“What am I doing here?” Ural documentary animation phenomenon

Our documentary animation series is called “What am I doing here?” In two years of the project’s existence, eight short series about Yekaterinburg’s inhabitants were shot.

We asked random strangers: “What are you doing here?” and animated their answers using cardboard and plasticine. When viewers watch our series, they often ask: “How is it made?” That is why we are eager to walk you through all of the film production stages – from the search of the character to the finished film being sent to the festivals.

Stage 1 – The script

In order to write a script, it is necessary to find a character. After shooting the first few episodes, we picked a location – it could be a railway station, a park, a meeting – and approached random people there. The hardest part was to explain, as quickly as possible, who we were and why we wanted to have a conversation with them. “Ordinary” people, as a rule, refused at once or answered superficially and shortly; that is why it was the “extraordinary” people who became the first characters. Over time, it became clear to us that all the characters would be “extraordinary” if we keep this up.

We wanted to make the task more challenging; to interview the ones who were not ready to pour their hearts out from the first moments of acquaintance. Afterward, we decided to set up appointments with the prospective characters in advance. This gave them the opportunity to prepare for the conversation and, if necessary, to have a follow up meeting to ask additional questions.

The most unsuccessful interview lasted one and a half minutes. I came up to a woman whose job was to rent horses; we played well with each other. I asked the stupidest questions and she gave me the driest answers. Eventually, we made a quite funny episode of that conversation. The first interview’s audio recording turned out to be of extremely poor quality. I recorded the conversation with a tape recorder and then the actors read the characters’ text. In the course of time, we started to use live sound. In order to do that, we invited the sound engineer, Sasha Teder, to join the crew. There have been three of us present on all the interviews since then: Me (Sabrina Karabaeva), the directors (Masha Sedyaeva and Sasha). I ask the questions, Sasha records the sound, and Masha draws the conversationalist.

Sasha Teder, Sound Engineer:

The most important thing when recording the interview was to find the right balance between the sound and the comfort of the person you are talking to. The greatest sound could be in the sterile, soundproof studio, but no good would come of it – if a person does not open up, he or she feels ill at ease. Being sincere is the most valuable thing in our business.

When we found the movie characters, I deciphered the interview, then marked the most important points in the text, and tried to “glue” together “shreds” of thoughts in one monologue. If I succeeded in it, it was time to think about the accompanying video. The main advantage of working with animation is that the realization of an idea (an airplane taking off for example) doesn’t require a budget. It doesn’t matter, whether it is a bike or a plane that you shoot. Either of them would be made of cardboard, and, naturally, cost the same amount of money.

God bless the wine shop around the corner, they give away cardboard boxes for free!

Stage 2 – The Director’s Script

Draft shots-visual references-information on topic-staged shots-soundtrack, draft storyboard-directors script-animatic-final storyboard.

Masha Sedyaeva, Animation Director:

The characters’ speech aside, there is a description of the action in the frame that appears in Sabrina’s script. I made draft shots in an attempt to visualize the result. Then we arrange a table read, where I showed the shots to Sabrina and found out if my visualization was correct.

Each character and each story set a certain atmosphere and vibe of the movie. Being guided by this vibe, I looked for appropriate visual and stylistic references, and all kinds of information on the topic. During the production of the episode about Tanya, I looked up and discovered what the Czech towns on Christmas Eve, the character herself and her friends, her room, etc. looked like.

For the episode about the director of the plant, I studied the plant’s production; the episode about the vet – the history of his profession, with the main focus on the bizarre treatment techniques, including how the examination room and medical equipment looked.

After devouring all the information, it was time to draw the staged frame-colored picture that could become the actual frame of the future movie. Then came time for writing the director’s script and drawing the storyboard; it happens almost simultaneously. At the same time, I edited the soundtrack, added some pauses or noises, filling or synchronic.

When I am finally content with the result, I listen to the recording with my eyes closed and write down everything that I imagine – this is how the director’s script was created. Then I put finishing touches on the storyboard, defined the positions of cuts, thought about how the camera was going to move, what angle to choose, thought over the actions of the puppeteer, etc. After that, I assembled animatic, meaning the edited sound illustrated by the framing. That’s how the draft of the movie was made.

During the final stage, it was necessary to make the final storyboard. It differs from the draft by its neatness, detail, clarity to the cameraman and production designer, animator. The episodes, scenes, editing frames are marked, specific notes for the cameraman are made (panning, gating, closeup – whether it is a video or animation, etc.), direct speech and the detailed description of the action in the frame are featured.

Stage 3 – The creation of characters and setting

“Look, does this bed look good?” - “What the f**k happened to the plane???”

When the storyboard is ready, we start creating the characters and setting. The process is as follows: our production designer, Natasha Shitzalova, draws the objects of the future movie on scale 1:1 and paints them. It is necessary to do that in order for the artists to have detailed illustrations of any props or characters. Let’s take, for instance, Mahmud. He is a snake charmer who works in the circus. He is one of the secondary characters of today’s episode. The scene with his participation is the most epic: the snake gets out of hand and does something unexpected.

Masha Sedyaeva, Animation Director: 

When we need to make characters very quickly, we use cardboard. If the figures in the frame are needed to be three-dimensional, plasticine is used. Initially, the corrugated cardboard was used. The toothpicks controlling puppets were easily placed in folds. It could have been painted in any preferable way, and the flat image could have been used as a special stylistic effect. It is seemingly quite primitive, but poetical at the same time. Later on, the flat figures began to seem trite. Something that was considered the style, turned into the poverty of the frame. The dimensions were needed by the cameraperson, Masha. Flat, one-dimensional characters are tiresome to film.

When we need to make characters very quickly, we use cardboard. If the figures in the frame are needed to be three-dimensional, plasticine is used. Initially, the corrugated cardboard was used for this. The toothpicks controlling puppets were easily placed in folds. It could have been painted in any preferable way, and the flat image could have been used as a special stylistic effect. It is seemingly quite primitive, but poetic at the same time. Later on, the flat figures began to seem trite. Something that was considered the style, turned into the poverty of the frame. The dimensions were needed by the cameraperson, Masha. Flat, one-dimensional characters are tiresome to film.

cat clay

We faced the transition period during the production of Tanya. At the time, only the heads of the leading characters were made three-dimensional out of painted plaster. Later, I got tired of fiddling with it and switched to plasticine. As it turns out, it is also possible to paint it, plus it has its own advantages when it comes to animation – we can change the shape of the figure right in front of the camera without damaging the construction. Of course, with the plasticine being painted, it’s undesirable to crumple it too frequently because the paint cracks on it easily. This is why we make the joints of wire, to enable movement.

In “The Double Appointment,” the main characters are fully made of plasticine. There is also 3D. I needed it to show the contrast between mechanistic, surrealistic, militaristic and humane (living, real). In the production of “Tomorrow,” I used cardboard because making a hundred characters of plasticine would have been equivalent to suicide. Corrugated cardboard wasn’t the right fit in this case because it was too rough for figures of this size. I used pressed cardboard with its thickness being similar to the thickness of the human body.

There were dozens of characters in the frame. It was impossible to synchronize all their movements on film; hence frame-by-frame animation was used. The body joints were made of wire that could endure the weight of the cardboard. During the production of “Eight hundred times,” we were dealing with a strict deadline. So, it was shot practically in one day. That was the reason for choosing cardboard (also pressed, but very thin this time, similar to the kind of which cereal boxes are made from).

The figures were very small in size (no bigger than five centimeters). For the new episode, we don’t have a specific time limit, and the script is very juicy and simply hilarious. That is why we went back to using painted plasticine – because it allows creating spectacular characters. The set is again made of cardboard, with the exception of the ones that have to come in contact with water – in this case, plastic was used.

Stage 4 The Filming

Filming was done at the same time with the production of the set. When everything was ready for the scene, it was filmed by half of the crew, with another half continuing to create the props for the following scenes.

Stage 5 Editing and Mixing

Masha Sedyaeva, Animation Director: 

Although I prefer to edit myself, there were times that I delegated the task to other people, but I felt uncomfortable even with good editors. I saw the movie at the stage of the editing of the draft soundtrack. I couldn’t get it out of my head, all the time while we were filming. Suddenly, someone else took over the task and the result did not turn out to be what I envisioned. Being a soft, gentle person like I am, it is not always easy to stand by your own ideas. When the editor says, “It’s cool, isn’t it?” I am like, “Yeah, I guess.” Naturally, I stay unsatisfied. As a result, all the episodes of the series “What am I doing here?” were edited by me. Trailers, however, were delegated to other editors without hesitation.

Editing is all about the timing, the feeling of where to make faster or slower, where to cut. It is very different in animatic: when you see black and white still on the screen, the perception of everything is distorted. We use filming more frequently than frame-by-frame animation. That is why we make a lot of critical decisions while editing. Sometimes, we improvise during the filming, and unexpected frames appear in the storyboard. There are times when we can’t get the movements right. In this case, cut-in scenes and other tricks were used. Frame-by-frame animation was also improved during the editing, some phrases were dismissed, some pauses were added. Something was cropped, something was retouched.

Normally, if everything goes according to the plan, it takes me one week to edit one cartoon. After that, I give the final version with a draft soundtrack to Sasha, to perfect the sound. The sound that is done right has the power to make people believe in the substance of the puppets made of corrugated cardboard.

Sasha Teder, Sound Engineer: 

On the stage of filming, the animators and production designers need noises and the sounds of what is going on in the frame. In some parts, they find by themselves, while the other (the bigger one), is usually found by me. This is how the draft sound is made. There are special libraries for noises, some of them are recorded on set. The sounds are fake sometimes. For example, the sound of footsteps on the snow are imitated with the help of a starch bag.

When the editing is 90 percent complete, I continue working with noises. I change the ones that were in the draft soundtrack if necessary. After all the sounds and music are found and placed, the mixing begins. It is a nuanced process when you put all the elements together so that they contribute to the artistic image. Mixing also includes panning. Let’s say the plane flew by or the girl walked from the left to the right side of the frame – the sound also moved. A lot is initiated by the director, but I am a specialist and also suggest some options to make the sound harmonize with the picture.

что я здесь делаю

Stage 6 Festivals

 Masha Sedyaeva, Animation Director: 

It takes me an hour and a half to send the movie to a festival. Sometimes more, if the subtitles in some unusual language are required, the video in some specific format is needed or the list of dialogues has to be made according to the international standard. Sometimes, we have to print and sign something. On average, I send four to five applications per month. I simply don’t have time for more. Sometimes, you have to read a never-ending list of conditions for an application, only to realize that the movie is not the right fit for the festival.

When the movie is brand new, you have to deal with the prioritizing of festivals. The fancy ones expect a premier, preferably a world one. This is when strategic planning starts: what festival should be the first on the list? I made a table of all the festivals in order to not get confused. According to the statistics, the movie gets accepted to one of thirteen fests.

If you have more questions about the project “What am I doing here?” or you want to become a part of the team, write to us!


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