“The Three Pandas” is the third animated interactive children’s book published by See Here Studios. As a digital publishing company, we wished to add some classic folktales to our book line – but we also wanted to tell the fables with a creative twist. “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” stood out as a favorite story, and during a brainstorming session we suddenly came up with the idea of substituting panda bears for brown bears, and transplanting the tale to the bamboo forests of China.

From this initial idea, we gradually brought the concept to life in a process that was often quite unexpected and surprising. The book involved a collaborative process between our artistic and software teams. This article focuses on developing the illustrations and animation; for a discussion of the programming aspect, please see my Moms With Apps blog post on “App-related Resources for Children’s Book Authors and Illustrators.”

“The Three Pandas” involved four main stages of illustration and animation:

1. Defining the illustration style and approach
2. Animating the pandas
3. Figuring out how to animate the little girl in the story
4. Designing backgrounds and virtual sets

1. Defining the illustration style and approach
Originally, I planned to use a cartoonish illustration style for the book. Early style tests used a combination of graphic line illustrations with textures (to represent fluffy fur).

Initial design concept for The Three Pandas

Initial design concept for The Three Pandas

During this process, I had collected lots of photo reference of pandas, and I kept going back to the photos for inspiration. At some point, I realized that the photos of real-life pandas were so charming, so irresistible, that it would probably be the most appealing to use actual photos of pandas in the illustrations.

So I set aside the cartoonish designs and instead, started exploring whether it would be possible to use a mixed-media photo collage approach. This was a major change in direction, but it felt like the right thing to do….

2. Animating the pandas
Not having worked with photo-collage illustration or animation before, there were a lot of unknowns. Where would we get all the photos needed for the book? Would it work to collage the photos with other elements to create a book illustration? Would it look appealing – or strange – to animate the photos? How exactly would we animate them?

Samples of panda photo research

Samples of panda photo research

I scoured all the possible sources of photos to see if we could find the ages, angles and emotions we needed for the different scenes in the book. Soon an entire wall was covered with possible photo candidates, pulled from a combination of public domain, Creative Commons and licensed images.

For the next step, we had to test whether we could successfully animate the photos. One of the wonderful things about working as an animation teacher is that I get to meet a lot of talented students – and sometimes, I’m fortunate to have the opportunity to work with them. I asked Andrea Senise, a recent M.F.A. animation graduate, to tackle the task of developing a photo-animation approach. She utilized a variety of creative techniques in After Effects to setup and manipulate the panda photos so that they could actually MOVE. Once we had some appealing early animation tests, we finally knew that we could pull off the project.

3. Figuring out how to animate the little girl in the story
Once we decided to use photo-realistic pandas in the book illustrations, we had to decide how to approach the “Goldilocks” character. It seemed unlikely that a cartoon character would be able to mesh with photo-characters, so we made a radical decision – to work with a real little girl! Since we had real pandas, we had to have a real “Goldilocks” too (or in our bamboo forest version, an inquisitive girl named Mei Mei).

Greenscreen pixelation shoot with Jenna Fan

Greenscreen pixelation shoot with Jenna Fan

We happened to know the perfect little girl for the story. Our artist friends Elaine Chu and Elliot Fan have an incredibly adorable 7-year-old daughter named Jenna. When we discussed the project with them, we were surprised to find out Jenna’s favorite animal: PANDAS! They told her about the project, explaining that the book would also help raise funds to support pandas, and asked if she would be willing to act in it….and she said “yes”!

Example of greenscreen image with background & chair removed

Example of greenscreen image with background & chair removed

This was our first green screen shoot, so there was quite a bit of trial-and-error involved in learning how to light things properly and how to stage the actions. We setup a portable green screen and arranged the photo shoot using props roughly sized like the props in the book. Acting against a green screen, without any real interaction, is a challenge for even seasoned actors – much less a 7-year-old. Elaine helped tremendously by serving as Jenna’s acting coach as we tried to explain each scene. Jenna was such a good sport and put up with the oddness of it all.

Jenna placed within the Papa Chair book page

Jenna placed within the Papa Chair book page

The approach of shooting a live actor and then using the resulting images as animated frames is a technique known as “pixelation” in the animation field. Although I had admired the pixelation work of Norman McClaren and others, I had never tried the technique before (another first!)

4. Designing backgrounds and virtual sets
The environments for the book were setup by Andrea as virtual sets in After Effects. Once the basic layouts were complete, we fleshed out the scenes through a process of virtual set dressing.

This gave us the opportunity to further the story through the environment. I didn’t want Mei Mei to wreck the house, but I did want her to leave traces of her presence as she made her way through the pandas’ home. These little details can make repeated readings of the book more intriguing.

A book scene before set dressing

A book scene before set dressing

After set dressing

After set dressing

Can you tell what Mei Mei changed in the scene?

Can you tell what Mei Mei changed in the scene?

In conclusion, the making of “The Three Pandas” was an incredible learning experience. It provided an opportunity to work with photo collage, photo animation, green screen, pixelation and other creative techniques. As you can see, any animation production is a collaborative effort, and this book would not have been possible without the generous help of friends and colleagues.

Special thanks go out to Elaine Chu, Elliot Fan and Jenna Fan for creating the Mei Mei character; animators Andrea Senise and Adrian Martinez; production artists Giap Waye Goh and Stephen Nosee; translator and Chinese voiceover artist Xinrong Searcy; writing editors Nancy Lamb and Parijat Desai; software engineer Zhi Yun Qi; Andrea Muller of Pandas International; and co-Creative Director Wallace E. Keller.

I hope you enjoy the results as much as we enjoyed creating this imaginary world.

– Valerie Mih, June 6, 2011

Categories: Blog

5 Comments

Andrew J · June 11, 2011 at 3:04 pm

This is a beautiful project. I am curious to know if you think this really is the future of children’s literature. I totally agree with you about the blending of real images and fantasy, I think it is fundamental to our brains, our perception, our dreams.
An early example can be found in this Anglo Canadian movie Shut Up and Write Me

Question: do you think there are issues re using the collected images? Aren’t they someone else’s copyright? What are your thoughts?

seeherestudios · June 11, 2011 at 3:47 pm

Hi Andrew,
Thank you for your comments and sharing the link!
In terms of your question, yes, we had to be very careful to only use collected images that we could legally reproduce. The images used were all either public domain (freely usable by anyone), Creative Commons Attribution (we attributed them in the credits listing for the book) or licensed (we purchased a license that allows commercial usage). There were many images that we did not use because they did not fall into one of these 3 categories. If we could not find the original source/owner, we would not use the image. This was part of the challenge! 🙂

mpc · June 13, 2011 at 6:30 pm

Excellent publication, I think that this is the future for children’s publishing. A tech question, are the camera moves (thru the bamboo) and the resulting parallax done in AE or IOS?

    seeherestudios · June 13, 2011 at 11:17 pm

    Thanks MPC – and to answer your question, the camera move animations were created in in AE.

App-related Resources for Children’s Book Authors and Illustrators · June 13, 2011 at 1:51 pm

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