“Die Verwaklung” (the metamorphosis): A Post-Mortem

On the 31st of October 2021, I released a three minute animated short called “Die Verwaklung (the metamorphosis)” onto YouTube. It’s a short I made from the 26th of October to the 31st, entirely by myself within five days. I’ve decided to write about the process of creating Die Verwaklung, what I learned from it, and general thoughts for the future.

Here’s the cartoon, if you’d like to give it a watch.

part one: a rambling preamble

At the very end of 2020, I wrote an article talking about my experiences of getting back into the cartoon fandom. How writing articles for this blog and returning to the World Animation Discord helped me become passionate about the medium again, make new friends, and do things I never thought I’d do.

One of these things was doing animation: something I had sometimes wanted to do, but I never had the confidence to push through my shoddy draughtsmanship and lack of experience. I did animation for three projects: a couple of scenes for a “Jack in the Beanstalk” cartoon by NAveryW, a short for the “WADvent Calendar 2020” community project, and some of the animation for “The Haunted Duck” – a short made within three days by Nobaddy, myself, gammaton32, Natalie, RandolphM, and ProwertheDrower.

Near the article’s end, I talked about how making these animations – particularly for The Haunted Duck (which I also wrote the script and voiced the dialogue for) – made me want to make more cartoons: “I’ve got a script written for a short I’d like to put together during the next year, and I’ve got a couple of ideas for other shorts that I might try out. I don’t know if they’ll happen, or even if they’ll be any good, but I want to try.”

For the most part, that didn’t come to fruition. A lot of that was because I got this idea into my head of wanting to make a cartoon entirely by myself, without anyone’s help, just to prove to myself that I could do it. It’s not inherently a bad idea, but it is an idea that can only really work if you have the self-confidence to push through any mental brick walls consistently. And I don’t.

I certainly didn’t during a lot of 2021, where a mix of college work and personal stuff had me in a more anxious state of mind. It’s hard enough trying to convince myself to make a cartoon when I feel I’m not very good in terms of drawing or animating anything, never mind backgrounds, sound design, overall direction, editing or the countless other things that I’d have to consider. But with all the added stress and pressure I’d have or be placing on myself elsewhere, I just couldn’t muster up the nerve to go for it.

But then the end of October rolled around. I realized that Halloween was a few days away; just under a year after The Haunted Duck (which was made as a Halloween cartoon). And I had the thought of taking a cartoon idea I’d come up with ages ago, and seeing if I could make something in time for Halloween. I knew that I was able to work quickly, as I made a lot of my Haunted Duck cuts in time for the deadline by just pushing through my self-doubt and getting stuff done, so I felt that it might be doable here even if I was making it alone.

part two: the cartoon idea

I first joined the World Animation Discord back in 2018, when I’d heard that they were doing a reanimation for a scene from “The 13 Ghosts of Scooby-Doo” involving a strange character called Platypus Duck. I was very perplexed about the idea, since most reanimations I knew of were for popular cartoons or things people actually liked, so I got curious and joined up.

Over time, I got invested in it, discovering the weird history behind the character and his creator Tom Ruegger, and I became acquaintances with people through the project – I even took part by drawing a handful of frames for a rotoscoping sequence featured a good way into the reanimation. It played a memorable role in my becoming part of that community, at least until I left in early 2019 due to detaching from social media in general.

Shortly before that happened, the WAD were working on another community project. This one was a reanimation for the very first Felix the Cat short “Feline Follies”, as a celebration of Felix’s 100th anniversary. I didn’t take part in this due to my aforementioned departure, but the project meant that there was a good bit of discussion for Felix going round.

Platypus Duck is something of a cult character over on the WAD, and the combination of these two factors put a stupid idea into my head of a cartoon involving both characters. Exactly how this led to a Kafka-esque plot in which Felix the Cat suddenly transforms into Platypus Duck, I don’t know. I guess I just wanted to make something weird, since I was in the mindset of dreaming up deeply weird film ideas at the time (one concept had Benedict Cumberbatch trying to steal the face of acclaimed actor Benedict Cumberbatch).

Whatever the reason, the idea took up residence in the back of my head, and developed into some small sketches in a journal for storyboards and expressions. I even made a note of using the menu theme from Destruction Derby 2 at the beginning, which I eventually did when I made the short for real. I didn’t push ahead with it any further at the time, as I had no animation experience and had more important things to get done.

When I returned to it nearly two and a half years later to make the cartoon, I’d done enough animation to know that whatever way it came out – badly drawn, few drawings with basically no motion – there was a chance it could complement the inherent weirdness of the idea.

part three: details of the process

It should be pointed out that this write-up took much longer than I intended it to, so there’s a good chance I’ve forgotten something or misremembered the order in which I created the different aspects of the short. Apologies in advance.

The first thing I did was grab a texture of a mouldy wall or ceiling off the internet. The opening shot was going to be of a ceiling, and I wanted to give the short an underlying sense of texture that added to the strangeness of it. This was the texture I got, prior to editing it.

Source: https://www.123rf.com/photo_48755925_white-moldy-wall-texture.html

That texture and the menu theme from Destruction Derby 2 were crucial to establishing the tone of the short, so I wanted to get both of those right. Sound in general is quite important to any work relying on audio, but it turned out to be particularly important because of what I was working with.

The only editor my old, incredibly laggy computer could handle was Windows Movie Maker Live, which doesn’t allow for more than one audio track at a time. Even worse, the placement of the audio track would constantly be moved about by new additions, so I couldn’t adjust the timing in relation to any shots or effects I inserted into the editor afterwards.

As such, I would need to create the short entirely through the audio first, in a single track that I could then make the rest of the short around. I ended up creating the short’s soundtrack within Audacity, using a combination of music, drones, and sound effects. I made sure I had long enough spaces between prominent sounds so that it gave time for weird feelings to sink in, and that it wouldn’t come off as rushed.

The sound effects themselves came from various places, including a Platypus Duck short made by Tom Ruegger, an episode of the 1973 Wombles cartoon, and various sound effects videos from YouTube. The quality of these effects is very inconsistent owing to their disparate sources, but I hoped that leaning into this would benefit the short – nothing sounds right, or something else sounds too wrong by comparison.

Creating the soundscape from scratch, without the influence of any visuals, gave me some ideas I might not have had otherwise. For example, the hiss heard throughout most of the short comes from a period of relative silence from that Wombles cartoon (I’d only grabbed it to get a “door opening/closing” sound) that I really took to.

That said, it did also lead to an issue where I’d have to end up animating around the sound effects without being able to adjust the timing of specific moments. This mostly turned out fine, but I think the shot in the bathroom where Felix pulls down his towel was a bit too tightly compressed in execution (I had it done between the water being turned off and the eventual fading out of the hiss).

Trying to maintain a balancing act between that shot and the subsequent one where he realizes he’s transformed was very tricky. The latter is crucial to the work and needed enough time to let the moment sink in, and I did manage to provide that time. But it came at the expense of the former, which I think happens too quickly. If I could adjust the specific timing of the hiss fading out and the following “WAK!”, it would be a little more effective.

After I worked out the soundtrack, I got to work on the animation. Knowing I only had a few days to put it together, I didn’t focus on creating a sense of motion between drawings unless they were very short (the traffic lights from passing cars, or Felix grabbing the towel off the rack). I focused on a handful of drawings per cut, essentially turning the short into a storyboard reel.

Up to now, I’ve not used actual animation programs. I instead use art programs such as paint.net to draw the frames and colour in the drawings. For this, I used ibis Paint X since that’s what I use when drawing on my tablet. That’s another reason why the animation is either non-existant or jerky; I’m working straight ahead and have no way of knowing how all the drawings flow into each other until I’m sequencing and timing them in the editor. By which point, it’s too late to really change anything.

However, one change I ended up having to make late into the process was the use of colours. For some time, I have been using a soft orange filter on my tablet, to make the colours easier on the eyes and to prevent me from staying awake if I’m using it at night. When I was colouring in the shots, I’d forgotten that I had this filter on and so I went with colours that looked good in that context.

When I put all the shots on my computer for editing, I only then realized that the colours looked worse without that filter affecting them, and often too hard to read considering the overall dark colours used throughout. Here’s one shot as captured from my tablet, compared to how it actually looked:

(intended verison)
(shot version)

In order to correct this, I had to stick each shot into paint.net and put a transparent orange filter over them so that the colours would more closely resemble what I’d done on the tablet. That itself wasn’t enough since I couldn’t get the colours right, and I had to increase the brightness in Windows Movie Maker so the screen would be readable. Here’s that same shot as it looked within the final film:

(final version)

Something magical about creating something is that you can stumble across ideas that you’d never have thought about but add a unique element to the work, even if you only included it because it saved time. In that case, it was the poetic intertitles that occasionally popped up.

I became concerned about the amount of frames I might be having to draw: either there were too many I might have to do within the short deadline, or there would be too few that the shot would come off as dull or trite without enough onscreen action. Suddenly, I had this thought of using these intertitles every now and again. They could break up the monotony of a shot and save me from doing more drawings.

I wrote the text pretty much on the spot, wanting to come up with phrases that sounded flowery but also quietly disconcerting. I had some of the dialogue from No More Heroes in particular on my mind when I did this, as I was playing through that game at the time. This idea in general paid off for the final scene between Felix and his partner, which I always intended to have dialogue of some sort but didn’t know how to include without using voices. But with intertitles, all I had to do was write their lines, add quotation marks and some prose, and BAM! I now had usable dialogue for the ending.

One more note on the process. I didn’t use any backgrounds apart from two specific cuts: the hallway, and the shot of Felix’s reflection in the bathroom mirror. This is because I’m bad at drawing backgrounds from my mind’s eye unless the staging is very flat. For these two cuts, I took pictures of the hallway and bathroom from my house and drew what was important from there.

part 4: how does it fare

I feel, even now, I’m perhaps too closely tied to this thing to know whether it’s any good or not. My instinct is to assume it’s rather pants, apart from certain sound choices and the intertitles. But maybe I’m too critical of my own work in general, in an attempt to subvert any pride I might have which overcorrects itself – going from “it’s good cuz it’s a thing I made” to “it’s bad cuz it’s a thing I made”.

A few people have seen it and seem to like it, but I haven’t gotten much feedback on it otherwise. So I can’t really find the line between my instinctive reaction and their feelings to find somewhere that I can see both its qualities and its faults. Maybe I’ll find that line one day. I’d like that.

But I still made a cartoon, all by myself. Despite the worries I had about creating something, I powered through my anxiety and self-doubt to do it anyway. That cartoon now exists, and I have a bit more confidence in my ability to do this now. Maybe I’ll make another one at some point down the road – no idea if it’ll be a short of similar length, or if I’ll try to be slightly more ambitious. I know that I can make a cartoon, though.

For now, all I can say is that I hope it’s an interesting short in some way, and to give the following recommendations for anyone wanting to try their hand at it:

Use better, more flexible programs if it’s possible. Use actual animation programs so you can work more naturally and change the timing of an action. Use a good editor that allows for flexible, multi-track audio adjusting so you can get the timing right on the moments that need it. And make sure to turn off your colour filter, check the colour settings on your screen, and generally make sure that the colours you’re using for your cartoon will be the same ones everyone else sees.

But that said, you can still make a cartoon even in the most restrictive, basic programs imaginable. I wouldn’t recommend using them, but if that’s all you’ve got to make a cartoon, then it’ll be fine. The end result will still show something of your passion, and even develop unintended aspects that add to the overall texture of the work.

All that matters is that you make something. Trying to make sure that everything is absolutely perfect will only result in stagnation and frustration, where you end up getting nothing done. What you make will resonate with somebody out there, no matter how lame you may think it is. Don’t use that as an excuse for complacency; still try your best no matter what, even if it’s not a lot.

Just go for it. Make the cartoon.

Special thanks to Nobaddy, who read over the article and gave feedback.

FrDougal9000 writes for hardcoregaming101.net as Apollo Chungus. When he isn’t writing about video games, he is cultivating his love of animation that’s only increased over the last few years as he’s explored the wide, weird and wonderful world of the medium.

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