Sunday, 9 October 2011

Narrative Construction, Adaption and Interpretation- promoting Digbeth

Digbeth is an old industrial district of Birmingham that has been affected by the current economic climate. Regenerations that were planned never took place, and so the area represents a Birmingham of a bygone era. Many hold the opinion that the district is dilapidated and offers nothing to people in the local area- Digbeth is not a residential area and does not offer the typical range of shops that would appeal to the everyday person. Perhaps the biggest factor contributing to the negative views of Digbeth is its graffiti- truth is, to many, graffiti is synonymous with gangs and criminality, and the abundance of paint on the walls of the district proves off-putting. At a glance (which is often as much as people are willing to spare for the old part of the city) Digbeth is dirty, decrepit and dangerous.

So my first project of the second year of Animation is to create an animation promoting what Digbeth has to offer. More specifically, as per the brief, this is to create a ‘short film capturing a signature aspect of Digbeth’s community reflecting its sense of place’. A hypothetical development team is exploring new ways of delivering low cost and accessible dwellings in the area.

Naturally, in order to promote Digbeth, we must overcome its negative image- create something that encourages people to look beyond the shabby exterior to its cultural core. You see, Digbeth does have a lot to offer. It is rife with industry, from its historic connections to the industrial revolution’s iron and steel foundries, to the present day’s booming creative arts businesses. In addition, the district has a strong nightlife. Over the years, Digbeth has given us such iconic brands as Ty.Phoo tea and Bird’s Custard- the latter of which lends its name to ‘the Custard Factory’, now the thriving hub of Digbeth’s arts culture providing industry leading graphic design, and even the television studios behind Channel 5’s popular and long running technology magazine series ‘The Gadget Show’. The immediate surrounding area is visually reflective of the impulsive creative mind, where graffiti not so much ruins, rather decorates what would otherwise be a bland sea of brick.

We decided it would be beneficial to visit Digbeth in order to better understand the area, and gather reference photos whilst we were there. Drawing inspiration from these would help in deciding how to approach this project.

Here is a selection of reference photos that I managed to acquire:

Our initial idea for our animation was to play directly off that change in public opinion we are trying to achieve. A person (created using the pixellation stop-motion technique) would walk in front of Digbeth buildings, with the graffiti on the walls coming to life, animated alongside them. Beginning in complete greyscale with stereotype vandalism graffiti tags, the video was to slowly gain saturation, as the graffiti takes on a far more creative form, leading up to a full colour ending with paintings more a public art installation than a defacing mess, celebrating the creative culture that is truly Digbeth’s current best asset. The gradual increase in colour was intended as a visual metaphor for how we aim to persuade people to look beyond the drab exterior of Digbeth to actually notice the true impact and vibrancy of the district.

The recent Vauxhall Corsa advert (below) is a great example of graffiti animation, and is similar to what we had in mind:

Our concept was to be created utilising the layers feature of editing software Adobe After Effects. We envisioned a composite of three layers; a real-life video background, captured with a steady camera panning parallel to a series of walls in the district, an animated layer comprising of the graffiti that would form the striking visuals needed to represent modern Digbeth, and lastly in the foreground a pixellation animation of a person walking along, possibly with a looped walk cycle.

Below you can see an example image that I created in Adobe Photoshop illustrating what this animation might have looked like:

After having made a physical visit to Digbeth to gather research, reference photos and videos however, we were disappointed that there were no areas similar to what we had imagined. We found no single street that would have given us a solid few minutes of walking along side a wall. Furthermore, there were complications in that many of the streets were lined with parked cars and were somewhat busy with traffic and the occasional pedestrian- things which would have obscured from view the clear pavement that we would need. We did however collect a lot of nice images of Digbeth, some more creative than others, which really stood out as being iconic of the artistic culture, with some interesting compositions.

We discussed our initial idea and the images that we had gathered, and agreed that filming a three to five minute piece along a wall was simply not practical. Instead, the idea evolved into something a little more abstract but altogether far more attainable. Digbeth has many standout locations as aforementioned, and it would not be possible to pass them all in three minutes of video. We decided on a more artistic approach, using the images of these individual key buildings and landmarks as our background. Various techniques could be used to bring these images to life, but essentially we would have them cycle behind the walking person as before with the colour increasing throughout the animation.

After discussing the art direction of this evolved concept, we agreed upon something more closely resembling the district’s painted artwork. I set about creating a quick test animation to trial some of the potential techniques we could use, using a hand-animated silhouette figure in place of the pixellation person temporarily. First of all, I created a second trial image to determine whether the style I had in mind would work, before putting together a short animation in Adobe Photoshop based upon this test image. The animation features an increase in colour, strong visual colour schemes and a creative composition. My one complaint in hindsight would be that it is a bit too fast, with the background moving slightly too quickly such that it is a little out of sync with the walker. Of course, this was a very early conceptual design so this is not really an issue- as long as it is able to convey some design ideas to the viewer, my job was successful. 

Here is that test image, followed by the test videos:

Walk cycle test:

Title sequence test:

Animation test:

Without a timeline in Photoshop, judging the timing was very difficult, especially since the entire test was pure ‘straight ahead’ animation (no key framing) and for the most part made up as I went along. I tried my best to animate multiple aspects at once (the walker, background images, paint splat effects etc.) though keeping track of each of them was difficult as I had to remember what parts to move each frame. When I was happy with a frame, I saved it as a JPEG image culminating in a few hundred images, which were all imported into the iStopMotion software and rendered at 24 frames per second before being exported as a full HD video. Watching the test animation, you will recognise the background images from my ensemble of reference photos, some of which feature art filters to make them more consistent with the overarching ‘paint’ theme.

The graffiti font of the title ‘Welcome to Digbeth’ was acquired online since the animation was only a test. For a final animation, I would of course have created a custom font.

The walk cycle for the silhouette figure was created in a separate Photoshop document as a series of four images, based on the following walk cycle sketch online:

This meant that for every frame where I needed the person to move, I simply replaced the image with the next in the walk cycle series. Having each walk cycle frame at hand was very useful.

Showing the test to the other members of my group, I am pleased to say that it was well received. We were a little disappointed therefore when it turned out that several other groups appeared to be discussing the same ideas, seemingly out of pure coincidence. With talk of fading colour in abundance, our idea suddenly seemed less appealing and more of a generic cliché. Always aiming to create unique work and push the limits of what we can achieve for each project, we decided to adapt our concept once more, hoping to create something to truly stand out from the crowd.

That didn’t mean that our work so far was to go to waste. On the contrary, we chose to remain faithful to the three-layered approach of previous concept iterations. We decided ultimately to move away from the rather narrow focus of graffiti and colour, to explore more about Digbeth itself and its exuberant history. Did you know that Digbeth market was originally the centre of trade in Birmingham, or that Digbeth was part of an important regional route bridging between towns to the east such as Coventry and old Warwickshire town? It was also Birmingham’s first industrial district, at the forefront of the famous industrial revolution. To understand and appreciate Digbeth’s present, we must look to the past to see its importance, exactly what it has given us over the years, and how it has influenced the development of the city of Birmingham up until the modern day. Digbeth was the true precursor to modern Birmingham, and it is a shame that people are not aware of this historical significance.

Which brings me on to our latest (and most likely final) design concept- an animation that spans the most important history of Digbeth from the earliest records in 1533 to the present day with its celebrated arts culture. By researching the area’s history, we have collected a wealth of interesting facts which should provide key set piece moments around which to structure our animation. Beginning in a Tudor town, a person walks by a street lined with timber-framed buildings. When obscured from view by a passing object in the foreground, the time period jumps forward, revealing the figure to be clad in different clothing appropriate to that time. The Digbeth market, Ty.Phoo tea, Bird’s Custard, the Digbeth coach station and the modern Custard Factory are all set to make appearances as we travel through history on a showcase of the best of Digbeth. As for time periods, the earliest would be a Tudor setting, followed by an Industrial Revolution setting in the Victorian era, then potentially the 1950s and of course present day near the end. Hopefully, our animation will help to show people that Digbeth is just as important to the city as the other districts, and that its legacy should not be neglected.

Wow! That was a long post, and there's still more to come! Next time, I shall go in depth to detail our latest project ideas, and post videos of an incredible new technology that we have considered for our animation. 

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