Monday, 18 March 2013

Beaconsfield's got Talent


That was the subject line of the email I received on the 31st October. It was like a recruitment telegram from Uncle Sam. I had come from a student at the National Film and Television School, over in Buckinghamshire.
The film's producer, Emily Morgan had forwarded me an email from the director, Claire Winter. She'd got hold of my details from a mutual friend and NFTS graduate, Yousif Al-Khalifa, and it was made clear to me early on that this project ought to be a good fit for me.
The film was being produced in Photoshop, and had a very strong design element, and characters that stood out, aesthetically..

My initial involvement was inbetweening a dance sequence involving three characters, Magda, Eva and Lenni, better known in the film as 'The Pussy Cat Twinkies'. Each of the characters were designed very similarly, but with quite slight anatomical differences, and varied facial appearances. Being a 'girl group' their dance routine was naturally synchronised to perfection. Allied with the previous points about their design, this made the entire experience ultimately frustrating, as despite the character carrying out the same animated sequenced the job was not a simple task of 'copy and paste' due to the subtle changes in the way that each of them are drawn, though I only realised this after completing the first of the characters.  A bit of a lesson to myself about trying to take shortcuts ahead of evaluating the correct procedure.

Photoshop having a 'special moment'

I began working on 'Magda' around late November, and finished up on the 20th. It'd been a while since I'd done any prolonged animating, so its fair to say that was a tad rusty, but the work seemed to drag on for longer than I'd anticipated. The keyframes were very strong, so I started of trying to inbetween where I could, but I soon decided I'd be better off trying to act the scene first, and if you've seen the clip, on my showreel, of the finished action then I'm sure that you can imagine how embarrassing that was. I'm not quite sure what my response would have been, had someone caught me performing this dance at 2am in my bedroom, but there we are.

So, after nailing the choreography, like a boss, I started working on a rough set of frames, in order to prioritise the animation. I wanted to make sure that it was as fluid as it had been intended, and to save time in the long run. From my perspective it made more sense to learn from any mistakes in this rough stage, than replicate a good design, that might not move correctly.
Once I'd finished the rough animation, I went on to do the clean up, but I ran into some problems. The characters didn't have model sheets, so I was just going by eye. This was quite problematic especially with the amount of turning the character did. Not having a fixed reference meant a lot of time spent trying to figure out angles and spatial context, and having been working remotely at that stage, made for several long nights.

Pussy Cat Twinkies, and Darlene
Ultimately the design made the character quite tricky to animate, with elements like the eyelashes, hair and even the rakish physique. By the time I'd finished on 'Magda', I assumed the other two would be just a tad easier, and in fairness there were sections of the animation that were less demanding than others, but I was very wary of making the characters follow the key frames, laid out by director rather than the rough animation I had done already. 'Lenni' and 'Eva' took sixteen and eleven days respectively to finish off, and I was definitely glad to see the back of the 'Twinkies'. 
I even went as far as to put it to Claire, that she deliberately mad the characters difficult to animate, so that you have no sympathy for them in the film. 
She laughed, in partial agreement. 
I think.

By the start of the 2013, I'd had enough!
Enough, of my desk space that is.
I was getting cabin fever, and figured I ought to get out into the world, and attempt to reintegrate with society. In truth, I was still working on 'Eva', and hoped that by working in the studio I'd have more of a dialogue with the director, and other animators in the production team, as well as feeding off of the collective vibe that occurs in a grouped workspace.

Tweet, tweet: My thoughts after my first day in the studio

I'd been up to the NFTS in the past to work on another short, but this time the journeys seemed longer and more arduous somehow. It probably had something to do with the torrid weather we were having at the time.
Being January it was understandably cold, but the chill of Beaconsfield really takes you by surprise. Being somewhere without massive buildings, or air pollution probably meant the wind got to you much quicker, and made me yearn for the smog of London. If the wind and rain wasn't enough, then there was the snow.

Beaconsfield has it's own micro-climate
It's an awfully British thing to go on about but several of my friend will concur that once you're old enough to have a paying job then snow is a blinding eyesore. It's obviously ridiculously colder when there's snow. It delays trains blocks traffic, and if it gets on your jeans, it lies in wait like a time bomb, waiting to melt through onto your helpless leg.
Damn you, snow!

Went off on a bit of a tangent there.


So, I finally met my director on the 8th of January, and soon found that we were on a similar wavelength. She listens to Frank Ocean (as you all should), she'd heard of 'Superail!', and introduced me to the work of David Shrigley, in particular 'The Door', which had me in maniacal fits of laughter for days on end. All in all, she was easy to get along with.
Initially, I was pencilled in for three days, just to get the shot finished, but I was told there was more work going, to help get the film finished.
This wasn't what I'd planned. My sleep pattern was messed up, I wasn't eating properly, and I had no social life. I'm fairly sure I remember telling @jesskleslau that I was going cut and run after finishing the 'Twinkies', yet with freedom on the horizon I chose to stay.
I suppose that meeting people face-to-face gives you more of a connection, clearly on a personal level, but also with the project. Being able to see the bits of work from the development process, like the mood board which was steeped in references to 'Ren & Stimpy', the aforementioned 'SuperJail!' and of course, 'Spongebob Squarepants'. There was the storyboard that was scattered across the studio like wallpaper. Furthermore, being in the studio I able to watch the animatic, so I could see I saw how hilarious the story but also see it being continually updated with animation, or colour and lighting so the production process became much more real to me.

If I'd continued working remotely I probably wouldn't have stayed on, but despite the workload, I was enjoying myself over in Beaconsfield. The production team seemed to be growing by the day. I was soon introduced to our producer, Emily Morgan, and also some of the other animation assistants, and colourists. Maria Turska, and Emily Knight, became my regular studio buddies, each of us ploughing through the PSD files at our desks. Grooveshark became our coping mechanism for quickfire playlists to lift the mood, with this Disney mash-up being the most memorable. As well as, Maria and Emily, Ling Duong came up to the studio fairly often working as a colourist, so at some points we'd have the five of us crammed into the room, working away. It was cosy to say the least.


After a week or so, at the studio, I completed the my dancing shot and was able to move on to working on a short shot made up of short walking sequences, and mainly boiling. It was definitely a change of pace, and one that my mental well-being welcomed. Soon after, I was working on a new set of characters as the pace of production quickened. I was seemingly living on hot Ribena at this stage and got stuck into my final set of characters, named Shazam and Houtini. A pair of amateur magicians, who seemed questionable double act. It also meant that I'd be animating one of my favourite shots from the animatic, which was the close-up of Shazam as he raises his eyebrows to the audience. This turned out to be the easiest of the three to animate, but the difficulties were keeping the consistency of the facial features. Certain liberties that you might take with a more frantically animated scene, are possible with slower pieces, and with a close-up the volumes of what you're drawing need to be carefully watched.

Maria's favourite, Shazam

After finishing I began working on one of the remaining three shots, but soon found myself getting stuck, so decided to rotate through the scenes to avoid fatigue, and ,make sure that I wasn't constantly going over old ground. This approach kept my mind fresher, and meant that I had something to work on all of the time, but wasn't conducive to the production process, as having three files on the go meant that they took longer to get over to the colourists, so I soon switched my focus to work on one file at a time.
In the last week of my time at the studio things were getting tense. Deadlines were looming, and I was starting to feel worn down and I could feel that the travelling was definitely taking its toll. Luckily, I managed to relocate for a few days to High Wycombe, thanks to @filthypierre having a spare room at his place, which cut down my commute by at least an hour each way. I was able to come in earlier, leave later, but still get as much sleep as I was before. It was a rather fortuitous situation, it has to be said.
My last day at the studio was on the 16th of February, and I was still getting my head around a shot that had plagued me for most of the week. It was of 'Houtini' lifting up his cups to reveal doves flying away.  Sounds simple enough. I'd started on a flying cycle for the doves but realised that they could not be finished until the arm movements had been do. It was a case of one set of movements reacting to another, in terms of how the file was laid out. I wouldn't say that the animation was anywhere near as difficult as the girls I had done before, but I had to think about the timing much more than on the others.   There were some movements that I had fully animated, so that they moved smoothly but they had to be cut or sped up in places to allow the scene to fit into the allotted time frame. A lot the shot was case of trial and error. I finished off at around 11pm that evening, and after saying my goodbyes made my way back to High Wycombe, feeling well and truly knackered.

It wasn't until the day of the screening that I met up with the other members of the team again, which came on the 1st of March. I decided the occasion was worthy of a blazer and brogues combination, and I wasn't wrong. The NFTS students turned up suited and booted for the big day.The screening, held at the BFI, on Southbank showcased solely the films of the school's Animation department. Although, I'd been there for some weeks and met most of the other directors, I'd promised myself not to have any sneak previews before the screening. I was glad I waited. The quality of the films is the first thing that stood out. I'd been to screenings where films were unfinished in parts (my own included). There was also an interesting variety of techniques used. CGI, Stop-motion and hand-drawn, but too used differing approaches. Paper cut-outs, digitally animated puppetry, straight-ahead using charcoal to name but a few.

 NFTS Graduates 2013

After each film the team members, made of existing students, were invited to the stage, and then introduced and eulogised by either their director, or producer. I think it was then that audience truly got a glimpse of the several departments that work so diligently to collaborate in order to make films of this standard a success, never mind the countless amounts of talents assistants and freelancers that graced each of the films' credits.

After the showing there was a mixer in the bar where I mingled with some of the students, past and present, but it was really more of an opportunity for the soon-to-be graduates to network with the assembled industry professionals, on the hunt for the next big thing. After a few glasses of wine, I headed off for lunch with Emily and Maria but not before suggesting a group photo with the other assistants.

Team Talent Show
L to R: Ling Duong,  Qian Shi, Emily Morgan (Producer), Claire Winter (Director), Maria Turska, Emily Knight,
and myself.

Usually I do a little line as a summary of my experiences, and what I've learnt etc, but it's well past my bedtime, so I'll leave you with these words about the film.

"This slice-of-life comedy, set in a community church hall is about people and experiences we can all relate to. Matronly ex-dancer, Fay Adams, coaches a bunch of eccentric children for the local Talent Show. Her rigorous regime falls short on the strong-willed Darlene and the two clash immediately, resulting in Darlene's banishment from the show. Things are on tenterhooks when the local bishop and hordes of eager parents arrive. Fay has her hopes pinned on her prize act, The Pussy Cat Twinkies, but little does she know, Darlene is about to exact her revenge."

Until next time :)

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