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Bachelor Thesis

The Backwater Gospel Esben Jacob Sloth CGA, The Animation Workshop, VIA University College

25 / 2 / 2011


Bachelor Thesis

The Backwater Gospel

Esben Jacob Sloth

INTRODUCTION Something is rotten in the town of Backwater. Heaven will guide its course.

The Backwater Gospel is an animated short film made as a graduation project by students at The Animation Workshop. The story follows the fictitious town of Backwater and its inhabitants; notably the town's minister who acts as the town leader, and the local trickster; a homeless tramp. When the town is faced with the arrival of Death in the form of an undertaker the story begins to unfold as the characters take increasingly desperate measures to avoid being the person whom Death has come for. It explores themes of fear, hypocrisy and violence. The film was made during the fall of 2009 and spring of 2010 stretching two semester. The premise was originally pitched by Bo Mathorne, who also took the role of director when the project was chosen. The rest of the team was made up of four students from the animation line: Arthur Gil Larsen, Rie Nymand, Thomas Grønlund and Thue Toft Sørsen as well as three additional students from the Computer Graphics line; Martin Holm-Grevy, Mads Simonsen and myself. Each team member was given a title in order to distribute responsibilities. I was assigned the title of art director which meant that I was responsible for the visual design as well as the quality of the final look of the film. These responsibilities are also the themes I intent to explore through this thesis. I will especially lay weight on the visual development process and the decision made during it to ensure that the visual and aesthetic aspects of the film harmonized with the story and increased the viewing experience while still being manageable for the production.

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Bachelor Thesis

The Backwater Gospel

Esben Jacob Sloth

STORY Once upon a time there was a town. And every now and then death would visit in the guise of an undertaker. And he would take one of the town's inhabitants with him to the afterlife. Until One day death showed up and nobody died. So the inhabitants grew too weary and afraid to continue their lives. And the town shut down and deteriorated. Until the town could no longer sustain the ominous presence and ennui. And it was decided that this was God testing them. And it was decided that they would punish the wicket. And they did. But death did not respond to their act... So the town despaired. And they turned towards themselves . And the commotion escalated into mayhem. And when dawn came everyone was dead. â?§ The story of The Backwater Gospel is a three act cautionary tale with brief prologue. It is 9 minutes and 32 seconds long and is narrated in a linear chronology with multiple protagonist within a confined setting and has a closed ending. Its main literary subjects are the angst of death and the use of religion as a tool of manipulation as well as a shield from reality. It draws inspiration in structure and themes from folktales and biblical christian myths. The themes were inspired by historical acts of brutality caused by mass hysteria and religious mass suicides such as the witch hunts, the Waco and Jonestown massacres and the murders committed by the Manson family. The setting draws inspiration from the American west as well as the depression era Dustbowl. Aesthetically it attempts to plug into the archetype story as a classical fable or allegory. It does not attempt iconoclasm of traditional storytelling except for the lack of a singular protagonist. The lack of a clear protagonist prevents it from becoming tragic as there is not a subject to be reprimanded and for this reason it more akin to a farce. However being a farce turned beneficial as it suited the satirical aspects we wanted and enables black comedy and gallows humor. 3/ 21


Bachelor Thesis

The Backwater Gospel

Esben Jacob Sloth

DESIGN As Art Director my main focus and responsibility for the project was the visual design of the film for both aesthetic, practical and storytelling purposes. The most important aspect of the design of the film was that it enhanced the story and atmosphere we were aiming for and secondly making the project look interesting and unique. The visual style was a large part of the appeal of project right from the pitch stage where Bo Mathorne presented a 3D model that on a still frame looked like a 2D illustration. The way this model achieved this attribute was through a specific modelling technique and a certain design philosophy about 3D design. This technique and these design values, and in some degree this specific model, became the foundation for the design choices made for the project. A vital part of the story's nature that we wanted to bring forth through the design was that everything in this world is flawed and imperfect. When the god of Backwater created the world he did a crude job. For this reason we wanted to stray away from the usual look of CG productions and took more inspiration from traditional crafted arts such as painting, puppet making and especially illustration. This meant that we needed a distinct handmade feel that is not usually achievable through conventional 3D modelling since this creates perfect perspective and perfect smooth surfaces and other perfect calculations that seem very unnatural. In fact the main guideline for the style of the film became that everything must appear handmade and nothing must look computer generated. Of course we wanted to take maximum use of the capabilities a computer gives but we had to limit some of these and find a lot of alternatives to achieve a result that is not perceived as fake, although it might very well be. This decision also fitted well with our philosophy about designing for 3D. During previous school projects where we discovered that for every stage a design went through some decisions were lost and usually replaced by standard forms and shapes that then repeat on all designs. Whimsical features in the expression of a rough sketch did not turn up in the cleaned design and certain forms were lost in translation of the design into a 3D model. These losses are negligible in traditional animation where the mediums are similar but in 3D productions where the design usually goes from a drawing to a digital illustration to a clay maquette to an untextured 3D model the losses become quite notable, especially if several people are involved in the different stages, and leads to a big loss in the character and personality of the designs. This meant that we wanted a process 4/ 21


Bachelor Thesis

The Backwater Gospel

Esben Jacob Sloth

where as many decisions as possible were made in the actual production so that the design had as much character and personality as possible while still allowing a clear concept to be followed so that the design accord with the overall style of the film and the designs with which it relates. STYLE ORIGINS Before the project started Bo and I experimented with different ways of designing using 3D software as well as unifying the processes of modelling an texturing as one single process to allow for more intuitive methods of production and designing within the 3D medium. Most of these experiments played with the idea of starting texturing before starting modelling so that a strong shape language could be morphed into the 3 dimensional forms. A big inspiration for this was the method used by the Japanese animation studio Studio 4째C for producing background with fully dimensional camera moves in their 2D animated features. What they did to make this possible was to paint the scene from one angle and then project this painting onto 3D geometry and then paint over it again from different angles until the distortion made by the perspective on the painting became unnoticeable. However what we wanted was to be able to create all parts in similar fashions including characters that would be seen from all angles and in different poses and with different expressions.

Fig 1: A shot from Tekkon Kinkreet by Studio 4째C which utilized fully dimensional camera moves by projecting backgrounds made with traditional medias onto 3D geometry. The most successful of these experiment was a character model made by Bo which would later serve as the prototype for backwaters modelling process and character style. The process used turned out to be very intuitive to use although it seems backwards of the usual method of creating 3D models however it was very powerful at keeping itself within our design philosophy and style.

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Bachelor Thesis

The Backwater Gospel

Esben Jacob Sloth

For these reasons most of the design choices were made by either analysing this figure in order to replicate or improving its qualities or in order to find complimenting methods that worked well together with it as to allow it to be the main process for modelling and texturing characters and assets. The process for making a character starts with sketching out a rough texture for the different elements. These textures are then applied to planes in the 3D software that are then bend and wrapped so the forms follow the shapes of the texture and the basic forms of the model are laid out. After this the process is purely refining the texture and geometry by turn until they work properly together. Starting with the texture turned out to allow a stronger shape language to be used, which is what gives the model the appearance of being illustrated, than starting with modelling. The most benefiting trait of this technique is that it allows for simultaneous production of the model and the texture as if it were one process, this is what makes improvising possible and thereby design choices to be made during production. The method used to create this model was similar to the projection method used for backgrounds however heavily adjusted in order for it to work for characters and was left almost unchanged for the production of the final characters except for a few elements, such as the hands, which turned out to be difficult to produce in this manner. In those instances more regular modelling methods was used for those elements. A powerful aspect of this method is that all the elements of the model are modular, which means that a part can easily be redone completely at any stage of its production if it turned out not to work or easily recycled from another model with minimal Fig 2: Aforementioned 3D model. changes. Another aspect of this method that we were able to turn to our advantage was that most of the design information in the character is carried by the textures. In most 3D styles the majority of information, such as internal forms and details, are carried by the model and the texture is only used 6/ 21


Bachelor Thesis

The Backwater Gospel

Esben Jacob Sloth

for carrying information about the colour and material the model is supposed to be. This often leads to cluttered models with evenly distributed details that does not draw the focus correctly, or it leads to very clean models with a tight design but no intricate details or roughness to them. Having most of the information contained in the texture meant that we could guide the eye as you would on an illustration without the viewer being distracted by the fact that not all of the model has the same amount of detail. It also meant that we could have very simple geometry that allows for a strong silhouette. Normally low polycount models look rough and unattractive, however since we used several pieces of geometry we were able to let the transparency of the geometry enhance the silhouette without it obscuring the overall shape.

Fig 3: Example showing the way geometry and textures relate to each other in order to achieve a clear yet rugged silhouette.

VISUAL STYLE It was very important for us that the visual style fitted the story. We wanted the feelings and themes that existed in the story to be represented in the visual style so that the impact of the story would be more powerful. Since the story is very bolt on and quite nasty we wanted a similar shape language to be used, for this reason almost every design purely of crooked straight lines and very few curved objects. This initially gave problems with getting the desired amount of tension in the designs as purely straight lines tend to make designs static, but by only using parallels in the thin areas and stacking straight we were able to get a shape language where the curves of forms were perceived while keeping the unpleasantness of edges. Although this shape language makes certain parts seem awkward, it was preferable since it made things feel unpleasant without being unattractive. We did not want people to think it was beautiful in a positive way but rather fascinating in the same way a ruin or wreck can be far more interesting than the building or vessel it used to be.

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Bachelor Thesis

The Backwater Gospel

Esben Jacob Sloth

One of the few exceptions to the shape language was the circle which was used in relation to the undertaker and appears in many shots together with a signature sound before we see him. This was done to give a feeling of his presence before he appears so the audience would feel the same pressure as the characters in the film. The circle was used both because it contrasts the straight shapes of the rest of the designs and because it is an old symbol of the circles of life that keep turning, which is what the undertaker symbolize. Since our style borrowed more from stylized representations than from the way objects actually look we wanted to explore ways of abstracting the visuals in new way. We especially wanted to push what could be done with the 3D medium. In theory 3D should be the most powerful tool for consistent abstraction since it is purely a mathematical simulation of the way the eye percieves light, and therefore changing the “math� should give a definite constant abstraction, and this has been widely explored by mathematician in order to visualize non observable objects such as four dimensional objects, but for artistic purposes it has mostly been used to replicate already existing stylization, such as stylized drawings or sculptures, rather than stylized 3D. We wanted to really push the way 3D could be used in order to create a world that seemed distorted and uncanny, and especially with our scene layouts we tried to make this come true. Instead of just using the tools available in setting up the camera we skewed and distorted the 3D space specificity for every shot so the composition would suit the overall stylization. These compositions were largely inspired by the German expressionist films of the 1920's which achieved remarkable effects though set building and trick photography, we were interested in seeing what 3D could add to this without stretching it so far that the universe seem unbelievable and the audience loses immersion.

Fig 4: Shot from the film where the entire set has been stretched and distorted in the 3D space.

Fig 5: Still from Das Kabinett des Doktor Caligari from 1920.

This skewed, crooked and distorted style in many ways lend itself more towards the abstraction 8/ 21


Bachelor Thesis

The Backwater Gospel

Esben Jacob Sloth

found in modern arts than the cartooning that is more usual in animation. This posed a few problems as the reason that animation is often stylized is to simplify the characters and environment in order to make them more readable and easier to relate to, while abstracting towards picture plane usually make the picture less legible but more emotional. While having more expressional style was attractive it would pose a problem if the viewer were to become confused about the action. Originally we wanted to address this problem by progressively making the style more abstract through the span of the film, but this posed to create an unmanageable amount of work since it would require an additional character model for every sequence for all characters that appeared in it. In the end we resolved with having two defined style, one for the initial sequences and one for the fight, which have a similar manner of abstracting but create different moods and allow for different action to be made since the fight scene was partially done in 2D. One of the positives of abstracting in a non cartooning manner is that makes the image something in itself and not just a depiction of the objects in it. This allowed us to satirize the emotional and mental mood of a given instance in the same manner as cartooning allows satire on the physical plane. This means that we could make the environment manifest the mental state of the scene by playing with the forms, shapes and colours. We tried to use this to display the increasing insanity and despair the inhabitants of Backwater feel as the story progresses and therefore have a very sheer visual progression through the duration of the film. CHARACTER DESIGN Since the story was character driven the design of the characters was the main representations of the visual style, both because they are the subjects of the story but also because they are what the audience will be looking at the wast majority of the time. Because the style itself was defined from a finished model a lot of the design decisions came through reverse engineering and then developed upon, this did not mean that we did not have ample space for exploration of the looks of the characters but rather that we had a distinct direction in mind that we knew would work well where the main elements of the visual language was Fig 6: Concept art of the minister.

provided by strong silhouettes and a gritty, dirty and 9/ 21


Bachelor Thesis

The Backwater Gospel

Esben Jacob Sloth

destroyed look. This meant that we had some distinct dehumanized characters that all played upon the grotesque and this posed the challenge of designing them so that they would grip the attention of the audience and maintain the feelings they represented without rejecting the audience into disengagement in them. There is something instantly attractive in the grotesque but keeping the viewer emotional engaged to it proved difficult. As many of the features we used in the designs were unpleasant and we used this to allocate the sparse amount of likeable features to direct the attention on the character you were supposed to empathize with at the given time. For example all the characters usually have dark holes for eyes something we were advised against since it keeps the emotion of the character to be shown, but adding eyes would mean a big change in the style and would change the overall impression the viewer would have of the characters as a group. So we decided to make the eyes detachable so they would only be used when we wished an emotion to be shown in the character as the focal point of the scene. Therefore we limited the instances where eyes were used and only allowed a single character to have them at a given instance. By focusing the the empathy the audience had on a single character at a time we tried to keep them engaged in the story while still having the overall look of all the characters repulsive. When we had to do the individual designs for the different characters we first looked at how they related to the overall cast and then at their place within the story in order to decide on their characterization and traits. Since the story lacks a clear protagonist and is in many ways the story of the entire community we could analyze the different aspects the characters take as cogs in the apperatus of the bigger character of Fig 7: Character sheet for the Undertaker.

all of backwater. This abstraction helped us define

the relationship between the characters as they all interact in similar fashion to the different drives of the subconscious with the exception of the undertaker who represents the external force that initiates the conflict within backwater. Therefore his design

Fig 8: Character sheet for was made to seem alien from the other characters and almost like Bubba 10/ 21


Bachelor Thesis

The Backwater Gospel

Esben Jacob Sloth

a different creature with several birdlike feature as opposed to the other character who are more earth bound. The majority of backwater is made up of the congregation who played the part of the Ego as the main actors but least initiative of the characters. Because of this relationship they are tied together by rectangular steady shapes to make them appear as a single whole. They are also represented by the Bubba character who is the ministers helper. Since the ego of Backwater is severely bloated this character was made large and immoveable of appearance with many of the characteristics of a brute. The minister with his need Fig 9: Character sheet for the Minister

for

dominance

and

perfectionism takes on the

aspect of the Super-Ego and therefore takes on its aspects in his design. His hair is laid back, his glasses are straight and rectangular and his suit is tight, yet he is fat and barely contained within himself. As the Super-Ego he hates the Id, the tramp and therefore has many contrasts from him. Where the minister is fat the tramp is skinny, the minister has a thin face the

Fig 10: Character sheet for the Tramp

tramp has a wide head with a lot of uncombed hair, the minister is mostly gray where the tramp is the most saturated character. Since the inhabitants of Backwater are very contempt the tramp is very declined in status. He is an outsider who does not fit in but who is stuck. To visualize his confinement, which goes against his nature, we gave him several traits to define it such as his home which is a broken down car and his missing leg. ENVIRONMENT DESIGN The environment is a big part of any animated film since all the action takes place in a fictional universe. The entire setting must be thought out so that it is both interesting and feels alive and appears to go beyond what is shown in the scene but also practical so that it is efficient to produce and functions as a clear stage for the action. 11/ 21


Bachelor Thesis

The Backwater Gospel

Esben Jacob Sloth

Exposition of why the world is as it is is not given, instead we try to show through the backgrounds and we tried to fill in a rich setting so that the story appeared to take place in a location rather than a set. We had numerous references for the world that explained why things are as they are in Backwater, but we also tried consistently to keep the setting from falling into a know stereotype that would give the audience too many assumptions, both to avoid any disappointment when it is realized that our film does not fall into that genre and to make the universe seem more mythic so that the extreme situations that take place in it does not seem unbelievable. Since the original inspiration for the film was a musical genre called Gothic Americana which draws roots from American folk music rural America and the American west were the biggest reference to our fictitious world. Yet we did not wish to create a western movie so we tried to limit iconography of westerns and instead sought out inspiration in material from the great depression and the Dustbowl since these were events that were appropriate for the story. We also wanted to make the story feel like the stories from the old testament so we incorporated elements of what western culture depicts the desert of the Hebrews as. We wanted a certain amount of symbolism in the world so that the setting could have a similar progression to the story. A big inspiration for this came though reading about the Dustbowl where too intensive farming caused the local environment to collapse. Removal of the prairie grass caused the wind to grow stronger and blow up the sandy soil into giant sandstorms that buried buildings and towns in dust. We wanted to use this motif as the base of setting since it both felt appropriate for the world and because it explained some aspects of the story, such as why there are no children or young people in Backwater, during the dustbowl the young people were the first to move and children were often sent to live with family elsewhere. It also allowed to add more consistency in one of the design aspects, that everything is askew, since the strong wind would have blown everything crooked. We used this to make sure that everything leaned in the same direction, towards the church, and made everything slope increasingly throughout the film until the last sequences where everything is almost toppled over. Because of this the backgrounds became our main tool of progression in the film. This allowed us to stray from the original plan of having a strong progression in continuously abstracting the style, and instead focus on developing a environment style that served well for representing the mood of the story. In this way the environment almost came to be a character in its own right since it went through severe emotional changes, but instead of having its own desires it represented the mental state of the story manifested.

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Bachelor Thesis

The Backwater Gospel

Esben Jacob Sloth

Fig 11: Previsualization of the environment style. With these decisions in mind we tried to develop a style for the environment that still followed the general rules for backgrounds: that it must keep the picture easily readable and not draw attention away from the characters. We also wanted it to look harmonious with the characters but initial test where the background was done in the same style and with the same method as the characters were rather unsuccessful as they looked cluttered and were hard for the eye to orient within. Because of this we tried to work with simplifying the style and making it contain less visual noise while still looking gritty so that the characters would be easily readable but not stand out.

Fig 12: Much of the environment is made up purely of a flat ground-plane, in order to make this look interesting and dimensional we utilized a large amount of stacking values and perpendicular lines. While designing the style we first looked at the different elements that we needed to portray in order to decide what elements of the more detailed style developed of the characters that could be 13/ 21


Bachelor Thesis

The Backwater Gospel

Esben Jacob Sloth

cut away. Since almost all of the film took place within three locations, the church, the tramp's shelter on the road to the church and around the well in the town centre, most of what would be portrayed was wooden structures, barren ground and scarce vegetation. Since most of these elements were flat planar surfaces with little internal details besides texture the design aspects that determined form and value were the most essential. Because the subjects were all hard and dry an overall treatment that made it appear as if everything was constructed out of the same material would not be a problem, so the aspects that showed difference in material were toned down and some aspects such as contour lines and painting artefacts were almost completely removed. The other subjects portrayed, such as the shelter and the foliage, were then designed to fit these limitations.

Fig 13 and 14:: The foliage were designed using the design aspects found in the most common appearing elements: wooden structures and the ground. In the actual production of the scenes and backgrounds a variety of methods were used. Since the film contained many shots taking place in different locations, some of which were only shown once and for a short duration of time, the backgrounds were one of the aspects of production that had to be done most efficiently with a production time allocated for every shot around 3-4 hours. This meant that making the scenes as regular 3D would be far too time consuming, especially considering the large change in style they would go through, and that they would have to use extremely simple compositions if they were to be made as regular 2D painted backgrounds. Therefor we had to improvise the method most appropriate for every single shot to be able to get the best possible result within schedule. For frequently reappearing location fully moddelled and textured sets were created so that continuity could be held, they were also rigged in order to enable the visual progression to be stronger than what camera angles allow for, however the sets were not lit, instead they were rendered out flat and then completely painted over digitally since this allowed for more control over the values and colors than lighting them. Less frequently appearing locations 14/ 21


Bachelor Thesis

The Backwater Gospel

Esben Jacob Sloth

were also modeled, but only in order to set up the layout which would then function as the base for the background painting, simple scenes contained no 3D whatsoever or were made by doing collages of previous backgrounds. Scenes that required dimensional camera moves were then reprojected onto the 3D geometry. VISUAL PROGRESSION

In order to achieve big changes of mood in the film we wanted an equally big change in the visuals of the film. During the film everything slowly turns increasingly insane and we wanted to represent this visually so the style would serve as a metaphor for the mental collapse of the characters. However a lot of the initially planned progression wherein the entire style gradually collapsed towards the abstract and expressionistic turned out to be unobtainable both in means of labour and design. Instead we chose to use bold progression in the elements within the style. There were several elements we chose to focus on when planning the progression, especially composition, shapes. contrast and colour. We tried to design it so that every time a shift in mood happened, a new action took place, the location changed or a new act began some of the design elements would change accordingly but if decided on a change in one of the elements when, say, a mood change happened, and then the act changed but the mood stayed the same we would keep that decision until the mood would change. We tried to keep everything relative so we ended up not using the colours and visual symbols usually associated with a given emotion but instead used a relative change to our base style. Similar to music wherein a chord can sound like many different emotions depending on the chord progression and the key the piece is played in. Since our style took of in a dry, orange brown, low contrast key this served as our starting point for the style and all the other decision were then made relative to it. The very first sequence in the film is the prologue. Since we wanted this part of the story to be isolated we chose to make it black and white and kept the compositions static and centred. Black and white and staged shots is something associated with old film and it therefore helped make the scene seem as if it took place a long time before the rest of the film. When colour film was a new they would do the opposite and make the scenes taking place in modern days gray since black and white was associated with the contemporary and colour film was seen as something dreamy.

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Bachelor Thesis

The Backwater Gospel

Esben Jacob Sloth

The second sequence is the beginning of the of the first act. Since this is where we establish the style for the audience we kept these in the base colours of brown and orange and had a relatively high spectrum of other colours in use so the colours the different characters have linked to them could be shown. The compositions are kept static and the contrast is low. In the following sequences, where the emotion of fear is introduced the colour start to shift towards green since green is a corruption of orange and it shows that what appeared to be under control is not. By the end of the first act the colour have gone through the warm greens and the compositions have turned increasingly unstable with both distorted lenses and Dutch angles as the characters are completely pinned down by fear. Since these are scenes portraying the characters not taking any action green becomes associated with this. In the beginning of the second act the green colours start to move through cyan towards blue as the repeated stress on the characters start to leave them emotionless and cold. Blue is the complimentary colour of orange which was used in the beginning when there was harmony and we therefore use it to represent strife. When the first action takes place as the church chimes its bells we go from very dark to very light scenes while keeping the contrast constant until we enter the church where the contrast is turned up. The inside of the church has a strong warm/cold colour contrast between a cold red and a warm blue, we wanted to keep the feeling of strife associated with blue in theses scenes, but we also wanted them to be the biggest contrast from the scenes of non-action in the first act so we introduced the complimentary colour of green, red, since this is the sequence where all the decisions of the characters take place. After we exit the church all colour is striped except for the cold blue associated with strife as there are no positive emotions left in any of the characters. The compositions here are far more abstracted than the ones in the previous scenes as the characters grip on reality is entirely lost. 16/ 21


Bachelor Thesis

The Backwater Gospel

Esben Jacob Sloth

Most of the final act is completely monochrome in the same hue but the contrast and saturation is way higher. The characters becomes silhouette and the backgrounds almost completely disappear in dirt and grit. At this point everything is completely de humanized. The very final scene sees a return to harmonious colours as there is no more evil left in Backwater.

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Bachelor Thesis

The Backwater Gospel

Esben Jacob Sloth

CONCLUSION Although the project has many flaws and the production of it did not always go smoothly I think that they were both great successes after my standards. The team worked hard and I think it shows in the film, but I will not deny that we faced many problems during its production and that there are several things I think are wrong with the final product, One problem the story faced was distributing exposition. While the premise can easily be laid out with words, telling it gently through visual storytelling became a problem in our case. In a way we felt we to keep explaining how our fictional world functions until everyone have understood it correctly so they know why characters react to the Undertaker in the way they do and what the nature of the Undertaker is for certain without talked down to. Yet if we over explain we risk repetition and making the audience feel alienated by thinking that we as the creators look down on them. The approach we initially took to address this was to add more content in the beginning sequence and eventually adding an entire sequence before the title-screen with a self contained story just to explain that the undertaker foretells death. This meant that the first act quickly became very long without much happening in it. Personally I am fond of films who take their time and let the viewer digest the story. Eastern cinema, especially the Japanese, has shown that slow pacing can be very effective in expanding the impact a scene can have on the viewer because it gives him a chance to reflect over what have happened, but they do this by holding a story-beat for a longer interval than the action it depicts. We, however, were constantly adding story-beats with the purpose of giving exposition meaning that they did not drive the story forward which meant that the beginning felt very drawn out. In the end we did correct most of these problems by cutting a large part of the beginning and entirely replacing the pre-titlescreen sequence with a shorter, much more concise sequence that much more gratefully explained the Undertaker's nature. The problem was that these fixes were done very late in production resulting in that some parts of beginning are off pacing and feel salvaged. Yet in many ways my biggest regret with the story was that I did not feel that it followed the initial premise which was in my opinion very original, but it was changed to something which felt more clichĂŠ. Instead of the story being about the effects that the presence of the incarnation of death could have on people and the misconceptions about the nature of death, it is the about a corrupt priest who uses religion to control people. To me this means that it loses the allegorical effect that it 18/ 21


Bachelor Thesis

The Backwater Gospel

Esben Jacob Sloth

could have had and that it does not correctly address a subject which is still taboo. But apart from falling short on interpretative content I think that the storytelling was rather successful since it ties together nicely. It just lacks “that something� to think about afterwards. I think the reason I have regrets with storytelling is because I am not satisfied with my own efforts during the development of the story. This was not because I was inactive in the process but rather the manner in which I was active. The majority of my contributions to the story was by analysing ideas and figuring out how these ideas would change the story's structure and what meanings they could have. I am sure this is a contribution that was both helpful and needed but it also means that I suggested very few original ideas of my own. The reason is probably my minimalist tendencies which makes me see all additions that complicates or convolutes the project as a negative, although in hindsight I can see that it is often the complexity of something simple that makes it attractive and not the simplicity in itself. This is, however, also where I feel that the story holds together: It is simple yet so rich in complexity that while the story is clean and rounded off, the world can still ingress and does not feel amputated. The experience I look for in most fictional media is being immersed within it; and when I watch our film I am. For most of the project's duration of the production the team worked fluently together. From the Beginning we assigned titles to each team member and defined the responsibilities of these titles which helped ease the transition from the different stages of production as the project progressed and the ongoing tasks which needed to be concluded changed. Entitling team members with these set responsibilities also helped ease the leadership of the group as a persons responsibilities were not necessarily meant to done by the person but rather that he was the one in charge of seeing to that they were done with the desired quality within the assigned deadlines. In this aspect the titles were all lead positions of the different facets of production. The team dynamics were not unflawed however and as the ambitions for the project steadily grew tension arose. The main problems we encountered were uneven distribution of work , unintended dismissal of team members' authority and difference in ambition. Although such problems are unavoidable on a school project of a significant size I believe that they could have been lessened considerably if a few measures had been taken. While the problem that directly affected the production the most was that tasks were not evenly distributed amongst the team a big cause of this was that not all members were equally engaged in the project. Our team was made of members of students from the two bachelor degree lines, animation and computer graphics art, and 19/ 21


Bachelor Thesis

The Backwater Gospel

Esben Jacob Sloth

while we knew each other socially we have had little work experience together and did not know each other's strengths and weaknesses at the beginning of the production. The problem was that we did not learn each other's skill- and mindset until quite late in production because half of the team, the students from the animation line, were sent off to work on other projects right at the beginning of the production phase. For our team this phase was one of the most stressful as we had to not only figure out how everything was to be done and by whom but also adjust to each others working habits so we could do it successfully together. When the animators returned around a quarter of the production time later they had completely missed these teambuilding events and found us CGs having worked out the production and leadership protocol without them. I think that this, coupled together with that the project had progressed and changed to something less familiar for them, made them feel segregated and as a lesser part of the team than us CGs. During a few instances it felt as if they were our employees rather than equals and I believe that for a lot of them it changed their engagement and ultimately their work performance. Another problem was that there was a very big gap between what ambitions team members had for the project. Some were very ambitious and instead of going with the average level of ambition we went with the highest and steadily elevated it throughout the production. For me, as I think for most of the team, this was a great thing and in the end it made the film better but it also caused a lot of strife. Going for the absolute best quality of work was really motivating and to burn for making something so much was more inspiring than anything I have tried before and really made me work harder and faster and produce better quality work than I usually do. But for some it was too stressful conditions to work under and made them enjoy working less, both because the work was harder and because the product we wanted to achieve was far above what any of us had done before. This meant that some were steadily working hard and harder while others were working less and less and continuously sparked a lot of issues and strife between team members. These issues were never really resolved although we had a lot of talks about them and generally understood each others views and reasons. They just evolved until the end of production where coffee breaks took up half of the working time for one team member. Although I understand why it came to be like this I honestly think that this was unacceptable but I do not know how it could have been avoided. FINAL THOUGHTS As a graphics artist I think that The Backwater Gospel has been a great success for a graduation film. It is of high production quality and visually stunning. The gritty, corroded visual style goes 20/ 21


Bachelor Thesis

The Backwater Gospel

Esben Jacob Sloth

well in hand with the story and the bleak premise of the film and posed some interesting design problems that were both challenging and engaging to work on and which wielded interesting and quite unique results. The project in itself was very inspiring to work on and numerous time I found myself working with more rigour than I thought possible of me and producing better work than I had ever done before. But when I look objectively at the film I am not sure that I can say that I like it. It is not just that the story is flat and that the characters lack dimension, there is something sticky at the core of the story that goes against my philosophy of good storytelling. Storytelling is a much more powerful tool of communication than it is often given credit for. When people wish to engage others in what they wish to express they often unconsciously turn to telling it as simple stories because it it makes others feel the thoughts as if they were their own. Without it we are limited statements and step-by-step instructions. Spiritual leaders know this and this is why the Bible, and all other religious texts, are written as series of anecdotes that deal with life, God and the human condition and not direct manuals on ethics and spirituality, although they are often referred to being such. These religious stories are something that people can draw inspiration, experience and comfort from and find truth in. However few things holds universally true, and if assumptions made in these stories turn out to no longer hold true I think that it indeed should be addressed and eventually reformed. This is what happens when large social changes happens and peoples perspective change, for example it happened at the agrarian revolution where animism was replaced with theism and it happened at the industrial revolution where the enlightenment changed the way we look upon theism. Altering the story paradigms allow people to reflect over the subject addressed, however it cannot be changed simply by telling the same old story where the villain and the hero has changed places. That is simple iconoclasm and it does not lead to any constructive development. In these instances it is my opinion that the subject should be whole heartedly explored without assumptions so that the different points of view can be equally explored, it does not have to be objective and without a defined opinion but it should show consideration of the opposition. This is where The Backwater Gospel fails in my opinion, it is a black on white cautionary tale without consideration of the views the different characters in it represent. Even if the religious subjects were stripped away it would still be a story of us versus them and that is a story I cannot really endorse. Word count: 7666 21/ 21


Esben Jacob Sloth Bachelor Thesis