Founded 25 years ago this week, esteemed client Bay Area animation + design studio Little Fluffy Clouds celebrate with the release of their latest short film, an animated ode to Yellowstone National Park and the devastating fires that swept through there in 1988.

Creators and Studio Info:

LITTLE FLUFFY CLOUDS ANIMATION

Multi award-winning Bay Area production studio, Little Fluffy Clouds, was founded by the creative team of Betsy De Fries and Jerry van de Beek. LFC specializes in high-end motion graphics and animation. 

Talented, imaginative, experimental yet pragmatic, LFC brings a unique edge to concept design, live action with integrated motion graphics, state-of-the-art VFX, character development, 2D and 3D animation, AFX, title sequences and all forms of on-line interactive and mobile media.

A compulsion for storytelling, interwoven with a constant eye for exploration, development and investment in the latest technologies, allows this talented duo to think freely, playfully question, concept, dream, draw, code, animate, produce and deliver experiences that enable their clients’ ideas to shine. Diversity of style is the studio byword.

Long located in San Francisco, LFC also has an additional remote working site situated opposite the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Hiking shoes and biking shorts are recommended.

Betsy De Fries

Writer, poet and mixed media artist, Betsy is also Little Fluffy Clouds founder, director and producer. Her checkered past includes theatres, nightclubs, performance spaces and international art collectives.

An early participant in forward thinking media Betsy was a Senior Producer for New Media & Interactivity for legendary Bay Area animation powerhouse, Colossal Pictures. Formative years were spent on live action film and music video sets from whence she opted for the relative sanity of emerging new media, first producing, Where Next Columbus: Mission to Mars, the first and longest running interactive exhibit for Smithsonian Air & Space Museum. She then joined the creative team at Apple’s R&D studio, Discovery, producing a plethora of interactive projects. A stint at Paramount’s Media Kitchen, conceiving and producing ITV pilots, eventually led her back to the extremely production oriented Colossal and finally on to found Little Fluffy Clouds.

Betsy’s work can be seen on the international animation festival circuit and in multiple art publications. All latest work can be seen on the LFC website. Betsy hales from London but now lives happily in California with her dog JAX.

Jerry van de Beek

Jerry is Little Fluffy Clouds co-founder and the director of many award winning commercials and shorts. He likes nothing more than experimenting with different styles and looks to ensure that he remains at the forefront of new technologies. Staying hands-on, by working in 2D, 3D, VFX and liveaction, he mixes up the usual to arrive at the unusual.

Also a programmer he has forged innovative techniques for the seamless integration of traditional and digital animation, notably his pioneering digital referencing app, DIANA. He personally codes the LFC website and is always in the avant-garde of techniques relating to interactive and mobile devices.

Prior to LFC Jerry was an animation director at Colossal Pictures. Jerry is an avid photographer and uses the medium as the means to tell a narrative in real time. His very personal imagery can be seen via the LFC website. Jerry’s animations are often seen on the international animation festival circuit and in multiple art publications. Originally from The Netherlands Jerry now lives very happily near bike and running trails in California.

Production details and background on the project:

BLUEPRINT

Evocative, magical, suspended in that mythic world of woodland folklore where animals are predominant and the planet moves to encircle the ecosystem in a constant tranquil accord. Yellowstone 88 – Song of Fire tells the story of the devastating fires that engulfed the park for five months of 1988 until winter snows and rain quelled the inferno and ended the destruction – or did it?

In tones of fiery reds, purples, yellows and oranges set against a dark, burning backdrop of damaged, diseased and drought ridden trees, dry lightning sparks a fire that rages like an avenging angel until its crusade is complete.

We see the many animals that live in the park – bear, bison, elk, deer, ground squirrels, fox and coyote. We see trees and scrub and plant life. We see mountains and rivers and valleys. We see dawn and dusk and the dark night skies that reveal the magnificent nebula in the galaxy above.

These sculpted two dimensional animals – part spirit and part real – flee the fire to quickly reach a place of safety, if they can, some go to water, some go underground. Eventually a white winter snow of intense severity covers the scorched earth where now nothing edible can grow and fauna, exhausted from the fire and weakened by hunger, starve to death in search of food.

Bleak and desolate the starry cosmos turns from one season to the next and the next, and the land rests and renews and life begins again like the primordial spring. Flora grows in abundance, nourished by the fallen ashes of destruction, and animals and birds return in strength to once again reclaim their birthright. And so the story is as much about evolution as loss, and the spirit that resides in such an ancient forest.

At the time of the fire there were no wolves living in the park but their existence in Yellowstone predates the creation of the park and their presence and soul has always been felt, and so the spirit of the wolf speaks through this poem and guides us through the animation. Once reintroduced into the park their presence altered the shape of the ecosystem and returned it to an original stature.

GENESIS

Long admirers of wolves and their unique way of life, Little Fluffy Clouds creative’s Jerry van de Beek and Betsy De Fries, talked about making an animation featuring a wolf or a wolf pack. Jerry had also wanted to make an animation about redwood trees in a forest. While researching both subjects they came upon the story of the devastating fires that engulfed Yellowstone Park for months in 1988. A kernel of an idea began to take shape, to tell the story of that fire and its aftermath purely from the perspective of the flora and fauna in the park. Yellowstone 88 – Song of Fire is the culmination of that early seed. 

INSPIRATION

The penning of, Song of Fire, the narrative poem that guides the animation of Yellowstone 88, has it’s roots in a TED Talk given some while ago by the writer, journalist and eco-activist, George Monbiot, on the subject of rewilding. Rewilding is a newish word coined for a forward thinking concept, it means the mass restoration of ecosystems. Watching Monbiot happily lay out how the discovery of rewilding changed his life – gave it purpose and meaning – I was inspired by the notion of Trophic Cascade which he explains here:

“This is an ecological process, which starts at the top of the food chain and tumbles all the way down to the bottom, and the classic example is what happened at Yellowstone National Park when wolves were reintroduced in 1995.”    

            ~ How Wolves Changed Rivers – George Monbiot

THE POEM

SONG OF FIRE

I alone have shaped the valley

Moved the water, trod the stream

Spreading far and wide the forest

River’s cradle, mountains, dreams

Home of bears and wolves and bison

Lodgepole pines and blue, spruce trees

Summer solstice.  All is quiet

All is waiting for the rains

Broken trees like broken promise

Set the scene for great travails

Cloud to ground the silent lightning

Strikes not once, but twice again

Then an ember falls cascading

Light as air and breath exhaled

Racing, drifting, like some wishes

Cast their spell as kindling sails

Now the sky is orange, glowing

Now the fauna pressing on

Running, rushing, hooves-a-beating

All is fleet in speed and song

Winds like tempests set in motion

Whirl the fire overhead

And the forest strains to hear it

Seeking, speaking. Voice of death

Far beneath the maelstrom moment

Far beneath the fire’s dread

Bear and cub and squirrel soundly

Rest their weary worn out heads

Quickly moves inferno onward

Jumping roads and rivers wide

Catching, snatching, Taxa burning

Nothing can the forest hide

Parched and dry the tinder valley

Gives the fire all it has

And the fire soon consumes it

Dancing, spinning, turning mass

On it rages in a fury

On it wages hellish war

Through the summer, through the season

Can the forest give it more?

Pinecones seed their children onward

Explode to rest on forest floor

Then the hand of fate’s abated

And the spirit needs no more

Softly falls a silent blanket

Ghostly swirls that form within

Winter snow comes cold and riding

Drifting in on arctic winds

All is quiet all is muted

As the Bison trundle in

Slowly sinking, tired, mired

In their seeking, in their quest

Head and hoof move earth and water

Nothing – does this land possess

Fall where standing, life extinguished

Creatures of the ancient earth

Now to roam where dreams enlighten

Time of waiting, time of birth

Rest one season, then another

Weave a spell. A shift. A sign

Then the forest will rekindle

Flora, fauna – all in time

~ Betsy De Fries Song of Fire 2018 

Technical Challenges

Jerry van de Beek

When embarking on an animation you need two things – the story and the style. It helps me when creating the style or look to set parameters. For me parameters are not there to limit or compromise but instead to help to define the design direction and to give clarity.

I made an intentional decision to create Yellowstone 88 mostly within Adobe After Effects.  Why? There is a limited amount of 3D you can use within After Effects and the rest you have to fake to make it look the way you want it to.  That process is something I always enjoy so much when creating 2D animated productions. It’s the way in which it utilizes parallax, scale, color and detail to create the feeling of space.

Every scene In Yellowstone 88 is drawn by hand, initially in Autodesk Sketchbook Pro, and later those same drawing are cleaned up using Adobe Illustrator. Each illustration is then split up into hundreds of flat elements and recompiled in After Effects, carefully placing each element in a different depth layer to create a parallax effect when we move the camera.

Between these layers atmospheric effects like haze, snow, fire and rain are added. Layers further in the background are desaturated and elements closer to the camera are blurred. I use all kinds of tricks to create that feeling of depth in the traditional 2D way.

Setting these parameters gives you a space where you can focus on the detail and I think it’s the detail in Yellowstone 88 that makes this production so special.

Creative Challenges

Jerry van de Beek

The fires that took hold in Yellowstone Park, for months of 1988, were huge and complex and it was a heartbreaking event. There were so many elements involved, affecting both animals and people and the very nature of the land. I think if you talk to 10 different people who were there you will get 10 different stories. As an artist you always try to encapsulate a feeling or emotion, whether through dance, music, poetry or animation. For us the most challenging thing was which part of the story to tell and what feeling we wanted to capture and communicate.

Again we had to set parameters. Our story would be told by combining poetry, animation and music. The difficulty comes in combining these different disciplines to bring the story arc into alignment. The narrative poem, penned by my partner Betsy De Fries, combined with the way it is read by the actor Peter Coyote, has a very unique rhythm to it but animation needs its own timings to set the stage and show the action. Add to this the magic of music, composed by Mark Murphy at Secrets and Machines, which needs a beat and its own harmony to spark its own part of the story and glue everything together.

It became a huge puzzle but by moving the pieces around constantly adjusting elements, removing them and sometimes bringing them back in, we finally managed to get every piece of it to work together. I don’t think there’s one piece in the poem, the music or the animation that wasn’t altered in some way for the good of the whole.

In the end it all looks so simple but just remember that we started with a blank page.

CREDITS

Narrated by: Peter Coyote

Poem by:  Betsy De Fries

Production, Design, Animation: Little Fluffy Clouds

Director, Designer, Animator:  Jerry van de Beek

Director, Producer:  Betsy De Fries

Music and Sound Mix:  Secrets & Machines

Composer:  Mark Murphy

Sound Design:   Jerry van de Beek, Mark Murphy

Voice Over Recording:  Mixstream.org

Audio Engineer:   Stephen Barncard

Production Dog:  JAX

5.  TWITTER HANDLES

@LFCBetsy

@LFCJerry

@LFCJAX

Stash covers the film here