Sonimation  - “Daylights” with Sarah Waterman

 

Most of the following text is from the booklet that was made to accompany the DVD that was issued as part of the Sonimation Project, included as part of my portfolio.  I have edited the text slightly to make it more relevant to this document, but it is based on a presentation given at the first Sonimation screening in Sheringham, Norfolk.  I have included most of what Sarah Waterman wrote, as our work was so closely involved we discussed the presentation thoroughly. 

 

1. What is Animation?   [Sarah]

·        To “animate” is “to give life to… or impart motion to”, and early examples of animation, before the invention of the camera, would be things like flipbooks, where a character or scene was drawn repeatedly on each page of a book, but altering very slightly each time, so that when it was flicked through, the picture appeared to move.  Whilst modern animation is of course far advanced in methods of production, the theory remains the same… A series of progressive images presented at such a speed as to trick the eye into seeing one continuous movement.  And it is this depiction of movement which remains paramount… one of the earliest animators, Norman McLaren, defined the process as:

“Animation is not the art of drawings that move, but the art of movements that are drawn”.

He places emphasis on the movements implied between each frame, rather than the actual image which exists on the frame.  This is true even within the crudest animation – a flicker book might not boast the most polished of drawings, but the movement within is often enough to captivate us.  I find this within my own work too, that the most convincing movement often occurs at the very beginning of the animation process, when I’m not concerned about the look of each individual frame, but concentrating more on the action as a whole.

 

·        So, animation is an art concerned primarily with the precise depiction of movement and timing?…

…well, maybe so, but it’s also a medium which allows you the freedom to realise your most bonkers ideas!  Whilst a normal film records reality, an animated film can actually create its own reality, which means an animator can work free from many of the constraints normally applied to the film making process.

Whilst incredibly liberating, this can also prove terribly frustrating, when the scene you can picture in your head refuses to be realised, and all around you people are saying things like “oh, I thought that sounded impossible when you described it to me three weeks ago… did it not work?”

 

·        So, how does an animator usually work? 

Animation is a huge area, incorporating many things I’m sure I know nothing about, so I’ll stick to what I know and just briefly talk about the areas I am familiar with., and were used within our film.

 

*drawn animation

where each successive drawing is drawn on a separate piece of paper, and filmed once it’s completed. Whilst this is obviously incredibly time-consuming, it does allow total control over the animation, as you can go back and re-work drawings, and rub bits out, (and get incredibly obsessive about it … if you’re anything like me!).

*model animation
where you’re working with three-dimensional objects or characters, and moving them very slightly between capturing  each frame.  Within this, the making of the puppets is an art form itself, as they have to be jointed, so as to allow movement, but stiff enough to retain their shape and statue, and also strong enough to cope with constant moving around, and of course, if you are in the middle of a scene, and the camera gets jogged, or one of the models falls over, or some other disaster ensues, often the whole scene has to be started again.

*manipulating stuff under the camera

(this is how I created a lot of the material for “Daylights”)

this might be using cut-outs, or drawing on glass, or shifting sand around under the camera, using a multi-plane (wooden frame holding panes of glass) or using found objects (like the tea-cups in our film).

*computer animation

computers can be used in lots of different ways within animation.  Creating an entire animation within the computer, using a package like Flash, or 3D Studio Max, or using the computer to colour and animate hand-drawn animations, or using it merely to edit the finished film together, and put spot effects into an animation (like a lens flare if the sun is reflecting off a building or something like that).  Computers can be a fantastic help when they behave themselves – they can also be a nightmare when they don’t… more of that later…!

 

 

2. What is Electroacoustic composition?  [Elise]

Well, as you would probably expect from something so heavily based in a solely academic environment, many people have written whole books about just that question, and there are many opposing views on the answer, so rather than try and encompass all of those,  I will define it in its most general sense: it is music that makes use of acoustic elements, i.e. “found sounds” that are then treated with electronic means such as computers, and other clever boxes containing sound processing circuits.

 

In the early days of electroacoustic music, before microchips, samples were mostly recorded on to tape which could be manipulated by hand, using techniques such as splicing, delaying, looping, stretching, and reversing the tape, and also using more than one tape machine at a time to combine or aggregate the effects.

 

Needless to say, the age of computers had its effect and broadened the diversity of the associated aesthetics, as it has with most fields, creative or otherwise.  The range of “found sounds” or samples, has expanded to an almost infinite capacity with the advent of the world wide web and MP3 technology for example, so that part of the composition process is to intelligently choose the sounds, rather than the difficulty of getting hold of them.

 

This forms the basis of how I humbly call what I do “composing”, in that I gather a resource of sounds that I feel will be interesting, or pertinent, and then manipulate them to create a much larger bank of sonic material.  Then comes the part that gives me the most pleasure, which is to arrange the sounds into a work that makes, what I can only describe as “musical sense!”  During this final stage, I invariably have to go back to actually creating more material as I go along, either to stitch it together, or because the piece itself throws up new and unavoidable inspirations.  I have heard this called an organic process although I cannot claim to work that way by conscious decision.

 

[I am just beginning to apply myself to what I would tentatively call composition in real time, where by the sampling and sound processing happen on the fly, so I’m sure my approach will need to adapt to having to act and react spontaneously rather than being able to agonise for days over a couple of hundred milliseconds!]

 

 

3. Do these two disciplines have anything in common? [Sarah]

When we first got together to embark on this Sonimation project, we spent the first few meetings doing nothing but talk, and whilst bouncing ideas around, it became apparent that many of the processes that we used within our work were quite similar within each medium.  Elise might talk about processing a sound in a particular way, to convey a particular theme, or emotion, and I could relate that to how I might process an image in a similar way within my own work.

Although much of it sounds quite obvious when spoken about like this, it’s often these fundamental things which can be most effective within a piece, and yet often get forgotten.  So it was good to talk all these things through, and we both began to get really excited about how our own work would relate to each other’s.

Processes we found which are similar:

*repetition

*morphing

*fading

*layering

*gestures

*introductions and resolutions.

 

Also, the way in which we worked physically on the piece was similar too… (“hunter-gatherer” Elise called it) going out into the wild and foraging for sound and image, which might involve Elise seeking out a computer or a door that made the right noise, and me tearing off to “Toys R Us” and then lugging back a huge bag of sand.

Then the both of us would return to our respective studios to feed it all into the computer and process it from there!

 

One of the most noticeable differences within the way we work is that, as Elise mentioned previously, she works in quite an organic manner, whereas I have to have everything storyboarded and sorted out in my head before I feel happy to start work.  If anything, I think this probably aided the creative process, as between us we struck a fairly happy balance.

 

We were also fortunate enough to both want a similar outcome from the piece, that is to say, we both wanted clarity within the piece, and were happy to work within a fairly rigid structure of narrative in order to obtain this.  I also felt that by establishing a well-defined storyboard early on, it meant we could experiment within that, but still knowing what we wanted out of it at the end.

 

 

4.  Previous Collaboration.  [Elise]

Postgraduate Museology students at the Sainsbury Centre, UEA, have to put on an exhibition at the end of the year as part of their course.  Last year they decided it would be a lovely idea if they could get both sonic and visual artists to work together to produce their own interpretations of the theme of their exhibition, which was Colour.  Music students and animation students were gathered together in a small room where names were literally pulled out of a hat to decide who would be working with who, and on which colour. It was lucky old Sarah to whom I awkwardly introduced myself, wondering if her levels of expectation of my ability were anywhere within my reach.

 

Of course it ended up that we figured out a way of working together that we were both happy with, and enabled us to feel smug afterwards to see that where issues of ownership and possession had impeded other collaborations in the group, we had found a way to circumvent that particular compositional hazard. 

 

·      They way we worked on the Emerald green piece, was to discuss in detail exactly what would occur throughout the piece, while at the same time sounding out how we each particularly felt we were able, or not able to realise the intention.

 

·      With the agreed, general idea of green being a colour that was associated with growth, we decided to start the piece “young”, and let it grow “old” and each came up with ways within our own medium, by which this could be achieved.

 

·      Then the idea of an identity moving through different things associated with the colour green came from Sarah, in that she thought a shape taking on an aspect of whatever it was passing through would be a good way to link the whole film together in a visual sense.

 

·      I felt this would be fun to do sonically as well: to depict a sound for this morphable object, and then use that sound to create all the sounds for its various different guises.  As per usual, I ended up creating some sounds in the final stages of putting the piece together, simply from the visual stimulus, such as the repetitive sound where there is a circular motion, and a bubbly sound at the end. 

 

This “rebounding” of each others’ ideas became more evident in the Sonimation work, as for example,  I gave Sarah the Waltz clip to work to, but I hadn’t yet created a sound for the sun, so I simply inserted a temporary sound where it would interrupt, according to the storyboard, which happened to be a chiming sound.  Sarah pointed out that it sounded pretty close to what we had discussed would be going on in the sun sections, so I then used that temporary chiming sound as part of the end product.

 

 

5. Daylights - themes, ideas & aesthetic decisions [Sarah]

Well, as I mentioned before- we did do ever such a lot of talking at the beginning of this project, and deciding on a theme for the piece was quite hard as we wanted to do something which would provide equal interest and input from both sound and image.  As was consistent with most of the way we worked all the way through the piece, we started off with several ideas, and then gradually narrowed it down to one.

 

Well, our first storyboard must have been a joy to behold.  As Elise mentioned, we'd never done anything as large as this before, and I fear our enthusiasm for the project might have confused our sensibilities somewhat, as our first storyboard boasted:

-            seven different characters

-            three different levels of reality

-            and spanned length of a day…

 

within a three minute piece…!

 

Fortunately we had artist and animator Clive Walley present at one of the Sonimation meetings, and after talking to him, we became aware of how much we were asking of our audience.  Obviously a piece will make perfect sense to someone who's watched it over and over again, and worked on every frame, but a film needs to work when shown to an audience, who've never seen it before.  SO, bearing this in mind, we reworked our storyboard to encompass the main themes we had decided on at the beginning, but took out much of the detail.  Although this seemed like a huge step backwards at the time, as we'd spent so much time on it…it meant everything that was left was suddenly that much more relevant, and the themes within the piece seemed far more apparent.  The storyboard we finally decided on, then changed very little throughout the rest of the making process.

 

The idea of the piece came from a conversation we'd had early on in the collaboration concerning dreams and reality, and how this might offer us the opportunity to create different levels within the same piece.  From this we created our monster of a storyboard, which in turn got pared back down.  The title of the piece - 'Daylights' refers both to the light of the sun, and also a person’s consciousness. Within the piece we were interested in exploring both the varying levels of reality apparent throughout someone's day, how your mind can drift off from the task in hand, and, where it might take you. Also the fact that peoples lives, both real and imagined can vary so much from one to the next.

 

The problem of creating a narrative from these parameters was actually solved when we referred back to an idea that ran through our previous collaboration (Emerald Green) - the idea of aging.  Once we latched on to this idea, it all began to come together:

·        the day became a metaphor for a life,

·        the different characters we had created fitted into the day according to their age, so it starts off with a young person, and ends with an elderly person, although this might also be construed as one persons thoughts alone, varying throughout the day.

·        the day begins and ends with a light - the young view at the beginning peering up at the light, and the elderly view at the end, looking down.

·        the gloopy introduction with the muffled voices might suggest either drifting in and out of consciousness in the morning, but it is also quite embryonic, suggesting the beginning of a day, or a life.  This is in contrast with the fading, laboured ticking, and subsequent sonic and visual cut at the end of the piece

·        we also tried to pace the piece, as we felt a day or a life is often lived.  That is to say   first slowly, then faster, then slowing down again near the end.

 

As well as the idea of using the day as a metaphor for a lifetime, we were also exploring different levels of reality within the piece. This we tried to describe both sonically and visually- using raw sound, and harsh black and white photos, to describe the reality within the day, like for example, the walk along the beach, and working at a computer. Then, the dreams which sprung from these - the child drawing a picture in the sand which comes to life, and the office worker’s humdrum filing turning into dreams of a wedding both images and sounds from the reality which were subsequently morphed.

 

The other images which occur and reoccur throughout the film, are (a) the marbled pink, which we wanted to represent thought, or almost a nothingness, just a suggestion of looking at the back of your eyelids, and was also a handy graphic device to morph between thought and reality, and (b) the sun, which cuts in at random points throughout the day, which we wanted to appear quite unrelenting, and the sound in particular, with it's gradual shift from bright and fresh, to almost running out of breath at the end.

 

 

6. Strategies to generate material and the visual and sonic layers coming together.  [Elise]

The point at which the idea had to be made into a reality, was where some of the most intense collaboration occurred.  Because I had very little idea of what the field of animation involved, I was not sure what the limitations, or indeed possibilities were.  In the same way,  although Sarah did have some knowledge and experience of how to put sound to films, she didn’t quite know how much or how little she could expect of me in this regard.  However the result of such prolonged and detailed discussion of the storyboard, paid off, in that samples and objects were collected as we went along, so that once we each had a copy of the storyboard to look at, we each took a section, and used the raw materials collected to create what had been discussed. 

 

While I still used my usual technique of adding things not previously planned, the collaborative process gave me visual stimulation where on my own I would only have sonic.  For example, we had discussed the scene where a boy at the seaside would go off into a daydream of becoming an astronaut.  I had collected sea sounds and a sample of astronaut intercom, but the greatest part was having to create an unplanned “take-off” sound to Sarah’s animation which links the fact that the boy is at the seaside, through the drawing in the sand to the dreaming of being an astronaut. 

 

The visual and sonic material is closely linked throughout the film, and this mostly came about by each of us using and developing techniques to develop the raw materials into rich sound and vision.  By this I mean, for example the way Sarah used pertinent filters to morph from reality scenes to dream scenes, and in parallel I used the sonic material of the reality scenes to create the sound for the dream scenes, most notably in the shift from the computer scene into dreamstate, although Sarah and I will both discuss the techniques in more detail in a moment. 

 

There are however a couple of occasions in the film where the sound begins to suggest the next expression before it occurs, for example the distorted, dreamlike waltz occurs in the dreamstate of the house before we go into the house and see the teacups when the sound becomes more encompassing.

 

The material was exchanged as often as could be managed so that the other could see or hear what was developing and in turn, take that back into the creation process.  The particular points where the sound and the visuals distinctively align, mostly occurred this way.

 

 

7.   Elise - creating!

·      The first sound created came out of quite a simple way of collaborating.  I’ve already mentioned the Sun sound and how it was inspired by a temporary sound that Sarah picked out.  Well, when I saw a tiny clip of how the sun looked as she was working on it, and she described how by moving the scrim very slightly each frame, it would give a shimmering effect, I got the idea for the high scratching sounds to make up part of the sound,  and also, as the image was so full and encompassing, I wanted the sound to be equally impressive, so I made it with a very large bandwidth, that is to say,  the scratching sounds were very high, the chiming sound occupied a broad middle bandwidth, and I took a very deep sound down to almost below the range of hearing, so that it would really rumble.  During post-production, I had to cut out quite a lot of this bandwidth to enable me to compress the sound so that it wouldn’t distort on different ranges and qualities of sound systems, which was an important technical issue I learnt about working in for this sort of media.  And just to re-iterate again the sharing of techniques, we had decided to both create the sun as a whole, and then chop it into its little pieces. 

 

·      One of the great things about working on something so large, is that you end up with quite a large surplus of sounds which might come in useful later!  I now have a collection of sounds which evolved from trying to find a sound by which the sea would smoothly lead into the “dream-sound”.

 

When the idea of a scene caused me a worry, for example where we wanted to convey the feeling of a baby looking up at a mobile with blurred vision, or a person slowly coming awake when the senses return very indistinct information,  I discussed with Sarah as to what she thought the sound should be.  We decided between us that a very quiet, gentle creaking would do the job, but I could find nothing in piles of sound effects or running around with a microphone until I ended up sampling the door to the studio where I was working!  With the slightest bit of processing this ended up on the film, although I still hold regrets that it is not far more delicate.

 

 

8.  Conclusion [Sarah].

When Elise and I discussed the finished film, we both initially felt that there were elements of it which could have been more polished. The reason this final tweaking and finalising didn't occur was due to monstrous technical problems at the post-production stage. However, now all is said and done, we're glad that the technical problems stopped the process when it did, as it stopped us getting too precious about the film, and also allows it to remain, as it was intended - an experimental piece. 

Many of the ideas and processes we were trying-out were new to us, and as such, their inclusion within the piece, successful or otherwise, is totally valid. We didn't create this piece just to recreate stuff which has been done before, we wanted to try out new methods.  However, despite our new found appreciation at being stopped in our tracks by technical problems, we'd be foolish if we didn't learn from this…and any future projects we embark on we will dedicate a far greater proportion of the allotted time to post production, and will try to avoid using any computers for anything at all! Ever!! 

 

All in all, the Sonimation collaboration has been a fantastic experience, and one we're very grateful to have been given the opportunity to be involved in.  We've both benefited greatly from the project (and generally feel quite lost, now we're not ringing each other up all hours of the day and night!).”