Making Skülly’s Short Film
Introduction — How it started
In 2016 I decided to get my MFA in Illustration at the University of Hartford’s Low Residency program. The program is geared toward working illustrators that wouldn’t have the time to go through grad school full time. The apex of that two year journey is a capstone project of whatever we’d like to create that is in the world of what we’d like to be doing in the future with our careers.
I recall describing my goals for the program along the lines of; I draw a lot of characters and objects on a plain background without much environment or consequence. Basically spot illustrations for web or character development and branding. I felt like I was lacking somewhere and perhaps was missing out on telling a true full story with my characters. This would be a great opportunity for me to work on that.
I wanted to create a trailer to a short film that would push my work further into a sequential narrative and force me into drawing environments, backgrounds, storyboards, consequences, etc. Though the animation would be the trailer, I also wanted the short film fully realized, to demonstrate that I could create a fully story that made sense, so we created a script, storyboard, and concept art for the full story. Lastly, I wanted this project to be a group project with friends which would hold everyone accountable and create an out of the ordinary experience to grow from.
Around this time, I had begun working with identity designer Richie Stewart on a studio moniker and online identity for my freelance career which manifested itself into a studio name of BoneHaüs and was represented by a character named Skülly.
Taking this trademark symbol as a jump off point, I began to further expand on Skülly and took him on as a muse. He would be the character that I’d build a world around.
Introducing Skülly in…Rib Caged
We join our hero, Skülly: a loveable, young (but flawed) skeleton-like character, who is mid-stride of an adventure, and running away from something — although we are not quite sure what. Cool and collected, he takes a large leap off a cliff to escape whatever was chasing him. Skülly is prepared: he has a parachute to soften his landing, but on his way down, Skülly crashes, dizzying himself and loses a limb (something that has been a problem his whole life). As he gets up from his crash, his head is upside down and things are looking pretty strange. He rolls his eyes and flips his head back upright as something catches his eye off screen.
Curious, Skülly comes across a large, enticing, adventurous looking room, which is an adventure he cannot simply pass up. The room looks like an old ancient temple, but with glowing blue lines all around the door: almost alien upon first glance. The door leads to a dungeon, or temple of sort — an ancient but futuristic crossbreed. As Skülly steps in, the building appears to be bigger in the inside…
From here we get a glimpse into the rest of the story (which has been storyboarded but not animated) of Skülly making his way through this temple filled with various rooms. There is of course a twist, that prevents him from escaping through to the other side until he can learn to take a step back from frustration and panic and learn to use some of his own insecurities to his advantage as a way to overcome the problem.
Creating the Story
This was the most uncomfortable start of a project I think I’ve ever come across. Basically, I came to our “writers table” (which was made up of four friends Adam Danielson, Latham Arnott, Jeff Guerra, and Jeremy Lwamugira) and spilled out this long complicated idea and general beats of a story I’d like to tell. Jeremy and Jeff I have known for some 20+ years and Adam and Latham I had only met a few years prior through freelance. This made for a wonderful balance of things, with Jeremy and Jeff able to extract the weird ideas I couldn’t quite convey with words, and Adam and Latham there as a less biased judge in the ideas themselves.
At the end of our first script writing, Adam said, “I know you’re going to hate me, but what if we literally started over, from the beginning, changing the first scene completely and seeing where that takes us instead.” He was right — I didn’t want anything to do with that, but I knew it was the way things get better, and everyone obliged. Ultimately it did create a considerably more interesting story, by pushing ourselves into constraints, we had to solve them creatively.
For instance, at first we had Skülly waking up in the morning, stretching, brushing his teeth, etc. Very quickly we judged that as boring. Why do we have to show all of that? What’s the purpose? We wanted to convey that he was an adventurer at heart. So instead why not just get to the exciting part… let’s put him in an adventure straight away, skip the bullshit and make it exciting. So, that’s why he’s running in the woods straight away. We thought if we showed the film at the end one story (escaping trouble), and transitioning into the next (leaping off the cliff), it’d make for a more interesting narrative. From there we could retrofit our story into this new beginning. At each turn we tried to take the less obvious route and even the bad idea route and see where it’d lead us.
After a few days of this writing process, we began to consider the storyboard. We roughly storyboarded on a whiteboard, with a single black marker, the story from beginning to end. It was helpful to visualize the alignment and interaction of the shots at this initial stage.
When we all felt reasonably confident in our story and high level storyboard, I created some tighter thumbnail sketches of each scene. I believe I did about 10–20 of these sketches, for each of the 60 scenes, and then narrowed each scene down to two or three sketches, which I brought back for the group to review.
The biggest challenge at this stage was not using boring, flat, straight on perspectives for the shots. To avoid this, I imagined the camera as a fly in the room, fly buzzing around the scene to consider the best angle. One major breakthrough for me during this phase was that, despite my usual desire to take the easiest angle, I was fully engaged in whatever the best angle would be for the sake of the story.
Chopping it down
By this point in our timeline I was wonderfully graced with Latham’s presence as he had some time to kill between leases from New Zealand and was able to come stay in Boston for two months and work on this project as well as some other commercial work we were doing at the time. It was once Latham who would be spearheading all of the animation got a hold of things that we faced the reality of what was possible to get done in the allotted time (grad school thesis deadline) and came to the conclusion it was time to edit down to a brief trailer as a “proof of concept”. This would allow us to get enough different scenes created to get a feel for the story’s full arc, without having to get into the absurd detail of every single shot.
At first, this felt like a failure on my part. We only had a couple of months to get this project completed, which I had envisioned to be a full story, animated, with sound design. While this may have been a possibility (lol it wasn’t), weighing the pros and cons of forcing that result lead me to realize I would produce a better product if I focused on quality instead of quantity. We spent a day or two using post it notes to prioritize the scenes.
Creating the Artwork (Process)
Key frames help a project come to life and suggest the art direction — the artwork from these frames dictated the style, tone, color, and lighting of the whole film. I created fully realized illustrations, layered appropriately to be more easily animated by Latham.
Next I took picture of the sketches, synced them to the computer and pen tooled them in Illustrator. Following this line work, I’d make a black and white value study of the key frame. This will ultimately served to highlight the important elements of a scene, as well as tone down the secondary or tertiary elements. This technique helps to express how an image will be processed by the viewer.
To color, I started with a very limited color palette, with no more than four colors. This gave me enough diversity that I was able to differentiate objects clearly, as well as get a sense of the tone, without overcomplicating things. Because I was not intending to use any outline on this project, it was very important that I fully realized the contrast of the colors. In considering this challenge, I was inspired by Genndy Tartakovsky who created the 2001–2017 animated television show, Samurai Jack. The show uses little to no black outline around characters, relying on graphic design principles (such as contrast in shape and value) to separate the characters from the background.
Having completed the above work in Adobe Illustrator, I organized the file into layers for importation to Adobe Photoshop. For this project, I used a mix of custom digital brushes created by myself and purchased digital brushes (created by Kyle T. Webster, Liam McCay, Syd Weiler). In order to better convey a sense of traditional media, many of the brushes I used were created with ink, conté crayons, dry brushes, and a myriad of other traditional tools that were then scanned into the computer, and digitized. The painterly, textured look I used was inspired by the flat gouache painting styles of many Disney projects, such as It’s a Small World (art directed by Mary Blair from 1934–1978).
Finally, I completed any necessary photo manipulation effects in Adobe Photoshop. For example, I had created a preset of color correction effects that I laid over all of the images of related scenes for a sense of harmony. For instance, using the “curves” tool in Adobe Photoshop, I could manipulate the amount of red, green, or blue in the whole image to help warm up the palette as a whole. Another example was my ability to emphasize the blues in a snow scene, creating a ‘cold’ feeling. I also used manipulated topical effects, including using a depth of field blur on foreground objects; mimicking the focal depth of a camera; or, airbrushing in colors to give a sense of lighting over the whole image.
More process flows
The majority of the animation was done in Adobe After Effects, and the character was animated with a plugin called DuIK which is an inverse kinematics system that allows for easy puppeting of a character.
Because our timeline was tight, our workflow was basically this; Latham and I would both work on tight sketches of a scene, then I’d get to finishing it with the process above until finished and then I’d hand it over to Latham (via a shared Dropbox folder) for him to split up into the layers he needs and animate. For the most part, Latham was working 1.5x the speed I could illustrate. When he didn’t have any animating to do, he’d get back to sketches and general ideation.
I made sure to keep any objects that I wanted animated on a separate layer, usually keeping items as smart objects from illustrator to photoshop, that way if Latham wanted to use the vector points from the original artwork in animation, it would be easy for him to drill into the assets. In general, we worked out a good system of layer formatting. Keeping things tidy and well organized was important to keep Latham from getting overwhelmed with some 40 layers in a file.
While a lot of the animation was done using this rigging style, Latham also animated a lot of materials that required an organic sense of motion. For example, dust blowing off a book, mud getting stuck on our character, or Skülly throwing his parachute up in the air after crashing all were animated frame by frame, due to their random and very organic traits. Mixing the two allowed for a traditional feeling, with the editability assisted by modern day tools.
The final piece I created for this thesis was a promotional poster. It was created as a hybrid between cartoon title cards and theatrical movie posters. A title card (also called an “intertitle”) is often used at the start of a cartoons. I wanted to create something that was starkly different from all the work I had just finished for the animation, referencing some of the simplicity I had been inspired by in film posters, most notably the works of Saul Bass. The results is a poster that is simple, striking, and thought provoking.
My simple editorial aspect included Skülly trapped in a cage made of his own bones. This fit the narrative of the overarching project: Skülly is his own worst enemy. He cannot get around his large ego, and overzealous lust for adventure, and consequently is trapped in the puzzle rooms. A prison of his own design.
Process of Poster
I had the chance to live stream this full process on Adobe Creative Live in San Francisco and it’s viewable below and here are a bunch of process shots of the poster as it came along from start to finish:
- Direction — Kirk Wallace
- Animation — Latham Arnott
- Writing — Kirk Wallace, Latham Arnott, Adam Danielson, Jeremy Lwamugira, Jeff Guerra, Kevin Wallace
- Music Composition & Sound Design — Jeff Guerra, Jeremy Lwamugira
- Original Skülly Trademark— Richie A Stewart