Web Noir
Issue: Volume: 26 Issue: 5 (May 2003)

Web Noir

Broken Saints uses Web and graphics tools to tell a story that is dark, disturbing—and compelling. Broken Saints, a 24-chapter animated graphic novel that won the 2003 Sundance Online Film Festival Viewers Award for animation, can be seen at www.br

By Jenny Donelan

The first article in our three-part series about short films on the Web features Broken Saints, an award-winning serial animation that was designed to be viewed online. In upcoming issues, we'll look at other ways that artists are using the Web to create or promote their film properties.

No matter what you call it—Webisode, digital comic book, or graphic literature event (as its creators would prefer)—Broken Saints feels like a new kind of medium. It is a bit like a comic book in that characters' words and thoughts appear in type (which, in fact, looks like comic book lettering). And it uses the sort of abstract visual montages and over-the-top language that comic book fans will find familiar. But because Broken Saints is an animation, viewers must wait for the type and objects to appear and disappear on screen at just the speeds their creators intended, which at first could seem irritatingly slow. However, partly because each of the 24 episodes, which average about 15 minutes long, must be viewed straight through without pausing, and partly because the music, pacing, colors, effects, and writing are so effectively woven together, most people will be quickly coaxed into the story's hypnotic rhythm—just in time to be startled by something happening very suddenly, as it occasionally does in this strange and sinister world.

The premise of Broken Saints involves four vastly different main characters from various parts of the world who each become aware that something terrible is happening—or about to happen. Shan-dala, a girl living on a tropical island, begins to have disturbing dreams. Oran, a man of action hiding out in the desert, experiences feelings of dread. Raimi, an urban computer programmer, discovers ominous information hidden in code. And Kamimura, a banished Shinto monk, has visions of destruction that compel him to travel west for answers.

The Vancouver-based creators of Broken Saints, who cite influences ranging from David Lynch's television serial Twin Peaks to the Green Lantern comic series, set out to make a "creepy and thought-provoking" story that would use the Web to address mega issues such as good and evil, wisdom, compassion, and sacrifice. They have thus far done so to great acclaim. Since its launch in January 2001, the site has had more than 2 million visitors. Broken Saints has also won a host of awards, including the 2003 Sundance Online Film Festival Viewers Award for animation.

The series' creator and author is Brooke Burgess, a writer who had originally intended the story to be an autobiographical novel. But when he met up with old friend and artist Andrew West and began collaborating with him and also with technical director Ian Kirby, the project morphed into something else entirely. "Adapting the comic idea and letting it evolve in cinematic fashion online just seemed like the right thing to do," says Burgess. "The Net gave us access to a global audience, and we had no censorship concerns with the political/spiritual material," says Burgess.

Each episode of Broken Saints takes approximately eight weeks to produce and is entirely put together by Burgess, West, and Kirby. West creates the anime-style characters and backgrounds for the story, drawing the art on a Wacom tablet using Corel's Painter 6, and Adobe Systems' Photoshop and Illustrator. Alias|.Wavefront's Maya is sometimes used to lay out backgrounds or conceptualize scene layouts. Kirby formats the various elements into a Macromedia Flash-formatted project, mixing art, sound, text, and motion. A techno-hypnotic score, which provides a haunting overlay for Broken Saints, is by Tobias Tinker, who is also Burgess's cousin.

Burgess notes that visually, the series increases in complexity as it progresses through the episodes, because as the team gained experience, they were able to create more ambitious effects and animation. For the later episodes, Kirby also began using Toon Boom Studio animation software, which enabled him to incorporate complicated 3D camera movements, such as a dolly in and a pan to the side.

Early on, Broken Saints faced two limitations that eventually became assets of a sort. Because staff and budget were modest, producing facial animation so that a 2D or 3D character could speak words was out of the question. The solution, to present characters' speech in comic book-style bubbles that fade on and off the screen in artful fashion, ultimately has the effect of forcing the viewer to become more engaged in the experience. Besides, notes Burgess, text allows the characters to express themselves in higher language than they might if they were speaking, and is also a handy way to show the characters' thought processes.

The second limitation was lack of pause-control over the animations, which, once launched, run their course. Because of the way Flash currently incorporates sound, having a pause function in the episodes would have compromised sound quality overall. But here again, the series' makers chose to view this as a plus, claiming the 15 minutes or so of concentration required to watch each episode helps draw viewers more deeply into the story's world.

And Burgess cites other difficulties: "Technically," he says, "the biggest challenge was to create a narrative experience that was relatively uniform across a broad spectrum of users' hardware. Unlike traditional films, comics, or even console games, the Flash experience is still quite dependent on the viewer's processor power." Because the files for each episode can reach 4mb and more, "we couldn't depend on streaming the entire thing to keep frame rates up. Instead we try to optimize each scene and balance mood versus frame-rate concerns."

To conserve bandwidth and animation hours, the series uses comic book-style dialog bubbles (top) rather than spoken words. To convey much of the drama, the animators relied on stylized artwork and special effects (bottom picture).

The series' own success has also jeopardized it. "The catch-22 of Internet popularity is simple," says Burgess. "The more popular you get, the more it costs you to stay alive [handle the number of site visitors]." The series' authors didn't want to run ads on the site and have so far been able to survive on viewer donations and a series of benefit concerts launched in the Vancouver area.

The 24th episode—a one-hour finale for the 12-hour series—is to air in June. After that, the team plans to package Broken Saints into a 4-disc DVD set with extra material that should be ready by the end of the year. With nearly 40,000 viewers on the newsletter mailing list, getting the word out should not be a problem.

Even though Broken Saints' creators believed that the series would be popular, they didn't expect the magnitude of the response it has so far received. "We were deluged by critics who thought that nobody would invest the hours and hours required to really immerse themselves in the Broken Saints experience," says Burgess. But occasionally the time can be right even for projects that seem to contradict themselves—like online entertainment that is meant to be savored slowly.

Jenny Donelan is the managing editor of Computer Graphics World.

Adobe Systems www.adobe.com

Alias|Wavefront www.aliaswavefront.com

Corel www.corel.com

Macromedia www.macromedia.com

Toon Boom Studio www.toonboom.com

Wacom www.wacom.com