CASE STUDY: The Book of Life

Howdy! I’m very excited to be writing to you all today, typing to you from the comfort of the past, as you’ll be reading this sometime in the future. That’s exciting, you Future Person, you! But wait, that’s not the only reason!! No, the other huge reason for all of the excitement is that we recently received the fantastic opportunity to work on the FOX and Reel FX animated film “The Book of Life”!

Um, and we took it! We took that opportunity.

This is an important animated film. It’s entirely based upon Mexican culture’s ‘Day of the Dead,’ the day in which you honor your deceased ancestors by remembering their lives and celebrating them. As long as you remember your lost loved ones, they are truly never gone. Within the context of this holiday, the film’s love story unfolds, filled with adventure, mayhem, laughs, and even the song ‘Just a Friend’, by Biz Markie.

The film’s got it all. And films that have it all need to have an end title sequence that does, too (ridiculous segway).

We received a call from an old friend at Reel FX Creative Studios, Mr. Brad Booker, asking us if we’d like to take a stab and pitch the end title sequence to Jorge Gutierrez, the film’s director, and himself.

I said YES, in big caps like that, and then he set up a date for me to watch a rough cut of the film. Going into a screening, knowing that the film is still being worked on, knowing that shots may be cut, tweaked, and re-done, it’s best not to key in on any tiny details. Just look for the overall tone, vibe, message, feel, story. Broad strokes.

I brought my notepad into Reel FX in Santa Monica, CA and was set up in a screening room where the movie blasted by for an hour and a half. I took over 15 pages of notes, much of which consisted of incomprehensible doodle-nuggets and chicken scratch that would prove devilishly difficult to decipher in the days to follow.

The film’s definitely a labor of love. And the look! I was intimidated by the film’s appearance. So damned intricate. Detailed. Colorful. Unique. I decided that our sequence needed to be the opposite. Play up their detail by playing down ours.

Design. Design. Design. Go minimal. Use their story as a guide. End titles are compliments and support the film’s goals. Use their beautiful set pieces to key-up moments for us to design around. Use both moments from the film and created ones to echo the film’s story line. Show our hero’s journey, as he runs from his father’s designated career for him and into his own. Show our hero pining for Maria, the love of his life.

When I met with Jorge one day on a sound stage in Hollywood (we did lunch, no big d), we spoke at length about the film’s themes and story. A more likable guy I’ve never met. I brought with a couple of rough designs I’d concocted, to show my excitement and to share the idea I was mulling over. Here are a couple of those first images.

Luckily, they dug it. I was only going off of my memory of the film’s character designs, so I super-stylized it all, and looking back on them now, I can see I was WAY off. But the colors, the textures, the boldness, was all something that we could push, and a great starting off point, they thought.

Should be noted that the film’s characters are made out of wood and their appendages are hinged together by little metal joints. If we remove those joints, and get rid of the character’s dimension, they feel like flat paper, and their actions can become extremely clear.

With this simple, yet designed approach, we could re-tell their story through large abstract compositions. Clearly, I’m a Saul Bass lover, a lover of the mid-century modern minimal, and that overall mindset felt right after sitting with the detail of their film. This needed to be the dessert after that feast. We needed to be like Marcus Brody and ‘blend in and disappear.’ Our hand could not be seen.

Budgetarily speaking, it was something that could be executed within the ramifications of their timeline, as well.

My good friend (and fantastic animator) Byron Slaybaugh did a motion test for that first scene up there, the one with Jorge’s name, and it really sold the movement of the piece and got them stoked about the direction.

Wellp, about a week later, we got the call to begin work! CLAUS rejoiced.

My first task was to create an animatic for our sequence. Start to finish, black and white, what the heck would this thing BE.

That would require storyboarding, something I’ve not done in quite a few fortnights, if ever, really. Working in the commercial world for so long, I pulled from that knowledge-base to dig down and rough my way through it. My drawings were too raw to show here, but suffice to say, we got past that part of the assignment, it got the point across, and on we moved to the next stage: DESIGN.

(Worthy of note: I suggested the song ‘Gone, Gone, Gone’ by Phillip Phillips to run over the end titles. We even went as far as to edit our animatic to it. It was a seat-thumper. But FOX had a different song in mind, one that was better suited for the end titles, and we agree.)

Retelling the story in this minimal style, with conceptual and iconic metaphors that play off of certain parts of the film, we all felt, could be a lovely button to the story.

Wellp, we went back and forth with Jorge on the amount of stylization he would like for the simplified characters, and here’s one page of those first characters I sent over.

I was taking some large liberties with the character designs, in terms of proportions and size relations and angles. Jorge and Paul Sullivan, the film’s ridiculously talented Art Director, were digging these, but ultimately, decided it best to serve the film by bringing them all closer to model. They’d spent many years on this film and then here comes this new dude that starts messing with their character designs! I’m surprised they were as nice as they were, honestly. Their decision was correct. We needed to be closer to model. All characters needed to maintain their local values and colors in order to communicate quickly and clearly.

So, once we figured that out, the pieces fell into place and I designed the rest of the finals. (Pictured below are 13 of the 40 frames designed for the end sequence)

I think we only went through a couple design passes in order to get to our final look, which was awesome, because the schedule didn’t allow for much more! All in, we spent 5 weeks animating the two and a half minute sequence. Maybe less. I can’t remember now, it’s all blurry.

So there you have it! Byron animated about 75% of the shots, with another talented animator, Justin Demetrician taking on the rest. I hand drew Manolo’s run cycle over top of Byron’s guidelines and also created all background texture cycles by hand in order to maintain a hand-crafted feel. Byron implemented the entire piece in stereoscopic, which was a serious feat, to say the least. He also composited all the shots together in AE and handled all rendering. It would not have gotten done without Mr. Byron Slaybaugh, that’s for sure. He was a rock. His personal work can be seen HERE. We drank a lot of coffee and listened to a lot of podcasts.

All in all, we couldn’t be happier to lend our voice to this film. You have to see it in the theaters! 3D IMAX. Go big or go back to your house.


Thanks to Jorge Gutierrez, Brad Booker, and Paul Sullivan. Your films rocks and you guys do, tooooo. Let’s do it again, soon!

Until next time.

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