Okay, yeah, I know that’s a dramatic title, but animating with Beefy is so hard, his poor little legs are too short, and his back is too long. Which in hindsight is the same affliction as my family, we all have short legs and a long back. I’ve decided I’m happy enough with him as he is and its time to move on to the next character.
What is my animation going to be about anyway?
Every time someone asks me, “What’s your Masters about?” it changes. And at first, I was worried that this was a bad thing. now I see that it’s actually a good thing. This most recent update to this was this morning when I was asked and I really liked the answer I gave.
An animated investigation into the generational Romany ethnic identity of my family.
It feels more in line with what I am trying to research and say with my work.
This means I will need to interview my Dad again because I want to look further into the reasons why my parents moved to New Zealand. I would also like to talk to my siblings, and also to my own children to see how our relationship with our ethnicity has changed over these three generations.
I made this a separate post because while the look and feel of my characters are linked to the process of creating an animatic, it was important that this part of the creative process is held slightly apart (and so I can find it!)
What do I want to say?
After speaking with my supervisor Greg I really decided to lean into the creative process, and trust that the result would lead me in the right direction. by breaking my animated documentary down into segments I am able to dive right in, without becoming bogged down in the bigger picture, or what the whole piece might look like. I made myself the starting point, and over the course of a month I wrote down all the thoughts and feelings I had surrounding my research and my own identity as a Romany New Zealander. To the left of his paragraph is taken from musing I noted on my phone.
As well as more polished pieces that I saved to my online journal:
I used to think that only time and money separated me from England; the money for a plane ticket, and the time it took to fly there. In the wake of a global pandemic, I am discovering a complex and multi-sourced cause. A virus has stopped us in our tracks, caused borders to close, and government-issued orders to stay within your home. This virus has cut off our legs and prevents us from engaging with our neighbours, our friends, and distressingly, our extended family. This virus has caused many of us to reframe our perception of our world. Its taught us that the earth we live on is both smaller than we can imagine, and yet we are more separated than we ever have been.
The internet, this invisible highway, connects us in a way our ancestors could never comprehend. It’s been a tool that has reconnected us to the family we left behind. It has created a lens in which I can see the difference between the life we had there, and the way we live now. (A gilded cage, is still a cage) When my fathers family were corralled into a sedentary lifestyle, removed from their homes on wheels and funnelled into a housing estate, ‘for their own good’ he said it was like they had their legs cut off.
Any time we have our way of life removed from us, it causes feelings of resentment and anger. These feelings don’t go away overnight, they take generations to dissipate, and even then they leave us with this remnant of inherited trauma. When you belong to a race that has a longevity of the status ‘most discriminated’ ethnicity, it results in a lot to sort through.
All Romany are Rom, but not all Rom are Romany. Not all Romany are travellers; not all travellers are Romany. Sometimes I feel like I have to shoulder the responsibility of speaking on behalf of my entire race, which is ridiculous as it sounds. How can I speak for people I feel I am not a part? How much of this discrimination applies to me? How much of the negative media attention that being Gypsy garners causes me to suffer?
The short answer, as it applies to me right now is: It doesn’t; unless I open my mouth and tell people my heritage. The people who hear this are carrying around preconceived notions of what a Gypsy is. There are plenty of self-styled activists who claim to have our best interests at heart, and scream at the injustice, and start petitions and tell people who aren’t Us they can’t use the word Gypsy, that it’s a slur, which in a way I guess it was/is. And some of these people are Romany, or Rom, or traveller, and some are not. Some have only just rediscovered a link. And some of them I agree with, and others cause me to roll my eyes, but the one thing I can agree with is that no one should say anything without us.
But that term ‘us’ isn’t big enough to quantify our divisiveness, and not adequate to encompass the issues of each branch. It’s like we need a made-up word like Google, with infinity pages of o’s to contain the voices of us all, a people spread across the world, in places as unlikely to travel as this virus that has swept humankind.
After recording myself, and re-recording myself, I just couldn’t crack it. Although I knew the truthfulness of my message, I still felt it lacked authenticity. It was during this phase that I recalled the audio I took when my Dad wanted me to ghostwrite his autobiography (which is something I keep promising him I’ll come back too) So I listened to this again, really listened. The first thing that stood out to me was how annoying I was, I kept interrupting him and trying to lead him in a direction I thought would be good for a book, and because of this, I think I really missed valuable stuff.
I narrowed my vision down to focus on a part that I felt really spoke to the research I have been conducting surrounding the English governments forced sedentary action they took against the travellers. The following extract sent shivers down my spine, and I knew I had found my lynchpin.
“They moved us all into ex army barracks, which was Eeiry Camp, it was actually an old prisoner of war camp and still had all the old dungeons, and what they done was turn it into a dump. It was a massive great big dump that they were land filling, to be able to build on. So, while they were doing that, now you imagine, dump trucks coming tipping rubbish everywhere, and then they put us gypsies there (pause) next to a dump. (pause) and when I look back on it now, it was bloody disgusting.”
Setting the scene
The camp is murky, dark, black, the travellers have brighter clothes (but close to what they would have been wearing, not stereotype like the figure on the left. It’s 44 seconds, so it navigates some of the camp, showing how awful it was until you get the centre, where an old vardo is burning. My original intent was to portray a part of the story my dad told me of the last proper burial right, where a deceased Elder’s body is burned within their Vardo. Dad has a vivid memory of this happening when he was a child, but when I showed my Aunt, my first mood board, for animation she said seeing the vardo on fire sent shivers down her spine, as this is something the Gorger (non-traveller) would do to their homes in order to make them leave.
On reflection, this duality of meaning is a good thing, ensuring that the viewer reads into it something personal, with the hope that they take away something that stays with them.
My initial mood board was created before I had a solid plan in my head for what this sequence would look like, and the image in the centre is the one that resonated with my Aunt. I choose a blue, smokey ambience, offset with the orange and red glow of fire. I knew I wanted a backdrop of a rubbish dump, with a camp, sprung up around this, but I still needed to keep in mind that they were placed at a site that used to be a detention centre for Canadian prisoners.
From the few photos I had seen, and the description from my Dad a picture started to form in my head, one vastly different from the usual family stopping places. I still want to create my animation using 3D animation, but it is vitally important that I veer the visual aspects towards a tactile and textured landscape.
Due to my desire to create my own characters, I have begun to research children’s toys, and particular ways toys have been animated. Not the crips feel of Pixar’s Toy Story, or Warner Animation Group’s Lego Movies, I desire my animation to have a darker feel, more in the vision of the Quay Brothers, Henry Selick Coraline and the Czech film by Jirí Barta and Vivian Schilling Toys in the Attic.
A major theme that links these animations is stop motion, I think I am drawn to stop motion because of the strong link between the animator, and medium. That and its textuality. Creating my own characters allows me greater creative freedom to sculpt a cast best reflects the message I am trying to portray. As my sequences develop, so will perhaps my characters, giving them a mouth, and a voice of their own.
Rubbish Dump Gypsy is what I am naming my first sequence, I felt this a good reflection of the subtext, linking it to many people’s thoughts that Travellers are somehow dirty (which is an incorrect assumption). This is the first iteration of the animatic, my next step is to develop a more detailed storyboard, alongside working on the creating characters.
I labelled this ‘new direction’, which is a little misleading because I am not taking my research in a new direction per say, just redefining what it is I am focusing on, and the best animation aesthetic to achieve this.
My heart has stayed with 3D since I first discovered it, way back two decades ago, and this is a thing that hasn’t changed. But the sharp focus of modern 3D characters didn’t feel authentic, or able to resonate with the message I want my animated documentary to achieve.
After spending what felt like weeks considering what voice I wanted to use, and what story I wanted to tell I finally recalled an audio recording I made of my Dad a few years back when he asked me to ghostwrite his autobiography. It was in this audio I found the thread to pull for my first animated sequence.
To start, I narrowed down the 30 minutes recording, highlighting one segment that I felt really illustrated how my father truly felt about his family being forced into a sedentary lifestyle.
Scientific Racism: Catalyst of a sedentary lifestyle
I have found academic writing that comments on the Hampshire councils stance on travellers in the 1960s, and how they used ‘scientific racism’ in academia to support their opinion that Gypsy’s should not be allowed to continue living a nomadic lifestyle and that this way of life was damaging somehow to the youth in the camps. Writings by a woman named Dora Yates conducted what she felt to be adequate research by going amongst the Travellers on the New Forrest and judging for herself that the pupils of the local school were not of Romany blood.
This study directly affected my family, and their way of life. While this essay touched on what happened to the Travellers, citing their forced move to the mud floor huts, it lacks the personal voice of the Romany and their experience of this internment.
As a child my Father recalls this time fondly, remembering how enjoyable it was to be with other children his age, he speaks of one time when toys were donated to the camp, and the children could have their pick of what was in the wardens back yard. But on reflection, when he starts to explain how they lived, and where the camp was situated it became obvious he hadn’t considered how terrible the living conditions were, and how wrong it was for the government to decide this way of life was better.
The negative effects of forcing Romany into a sedentary lifestyle far outweighed any perceived rightness of the act. The work families relied on to feed their children dried up, with so many with the same skill set stuck in once place, this caused many to think creatively to provide for their families. For my Father, being a young boy, the reality of the situation was hidden from him, my Grandparents worked hard to conceal how hard this new way of life was. They did their best to ensure that their children felt safe and secure, while the reality was a stark contrast.
After cobbling together my 30-second sequence from my Dad’s story, I worked first on the sound design. I have learned over the years the this is an aspect of my work that I have neglected. With my Dad’s story being the central point I wanted to place the most importance on what the viewer will hear. It is from here that I launched my ideation of the look and feel. I knew that I wanted to use 3d animation, but not in a conventional way. I want my film to tactile, and grungy in a way that reflects the ex-prisoner of war camp my family were moved to. I want to capture the despair of having autonomy over your life taken from you, while also capturing the closeness of family ties.
It was fairly obvious to me, that from this point on that I could not rely on any of the 3D character rigs I have available to me. (both paid and free rigs) I need my animation to maintain its authenticity, and to do this I will need to create all the characters within it. Above is the first iteration of my Romany family, based on photos of family members. to capture this textural landscape I want all the characters to have the feel of a hand made toy, something that Romany children might have made and played with.
Faceless doll inspiration
I am investigating the idea of dolls without faces, my reasoning for my characters in this sequence having no mouth is symbolic of having their voice taken away from them. These travelling families had no choice but to move into the camps. The government worked systematically to close down stopping places until they were all funnelled into the same camps. There was no way for them to speak out against how unjust this was. Couple this with the general distant and mistrust of travellers they genuinely had no voice to counter the argument for the sedentary mandate. (I need to confer with my research and add some linking academic papers) The representation of Romany and Travellers still very present today, in social media, news media, entertainment, academia, and in our own homes. There is even misunderstanding within my own race, which is bound to happen when we have all be labelled under one umbrella term, despite our diverse histories which is why my characterisation here is so important.
I am looking at the history of dolls such as the Waldorf Doll, The Haudenosaunee ‘No Face doll’, Hayao Miyazaki animated character Kanoshi (No face) from Spirited Away, and Motanka, Traditional Ukrainian Doll as a foundation for my own no face doll.
From this, I have created my first character, Little John. This is the first iteration, I have run into several issues along the way, and with each version have created something closer to what I have visioned in my head. I have used a combination of Maya to create the base mesh, and Zbrush to create the textural detail. Using a combination of bump and displacement maps I can convey a layered, and complex character, that feels real, in the medium of 3D.
I still have a lot of characters to design and create, but seeing these first two have really filled me with joy and a renewed sense of purpose. I decided on reflection of my first iteration to include eyes with my Romany travellers. They are silent observers of what was happening to them. This was also an aesthetic choice, as having no ideas left me with an underlying sense of dread.
At this stage, I am working on rigging them with Rapid Rig, and ensuring I can animate them in a way that conveys the emotion that this piece needs. I’ll be back later to upload some animation tests. Below is the first test from Beefy before I changed the rigging structure. The new rig means I have greater control over this body, and means I can also animate this hat.