When Foxtel wanted to introduce Australian viewers to Winter Olympic sports, Sixty40
in Sydney educated fans through a series of (very) short, lively 2D animated interstitials.
The project earned the team three Silver Global Promax awards for a satirical
|A number of Winter Olympic sports like the luge, curling and skeleton are still not well-known in Australia and are sometimes misunderstood. Sixty40’s challenge was to provide a graphic explanation for five different sports, each to accompany a rapid, 60-second comedy voice-over scripted by Charles Firth. The result is ‘The (very) Short Guide to Winter Olympics’.
Fast and Funny
“The brief from Foxtel was very specific about what they needed to achieve - make funny, fast-paced promos, crammed with gags yet to be written that illustrated the lesser known sports of the Winter Olympic Games - but creatively it was very open,” said Sixty40’s creative and animation director Matt Taylor. His team came back with a simple, paper cut-out 2D animation style featuring lots of small athletes being eaten by killer seals - and the client loved it.
“Simple characters engage audiences from the get-go,” Matt explained. “If people can understand a character straightaway, then you have the potential to take them more places faster, particularly in the short period of time you have for the whole piece. Technically, all these cute little characters and their stubby little legs are limited in the actions they can take, so we often had to make cheats in the inbetweens, but as long as you remember to always return to the established look for the key poses you can pretty much do anything. A lot of our simple characters have limbs that float off their bodies so they don't get in the way of their huge, but very cute, heads.”
The main difficulty lay in keeping the action from conflicting with the voice over, which was crammed with details, delivered at top speed. “We worked through our ideas with the scriptwriter Charles Firth, from ‘The Chaser’s War on Everything’. He would write out a round of the script, we would add our visual ideas, and he would in turn work on these with the client.”
Once the concepts were approved, the Sixty40 team worked out their animatics, which sparked another round of adding gags and layers. “Seeing it combined with the voice over always opened new ideas. Even after the actual animation started, we continued adding visual jokes and gags.”
The numerous characters, representing athletes from about 15 countries, were all based on one central character and individualized with helmets and outfits for the different sports, mustaches and hair. But the very simple style allowed rapid creation of new characters whenever required. “That paper cut-out, collaged style was chosen to counterbalance the mental demands the interstitials put on the audience to understand new sports and some rather complicated jokes,” Matt said. “The combination of complex gags and script with a fast voice over could easily have lost the audience.”
All of the animation was completed in After Effects. The characters are Photoshop puppets. The mountains in the background, birds, ‘celebrity’ faces, local landmarks and other props were photographs treated with distressed photo textures, “as if they had been bent or crumpled in a back pocket”, scanned and added as a layer into the animation. Scribbled notes were added to the screen by writing them out in Photoshop as another layer, and then wiping this onto the animation at the correct moment. The main lettering made of chunky irregular block letters, the comic voice balloons and arrows were all created by hand.
Coordinating so many elements to interact coherently in a one-minute timeframe required comprehensive animatics to identify where the comedic payoffs occurred in each sequence, and what the critical elements were. Once they knew their priorities, it was easier to add extras appropriately at the last minute. “Initially, we thought we would be able to ad lib the entire animation on the fly but in fact, the animatics proved essential to allow the animator to cope, and we made them for every shot.
“In After Effects, we gave the little characters bones and applied inverse kinematics to add realism to their moves. When they were going downhill on a sled, the animator would also add boucing, jiggling and camera shake – whatever movements we could use to make the work standout from ordinary cut-out animations.” Consequently, each of the five interstitials is jam-packed with action. A common element in each one is a man-eating bear, replacing the killer seals in the original concept, who persistently stalks the athletes and helps link the series together.
They found plenty of ready-made paper textures to use for the elements, although they did have to make up their own rubberstamp element by photographing a stamp in the Sixty40 office and compositing it into the intro of each interstitial. Likewise, the only ‘live action’ is when the animator’s hand reaches into the frame and seizes a biathlete’s gun. This hand is comprised of still photos, composited into the animation.
From the scripting stage, the whole project took about three months, but once they started on the animation, they were able to complete in about a week. The team consisted of one main After Effects animator who did nearly all the shots, Matt on the animatics and storyboards, plus two artists making elements in Photoshop.
Matt said, “Charles Firth and I have worked together on several different projects so we understand each others' sense of humour. We always try and collaborate with others wherever we can to get different takes and insights, to keep the work fresh. Charles has a strong sense of structure, which makes a sturdy wagon to heap the gags onto.
“Sometimes it could be hard to know when we’d added enough detail. The deadline was a good guide! We were conscious of the fact that during the broadcasts, these interstitials would be popping up constantly and we wanted people to keep finding new things every time they appeared. It was a very creative period, working with the writer from the scripting stage trying to create a journey through the story. It wasn’t a straight path – we wanted to include enough twists to make them interesting and keep viewers guessing what they would see next.” www.sixty40.com
|Words: Adriene Hurst
Images Courtesy of Sixty40