It’s been a while since we heard from Japan-based artist, animator and filmmaker, Tom Beg.
Is this because Tom has been twiddling his thumbs or resting on his laurels? Hardly. In addition to teaching English to Japanese school children, and gunning for fluency himself in Japanese, Tom has been continuing work on his ‘Miroverse’ bestiary – his charming and strange cast of CGI-critters first inspired by the paintings of Joan Miro. Something of a project milestone has been reached, with all eight of Tom’s characters being put through their respective ambulations. Time then to catch up with Tom and find out a little more about what it has taken to bring his gang of improbable characters to life…
Phil: I found it very gratifying to see your Miroverse critters moving at last…
Tom: Yes, it’s exciting to see the fruits of my labour and produce some moving image at long last. After building and designing for such a long time, there’s always something satisfying about seeing previously inanimate things you’ve been working on finally come to life, and move how you would expect them to, or sometimes move in ways that gives them personality and character you perhaps didn’t originally expect.
Phil: Let’s imagine you can’t talk too technically about the process of animating… How might you describe what you had to do and how you did it? Is it anything like puppeteering? I have this very analogue image of you standing up ‘above’ these creatures, and moving them like marionettes or old-school rod puppets…
Tom: For the test animations, I’ve been trying to establish a base animation style and pipeline for each of the creatures. I want them to have a very organic and restless look, which I think comes off pretty well in these tests. It might be hard to imagine, but animating them was actually a lot more mathematical than perhaps you might expect for such wiggly things.
In Maya, you can animate very traditionally, or you can animate based more on numbers and graphs and letting the computer calculate what happens. I was actually working more with the latter method, which might be surprising. Lots of typing in different values to work out how many frames of animation would be appropriate for whatever movement. It’s lots of looking at things that don’t look like animation in the typical sense but are nonetheless controlling what’s happening on the screen. When it comes to final animation, it’s going to be a mix of this and more traditional animation puppetry.
Phil: Did any of your critters resist you? I mean, did you think they needed to be animated in one way, only to find they didn’t suit it or demanded an alternative approach?
Tom: In some ways, because it’s not like these are real world things, with real bones, muscles and lots of references to draw upon. I’m also fighting the computer somewhat because a lot of the movement is calculated by the software, so things would behave erratically from time to time, especially at the beginning. That being said, they were mostly painless to get moving. I usually started with a basic full body movement and then animated and refined each part of the creature once that was in place. When there was a convincing feeling of aliveness, I would go back and add some secondary movement and fine-tune lots of settings to give things more or less weight and elasticity.
Phil: For those less technical amongst us, give us an idea of how long these short sequences took to render – I think this means you having to explain 1) how many frames there are in a second of animation, and 2) how long each frame takes to render and 3) what you have to do with all those frames once they’ve been produced?
Tom: Depending on the creature, the render time for one frame of animation can range from about one minute 30 seconds for the quickest, to just over five minutes for the most complicated. There are usually 25 frames in a single second of animation, and each clip is ten seconds long. If the average time for one creature animation is three minutes, that will take something like 12 hours to render. I was sleeping to sounds of whirring computer fans multiple nights in a row and waking up in the morning to get my finished renders, which is very satisfying – but very annoying when you overlook something, make an error and have to do the whole rendering thing again!
When it comes to rendering the final animation, I really must consider how long each frame takes. Adding just 30 seconds onto the render of a single frame will increase the total render time by hours and cost me in more ways than one! When it comes to rendering, time really is money – because I have an electricity bill to pay!
Anyway once everything is rendered, I load all the frames of animation into DaVinci Resolve, a free editing suite, and I can see the final images in action. This is always the best part!
Phil: What’s the next phase of this project look like?
Tom: Hopefully, I’ve proved these creatures can move fairly convincingly, so the next part is to actually turn everything into a short animation. That means lots and lots of animating and lots of decisions about this thing as a film. I’ve been watching a lot of Jacques Cousteau documentaries, experimental animation and microscopic biology videos in preparation!
Phil: Finally then, how’s life in Japan? I think we need to know about the flora and fauna; what excess of wildlife are you dealing with currently?
Tom: The number of creepy crawlies has dropped off but like everywhere we are battling the effects of the pandemic on the economy and people’s daily lives, but things have to keep ticking over and even in these strange times Japan isn’t a country that lets you rest or take your foot off the pedal, especially if you want to try and reach beyond your comfort zone. It has been a struggle to balance all the things I want to do with my life here, especially under the cloud of coronavirus but I’ll keep reminding myself there is still this weird animation that must be made!