Our Time’s film The Perfect Ice Cream has reached the final of the Charity Film Awards, but there’s still time to vote for us in the People’s Choice Award! Animator Owen Roach describes the intricate process of making the film and how it captures the voices of families living with parental mental illness.
Where to begin?
Anyone who’s worked in animation will tell you what a painstaking craft it is, just as anyone working in mental health will tell you about the complexities of discussing mental illness. Our Time’s animation project The Perfect Ice Cream brought together these two particular challenges.
I was lucky to receive a lot of help along the way, and I’m very grateful to the Our Time team, our focus group of young people, the voice actors, my sound engineer and everyone who contributed along the way. Each and every one of them played a crucial part in making the film happen.
For me, the biggest challenge was approaching the topic of mental illness appropriately and using my skills as an animator to convey the right message effectively.
As with most things it started with a simple idea.
We knew we wanted something aimed at 11 to 16-year-olds that challenged stigma and reassured young people who had a parent with a mental illness that they are not alone, highlighting the realities of their lives. We liked the idea that things are not always as they seem, and that we all have a responsibility to challenge our own misconceptions and stereotypes about mental illness.
During this process I watched a lot of animated and mixed media films – particularly those addressing mental health and mental illness or difficult topics – as a source of inspiration. This included hard hitting shorts like Chris Shepherd’s Dad’s Dead and Steve Cutts’ films, the work of other charities such as The King’s Fund, and the feature films of Cartoon Saloon (The Secret of Kells and Song of Sea being particular favourites of mine).
Our initial ideas solidified into six animation treatments – essentially loose story outlines – of which The Perfect Ice Cream was one.
Finalising the script
We took these treatments to our focus groups – mostly made up of young people with lived experience. We were keen to see what they thought of them: whether the exchanges and settings seemed realistic, the dialogue felt natural, and their typical concerns were addressed.
‘Ice Cream’ quickly emerged as a favourite among a few others, but this was just the start.
There is a saying in the film industry, that it’s difficult to make a good movie but almost impossible to do so from a bad script. A script is like the foundation of a house – if it’s rushed or flawed it can sink everything else.
What followed was a rigorous set of rewrites from the team based on the young people’s feedback to create a final script. I think it’s safe to say at least six distinct drafts were completed before everyone was happy.
Visual development and concept art
I began developing visuals before we had a final script for the sake of a faster production, and started by collecting scraps of art and illustrations for mood boards. As with the scripts, I showed these to our focus group of young people, asking which styles and characters were most appealing.
Then I developed rough designs for the characters in Ice Cream (Maria, Ollie and the unnamed boy) along with props and scenery, such as the ice cream van. You can see a few examples of this below which show this progression from basic pencil sketches, to colour experimentation.
Many of these early designs were dead ends, but I was keen to give our focus group a broad range of styles and approaches to the characters.
Eventually this led to the final designs you see in the finished animation.
You can see from the progression above how I consciously simplified the designs. Knowing I would be the lone animator (and from past experience), I wanted to strike a balance between characters that had personality but were also simple to redraw quickly, over-and-over again (more on that later).
The script provides the basis for the narrative, but a storyboard is needed to determine exactly what should be the focus of each shot and how something is shown.
I’ve collected a few examples below – you’ll recognise a few shots from the finished film.
While they can be time consuming, storyboards are a great way to spot problems with the flow of visual narrative before production and prevent hard work being wasted further down the line.
A firm decision I did make early on was to minimise my use of ‘tweening’. This means that instead of creating digital puppets, I drew movements frame by frame.
This can be very time consuming – and is the reason I simplified the designs earlier – but I feel it gives movement in the animation greater fluidity, while the slight variations in how characters are drawn each time create a sense of life.
With 34 shots in total and each containing dozens of drawings, this was where most of the hard work took place. And as the characters came alive, our actors Cristian Solimeno and Kc Gardiner gave them their voices.
Even with all the planning and care, it’s inevitable a film will be recut at least a few times during post-production. Not everything flowed perfectly initially and it took us a little time to get everything just right across sound and visuals.
Months of work finally boils down to a short film – it’s a process which is exciting at turns and frustrating at others. But seeing every part of production – from sketch to motion, from script to voices – come together to create the spark of life is a feeling like no other.
Thank you to everyone who was part of creating The Perfect Ice Cream, and for making it such a meaningful project.
Don’t forget to vote for us in the People’s Choice Award!