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animation station #4: meanwhile from stephen mcnally

I'm totally fascinated by animation at the moment (if you couldn't already tell, which you possibly probably definitely can) so I was especially intrigued when this popped up on my Instagram feed. Posted by BlinkInk (@blink_ink, who if you haven't heard of, you should definitely check out - does the bear and the hare John Lewis ad ring a bell? That's them!) and created by one of their directors, Stephen McNally, this short animated film named Meanwhile explores the stories of four different characters, all isolated for different reasons on their journeys, and the effects this has on their own empathy. If you'd like to watch the film in full below, here it is:



The main characteristic of this animation that I completely adore is the use of colour. Each character has their own colour - the whole of their environment has the same tone, as well as any views from their perspective. This helps the viewer to compile a set of attributes for each character before they are even introduced and before their narratives are shown - I feel that this is key in a short animation where there isn't much time to show what each character is like or explain their narratives in full. The viewer can quickly determine that perhaps the red character is stressed or angry, that the green character may be jealous, and that the yellow character may be caring and reliable, just from the colours used to represent them. The colours also act as a great immediate transition to allow for the swapping back and forth between characters, particularly later in the animation as the focus is continuously swapped in quick succession. It definitely aids the communication of the piece massively as we know as viewers whose shoes we are in based simply on the colour we can see. I really love this technique and feel it is extremely useful in the pacing of the animation as well as the handling of multiple main characters at once.

I should also note that as each character is introduced at the beginning of the animation, a different screen featuring the animation's title, Meanwhile, is shown. I love the use of different styles of typography here in order to reflect each of the characters. Again, this allows the viewer to make more assumptions about each character - for example, that the yellow character is a woman (before even seeing her) due to the swirly, thin, feminine feel to the type, or that the blue character is a very logical, organised and potentially older character, especially in contrast to the red character's more playful and modern style of type. The technique of quickly introducing one after the other in this way rather than showing a large part of each narrative before changing characters means that the viewer immediately understands that there are four key characters here and that they are all equally important - and that they are represented by their own set of type and colour - without the use of any dialogue. I feel that this strong visual communication is a goal for me as even on my first watch I grasped the concept of the animation straight away with no confusion.

I'm no musician, but I couldn't write about this film without mentioning the amazing pacing that the music creates and how this works so incredibly well with the animation. Each character seems to have their own music that changes the mood and fits with their story. In particular, the red character's track really helps to build tension at the end of the animation, and the use of silence works really well too. I found this really inspiring as I consciously avoid using sound in my animations as I know how difficult it is to get the kind of sounds that fit the tone I'm trying to set - I distinctly remember spending a long time picking the music and sound effects for my group animation project in first year. The music and sound effects allow the narratives of the characters to be told quickly; like how the moaning is used to immediately communicate the green character's adultery and the baby crying immediately signals the birth of the blue character's child. This is complimented by the use of simple 2D animation in the narrative parts of the film that take place inside the character's heads; I felt this was a great touch as it contrasts the 3D multi angled style of the walking/cycling segments, communicating the difference between the settings clearly. The exploration of each character's backstory occurs through a series of short 2D animations showing key events that have led to them being here, making their journeys in this isolated way. I feel that McNally has a great sense of communication, as although we only see snippets of each character's past, I felt that I knew each character well by the end of the animation and had a good understanding of their personalities.

My favourite sequence of frames in the whole film occurs right towards the end; when the blue man is hit by the taxi, we see each character's view of him falling, one after the other. I thought this was a really unique and interesting way to communicate that each character witnesses the event. Notice how the angle of the shots changes with each character's perspective - we see a different view of the taxi as we change shoes. I also really like the detail of how the blue man has moved slightly in each new shot, rather than staying completely still; it doesn't completely halt the pace of the film (this is saved for when he hits the ground) but creates more of a slow-mo effect, allowing the audience to fully understand what has happened, as the initial crash happens quickly. This is key in animation; the visual communication needs to be strong so that the audience do not lose track. From my understanding, this is why animators use techniques like follow through and squash / stretch - it gives the audience more time to process what they see. Also notable here was how the yellow and green perspectives lose the background detail seen in the red and blue perspectives; I feel that this was done purposefully to put the greatest focus onto the blue man and the taxi to further strengthen the visual communication.

Following the previous shots, we see the key events of the blue character's life again - but this time at increasingly steep angles. This is a really interesting technique in creating great unease visually and without being over dramatic, or using a heavy amount of gore to show that he is dead - without really having to animate anything extra (which could be useful if I'm ever really against the clock). I really like how the angle of the 2D animations reflects the angle the blue man is falling at, too, almost showing how his brain has been tipped to its side as he falls head first. This is also a great way to demonstrate what might be going through the blue man's head; as he dies, he sees his wife, his children and highest achievements (oh, that sounds dark... but it is a great technique). Note that the loose objects in these animations lean backwards as though they are really being tipped - rather than simply changing the angle of the animations, McNally took the time to create an effect of gravity on the objects that aren't as solid. The last technique I'd like to document takes up the very last sequence of the film. The pace of the animation is paused as the blue man hits the ground. Then, as we see lights and an environment appear again, everything looks different: the last scene is seen from a dull, almost monochromatic perspective; I feel like this is the colour you'd find as a result of mixing all of the character's respective colours - it's much more of a neutral perspective, not favouring any of the characters. I really liked this as an ending for the animation as we see the true colours of the environment, like we were bystanders to the accident and had no knowledge of the character's histories or characteristics.

To conclude: I was so incredibly impressed by this animation and I feel like it really achieves what it sets out to do. I love the use of colour, the animation style, the pacing, and the strong visual communication - all of these elements work to create a narrative that tells us just enough, while leaving us with some questions. What will happen to the green man's marriage? The yellow woman's grief? The red boy's feelings? And is the blue man really dead? That's the nature of short films, particularly those based on strangers who are thrown together, all experiencing different struggles in life. This was a great inspiration to me and I would love to produce an animation to this standard one day. That's it for this one, more coming soon!

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