As I mentioned in a previous blog post, I did some storyboarding work for an animated sequence in the upcoming film “Howl.” The film opened the Sundance Film Festival, to wildly mixed reviews. Oscilloscope Pictures finally picked it up for distribution — the release date is Sept. 24. The film has been outfitted with a terrific poster (anchored by the distinctive font City Light Books used when they first published “Howl”), and a trailer is online.
The only bits of animation in the trailer are almost-subliminal glimpses, alas. I’m kind of dying to see how the final animation turned out.
I wrote a few paragraphs about the experience of working on “Howl,” for an interview with SNC’s Eagle Eye last semester. Here are my comments in full:
A friend of mine, Eric Drooker, was tapped to design the animation for the film, which looks at Allen Ginsberg’s famous Beat poem “Howl,” and the obscenity trial that followed its publication. Drooker and Ginsberg were friends, and Drooker had previously illustrated an edition of Ginsberg’s poems. Drooker is a cartoonist who specializes in wordless or “silent” comics, where the story is told purely through images — no captions or word balloons. That’s related to how we met; many years ago I did a comic in that vein, and approached him to blurb the book. He called me up, agreed to do it, and we hit it off from there.
At any rate, the film-makers were looking to Eric to design the characters and storyboard the animation (the movie mixes live-action recreations of Ginsberg’s milieu, with James Franco playing Ginsberg, and animation that seeks to give a visual interpretation to the poem). In a way, his work as a cartoonist already resembles storyboarding — that’s when an artist breaks down what the shots will be for a film, sketching out ideas for composition, camera movements, and so forth, so that when it’s actually time to shoot the movie, there’s a well-defined visual plan. On Eric’s first pass, the storyboard flowed well on paper. But once it was timed out to a reading of “Howl,” the timing seemed to move too slowly. Then, other animators were brought on to work out a more quickly paced storyboard, using Eric’s draft as a starting point.
I was one of those animators — I got the chance to take a whack at the third section of the poem. I worked up digital drawings that were emailed to the animation studio — I even worked out a rough “animatic” (which is basically a storyboard that’s timed out to the soundtrack, with some rudimentary animation from one shot to the next) in Flash. Because the poem free-associates from one strange image to the next, it was a very open-ended task. I took some images from Eric’s draft, and pushed them in other directions, and sometimes I just came up with images of my own (stemming, of course, from the text of the poem). The storyboard went through at least one more draft, with another animator, after I was done with it. At a certain point it seemed like no one working on the storyboard really “owned” any of the images — the images were just passed from one artist to the next, tweaked, digested, discarded, regurgitated. I haven’t seen any of the finished animation, and I have no idea if any of the scenes in my draft made the final cut.
“Howl” is a poem I’ve admired for a long time. Its incantatory vividness made an impression on me — I wrote at least a couple of bad poems in its shadow, back in the day. It was somewhat daunting trying to come up with a visual interpretation for such a famous, and such a self-sufficient, work. Ultimately, I felt it would be obvious that the animation was a riff on the poem, and not an attempt at a definitive encapsulation. The poem is singular and strange enough to resist any whiff of encapsulation. It was certainly the most enjoyable storyboarding gig I’ve ever done. I felt like I really got to inhabit that stanza of Ginsberg’s poem — it forced me to think it through, line by line. It was a chance to play in Allen Ginsberg’s mental sandbox for about a week.