Stories My Mother Told Me with Doreen Edemafaka

(This is an edited version of my submitted work placement assessment)

I have been looking forward to the simulated work experience for some time was very pleased to be working with Doreen as I knew I’d learn a lot from her and from working on a puppet production. Watching her animatic I was excited: the story was funny and moving and seemed on the surface to be relatively straightforward. However, the more I thought about it, the more apprehensive I became: we would have to make four puppets, three different sets, and animate some extremely tricky moments, such as a puppet drowning in a raging river! I couldn’t wait to get started.

(Animatic for Stories My Mother Told Me by Doreen Edemafaka)

Sadly the snow disrupted a lot of our first week, as Doreen was not able to come into school. Instead, she sent me some logistic work to do including compiling a shot list from her animatic and working on her character turn arounds. The shot list took a long time and brought back to me again how complex a production this would be, but I quickly realised how important it was: firstly it got me very familiar with the story, characters and settings; and secondly, it was incredibly useful for highlighting how we would need to organise the shots once we started animating. I had assumed we would shoot chronologically, but realised it would make much more sense to shoot all the scenes from each camera angle and location consecutively and edit the order later. This exercise brought home to me the value of the doing a good deal of the drudge work before you start on the exciting bits.

The second week of work experience the snow had cleared and we were finally both in the studio together. The main task was to build the forest and river set where the climax of the story would take place. Doreen had done extensive research into Nigerian plant life, which we used to design, cut out and paint the trees and bushes for her set. All week we cut and painted foam board, and it seemed like a somewhat never ending job, but the result was very beautiful — having a variety of textures and plant types made the set a lot richer and more interesting. 

 

This experience also got me thinking about the process and cost of assembling the materials for a puppet production. For example, Doreen explained to me that the correct sculpy colour for the complexion of her characters is not available anywhere in the UK (she found it in one place in the USA, but the shipping time was too long for her to order it), so she is having to dye the lighter coloured sculpy before she can make her puppets. This speaks volumes about the fact that the production industry is geared towards making light skinned characters, and is part of a larger institutionalised racism that sees protagonists as white not black. In terms of representation, I think it is really important that more films like Doreen’s are made and that the materials to do so become more readily available.

The film itself is a Nigerian folk tale, from a book of stories that Doreen tells me she has been reading and being read since she was a child. In it a seemingly kind old lady, initially helps the three brother protagonists, but turns, witch like, when she is stolen from and lied to and exacts a terrible revenge. As often in these folk tales the punishment, in this case the death of the youngest brother, seems to hugely outweigh the crime, i.e. stealing porridge and lying about it. The audience of such stories are supposedly children, who, all over the world, are scared into good behaviour by morality tales like this one. However, in Doreen’s retelling traces of humour are captured in the boys’ body language and facial expressions and so rather than being simply cyphers of “good” and “bad”, they become real characters, that we can both relate to and empathise with. Their humanity makes the ending all the more shocking and horrible. In this way Doreen, has reshaped the material from a simple morality tale into a complex study of human behaviour more suitable for an adult audience. Changing the characters from symbols into humans highlights that folktale morality is deeply questionable: does this story tell us that it is bad to lie? Or does it merely showcase the fact that human beings exact horrific and cruel retributions upon each other? Maybe it’s both.

Puppet Animation (first go)

I tried puppet animation for the first time this week and really enjoyed it. Can’t wait to do more. Here is my process so far, first I shot the key frames on dragon frame:

 

Then I shot the full take against a green screen:

 

And then I keyed out the colour in after effects so I had a white background:

 

My next plan is to add facial features, and possibly clothes to the puppet in photoshop…

 

The beginning…

So I’ve made it through my first week at Central Saint Martins and my main feeling is: omg! art school is even more fun than I expected!

We started the week on Monday with talks from many people on subjects ranging from critical theory to library catalogues. Some of the things that got me excited were:

  • Sean talking about how we convey feeling through body language: we will learn to observe and create postures and movement that denote emotions such as sadness or happiness or anger.
  • Steve telling us that animators have to be sketchy and fast rather than perfectionists about their drawings – which as somewhat of a dasher offer suits me great!
  • Lilly talking about how “nothing is obvious” and “how cultural practices relate to wider systems of power”. I can’t wait to do more thinking and writing about issues of representation and power in animation. I want to deeply question my own practice: how what I make both reflects and shapes the world around me – and how to disrupt rather than entrench the oppressive systems of power that are part of the patriarchal, capitalist, white supremacist, herteronomative society that we live in.

Towards the end of day one Steve set us all up with a light box, a pencil and some animation paper and said “GO! DRAW! MAKE SOMETHING MOVE!”  I felt pretty lost – having never done anything like this before. I started off drawing a person jumping, as they jump they lift their arms up in the air and the smile on their face gets bigger and bigger. When I put it on the line tester to see the drawings move, it made me laugh but it was very clunky and you couldn’t feel the weight of the person or how they were becoming airborne. So I tried again this time with a person rolling over in their sleep. This was easier because I have been practicing sleepy postures recently for a comic I am writing and I could envision how the different parts of the body would move in relation to one another. Here is the result:

I like the way the body moves, but feel like it looks a little too athletic for someone sleeping, I tried to slow it down by making each picture last more frames but that just made it jerky, I think next time I may need to do more drawings. All that said, I am quite fond of this sleepy babe as my first ever piece of drawn animation.

The other animation project we worked on this week was a shadow puppet film. Brief aside: The format of the workshop reminded me a of Ru Paul’s Drag Race which I have recently watching (Shout out to season 4!). At the beginning of the day the teachers gave us a bunch of materials and a brief and sent us on our way, we had to come up with a story, characters, make puppets and backgrounds, rehearse movements, rent and learn to use the video cameras, and film the whole thing before a 4pm screening. The manic-ness of this schedule meant there was no time for faffing or too much perfectionism. Things I learnt about making shadow puppets:

  1. They have to be BIG otherwise they don’t move nicely (or at all)
  2. Making joints both strong and move smoothly is HARD – I ended up using small pieces of wire twisted in on themselves.
  3. We struggled in our team to agree on sizing between the different characters and backgrounds.
  4. Unless the tracing paper is stuck directly to the glass – not just taped around the outside, you lose a lot of the definition so there is no point putting too much detail into the puppets
  5. Detailed backgrounds stuck to the glass however look banging.
  6. Even very simple sound adds a lot to the final film.

Watching everyone’s film at the end of the day was great, they were all very funny and laughing with the rest of the group was a nice way to relax and start to feel a little more comfortable with each other.

The final class of the week was life drawing. It was mostly three minute poses, so no time to get bored. I was rusty but just as I was warming up and starting to like what was coming out of my pencil, Vanessa came over and said “lovely lines but you’re making him flat” she drew a sphere a cube and a pyramid on a piece of paper and showed me how the body can be broken down into versions of these three shapes. At first when I tried this my drawings looked like boring computer graphics – you couldn’t even recognise the model anymore and I felt a little resentful. But I persevered, and began to see a real improvement in the accuracy of poses I was capturing – it was a kind of magical. Below you can see some of my drawings at the beginning of the class:

Vanessa’s sketch:

My drawings after Vanessa’s intervention: