POV: Why did you decide to animate Henry Darger’s paintings in In the Realms of the Unreal? And, together with the voiceover narration, were you ever worried that you were taking too many liberties with his work?
Jessica Yu: In researching the film and trying to immerse myself in all of the material Darger generated — the hundreds of paintings, the 15,000-page novel, the notebooks, the lists, the battle maps, the lyrics to songs — it struck me that in fabricating his fantasy world he had created the elements of a film. Not that he would have thought of it in that way. But I was impressed by how he had tried to come up with whatever he could to try to make his world more tangible, more alive. He had the narrative, visual and even some aural components, which I felt I could bring together in the film. The animation is primarily used to tell the story of Darger’s novel, In the Realms of the Unreal. In the beginning there is little or no animation, but as the story progresses and we know more about Darger’s life and the circumstances that may have informed the fiction, the animation grows more complex and alive as a way of bringing that world alive. I didn’t think of the film as a hybrid while I was working on it; it just seemed like using the various elements was the only way to tell the story as I saw it.
Animation stills from In the Realms of the Unreal.
It was not a decision I took lightly; I’m aware of the liberties, but it’s impossible not to take liberties in telling someone’s story, especially someone as isolated as Henry Darger. I took some inspiration from the fact that Darger himself was a phenomenally resourceful and imaginative person. It seemed like one had to be a bit more imaginative and resourceful oneself to do him justice. I didn’t want to resort to the kind of traditional biographical documentary where the experts analyze the artist’s work while the camera pans over static images. I wanted to create more of an imaginative experience, and by extension — hopefully — a more emotional one. The animation and narration serve that impulse. By exploring the richness of this fantasy world and the mystery of its creator I hope people will be inspired to seek out his work on their own, as nothing can replace the experience of seeing the paintings up close.
POV: How did you decide what to animate?
Yu: I tried to choose paintings that would help tell what happens in the novel, as well as represent the body of work as a whole. There are so many amazing paintings it was painful to whittle down the selection. I also chose works where there the action is clearly suggested, and luckily in many paintings Darger gives a great deal of direction. I was sometimes reminded of Hogarth, how he could tell the whole story of a town in one engraving. With Darger, there are lots of little dramas within the paintings, some of which are straightforward, others cryptic. But in most cases we were able to connect the dots — which girl is shooting at what soldier, what the flying blengin is alarmed by, how intense a storm is raging — and create a scene that was faithful to what was indicated in the original image.
In working with the animators I directed them to use only elements that were already within the paintings themselves. It made the process more complicated in some ways, but some of the animators were already Darger fans and everyone was very respectful of the idea. We also avoided cleaning things up. For example, if a figure had a paper seam running down his middle we’d leave it there as a way of indicating that it was still a painting we were dealing with. The work was extremely labor intensive, as many of the paintings are compositionally byzantine and separating the elements was a challenge. To animate one battle painting, an animator might have to create over 200 layers. Overall, the animation retains a two-dimensional quality, but I felt this served the spirit of the story better than a slicker approach.
POV: Can you talk about some of the techniques used in the animations?
Kara Vallow: Talented artist and animator Andrew Brandou and I spent many weeks testing and discussing different options for handling the animations. We considered everything from full or “Disney-style” animation to the most limited “cut-out” animation, like you see in South Park or Monty Python. We finally settled on a limited style of animation using the digital program After Effects. We presented this style to Jessica, who was excited about the possibilities that this program could offer in translating Darger’s paintings into moving sequences without compromising his original work in any way.
The animation for “In the Realms of the Unreal” was created by a small team of animators who worked on both Mac and PC platforms. The animators, who for the most part all had day jobs working in the television animation industry, worked evenings and weekends to get their sequences done. I personally was working long hours producing the television series Family Guy for Fox. We usually had meetings on Saturday or Sunday afternoons at Jessica’s home office in Glendale where we all became fast friends with her baby daughter, Ava.
The primary applications were Adobe After Effects 6.5 and Adobe Photoshop 7. The production was basically broken into two sections: the preparation of scans of Darger’s original paintings, and the frame-by-frame animation of the scene to a specified time. In most cases each individual animator worked alone, performing all the tasks for his or her scene and meeting periodically with the entire team and the director for critique.
Clean-up was, perhaps, the most time intensive aspect of the animation process of “Realms.” I hired a team of digital clean-up artists, many of whom I knew from network television projects. Scans of Darger’s paintings were taken apart. We lifted all the characters and elements off of the background and filled in the unpainted portions underneath. Once this was done, each individual element was broken apart and puppeted in Photoshop in preparation for animating in After Effects. On some of the larger shots, cleanup and final animation were happening simultaneously due to a large amount of character clean-up on some of the paintings. The final, clean elements replaced unarticulated placeholders as they became available.
The keyframe animation in After Effects was the more creative part of the production. With all of the elements in place, the animator could concentrate on the storyline that Jessica was requesting for a particular scene. Each character was animated frame by frame. Camera movements were added, and finally, effects were added to enhance the animation. One of Jessica’s many brilliant ideas was to have the animation in the sequences later in the film become more detailed, so we added more to the movements of the joints on the girls, the galloping horses, the soldiers firing guns and so on.
We had many revision sessions with Jessica over the period of two years, fine-tuning each movement and making sure everything flowed together. After the revision process the final versions were rendered at D1 resolution for editing in Final Cut Pro.
Overall, the animation process, although intensive and often maddening was an incredibly collaborative, enjoyable one for us all.
Kara Vallow (Animation Producer) runs Fox Television Animation in Los Angeles. She is the producer for American Dad and Family Guy.