“When it comes to 2D hand-drawn animation at Northwestern, we are the department,” says Communication sophomore Robbie Stern. By “we,” he refers to the crew of “Bystander,” a Studio 22 animated short film that received the studio’s Special Projects grant. Although Northwestern had an animate arts adjunct major program through 2009, the program lost its funding and the university subsequently killed the major. So now, Stern, the producer, and Neil Lokken and Ryan Naylor, the film’s two directors, can be considered the heads of Northwestern’s animation program.
“Bystander” is the brainchild of Naylor, a Communication sophomore who came to Northwestern for that now-defunct animate arts program. “I’ve had the concept with me since high school,” he says, but the project didn’t come to complete fruition until he had a “great brainstorm” with Lokken and Stern where they hashed out the plot. Naylor took the ideas from the brainstorm and wrote the script.
The plot is simple enough. A single father gets promoted from his small-town job to a gig in New York City. Upon arriving, he discovers New York features everything from larger-than-life monsters to apocalyptic disasters to a ghost catcher chasing a ghost who is chasing a bride, all in about three to five minutes.
The three creators are hesitant to directly quote any film for fear of copyright infringement, so instead of a giant gorilla, there might be, as Lokken put it, a three-headed monster. “The main goal is to get into lots of festivals,” Stern says.
Although the plot is simple, the animation process is complicated and lengthy. The creators chose digital ink and paint as the animation style, which Disney has used for their most recent animation films. Although Pixar and DreamWorks have pioneered and popularized 3D computer animation, “Bystander” is going for “that hand-drawn feel.” The process simplifies traditional ink and paint by scanning the hand-drawn images, then adding the color and piecing together the characters and the background digitally.
To achieve that, the creators enlisted nine animators in addition to Lokken and Naylor, along with 10 complementary digital painters, who add color to scanned versions of the hand-drawn images; three background artists, who draw the backgrounds behind the characters; two composers, a sound designer and six compositors, who piece together the background images and the character images.
One Wednesday night, the creators and four of the animators huddle into a small room in Louis Hall to begin the animation process. Three of the animators have light boxes, desks that hold the paper in place while allowing a light to shine through the box to allow for easier tracing. On their second night of animating, the animators are simply learning to draw their characters. Lokken and Naylor point out flaws in their renditions and offer suggestions for improvement. Class is in session. Lokken gives a quick lesson to one animator on perspective drawing as Naylor references storyboards to demonstrate a character’s personality.
Given the tedium of exacting the drawing of a character, the atmosphere could be stifling, but the room stays full of laughter and energy. A Pandora station pumps out doo-wop, and one character’s name jokingly shifts from George (short for Georgia) to Demon Spawn. There’s an air of excitement among all the participants. “Pixar is the reason I wanted to study film,” says Ellen Barry, a Communication sophomore and animator for “Bystander.” “In WALL-E, I admire how they say so much without any dialogue.” Similarly, “Bystander” has no dialogue.
With “Bystander,” the creators hope to not only learn animation for themselves, but push the boundaries of digital ink and print.
“Bystander” will show at the Studio 22 Premiere in spring 2012.
*Full disclosure: Stern contributes to North by Northwestern’s Writing Section.