for it, into a concise and effective scene.

You'll see below 2 of the several versions we produced, this being a normal procedure... On Fantastic Mr Fox I storyboarded the death of Rat over 30 times, some with huge changes, some with minor tweaks, until we arrived at the final version. Seems I'm getting used to storyboarding detah scenes.

The version above in storyboard format is the final version in the film, while below there are two videos.

The video below is the first version of Darius death, which takes place in a thicket of brambles. In this version, upon finding Darius hurt,Yellowbird makes a stretcher and attempts to carry the injured Darius to his abandonded house. Yet in his clumsiness he knocks Darius off the stretcher and has a rock land on it instead, so he doesn't realise his mistake. He only comes back when he does.
The rest of the family finds Darius and as they tend to him he whispers his last words. 
As Yellowbird comes back on the scene the cats attack and there's a commotion with the birds throwing the tiny bird Fleck to and fro as he is unable to fly yet.

I had several issues with this version, length being one of them.
I did not want the birds to use their wings like hands, it was a very specific conscious decision to animate the birds like real animals, so although the throwing of Fleck could be achieve by using their feet I felt it was a superflous moment in the scene.
Also I really wanted Yellowbird to witness the death of Darius and not be away for it. It was pivotal to his character that he witness the hurt and understood the pain, which would constantly throw in doubt his deceit henceforth.
Also if he happened to come back swiftly as the cats attacked he may not even be aware that Darius was dead.
The cat attack needed to be the catalyst for the flock leaving the scene of Darius' demise, they are forced to leave, so they have no time to counter Yellowbird's request that he lead them on the migration until they have already left.
Finally I felt the Death of Darius needed to be treated with a sombre quiet respect, not a full action scene or comedy scene immediately after. 

The music plays a big part in the scene and I feel the composer, Stephen Warbeck, nails it here, and the following scene, which I'll talk about in a following post.
In fact I'll discuss the music at length also, bringing Stephen into the conversation so we can talk through the working process of composing the score for the film.

The storyboards below are from scene 38A, the Dream Sequence as it was known for a long long while.
In fact it is not a dream sequence anymore, and as much as I like dream scenes I never felt this worked in the film. It was one of the moments in the script that stuck out like a sore thumb and my first instinct was to cut it all together. Yet I needed something to connect a scene on the beach in Holland between Yellowbird and Delf, where he tries to tell her the truth and fails, and the morning scene in which the flock is forced to leave in a hurry, being shot at by hunters.

It took me a while to come up with a solution, and it was after one of my conversations with Stephen that I had the idea of a song, a mellow, sad song accompanying Yellowbird to his nest, as he sees the rest of the flock tucking in for bed; the mothers tucking in their children; the couples snuggling in together. These are the things Yellowbird misses and yearns for and the scene is a reminder of that to us, and a reminder to him that he should come clean and tell the truth.
The idea came to me while having dinner in an Italian restaurant near Jacques Bonsergent, and lacking pen and paper I borrow a stilo from the waiter and drunkenly sketched it on the paper table mat under my plate (will scan and post this later on!)

As we're discussing musical scenes the final storyboard I'll show you the very first scene I storyboarded. I'm always attracted to musical scenes, often storyboarding a sequence with music in mind, or to music, by importing a track in Storyboard Pro. It helps me with rhythm and pace, esepcially the action scenes. I edited all the scenes with temp music, to give the composer an idea of mood and atmosphere, but also for pacing.
This scene in the icefields of Greenland (Or Norway, not sure which one we settled on in the end) comes immediately after Yellowbird's confession, and outcast by the flock he trudges through the ice and snow aimlessly.
Having been a huge fan of the Super Furry Animals since the beginning I found the right track to temp this scene with the song Sarn Helen from their totally Welsh album Mwng. Incidentally it means Roman Road, of which there are plenty in Wales and England... Us Romans we do get about!

For me the song captured Yellowbird's feelings completely and the jangly instrumentation reminded me so much of Ennio Morricone it just fit perfectly.
The track obviously does not appear in the final film, yet the score from Stephen is infused with the same harrowing emotional punch.

For copyright reasons I'm unable to play the Super Furry Animals song on the above clip, yet if you follow the link above or here to Sarn Helen you'll be able to listen to it as you watch the storyboard. I edited a short version of it which comprised of a reduced version of the opening 1 minute and 32 seconds, and the cut down version of the last 20 seconds, to make the track completely instrumental and eeire.

Incidentally I'll soon be posting a full list of music which was used as reference, or inspired some of the music of the film, when I start discussing the music composition of the project.

Friday, 13 February 2015


Some images from the title sequence, the black and white rough storyboards with their fully coloured counterparts. We did a lot of 2D work in the film, simulating 3D environments that we could not have fully achieved in 3D due to our budget restrictions, yet the style of the film and its art fully complements the use of this more handcrafted look. 

The opening titles are the perfect example of where the use of 2D was well integrated in the overall movie.

Above one of our flying images in full colour. This colourboard greatly helped us visualize some of the flying sequences in terms of light and mood, like in this case where the birds are flying upward out of a storm and into clear skies.

Friday, 6 February 2015


As promised here is a little insight into the work of a most talented artist, and overall supernice guy, with which I had the pleasure to work with on Yellowbird, and without whom the film would not have had such a succesful and unique visual style: Romain Jouandeau.
 And typical of Romain, he speaks of himself and his artwork in very modest terms, and allows his pieces to speak for him.

I shall do the same, giving you only the briefest of information of each artwork and allowing you to look through some of the most striking pieces Romain produced, conceptual work and lightboards, which are used to set the tone for the colour palettes and light indications to be followed in order to light each scenario.

The following pieces are but a few of the hundreds of works Romain, and all the artists on the film,  produced in the 2 years he worked on Yellowbird.


 Above the aerial shots of the French countryside painted by Romain for the musical scene at the end of the first act. I wanted to visualize the start of the journey in a fun, almost music video way, to skip through the traveling moment of the film with a lighter tone. We were lucky enough to have the Gogol Bordello song Uma Menina, kindly offered by Eugene when I approched the band. It captured the free punk spirit, birds flying in the sky freedom, and earthy vagabond-like Balkan moods I wanted for the film's music perfectly. And the bird's eye view shots here were inspired by the work of photographer Yann Bertrand.

CDV- When and how did TeamTo approach you first to work on the development of the film? 
RJ- I knew corinne Kouper the producer from before, we had already worked together on another project.

CDV- as an artist and designer you seem to have a pretty eclectic style, not settling for one in particular but exploring various possibilities. How did you come to the stylized designs for Yellowbird and what made you focus into this direction? 
RJ- Though I always liked working in different styles, Yellowbird’s style was rather new for me. By the way I was not the one who chose to work with this style as Benjamin had already worked a lot on the visual development of the film when I started. It’s actually the result of a number of artists working on the design, the intentions of the director etc...Little by little I think we evolved towards something more physical in terms of lightning and textures than was intended at first, still trying to keep that very specific “hard edges” style.

Below are some of the conceptual artwork and lightboards painted by Romain for each of the scenes of the film. Starting from the very first scene in which Yellowbird as an egg falls out of his nest into the spring morning French forest.

CDV- After the development of Yellowbird designs you went on to Computer Games artworks. How would you compare the experiences in terms of the artistic choices you make on both?

RJ- These 2 genres are very different indeed and going from an animated movie to a very realistic video game was not easy, but that’s what makes this work interesting. For Yellowbird the challenge was to make this style work with no prior references to go by. It’s exactly the opposite when you work using a realistic style, where you can always use the reality which surrounds us as a reference. Nevertheless going from one style to another is very gratifying, it opens doors which I did not even know existed when you’re used to just working with the same style. Even if the technical issues are different , the goal is still the same, to tell a story while keeping a coherent world.

 Here we see the arrival of Darius in to the abandoned Church, where he meets Yellowbird. I was inspired by the many derelict churches the French countryside has and, very similar to Italy especially after the Second World War, so many small villages that centred their life around the small church built before them, became ghost towns. I felt the setting was apt for the scenes involving Yellowbird meeting Darius, and Yellowbird taking over the leadership of the migration; there was something about the old ways fading away and passing, and the new way of life taking over that I felt was coherent to the setting and scenario, so the old abandonded church came as a natural choice.

CDV- Your involvement in the film was early on, how do you view the final look of the film now that it is complete, compared to your original concepts and designs for the film?

RJ- I worked 2 years on Yellowbird which gave me the unique chance to see the movie being done all the way to the end. I’m amazed to see that my work really transpires in what can be seen onscreen. The 3D team did an amazing work when you know how difficult it is to adapt 2D images into 3D, and especially with a look such as Yellowbird’s.

Above the Paris scenario Romain loved so much. It formed the basis of our Paris scene, one of the funniest and yet touching moments in the film.

CDV- What was your favourite experience on Yellowbird? Favourite scene/moment?
RJ- There was really a great team spirit in the studio during the whole time. No matter how many problems we ran into, everyone was always very positive!
I think that it can be felt in this very joyous movie! My favorites scenes are probably the ones in Paris, set in my neighborhood in Montmartre!
Even if my natural inclination is to work in a more realistic style, I’d love to have the chance to work again on a film such as Yellowbird!

Starting with two of the shots in the opening title sequence, we see the talent and scope of Romain's work, able to translate my rudimentary briefs into full colour pieces that give all the departments all the information they need to create the shots. 
I was especially keen on the shot of the raggedy boat on the small canal, which ends the title sequence, as its abandoned feel stirs up the same emotions felt in seeing little Yellowbird growing up without a nest, a family and his natural parents.

Two examples of the Twisted Trunk, the tree that is the house of our family, the main flock of birds we follow on their migration.

 Arriving at the Hotel Tree was always an exciting scene for us, and voiced by Elliot Gould, the conniving Owl makes for the perfect comedy character to bring the third act to life. Initially it was my most problematic sequence as it slowed the main story down and the recorded dialogue was too long. I was faced with the impossible task of cutting Elliot Gould's lines down to about 50% of what he had recorded, yet still keep the narrative and, especially, the comedic genius, intact. On seeing the sequence again, I feel that the process of storyboarding and re-storyboarding the scenes was quite successful as the Owl lost none of his strong comedy beats, and still drove the story forward. Even cutting the dinner sequence out of the film (you can see Romain's take on the scene in the lightboard below) doesn't take anything away from the scene. 
When working out what to keep and what to cut from the story or a film I follow one simple rule: if you need to bring your film down from 1 hour and a half to 1 hour and 15, or from 7 minutes to 5 minutes, it's all the same, regardless of how beautiful or striking a scene is,if it's not driving the narrative along you can do without it. If the scene is not giving you any important story points or revealing any pivotal character points then you should cut it. If you can say what you want in a simpler and more straightforward way then do without it. 
It would be great to be able to do a 3 hour animated opus, but the truth is, after 1 hour in a cinema most children need at least a toilette break, or a snack or simply need an attention break... Some scenes become necessary cuts... And the dinner scene in the hotel tree was just that- I could say everything that 4 minute scene said in one new line of dialogue dropped in another scene. It may not have been as pretty, or as well choreographed, but it's functional, and at times that's all you have to do!

Finally we leave Europe and start venturing North... Following a leader who really doesn't know his bum from his elbow; never mind leading a flock through their migration. I was very clear on one aspect of the colour brief of the film, which all the artists like Romain took on board: as the flock progressed North I wanted to strip the film of its colour and its warmth. I wanted to start from the welcoming and familiar warm colours of the Autumnal French forest, reds, oranges and yellows, and journey to the cold blues and greys. Until arriving to the absence of colour... The cold whites of the Arctic.
The colour journey the flock takes is the emotional journey of Yellowbird, who accustomed to one way of life, accustomed to his small World withing the confines of the abandoned house he grew up in, accustomes to a life of safe and warmth unused to the uncertainties of real life, has no real connection to others. So little by little I wanted the film to visualize the removal of the comforts he knows, stripping away the warmth and emotion until he has to reveal himself, his true self, to everyone, coming clean and revealing all his lies. Only then he, and we, could journey back to the warm colours of home... In the flock's case, Africa!
And luckily artists like Romain helped achieve these themes and ideas.

Thursday, 5 February 2015


Delf is the heart of the family. In her own terms a leader, taking after her father Darius, the flocks elder, she educates the young chicks in the ways of being a bird, of migration, opening their senses to the World from a bird's eye view.
Above an image from the classroom scene at the start of the film in which Delf teaches the young birds how to read the stars.
It was a difficult task to keep Delf a strong character throughout the film's arch when she goes through such hardship in the story.
(Warning: plot spoilers coming up)
The hardest issue I found, working through the storyboards, was to make the blossoming relationship between Delf and Yellowbird believable, yet subtle. I didn't want any big 'falling in love' scenes, and Delf always has a reason for convincing Yellowbird to carry on with the journey, to give him the strength and to boost his confidence and courage to continue leading their migration even when his own determination falters.
She needs to have reasons for this, and of course the health and safety of the flock are her priority once Darius passes away.
It's also this event that throws Delf's emotions into disarray, and lacking a strong father figure she connects to the new natural born leader... Or at least that's who she believes Yellowbird to be.
So it was this kind of dual aspect of the relationship I was interested in highlighting: Delf needs Yellowbird to lead the flock through the migration, even if it means conning him into doing it, and yet she starts to see his kindness and warm hearted nature and begins to warm to him.
Again we were blessed by a strong performance from our lead actor Dakota Fanning, who had the amazing talent of producing a warm, charming and heartfelt performance in two days, working with myself, a director who in the previous 4 days had flown from Paris to L.A. to record with Seth Green, then with the transatlantic jetlag setting in and flew overnight to New York.
Here Dakota was waiting to give colour to the straight role in the film. A colour in abundance we got!
It is always challenging to be the straight guy, when all around you are brilliant comedic turns from all the ensemble, yet every comedy needs this role, the one character who sees the madness around them.
Except in Yellowbird, Delf is so emotionally upturned by the events, she can't really see through Yellowbird's lies.

Below is one of the brief documents given to the animators and story artist in order to start learning the character, who they are, their personality and quirks, and points of reference.
Design wise we wanted Delf to look charming and light, we knew immediately she had to be graceful and in a bird like way, attractive.
As we settled early on to distinguish each character with different shapes and designs, even though they were all part of the same family, it was acceptable for her to look very different to her relatives, and to Darius in particular.
It would have been confusing to have a family of 12 birds in which they all looked alike, even if they slightly varied in shape and size; so the decision we made was based on maximizing each character's personality and charm.
Even Karl, the fastidious and annoying second in command who has his leadership usurped by the young upstart Yellowbird, has charm in his design; there's appeal in the shapes and stylization. And his character and attributes are perfectly captured.
I will go into more depth about Karl in a future post, as he is my favourite character.
So with Delf we settled on a long neck, giving hr silhouette an immediate grace and fantastic poise.
This assuredness in the pose really helps distinguish her strength of character, yet allows the animators to achieve poses that are graceful and light. And by lowering the neck it is very easy to show submission, or a loss of confidence.
In particular, as I wanted to see the birds move and act like real birds, the lowering on the posture was a very strong way to show a character's submission to another's will- much like in the animale kingdom.
Yet Delf never yields in the film, even when challenged strongly by Karl, she stands up for herself, and for Yellowbird... Even though her confidence and trust in the new leader will prove to be costly to the family and her.
As a point of reference and inspiration I looked at specific birds and gave animators briefs which contained plenty of information regarding these particular spieces.
The European Roller, a migrating bird who's predominantly blue plumage with touches of organges, purples and blacks makes them very distinguishable.
Formidable flyers and migrators, the rollers can be quite stocky, and as a species it is very striking in its strong direct flight.

 Above you can see some of the information given to the animators. Knowing the spieces of bird was very important to me to give the birds personalities, movement and mannerisms. On the bottom right corner you can view a comparison between an European Roller and Willie one of our characters in the flock.

And for elegance and lightness I asked the animators to look at footage of the Japanese Red-crowned Cranes which, with their beautiful graceful dance and posture would bring some of the qualities I was seeking in Delf's posing.
We do also play a lot with the size of her eyes, having these huge saucer sized pools of emotion you can stare into, I wanted to be able to use this as a tool to get the audience close to Delf, but also for comedy. In one romantic scene between Delf and Yellowbird, where she tries to convince him to continue the journey while he's torn by the feelings for her, the need to tell the truth and the fear that this truth will ruin the friendship, I use the eyes in a way that teases a little the usual romantic scene, and pokes fun at the big eyes shot you usual get in these moments in animation... We go way big with Delf's pupils!

 Below a lightboard image from the movie in which Delf stands with her father Darius observing some birds departing on their migration.

Below the 3D progression of the character in its model stage