Wednesday, May 11, 2016

0 Animated Authors By Cam Baity & Benny Zelkowicz

Today, we're bringing something a little different to the blog. Cam Baity and Benny Zelkowicz are professional animators, and have worked on major productions including The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie and The LEGO Movie. Recently, they turned their hand to novels, publishing the Book of Ore series, the second of which was released in April. Today, they're talking about their backgrounds in animation, and how it applied to the creation of a whole new story world.

Animated Authors By Cam Baity & Benny Zelkowicz

As professional animators, we were terrified when we sat down to write our fantasy/sci-fi trilogy, THE BOOKS OF ORE. We thought that our years of obsessing over character poses and counting frames would have ill prepared us for the blank page. But as we slowly adapted and evolved, we found that the contrary was true. Now, as we anticipate the release of the second book in our series, WAYBOUND, we see how essential our animation experience has been to our development as authors.

Unlike live-action filmmaking, animation requires you to create everything. From the shapes of treetops, to a character's mood, to the effects of gravity on a prop, the animator has to consider and compose every last detail of the invented world. We specialize in stop motion animation, which means that we work entirely with real-world objects. Over the years, we have created a snowscape out of Styrofoam and baking soda, simulated fire with cellophane, made blood with latex paint and hot glue, and much more. The challenge of stop motion lies not just in finding a material that looks similar, but in creating believable motion that can transform the mundane object into a convincing proxy of the real thing. If we do our job right and thoroughly envision every aspect of the world on the screen, the audience will believe the illusion despite being aware that it’s just a magic trick.

Similarly, constructing a fantasy trilogy requires us to imagine every infinitesimal detail of an elaborate and distinct world of words. Our goal was to avoid existing archetypes (such as the quasi-Medieval Western European setting of Lord of the Rings or A Song of Ice and Fire) and to challenge ourselves by questioning every assumption. So before we wrote the first scene that introduces the sky in “Mehk,” our world of living metal, we stepped back and asked “What color is a metallic sky, and does the idea of a singular sun apply?” In fact, the more we pondered it, our animatorly considerations for movement plunged us into layman astronomy, and we abandoned the comfort zone of Earth entirely in exchange for a ring of solar bodies that converge at a zenith in a shimmering, oil slick sky. The farther we strayed from the familiar, the more essential it became for us to simulate physics, using familiar touchstones and language to make the unreal seem credible. We had to construct a series of laws that were consistent and innovative, requiring us to contemplate how our every creative decision would affect environment, biology, and locomotion.

Mehk is populated with a wide array of sentient and non-sentient creatures known as “mehkans,” and our experience as animators aided tremendously in their invention. One of the first questions we ask ourselves as animators when approaching a character is “How does it move?” Once we figure that out, we are well on our way to understanding the individual. Defining movement informs anatomy, which indicates design and biology, which subsequently hints at the kind of environment where that creature might have evolved. To an animator, motion can unlock the truth of a character, and we use that to our fullest advantage when writing. For example, when our heroes get their first glimpse of the mehkan metropolis of “Sen Ta’rine,” we needed to quickly hint at the overwhelming diversity of life and cultures within Mehk. We chose to do so by encountering all of these new species in motion as they commuted into the city. This allowed us to see myriad unusual ways of travel, like tottering on tripod legs, swinging overhead using collapsible hinge limbs, and springing along in “Pogo stick” herds. By focusing on locomotion, we were able to say volumes about our fantasy world without slowing down the momentum of the story.

From a practical standpoint, our careers spent collaborating in the animation industry prepared us for the challenge of being co-authors. When you work as an animator, you must rely on your crew, and the key to success lies in communication and conflict resolution. Money is being spent during every minute of studio time, and the pressure is always on, so it is vital for an animation crew to have an open dialogue to solve problems in a calm, efficient way. When writing together, we maintain that crew attitude of not getting personal about anything (or trying not to) and keeping the discussion and criticism just about the work. Also regarding the free exchange of ideas and information, our animators’ toolkit of being able to sculpt and draw is useful for co-authors. From mapping out the orthographic view of a combat scene to sketching out the details of a particular plant, we often use art as a way to cross-pollinate our visions to come to a unified resolution.

But perhaps the most useful skill that animation taught us is a degree of patience that is foreign to most sensible people. Whenever we hit a writer's block, the animators in us find it relatively easy to bury our heads and keep plugging away until we either discover a new way around the obstacle or simply bulldoze right through it. Creating an original world is no easy task––there are countless missteps and incremental drafts of every idea and line of dialogue along the way, especially when you have a co-author. So our battle-hardened patience has truly proven invaluable.

Being animators has made us better authors because, like writing, animation is a process of tiny increments in pursuit of the final product. In stop motion, you have to lay down every frame in sequence, each increment providing the starting point for the next. A single bad frame can affect the quality of a movement or even an entire shot. Writing is a similarly grueling task, where every word you put down must bear the weight of the ones that follow, and a single wrong word can ruin the sentence or even muddle the idea being expressed. We hope that our passion for animation allows THE BOOKS OF ORE to breathe beyond its pages––not just an assembly of words, but a story that ebbs and flows, bristling with emotion and adventure. To us, it is a living thing that is much more than the sum of its parts.

About the Book

Phoebe Plumm and Micah Tanner are a long way from home and entrenched in a struggle with no
end in sight. The Foundry, an all-powerful company that profits off the living metal creatures of Mehk, is unleashing a wave of devastating attacks to crush the rebel army of mehkans known as the Covenant and capture Phoebe and Micah, dead or alive.

But the Covenant believes that their ancient god, Makina, has chosen Phoebe for a sacred task: to seek the Occulyth, a mysterious object they hope can turn the tide against the Foundry. With her father gone, Phoebe's once unshakable determination is broken, and while Micah tries to uphold the vow he made to protect her no matter the cost, their enemies are closing in and time is running out.

Amazon | Indiebound | Goodreads

About the Authors

Cam
Benny
Cam Baity is an Emmy Award winning animator, and his short films have screened around the world, including at Anima Mundi in Brazil and the BBC British Short Film Festival. His credits include major motion pictures like Team America: World Police and The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie, and popular television shows such as Robot Chicken and Supermansion.

Benny Zelkowicz studied animation at CalArts and made the award winning film, The ErlKing. He directed and starred in the BBC/CBC animated series Lunar Jim, and worked on The LEGO Movie as well as several TV shows including Robot Chicken and Moral Orel.

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