Our bowhead sequences are multiplying. Every day there’s more a sense of story, and we better understand how the film is going to come together. It’s time to take a step back from the lights and the water and the whale scars.
I’m Kelsey, the museum’s digital media producer. I’ll edit the animated Arctic Currents as anyone would edit live action footage into a cohesive film. When Roger and Hannah have the rendered shots just the way they want them, they’ll kick them over to me and I’ll stitch them together over the voices and music and sound effects, making sure everything flows.
We’re nearly three quarters of the way through this project. More and more is happening each week and soon I’ll be thrown into the thick of it as well. During a quieter afternoon than most, Hannah, Roger, and I took a step back from our individual minutia and tried to think about the whole film, how far it has come and how far we have to go.
Roger: A whole blog on how to work with 20-year-olds.
Hannah: ‘You’re not my mom!’ ‘Go to your room!’
R: Actually, 20-somethings.
H: Why is it difficult working with 20-year-olds? I thought we were youthful.
R: I was 27 when I started working here.
H: But why, what’s bad about working with me?
R: I have no idea, we’ll find out. The year is young.
H: You made it sound like it was already an arduous chore.
R: It has its moments.
Our cast of creators, left to right: Head of Production Roger Topp, Modeler/Animator Hannah Foss, Digital Media Producer Kelsey Gobroski.
Kelsey: So getting into this project, what were your thoughts, wishes, and hopes?
R: Apart from the ‘Hell yeah, that sounds awesome?’ We’ve done a lot of animation over the last decade for lots of projects but they’ve all been small amounts of animation stuck in where appropriate. Nothing threaded together where it becomes the main visual mode. I was very excited from the beginning at the idea of doing a project that was 100 percent animated, take all that we’ve learned in the last decade and put it on the table. What about you, Hannah?
H: I didn’t know it was all – I thought there was going to be some live action in there.
R: Did you?
H: Yeah I thought there were going to be some shots of people on the shore –
R: No we’re going to animate those, too.
H: Oh please don’t do that to m—
H: Wait, serious?
R: Yes. But it won’t be 3D animated.
H: (Giving Roger quite the pointed look) I’m judging you right now.
R: It’d be 2D animation.
H: You didn’t tell me about that.
K: So no talking heads?
R: No talking heads. No live action in the final frame.
H: It sounded like a big project when you talked about it last year when you said okay, we’re almost done with voles, now let’s go on to the bowhead project. And you were talking about all the stuff to be done and the krill and the copepods and modeling, there’d be ice, and in the back of my head, I’m like ‘I hope Roger knows what technical level I’m at, that I’m not some super duper wizard that sits at home and programs.’
R: We started writing it last summer. Hannah was with us as a student at the time, doing some work for the hibernation exhibit.
(That exhibit had a first-person explorer game where you could play a vole in winter – running around, getting food, evading moose feet.)
R: In terms of putting together a team, the production unit here is five members tall, and not everyone is currently working on this film because we have so many projects, so it’s a very small team.
H: Currently? Arctic Current-ly?
H: Sorry. I’m the derailer.
K: How do you account for the fact that you’re working on a pretty small animation team?
R: Hey, maybe it’s a small team but it’s better than one person. It’s always important to have your playwright, your director, and your actors be different people. I think it’s great to have different people’s visions and skill sets merge and cross over. There’s a certain amount of compromise that comes when you have a project like this, and compromise is a good thing. You get a better product. I’d like to get a bigger team down the road. Right now I’m very thankful for having the people we do have. We made a big jump this last year with new staff and I hope I see it grow from there.
K: Even though there’s delineation in having more than one person work on it, there’s still a lot of one person having to wear a lot of hats, do a lot of jobs. Do you want to talk about that?
R: Anyone who works on the team needs to have a skill set that covers a broad range. I like to say that in the department we have three writers, we have at least two animators, we have at least three illustrators, we have multiple people in the fabrication shop, we have two people trained in design. It sounds like a big team but I’m talking about the same five people.
K: So, how do you feel now that we’re most of the way through the calendar?
(Hannah and Roger laugh, a bit panicked)
K: Since you were saying it’s a two year project from start to finish and we’re—
R: Yeah, this is what always happens. You start slow and things accelerate and you hope you have the time in that last quarter to make up the point differential. We’d love to have more time, but the way these projects work is if you give yourself six more months, or another year, you fill it, you get lazy. The good thing is you have a firm deadline and you work as hard as you can towards it.
H: Fear is a good motivator.
K: So, how about you, Hannah? On that note.
R: She just found out we’re going to have to worry about people, so.
H: Right. Cool.
R: Yeah, she’s cool with it.
H: Quiet panic? Yeah, quiet panic.
R: That’s a good way of doing it.
H: You know, the Titanic’s in your head going “aaaaaah!” all the people are running around. But you’re the iceberg on the surface. It’s very poetic.
K: Between your thoughts and hopes and wishes from the beginning to how you feel now, how do you stay motivated and on task?
(There are times when only YouTube cat and goat gifs calm the storm for Hannah and me. Roger, somehow, finds solace in more work. Or, rather, seeing what our machines can churn out after much tinkering.)
One of several promotional posters Hannah drew to find inspiration and take her mind off the pains of animation.
R: You put an awful lot of time in on some parts of the project and nothing seems to happen for a while and it gets a little demoralizing. I was showing you the shot of the krill, it’s slowly rendering on a machine in the other room and it’s gorgeous. You see that and say ‘I don’t care that it’s going to take the computer a month to produce a second worth of this shot.’ You see a glimmer there that the product, when you’re done, is going to have this wonderful look to it. The work you put in, the time it takes, the stress of the calendar, all of that settles a bit when you see what the final product can look like.
H: I think looking at other people’s final products and being inspired by what they can create and you realize how much time they put in and the number of times they probably freaked out, and also seeing the things that [Roger] puts on Dropbox, like rendered passes, it makes me feel a lot happier. Because when you’re working on a big, personal project, if you stop working for a day, nothing gets done. There’s no, ‘Oh wow, someone’s worked on it.’ But you can leave for the weekend, you’ve had something rendering, you come in and think, ‘Hey, present.’
R: It’s interesting because everyone inside the production unit here at the museum is an artist. And so we’re all very familiar with working in our home offices and studios or wood shops and creating things and knowing what it’s like to sort of toil away for ourselves — and then you come into this environment where you know other people are working on the same project.
H: It’s nice. And you’re held accountable, too. This way you know you have to get stuff to people and it encourages you to be like, ah, hey, if I don’t get this done, then – hey, this is familiar.
R: Roger gets mad?
H: Well no, you send like a polite email like, ‘Hey Hannah, how’s that stuff coming along?’ ‘It’s going. It’s going.’
R: ‘You’ll get it by Friday.’
H: ‘It’s great.’ It’s like Grandma. ‘You haven’t written in a while!’ ‘Sorry, Grandma, I’ll send you cookies! I’ll send you a picture!’
R: ‘Here’s some krill.’
H: Yep. That’s what all grandmas want. Krill.
We’re growing quite proud of our recipe for krill here – no, not to be eaten! Our recipe, that is, to create krill. And more krill. By the hundreds of thousands. Now our animation team, holding hands up to their heads to steady their many hats, will get back to work on that great task. For Grandma.
To be continued…
–Kelsey Gobroski (UAMN Digital Media Producer)