The discovery of the month for me. I usually don’t set space aside to write about short films, but the new Blank: A Vinylamation Love Story is a sparkling exception. For a limited run, the 38-minute stop-motion animation short will double bill with a revival of “The Lady and the Tramp” (1955) in time for Valentine’s week, between February 14-20 at the El Capitan Hollywood. Produced by Disney Interactive and sponsored by Google (it’s available for free download now), this anti-conformist message and fairy tale delight is the leading contender for next year’s Best Animated Short Film. I’ve sat unaffected in screening rooms to watch three hours of non-stop short films before, making it very tiring when you see consecutive mediocre ones. I know an outstanding one when I see it, and I’m elated by this one.
In a fantasy wonderland, unpainted vinyl creatures are born out of a factory, but hero Blank is accidentally overlooked and so is his counterpart soulmate Bow. Every other figure is painted to reflect personality traits, but despite the “individuality,” the society is straight-jacketed to inherent social roles. Blank teams with a Giant to search throughout the land for his love, falling into adventures of mountain climbing, hang-gliding, train-hopping, underground waterfall cavern discoveries and basic survival skills in an adventure that molds him into a free-thinker. He challenges the social system by teaching others the value of personal expression, by adding personalized color to their world. As the trailer suggests, “Love can give you color.” The film has a seamless stop-motion animation charm, much like “James and the Giant Peach” (1996) or the Wallace & Gromit pictures. Like the best of family films that embody a love story, it has a spiritual magic that equals a physical one. Everything from flowery fields to oppressive factories have a sublime physical texture. As eye candy, it ceaselessly charms.
I was so taken by the film that I visited Disney Online Original Studios to observe the production facilities and to meet the team that made the film, and will continue to make online films for a subdivision of Disney. The collaborative team of Michael Ambs, Paul Foyder, Regino Roy, Whitfield Scheidegger and Greg Shewchuk co-directed the film, which had much more humble beginnings.
“We originally created a three minute pilot that our Creative Director took to pitch to the division of Disney that produces Vinylmation toys. They loved the idea and felt that it was so in tune with their vision of the products that they ended up funding a 12-episode series,” explains Scheidegger.
The proposed series evolved into a short film. “We wrote it with slight cliffhangers or mysteries at the end of each episode. I think that’s why it naturally hooked you every five minutes or so,” said Roy.
“As we continued to shoot over the course of the 2nd and 3rd quarters of 2013, we realized that even though we wrote episodic hooks, that it might play better as a single 38-minute story,” continued Scheidegger. The film swelled into a sensation that left Disney blowing up the budget.
The film was shot on four sound stages, involved transformer set models, painted backdrops and meticulously handmade props. The team spent 162 total shooting days with a motion control camera made for stop motion and a primary 50-mm lens, amplifying props that are sometimes smaller than 4-inch diameter. Sometimes the crew would get 40-seconds done in a day, and other times less than 10-seconds, or occasionally have to scrap an entire shot if the painstaking continuity was defect. The team noted “The Wizard of Oz” (1939) and “Alice in Wonderland” (1951) as art direction influences. I always prefer these kind of influences as opposed to over-contemporized ones. Quick: Do Tim Burton’s stop-motion films tend to scare children instead of enchant them?
“We would spend an entire day constructing sets and models, experimenting with trains or factory smoke or snow effects, and sometimes chucking the storyboards we spent hours on because of new requirements,” noted Roy, continuing, “We had to tweak and add new story ideas at a very fast pace. We were constantly inventing.”
The lighting on the soundstage is remarkable, if deceptively simple. “We used IKEA cabinetry lights, smaller incandescent light sources. One of the coolest effects we did was with the sun which was achieved by using a glass globe and various gels to color it,” noted Scheidegger.
Divisions, formerly DigiSynd and Take 180 before they became singular Disney Interactive, will continue to work on new projects. “Cranes in Love” is already completed and available on GooglePlay. As for the continued adventures of Blank and Bow, public reception will decide on their future. They could become the new It duo like Mickey and Minnie Mouse, or Wallace & Gromit, or if it ends on this one remarkable film, that would be OK. But for sake of Disney Interactive, they should continue a Blank and Bow series, which will endear the audience it finds. Here’s a talented team that continues to create around the clock. I implore everybody to take note of who they are. “Blank: A Vinylmation Love Story” is a terrific career beginning, and I foresee them making a smash hit one day.
For now, Disney Interactive plans to continue short features like this to play on Disney.com, Disney’s YouTube, and Disney connected TV apps. To me, “Blank” works as both a laptop film and as a big screen visual extravagance. Below is the YouTube trailer.