Lehigh Valley Animation

Over the last decade, I have done relatively little commercial work. Mostly that has had to do with the increased role that writing has played in my overall production, such that a lot of the illustration I produce is in the service of my own texts, especially the Spartan Holiday series. As I have noted before, my work has shifted in the direction of reportage and visual journalism. To the extent that I return to pursuing commercial work, it will probably be focused on reporting.

Even so, I do work on client projects here and there. My wife Lori owns and leads a company called StoryTrack, which produces documentary films as well as developing video content marketing programs for clients. I do storyboards for StoryTrack projects when necessary, and otherwise consult as needed. They do great work, and there is very little for me to do under most circumstances. But recently, the team was developing a critical project for clients at the Rockefeller Group, a storied real estate developer in New York and New Jersey (and elsewhere, too). As it happened, Rockefeller was presenting the story of a major project at a developers' conference in Toronto in early April. 

D.B. Dowd and Noah MacMillan, Title Slate, animation still, Lehigh Valley project, 2017. I made the key drawing and Noah built the sky and the type, plus added color. 

D.B. Dowd and Noah MacMillan, Airport Scene, animation still, Lehigh Valley project, 2017. I drew the airplanes and Noah created the airport backdrop. I was skeptical that the red sky would work, but Noah nailed it. The animation moves and changing focus on this work very nicely, I think. 

Having produced many successful projects for/with Rockefeller, StoryTrack had some leeway. Together they developed a concept for a podcast-like project designed to tie together a series of panel discussions at Rockefeller's conference presentation.

Then suddenly a different need arose. How would conference visitors be enticed to attend the Rockefeller proram? It was decided that a "teaser" video would be played in an introductory session, in order to drive people to the presentation where the audio piece would be played. 

A decision was made that because a) there were no visual assets to produce the teaser, b) there was no time go shoot any, c) an atmospheric approach would probably work best to create audience interest, they would go for motion graphics and animation. 

Next came the question: did I have time to make something for this problem/opportunity? 

D.B. Dowd, opening screen, Scenes from Starkdale, Ohio, 2006-07. Media contrast to the Lehigh Valley piece: all of the artwork for animation I produced between 2000 and 2007 was generated using vector translations from drawings (manual translations, not live traces.) 

It wasn't a stretch. Some years ago, I drew and directed for animation, if "animation" be understood as moving illustration. I hasten to point out that the modern art of animation, properly understood, calls for the visualization of movement as revelation of character or content. I do not, nor will I ever, labor in that particular vineyard.

D.B. Dowd, Character Ensemble, Sam the Dog.com, 2001. Back in the day I produced online animation based on the characters I created for an illustrated serial that ran in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 1997-99. Again, shown for media contrast: all vector. 

D.B. Dowd, Character, Lehigh Valley project. Brush drawing. This was not in my storyboard. Lori Dowd directed the animation session, and made a decision to pull characters from a later group scene and plop them into a frame with some set type to introduce variety toward the beginning of the piece. Several images, including the construction site and the aerial view of the airport (below) were moved to the back of the sequence, where they worked much better.

However I do compose cinematically appropriate pictures, and I think about the camera as narrator, both between and within shots. Inventing shot sequences is really fun for me––it comes naturally, and I enjoy watching the imaginary movie in my head. 

D.B. Dowd, Disgruntled Citizens, animation still, Lehigh Valley project. This is the shot from which Lori snatched characters to generate the two new  "head + type" shots, to even out the project. As noted above, a good call. All brush drawings. The lime green sort of turned into Steve Bannon. 

But there were significant time constraints. I got a weekend to think through and storyboard the video. The drawings would have to be generated, processed, finished and managed in two to two-and-a-half days. Once a working rough had been generated, it was understood that there would be a day or so for revisions, which turned out to be true, giving us a bit more breathing room--but not much. Under such circumstances, I needed a collaborator, not an assistant. I reached out to Noah MacMillan, a former student and now busy professional illustrator who turned out to be free for the project. 

Noah MacMillan, Fedex Trucks, Lehigh Valley project still. Noah jumped in to draw and process this shot. The Lehigh Valley development included a huge Fedex Ground Hub facility. 

D.B. Dowd and Noah MacMillan, animation still, Lehigh Valley. 

It was a pretty hairy stretch! 

In recent years  I have worked in two primary modes: gouache paintings, and (more often) pencil roughs with brush drawing finishes (actual brushes and ink on paper, not digital approximations of same) with digital color––a far cry from the straight vector work I used to do back in the day for animated projects. (Above, see character set from Sam the Dog 2000-01 and still from Scenes from Starkdale, Ohio, 2006-07.)

D.B. Dowd, Aerial View, Airport, still from Lehigh Valley project. An abstracted presentation. The animated frame of this image, including the teeny little blue airplane taking off, is weirdly pleasant to watch (or so it has seemed to me). 

 I really didn't know how I would translate my current work for these purposes. I knew I wanted it to feel more worked and tactile, and I suspected that Noah would have the right skills and touch to get it there. (And boy was I right!)

D.B. Dowd, page 1, storyboard for Lehigh Valley project. Shot 3 got canned by the director during the edit; a character illustration with typeset dialogue was substituted. 

The to-do list: as noted, 1) build a working storyboard; 2) figure out how the shots should look; 3) make some tests to test the approach; 4) develop a palette for the project; 5) start banging out the work; 6) build a system for delivering shots and communicating with Aligned, and 7) fill in the gaps in the storyboard and write clear instructions for movement. 

D.B. Dowd, final art for Shot 2 from Lehigh Valley storyboard (moved later in sequence during edit).

Lori and I worked on the script, which got revised several times. The podcast "characters" were enlisted to provide snippets of voiceover to suggest the arc of the story that would be told in the presentation to come. The narrative itself was about a complicated real estate deal in Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania, involving the developer (Rockefeller), a regional airport, economic development people, suspicious locals, and the like. StoryTrack put up a blog post recently describing the larger project and its context with more detail. 

Process materials, shot development for Lehigh Valley. The checked blue box means inked, the checked orange box means colored, and the checked red box means files prepped and uploaded to shared folder with the animation shop. 

The project was animated at Aligned Media, down the street from the StoryTrack offices in St. Louis' Midtown Alley. Lori directed and Aligned's animators Bryan and Hunter did a very nice job putting the piece together in After Effects. I was not able to sit in for the edit, which normally I would push for strongly. But in this case my absence was a blessing, as Lori substantially altered and improved the storyboard (see illustration notes), and the animators found clever ways to activate some pretty simple art. 

Process materials, documented pretty late in the production curve.

By using variable focus, textures, and very simple effects with a nice touch, the project turned out better than the storyboard and artwork would have predicted. It was all generated very quickly under pressure, so it's hardly a surprise that I wish I could redraw or edit a few things. I'd fuss over some of the characters, and I might subtract some of the character motion (like the guy at the chart). 

Below, an extended quote from the StoryTrack blog on how it all turned out:

The panel was set on the last day of the conference as the final breakout session. Not only was the discussion competing with another presentation, but it also bumped up against travel plans. But as things turned out, low turnout wasn’t an issue––finding a seat was! More than 90% of attendees came to the Rockefeller Group’s panel presentation. The animated teaser video dominated the conference and commanded the attention of attendees. [Emphasis mine.]

StoryTrack’s podcast content kept the audience present, engaged, and entertained. The presentation deck and podcast audio worked in concert with each other, keeping the story moving. Emotion was brought to facts. The podcast content applied a ‘face” to the community, stakeholders, and situation. Details flowed and complemented each other when needed, not before, until the panel concluded and all aspects, rational and emotional, of the Lehigh Valley project had been explained.

StoryTrack helped The Rockefeller Group go beyond a simple panel discussion and took conference attendees on a commercial real estate thrill ride. In 90-minutes, they experienced the same frustrations, emotions and victories that The Rockefeller Group team experienced over five years. They got more than a story…they experienced an adventure.

At the end of the day, I like the piece. And I especially like the fact that the change in medium gave it some warmth. I may well go back to animated subjects as circumstances permit. 

Thanks to the StoryTrack gang for the project opportunity, and special thanks to Noah MacMillan for his great collaborative work on the project. It was fun! 

Doug DowdComment