One small thing I’m doing at Red’s Kingdom is inviting other artists and creative individuals to take up short residences here so I can catch-up with what they’re doing and showcase their work accordingly – older work, new work, and work-in-development. During my happy stint as course leader for a degree course in animation, I was fortunate to meet entire communities of talented individuals, many of whom I’ve gone on to work with on various projects and now count as good friends.
One of the noticeable effects of the Covid-19 pandemic is the way it has inspired a sort of season-of-good-will mood of introspection and reaching-out. The disruption of normal routines means we’re thinking differently about the legitimacy and value of our own dogged pursuits, but also thinking much more about the well-being and resilience of absent friends and thus renewing efforts to stay in touch. My decision to begin blogging again is certainly part of this response, and likewise the impulse to contemporise friendships and past affinities that might otherwise have been allowed to drift.
All of which brings me to the subject of Red Kingdom’s first residency – animator, film-maker, and educator, Tom Beg. Say what you like about the particular strains put upon the pursuit of meaningful conversations by Skype and Zoom et al. but when an old friend of yours is self-isolating in Japan and, via Skype, you can pick up with him where you last left off, the technology still feels pretty astonishing.
Before Tom left for his new life in Japan, he already had a number of impressive and well-received animated shorts under his belt, and a Masters Degree too. His ambitious undergraduate final year film, The Picture Of Dorian Gray (2011) was ‘staff-picked’ by the good people at Vimeo and was awarded ‘short of the week’, and his Life-cycle of a Mushroom (2011) was commissioned as part of a interdisplinary collaboration between UCA and UoK. Owl, Tom’s 2015 music video for Collectress, a personal favourite of mine, combines extraordinary other-worldly visuals, folk horror and total directorial confidence in its execution.
Since Owl, things have been very quiet. A few weeks ago now, Tom and I talked on Skype for the first time in a while, and I essentially said as much, and Tom essentially agreed. By the end of our conversation we’d forged an agreement to kick something off, however small, however explorative, and regardless of the ultimate outcome. We needed a visual prompt, a jumping off point, something to respond to instinctively without second-guesses. In 2013, Tom and I worked together on the live-synchronisation animation, La creation du monde for ACT, where we both derived obvious satisfaction from mucking about with some mid-twentieth century-style abstraction. Perhaps it was this that led me to choose Miro’s Women and Birds at Sunrise and offer it up to Tom as blue-touch paper for an impromptu lock-down challenge? No matter, what’s exciting is what happened next, but before we get to that, here’s a bit of back and forth between Tom and I on his work old and new…
Phil: Hey Tom, what’s going on? How are all-things Covid with you?
Tom: For the past four years I’ve been working as a school teacher in Japan, the country that I currently call home. I’ve been enjoying the life of living abroad and all the ups and downs that come with deciding to uproot your life and go somewhere completely unfamiliar and do something totally different.
Usually spring time in Japan represents a time of change; the cherry blossoms bloom, a new fiscal year begins and students start the new academic year. Unfortunately, the current global health situation means that right now, I along with all other teachers and students are navigating our daily lives from the confines of home, except for the occasional daring, masked runs to the supermarket whenever my onion supplies run uncomfortably low.
Despite the stalling of daily life, I’m sure like for many others, the downtime of lock-downs and states of emergencies has offered a chance for some personal introspection and a desire to get through all of this with a positive view towards the future. My job as a teacher of teenagers who don’t speak my native language requires me to be creative in all sorts of imaginative ways, but after a long time away, I felt the urge to get creative in a way that is probably a lot more familiar to people who have known me from the time before I figured out what all the buttons on my fancy toilet do.
Phil: Your final year film Dorian Gray continues to receive attention on Vimeo. What are your recollections of working on that film?
Tom: In 2021 it will be 10 years since I made my graduate animation, The Picture of Dorian Gray. While revisiting it these days with many lessons learned elicits more than a few winces, I know even today it still sometimes manages to tickle the senses of people in the right way – which is strange because it’s an 8-minute animation I produced in 15 weeks, made with very little expectation that anyone except myself and tutors would watch it, but the internet finds a way and it ended up becoming something of a mini-viral hit (by 2011 standards!).
Thinking back, the production of the visuals in particular were so off the cuff that maybe it could it could be classified as something like guerilla CG filmmaking, mostly made with a desire to just get it done and let my instincts take over the production process.
Phil: What was your inspiration behind your animation for the Spectacular Science collaboration, The Life-cycle of a Mushroom?
Tom: The Life-cycle of a Mushroom wears its influences on its sleeve perhaps more than any other animation I’ve ever made, those influences obviously being silent movies and animated shorts like Disney’s Silly Symphonies. I wanted to capture the feeling of the roaring 20s and Jazz-age hedonism and make mushrooms and the biological process by which they reproduce just kind of sexy and fun. Like Dorian Gray this one took off online more than I could have ever imagined. Maybe people thought the same as me, that highly poisonous mushrooms could be wonderfully jazzy and slinky.
Phil: I’ve always loved Owl, your music video for Collectress. I think it’s pretty much a perfect thing and deserves a much wider audience and reach. Can you tell me something about the creative process behind its production?
Tom: For Owl I wasn’t looking to emulate any particular style. The music I was given was suitably ambiguous, offering the impression of something without ever explicitly expressing it. If I had to mention any influences then Moriyama Daido’s photography book, Tales of Tono, Stan Brakhage’s experimental short film, Mothlight, and the landscape shots from the British silent movie, A Cottage on Dartmoor were all on my mind at the time. The whole project was a big mixed-media undertaking incorporating marker pens, infrared film photography and 3D animation. I wanted to make something that purposely had a low-fi feel and didn’t look or feel like CG animation. More importantly, I didn’t want there to be a clear-cut answer about what it all meant, just as the music left me with my own questions.
Phil: A few weeks back we got talking on Skype and we both talked about the ‘itch’ to get into something new. I sent you the Miro image as a catalyst, and in just a few days, you were back producing all these wonderful developmental drawings and thumbnails. A few days later, you were back in the saddle modelling from your drawings in 3D. I’m properly excited to see those cogs of yours turning again. What’s the plan?
Tom: Stepping back into the world of computer animation software and the trials and tribulations of wrestling with something as big and bulky as Maya is a daunting but gratifying experience because while it has been a really long time, it’s nice to know things really haven’t all changed that much. Sure, there’s new renderers to learn, old trusted tools unceremoniously removed from existence and new buttons that do mysterious things, but the basic principles remain the same. It’s simply a case of adapting your ideas to fit those.
Whenever I’ve made CG art in the past there has always been that moment where whatever I’m working on suddenly becomes ‘right’ and that it’s nice to know this kind of feeling can still be conjured up even after many years in the wilderness.
As for this new piece, right now it doesn’t have a name, it doesn’t have a run time, it doesn’t have any music and it doesn’t have a deadline – a potentially disastrous combination, but like my decision to set off for a far-off country four years ago, it’s just being done with a desire to just see what happens and learn a few lessons along the way. That’s really quite exciting.
Every few days or so, I get a notification on Skype to say Tom has shared another update or image of this as-yes-untitled new project of his. I actively look forward to them. As Tom’s new work continues to take shape and develop, I’ll be sharing updates here at Red’s Kingdom. I know he’s currently working on another of his exuberant-looking Miro-inspired life-forms and thinking too about the opportunity for breaking new creative ground as a sound designer in response to all the noise and commotion implied by his drawings. More as and when from Tom Beg, Red Kingdom’s inaugural artist-in-residence. It’s great to have him around again!
Find Tom at tombeg.com and follow him on Twitter @earthlystranger