Thursday 2 June 2016

YPGTTO: Murmurations, Moran, Skydivers & Steeples / Ideas #1

The artistic and technical challenge of producing sixteen-or-so minutes of original animation to accompany Britten's Young Person's Guide To The Orchestra should not be underestimated.  We've already established this musical tour of the orchestra will align with an exploration of a 'Kingdom of Sound', wherein the orchestra equates with a fabulous metropolis, and its instrument groups with distinctive 'districts' within the city. We're starting to get an impression of what some of these districts may look like, thanks to the ongoing YPGTTO Speed Paint Challenge, which has seen the students, alumni and staff of Computer Animation Arts create quick, instinctive digital concept paintings of the  various musical zones.

So far, so speculative and exciting, but experience tells us that sixteen-or-so minutes of disembodied fly-throughs could pall pretty quickly, leaving audiences restless and disengaged. In addition to the 'kingdom of sound' concept, we needed to identify an additional narrative element - a character or characters - by which to personalise and specify the journey for audiences.  By 'character', we don't mean humans, but rather thinking about the ways in which musical notation itself might be anthropomorphised suitably.

YPGTTO excerpt of score

We're thinking birds - or rather musical notation behaving like birds, the similarities between groups of musical notation gathering along staves and groups of musical creatures gathering on telephone wires being satisfyingly self-evident.  We're imagining a moment in the earliest section of the piece when the musical notes corresponding to the principle theme of YPGTTO are somehow 'let fly' from their staves, to take to the air as a flock, to soar and to murmurate, to lead the audience on their journey through the kingdom of sound.

We're sure that we don't want the musical notation to 'be' birds, but rather behave in bird-like ways.  We want to flirt with abstraction throughout the YPGTTO film, encompassing sequences wherein our cities become experiences of light, shape and activity before coalescing again into discernible structures and spatial relations.  A couple of references came immediately to mind in terms of dealing with the idea of treatments for the notation flocks: the Beethoven's 5th section in Disney's Fantasia 2000 and most usefully, Norman McLaren's Le Merle, in which very simple abstract shapes combine over and over to perform the bird-like behaviours of McLaren's titular creature.

Still from Beethoven's 5th Symphony sequence / Fantasia 2000 / 2000

Beethoven's 5th Symphony / Fantasia 2000 / 2000

Still from Le Merle / Norman McLaren / 1959

Le Merle / Norman McLaren / 1959

Our discussions in regards to using the flock of musical notation as a device within the YPGTTO animation have included ways in which we might be able to single out a particular character (or characters) amongst the many as a further means of engaging audiences for the sixteen minute duration.  Fantasia 2000 provides another useful reference here; during the admittedly bizarre sequence where all the whales levitate out of the sea and fly towards the midnight sun, the narrative focuses on a fearful whale calf who gets separated from his parents, before rejoining the rest of the whales at the animation's climax.  We're thinking that one - or some - of the musical notation elements might perform a similar role, in so much as it gets separated from the rest of the flock and explores the various cities from a more subjective point-of-view.

The whale calf in the Pines Of Rome sequence / Fantasia 2000 / 2000

The flying whales in the Pines Of Rome sequence  / Fantasia 2000 / 2000

One of the challenges of structuring this animation is how we can hold back the idea of the 'kingdom of sound' at the beginning of the film, but also initiate audiences into the metaphor itself.  YPGTTO begins with the full orchestra playing the complete theme that is later deconstructed by the various instruments groups.  I've always thought of this first section as functioning like an over-view of the whole world we will later be visiting, rather like one of those 'You Are Here' maps at the front gates of amusement parks. Various similes compete for precision; does this first piece equate to an orrery - a complete first over-view of something more complex? Or is it the unveiling of some great map or diagram of the Kingdom of Sound?  CAA student Vlad Yankov's speed paint response to this first section of YPGTTO gets close to what I'm seeing; a diagrammatic representation of an entire world; a schematic, or blue-print - and definitely an ariel view, as if the audience is held high above the terrain.

The Map / Vlad Yankov

YPGTTO #1 / Main Theme

So what does this 'map room' or observatory look like?  We're not sure, but our imaginations are flirting with something circular or planetarium-like - something architectural, and something too with the quality of an antique architectural drawing or architectural model: are we looking at a miniature 'occlusion pass' version of the kingdom of sound in the centre of a dome, the inner surface of which is papered with the YPGTTO score?

Isaac Newton Cenotaph / Étienne-Louis Boulée, 1784
Isaac Newton Cenotaph / Étienne-Louis Boulée, 1784
Conrad Roland's drawing for an exhibition hall with floating levels, 1964

Something we do know is that the YPGTTO Map Room sits high above the Kingdom Of Sound it describes.  We know this because the second piece of Britten's YPGTTO focuses on the flutes and everything about the music suggests a descent of some kind.  The piece is ethereal and floaty and it encourages us to imagine our newly-released flock of musical notations spiralling down past the topmost towers of the flute district...

YPGTTO #2 / The Flutes

So maybe the floor of the Map Room winds open, iris-like, at the conclusion of YPGTTO's first theme to reveal the world below...

The One World Observatory, One World Trade Centre, New York

The Moon Door / Game Of Thrones

Having cited what is ethereal about YPGTTO's flutes, the skydiving scene from Gareth Edward's Godzilla (2014) is a contradictory reference, but there's something about the height, scale and POV of some of these shots that resonate in terms of how we might ensure the audience for our animation experiences a similar sense of the cinematic.

Some gentler references now as we continue to think about how those musical notation marks might spiral their way down through the 'moon door' of the Map Room, in the same way perhaps that sycamore seeds helicopter towards the ground or like the unhurried flight of a dandelion seed?

Types of wind dispersed seed

Dandelion seeds

As we listen to 'The Flutes', and think more about the descent of our musical notation characters from the map room above, the impression that we're seeing them descend past an ariel architecture of flute-inspired spires becomes irrefutable... 

The Flute City / Dee Crisbacher

The Flute City / Will Huntley

... likewise the sense that we're beginning our journey into the Kingdom Of Sound at the first break of day, the towers of The Flute District shrouded in clouds and in the mists of the morning.



I'm reminded of the Venice paintings by Thomas Moran; their soft golden impressionism has exactly this mood of our first glimpse of The Flute District, as we follow our notation characters in their unhurried descent to the earth.

Moonlight in Venice / Thomas Moran / 1898
The Pearl Of Venice / Thomas Moran / 1899

So now to put some of these impressions to work!

An Introduction: Initial Responses

Let's start by getting some existing work out of the way. As is the case with many alumni and students, I've been responding to the speedpaint challenges over the last few weeks. So, these early paintings are without influence or discussion, just immediate responses to each segment of music. 

As is often the case, these early, first responses are without too much design or real understanding. Thus, these paintings are not proposed outcomes, but rather a starting point from which to move from and begin early discussions.

Already, we have been discussing some building blocks for the project. With such an expansive animation, we know that methodologies and structure will be a huge help in finding a pathway through the sequence. Some of these early ideas are really exciting starting points for how the world might be built.

Day Cycle / Lighting / Mood
After the first sequence (The Map), the tone of the music eases us into a new world. Each sequence thereafter seems to become more developed and suggestive of a time of day. For this reason, we've discussed the idea that the animation takes place over a day cycle. Or at the very least, each sequence should require some unique lighting as we change spaces and districts. As I collect and look through the student work, I think this notion will demonstrated. Within my own paintings, there was certainly a feeling of light changes that can be seen when placed in sequence. I'll be posting some personal thoughts on each sequence soon.

Abstraction / Realism
The second discussion currently underway (which will change as we push visual development forward) is the aesthetic landing point between realism and abstract. Obviously, realism is an incorrect pathway. This has been proven time and time again with CG animation. But we do want to move into the world of dimensions and forms. It should be an expansive space that becomes evocative of a city, yet still maintain some abstraction. I think we'll find this landing point as paintings progress, but my next task is to start painting abstractly, just to see the potential of this extreme.

Character / Camera Direction
I'm sure Phil will talk more about this soon, but one aspect we've discussed since the beginning, is the camera direction. How do we move through these spaces in an interesting and dynamic manner? Whatever this is, it needs to help inject some narrative and momentum, rather than simply gliding through an environment. Early discussions are moving towards the idea of a murmuration of birds. A big swirling vortex of shapes that moves, expands and breaks up through the city. As we follow them, we lock onto specific characters which help provide some narrative to a specific district. Whether it be the excited, wide eyed starling awe struck by the views before them, or perhaps multiple characters racing through the streets. A simply premise, but something with great potential.

So, consider this my little introduction. This is the starting point for lots of work to come. I'll be posting soon on the following:

- Sequence Breakdowns
- CAA Responses and Analysis
- Visual Development
- Influences

More soon!