Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Phantom Tollbooth part II: It was the Age of Foolishness


(I imagined Phantom Tollbooth as a film packed with literary reference from opening quotes, character details, name and environments. It seemed a right approach considering the message of the story, but also as an alternative to the current trend of pop culture references within pop culture references which is starting to feel cannibalistic and overtly commercial.)

     The major goal for this experiment was to develop an art direction that nudges at the current constraints of children's movies. The imagined film was to look back at some classics and what made them so memorable. Often it was the willingness to not speak down to children, take their personal issues seriously and not feel pressure to constantly jingle the keys in front of them. That said, they were also masterful in their strategic placement of whimsy, nonsense and goofiness to give the audience rest and rhythm. 

     The wonderfully chaotic world of Phantom Tollbooth is perfect for this approach. So far, I fell a bit short in my goal in that I leaned too far on the serious side. I forgot to include some whimsy, some rest. Fortunately, this is an early development and the problem can be addressed in two ways. Iterating on what is there, or balancing it with other characters and environment concepts (which will be reviewed in a delayed part III).

(I wanted to pull specific film inspiration that relied on writing; treating special effects as the bonus opposed to CG fests that rely on cheap emotional notes. There is a type of movie that seems to be missing. A lot of films have a lot of pressure to kick off the next 8 entry series or Dorito Bag campaign. There seems to be some space for thoughtful, more personal stories.)

      Slowing down a pace of a movie while keeping it interesting, particularly with movies aimed at a younger audiences, has to be challenging. So it is always magic when someone pulls it off. The collection of frames above are examples of movies that sometimes stand still, but through incredible set design, cinematography and narrative context, always deliver a high energy level. The team behind Big Fish does it so masterfully and confidently that the movie almost toys with the pacing. When ever working on a project I try to pull benchmarks that may not necessarily influence the look, but are inspiring in the effort put into the details.

(Same as when collecting the warm reference, I gathered cool pallet reference from films that do a lot with less. Not necessarily limiting myself to children's stories. In the middle the frame represents the crossing of the two pallets. It is from the incredibly underrated animated film The Croods. It weaves imaginative world design with meaningful story.)

     This brings us to a problem with the character concepts. As mentioned above, things got a little too serious. The character concepts may be a bit dark or creepy and need some balance. Pav Kovacic once again helped snap me out of my gritty tunnel vision. He suggested to loosen things up by playing with proportions. The proportions, although designed for practical effects, are a bit too conservative. The basic forms could be improved with more energy, movement and rhythm.

(The mustache like appendages and costuming reference the original illustrations. His additional name is reference to Kafka's The Metamorphosis. Seeing how Gregor turns into a bug, it seemed like a natural connection to Humbug being a panicky door to door salesman overwhelmed by the world he lives in.)

      I decided to develop Humbug over Tock as I felt his character is a little more important for a live action film. A giant gentlemanly bug is going to draw a lot of attention. A dog alongside a little boy has a lot of history and does a lot of the work for you, so both visually and with story I wanted to bump up the significance of Humbug's role. He is a potential future of Milo if he continues on a thoughtless path. He is the result of lacking critical thought and letting systems make decision for you as you stumble along. Additional character notes are embedded in the concept sheet.


(Originally he is referred to as The Terrible Trivium. I dropped the "terrible" as I wanted to play up his sneaky, deceiving character and it seemed a bit on the nose for a live action story. The numerical addition was to establish the character's sense of self-importance.)

     Trivium represents the illusion of power working with in a system that looms over a world. He wants Milo to see him as the boss but the reality is he is merely a puppet. This brought about the trim design and butler (conductor or as it has been described) feel of the costume. He represents another possibility of Milo's mentality carrying him away. In this case it is what happens when Milo not only embraces a system and allows it to do his thinking, but let's that system motivate his decisions rather than lead them. In the narrative he has Milo move grains of sand one by one. The leaking sand from his pant legs and sleeves connects him to the mundane work and show he is literally become a construction of the work. The fragile mask ends up falling off and shattering on the ground as he is completely rendered powerless by Milo telling him no and walking away from the mundane work.

     Overall I am satisfied with the general direction of the designs. If this were for a project I could follow through on, a couple more tweaks and it would be in a strong place. The production sheet could use another rendered pose to detail the range of personality and also show some more ideas in regards to how the sand leaks and fabric moves with the body.

     This might be the last post of the year, if it is Happy Holidays, Happy New Year. It will be 2015 and according to Predator 2 Los Angeles is 18 years behind falling into complete chaos. That is a good thing. If this isn't the last post, un-read the message above so I can copy and paste it into the next one.

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