An Award-Nominated Short Animation Made with Photoshop
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.”
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 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.
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.
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!’”)
“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.”
(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.
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.
“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.
February 22, 2017
Images courtesy of Robert Valley