Student Animation: Project WAKE

WAKE is a student animation which began as the MFA Body of Work Animation for Kelly Kin a fellow graduate student at the VIZ Lab at Texas A&M. Kelly had been sitting on the idea for an animation about a boy coming to terms with his sister being in a coma for quite a while and approached me to help her flesh out the story in the Fall of 2013. Since then I have gone from part-time story artist and script writer to lead of layout and production manager for the project. Over the course of the next year and a half the animation itself reached an unprecedented scope. WAKE developed into a 7.5 min animated short with just under 140 shots and well over 35 student collaborators at its peak.

At it’s core WAKE is a story about grief and acceptance. Dan is a troubled boy haunted by memories of a car crash that left him unscathed but put his sister Kina in a coma. Dan has a bright future ahead of him as an artist, but his sense of responsibility towards his sister and his misplaced guilt for her injury leads him to neglect his potential and spend his days looking after her at the hospital. One day Dan falls asleep while visiting his sister and has a dream. In the dream he meets a younger version of Kina from before the accident and chases her down a hallway full of happy memories from Dan’s childhood. At first Dan is content to chase little Kina down this endless corridor, but he is distracted by the memories of the accident and of his real sister still in a coma at the hospital. When he tries to go to his real sister, little Kina lashes out and attempts to forcibly drag Dan back into the hallway of his past. After a struggle Dan abandons the hallway and emerges in a desolate wasteland. Unable to go on he collapses, but is approached by a vision of his real sister. Kina urges her brother to pursue the future and not be tethered to the past. They embrace and she tells him to wake up and move on with his life. After a final nod of encouragement, Dan lets go and falls out of the wasteland and into a white void. He sees his memories, again represented as picture frames, but he also sees the memory of when he first gave Kina her red scarf. Dan lets go of the scarf, his last tie to the past, and wakes up in the hospital room.

With Kelly serving as Director, I pulled double duty as Production Manager and Co-Layout Lead for the project starting January of 2014. Working on WAKE has been one of the most challenging and educational experiences of my college career. On the one hand I helped manage a large group of peers, worked with Kelly to keep to scheduled deadlines, organized and took notes at meetings, and kept tabs on the needs of the project and our collaborators throughout the production process. On the other I was in the trenches working on layout and story development alongside Kelly Kin and Jeff Gustafson, the other Co-Layout Lead, hammering out the themes, timing, and shot progression for this extremely metaphorical and deeply emotional piece. The layout has gone through so many iterations and revisions (nearly one every week) that I hardly recognize some of the older animatics from the Spring of 2014.

Below are some of the iterations the story and the layout have gone through over the months of refinement:

I worked with Kelly extensively to develop the structure of WAKE and build meaning into the three central objects throughout the animation: the red scarf, Dan’s sketchbook, and the pencil. The dream sequence itself can be loosely interpreted as a journey through the 5 stages of grief, Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. First is the dream hallway and denial. In denial the overwhelming reality is abandoned in lieu of a brighter, less painful reality. Denial can help us cope with intense feelings, but it keeps Dan from growing as a person. In the nightmare sequence we get a glimpse of Anger as little Kina, Dan’s subliminal manifestation of his denial, lashes out against the truth. We see Bargaining briefly when little Kina pleads with Dan not to cut the scarf and let her go. Dan is subliminally looking for a way out of his pain. In the wasteland we see Depression. Dan is faced with the truth, that his sister is in a coma and that the happy days with his sister are at an end. In Depression Dan is lost and without purpose until he is visited by the adult Kina who, like Beatrice for Dante, shepherds him to the last stage of his journey. The fall through the white void is Acceptance. It could arguably be the most difficult transition for Dan, who must willingly fall off the cliff and out of his dream, but it is the most meaningful as well. At this point Dan has accepted that a loved one is gone and recognizes that he must move on with his life.

The scarf, and by extension the color red, represents the past throughout the story. In order to wake up and move forward with his life Dan must abandon the past, but he is constantly enticed by it, restrained by it, or burdened with it. It is only when he gives up the scarf within his dream that he wakes up. The sketchbook represents the present. At the start of the animation Dan’s sketchbook is filled with drawings of the hallway and of little Kina from his dream. Dan’s present is, in effect, dominated by his past. When he visits the hospital room in his dream, Dan attempts to reach out for the notebook and the present reality of Kina in the hospital, but little Kina, and the red scarf hinder him. The pencil represents Dan’s future as an artist. During the nightmare sequence of the dream Dan discovers the pencil and uses it to physically cut his ties to the past. In the wasteland he is filled with self loathing and attempts to throw away the pencil, but the adult Kina recovers it for him. At the end of the animation Dan leaves the notebook with Kina in the hospital and leaves with the pencil and on the final page of the notebook we see Kina and her final word to Dan.

Sadly with Kelly accepting a job offer at Walt Disney Animation Studios and the rest of the team busy developing our own MS thesis and MFA body of work projects, Project WAKE is on permanent hiatus. It has been dubbed an ‘open source’ project. All the assets and shots are currently sitting on the VIZ Lab project space waiting for a new team to push it out the door. Below is the final animatic that includes scratch sound, music and the latest finalized frames from the lighting and compositing team. There is still a lot of work left undone, but we’ve come a long way in a very short time.

WAKE is by far the longest and most ambitious project I have ever worked on. It’s a shame that I will probably never see the finished version of the animation, but my time on the project has been filled with exciting challenges and fond memories.

Time to wake up and move on…

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