A father is drawn into taking desperate measures when his son falls ill in Cliona Noonan’s compassionate animated short Soft Tissue. Rendered in greens, blues and teals with no dialogue, Noonan’s short is a testament to the power of honing your style down and embracing the powerful fundamentals of the form. It’s also driven by a beautiful, gentle score and a tactile sound design palette that embeds the shaped character models into a familiar reality. Directors Notes is proud to premiere Soft Tissue on our pages alongside an enlightening conversation where Noonan talks through her artistic residency in Birr, Ireland which gave her the pace and environment to flesh out her ideas, the stories of organ trading that birthed the conceptual kernel for the film, and the creative limitations she enforced in order to bring out her best work.
How did the idea for Soft Tissue originate?
Initially with Soft Tissue I wanted to tell a story that explored the feeling of uncertainty. Most of my film ideas develop from a desire to convey a particular mood or atmosphere. The character comes first and then the story evolves from there. I had been drawing surgeons wearing medical masks and scrubs and eventually ended up reading about organ trading online. I started thinking about what might lead someone to go to that extreme.
At the same time I was intrigued by this grey area between right and wrong, where a person’s desire to do good could result in committing illegal acts. What begins as a selfless act for the main character soon becomes a selfish obsession. It’s about wanting something so badly, but the harder you try the more you forget your reasons for starting in the first place. Ultimately, through the main character’s struggles the film examines the lack of control we have over our lives.
What begins as a selfless act for the main character soon becomes a selfish obsession.
Developing animation is a notoriously long process, what did pre-production and production look like for you? Was it tricky getting the short off the ground?
Soft Tissue was made for the most part during the OFFline Animation Residency in Birr, County Offaly, a town in the middle of Ireland. I applied with some concept art and a loose idea for the film which revolved around a father-son relationship, and was invited to spend six months there as Animator in Residence. The residency was kindly funded by Creative Ireland, Offaly County Council and The Trench Trust, with Piranha Bar animation studio as industry mentors. In supporting the film they provided a studio space, equipment, mentoring, accommodation, and a weekly stipend. Thankfully the format of the residency allowed for the freedom of a more independent approach to filmmaking, which was a really enjoyable way to work. I was able to do things in a nonconventional way that wasn’t restricted by the usual production pipelines of a traditional studio workflow. And because I was carrying it out alone, I could jump back and forth between the different stages of production and change things much later down the line.
Do you think that approach affected how everything came together?
I think developing a film like Soft Tissue definitely required a different pace and environment in order to come together successfully, and it really benefited from the time and headspace provided by the residency.
How did it all come together on a technical level? What software were you animating with? And were there any other animating techniques you embraced?
In terms of actually making the film, I animated everything frame by frame in TVPaint and the backgrounds were made in either Photoshop or Procreate. Compositing was done using After Effects and the final edit in Premiere. I also used scanned paper textures during the comp process to help give a more tactile feel to the digital animation.
There’s a distinct control to the animation with a clear colour palette of greens, blues and teals and a visually-driven approach to the narrative. What attracted you to working within these parameters?
I find it really important to set rules for myself early on in order to focus my efforts, for example by using no dialogue and working within a limited colour palette. At the same time these limitations usually achieve the most interesting results. My animation style is also quite controlled and I will often reserve the more fluid animation for the most important scenes of the film in order to highlight their significance to the story.
What drew you to the colour palette? To me, they’re sombre colours but also are the colours most reminiscent of hospitals and medical environments.
For the colour palette I was definitely inspired by the greenish-blue colours of surgical clothing and the starkness of hospitals in general. Most of the time I tend to be drawn towards limited or monochrome palettes. By focusing on green alone it meant that I could really explore this one colour in its entirety, using all of its tints and shades to represent different points in the story. In this way, the colour progression directly reflects the progression of the narrative.
Similarly, the music and sound design drive the story too, who did you work with on those elements?
From the very beginning I knew that music and sound design would be an essential part of Soft Tissue. I had worked with the Composer Prediction. before on my previous films, so we already had a great way of communicating with one another. I usually start by creating a playlist of pre-existing music that suits the mood I’m going for. With Soft Tissue I wanted things to evolve more organically, so I also asked Prediction. to send me samples of tracks she had already been writing for herself. The mood fit perfectly with the new film idea I had. I started storyboarding while listening to her music and used it later to create a scratch track when putting together the animatic. I chopped things up and rearranged them quite a bit, but eventually, this became the basis for the film’s score.
I find it really important to set rules for myself early on in order to focus my efforts.
At that point Eoin Kelly came on board as sound designer. It was my first time properly treating sound design as a separate entity to the music, and it really helped to root the film in a believable world. The whole way through production it was a back-and-forth process between image, sound and music. We updated each other regularly until all the gaps were filled to form one cohesive soundtrack. During post the residency put us in touch with Raygun, a post production house in Dublin. There we worked with Steve Maher who did the final mix in 5.1 surround sound.
Was Soft Tissue wrapped up by the end of the residency or did you continue working on it for a while afterwards?
Overall it took about a year to make the film. After six months on the residency it still wasn’t quite finished, so I took a break for a few months while taking on some industry work. I continued tipping away at things on weekends but progress was slow. Around the same time I got a helping hand from my friend Naoise Dempsey with colouring the animation. Then I received some additional funding from Fingal Arts under their Artists Support Scheme, which allowed me to go back to finishing the film full time.
After another three months of work it was finally done and had its premiere at the OFFline Film Festival in October 2021. Since then I’ve been lucky enough to travel to lots of great festivals with the film including Animafest Zagreb, Pictoplasma and Tricky Women/Tricky Realities, to name a few. Then to top it all off we won an IFTA for Best Animated Short earlier this year, so it’s been a great run for Soft Tissue.
Amazing, congratulations! Final question, is there anything you can tell us about what you might be working on next?
I’ve just recently gone back to school to specialise in Directing for Animation at La Poudrière in France so I’ll be making more short films very soon!