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.