INSIDE animating Oscar-nominated The Bread Winner with sequence animation director Lorraine Lordan
Lorraine Lordan is the sequence animation director for Oscar-nominated feature film The Breadwinner and assistant director at Cartoon Saloon in Kilkenny, Ireland. Here Mandy News sits down with the accomplished creative to find out how she found and pursued her passion for animation, the details of researching, prepping and animating The Breadwinner and what aspiring animators can do to succeed.
Where did your interest in animation arise from?
I was always interested in art and drawing. I grew-up in a small place, so I didn’t have a lot of influences. I really was that kid in the corner drawing, reading books and drawing from my imagination.
As I went through school, I was an average enough student but what I really wanted to spend my time doing was drawing. When it came to picking something to do for college, I picked art college; but because I didn’t have anybody else who was interested in that, I didn’t really know how to go about that and I didn’t really have a very strong portfolio.
So I did a portfolio course and that’s where I met a group of really great people, who told me about animation. That was really formative and one of the people I met there was Nora Twomey. That friendship started very, very early.
I had always loved animated films, but I actually didn’t know what I was watching, I didn’t know that I was watching drawings. I met this group of people on our portfolio courses Nora said “I’m going to do animation.” When they explained it to me, everything fell into place. I was like “Oh this is what I’ve been looking for.” Once I had that decision made, I was very focused in that direction.
So when it came to The Breadwinner, how did you get involved?
Well I had been working with Cartoon Saloon for many, many years. With animation you kind of come and go from a company as projects come-up but because it’s a very changeable industry and you’re always looking for the next job. So I had worked with Cartoon Saloon for Secret of Kells and The Prophet.
Before The Breadwinner, I had been the animation director on season two of Puffin Rock. So, I went straight from Puffin Rock onto The Breadwinner. I already had a very long, established relationship with the company and with many of the members who were already on The Breadwinner.
When you read the script how did it make you feel?
I didn’t read the script because I was sold on the story world. They very much only told me about the story of the story world. And I just thought this was really warm and it was really hopeful and I think that’s the whole point of the story. Because the real world is quite difficult if you stayed there for the entire film, it might just be a bit too much to take-in. But the story world gave us a little bit of time to process.
I just thought it was really warm. I really liked the idea of using the influence of Afghan storytelling, music and art. I’m so interested in the history and art of different places and always wanting to find out more, so that was an added appeal for me for this thing that I wasn’t really well informed on.
How did you start marrying these aspects and looking at the contrasts of the story world and real world?
The story of the real world kept on pushing stuff simpler and simpler, because we really wanted people to focus on the characters and their stories.
It really reflected the world because there’s a beauty to Kabul; it’s got a light and a vibrancy all of its own. And that was pictured in stark contrast to this dark story.
But the story world was where we got to have a lot of freedom and got to get away from that stark world. There was so much history and inspiration to draw on and we just tried to cram it all in there. There’s so much to look at and I think that gives you something to enjoy again and again – you’ll see something you didn’t notice the last time and I think that’s the mark of a film that you can keep watching.
There are some films that you can watch once and you’ll enjoy it, but I think that this is a film that you can watch again and again.
What was the software used on the film?
I think a lot of people in animation will be familiar with a software called TV Paint, which we used in the real world, which is very traditional software – you’re working in the same way you would with paper but just in the computer. You draw by hand.
The story world was more of a challenge; we did look into making it fully with paper. It’s such a laborious process and it’s so time consuming schedule-wise and the amount of people that would have been involved, made it a little bit prohibitive. So we looked into other avenues, we used Moho (it used to be called Anime Studio Pro). We’d been using that on Puffin Rock for seasons one and two, so we were familiar with that software and had a team of people already who knew it.
So we started delving into how we could make that work for the story world. We also worked really closely with Guru studios – they are based in Canada and were doing the compositing, so we did a lot of tests. We got some paper artists in and studied how they set things-up, used light and used the layering to build-up the depths of the scene.
We took all this information, went back to Guru and to the artists in Cartoon Saloon and really studied how we could replicate this. We started taking about; what grain is the paper? How close is the light? If we put this many layers of paper on top of each other, how much light actually sneaks through?
We really did a lot of research to try and get that look, so we could make what we wanted in the budget and the schedule that we had. It was a lot of research and I think we were very successful and I think if someone’s asking “is that paper, or is that computer?” Then I think we’ve done a good job.
What was the size of the team and how long did it take to make a piece of art like this?
Nora worked on the film for four years and I think she was on it right from the beginning. She would have been working with the screenwriter and trying to develop the script and then gradually artists would become involved. There’s a lot of development involved. Even though Parvana is not a real person, her story is based on an amalgamation of real people who went through this. So she really felt strongly that it was important to be true to the story.
Deborah Ellis, who wrote the book originally, went to refugee camps and heard the stories of real people and came back and wrote this book to highlight the plight of these people. So there was a real sense of responsibility to the people whose stories we were telling. Because of that, there was a lot of research to be done. There was very little reference available; there was no photographs allowed at the time of The Taliban, there were no videos, music was banned, art was banned, so it was very difficult to find references of what people were wearing, how they were acting and what the place looked like.
There was a very intensive period of research, we talked to a lot of consultants who talked about the etiquette of the culture. It would have been quite unusual even for men to have been physically close. Sometimes they walked with their hands behind their back, or hand on their chest – we really took a lot of notice of these details because we wanted it to feel authentic.
Another thing that we started very, very early on was the search for the voice cast. They put signs up around Afghan markets in Canada and said “we’re doing an open casting”. If you’re Afghan, or of Afghan descent, then we’d like to hear from you. They did get this amazing cast and they were able to bring their personal stories. Some of the cast DID escape Afghanistan during Taliban rule, or perhaps a father had, or a mother, so they brought a wealth of knowledge with them.
It was probably a year where all of this research was going on. And all this really fed-into the scripts, so if there was something in the scripts that didn’t feel right (“oh no, an Afghan man would never do that”), we took that on-board.
For animation, intensively it was probably about a year and a half. Especially with real world, you have rough animation and then you have clean-up, so you have two or three artists working on every, single scene, one after another. The story world was a little different because we built the pieces of paper in the computer and had an artist move all of them in the computer digitally, so they didn’t have to re-draw or re-colour things in the same way that they did with the real world.
So our timeline was a little bit shorter, I think we were about eight or nine months.
Where we saved time in animation, we actually put all that time into the compositing because compositing is where we took all that information from our paper artists; the light, levels, grains of paper and the texture and they applied all of that information and just did amazing work.
As the animation director, I was obviously very proud of the work my team had done, but the compositing team really shone a light on it and raised it to another level.
How does it feel to know the film is getting the recognition it deserves?
You’re always hopeful that you’re making something that will find an audience, but because The Breadwinner doesn’t fit what people expect an animated film to be we were hoping it would find its way to people who would really enjoy it.
I think you’re always nervous, anytime you make a film or a TV show, about whether someone is going to watch this and tell their friends to watch? That’s what you really depend on with an independent film. With a big blockbuster, you don’t need that word of mouth but with an independent film like this, you really, really do.
People have said that it’s very timely and it is but it’s a coincidence, because the film was being made four or five years before the movements that we have now of #metoo and things that highlight gender equality. It’s just something we’re very passionate about at Cartoon Saloon – Nora in particular.
At the end of the day, the story of an everyday hero appeals to everyone. There’s nothing really extraordinary about Parvana, except for the fact that she has found the strength and courage to face this really difficult situation at a really young age. Other than that, she’s really lucky to have been brought-up in a family where her father was a teacher and believed in education.
I think seeing someone seemingly small do something really big, is just inspiring for everyone. I think that’s the appeal for a general audience.
Any advice for aspiring animators?
I think if you were to ask anyone, they would just say “draw, draw, draw”. You have to really watch the world around you because you’re going to try and imitate that. Watching films that you like and finding out why you like them is a good thing and I think if you can find a mentor, even if that’s doing an online course, that’s really beneficial.
That’s an advantage people have today that I didn’t because I didn’t have the internet and wasn’t able to look things-up. It’s extraordinary to me that if I want to see how something works, I can look it up and see a slo-mo video on YouTube. When I started out, we used to video things ourselves – we’d throw water in the air and video it, to see how water moved. I think “try everything” is the best advice because then you’ll find out what really holds your attention and what’s really appealing to you. Sometimes it takes a long time to figure it out and there’s nothing wrong with that.
School is very important because the relationships I have built on and the people I’m working with today are the people I’ve met in school. I think it’s an amazing opportunity for growth. I look very fondly back on my college days because it’s where I found out what I truly wanted to do and doing what you want to do is what’s going to make you happy in the long run.