Making films sure ain’t easy. Making films while working full time as an animator at feature animation studios? Less so. Tough production schedules haven’t stopped the filmmakers at Side Films from creating some truly dark, twisted and imaginative short films that explore themes and tones quite different from the ones they see in their day-to-day jobs. We interview feature film animators Rani Naamani, Carlos Puertolas, Nedy Acet and Nelson Brown about their films, their process and the lessons they’ve gleaned from the world of live-action filmmaking. 

The four of you are character animators working in feature animation at major studios. What got you interested in making live action films and how did you get started?

RN: Carlos and I were looking at a clip from either “Shaun of the Dead” or maybe “Hot Fuzz” and we loved the way they edited together those quick closeups – the jam on the sandwich and all that – so we thought we should try to replicate that, just for fun. We started by making just little edits and it gave us instant gratification. We realized how much fun you could have and how quick the results are.

At what point did Nedy and Nelson get involved?

NB: These guys had done a few projects, but I think “Mr. White” was maybe the first one I was on. Bailey Brent (animator) and I played thugs in that one. I had been doing some of the Improv classes at PDI and I think that’s how you found out that I liked to do some acting. I also sat in Carlos’ cube, so I heard all the talk about the side projects and pitched in when I could. One of the big reasons I got into animation in the first place was because I like acting. I always liked to do theater. It’s something I always have fun with. I like playing pretend, I guess. So, any opportunity I get to do that, I jump on it.

NA: At the time, I saw the film you made called “Cory’s Story”. I saw that what they did was something else than just animation, so I wanted to try. Basically I told them, “I want to be part of it” and they said “OK, what can you do?” They needed makeup for “Mr. White” to rough up JSG (Jason Spencer-Galsworthy, supervising animator), so I watched some videos and did the makeup on that short.

Sounds like things started off small and quickly escalated. Walk us through the evolution of your filmmaking efforts.

RN: Things evolved based on what we wanted to do next. So, when we had an idea and were excited about it, we figured out what we needed to make it happen. At the time, we were into cameras and I really have to give Carlos credit for staying on top of the latest and greatest equipment. In terms of the stories, it very quickly became something that was a creative collaboration between the four of us. We would all pitch in to make every idea as entertaining and solid as possible. There was a lot of back and forth with ideas until we were confident enough that the idea worked, which in turn made us comfortable enough to spend more money on the equipment.

Everything from the character count, to environments, to makeup and sound design, it just kept adding up. It was one of those things where practice makes perfect. We filmed a little clip and used simple sound effects, then we tried something more complex and before you know it, things were getting pretty elaborate. But we were also getting more comfortable with the complexity.

NB: With each one, we picked a challenge out of the gate, a technique that we could practice and try out – whether it was the quick cuts or the slow motion. You built something around that.

RN: And not everything was a success. There were a couple of projects we just never finished because we weren’t happy with the image quality, sound quality, or edit. Obviously, we’re not gonna post something we’re not happy with.

So you built your stories around the techniques you wanted to learn or test out. Was there something from a story standpoint that you all were drawn to?

NA: Well, I think that Rani and Carlos especially are just weird people. [Laughs] There’s some crazy, scary stuff. That’s what they’re attracted to. There’s also the element of surprise. You either trick the audience or surprise the audience at the end.

RN: I don’t think we really delved much into deep arcing themes, because the films were so short. Sometimes we developed a short film because we were getting great images from a new camera we got, so we wanted to test it out. Other times we had a good story idea for an ending and really wanted to share it. One of our shorts was created simply because we had a character whom we thought was interesting. Whatever the spark was, it was all about developing that.

You’re all professional animators at feature film studios. How did you find the time to shoot these films?

NB: We didn’t sleep. [Laughs] I’d like to say that these things were tightly scheduled, but since we’re not professional live action filmmakers, sometimes I think we just committed before we knew what we were getting into. “This should only take a Saturday” turned into “Saturday/Sunday…and we’ll finish shooting next weekend.” At least for myself, even though it took up time, it was a nice release. It’s weird to say that working on something like this can be relaxing, but it’s nice to do something creative outside of work. It energizes you. It’s easy to get tunnel vision when you’re just focusing on your job.

NA: I think it’s also because you learn something. You see the progress every time you do something. It pushes you to do more and try new things. If you don’t learn something every time, then don’t do it.

How do you think your films have informed your day to day jobs?

RN: Making these short films helped us in so many ways. For one, it’s a nice creative balance. They’re very dark in tone, whereas a lot of the films we animate in our day job are tailored more towards the younger audience. It also makes you more patient when it comes to production changes. Feature film animation is so elaborate and detail-oriented, that you spend all your time trying to sculpt one moment and don’t get a chance to see the bigger picture. So when a production change comes your way, you may not understand why it’s necessary and that can get frustrating. When you make a short film, you get a chance to dabble with all the different elements that make up your story. So you get to see things from different perspectives and therefore your general “context template for film” grows.

Making short films helps us focus on the specifics of an animated performance while being able to gauge from where a note is coming from and why. 

It also helps you understand what kind of camera lens, staging and editing works best for any given moment. For example, if you have a very wide lens and you’re shooting an extreme closeup, your character is gonna look goofy. So you might want to avoid using this type of lens if you’re shooting a serious moment. It all factors into your thought process and allows you to make more informed decisions. It also shapes how you talk to people from other departments. Since you’ve experienced their work firsthand, you can better see things from their perspective.

What about on a performance level? Does it change how you approach a shot?

NA: That reminds me of when we were doing “Call Back”. We were trying to pose the actor like he was an animation rig. It’s not like that in real life, but we were doing that.

NB: It’s really tempting for animators to direct as if they were posing a character rig.

RN: We spent a lot of time staging and posing every shot. It was just the mindset we had while producing the short, since we’re all animators. As we got into the production of “Call Back” we found a groove which works for both sides. We would give the actor a few takes where he could deliver his own interpretation. After that, we would get our takes and what we thought would work best for the overall story. That said, it’s tricky for animators not to over-direct.

CP: Doing the short films, you can get away with a lot more stuff. In animation, you can get caught up worrying about how much each shot hooks up with the next, but then you do a live action short film and half of the things don’t hook up at all and nobody realizes. Trying to do any physical shots with the actor, even super simple things like take a few steps here or do this or that, it was really hard. We had some trouble with the actor, so we ended up swapping him out with Nelson in a lot of shots and because he was an animator, so he understood the directions we were giving in terms of movement and weight and so on.

Would you recommend anyone working animation should make a short film?

CP: The amazing thing about doing a live-action short film is that you get this instant gratification. You film it and it’s there. Sure, it’s a different process, but coming from animation you have a pretty good innate starting point for when you approach live action. When we first started we were surprised that we could actually bring over some of the things we had learned on the job in animation over to live-action.

Likewise, the other way around, after we started making those live action films, we started to notice that certain things didn’t matter as much. Sometimes I ask myself, “If I was making this shot in live action, will this finger matter at all?” No, it wouldn’t matter. You wouldn’t give an actor a note about a finger because what matters about the shot is something else.

What’s on the horizon for Side Films?

RN: We’re itching to do something new and we’ve got a few ideas on the back-burner. Since we all just moved down to Los Angeles, we’ve been focused pretty heavily on “Boss Baby”. In any case, the idea has to get to a point where it has a solid beginning, middle and end for us to be confident enough to film it. That will likely happen once we’re all settled in and “Boss Baby” is over.

CP: They’re screening one of our older short films here at DreamWorks at an upcoming festival on campus, so we’re pretty excited about that.

RN: We love the idea of making films. We’re dealing with all the elements we love to deal with – story, character development, etc. Every time we film a short, it’s really gratifying. We have ideas that are simple, but if there’s one thing we’ve learned it’s that anything that seems simple, usually isn’t.

MEET THE FILMMAKERS FROM SIDE FILMS

Rani Naamani – supervising animator at DreamWorks Animation, supervising the character of “Boss Baby.” Co-director at Side Films.

Carlos Puertolas – head of character animation at DreamWorks Animation. Co-director at Side Films.

Nedy Acet – a character animator at DreamWorks Animation, working on “Boss Baby.”

Nelson Brown –  animator at Sony Pictures Imageworks on “Smurfs: The Lost Village.”