CREATIVE PRACTITIONER CASE STUDY — ROBERT VALLEY
The subject of my case study is Canadian animator and graphic novelist Robert Valley. In particular, I will be focussing on the production of his animated short film ‘Pear Cider and Cigarettes’, and how Valley’s creative practices and processes while making the film challenged industry expectations of independent animators and contributed in part to the success of the film.
Pear Cider and Cigarettes is Valley’s true account of his life intersecting with charismatic but self-destructive childhood friend Techno Stypes. The film takes place over the course of his 25-year relationship with Techno, and culminates in Valley travelling to China in an attempt to save Techno from his bad habits, and ultimately save his life as Techno waits for a liver transplant. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Short Animated Film and received an Annie Award for Best Animated Special Production, an impressive achievement considering Valley wrote, directed and animated the film himself.
When Valley made the decision to start making Pear Cider and Cigarettes, he was at a point in his career when he felt confident enough to bring his personal vision to life. Although he had built a strong reputation as an animator, character designer and storyboard artist, he felt as though success had always been out of his reach. “I’ve spent the majority of my adult career in someone else’s shadow. Whether that was Jamie Hewlett or Peter Chung, or Pete Candeland or Charlie Bean, it seemed like I was always playing a supporting role in other people’s projects. I felt the need to step out of the shadows by demonstrating my own ability to complete a project from start to finish”. (Valley as cited in Rebranding yourself: exclusive interview with Robert Valley, 2017)
Valley had a clear idea of the type of film he wanted to make. The film would be based on his own experience and personal taste, and although he knew the film would probably not appeal to a mainstream audience he was determined to make it anyway.
Valley planned to fund and animate the film himself. For the project to be sustainable, Valley identified the need to be economical with his time, energy and money. He set out to do the least amount of work with the most impact (Brooks & Yulfo, 2017).
“I had a family to support, so I couldn’t afford to mess up. I made a plan and executed it”. (Valley as cited in Rebranding yourself: exclusive interview with Robert Valley, 2017).
Pear Cider and Cigarettes was always intended to be a book first, and then a film later. Valley had been interested in making a successful crossover from comics to animation for years. However, he didn’t want the film to be just an adaption of the book. Valley wanted to take the idea one step further and animate the panels straight from the comic with Photoshop (Appleton, Purdy, 2017).
His workflow on the project played a large part in optimising his time. Creating the book’s frames in Photoshop served as much more than a storyboard for the film. Once completed he was able to animate the panels themselves. Photoshop layers were set up like traditional cel animation with background and foreground layers, as well as the overlays and effects all separated. Valley also kept all panels in extended letterbox aspect ratio, so he didn’t need to resize shots when animating. The aspect ratio was also useful when taking the panels directly to Premiere Pro to create a rough cut.
Valley’s animation pipeline has garnered as much attention in animation circles as the film’s success. Photoshop is not typically the tool of choice for animation, but for Valley it was the logical solution to his problem of how to animate the film. By using the book as a storyboard 20–25% of the animation was already done, and he was able to retain the quality of the book he had been labouring over. (Appleton & Purdy, 2017).
“Whenever I mention that I used Photoshop, it raises eyebrows from the animation community and they wonder what the hell I’m doing. All the color profiling, the noise textures didn’t need to be translated — it all stayed within the same program.” (Valley as cited in Desowitz, 2017).
It’s this view that his workflow is unconventional that makes Valley admit he is reluctant to talk about his Photoshop methodology. “Not because I have any great secrets or because it’s so incredibly awesome. It’s quite the opposite, I have my own dumb way of doing things that works for me.” (Valley, 2017, p.36).
Steve Jobs has been quoted as saying, “Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while.” (as cited in Cooper, 2014). Valley’s ability to connect animation and Photoshop created a new animation technique and workflow. He challenged the assumption that Photoshop could not be used for serious animation.
In his book Script 2 Screen, Valley recounts arguments he had with friend and colleague Jorden Oliwa over Valley’s choice to animate in Photoshop.
“Jorden and I would have fierce battles over PIPELINE, as in animation pipeline. One time we even threw the joint away and got off our bikes and had it out right there on the side of the road. We were yelling and pointing at each other with our fingers. We must have looked pretty funny. What was it about pipeline that got us so worked up? Basically it was this: Jorden wanted to take my Photoshop layouts and animate them in Afterfx, and I wanted to animate in Photoshop. We tried a few scenes in After Effects and I wasn’t happy with the results, to me the animation looked too ‘hinged’ it had that familiar flash animation look that I was trying to get away from. Jorden thought it was too risky to try out a new animation technique on a real job, it was the classic director versus producer struggle.” (Valley, 2017, p.55).
Oliwa wanted Valley to animate in After Effects beause that was how it’s done in the industry, it’s how the professionals do it. Oliwa’s reluctance to try out what he considered a risky animation technique on a ‘real’ job supports the theory Onarheim Balder discusses in his TEDX talk, ‘3 tools to become more creative’ (2015), that the older we get and the more expertise we have, the less creative we are. Valley, on the other hand challenges the theory. He didn’t care that Photoshop wasn’t used for animation, his priority was to retain the quality of his work and seamlessly transition the book to animation, so he created a new workflow that suited him.
‘The S-shaped curve of creativity’ presented by Bryan Collins in his book, ‘the Power of Creativity (Book 3)’, describes the curve as representing the “trajectory of creative output over time and your mastery over elements of your craft.” (Collins, 2017. p.55) There are four stages to the Curve — 1: The Beginner, 2: The Apprentice, 3: The Craftsperson and 4: The Master. In the fourth stage, the creative practitioner has mastered their craft. “You’re able to express your voice and your ideas in a way that compels others to listen to you. And you know what it is to finish working on an idea that succeeds.” (Collins, 2017, p.55)
At the time of making Pear Cider and Cigarettes Valley had reached Stage 4 on the S-shaped curve of creativity. Drawing from his years of experience as a freelancer and working under directors whom he respected, Valley was at a point in his career where he not only felt compelled to make his own film, but he had the confidence to step out and make the type of film he wanted to make.
He never wavered from the type of story he wanted to tell despite advice from industry peers. When interviewed on the Rubber Onion Podcast (Brooks & Yulfo, 2017) Valley talks about receiving suggestions to change aspects of the film, so it was more polished and had a better chance of being accepted into film festivals, but Valley refused to deviate from the script. He insisted the story stayed as it was, explaining the script is imperfect like life, and imperfect like Techno’s life. (McCourt & Taylor, 2016).
“The script was written as accurately as I could recall the events. I really needed to resist the urge to change the script in order to make a better film because that would take it away from its historical accuracy.” (Valley as cited in Academy Award-Nominated Animation 2017 — Pear Cider and Cigarettes, 2016).
Valley understood the importance of balance when creating the film. “There is no sense in making your film and having your family life crumbling to pieces in the process, eventually those wheels would start falling right off the bus and production would stop anyways.” (Valley, 2017, p.62)
For Valley, a typical work day on Pear Cider and Cigarettes would start between 4–5 am and he would work until noon when he would stop to spend the middle part of the day with his son. 2–3 hours in the evening was dedicated to freelance work and he would be in bed by 9pm. Valley also gave up drinking entirely throughout the duration of the project. “Pretty boring right? Well… this is how I finished the film.” (Valley, 2017, p.62)
Creativity is like a tortoise, tentatively poking it’s head out to assess if the environment is safe before it emerges. Therefore, to maximise creativity it’s necessary to create a safe space for the tortoise to emerge regularly. Routine is one way to train your mind to relax (Cooper, 2012). “Eventually, your regular ‘thinking time’ will become a safe haven — a tortoise enclosure — for your creativity.” (Cooper, 2012).
It’s also important to give your ‘tortoise’ a break. You need to give your creativity space and time to work it’s magic in your subconscious, something Valley found necessary when working on Pear Cider and Cigarettes. “In a strange way I needed to spend large chunks of time not working on my film in order to get it done. In fact, surprisingly, not working on my film didn’t seem to slow down progress at all.” (Valley, 2017, p.63)
Valley’s routine supports the theory that great creative thinkers do not wait for inspiration to strike. Instead, they show up day after day and put in the hard work setting up patterns of behaviour to trigger certain outcomes. Despite his expertise and years in the animation industry, Valley has not grown complacent. During the making of the film, he continued to push himself and the medium further creatively. He discovered a new way to speed up his workflow, optimise time and avoid burning-out all while retaining the style and quality of his animation, and his unique voice.
Appleton, J, Purdy, C (2017). An Award-nominated short animation made with photoshop. Retrieved from http://create.adobe.com/2017/2/23/an_academy_award_nominated_short_animation_made_with_photoshop_.html
Anon (2016). Academy Award Nominated Animation 2017 — Pear Cider and Cigarettes. Retrieved from http://www.wearemovingstories.com/we-are-moving-stories-videos/2016/12/12/academy-award-nominated-animation-2017-pear-cider-and-cigarettes
Anon (2017). Rebranding yourself: exclusive interview with Robert Valley. Retrieved from https://trojan-unicorn.com/blog/articles/exclusive-interview-artist-robert-valley
Brooks, S & Yulfo, R (Executive Producers & Presenters). 2016. Interview with Robert Valley [Audio Podcast]. Retrieved from http://rubberonion.com/podcast/interview-with-robert-valley-pear-cider-cigarettes-indie-animated-film-animating-in-photoshop-and-the-importance-of-editing-and-music-rubberonion-animation-podcast-145/
Collins, B. (2017). The Power of Creativity: How to Conquer Procrastination, Finish Your Work and Find Success (Book 3). Retrieved from http://becomeawritertoday.com/book/the-power-of-creativity-3/
Cooper, B. B. (2012). John Cleese on creativity and how to unleash your tortoise brain. Retrieved from https://crew.co/blog/power-routine-boosting-creativity/
Cooper, B. B (2014). The secret to creativity, intelligence and scientific thinking. Retrieved from https://www.fastcompany.com/3031994/the-secret-to-creativity-intelligence-and-scientific-thinking
Desowitz, B. (2017). “Pear Cider and Cigarettes”: How an imperfect life became an oscar contender. Retreived from http://www.indiewire.com/2017/02/pear-cider-and-cigarettes-short-oscar-contender-1201776705/
McCourt, T & Taylor, S (Executive Producers & Presenters). 2016. The Pegbar and Grill Podcast: Series 2, Episode 1: Robert Valley [Audio Podcast]. Retrieved from https://soundcloud.com/the-pegbar-and-grill/s2-episode-1-robert-valley
Onarheim, B. (2015). 3 tools to become more creative.[Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g-YScywp6AU
Valley, R. (2017). Script 2 Screen: The making of pear cider and cigarettes. Retrieved from https://gumroad.com/l/SOob