Filmmaking partners Tsvetelina Zdraveva and Jerred North’s short animated drama Yellowbird sees a young Bulgarian immigrant living in New York when she receives news of a family tragedy overseas. From here, she must reconcile with her grief and decide whether or not to risk her legal status in order to return home. It’s interesting watching this play out and to think of the implications it has both before and after the Covid-19 pandemic as, whilst it is a story specific to the immigrant experience, it also makes a wider comment on the rules and regulations of a national legal system that forces separation between loved ones in times of turmoil. DN is delighted to share the trailer below – the full film is available to watch on HBO Max as part of their Only You animated shorts collection – next to a discussion we had with the co-directors about their journey into animation, the fast inception of the story of Yellowbird, and the plethora of production roles they each adopted.
What brought you both to the medium of animation?
We’re a Los Angeles-based animation directing team who work under the name Afterman. When we first met in New York, Jerred was working as a cinematographer and a writer, and Tsvet as an architect. We were looking for ways to collaborate together after hours and chose 3D animation as a way to blend both our skill sets.
Eventually, we switched to animation full time, pitching for crowd-sourced commercial projects. This let us keep learning and improving our workflow while on the job. Our first big “yes” was for a short PSA for NASA back in 2016, which we made as a blend of 2D painted textures and 3D characters and environments. We really enjoyed working on that project, and with more experience behind us since then, we were excited to try this visual approach again for Yellowbird.
With less than a year to finish the film and a tight budget, we wore a lot of hats just between the two of us.
How did Yellowbird form as a project? I read that you made it in collaboration with HBO Max.
When Tsvet’s dad died unexpectedly back in Bulgaria in 2018, we quickly wrote the script and knew right away it was something we wanted to make. As an after-hours job, we started creating illustrations we could use to pitch our project to any available grants, programs and scholarships we could research, but after a year, all we had to show for our time were rejections. Eventually, just as our deck became more developed, we found a call for submissions for Only You, an HBO Max x WarnerMedia Access Animated Shorts Program and sent our idea in. After being asked to present our project in person, they selected Yellowbird as one of eight films in their series.
With less than a year to finish the film and a tight budget, we wore a lot of hats just between the two of us. We storyboarded, edited, recorded ourselves for animation reference, designed the environments and characters, modelled and textured all 3D assets, and animated the layout for the animators.
Who were your other collaborators on Yellowbird and what did they bring to the fold?
We worked with Chaya Pictures, an animation studio based in Thailand, to rig the models and do the final animation. Ashley Chung animated all background characters, and Alexander Snow, along with a group of his current and former students, added some last-minute polishing. To create the final background paintings used in the film, Michał Sawtyruk, Léa Pinto, and Chris De La Guardia worked off of 3D renders we textured and lit for each shot. Menoua Dersookiasian projected those paintings back onto a clean pass of the layout geometry. We also had an incredibly talented cast that we recorded remotely in both the US and Bulgaria with the help of Gypsy Sound (Los Angeles), and Nu Boyana Studios (Sofia).
It’s like a magic trick that never gets old for us.
There’s a great score too which has such a strong emotionality to it. Who was your composer and what did they bring to the mix?
It’s hard to overstate how much the Composer Ramachandra Borcar brought to the film, deconstructing traditional Bulgarian folk melodies into very simple pared-down piano and vocal arrangements, his score made us both very emotional the moment we heard it.
You mentioned earlier that idea and script came quickly to you. What is it like reflecting on Yellowbird now as a complete, fully-formed short?
It has been the highlight of our last few years to be able to collaborate with such an incredible team on creating Yellowbird. When we wrote the script we had thought the story might only be relevant to other immigrants. But since the Covid lockdown, the experience of not being able to say goodbye after losing a loved one became a lot more common, and we’ve been incredibly moved by the many people who, after watching Yellowbird, have reached out to us to share their own, similar story.
I really enjoy the almost graphic novel-like design of your characters and their environments, how did you arrive at that visual style?
We wanted to share our own experience with immigration as honestly as possible. Our script was very true to life, and we tried to create a visual style that would reinforce that without being a distraction. Realistic character design can sometimes take us out of a story because as viewers, our eyes are so sensitive to features and movement that aren’t fully human. We used a simplified design language that we felt gave us more room for interpretation when animating.
We’ve been incredibly moved by the many people who, after watching Yellowbird, have reached out to us to share their own, similar story.
What is it about animation as a form of storytelling that you both enjoy?
We love that every piece of what goes on screen has to be designed and created first. On one hand, this gives us the chance to tailor characters, locations, props, even the weather, to what best tells the story. On the other, we can wear many hats in production and specialize in areas where we each have more personal experience – Jerred animating and working with cameras and Tsvet drawing, designing, and modeling. Animation is incredibly involved. It takes years to create, and it isn’t until the last few weeks or months of a project that all the work comes together and becomes something bigger than the sum of its parts. It’s like a magic trick that never gets old for us.
And finally, what’s next for Afterman?
We’ve just circled back to a couple other projects we’ve been working on for a few years now. One is a horror/thriller feature film, and the other is a sci-fi YA show that we’re getting ready to pitch. Regardless of what we end up working on next, our biggest hope is that we can keep finding projects that let us collaborate with the incredible group of artists who worked with us on Yellowbird.