This is meant to function both as a tutorial for the techniques used in the film and as a document for the process of developing the ideas in the film. I hope that you can find something interesting in here. I want to be a total open book about this, so please send an email my way if you have any comments or questions about anything with this film. I am super happy to share!
Hopkins & Delaney LLP was made during my first year in the Experimental Animation MFA program at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts). Just prior to starting at CalArts, I had encountered a number of things that had a big impact on the conceptual side of this film. The two big cinematic influences were John Cassavetes (particularly Husbands and Faces) and Terrence Malick (particularly Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line), which basically led to wanting to make a relatively non-narrative film with lots of dialogue and a montage editing style throughout. I had also recently read Franz Kafka’s The Trial and David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King. I liked the way these books presented extremely dry content in an absurdist way, and how both have a really unique comic outlook on the bureaucratic nightmare their characters are stuck in. I also really responded to the way David Foster Wallace would build up a huge landscape of discreet moments and experiences to gripping narrative effect. I once heard him speaking about his other book Infinite Jest, and the interviewer says that the structure reminded him of fractals, and he said that it was based more on a sierpinski gasket. That might also be a useful way of thinking about how I was trying to construct this movie, although it’s probably more like fractals than a sierpinski gasket. It’s also probably just all over the place, but that’s ok too.
Just before CalArts, my day job had been doing data entry in an accounting department at a company. Most people assumed the job was sort of a boring nightmare, but that wasn’t the case at all. Sometimes we had to interact and send files back and forth with the accounting departments of our clients. This process was actually really fascinating, especially because our department was run really well, it felt like watching the gears turn on an incredibly well-oiled machine. Mainly my job was going through receipts when our people went out of town and review their time sheets (and make spread sheets about their utilization), which was also a funny, vicarious way of experiencing someone else’s work trip experience through abstract data.
I wanted to make a movie about an office space with cubicles that rebels against the traditional depictions of these kinds of spaces. I think animation is particularly guilty of this trope, but it extends to culture more broadly. I was thinking about those shots in movies where it’s just a grid of workers sitting like drones at computers (and how the one guy who breaks free is the hero). What if all the workers were doing cancer research? Then the one guy who breaks free is the asshole and the workers represent the excitement of human progress and ingenuity.
This all boiled down to the basic idea of a client visiting a law firm and a young, ambitious attorney who is trying to make partner at the expense of his body and mental well-being. I also wanted it to feel authentic to the experience of living in the contemporary world.
I wanted to keep the flow loose and decided to try two things that I hadn’t done before: lock all of the audio before committing to a single storyboard image and keep things loose by having lots of scenes with non-diegetic sounds. So before storyboarding, I wrote a treatment, figured out who the main characters were, and wrote a really loose script.
I knew that I wanted to have Chris Sullivan do a voice for the film. Chris was my mentor on my previous film Another and his film Consuming Spririts was a road map for how I wanted the dialogue to sound and feel. I also knew that Chris was great at improvising, so I wrote to him describing the character as a stock trader from Chicago who became a stock trading software developer and that he really likes being around people and doesn’t really care that much about the case but likes to spend time with all the attorneys.
The material that Chris sent back created a whole universe for this character. Chris decided that this character had created a program called Vesuvius that tracked natural disasters and other catastrophes and correlated the data to relevant stocks. This became a big part of the concept of the movie for me, that the client’s business is about parsing this huge amount of human tragedy data and algorithmically determining the meaning it will have on products. Chris recorded about an hour of dialogue, and editing it down to what’s in the film was really challenging.
The other main character was going to be a young attorney overworking himself to try to become a partner at the firm. I chose to cast fellow animator Ethan Clarke for the part just because I liked how his normal voice sounded. Ethan had done a lot of the voices for his own film Drifters, and when we first started to record, it took a little bit of time reigning him in to get him to just speak in his regular voice, but once we got in the flow, I was so happy with how natural it felt. I had a recording of him laughing that was so hilarious, but I couldn’t find a spot for it to naturally fit in anywhere (after months inserting it randomly into scenes where it didn’t make any sense). The other roles were filled out by friends and classmates (including my Dad, who delivers the one line from the older attorney James Delaney).
I edited together a cut of the film that was about four minutes long and began to storyboard to the audio. Although I eventually transported the animatic into Flash, I started with really loose drawings in a sketchbook to see how all the shots looked on a single page.
As the boards were developing, I was also rushing to figure out what the actual look was going to be for the film.
I had one false start with the technique at the beginning of production. I was used to animating on paper, but I was also learning to use After Effects, so I wanted to find a hybrid technique that didn’t look too digital (I actually think I just told my teacher Soyeon that I wanted it to look like Milch by Igor Kovalyov and she gave me a pipeline to try). So I started with an initial character animation pass that was just pencil on paper that I scanned into the computer. I exported the scanned drawings into Flash and rotoscoped each separate color zone, exporting each layer as a discreet SWF that would then be used as a track matte in After Effects over a layer of constantly shifting and dissolving texture swatches. I combined all the elements in After Effects and added a camera and some depth and a little gradient for the light.
I found this technique both aesthetically unsatisfying and extremely tedious and time consuming. I had a conversation with Ethan Clarke and Sara Gunnarsdotir who shared two really important things with me that I didn’t know. One was the fact that After Effects would accept .SWF files (and that you could scale them infinitely with the “Continously Rasterize” tool) and the “bitmap fill” tool in Flash. I did an experiment with a still drawing that night and found the technique I would use for the rest of the film.
Before doing any of the real animation, I figured out the look and palette of the film by starting with the background paintings.
For the backgrounds, I used watercolor and gouache on a cut up sheet of the thickest hot press Arches paper. If the shot had a specific interaction with a character, I would draw the layout in Flash, print it out, and use that technique where you put graphite on the back of the sheet of paper, put it on top of the Arches paper, and then trace the lines so they transfer.
A lot of the color palette was inspired by Gorgio Morandi, specifically his still life paintings of ceramic vessels and bottles and jugs and stuff. Once the image was scanned in, I would do a second pass in Photoshop of all the elements in the image that weren’t painted, like screens and text. I would also break the image up at this point into seperate layers of depth and add little cheap light effects (usually just white circle gradients with lowered opacity).
After this, I would take this image into Flash and make a file that was the exact dimensions of the background and trace a three frame boil of all the black lines. I found that just adding a digital line on top of the painting made the final image more cohesive, the lines of the background were the same weight as the lines of the characters.
Now it’s time to add the character! I usually do really rough keys to start and then jump as quickly as possible into the final animation. Nothing fancy or special in this step, just black paint line in Flash. I would then figure out what colors are in the shot and paint a sheet of printer paper with a bunch of different color swatches and then scan them in at a really high resolution. Then I just cut up each individual color in photoshop into it’s own color jpeg image.
So the bitmap fill tool is really easy to use, but if you’re like me before I started on this film, I’ll explain what it is. In Flash, go to File > Import > Import to Library. Go to the color panel and you’ll see it defaults to “Solid Color” in the drop down menu. Click over to “Bitmap Fill” and you’ll see all your colors swatches.
You can then just use these colors like normal flat colors in Flash. I don’t do anything fancy when coloring, just keep it all on a single layer. There’s ways to make this more precise, and obviously ways to mimic this same look in After Effects, but I found that there’s a weird amount of slippage that happens using this technique in Flash with the textures becoming kind of weirdly gittery and trying to follow the shape as it moves. This felt like a kind of oddly organic aspect within the digital process and I didn’t want to intervene or smooth it out.
This is all extremely straightforward, but I’ve included a download link to the .FLA of this file in case anyone would want to take a look at how it all gels together.
Screens and Interfaces
The film is meant to take place basically on the day that I started working on it, which is in February of 2012, right around the same time that I first signed up for Twitter and Facebook started integrating a lot more “trending” technology to its interface. My first thought was that there might be some moment where you get a vague sense for what the program actually looks and feels like. Then I had an important experience.
I was watching Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part One in the theater, and there was a scene where Kristen Stewart’s character needs to look up what the mythology is of a half-vampire half-human baby. So she gets on the Internet and goes to Bing.com to look it up. This got a big laugh from the audience, presumably because of its total inauthenticity to actually using the Internet: Everybody would use Google, nobody would use Bing, so what should feel like a fluid experience feels totally stupid and artificial. This made me think about the experience of using computers and interfaces, and how the very act of using a given site is also a sort of product placement. Compare this to a technology of yesteryear like a telephone. Nobody would laugh in a movie if someone used a phone that wasn’t Pacific Bell, it wouldn’t make a difference. The generic brand of the phone is acceptable.
I was also impacted in a more subtle way by a movie like The Social Network, which was very specific with all of its period computer technology, and had to incorporate computer usage as a large part of its narrative. I was also extremely isolated and lonely during the actual production of the movie, and even though I was in school, found myself connecting more with a community of animators online than in my immediate surroundings.
This all resulted in the film taking a sort of mid-production u-turn, with all of the characters becoming involved in these isolated digital experiences through interfaces and feeling sort of alienated from one another (even though they are all confined to a single physical space for the entire film). It also led me to the decision to try to make all of the technology and interfaces as authentic as possible, that this film would take very seriously the ubiquitous experience of 2012. Who would use an iPhone and who would use a BlackBerry. The website you’d use to look up Modifinal isn’t some generic fake website, but Wikipedia. You would be curious about what Richard Gere is up to on your lunch break. What’s the difference between Barq’s and Mug root beer? I wanted to nail down this kind of specificity because it felt like it was becoming increasingly important to telling stories about the present. I also didn’t want this to be a condemnation of the characters or the validity of their experience, similar to the neutral position on the office itself. A person with their face glued to their phone might seem sort of sad and alienating, but they might be constantly engaged with a wonderful community, or constantly following a crisis unfolding on the other side of the world. Which is to say, I don’t think its really good or bad, it’s just what the world is like today. My main guide for all of this was techno-expert Emery Martin, who the film is dedicated to.
This connected back to Edward Pinto and Vesuvius by emphasizing the irony of a piece of software that is able to algorithmically crunch human experience into meaningful stock data being sued for copyright infringement over its interface. This is the software that changed stock trading from being an extremely physical experience on the floor to being a totally detached, isolated experience, and what is being contested is how it looks and feels. We’re then able to see the interface of the program evolve through the history of computer technology, from MS DOS to XP and from 9/11 to Hurricane Katrina. How did we collectively experience those moments through digital media? And Edward Pinto takes great pleasure in measuring human tragedy from a safe distance.
I had a very basic revelation at some point during the process creating an imagined computer interaction (in the moments when you see the different iterations of the Vesuvius program) or recreating a computer interaction (like IMDB or Wikipedia)that the material of these experiences are at their core, animated experiences. Scrolling through a wikipedia page is a 2D animated experience. It then felt like a fun challenge to kind of simulate these experiences in their native environments, in a way making the digital experiences the most “real” thing in the movie, and all of the human characters and environments “unreal”.
Earlier this year, I read a book by Marie Calloway called what purpose did i serve in your life. There were parts of the book that were just screenshots of Gmail threads and Facebook chats (mainly her having very explicit sexual conversations with dudes). I found the format totally gripping and wanted to try building a post-expositional narrative around Hopkins & Delaney LLP for the online release.
All of that material is collected here, and part of a fictional Facebook conversation is posted below. I thought this might help reinforce aspects of what the “story” is in the movie, or at least create a little bit more context for the movie while staying consistent with some of the conceptual frameworks. In any case, all of this stuff was fun to do, and building these things as images made me think a lot about how interfaces are contructed and how experiences are carried out in these modes and where the limitations end up. The latter will be explored more thoroughly in my next two films, so stay tuned.
Thank you for reaching the end of this. I hope it was at least a little bit interesting, and even if it wasn’t, I appreciate you reading all the way to the end. If you’d like to drop me a line, please don’t hesitate to shoot me an email at seanbuckelew@gmail or on Twitter at @seanbuckelew.