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An Award-Nominated Short Animation Made with Photoshop

By Jenny Appleton and Charles Purdy

Robert Valley’s striking and poignant—and now Academy Award®–nominated—animated short Pear Cider and Cigarettes began as a graphic novel. But before that, it was a true story: the tale, hilarious and heartbreaking in equal measures, of Valley’s relationship with his charismatic but self-destructive friend Techno, and Valley’s attempt to save Techno from his own bad instincts.

Valley, who grew up in Vancouver, Canada, and has recently returned to live there after living in San Francisco and working as a freelance animator around the world, describes Pear Cider and Cigarettes as a blend of documentary and animation. The piece’s point of view is always Valley’s, and viewers meet Techno through his eyes when the two are seven or eight years old. “The film takes place over the course of about 25 years of our history together,” says Valley. “Not to say that we were together all that time, because there were long periods when we didn’t see each other. It’s about my life intersecting with his occasionally…and then everything sort of culminates in us spending a prolonged period of time together in China, where his drinking habits had led him to a bad situation and he was in desperate need of a liver transplant.”

image of man drinking a beer, illustration still from

Click to watch the trailer for Pear Cider and Cigarettes. The full movie is available to rent or buy via Vimeo—you can find it at the bottom of this page.

The piece’s focus becomes Valley’s months-long attempt to steer Techno away from his addictions and bad habits, and get him healthy enough to return to Vancouver—an experience that veers between dull, comic, bizarre, and frightening. Valley adds, “If I didn’t get Techno out of there, it didn’t look like I would get out of there, either, and I wanted to go home!... But having said that, going to China and spending the few months that I did with him—it was not fun, but it was good. I’m glad it happened that way, glad that we had this chance to reconnect.”

Pear Cider and Cigarettes unfolds like a confession, one you might hear from a road-weary stranger in a dark bar. The music, narration, and images combine in a pitch-perfect portrait. And it all came together in Adobe Photoshop—not the first choice of most animators, but a tool Valley has used to develop a unique animation workflow.

A still from Pear Cider and Cigarettes: an illustration of a man diving off a cliff

A still from Pear Cider and Cigarettes.

A STORY THAT NEEDED TO BE TOLD

Valley (pictured below) has lent his distinctive animation style to Æon Flux, Disney’s Tron: Uprising, and the animated band Gorillaz, among many other projects, including his most recent work, the music video for the Metallica song “Murder One.” But it was a major life event that pushed Valley to put Techno’s story on the page. 

A photo of Robert Valley

“I had the story kicking around in my mind for about four years, and on the night my son, Jackson, was born, I was sitting in the hospital room and thinking that I wasn’t sure whether I’d be able to work on my own projects after he arrived—I thought, ‘I’ve got to start getting this story down right now.’ And I wrote that whole story in a 12-hour period before Jackson was born.”

He didn’t begin further work on the script until another two years had passed—and although Pear Cider and Cigarettes first took shape as a graphic novel created in Photoshop, he always knew it would become an animated short—with the animation primarily done in Photoshop as well.

images from the graphic novel
images from teh graphic novel

Pear Cider and Cigarettes first appeared as a graphic novel.

AN UNCONVENTIONAL PROCESS FOR AN UNCONVENTIONAL TALE

The graphic novel’s panels served not only as a storyboard—Valley animated the Photoshop files themselves. But first, he created a cut in Adobe Premiere Pro: “I took all the panels in the book—which were already done in a video aspect ratio—and I put them on a timeline in Premiere,” says Valley. “That way, I was able to figure out scene length. I was just cutting it to music, and some of the songs that are still in the edit are some of the earliest songs that I cut the animatic to.”

When he was first conceiving the piece, Valley didn’t want a voiceover, but as he worked he decided that the story needed one. The result is the final animation’s dense audio mix of music and narration. (And Valley’s son can take credit not only for pushing Valley to take this creative leap but also for the perfectly gravelly final voiceover: Valley explains, “My son coughed in my mouth, and the next morning my voice was the way it was for the voiceover for the film. I don’t usually sound like that; it was a whole register lower. I was fully sick thanks to my son, but instead of being disappointed, I was like, ‘All right! I’ve got to find a place to record my voice quick!’”)

Valley had experimented with animation in Photoshop before, using it to complete a couple of pieces, including some Wonder Woman shorts for DC Comics. So he approached Pear Cider and Cigarettes with a plan.

“The point was to use the graphic novel frames as a way of getting down the production pipeline with the animations,” he explains. “Everything was set up in Photoshop, in layers, like traditional cel animation. I’d have background and foreground layers, with overlays and effects all separated out, and a letterbox aspect ratio. When it came time to start animating, I felt like I was already about 15 or 20 percent down the production pipeline.”

He continues, “I was looking into other programs to complete the animation, and then somebody pointed me toward Photoshop’s Timeline, and I was basically all over that, because it was a way of maintaining all the color profiling that I’d been laboring over, as well the noise filter, which I use quite a bit.”

(Learn more about using Photoshop’s Timeline in animations.)

Scaling and skewing allowed Valley to create sophisticated camera movement in scenes, and he made extensive use of Photoshop’s Smart Objects—which can have their own timeline within a scene’s overall timeline. Valley explains, “For example, say I already have the head moving and also want the mouth to move. I can just go into the [mouth] Smart Object and do the lip sync…and make that frame-accurate. You can introduce as many layers as necessary. It kind of eliminated the need for tracking bits of detailed animation on the overall shape. This is such a nice way of working.”

A final pass in Adobe After Effects to apply some minor lens distortion (on top of the perspective that Valley had drawn into frames) completed the animation’s look.

One of Valley’s most recent animation projects was the music video for the Metallica song “Murder One” (left). Before working on Pear Cider and Cigarettes, he experimented with Photoshop animation when working on Wonder Woman for DC Comics. (Click on the images to watch.)

A SURPRISE HIT

Valley has a long history of working with Passion Pictures and producer Carla Speller. He says, “She worked pretty closely with Jamie Hewlett on Gorillaz, so I've known her for about 20 years, and she was the person I wanted to work with because I was hoping that some of that Gorillaz mojo might rub off on this project—but not only that. She’s just the kind of person who can get things done.”

He says that Speller was invaluable as a sounding board and as someone who handled getting rights to the piece’s music, which Valley says was integral to the piece—22 songs, including Pink Floyd’s “Obscured by Clouds” and Black Sabbath’s “Into the Void,” as well as songs by the likes of The Dandy Warhols and Wilco.

Images from the short animation

The film was financed primarily through online fundraising, and its initial release was not promising, according to Valley. It failed to get placed in some festivals—even one in Valley’s hometown of Vancouver—that he had hoped to see it in. But the Academy Awards® were always in the back of his mind. He says, “One of the stipulations [for animated shorts] is that they be under 35 minutes. And if you look at the timeline, this film is exactly 34 minutes and 59 seconds long.”

When the long list of 70 films being considered for nominations was released and Pear Cider and Cigarettes was on it, Valley and Speller were naturally pleased. They got some nice emails and there was a spike in viewers. Then the shorter list of ten finalists was released—and their film was on that list, too.

“And we thought that was it,” says Valley. “I was in London with Carla [Speller], and we knew precisely when they were going to announce the nominees. And the two of us went off for a drink; it was about noon in London, and there were just the two of us sitting there.... And then they announced the nominees, and they mentioned the words Pear Cider—and overall it was just disbelief.”

Valley says he’s simply glad that the film is getting the attention it’s getting. About this Sunday’s Academy Awards®, he says, “It’s a pretty tough group of films to be competing with. To be honest, I’m happy that we’ve made it this far, and I’m not really looking beyond this.... That said, I would love to be able to take home an Oscar knowing that I animated this whole film in Photoshop.... It’s an uncommon methodology for animation, and I just think that would really cool.” 

Vimeo is offering Pear Cider and Cigarettes, to buy or rent. Click on the image below to learn more.