Our project started on National Libraries’ Day 2014 and to celebrate our first year’s birthday we spoke to Leo Crane, the creator of this gorgeous animation The Library. Leo has kindly allowed us to embed the animation in our Books and Bow Strings comic that celebrates the life of Geoffrey Trease.
Tell us about yourself and how you got into animation.
Where shall I start? On an icy day many years ago, not far from the desolate Yorkshire moors, I was born. But to be relevant, we can fast forward to 2011, when I gave up a career in museums to undertake an MA in 3D Computer Animation at Bournemouth University. It’s an incredibly exciting medium to be working in: established enough to be available for all to use, but still so young that its full potential remains unchartered – it makes me think of photography in the late 19th century or cinema a few decades later. It’s this potential for exploration and experimentation that drew me in, combined with the way that animation can bring together art, poetry, performance, music, architecture, and many other disciplines.
The commission was for the London Library…
It was my Masters project, but I wanted it to have a place beyond that, not only a purpose or usefulness, but also a potential audience. I felt that I would learn more if I could share the final result with others. The London Library, a beautiful historic institution on St James’s Square, was developing a strategy for its online presence, and so a short film would provide content for them to share with their existing and potential readers. They also wanted fresh ways to convey the spirit of the place, which is so special, but so difficult to capture conventionally.
How did you create the animation?
The Library is a 3D animation, entirely computer generated in a virtual environment. However, I started in the real world, sketching on location, exploring character traits of the readers and finding a style that would evoked the materials of the interiors, predominantly wood and paper. With this in mind, I decided that all the 2D elements (the images in the books and the backgrounds) would be wood-cut prints (real ones), digitised (using Photoshop) and applied to 3D virtual models. For the characters themselves, I studied wooden puppets, modelled them, and then made digital replicas by eye using a software called ZBrush. The rest of the film was built in SoftImage and animated, before post-production using Nuke and editing in Adobe Premiere. Music was composed bespoke by Andrew Hayes, with whom I have collaborated on several films.
How long did it take to make?
As it was my Masters project, there was a clearly defined structure. We had about four weeks for pre-production, including storyboarding and production designs, as well as working with actors to explore subtle nuances of gesture. I also researched and wrote up influences from German Expressionism (especially woodblock prints) as well as the choreography of Pina Bausch, where repetition is a central feature of the narrative. We then had a five-week production period – incredibly short, especially when most of the technical work was at that stage unfamiliar. But that was really the point – forcing us to learn quickly through practical application. I remember I did all the animation in nine days, after finishing modelling, texturing, cinematography, lighting, and all the other elements that 3D animation takes from traditional film making. I had to allocate a considerable amount of time (five or six days, I think) to rendering, when the computer processes all the algorithms in the software to create 25 still images per second. Then there was post-production where the different elements are composited together in the frame, colour graded and effects added. After submission, I worked on the film for another week, tidying it up ready for the London Library and festival distribution.
The film addresses library etiquette, which is something that has adapted recently, such as through having designated space for mobile phone users. What are your thoughts on library etiquette and its function?
I think it’s fair to say that etiquette is changing in some libraries and not others. Large public libraries surely have contemporary relevance as cultural centres, and not simply depositories of books. Exhibitions, events, social spaces all should be part of the mix. Ultimately, with public funding, they should encourage as wide an audience as possible to discover the stories that create our cultural identity. Having said this, there is definitely a place for specialist, academic and private libraries, where the emphasis is more on an environment in which a reader can be stimulated to create his or her own stories. These need to be spaces which encourage focus and concentration and an escape into the imagination. So perhaps here traditional library etiquette is more appropriate.
The female in the animation is reading Michelangelo. Why did you choose this out of all of the possible books?
I needed an image which was immediately recognisable as both erudite and erotic. I hope that most viewers will recognise Michelangelo’s David as a work with a definitive place in the canon of art history, but also as the icon that has inspired countless erotic fantasies (just see any souvenir stall in Florence to know what I mean!). Botticelli’s Venus, the subject of Theo (the male character)’s fantasy, was chosen for similar reasons.
Talking of books, what do you like to read?
I’m currently reading – and thoroughly enjoying – Hermione Eyre’s Viper Wine, the story of Kenelm and Venetia Digby, a 17th-century society couple. Hermione cleverly uses Kenelm’s character to skip about through time as he researches philosophy and science, with crazy lateral links. It’s refreshing to read something so original – and yet it has a compelling narrative that is quite traditional and beautifully described characters. But my favourite novel must be Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Every time I read it, I am swept away by its epic landscapes and the complexity of the characters.
What do libraries mean to you?
I have always had a close association with libraries. I was fortunate to study for my first degree in the Bodleian Library and the Ashmolean archives in Oxford. Being a young undergraduate with an active imagination, I was often distracted by the eccentric characters I saw every day and got to know intimately through observation – but we never spoke! I created names and back stories for all of them. I went on to work at the V&A and the Royal Institute of British Architects, both of which have outstanding historic libraries (the National Art Library and the British Architectural Library) – wonderful places to escape the busy London streets just outside – and free for anyone to use.
What are you working on at the moment?
Aside from corporate work, I am working on a short animation called The Lost Romance of Elizabeth Linley. Elizabeth Linley was arguably the most famous celebrity London has ever known – an 18th-century singer who married the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan and influenced culture and politics, running two theatres (in her husband’s name of course) and using her fame to solicit votes. The animation will combine portraits by Gainsborough with computer-generated imagery and a contemporary music score. I was lucky to get generous funding from a number of backers on Kickstarter, which is allowing me to use some of the latest software and to have a budget for distribution to film festivals.