Animation can educate audiences about important issues and noble causes. Birds Connect Our World, a film by Hong-Kong born animator Lilian Fu, is a great example. Following a small bird on its journey across continents, the East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership (EAAFP) commissioned the short to raise awareness of the issues facing migratory birds. For a short piece, it captures the vast journey faced by birds in nature, and will have you rooting for the protagonist: a great knot named Beak Beak.
Following a migratory path that spans from Siberia to Australia, Birds Connect Our World is a showcase of colourful background landscapes and intriguing wide aspect shots. Against these settings, Lilian’s illustratively designed great knots go about their daily lives; watched over by a devoted researcher who tracks their progress. The story sheds an important light on threats faced by the birds, from extreme weather events, habitat loss, pollution and hunting.
Speaking with Lilian showed us a window into her life, and the experiences that went into these characters. She was also kind enough to share her techniques that went into creating the short’s vibrant style. From the choice of the colour palette and how it reflects the story’s mood, to the process of studying great knot birds in order to best represent their movements with her character rigs. Read our interview below to learn how animators like Lilian use Toon Boom Harmony to tell important stories from the natural world.
Please tell us about yourself and your journey into animation!
My name is Lilian Fu, I am an animator originally from Hong Kong, but based in the UK for 10 years now. My mum used to show me Disney and Studio Ghibli’s films on VHS when I was young, and I loved drawing animals. When I was 15, I joined the photography club, as I could borrow a camera to do my first stop motion shoot.
Since then, I self-learned many animation techniques from books like Richard William’s famous book, The Animator’s Survival Kit. After working for a few years in Hong Kong, I decided to learn more about directing animation and went to National Film and Television School (NFTS) in the U.K. for a masters degree. Since then, I have been working on various projects in the UK and Hong Kong.
What is your connection to birds? Is it an area of interest for you?
My twin sister is a bird conservationist. Since university, she enjoyed bird-watching. I sometimes joined her on field trips and looked at how she watched birds. She also did bird ringing. It’s a splendid feeling to hold a fragile bird in your hands, you can feel its heart beat. My sister tells me a lot about birds and nature, influencing me to be interested in birds.
How did you learn the story of Beak Beak?
This was a commissioned work in cooperation with East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership. Their officer provided me with information and I collaborated with another writer to come up with this story. We had a briefing from the officer about the theme of the World Migratory Bird day which was “Birds Connect Our World”, so we thought of a story about a researcher.
In order to track down the migratory waterbird species, the great knot, she has to connect with other people, using various modes of transportation to reach various sites. So the theme of ‘connection’ from place to place, people to people, bird to bird would represent clearly.
What are the challenges faced by great knot and other migratory waterbirds?
From the journey of the researcher in the animation you can also see the threats faced by great knot. In fact, not only this species, but all other migratory species. They need to fly a long way without stopping; they can die of exhaustion or bad weather. In addition, there are threats from humans, such as habitat loss due to urbanization, pollution, illegal hunting, etc.
What inspired the art style in Birds Connect Our World?
I wanted a more illustrative approach, rather than an info-graphic style, because I knew children are one of the main target audiences. As the EAAFP officer said, this film would be screened in schools as part of their education programmes. Therefore I wanted to make the visual style quite close to children’s illustration.
Your great knots are beautifully designed. What was the process of creating these character rigs?
Thank you! It was my first Toon Boom project and it was quite fun.
One of the challenges is the design of the bird, Beak Beak. Since it is designed for children to watch, I need to simplify the bird as much as possible. But I still had to stick close to the features. The great knot has spot patterns all around the neck and the body. The male and female in reality look the same, but in the animation they need to look a bit different, so I had to be flexible with the design.
I needed to figure out how to put masks on the rigged characters efficiently. I drew the flapping wings frame by frame and used a lot of deformation in the rigs.
The short film takes us through many of Australia’s landscapes. What research went into these backgrounds?
The research was based on the migration route of the great knot; the bird migrates between Australia and Russia’s far east, alongside the coastal wetlands. So the landscapes are referenced from these coastal areas. We set the film starting off from a sand beach in northern Australia, where the bird stays during the non-breeding season. In that area there are a lot of red rock outcrops, which form a very unique scenery. I really enjoyed doing the background designs, especially the vast landscape in Siberia. That’s why I chose an extra-long film aspect ratio in order to represent the landscapes.
How did you select the colour palettes for the different areas seen throughout the bird’s journey?
We knew from the beginning that the film is quite emotional, as we follow the scientist to track down the bird. We saw the protagonist’s shock, panic, worries and joy. And so I wanted to make the colour reflect the feeling of the protagonist.
In the beginning it is red which shows the excitement, the grey tone for the worries and the potential dangers, and then the end is green which reflects the harmony and peace.
What did you find useful about Toon Boom Harmony on this project?
This is my first project in Toon Boom. I rigged and animated all the characters and it was a very pleasant experience. One of the features I liked the best is the flexibility to switch from hand drawn and puppet rigs. When I suddenly wanted to add a few more hand gestures or facial expressions, I could easily add a drawing substitute, which is really efficient. I think if I had more time, I would also learn how to composite using Harmony.
What animation projects are you working on in the future?
I am working on my own project, it has been in my head for six years now. My son is four-years-old now. It’s about motherhood. I hope I can finish the film before he turns into a teenager.