and, in like a lion, CGI animation techniques arrive on the festival circuit.
Starting off the coming digital avalanche on the right foot, Home Road Movies by Robert Bradbrook, a
loving look at a son’s memories of his father, took the 2002 OIAF Grand Prize
for Best Independent Short Film/Video.
Using a newly accessible medium that would become known for its
propensity toward a stiffer and more sterile representation, Bradbrook created
a skillfully warm and tactile portrait of his father, making conscious uses of
CGI’s strengths, and deliberate work-arounds for its weaknesses.
Home Road Movies immerses viewers in the chronology of a
relationship between a man and his father, rooting the story in his father’s
attachment to the family’s prized baby blue Peugeot Citroën. From the first
family road trip through to his father’s final motorized voyage, Movies does much credit to the medium
of 3D computer animation and sets the bar very high for a new, sometimes
distancing, and seemingly boundless technique that would become increasingly accessible
to independent filmmakers; arguably to a fault.
found his inspiration for Home Road
Movies while he and his siblings sorted through their late father’s estate,
going through boxes of family photos and keepsakes. At the suggestion of
producer Dick Arnall (who oversaw Bradbrook’s previous film, End of Restriction) Bradbrook approached
acclaimed British broadcaster Channel 4 with his idea for the film. Under the
guidance of the legendary Clare Kitson [i], Channel
4 animation was producing its own short films as part of a stimulus initiative
in cooperation with the Arts Council of England. The program was part of a
decades long legacy of thriving British animation in which independent
animators like Bradbrook received unique opportunities to create a film in a
professional environment with a guaranteed broadcast audience at the end of it
all. Other projects from Channel 4’s fruitful production era include Dianne
Jackson’s The Snowman and Creature Comforts by future fellow OIAF
Grand Prize winner, Nick Park.
By the time
Bradbrook was ready for his new project in the late 90s, independent British
animation was approaching a turning point. As Bradbrook recalls about the
commissioning system, “it turned
out that we were one of the last independent animations to get proper funding
by Channel 4. After Clare left, things completely changed and making short
animation films in the UK was really hard. We were super lucky that everything
fell into place at the right time.” [ii]
though, was not so “right” in terms of traditional broadcast distribution.
According to Kitson, by the time the film was complete in 2001, Channel 4 no
longer had prime broadcast slots available for animation.[iii] Home Road Movies eventually found its greatest successes on the
festival circuit, winning twenty-one awards that year.
fervent champion of the auteur film in Britain and force behind the Channel 4
animation commissions program, wrote British
Animation: The Channel 4 Factor, a book about the films created during her
tenure at Channel 4, including, of course, a chapter on Home Road Movies. In it, she mentions Bradbrook’s background as a
geologist and cartographer before enrolling in his MA in Electronic Arts and Graphics
with Coventry University[iv].
She recounts memories of
the production process, which took two years due to what Arnall describes in
the book as ‘hanging round for perfection.’[v] In
the book she recounts that the ideal narrator for the film, actually hired to
replace Bradbrook himself, wasn’t available for many months, and so production
waited patiently for the right voice.
website documents more of the technical details around creating the film, which
also involved shooting a live actor, in this case Bill Paterson, against a blue
screen in 4:3 and compositing him in After Effects onto the CGI scenes, in
widescreen. The computer-generated components were made up of actual family
photos and completely modeled environments, but the casting of a live action
protagonist helped root the ‘constructedness’ of the film in an emotionally
recognizable place. On his techniques, Bradbrook has said:
worried that people would find the cut-out family pictures a little cold. I
considered making them talk but decided it would look too cheesy. I like to see
what the computer can do but never feel obligated to go in that direction. It’s
strange but now that I teach (computer animation at Coventry) I’ve noticed that
a lot of students who can draw beautifully seem to lose their way on a
computer. They are sometimes overwhelmed by the possibilities. I feel like
saying ‘You already have a gift, use it’ but other people are totally inspired
by computers. To me, the computer should be invisible and you should just view
the film. I absolutely love Shrek and
Toy Story because they are using
computers to tell stories and each character is an individual, whereas Final Fantasy just made me think ‘What’s
the point?’. Why use computers and motion capture to make actors into animated
aesthetic of the film translates two-dimensional memories in the form of
photographs into a three-dimensional simulation from the past. Movies blends together sterile,
structural elements of 3D computer modeling (Form-Z), the texture of old
photographs composited into static photographic tableaus, a live action human
being, and sequences of incredibly plastic representations of 1960s products
eventually aging and rusting beyond function. The result is a vivid
representation of memory and emotional sentimentality that uses the materiality
of something like a car, starting out so brand new you can almost smell it and
eventually rusting almost as Father does, to connect the vivid feeling of
familiarity; this could easily be one’s own distant family on the screen. It is
specifically the use of computer animation that perfectly unites what seem like
opposites – a rusty old car and a son’s love for his father.
landscape of Home Road Movies is a
perfect canvas for the plastic world of the 1960s or stone jungles of European
cities, but wrapping the blank forms warmly in the grungy surface of an aging
car or the faded memory of a family picnic adds that tactility that makes the
film realistic as an emotional experience. Where many 3D computer films coming
after Movies draw upon the inherent
sterility of the medium to add nuance to the story, such as the films of David
O’Reilly which are inconceivable as anything other than CGI, or some which seem
to not give enough conscious thought to the use of computer in general, Home Road Movies has a remarkable anchor
in the long legacy of the analog techniques and ‘real life’ texturality that
almost exclusively preceded it in
independent filmmaking. It is the very third dimensionality of the space in
which this story is told that is the catalyst for a true understanding of an
entire lifetime of feelings and memories between this father and son.
spatial depth takes a method of documentation that is inherently about the
past, like a photograph, and gives it agency and immediacy as though it is a
current experience. Through the intentional mimicry of the real world, rather
than translating ‘cartoonish’ designed characters and backgrounds into CGI, Movies takes learned connections to
photographs and live action filmmaking – home movies! – as a nostalgic
experience and evokes this response in viewers to effectively tug at
heartstrings and communicate a very personal story in a moving way.
It is this
considered application of the CGI process and its inevitable tendencies toward
a certain aesthetic that make Home Road
Movies so worthy of note; not only the production techniques surrounding
the film, but also that Movies has
aged so well, and in an environment notoriously quick to evolve and render
itself obsolete in the blink of an eye. Home
Road Movies stood out on the 2002 festival circuit as a shining example of
familiar benchmarks found in great cinema presented in a new and interesting
package. These are the standards still at play when selecting a Grand Prize
film after forty years, and will continue to be so down the road, regardless of
any further new techniques independent animators will employ next.
Keltie Duncan is the film and technical manager
of the Ottawa International Animation Festival. She also drums for local pop
stars, Bonnie Doon.
[i] Email between Robert
Bradbrook and the author of February 2016
[iii] Kitson, Clare. British Animation: The Channel 4 Factor.
London: Parliament Hill Publishing, 2008. p 187. Print.
[vi] Williams, Nick. “Estate of
the Heart.” Imagine. Date unknown.