This post was written by Quincy Ledbetter.
In April of 2020 film productions, festivals, and theaters were shutting down indefinitely and there was no COVID-19 vaccine in sight. Making an animated short while staying completely quarantined was the only way we could collaborate safely.
Despite the circumstances, our project, The Black Disquisition, won Best Animated Film in the 2021 DC Black Film Festival and to date has been selected in 10 other festivals.
I’m here to tell you how we did it, too. But first, check out the trailer.
Approach your limitations as opportunities
We were really feeling the effects of the pandemic, so no matter how meager the budget for this film, it was too much. Each of us would have to wear multiple hats, which can be a burden. The key was to approach this as an opportunity to acquire new skills and enhance those we already had. Before making The Black Disquisition, I had never directed actors using virtual technology (more on that later) and I had never done animation. I was afraid but what kept me going was knowing that, at the very least, by the time this was over I would have done something I never did before.
The next big setback was not being able to meet and work with anyone in person.
By now many of us have normalized virtual calls and workflows, but I always prefer face-to-face collaboration. Not being able to get in a room or rehearsal space with my team was disheartening, but our inability to do so presented a very unique opportunity: We could hire people from anywhere in the world.
Our actors were from every region of the country. We hired background painters who were based in New York and Atlanta and our rotoscope animators both worked from their homes in India. Being virtual gave us the ability to bring on some established actors we had relationships with who would not have been accessible otherwise.
Virtual meetings also made access easier for everyone. No time was wasted in transit to an office space and if we needed to connect with another member of the team, it was rarely an inconvenience for them to join the conversation.
The greatest benefit is that, since everyone was working from home, we were able to ensure their safety from coronavirus transmission.
Storyboard created in Storyboarder.
Set yourself up to win through pre-production
Pre-production is the most important part of the process when it comes to animation, so we didn’t cut corners here. I recommend setting up weekly Zoom meetings with your core team to determine what responsibilities everyone will take on, track progress, and lend support whenever needed.
You’ll need a way to exchange files and update shared documents in real-time. We decided Google Drive was the best option for us, but there are other options like Dropbox or OneDrive.
I constructed rigorous storyboards using Storyboarder, a free software application that enabled me to set up 3D frames for every shot of the film. Then, I used Adobe Illustrator to make embarrassingly rudimentary floor plans for each set. I sent the storyboards, floor plans, and reference pictures to my lead animator, and he designed 3D renderings of the sets.
We wanted a textured, human touch so we sent the digital renderings to two artists who used acrylic paint to recreate every set piece on canvas. The artists shipped the canvases to me, and I took hi-res pictures of each painting, then used Adobe Photoshop to blend them with the digital versions, creating what you see in the film.
Kitchen set piece painting blended with 3D image.
Develop a meticulous workflow, and follow through
The biggest challenge we faced was figuring out how to capture the performances we needed. There are eight actors in the film and, for safety, none of them could ever be in the same room. To complicate things further, the actors would have to find a way to shoot in their homes by themselves or with the help of a willing family member.
One thing going for us is, because of the pandemic, is that many actors have solid backdrops in their homes for video auditions. That would make it easy for our lead animator to key them out in post. (One actor was in quarantine alone, so we hired a local DP to shoot with her outdoors while staying six feet apart.)
Set ups for (l to r) Haley Webb, Zainab Jah, Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine, and Rusty Schwimmer.Credit: Quincy LedbetterFortunately, some of our actors had partners who were DPs or were adept filmmakers in their own right, so it was easy for them to understand and capture what we needed.
The parents of our four child actors shot their performances on whatever smartphone they had on hand. We gave them guidance on how to select the proper resolution and shared the storyboards ahead of time so they could match the framing we needed.
Setups for (l to r) John Isaac Small, Colt William Hager, Spencer Moss, and Terrance Broughton, Jr.
After every three to four takes, we had the actors upload the files to Google Drive so we could review, note adjustments, then cycle repeat until we had everything we needed. We made sure to get solid takes at every possible eye line so we had our bases covered when compositing everyone into scenes together.
You can’t have a good film without good audio, and we wanted to ensure that we maintained a level of consistency across everyone’s performance. For the actors who didn’t have their own equipment, we put together an audio kit that consisted of a lav mic and the accessories needed to plug into whatever smartphone they were using. We would ship the audio kit to each actor along with return postage so it was easy for them to return when we finished shooting with them.
Zoom directing requires patience
I’m a hands-on filmmaker who thrives on getting my hands dirty, so directing actors over Zoom in the confines of my apartment created a distance that was pretty jarring for me. The way I overcame the awkwardness was to make it as close to my usual process as I could. What helped the most was transparency and patience.
We made it a point to have at least one virtual session with each actor to talk about everything from character to a rundown of our workflow. I made sure to be forthcoming about how tedious each session might be, but made it a point to show comradery and solidarity in the situation. We were doing something none of us had ever done before, and we were in it together.
Be ready for post-production all along the way
Our post-production began as soon as we started receiving footage.
After every shoot, I would select takes, do a rough mask around the actor, and drop them into the digital sets, which I already had laid out on a timeline in Adobe Premiere Pro. I would make adjustments or choose different takes to match eye lines and pacing as necessary. The end result was our entire film with the actors in these weird color bubbles that you see here.
Credit: Quincy LedbetterOnce all the performances were in place, our lead animator rotoscoped the actors out of their backgrounds and sent alpha channels to our rotoscope animators who developed an application called Cartoonizer, which enabled them to complete the animation in a fraction of the time.
Credit: Quincy Ledbetter
This should go without saying, but one area where you shouldn’t cut corners is for audio. Even with all of our preparation, there were still some major challenges in keeping audio consistent. (Rusty Schwimmer had to do her takes outside!)
Inconsistent or just plain bad audio will ruin an audience’s experience.
There is so much more that I could say about how we made this film, but I hope what I’ve gone over has been helpful. I like to be an open book, so if there are any other questions feel free to reach out. I’ll try to respond as soon as I possibly can.
Catch screenings of The Black Disquisition at festivals this fall.