Like all the best comics, The Art of Pho combines off-kilter characters – such as our hero Little Blue, who as well as being blue also looks somewhere between a pig and a dog, and has a childlike innocence and charm – with an unvarnished view of the world steeped in both hope and pathos (something we've seen a lot of recently in indie comics from the likes of Luke Pearson and Tom Gault).
Little Blue travels to Ho Chi Min City (aka Saigon) in Vietnam and finds himself experiencing the city as an outsider – as well as learning how to make the perfect Pho (Vietnamese noodle soup, often sold as street food). The experiences he encounters – from the loneliness and awkwardness of feeling out of place to the sense of wonder about a place that only an outsider can truly understand – serve as metaphors for our own sense of being an outside we all experience as we grow up.
We sat down with Lois to find out more about how she and her team of animators adapted Juilan’s novel to the (computer) screen.
DA: How did you come to work on this? What was it about Julian's book that made you want to make the film?
LVB: "I was approached by Submarine Channel to work on an interactive motion comic, which appealed to me because it was a creative challenge and offered the possiblity to work with many different animation styles. A lot of the work I do is digital illustration work in my own distinctive style, and as an animator it's really refreshing to be able to not only work with someone else's style but work with a variety of techniques, programs and approaches to bring it to life."
DA: What did you want to do with the animated version that was different to the book?
LVB: "The book takes a lot of breaks from the main storyline, [taking] longer to tell the story. This works quite well for a comic, where you can read at your own pace and take time to absorb the events you are reading about. We had to compress the story and develop a pace which was more suited to a viewing audience. This led to changes in the story structure as well: from six chapters of varying length in the book, to eight episodes of approximately the same length in animation format.
"We had to make an overview of the most important events and themes in the story and use this to restructure the narrative. In the process, many panels and moments from the book were cut, which was necessary not only to make a clearer and more compact storyline but also to maintain a reasonable length per episode. A lot of time was spent on storyboarding and preproduction, and we were happy to get a lot of input from Julian throughout the process to ensure that the story remained sufficiently intact.
"We added the interactive moments to preserve the sense of playfulness that the original book had, and to involve the viewer in Blue's journey. The interactive moments are especially designed to make the viewer feel involved in Blue's decisions and emotional changes throughout the episodes."
DA: What was your process for turning the hand-drawn frames into digital 'cels' for animation? What tools did you use?
LVB: "Fortunately for us, Julian's book was created in Photoshop and we were able to work directly from his original artwork. We took his visual material and had to translate it into a format suitable for animation, which mostly involved separating the layers from one another and putting it into a 16:9 frame.
"Once this was done, we could import the Photoshop file directly into our animation program and use it as a starting point for the digitally made animation. Because everything was digital to begin with, this was relatively easy."
DA: How did you animate in a way that complemented Julian's style of drawing and mixed media approach, and which suited the characters and pace of the story?
LVB: "By working directly from Julian's source material, we were able to stay true to his vibrant and varied style. Sometimes his characters are drawn in a more sketchy and abstract manner whereas other moments the characters are conveyed in much more detail; we just imported his original source material and stayed true to it when animating.
"We also worked a lot with layers, separating the basic paper layers from various background elements: different panels, tape, sketches, text, etc. This way, these elements can be separately animated and we could emphasize this aspect of Julian's visual style through movement."
Next up: Lois details how she turned hand-drawn pages into animated frames...