In other words... I FINALLY FINISHED MY THESIS FILM!
Destiny is For the Birds from Michael J. Ruocco on Vimeo.
Yeah, I know... it's a little late... 1 year, 4 months and 22 days late, to be exact. But hey, who could blame me? A lot has happened in the last year that needed my attention, while poor ol' thesis-y here sat on the back burner, like a half-baked piece of humble pie. I guess my reasoning was "Hey, it did it's job! It showcased what I could pull off as an animator, I graduated... hell, I even won an award with it! What's the point, then?" . And for a long time, yeah, that was my excuse. Despite some coercive nagging from friends, colleagues, and especially my dear ol' Ma, I stubbornly stood my ground and refused to budge. But over time, I really began to feel guilty about it. This short wasn't a one-man show, a lot of great people helped me get it as far as it did. I mean, just look at the credits!
Josh Tomar and Chris Zito did some really excellent voice work for the film. Andy Scherman provided wonderful music accompaniment and sang the credits song. My girlfriend Shannon did the color styling and colored every single background (except one, which my friend Cory did the flat colors for). Many wonderful underclassmen, first and second year students, took time out of their busy schedules to help color a lot of these shots for me when I was scrambling for time. Even fellow thesis students gave a hand with coloring shots too, despite their own deadlines they had to meet. Not to mention countless students, teachers, classmates, friends, and family members who gave me a lot of support throughout my final year of school. And I wanted to be a selfish, lazy so-and-so and stow this thing away in a digital trunk to never be seen again. It was unfair to them. So I finally broke out the ol' thesis folder (which I fortunately did not delete), took out the shots that needed to be finished and started finishing them.
But before I go any further with the "finishing the unfinished thesis" part of the story, let me go back and talk about the genesis of the film:
I started thinking of ideas for my thesis back near the end of my third year. The first thing that popped into my head was using these two characters for something, but I held myself back. "No, no, I've drawn these characters a million times before over the past three years... I want to do something different for a change. Something original". So I thought of a bunch of different ideas that I wanted to do. One was animating to a piece of classical music like in Fantasia, another was resurrecting an unfinished film from my second year, and one was just a little too gruesome, even for me... but after every idea, I would always ended up falling back to these characters. Out of desperation, and time, I decided to use them anyway. But what could they do? What should the story be? Would it work? The one good thing I had on my side was that I knew who these characters were completely. They had been cemented in my mind for a long time by that point, and I knew what they could and couldn't do. In a way, I let the characters dictate and tell me what they ought to be doing, rather than forcing something upon them.
At the time, I had just chosen Howard Beckerman as my thesis advisor, because we had a pretty good relationship up to that point (and still do!), and I felt we understood each other on the same level. He came up to me on the last day of class and asked me something:
"So, how do you feel about thesis preparations for next year?"
"Good! Good! That's a good sign!"
"Why's that? What's so good about being anxious?"
"That means you're seriously thinking about it! You're nervous and scared because you know this is important, and you care about getting things done and doing a good job on it! If you didn't care, you wouldn't be anxious!"
Reassured by Howard, I left for the summer and focused on my film. Thinking of the story, throwing around relative gags or lines, laying out shots and boarding, all the while throwing things back and forth with Howard for advice and clarification. In many ways, Howard was the perfect guinea pig for my film. If Howard could understand it and follow the story, then everyone else who'd see it would be able to as well. Howard kept me on the right track.
By the time classes started again, I had everything planned out and was ready to start production. And at exactly the right time, the trailer for the new Winnie the Pooh film just came out on Youtube. It was that final inspirational push that got the creative juices flowing again.
But there was a big hiccup. I originally started animating the film traditionally on paper. But by the time Christmas break came around, I only got a little over a dozen shots completed. One day near the end of the break, I was spending hours on one small shot and not getting anywhere. Then as a test, I animated that shot in Flash in about 20 minutes. I realized at that point that I wouldn't get the film done if I kept animating on paper, so I switched to Flash, only because it was quicker to clean up, color and composite, rather than have to scan every drawing in. So I went back, scrapped everything I did up to that point and started over.
So I only had a couple months to animate, clean up and color my whole film, and it definitely shows, especially in the clean up, which I had only about two and a half weeks to do. I was originally going for that sketchy 60's Disney Xerox style, but in the end it just looks like a scribbly mess. I feel that I had some decent animation throughout, but my rushed clean up sort of butchered it. And to top it off, it made the coloring a heck of a lot harder to do. A lot of broken lines, gaps in the artwork... it was a pain. Luckily I had a few really patient underclassmen helping me color those shots while I rushed to get others cleaned up.
And like the rest of my other thesis classmates, the end got really really hectic. The final deadline loomed and we were all rushing to get everything put together in time for the April 15th deadline (coincidentally, on Tax Day). Since the sound editing labs were booked full by the film department students, I did all my sound editing using Adobe Soundbooth (a horrible program) in the back room of the animation studio the night before the due date. Knowing that I wouldn't be able to get the film 100% complete by the deadline, I submitted a rough-cut of my film, which was complete except for about 10 shots that were left in the rough animation stage. After the Dusty screening, a lot of people came up and complimented the rough animation parts, because they thought it was interesting to see the rough stages of animation before it's polished, so it wasn't too bad. Overall, the film went over decently at the screening. The laughs came where I wanted them, and I was content with that. The biggest one came with Howard Beckerman's caricature on the brochure. Of course most of the audience was made up of SVA students, so it's not that surprising.
After that, I just packed the film and all the related files in my computer and left it to gather digital dust, which is where it stayed until a few weeks ago, and eventually now!
I believe I've improved a lot as an animator since then, so it's kinda hard to look at this now with a straight face, but I'm mostly satisfied with the results. I learned a great lesson from this film, which is to not bite off more than I could chew. Having fluid animation, full color and a film as long as this (clocking nearly at 6 minutes) definitely took a lot out of me. That's why since then I've kept things as minimal as possible, like with NEST and my upcoming short which I'm currently storyboarding. As long as something is kept on simple terms and executed as such, you can always add more on top of it later on. It's best to work with bare bones and build everything on top of it once you got the structure down, like an armature for a sculpture.
I want to thank everybody who helped me make the short, those who supported me throughout the production of it, and to all the people who begged/nagged/stuck a gun to my head to finally finish the thing. It wouldn't be here without you!
To see some early production artwork that I posted during the last year, click on the "Destiny is For the Birds" tag.
Keep on animatin'!