The making of an award winning student film

Student animation film I AM DYSLEXIC

By Katie Wyman

Recently graduated from Falmouth University’s Animation and Visual Effects Degree course

Creative Process

My name is Katie Wyman, I recently graduated from Falmouth University’s Animation and Visual Effects Degree course. During my final year of the course I was Co-Director of the 2D/3D animated student film ‘I AM DYSLEXIC’, which has so far won multiple awards and been screened at dozens of festivals around the world. I’m going to walk you through our, at times, unconventional process of making this short film.

Starting with an idea

So you want to make a short film, but you don’t know where to start. It’s tough to know which ideas to follow, and which to leave behind. There is always a subconscious strive to be completely original, but believe that is one of the easiest creative pit-falls of all.

To help me explain, I found this great C.S Lewis quote the other day, which I think sums up what I’m trying to say perfectly.

“Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring two pence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.”

In short, be yourself. No story is truly unique, but the way you tell your story is what will make it unique to you. So don’t be afraid to pull your inspiration from anywhere: a feeling; a question; a mental image; a character; or a joke. It is all fair game.

Finding your feet

Many animation courses encourage their students to pitch a short film idea in their final year. In September 2015, my fellow student Mads Johan Øgaard pitched his short film idea. At this stage there was no story, it was only a concept based on the feeling of being a young dyslexic child, struggling with homework. At his pitch he used a powerful image he had drawn of a little boy standing in front of a mountain of books. I could relate to this feeling, also being a dyslexic kid who struggled a lot in school, so I was naturally drawn to the project.

I also pitched my own concept at this time, but it was not approved to move into production. In hindsight I’m glad about this, I think a lot of people get discouraged when an idea doesn’t get approved, but it’s important to remember that this isn’t where your creativity ends. In my case, it allowed me the opportunity to help develop I AM DYSLEXIC jointly with Mads. Together we could create a film twice as good, instead of making two half-as good films, which is what might have happened if my film idea had also been approved.

As someone who was passionate about narrative, I was well suited to help Mads develop his concept into a complete story. As soon as his pitch was approved I started working with Mads and soon became co-director and co-producer of the film. Immediately, we started recruiting more students from across the course to help make the film a reality.

We had help from around 50 people whilst making the film. Although some could work full time, the majority of crew members had other commitments and so helped us when they could afford the time. Our core crew of fulltime workers consisted of four people (myself and Mads included), whilst the crew whom were the second highest contributors to the project, peaked at around 18 additional students.

A young Dyslexic boy standing before a mountain of books. This is the image that Mads pitched with in September. The same image that got his concept approved.

Developing it into a story

Mads had been trying since the previous semester to build a story for his concept, using his childhood experience with learning difficulties and personal emotions as fuel. As a child he had been completely overwhelmed by his schoolwork because he was dyslexic. But this wasn’t a beginning, a middle or an end. In order to make a film we needed structure, and this concept needed limitations, a framework to work within. That’s why story structure exists, so that the concept can be tangible to the audience. We had only nine months to come up with the narrative, storyboard, design, animate and composite our film. Having a time restraint on the film is tough, but necessary, if we didn’t have one we would probably still be working on the story today.

Initially, Mads wrote many drafts of a script, which I would read and critique with him, but as visual people we were going nowhere pretty fast working in a non-visual platform.  The story could just go so many ways, and it was easy to get lost in the details.

Being able to tap into your creativity is a lot about knowing what medium you communicate best in, and knowing how to simplify your idea when things start getting too complicated.  It was only when we started breaking the script down into story beats (key moments of dramatic change) that we stopped getting so lost in the details. And it was only when we started writing the story as a visual script (very rough storyboards) that we were able to understand how to plan the details of the story properly.

It was one of our tutors that recommended trying the visual script technique. I remember I had also heard about a few TV series using this technique. A good example would be the TV series ‘Adventure Time’. It’s a technique I really recommend to anyone who has trouble writing scripts, and enjoys drawing. Fundamentally, they are very basic storyboards, where you keep your drawings super rough, and draw on post-it notes (or any small pieces of paper). It is important that the paper you are working on is small, so that you do not focus on the detail of your drawings. You then stick the drawings up on a wall or bulletin board to form the story. When you do this, it becomes easy to read the scenes quickly, and move pictures around to see how they can better tell the story.

From there our visual script naturally evolved into more refined storyboards, though our animatic still went through many changes along the way. Something unconventional that we tried during our storyboarding process, was asking our crew members if they could storyboard the individual scenes that they connected the most strongly with. We then made our own revisions from there to fix the flow. We really wanted to dedicate as much time as we could to getting as much emotion into our story as possible. In hindsight, it’s probably not something I would recommend doing if you have a short deadline, but it worked for us.

Starting to animate

As our animatic took us a long time to finalise, we had to be smart with our production pipeline. We started animating after around three months of pre-production (roughly one third of our time). There were some shots in the animatic which we knew would stay, and others we still needed to change. While we were working on refining the storyboards that needed changing, our crew began work animating the shots we knew were ‘locked’ (finalised and no longer going to change). This was the most time effective way for us to move forward as production of the project would never be halted. We repeated the stages of animating, refining the storyboards and refining the animatic over and over again until our short film started to become a reality.

Before we even began animating, we dedicated a chunk of time to filming live-action reference videos for every shot as we really wanted our crew to use reference, and knew that they might not have the time to film these themselves. Our animation pipeline was fairly normal, all 2D animation was done in TVPaint.

We started with rough animation (blueline), which is made up of two stages. Firstly, keyframe animation (your most important storytelling poses). In this stage the animator works out the timing for the movement in shot, and how the character is going to express their emotion. Once this is approved, the shot can then be inbetweened, which consists of filling in the frames between your key frames and adding the details of movement.

Once all of the rough animation was approved, we moved on to line-arting the character (here we would also check that they were on-model), flat colouring, and then shading (which we kept minimal, for the most part). The only difference was that we were working in a deliberate sketchy style. We even took extra effort to add in construction lines to the character while animating. Even so, we had a line-art stage in the hopes of keeping style consistent through the film.

Consistency was something we had to be careful with, especially considering we had such a large team. To achieve our desired standard of consistency, every shot was reviewed and approved by either one or both of the directors. We provided all crew members with detailed character model sheets to work from. It was also effective to keep the same crew members doing line-art and to select crew members who could stay most on model to animate shots of most importance to the film, usually featuring the characters closer to the camera.

As all of our backgrounds were made in 3D, we found it very useful to include a basic 3D model of our main character in the renders of those shots. This was so that 2D artists could match the proportions of the 3D environment, and help keep the character consistent as perspective changed.

Final notes

Making and directing a short film was a truly enjoyable experience. Of course it was frustrating and challenging at times, but to be able to create something meaningful is very special. Since its completion, our film ‘I AM DYSLEXIC’ has been very well received by festival audiences, both for its subject matter and animation style. It’s very rewarding to know that our film not only made narrative sense to other people, but also that audiences empathised so strongly with it. This experience has definitely built my confidence ready to move onto new projects, and maybe onto a solo-directing job in future.

And finally, here is some advice I have for students contemplating making their own animated films. There are pros and cons to having a large crew. The positive thing is that you can share work between more people, therefore aiming for a more ambitious project, and (in theory) keeping work hours more manageable. The downside is that it makes it harder to maintain style consistency and monitor everyone’s workflow.

Whatever the size of your crew, always create a contact sheet, with phone numbers and email addresses. Have multiple ways of reaching your crew in case of emergencies, and to chase up less reliable crew members (there will always be some).

Live action references are extremely helpful when you are animating. It’s not the sort of reference that you have to follow frame for frame, instead use it to understand the natural flow of movement. You’ve got to know the rules before you can break them. I have always found better results when I work with live action reference.

Another piece of advice is to always leave a lot of room in your production schedule for compositing your film. Especially so if you are working in mixed media, like we were. This was a mistake we made, as we didn’t leave enough time for compositing and missed our deadline because of this. I’ve heard that this mistake is made in many student film productions.

Very importantly, if you want to submit your film to festivals, start saving up for those festivals as soon as possible. There’s no painless way to say it – festivals are expensive. I started saving up for festivals in my first year of university (that’s three years of saving). Without entering these film festivals, we would never have had the opportunity to have ‘I AM DYSLEXIC’ screened around the world.

Ultimately – if you’re going to spend this long working on an animation, make sure it’s something you’re enjoying, or when you feel you’re starting to lose interest, remind yourself of why you first loved your project. This might be controversial, but I honestly believe animation is such a time-consuming practice, that you should make sure you are enjoying and learning from the experience. Characters and stories reflect your moods. There’s always a way to stay motivated. No project will ever be perfect, but the only projects where I felt the creator was truly disappointed were the ones that were never finished.