“June” and how two powerhouses created a masterpiece

John Kahrs and Kevin Dart are big names, to say the least.

Kahrs, an Academy Award-winning animator and film director, is best known for directing the Disney short film, Paperman. Dart is a former Cartoon Network art director and now creative director at Chromosphere, whom you may remember from their audiovisual meditation “Forms in Nature”.

It should come as no surprise that when the stars align and the two of them work on a film together, the results are stunning.

“June” follows the story of an elderly widow whose car is destroyed, compelling her to use Lyft for the first time. The series of events that follows puts June back in the driver’s seat of life while connecting her to her community and providing a new outlook on life.

John and Kevin were kind enough to answer some of our questions in this Motionogapher Q&A as well as give us a rare inside look at what makes “June” so special.

Q&A with John Kahrs and Kevin Dart

First, can you tell us a bit about how this project came about and what the brief was like?

JOHN: Lyft approached me about a year ago with a rough outline of a how a woman’s life is transformed when she takes up driving for Lyft. It sounds simple but Ricardo Viramontes, their creative director, had a very clear idea of what they wanted to communicate, and that gave us a tremendous head start, story-wise. Much of their philosophy -their message- has to do with how transportation itself is fundamentally changing, but the focus here was on this character and how her life and sense of community changes because of ridesharing. They liked Paperman; the look of it, and the emotion of the storytelling. I personally wanted to do something visually that was very different from Paperman.

I notice from the credits that you had a fairly global team working on this film. What were some of the pros and cons to this approach?

JOHN: I don’t want to speak for Kevin here because it’s he who really assembled the team, but I had a lot of preconceived notions about having to be on-site that were turned upside down because of Slack, Wipster and Skype. Skype needs no explanation, but Wipster and Slack were new, at least to me.

Slack is a messaging app that allows for super-easy sub-grouping of users. Wipster is an online review where you can upload and organize versioned clips, make markups, add notes, and then off it goes, back to the relevant parties. From a home office, I’d do a self-imposed dailies every morning with the new submissions. Then I’d pull them down and update the cut. When things really got going, I’d be reviewing shots all all the time, with multiple Slack conversations supporting all of it, zipping all over the world at all hours. I guess that could considered a ‘con’  when there’s no schedule any more, and your phone is buzzing at 3am when someone is Paris needs notes on animation blocking.

KEVIN: These global collaborations have become a pretty natural process for us. Since the earliest films I did with Stéphane Coëdel we were working across the world from each other. I think through a lot of our previous collaborations we’ve formed a little network of artists around the globe who we really like working with and who really inspire us. It’s a lot of people who haven’t found homes at big studios and like jumping around and doing little interesting projects, and who don’t mind working remotely.

Like John said, I remember in our first meeting he expressed some hesitation about working with remote freelancers, but in our second meeting I came prepared with some samples of a few of the artists I wanted to work with and after that he was totally on board.

I think the biggest advantage to our approach is just the freedom to work with anyone we want, no matter where they are, for short periods of time. A lot of the people we work with are incredibly successful and established artists and I feel really lucky that they’re willing to make time in their schedules to collaborate with us. I don’t see a lot of downsides to it – like John said, because of the different time zones, there’s a point in the project where the pace is so relentless and people are working all around the clock and sending things for review at all hours of the night. But that’s also part of what’s great, because there’s always something exciting to see, and you’re always getting things done.

Also as John mentioned – Wipster is amazing. We will definitely continue to use it on all of our future projects. The AfterFX integration was particularly useful, especially for sharing comping notes directly with the team.

In recent years, the 2D styled 3D look has gained a lot of traction but can be really hard to pull off well. I was immediately impressed by the style and attention to detail in “June”. Can you tell us a bit about how you developed the style of the film and landed on the final look?

JOHN: To me, June is really less ‘computer animation’ (which I’ve become increasingly bored with) and more like moving illustration. So it becomes less about 2D vs. 3D and more about what are the rules of this illustrated world, and how to define how each element. For instance, there’s no real modeling of forms, there’s just color. I learned from working on Paperman that flat expanses of color (or tone) can feel ‘right’- even photographic, as long as that color is carefully chosen. When I saw Kevin’s short Forms In Nature, I felt that I was seeing the work of an artist who not only knew how to deal with these illustration questions, but they were moving beyond that into something new, with new techniques, moving into more sophisticated territory. I was blown away with his careful use of photographic elements such as reflections and highlights and how they weren’t just thrown in there, they were designed. Even before I met Kevin, I was boarding June as if it was a live-action short film, so a lot of things like handheld cameras, imperfect compositions, and out-of-focus clutter in the foreground. Kevin was really excited about the idea of combining this haphazard camera work with a very stylized urban world.

KEVIN: When I saw the boards in John’s first presentation, there was a really natural and loose feeling to the way it was all staged that was really exciting to me. The overall tone of the story was also really grounded and didn’t have any feeling of traditional animation fare, so there seemed to be a lot of cool possibilities. He was also talking a lot about kaleidoscopes which got my brain working and trying to figure out how cool it would be to bring some really graphic sensibilities to a live action sort of world.

Early boards from John.

One of the first artists I thought of to work with was Théo Guignard, who I’d been wanting to work with for years. His work has exactly the right balance between vibrant graphic design and carefully studied realism. John and I had also been talking about how to limit the amount of information going into each scene by turning things in the background into simple blocks or triangles, and it made me think of some of Théo’s mosaic landscapes.

Painting by Théo Guignard

Painting by Théo Guignard

The look really started to take shape when we took our research trip to Chicago. I had some preconceived notions about what Chicago might look and feel like and it completely took me by surprise. I was really impressed by the scale and the depth of the city. There were so many layers – historically and literally, like how there are train tracks built above the roads which are built above other roads. I was also seeing these kind of kaleidoscopic patterns everywhere, like you could see all the way to the horizon and there were these really strong shapes rushing out toward you.

These two photos really jumped out to me and influenced the perspective kaleidoscope shapes in the backgrounds

When we got back, Théo started pouring through our photos and doing these incredible color thumbnail studies of Chicago. His color sensibilities felt as though he was capturing our memories of being in Chicago, even though he wasn’t there with us.

Some of Théo’s early thumbnails which had a huge influence on the film’s look.

I was also working to figure out how to integrate the kaleidoscope shapes into the environments. We were thinking from pretty early on about how the kaleidoscope design language could be used later for some exciting transitions. This style really pushed us to work with realistic perspective in a way that was pretty new to me, having relied on a lot of perspective cheats over the years. It felt right because it was pushing us more toward the boundary between graphic illustration and realism. Also knowing that the characters were going to be 3D, it made sense to design a deep world for them to fit into.

A few early studies incorporating kaleidoscope perspective into the backgrounds.

Our theories about the kaleidoscope shapes kept evolving throughout the film, but one of my favorite examples of it working really well is in this scene that Jasmin Lai painted:

Painting by Jasmin Lai

One other huge piece of the look is obviously the characters. I knew right away that I wanted Tiffany Ford to design June and all the people she meets. Having worked with Tiffany before, I know that she always brings an authenticity and liveliness to her characters, which is exactly what we needed for this project. One of our biggest challenges was going to be making a relatable and emotional character work in a highly stylized 3D world, and Tiffany was immediately able to capture that personality in June.

Tiffany’s early exploration of June.

Tiffany is able to create so much specific personality and detail in every person she draws, so it also made perfect sense for her to draw all of June’s passengers and other random people to populate our version of Chicago. There was so much amazing variety in her initial exploration that we ended up taking several of them and just turning them into bigger characters.

We did a lot of experimenting to see how much we could stylize June’s face to bring it into our stylized 3D world without losing the charm of Tiffany’s design.

Experiments in stylization, L to R: Théo, Jasmin, Kevin, Kevin

We brought on Pedro Vergani to do the first model of June, and he did a fantastic job translating the design into 3D. It was really reassuring and gave us confidence that we would be able to pull off the look successfully.

Original June model by Pedro Vergani.

Original June model by Pedro Vergani.

Putting all of these pieces together would of course, take a lot of sophisticated compositing, so Stéphane led the initial charge in our tests to figure out how we could capture the dynamic lighting and movement that we were looking for without using expensive/realistic CG techniques.

One of our big film inspirations was the French Connection, and I was particularly fascinated by the reflections in that movie. I loved how chaotic they felt, and there were shots where Gene Hackman’s face was almost entirely obscured by a reflection.

Some cool window reflections from “The French Connection”

I felt like that would be key to capturing the feeling of driving around a big city, so we had Camille Perrin come up with a technique for projecting stylized reflections onto June’s car. The randomness of the shapes really helps sell the feeling that she’s driving under the train tracks or through a dense city street.

One of Camille’s tests of the car reflections

One of Camille’s tests of the car reflections

The last big piece of the look was the animation style which was developed by Nelson Boles. He made a conscious choice to animate everything on 2’s or 3’s or 4’s, depending on the context of the scene. I feel like this helped lend a cinematic and natural feeling to the movements, and also helps to break the often too-smooth look of CG. There’s also a distinct restraint to all of the movement in the film with the exception of a few key scenes. I think that subtlety really makes June’s story that much more relatable.

Technically, how was this achieved?

JOHN: It was a mix of full 3D rigs and totally 2D illustration elements. A few spaces were modeled but most were layered illustrations that were pulled apart in After Effects. I give a lot of credit to Stéphane Coëdel, the lead compositor for really defining how the shots came together technically and aesthetically. He has a knack for running with an idea by adding details, building out photographic elements such as flares, depth of field and parallax camera drift that give dimension and depth to that illustrated world. But none of it was just thrown in there, it was all designed specifically (i.e., square highlights) developed and curated by Kevin. It’s a pleasure to work with people that instinctively have such good taste that you start to realize how much stuff you don’t have to spend time talking about. They just do stuff, and it looks right with no discussion.

KEVIN: For the most part, we tried to avoid overly technical challenges. We usually tried to find the simplest possible way to achieve each effect. For instance, this set built by Denis Bouyer of Feed Me Light was constructed primarily of flat planes with projected artwork on them, but the effect in the film is amazing:

Lakeshore Drive set built by Denis Bouyer.

Lakeshore Drive set built by Denis Bouyer

The most technical work was probably in the compositing. I think the key to making all of the 2D and 3D blend together is just by making sure that everything is following the same rules. Stéphane did a great job putting together a package of effects that were used throughout the film, like the square lens flares and the various lighting treatments. If you’re able to blend everything with the same art direction and design theories and lighting treatments, I think the 2D/3D blend can be really magical. That’s especially true when we had to do a completely 3D shot like the one below and make sure that it wouldn’t be jarring in the context of the rest of the film:

We made a choice early on to try to do any secondary characters in 2D to save on modeling and rigging. We were really lucky to work with Jonathan Djob Nkondo on the 2D animation. His sensibilities were totally in line with what Nelson and the other 3D animators were doing, so the blend between the two became really natural. We first tried it out with some small background characters like in this scene:

But it was amazing to see how well the technique could work even with a 3D character interacting directly with 2D characters, like in this scene:

Stéphane: I’ve always loved mixing very flat designs with realistic camera, depth and light. And breaking the coldness of computer generated visuals by adding randomness and all sorts of accidents. You can see that transpire in most of my works with Kevin.

In the case of JUNE, we used Theo Guignard’s blocky designs as a base for the whole visual tone of the film mixed with Kevin’s kaleidoscope concept and Jasmin Lai’s sense of lighting.

The first approach was to translate depth by simplifying the shapes. The farther from the camera an element would be, the more abstract and geometric it would get.

At first, we weren’t planning to use any depth of field blur. But the very rich multicolor palette and the almost abstract design of some backgrounds were causing some scene to be harder to read. We could have pushed further the research on this approach but our production time was limited, so we favored a more realistic and time-efficient way of composing with space and characters. We purposely limited the animation (often animating on 2s and sometimes less) to balance the very clean shapes of the design and give it a more organic feel. The depth would be brought by playing with reflections in windows, water, and other polished surfaces.

When the sun or any light source would enter the frame, it would create a flare behaving very much like a real one except that I designed them using square bokeh to echo the general design.

The main challenge was that many scenes that look 3D were actually 2D. For practical reasons we tried to limit the amount of CG environments. In most of my scenes I had to fake a 3D set by skewing elements, animating lights and shadows, and playing with parallax. People can try to guess which scenes are fake 3D and which ones are using proper CG. Some are pretty obvious, others, if we did a good job, are harder to spot.

I went to school in Chicago and I was amazed at how well you captured the city in a stylized way. You really nailed it! What kind of research did you all do to get the look and feel of the city just right?

JOHN: Thanks! We definitely spent a couple days there driving around with Lyft drivers who showed us the sights and their own neighborhoods. I never really explored Chicago before so my head was full of John Hughes movies before this. Going through Bronzeville was a totally different experience and I think Kevin and his team worked really hard to capture that light and the spatial feeling of the city blocks. I think we also have similar instincts: that we weren’t too big on stuff like, “Look! It’s the Sears tower and Cloud Gate!”. Not that we don’t have our share of landmarks, but there are a million little details, the ordinary things that just are, that contribute to a sense of place, like how the garages are situated in the alleyways, and those grassy empty lots next to brownstones. And there’s great beauty and light in those mundane things. I was also inspired by Rick Famuyiwa’s interviews about his film Dope, where he talks about presenting the film’s characters and neighborhood in a way that feels more naturally connected to the place as a home. I wanted to show a neighborhood, not as part of the news cycle, but one that folks grew up in, are trying to achieve something and do good.

Did that include eating a Chicago dog haha?

JOHN: Is that the one with like 20 things piled on top? I think we missed that!

Chicago Hot Dog

Chicago Hot Dog

In the realm of branded films and advertisements, seven minutes is an eternity! How did you land on this length?

JOHN: I was worried from the beginning that it was too long! I tried stuffing it into 5 minutes, and even then I was concerned people would just keep scrolling, so to speak. It’s definitely a new world and it’s not a captive audience for sure, but ultimately that is what’s going to force you to work harder to tell a real story and get the audience to connect without resorting to cheap tricks and shock tactics. So, while I guess I used a little shock tactic (I knew I was going to have to wreck that car) I wanted to build something more substantial with a series of questions in their minds: “Who is this lady? Why the old muscle car? What’s she going to do now? Luckily, the folks at Lyft gave us a ton of freedom to let the story evolve and run at its natural length.

What is your favorite aspect of “June” and what makes it different?

JOHN: I think my favorite part of June is that it’s animation that exists a little bit outside the boundary of what people think ‘Animation’ is. And that the pushed design supports a good story without distracting from it.

KEVIN: I think the film captures an atmosphere that I haven’t seen much outside of live-action before. I really like that it has time to breathe – we’re usually so pressed for time in animation, that it’s nice to watch something where there are moments to just appreciate the world and the music and everything being presented to you.

Finally, moving forward, what did you learn from the making of this film that you will take with you onto your next project?

JOHN: For one thing, Kevin and his team work at a blistering pace! And we didn’t have to give away anything in terms of quality to maintain that pace. So I feel like more can be accomplished with a small crew than I ever thought before. The other ah-ha moment was during the final mix at one of Warner Bros’ huge dub stages. Seeing this thing which will be seen on phones and computers projected on the big screen with theater level surround sound, I thought to myself, “This looks very watchable. This looks great. I could definitely see doing a feature like this.”

KEVIN: Working with John really helped push us emotionally in our work – dealing with a character like June who has a personal story and an emotional journey to take isn’t something we’ve had to deal with so closely before, and I’m really proud of how we did it. The scale of this project was also so much bigger than anything we’ve attempted before, it’s just gratifying to know we pulled it off and gives us confidence to hopefully take on other big projects!

Credits

Directed by
John Kahrs

Story by
John Kahrs
Ricardo Viramontes

Producer
Gennie Rim

Visualized by Chromosphere

Music by
Christophe Beck

Broad Reach Pictures
Production Supervisor
Maddie Lazer

EDITORIAL CONSULTANTS
Darren Holmes
Karl Armstrong

STORY
Polly Guo
Michael Daley
Ryan Gaffney
Everett Downing

Voices
Tiarre Mayden
Kimberly Brooks

Production Design & Animation by Chromosphere

CHROMOSPHERE
Kevin Dart
Myles Shioda

DESIGN
Théo Guignard // Visual Development
Arthur Chaumay // Visual Development
Tiffany Ford // Character Design
Jasmin Lai // Visual Development
Emily Paik // Prop Design
Sylvia Liu // Visual Development

CG
Pedro Vergani // CG Generalist
Feed Me Light: Felipe Hansen, Denis Bodart, Denis Bouyer, Richard Kazuo Maegaki // Character and Environment Builds
Mattias Bjurström // Vehicle Modeling and Texturing
Theresa Latzko // CG Generalist

ANIMATION
Nelson Boles // Lead Animator
Claudio Salas // 3D Character Animation
Alex Grigg // 3D Character Animation
Jonathan Djob Nkondo // 2D Character Animation
Bill Northcott // 3D Character Animation
Vitaliy Strokous // 3D Character Animation

LIGHTING & RENDERING
Camille Perrin // Lighting & Rendering

COMPOSITING
Stéphane Coëdel // Lead Compositor
Rob Ward // Compositor
H. Kristen Campbell // Compositor
Alasdair Brotherston // Compositor

ADDITIONAL HELP FROM
Nate Funaro
Keiko Murayama
Rachel Chu
Jim Levasseur

PRODUCTION BABY
Rosalind Nova Yuriko Dart

Sound Designer
Kenneth L. Johnson M.P.S.E.
Sound Engineer
James Rim

Re-recording Mixers
Jamey Scott
Michael Babcock

“Moving”
Written by Sir the Baptist
Performed by Sir the Baptist
Produced by Sir the Baptist
Recorded at Tympa Studios (Chicago, IL)
Vocalists: Olivia Tapia and Chrystal Harris
Drums: Desmond Davis
Keyboards: Marshon Lewis
Bass: Robert Woolridge Jr

LYFT
Max Morse, Producer
Ellen Black, Producer
Jesse McMillin, Lyft Creative Director
Ricardo Viramontes, Lyft Creative DirectorAustin Schumacher, Director, Entertainment Marketing

 

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About the author

Joe Donaldson

/ www.jodie.work
Joe Donaldson is one of the editors of Motionographer. Working closely with Justin Cone, their hope is to help grow our community while celebrating the exceptional work being created on a daily basis. Additionally, Joe recently joined Ringling College of Art and Design where he works as a professor in the Motion Design department. Before joining Ringling, Joe worked as a director, designer and animator in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles, and has had the honor of directing work for clients such as Apple, Google, Facebook, Instagram, The New York Times and Unicef.

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