Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Bob and Bradly's Charmin' Tale

Bob Blevins and Bradly Werley are Portland based animators who have created an undoubtedly original film, T.P.   As Bob describes it, "The film is a gut wrenching drama about a roll of toilet paper who is born into a dirty gas station bathroom, and must struggle for his destiny to unravel differently than his traumatized predecessor."

Told you it was different.

Bob further explains, "It started between two bedrooms and a kitchen in San Francisco, and wrapped in a garage in Portland. Some very gifted people have been helping us out, including veteran voice actor Bob Bergen, the official voice of Porky Pig."

Having recently wrapped production after three years of production, they have launched a Kickstarter campaign to help us raise funds for the post production costs. Bob and Bradly, a.k.a. WerleyBob Pictures, talked to FLiP about their ambitious project.

FLIP: What possessed two young guys get into the very limited field of stop motion animation? 

Bob: It’s a hard question to give a concise answer to. A simple, but honest, response is that this was something I loved to do, and there were people in the world getting paid to do it. It then just became a question of why them and not me? While the field of paying stop motion work is very limited, so is the pool of people who continue to pursue the craft. While the field for 2D and 3D CG work is very large, there are many more fish swimming in that pond. I figured it was going to be a struggle for most people to find their place regardless of the medium they worked in, so I might as well do what I love.

Furthermore, animation is the craft, and you have an array of tools at your disposal. Once T.P. is complete, I’ll have a lot of free time, and I intend to learn how to utilize other tools as an animator, i.e. that computer thingy. If the practice of stop motion does anything, it hones your discipline and focus as an animator, and while it would be a significant adjustment, I don’t doubt that once my work ethic is bent towards the task of learning CG, I can become proficient in it, and hopefully bounce between both worlds successfully.

Bradly: As a child, I developed an instant appreciation for stop motion animation because of its tangibility. We’re dealing with physical characters that writers conceive, artists design, fabricators build and animators breathe life into. It’s a fascinating process of filmmaking, one in which I’ve made a long and worthwhile journey to be part of because I love every aspect of it. It’s a medium that has granted me the opportunity to express my true ideas as a filmmaker, and share my art and stories with the world. Because of it, I’ve gotten to travel, teach, meet, and work with amazing professionals, and form collaborations geared towards providing the world with original artwork. It’s the ultimate dream medium that has enabled me to do what I love to do as a career. I’m incredibly grateful for this, and although it’s been a crazy journey with a ton of challenges, I feel I’ve done well to make this field my home. And if nothing more I always kept in mind that we were making our own movie. Seriously what could be more exciting?

FLIP: How did the story of a roll of toilet paper become the one you would pursue? Was this a bar bet?

Bob: I had my first conception of the story about six years ago in a deliberate effort to think of a unique idea for an animated short film. I think inanimate objects are a great place to start in the search for appealing characters, since they demand animation and immediately offer distinct personalities based on their function and likely experience. I thought a roll of toilet paper and other thinking, feeling, speaking bathroom objects was just inherently funny, and something every single human being in the world can associate with.

Years later, when Bradly and I sat down to decide what movie we were going to make, I described my story, for which I had no artwork, and he showed me the artwork of a character for whom had no clear story. We went into separate rooms for a few hours, and when we came out he had drawn designs for all the characters I had described, and a funny plunger character who then was written in as the main antagonist. I had written a story for his character, but it quickly became something far too long and elaborate for us to actually make, so we went ahead on T.P.

Bradly: When I first met Bob, we both shared a similar desire to make the movies we wanted to see, and to share our characters and their stories with the world. After exchanging ideas, it became clear that we had to focus on a story that we could make into a short. I read what Bob had written for T.P. and instantly found myself being able to relate to the main character. His story was one of perseverance, and I found this to be fitting because at the time we were both very much leading that life. As a visual artist, I could see these characters so vividly in my mind and almost immediately began drawing what I thought they’d look like. It was essentially a perfect union. Although we both had other ideas, it became very clear that T.P. would be the film to make because it begged the ultimate question…how had this film not been made before?!

FLIP: What should an audience expect from this film? Who is your audience?

Bob: An audience should expect more than a grotesque series of poop and fart jokes. They should expect to identify with the personalities of these characters and the human difficulties of their lives. Some of these characters are full of regret, some are poisoned with envy and cowardice, some have ambitions beyond what their societal caste is supposed to allow them, and some are just bat-shit crazy. There are lots of people like that in our world. Over time we eliminated a lot of the edginess from the humor in an effort to make the film accessible to all audiences. I recently showed the story reel to a friend, who shockingly remarked, “I would definitely let my kids watch this!” In fact we tried to follow the Ren and Stimpy model. Funny and gross, but appropriate enough for parents to allow their children to watch it, and even encourage them to watch it so they have an excuse to see it again themselves.

Bradly: Our audience should expect to see a great film. It’s a truly funny, heartwarming story with a very fitting look. When we mention the idea to people most react with a laugh or a sincere smile, and when they see T.P.'s big baby blues, they can’t help but go, “Aw, he’s so cute!" Yes, the story deals with toilet paper rolls, a toilet, a plunger and a couple of greasy mechanics, but its told with taste and humor that both adults and children will love. The look of the characters has never ceased to lure the curious eye and the animation will surely dazzle, but when our audience views our film, they will realize that this was a story that needed to be told.

FLIP: Did you deliberately set out to make a film that would be a hard sell? Or has it not been so?

Bob: I don’t think we thought it would be a hard or easy sell. We know there are people who will immediately turn their nose up to the very concept, but screw them. Things aren’t always what they appear on the surface, and anyone who gives this film a chance will see that it tells a very human story, and has many positive themes that would be beneficial to anyone, especially to children who haven’t yet had their spirits crushed by the weight of the world.

We have encountered difficulty with people making assumptions about what kind of movie it will be, because people instinctively want to know what category to put things in right away. Overall though, we don’t care whether it’s a hard sell or an easy sell. We’re making our own movie because it’s something we wanted to see exist in the world, and if we don’t do it no one will. We don’t have to organize our story around prospective demographics and market research. We can just make our little movie and hope that the people who see it understand our intent, and that it builds a reputation based on its merit as a piece of entertainment.

Bradly: Let’s be clear, this is not just a film about poop paper. The design of the film was consciously chosen to be visceral and at times downright disgusting, but only to compliment the story’s setting. The characters are very well written and the idea itself appeals to most upon introduction. The design of the characters was chosen in a way that could make even the antagonists somewhat loveable because first and foremost, T.P. is meant to be a funny film. I think some folks hear the word toilet and instantly shut off, but that’s okay. Perhaps this film just isn’t for them. We made the film we wanted to make and I’m proud of that. The biggest critique, “self critique”, is over now. I genuinely believe that the majority will love T.P. because so many will be able to relate to it. Our audience will be pleasantly surprised to know that T.P.’s story unravels well beyond potty humor.

FLIP: How did the work experience on TP compare with studio work? Was is the same process, or did you find ways to streamline?

Bob: Well, my experience in studios is currently limited to Cinderbiter (Henry Seick's production company), where I was a P.A. and the only animating I did was on test stages for myself, and on Mad God as a volunteer assistant. Both of these were excellent learning opportunities that greatly improved my personal work. Since production on T.P. wrapped, I’ve been sending out reels, and just got hired to work on a feature stop motion film. So long answer short, I’m about to find out what the differences between the two experiences are, and I’m especially eager to find out what it feels like to have someone pay you to animate puppets.

Bradly: I feel very fortunate, because my versatility as an artist has granted me the rare, but exciting, opportunity to travel through different parts of the stop motion process. I’ve been able to teach animation for MECA and AAU, assist and fabricate puppets for Cinderbiter and Phil Tippett’s Mad God, and now I’m fortunate enough to work under the guidance of my production design hero, Nelson Lowry, and Laika’s art department. Almost all of these experiences provided so many ways to make my contribution to T.P. the best that it could be.

When making your own film, it might just be you and a handful of others. When part of a studio, one is able to see the inner workings and dynamics of vast collaboration. The notion that so many visionaries are working together to achieve a common goal never ceases to amaze me. I’ve always tried to bring that energy back to T.P., and I believe as a result we were able to construct a brilliant team of artists to work on our own film.

As far as streamlining, it usually takes a feature film studio 3-4 years to make a stop motion film. It took us three and a half as two dudes and a handful of others to make a ten-minute short. These films take a long time to make, and the struggle can be challenging, but I’d be a fool to say our journey hasn’t already led us to incredible opportunities.

FLIP: Has your film had any reaction from Henry Selick or the Laika folks? How about Mom and Dad?

Bob: While I was there, and despite his crazy schedule, Henry was nice enough to critique my demo reel. My Mom and Dad are the coolest people ever, and they’re extremely supportive. When they came out to visit Portland, they even sat down to critique our story reel, and had great suggestions for places where we could make the story more concise and effective.

Bradly: We were also very fortunate to have the support of Nelson Lowry, the production designer for Paranorman and Fantastic Mr. Fox, among various other amazing titles. After contacting him and showing him our initial Kickstarter campaign, he even contributed to our fundraiser, becoming one of our biggest backers! There is a huge motivation to having such professionals believe in your work, but there are tons of folks to thank for helping us get as far as we have. First and foremost, I wouldn’t be anywhere if it wasn’t for the support of my mom, step-mom, dad and all the other prominent role models in my life. Bob’s parents were a huge help in assisting us with making the story tighter. All around, it’s just been a great collaborative effort.

FLIP: What did you learn from this that you would not have learned from your studio work?

Bob: Even without having started on my first paying animation job, I feel I can answer this, because there’s a huge difference between being a crewmember in a department with a specialized task, and having to wear all the various filmmaking hats on your own project. We were fortunate enough to attract an awesome volunteer crew to help when they could, and handle areas of production we would not have been capable of addressing ourselves.

For example, we aren’t voice actors, but we found our super talented and generous voice actor Bob Bergen, who agreed to do the project for the bare minimum the Screen Actors Guild would allow. However, I still had to write letters of appeal to the guild to get a waiver for us to contract Bob under their low budget short film agreement, since animated films normally fall exclusively under their basic codified agreement(which is much pricier), and the process took many weeks. I managed to blunder through all that paperwork, Bob Bergen went to bat for us, and ultimately we were granted a waiver.

After that’s done you still then have to take a trip to L.A. to direct the recording session, go through hundreds of voice clips to select the stuff you want and edit it into the story reel, bring the dialogue into your software and break it down phonetically, set up your lighting and plan camera moves if there are any, and then you can start planning the shot on your x-sheets and working out the performance. All of that stuff is just a few examples of the things you have to learn to do as you go, and do the best you can, because there’s no time to become an expert at everything during a single project.

Bradly: I’ve learned a ton working on this project that I don’t think I could have gained from a studio. There were plenty of opportunities to gain more experience to become a better artist and I think this is what I am perhaps most grateful for, just the ability to grow. I learned what it’s like to be a leader, and an overseer of particular departments of the stop motion process, and what it means to schedule and assign tasks. I think above all though, I learned what it means to be part of a team and do whatever it takes to make the art we wish to share with the world. There were tons of obstacles to overcome, both personal and professional, but we always managed to keep carrying that ball. If one dropped it, the other picked it up and we still haven’t stopped running and won’t stop until we reach the end zone and T.P. is up on that big screen. And trust me, he will be!

FLIP: Will there be more indie projects from you guys? Could you be the Farrelly Bros of animation?

Bob: You never know. I don’t think either of us are eager to make another stop motion movie in the garage anytime soon. In a perfect world, T.P. will be a huge indie hit, and some rich angel will want to throw money down from the heavens so we can turn WerleyBob Pictures into a proper studio where we collaborate with a crew, pay our bills, and save for our futures by making our own movies. It doesn’t hurt to dream, but as of now I am eager to grow as an animator in a professional studio, around many talented artists who are working cohesively towards a singular vision. As far as being the Farrelly Bros of animation goes, I don’t think that would be us. I think we would rather be the WerleyBob of animation, and have that actually mean something one day. 

Bradly: I think at this point, I’m just very excited about my current position with Laika and I’m curious to see how I may develop and grow as an artist during my time there. I remember having this conversation with Bob way back and bringing up this very idea of folks wanting to be the next Walt Disney or George Lucas. As much respect as I have for all those that have come before us, I have only ever wanted us to be ourselves, tell the stories we want to tell, create the characters we want to create and make the films we want to make. After three long years working out of apartments and garages (which, I won’t lie despite the hardships, I’ve always thought was sort of avante garde and a little bad ass) it is time for us to focus on our personal careers and grow even further in our respected crafts. However, if we do ever decide to make more films together there is no doubt in my mind that WerleyBob Pictures will be a studio folks will not forget.

Check out Bob and Bradly's Kickstarter page here:

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