Rob Chiu’s Dimensions – a short film about mental health – uses different techniques to animate the experience of schizophrenia.
Part of Channel Four’s Animated Minds documentary series about mental health, Dimensions is an animated short film that illustrates one person’s experience of schizophrenia. The three-minute film, directed and animated by Rob Chiu, uses a montage of striking imagery, photographs, typography, animation, and motion effects to visualize the disordered thoughts, hallucinations, delusions of persecution and paranoia, and the deafening cacophony of voices from the characters that reside in Michael’s mind.
Chiu heard of the project on the newsletter/forum site Shooting People, which ran a posting inviting animators to pitch for the four short films in the series. Having submitted a showreel to APT Films, the producers of Animated Minds, Chiu was sent a synopsis of the films in the series and invited for a meeting with producer and director Andy Glynne.
“I was asked which one I’d prefer to do and then asked why and so on,” says Chiu. “I guess my strategy was to wow them with more than just animation skills by having a whole concept about the direction the film could take.”
This strategy was helped by an earlier phone conversation which had revealed that the show’s producers were really keen on one of the pieces on Chiu’s showreel called Journey.
“They felt it conveyed a sense of helplessness and a post-apocalyptic feeling,” says Chiu. “Knowing this meant I could pitch myself better as I knew the style they were comfortable with.”
Although different styles of animation were chosen for each of the short films, all four share a common element – each has an audio narrative obtained through interviews conducted with sufferers of mental illness.
Chiu was given over an hour of audio of a man called Chas DeSwiet describing his experiences of psychosis, and came to London for a day to work with APT Films in editing the audio down to three minutes. However, this didn’t prove to be the final audio edit, which made storyboarding the film somewhat difficult for Chiu.
“The audio edit kept changing, which made it really hard to nail down the shots I needed to shoot and composite,” he says. The re-editing of the audio continued until about half way through the project when it was finally locked down in order for Chiu to complete the film on deadline.
“So, in a way the brief was kind of constantly changing. Sometimes this was down to what we could or couldn’t achieve with the visuals in the time given, and sometimes it was down to just working better as a narrative,” says Chiu.
One of the key challenges of the project was trying to work out how to illustrate schizophrenia, which is primarily an auditory experience rather than a visual one. People who suffer psychosis hear voices that no one else can hear while appearing to the outside world as totally normal.
APT Films had agreed to bring onboard Chiu’s long-term audio partner Diagram of Suburban Chaos (DOSC), based in San Diego. The audio for Dimensions created by DOSC was a creative springboard for Chiu. “I listen to a lot of music, which inspires all motion pieces that I do,” he explains. “When I hear a piece of music that moves me in some way I try to imagine telling a story to the piece. My imagination kicks into overdrive and I visualize a story or narrative to go with the music. This is usually how I kick-start a project.”
The nature of Chiu’s work was also very different to those of the other three animators working on the series, which caused a few hiccups in the production of the piece.
While the other animators could provide animated rough storyboards, Chiu had no material until he began filming and so had to produce storyboards in a written format.
“I usually work this way, especially for a project as abstract as this, as I don’t want to set anything in stone,” he explains. “But it was hard for the producers to understand what I planned to do as they wanted to see something.”
“In the end I had to go out and shoot some stuff and treat the footage really crudely just to illustrate what I wanted to do. A lot of the project was based on trust and references to stuff that I’d done previously.
“At one stage I was going to do an edit of the film without any effects to show how it was all coming together,” he says. “Of course, the producers couldn’t see my vision as they couldn’t get past the fact that it was all still just video.
I was also restricting myself by referring to previous work such as Journey as I wanted to do something like nothing that I had previously done. It was quite a hard situation.”
The need for trust was compounded by the fact that Chiu planned to learn new skills while working on the project and so didn’t know exactly what he could achieve.
“I had to learn the whole aspect of using the 3D elements of After Effects from scratch as I had never used it before,” he says. “But I got myself a book and did a couple of chapters in the form of tutorials, and then kind of made the rest up as I went along while under the intense pressure of a Channel 4 deadline.”
Chiu’s tools of choice on the project were After Effects, Photoshop and Final Cut Pro, while two plug-ins, Digital Anarchy Psunami and Trapcode Shine, proved invaluable in creating the scenes in which a city is viewed from beneath the waves with the sun shining through from above.
“Making London appear as if underwater was the biggest visual challenge of the project,” he says. “All I could see in my head is the end of Spielberg’s AI, but had no idea how to convey it.
“We talked about housing one of the cameras in underwater casing and filming London from within a lake and all sorts of crazy stuff such as shooting London from a helicopter and then compositing water over the top, which would have been a nightmare,” he recalls.
In the end, Chiu decided to keep the sequence abstract. He used Psunami, coupled with Trapcode’s Shine plug-in, to give the impression of being underwater with the light shining through and bouncing off the waves on the surface. To emphasize that the imagery is just an illusion in the narrator’s head, Chiu ended the sequence by turning the rendered water into a vector wireframe.
Typography is used to good effect throughout the film, primarily because it was a perfect way of conveying voices visually says Chiu. “Once I had established that typography was going to play a part in the movie, it was a matter of continuing the theme throughout to give each section some consistency,” he says. “I’ve tried to use type differently, yet you feel each experience is linked to another by the type.”
The type was created as flat graphics in Photoshop and mapped onto the footage in After Effects using the software’s 3D capabilities. “This gave the type some depth and, although it’s not photorealistic, I think the type moves the story along and also gives the narration some dynamic.”
The end shots of Dimensions show an actual report used by doctors to help diagnose people with psychosis. Chiu took the report – in a PDF format – first into Photoshop and then After Effects where he made it into a 3D object. “I animated the camera to fly around the document and then freeze on an area of type and then quickly fly off again to another section,” he says of his treatment of the footage. “It’s sort of what the eye does when you’re quickly scanning a document.”
While Chiu admits to enjoying eye candy in his work, he insists on the need to justify its inclusion. “My main aim in every piece I work on is to bring out some kind of emotion in the viewer. Whether I’m trying to scare the viewer, make them cry or make them angry, emotion will always be the driving factor behind what I do.”
Creating the London Underground sections
Based in Huddersfield, Chiu was unable to shoot scenes of the London Underground, so Andy Glynne of APT Films came to the rescue. Following Chiu’s brief as to camera angles, which he had referenced to a few stills from a music video by UNKLE called Be There, Glynne captured the footage required.
“I asked him specifically not to get any movement in these shots as I needed motionless, empty stations so that I could animate movement into the piece,” says Chiu. “There’s very little camera movement throughout the entire piece... When there is camera movement it has been done very slowly and carefully so that when it came to motion tracking in post production it made my life a whole lot easier.”
Taking a still of each segment into Photoshop, Chiu added silhouettes of people on the platform from cut-outs of photographs. “This part of the film is where the narrator begins hearing voices so you start off the section with an empty tunnel and then a person appears,” he explains. “By the time you get to the last shot of the Tube there are people all over the screen, implying more voices. This is echoed in the use of whispering voices heard in the soundtrack. I used silhouettes of people to further enhance the direction the film was taking – previously the trees, radiation, and other elements had all been done in silhouettes.”
Each Photoshop document was then imported into After Effects intact with layers, and the still footage replaced with live footage. With no camera movement in the footage Chiu was able to keep the silhouettes in the same position for the duration of the shot. He then masked off various elements – walls, ceiling, floor – by duplicating a layer of the film and animated the masks to reveal a section of the Tube platform until the picture was complete. Using the same technique, he made the people silhouettes appear in the scene.
He also added a slight 3D spin to the people so that they appear to be turning. “It’s a very slight effect that adds just a little bit more dynamic to the very still scene, he says. “It could be argued that this section should have been done using just photographic stills. My reason for using video is that although there’s no movement in the shot, you still get grain from the video recording, and the fact that it’s video gives an illusion of movement even when there’s none.”
To suggest a breakdown in the narrator’s vision, Chiu added digital noise to distort the scene. “The actual shot is a black screen with digital breakdown interfering, he explains. “I used the keying effect in After Effects to get rid of areas of black to let me place the interference on top of the finished piece, to create the distortion. Adjustment layers were added on top to violently shake the camera from left to right to create more confusion.”