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