From the idea to the screening
The production of "In the Beginning" took quite a few years. I worked part time on it and it was interrupted by several other projects. We had to change producers in the middle of the adventure. If we had to do it again, we would probably tackle it differently. But here is how it happened;)
It all started with an idea. We had already developed strips with the characters of the short. At some point, we wondered for how long Seb, the main character of the strips, had been gay. We came up with the idea of his having been gay forever and started imagining his adventures as a gay sperm.
Marc Levie, a Belgian producer with whom I had worker as an animator on other projects, offered us to develop the concept into a 6 minutes short he could distribute in Belgian movie theatres, before long features.
During the first years, the short was produced by Venus 68 asbl, with Marc Urlus and my friend Philippe as executive producers. Marc Levie was only the distributor by then. But when Venus 68 concentrated on the production of documentaries, Marc Levie also took over the production of the short, in addition to its distribution.
The first step after the concept was to draw a story-board, which roughly consists of a series of pictures telling the story, not unlike a rough comic strip.
Pinning the board on the wall is very useful - it allows you to keep the whole story in mind and to see the film progressing.
Once satisfied with the board, and after showing it to Philippe and Marc, I scanned the pictures of the board and assigned some duration to each of them. The result was an animatic, a very rough version of the film that already gave an idea of its rhythm and duration.
The very first animatic was way too quick. I slowed down its rhythm to make the story and the characters' actions more understandable. I added and took out scenes. Some scenes grew to sequences. I got a much better animatic, a tool that accompanied me during the whole production, and was updated regularly.
The duration of the short was an important element, as the distribution subsidy from the French Community required a short of a minimum of 5 minutes and 51 seconds. On the other hand, the short could not be much longer. Movie theatres have limited slots and earn more on commercials than on shorts. If a short gets too long, its chances to reach an audience in movie theatres are limited.
I then started developping the characters and the backgrounds. That step was quite fast, because I was working alone on the graphical part. Most of the characters already existed and I knew quite well what kind of backgrounds I wanted for that short.
In the middle of the production, I got some help from a trainee who made some animation tests for Fred as a human being (i.e. not as a sperm). I made a quick model sheet to show him what the character was like, to emphasize his proportions and some details, like his fingers or his earring. Just watch his earring (or Alain's piercing) through the whole short : you'll see that it changes sides several times (just try the seven errors game;)
Once the characters and the backgrounds were clear in my mind, I started animating. Animation is probably the step that took the longest. The short was mainly animated in Flash, with a graphic tablet.
Two construction drawings in Flash.
The main advantage of Flash is that you can test your animation any moment, without having to wait for a linetest. But you do lose some accurateness and liberty in the stroke, even after months of practice with the graphic tablet. And there is a risk that you should start wandering, losing time trying things here and there, whereas while animating traditionnally, you have to plan your work and keep your objective in mind. Wandering is great when developping the film, but once production has started it quickly becomes a time killer;)
The computer was a great help for the lines and colour. But once again, it has limits : Flash works with vectors and uniform colours. No blurs, few and bad quality gradients and lots of strobing.
Working directly on the computer does not mean you should not make any preparatory sketches, be it to find a attitude or to polish some details of a character. You can also film yourself with a webcam and use that material as a reference.
We regularly checked the whole movie and its structure during meetings with Marc Levie, who had taken over the production, and he occasionally invited a group of people who did not know the film to get their comments and see what parts of the film needed improvement. This often involved reworking on the board and the animatic.
Seeing the story emerging little by little, polishing it, breaking it apart and repolishing it is one of the things I like most in animation. Even if in this case, a shorter production duration (and less contibutors and changes of mind) could have helped limit the number of changes in the board. It is no coincidence if my new short deals with a little ghost faced with the depressing perspective of eternity;)
Once the animation was over, the different parts of every shot - background, animation, overlays etc. were composited in After Effects. I also used that software to animate the camera movements, add some blur and special effects (like the light of the film projector in the end), opening and closing credits and transitions between the different shots.
The After Effects files had to be in 2K (2406*1805 pixels in this case), in order to prepare the 35 mm film print. We made a film print test, but a few months later, movie theatres were already getting equipped with digital projectors, so that we forgot about the film print and prepared a DCP (digital cinema package).
Sound is often said to account for 80 % of the success of an animated film. Just look a some cartoon and turn off the sound and you'll see this is quite true. Also, in animation (and as opposed to "live action" where part of the sound is recorded in paralled with the pictures), the whole soundtrack must be recorded in a studio, starting from zero. So that part is far more creative and really can improve your film.
The dialogues of the short had been recorded at an early stage of development at Dame Blanche Studio, in Brussels. A work in progress of the animatic was projected during the recording for the actors to have a reference.
De gauche à droite :
The dialogue soundtrack was then analysed for free by Synmagic, with whom I had worked on a TV series in Paris. They asked me to prepare a series of mouthes and exported x-sheets that allowed me to synchronize the sound and the movmements of the lips:
As for the music, we first thought about playing "Love me baby" by Sheila in the beginning of the film and "Tout le monde" by Zazie in the end. We wanted to emphasize that 28 years go by between the two bedroom scenes. But the rights for those songs were so expensive (1500 euros for one minute for Zazie at the student film rate !) that we had to find another solution.
A friend of ours advised us to leave an ad at the Music Conservatory of Brussels. We were very lucky to have Néstor, a Spanish violin player attending those classes and with a keen interest in movies contact us. He suggested working with AcidPro. We showed him the movie in progress and had him listen to Zazie and Sheila.
Néstor started working on the music of the beginning of the short (the bedroom of Seb's parents and the first meeting between Seb and Alain). He mixed loops and MIDI sounds composed by him. After meeting several times to discuss the result, we had a final version and headed to the studio to replace the midi sounds with sounds played by Néstor on the violin.
The other music pieces were composed much later by Laurent Mersch-Mersch, after Néstor had left Belgium to settle in Canada, where he is now working on special effects on feature films.
Marie-Jeanne Wijckmans during the foley session
Laurent Mersch then added some sound effects here and there to make some story points clearer, to contrast shots or to emphasize the cartoon side of some shots.
My brother, who's in charge of the website of the fan club of the Sttellla band, introduced me to Christian Martin, Sttellla's sound engineer. Christian did all the sound editing. The short was mixed by Thibaut Jamar (Audiofréquence), who prepared a stereo version of the sound track as well as a Dolby 5.1. track for movie theatres.
I then started preparing the subtitles, the DVD, the website and all the promotional stuff. And in February, I started sending the short to festivals, crossing fingers for it to find an audience!