The idea for Astray first came to me in 2017, but I never finished the thing until 2019. That might sound like a pretty reasonable turnaround for a feature film, but Astray was only five minutes long! Well, the original vision was about twice that length. The final version was shaved down to its most critical elements, and was also a somewhat different story in the end than what was originally planned.
The first images I ever sketched for the project were the rough storyboards. I'd written out a general scenario beforehand, but the initial drawings are where things really started to take shape (the character had stripes even in the earliest days).
When it comes to actual animation, I do struggle with bringing characters to life. For this, I enlisted a friend of mine to film each scene so that I could use her footage as reference. Her personal style was also part of the inspiration for the character design.
My original draft involved a literal stray cat luring the main character into the house. The title was a play on that, as well as meaning that the woman was actually led "astray" from her path. The latter is pretty much all that remains of those two halves in the final version, although the main girl does have cat designs on her stockings to commemorate the scrapped feline sidekick (along with more than a couple plot elements).
Despite some pretty major changes, the general shot/story progression of Astray always remained somewhat similar to my initial idea. I was the only person making the thing, so there was nobody forcing me to make these alterations (or stopping me). What ultimately came to fruition was what I consider the best possible version of my ideas at the time. Do I regret leaving a half-cat lady on the cutting room floor? To some degree, yes ... but hey, it just leaves something to consider for the next project.
Evolution of the foyer.
Being the first film project I'd completed on my own, I spent a lot of time experimenting with different approaches to the visual style. At one point this even included an attempt at 2D rotoscoped animation. The final black and white look was a combination of a 3D character on backgrounds I pieced together using photos I'd taken over the years. Technically they are 2D images, but I used a rough 3D set to sort out cameras and perspective. This technique of a 3D character on "pre-rendered" backdrops is something I was partially inspired by from the original Resident Evil video games.
The lead character went through quite a few iterations. She never had an official name, but I dubbed her "Lost Girl" on IMDb ... so let's go with that. The concept art above was the final drawing of the character before she was modelled, but after seeking some feedback I was advised to give her a longer skirt for modesty. In fairness, she was one nickel drop away from flashing the world. I confess to being guilty of the typical male mentality for cartoons, where a skirt really only needs to cover about one centimetre below the crotch to be considered appropriate. Ventilation, right? No? Well, err ... uhh ... it's easier to animate! There ya go!
When finally bringing the character to life, this is where my live reference footage was invaluable. The only real criteria I had for a filming space was that is was large and had doors. It was, however, imperative that I filmed each shot with the proper framing, as if I was actually shooting the thing for real. This would make things much easier down the road.
Storyboarding your shoot beforehand is an absolute must for something like this. It helps in visualizing what you need, and also means you won't be wasting the actor's time or your own. I've seen bigger productions where the director is inventing their shots on the day of the shoot. This is, in my opinion, absolutely ridiculous and will cause headaches for everyone.
As much as my project changed over the course of its development, the footage I originally filmed remained the backbone throughout the entire process. Without it, I would not have been able to produce animation that was remotely natural or believable. I animated directly over the footage, but the importance of recording even basic reference for animation really cannot be stressed enough. It was a lesson that took me a long time to appreciate.
The "monster" throughout the film was simply live footage of myself. I didn't even add a credit for the performance! I've considered taking myself to court for that, but can you imagine the legal fees for hiring two opposing lawyers?
Ultimately, I am proud of what Astray became. The experience was one of learning and growth for me. Watching it now, there are aspects I wish I'd improved upon, but the product I deemed "complete" at the time did enjoy showings at eight festivals around North America, so it was appreciated by people that were unlikely to pay attention to the things I considered lacking. Animation has endless possibilities for exploring weird and dark subjects or worlds. While I don't feel that Astray is particularly deep in its vague narrative, I was happy to create something that was at least unusual; a five minute journey into a bizarre place that otherwise doesn't exist. To that end, it was a success.