Worldbuilding in Animation: 1. Breaking down the source.
Hi! I'm an art director and designer from Amsterdam. I've spend most of my time as a professional artist the past decade on creating set design for animation features and series. In this article series I'd like to explain a bit what I do, which I hope will prove insightful for those (starting) in the animation industry in any designing capacity.
Design a whole iceberg, not just the tip.
Good set design goes much deeper then just painting pretty backgrounds. The way I'd like to work on creative projects is to think of the film, series or book illustrations as being a window into another world with it's own rules, mechanics and quirks.
Example of a map I made for the animated series Fox and Hare (Submarine, 2017-18), detailing how the characters different home locations mesh together cohesively with an inner logic to it.
I prefer to approach set design as world design. And worlds you build by trying to think of the fictional world of a intellectual property as if it were real. So I make maps and schematics of the places the characters in these films and series live. And sometimes I write style and production bibles to further explaining how the world translates into visual rules.
Example of world building I've done for the Dutch television feature animation 'De Tand Des Tijds' (Ka-Ching Animation 2018) Not only the different locations in the film need to be designed but also the town as a whole in this case.
Part 1. Breaking down the source
My work usually starts with reading the script or synopsis, making some notes about the world and places described. More often then not, there is already some visual material present. Either illustrations of the original book/comic/ etc the script is based on, or there is already been done some concept art in an earlier stage of development. It's my duty to take this in, see what works, and what needs to be changed to work in the medium of animation.
Case Study - Victor Veggiestein
Original promotional image from the book release.
The case study for this article series is the 2009 children's / young adult novel 'Victor Veggiestein' written by Patz van der Sloot. A funny and weird story about a youthful inventor called Victor who finds a way to bring vegetables to life to feel less lonely with the help of the stuff left behind by his deceased grandfather.
Back to the drawing board
A few years ago the book was adapted in treatments for an animated feature film for which the animation studio GRID animations in Gent did some visual development. This didn't work out for various reasons, as sadly happens quite often in the animation industry. But interest in the IP (intellectual property) remains strong, so I was asked, in 2021 to do some visual development and world building. The idea to make this a better proposition is by going back to the original source – the book – and see if the rich setting might great potential to be a series rather then a movie.
This is the description in the book (in Dutch) where Victor finds the secret laboratory of his grandfather under the garage. In the top part I find some practical information – that there is an assortment of weird and old instruments present in this basement. But the second part I find much more of interest – where Victor describes what this place means; a much more exciting place where his grandfather had the kind of grasp on life he might not had in other aspects of his life, a feeling Victor is struggling with on his own. This plants seeds in my head how to approach this place visually later on..
While reading the script or book I'm hyperaware of any descriptions of the locations the story plays out. I try visualize an image in my head of what I get from the author of how this world works. But I also simultaneously try diverge a bit from what I was given with what I personally think would work best.
While reading the book I got an immediate sense of place I sketched out very roughly in my notebook (see above). Victor lives a big house his grandpa bought and they moved into after his death. The setting of the book strongly reminded me of my time working in an old 19th century villa on the edge of the woods in the Dutch town of Hilversum. And I'm convinced that when visually developed properly this makes the IP stand out in the (animated) series market. Much more then the standard American suburban or urban setting, at least. Just like how the storytelling and sensibility of this IP are not standard kiddie fare. These are the kind of challenges that get my creativity going.
Look at existing material.
The animation studio GRID who worked on the film development made the creative decision to set the story in an Amsterdam-like setting instead of the suburban setting I found in the book. It's important for me to take in all routes and diversions that are already been taken with the source. See what might work in these explorations and what not. It makes it easier to set out a new path as a designer.
Going back to the original book this setting seems really restricting (dense housing all around). Much more then a sparsely populated neighbourhood where there is space for the unexpected. I'll go into more detail on this on the next installment.
And so onward..
So when the source is read, the existing visual material (if any) is been seen and I've done my own analysis the next step is to plan a conversation with the writer or director. In this conversation I have to probe their minds on the places and images they see in their heads in order to start visualising, but that's the topic of the next article in this series.
Thanks for reading and I hope to see you again!