Painting a past for Red Princess Blues

Dan Cregan teamed up with director Alex Ferrari to produce an animé-influenced short film telling the backstory of Princess, heroine of the forthcoming movie Red Princess Blues.

Two years ago, independent filmmaker Alex Ferrari wowed audiences and film-festival goers with a short action-thriller called Broken. Written and directed by Ferrari, the fast-paced 15-minute short film cost just $8,000 to make but featured more than 100 Hollywood blockbuster visual-effects shots.

Ferrari is currently working on a new feature-length film called Red Princess Blues but, never one to leave his fans waiting for long, he has released a new animated short, directed and animated by Dan Cregan, creative director of VFX house Numb Robot.

Red Princess Blues Animated: The Book of Violence is an animated short-film prequel to the upcoming feature film, which tells a little of the main character’s backstory.

The story centres on the 12-year-old Princess, voiced by actress Paula Garcés (who stars in the main film), who finds herself in a strange country trying to find her father.

Entrusted to the care of a sinister-looking man called Niño, she is put to work cleaning his bookshop – where she first discovers The Book of Violence a volume that will put her on a path to vengeance.

The idea for the prequel came, in part, through Cregan’s desire to direct an animated short. “In the summer of 2007, I had some extra time in my schedule from doing visual effects and I wanted to direct an animated short film, as I had done in grad school,” he explains.

“My plan was to do a Japanese animé short like the ones I watched growing up. I told Alex of my plan to do a short film with the intention of asking him to help me produce it and later promote it.

“He then asked me if I’d be interested in doing a prequel story to the live action feature film he was prepping called Red Princess Blues.

I was excited by the idea right away, and even more so when he told me we could get a wonderful actress like Paula Garcés to narrate it.”

Ferrari’s plan was to create an animated prequel in the style of The Animatrix for the Matrix films, or The Clone Wars for Star Wars.

“After all the projects Dan and I have worked on together, I trusted him fully with my creation,” says Ferrari. “We worked closely together discussing the look and feel of the world, and then I let him loose. His amazing art really brought my world to life. I loved it!”

Cregan cites old TV shows such as Speed Racer, Starblazers and Robotech as inspiration for the look and feel of Red Princess Blues: The Book of Violence.

“These shows changed my perception of what animation could be and have always stayed in the back of my mind. Recently, I had begun to get back into animé after seeing things like the flashback segment in Kill Bill, and The Animatrix,” he explains.

“As a visual effects artist and an illustrator I realized the chance to do something like this doesn’t come along often, so I wanted to take full advantage of it.”

The pair began the project by deciding on the animation’s script. This involved a fair bit of debate, recalls Cregan.

“Alex was writing for live action and I’d have to tell him that what he was describing would take me a couple of years to animate by myself,” he explains.

“He had to learn what we could and couldn’t accomplish with such a small team.” With the script settled, Cregan drew storyboards, and from these Ferrari created an animatic in Final Cut Pro to decide pacing and length of the animated short.

“It was then that Alex doubled my shot count,” says Cregan. “That was my panic moment, and the first time I worried about finishing it!”

The increase in the number of shots saw the production lengthen: although originally planned to last three months, in the end the short took six months to produce.

“It involved a lot of sleepless nights,” admits Cregan. Working from his home studio, Cregan began by designing the animation’s characters and the digital sets before deciding what was going to be hand-drawn and what would be CG.

“Many of the visuals were only in my head until I actually did the segments in the short... not something I normally recommend,” he says.

“The only reason it worked for us here is that it was basically just me putting the elements together so I didn’t have to worry too much about showing other people how something could fit together or how something should look.”

A typical shot from the animation would see Cregan first working on painting or modelling a scene in 3D, and then setting up the camera angle.

Next, he would hand-paint the character onto a layer directly above the background images, and, if necessary, paint multiple frames to create the movement.

Although a couple of people helped out with a small amount of 3D modelling and texture creation, Cregan was responsible for the majority of the animation.

Halfway through the production process, Cregan received the final audio track for the animation, which was composed and mixed by Mark Roumelis.

“This made me go in directions I might not have thought of before,” says Cregan. “In an ideal situation we would have done the audio before I began creating the final shots, but because of schedules we did it the only way it could work,” he adds.

Cregan used Photoshop for the bulk of the painting, and created the 3D models in Maya. “I live and breathe Photoshop for all my illustration work, so using its layer features to create animation was an obvious choice for me,” he explains.

He used Shake for the compositing and animation, and Ferrari used Final Cut Pro for the editing and the final output.

“In compositing I used the GenArts Sapphire plug-in for numerous effects that helped create the look of the piece such as lens flares, glows, distortions and such. In Shake, I used distortion and multiplane camera moves to create motion where there wasn’t any. All these things saved time and created professional-looking results,” he says.

Once shots were composited and rendered, Cregan output a QuickTime file for Alex Ferrari to work on. “I used Final Cut Pro to edit the short as well as to create an animatic using Dan’s storyboards,” says Ferrari.

“The animatic was a crucial part of the creative and technical process. I recorded a temp track using my iPod and then edited the storyboards together.

"This is where I discovered that the pace of the film was moving too slow. Dan had originally drawn 45 shots for the entire short but once I got a hold of it in Final Cut Pro and showed him what was working and what wasn’t, the shot count ballooned up to 85 shots.

“My editing style demanded more footage to keep a good pace for the short,” explains Ferrari. “In my directorial projects I could just go out and shoot more footage, but poor Dan had to draw more footage for me to edit together. After we grew the shot count from 45 to 85, I was happy but Dan’s hand was bleeding!”

Cregan started by sketching a rough storyboard for the animation. This was then used to develop detailed sketches and 3D models, before digital sets for the film’s main locations were built.

One of the hardest things to achieve on the project was maintaining visual consistency. “Making sure the characters look like themselves every time you draw them can be quite a challenge,” explains Dan Cregan. “It helps to have very detailed character sketches to reference when you need to.

When compositing the animation in Shake, Dan Cregan used distortion and multiplane camera moves to replicate the effect of motion blur. GenArts’ Sapphire plug-in was used extensively to add flares and glows.

Sleepless nights

“Most of the work was done at home and involved a lot of sleepless nights,” says Cregan. “I like to work on multiple areas of the animation at the same time to avoid getting burned out on a particular shot.”

From sketch to motion

“Princess was an interesting character to visually develop because she is based on actress Paula Garcés, who is attached to play the role in the live action feature film,” says Cregan.

“So the challenge was to translate her look to a little girl who has a violent streak. I did a few different sketches but I ended up going back to the first one I did. It was a simple yet effective design of a little girl in a dress with her stuffed animal.

“After I had a look I was happy with I would clean up the line work in Photoshop and then paint the colours in an underneath layer. Once the frame was finished to where I wanted it to be I duplicated it and began to alter the duplicated layer to create the next frame of motion.

“It’s a long and tedious process, to be sure – I recommend having a lot of good music to listen to. After the frames were done, I’d test the motion in a Shake flipbook and then apply numerous effects to the sequence like glows and film grain,” he says.


Project: Red Princess Blues Animated: The Book of Violence
Client: Alex Ferrari
Studio: Numb Robot
Software: Adobe Photoshop, Apple Final Cut Pro, Apple Shake, Autodesk Maya, GenArts Sapphire

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