The Making of The Congress Using Toon Boom Harmony
Based in Jaffa, Israel, Bridgit Folman Film Gang is Ari Folman's production company that only undertakes its own feature film projects. As Ari's main goal is to have as much artistic freedom as possible, he doesn't take on any other productions but his own. Over the years, Ari brought together what they call the "gang's members", people who share his passion, are professional and fun to work with. When the production is done, they each go their separate way until the next feature, but they usually stay in touch and often work together on their freelance projects.
Ari Folman is the founding director, as well as the gang's spiritual and physical leader. He has this ability to get people around him, show respect for their craft and knowledge and be respected in return. While he knows exactly what he's doing, he always accepts advice and remarks from any worker on the production, regardless of their position in the company, and implements it if he thinks it works. He's also a huge believer in what he does, and you know if he gets into a production he'll pull it off, no matter what.
The gang includes David Polonsky, Art Director; Yoni Goodman, Animation Director; Eitan Mansuri, Producer; Nili Feller, Editor; Aviv Aldema, Sound Supervisor; Roiy Nitzan, Visual Effects Supervisor; and Shirley Hermann, Office Manager and Head of the Israeli crew.
Done using Toon Boom Harmony, their latest project has certainly drawn a lot of attention. The Congress is a half live, half animation film based on the short novel The Futurological Congress by the acclaimed Polish writer Stanislaw Lem.
"After finishing Waltz with Bashir using Flash, we were looking for new ways to push our game higher, and explore the possibilities. One of the first changes in the development stage for The Congress was to switch to Toon Boom Harmony. We started testing a sort of hybrid between the Bashir cut-out and digital 2D frame-by-frame animation, but when we finished the development, it was again "more of the same" feeling. We didn't get to where we wanted to go. We were, however, highly impressed by the software, and especially the drawing and super accurate translation of a Wacom tablet stroke into the software. The strokes just look great, and they look like the way you meant to draw them when you hold the pen. It was better than any other software I've ever worked with, and I've worked with most. We would often jokingly say about shots in development that needed retakes, "Well, that's not good - BUT WHAT A LINE!"," explained Yoni.
"The discovery of Harmony as a powerful software that was really built for animators, built around their needs, and the ease in which we could create what we really wanted was one of the reasons we decided to drop the cut-out technique altogether and go about it paperless in a completely 2D frame-by-frame hand drawn animation technique," he shared.
In the film, the actress Robin Wright plays herself, or to be more accurate, a fictional alternate universe version of herself, as an over-40 actress whose career is on a slope. She has to take care of her rebellious teenage daughter Sara (played by Sami Gayle) and her son Aaron (played by Kodi Smit-Mcphee) who suffers from a rare disease called Usher syndrome and is gradually going deaf and blind. Robin is being offered a deal by Jeff Green (played by Danny Huston), the CEO of Miramount Studios. Jeff wants to scan her into a computer so she and her image would become the studio's property. He offers her a great deal of money, but in return she has to promise never to act again. After being pushed by her agent (played by Harvey Keitel) and witnessing the decay in Aaron's condition she decides to take the deal. Twenty years into the future, Robin arrives at the futuristic congress at Abrahama city, a psychedelic drug induced "animation zone" for the renewal of her contract. When rebels attack the hotel, Robin finds herself trapped in an animated journey that will change her life forever.
The live action part and the sound stage recordings were done in California and Germany, about six months before the actual animation production started. In preparation for the animation stage, Ari didn't just record the voice of the actors in a closed booth, he put them in a studio sound stage, and had them act together in front of the camera as if he was shooting them as part of the live action film. If there were props used in the scene, the actors would use them, and they also physically interacted with each other. This means the actors were literally "in" the scene, they felt it, and acted the same way they would have in any live action set. Another great advantage is that the animation department got the most accurate and detailed reference of the actor. "As most of the characters that appear in the animation also appear in the live action, it was crucial to make them as believable as possible, and this video reference gave us a very detailed example of the characters' actions in specific situations, the nuances and the small things that make them unique. There was no rotoscoping or motion capture of any kind done in the movie. The video was used for researching the characters, not tracing over them," explained Yoni.
One of their early decisions was to try and create a look that was inspired by the old Fleischer cartoons. They were heavily inspired by Superman, Popeye and Betty Boop, as well as by Hieronymus Bosch's paintings, so the result was a delusional mix. David created a concept art illustration of Robin and an old version of Jeff, and this was a sort of a breakthrough in understanding what they wanted the movie to look like.
Once the shooting of the live action and the reference was complete, Ari and Nili sat down in the editing room and created a rough cut version of the whole film, live action and video reference. This gave the basic pacing of the movie and once completed, Ari and Yoni sat down and broke down the animation part to storyboard, based on the video reference. Next Yoni's team created an animatic. "Our animatics tend to be very detailed, and I try to put as much motion and acting as I possibly can in them. At this stage, we pay close attention to the live action reference, try to pick up all the nuances and translate them to animation form, exaggerate some, leave out others, while creating something of our own," added Yoni.
"The heavily detailed animatic is very important for two main reasons. The first one is to give Ari a clear demonstration of what the final movie will be like, in terms of acting, camera movement, cuts, pacing, checking which part works cinematically or emotionally, and which still needs change. As the average time to create an animatic is around 20 seconds a day, and the average time of a full animation is 2 seconds a day, you want to make sure you fix as many mistakes in the animatic stage and leave as few corrections as possible for the animation stage. The second reason is the communication with the other studios and animators; once they have an accurate animatic and follow it, you can be sure that your intentions are understood. The animator working on the shot focuses on the micro of the shot, doing the animation within the boundaries set by the animatic, knowing that the macro was tested and is working for us. This is important for all productions, but here, where I had to work with so many studios, this was crucial. Once the animatic was approved, the design department, headed by David Polonsky, began to create the heavily detailed backgrounds and a huge number of characters. The main characters had very elaborate character sheets that included an almost three-dimensional turnaround of the head, several poses of the body, expressions, emotions etc.," commented Yoni.
The animation for The Congress was created in seven different studios worldwide:
- Bridgit Folman Film Gang, Israel. The main headquarters of the production, where the supervising and direction of the process took place.
- Walking the Dog, Belgium
- Studio 352, Luxemburg
- Alex Gellner, Germany
- Rakete, Germany
- Snipple, The Philippines
The first five studios were in charge of the line test. Each studio was assigned several scenes. Once all the shots of a scene were completed in the line test stage, the files were rendered as layers in PNG sequences for the post-production department, and were composited with all the camera movements and basic effects, so they could have a final review of the scene before sending it to the clean-up studios, or make changes and final adjustments when needed.
An approved line tested scene was sent either to Orange or Snipple, where it went through several stages:
- Spot Keys: Clean-up of the most extreme keys, an average of 4-6 per shot.
- Clean-ups: Full clean-up of the whole scene, including partial frames.
- In-betweens: Complete and final in-between of the entire scene, according to the instruction charts created in the line test.
- Paint: Full painting of the approved in-between and texture applied to the lines.
When all the painted shots were approved, they rendered them again, as they did in the line test stage, using the same render modules so this actually saved them a lot of time because the compositing department just switched the files on the already composited line test scenes they did in the previous step and everything was matching accurately. The difference is that in the paint stage they could also render the lines separately from the paint, and had full control over all the aspects of the drawing.
"This massive structure of studios was a tough thing to handle. Especially when working long distance with studios we had no prior experience working with, and here Harmony came in very handy. All studios worked on Harmony, except for Studio 352 who still worked on paper and Alex Gellner's crew, who worked on TVPaint. However in both cases, the images were scanned or imported to Harmony for final touches, adjustments and preparation for delivery to the clean-up and paint studios," explained Yoni.
"Working with Harmony, I was able to receive the animator's work file, go over the materials, and I could correct or add notes to the animation, change exposure when needed and send the animator the files with very direct comments and explanations. As the shots were also cleaned up in Harmony, the clean-up studios could get the original file from the animator, including his notes, sketches and layer set-up and really build on top of an already existing structure, and you could very easily compare and work on all stages in one file," he added.
"By far, the most important feature we worked on in Harmony was the line tool. I spoke before about the impressive translation of a stroke from the physical digital pen stroke to what was viewed on the screen, and this is true for brush tool strokes as well as line tool strokes, but the Line tool has some attributes that make it invaluable during the clean-up stage. First of all, the line tool is made of one spine, one vector line, which you can change and manipulate quite easily. This is true for all vector software. The incredible part, which I have not seen in any other animation software, is that after you create the stroke, you can manipulate it into any shape, form or size you desire; you can make it thick and thin, change the area of the line where it is too thick or too thin, texturize it, and completely and very efficiently change it to the core. This turned out to be an invaluable feature during the clean-up stage. Instead of getting a shot where the character was not cleaned properly, or the intention of a drawing was misunderstood, and I would be writing a comment down and hope my comments were understood properly, I could just tweak the line myself, make the needed changes in seconds, and send the shot back tagged as "Approved for next stage" and advance it a step further," stated Yoni.
"At crunch time, at the end of the production, I had an entire crew based in Israel that received shots from the clean-up studios, fixed them, and sent them back ready for the next stage. On the paint stages, where it is very important to adjust the line's thickness and thinness and its texture spread, I often fixed one frame and sent the file back, so they had an accurate example of what the lines should look like. This process was the only way we could maintain the quality we desired and get the job done on time, and I don't know how we could have possibly finished production without the line's ability to change and be manipulated so easily," he noted.
"Another feature of the line is the texture. We wanted the line to "breathe", to be less technical, while maintaining the advantages of the technology. We also wanted to break out of the "vectorized" look of the lines, the very sharp, gritty identifiable look all vector software share. We used a custom texture I created for the line, and after the clean-up crew finished the in-between stage in the sharp vector line, they applied the texture on the lines and they immediately looked better. We then used another powerful feature of the software, the line art and color art, to export the line and paint in separate layers. Once we had the lines apart from the paint, we could very easily manipulate them more and give them a "breathing" effect in post production," continued Yoni.
"There are a lot of features in Harmony that just make it very handy and helpful to use when animating. I've talked a lot about the strokes and lines; this is perhaps the most important part of the software, as we are, in the end, here to draw animation. I found it useful even with traditional hand drawn animation: some animators on the project preferred to work on paper, but once the images were scanned in, a lot of fine-tuning and accuracies that are hard to do on paper could be very easily applied on top of the scanned image. For my own style of working, I prefer to do a shot completely straight ahead in a very rough line, and then go back and do the extremes, keys, etc., and it's very handy when you can do it all in one place. Another extremely important tool that was widely used in all parts of the animation production, but mainly during the clean-up stage was the Shift and Trace tool, which is similar to the traditional technique of taking the page out of the peg bar and making an accurate drawing of the same element in a different part of the composition, only here it's much faster and intuitive to work with. You can pick drawings from different places on the timeline, rotate and scale them, and create a very accurate in-between," he shared.
"The colour library is also a very important tool. The fact that you can draw 200 or more drawings with a colour library and then change the source colour and that change will affect all of your drawings, or take the whole colour scheme from one shot and apply it to another shot was a very important part in the paint stage. Another thing that came in extremely handy was the Network module. We used a lot of masks with colour overrides (where you have only one of the colours in a drawing to act as a mask) for shading and colour effects such as Robin's hair colour or Jeff's dark blurry area above the eyes. The render modules were also extremely efficient. The ability to set up a render for each layer and have the software render them all at the same time, not to mention only needing to set these parameters up once for every file was a huge relief in comparison to Bashir's "delete all other layers than the one you wanted to render" system (no more Flash for me). Harmony just works well for these things, and you can tell it was built for this purpose," concluded Yoni.
For Ari, David and Yoni, it's important to challenge yourself and find ways to get better, while enjoying the process from beginning to end. This was certainly the case for The Congress. This unbelievable team pushes the creative limits beyond expectations, offering their audience a unique artistic journey. The Congress is a great testament of what the gang can deliver, standing out from mainstream animation while telling amazing stories.thecongress-movie.com