“And now we see what has brought everyone here under the guidance of the conductor’s organizing light. Now we understand this urge to converge. Now we see what Red is looking at: there, in the velvety dark circular basin before us is a glowing facsimile of the entire Kingdom of Sound. Think of it as mostly line drawing, but with block lustrous colours we’ve come to associate with the various districts. The camera is tracking slowly around the facsimile, which is extruding as we watch…“
From the script for Red & The Kingdom of Sound, August 2016
Back in August 2016 I finished writing the script for an animated adaptation of Benjamin Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide To The Orchestra. Script-writing is a funny thing; you’re essentially describing the action of a film or animation that exists very completely in your own head, but nowhere else. More peculiarly, you’re watching something that already exists in your mind’s eye and transcribing the action onto paper in order for someone else to ‘remake’ it.
It is one thing to describe something in words, quite another to translate it onto the screen. I started this Throwback Friday post with an unspecial thumbnail drawing I did on the back of an envelope – literally – before hastily photographing it and sending it to Red & The Kingdom Of Sound’s production designer, Emily Clarkson. This untidy little sketch was my attempt to show what I was seeing at the climax of the animation – a hovering, extruding citadel, comprised of musical instruments, hovering within a deep architectural basin, while a giant modernist effigy of a conductor towers above it…
Yes, you’re quite right; my small quick sketch conveys very little of that grandeur and spectacle, but when you have the good fortunate to work with people who likewise have very powerful film projectors installed in their heads, a small quick sketch is often enough.
So from a few describing words on a page, via that hurried thumbnail sketch, we arrive at these concept paintings by Emily Clarkson…
Emily Clarkson, concept drawing of the maestro’s city in Red & The Kingdom Of Sound, 2017
Emily Clarkson, concept drawing of the maestro’s city in Red & The Kingdom Of Sound, 2017
… and, eventually, from these concept paintings – via the ingenuity and hard graft of an entire team of other creatives – we arrive at the climatic scenes as seen in the final animation, which has now been enjoyed by thousands of people all over the world in concert halls and at film festivals.
The maestro’s city in its full pomp at the conclusion to Red & The Kingdom Of Sound (2018)
Trailer for Red & The Kingdom Of Sound (2018), including the Maestro’s City
Sometimes, particularly at the moment, there are days when it’s harder to apprehend the value in what we do, or to find the motivation to keep doing it. On days like that, I take comfort from what is unremarkable about my quickly-scribbled thumbnail sketch, and the world it went on to build with the help and vision of so many other talented people. I think to myself, ‘yes, this is how everything of value begins’ – with a big idea made visible and shared.
In addition to inviting Dee to collaborate on the exoplanet project, I also took the opportunity to catch up with her for a longer conversation about her life and times and the continuing impact of the ‘new normal’.
The ten planets of Wanderer (2020), created by Deanna Crisbacher
Phil: It’s potted history time, Dee. So you graduated back in 2018… what happened next?
Dee:Things for me were extremely hectic post-graduation. I had begun applying for jobs a few weeks prior, so by early August I was attending interviews at a few studios around London. During this time I was preparing to fly to the US for my annual family visit, but that year I was also going to Vancouver to volunteer at the SIGGRAPH conference.
Phil: What’s SIGGRAPH?’
Dee:SIGGRAPH (ACM Special Interest Group on Computer Graphics) is a yearly computer graphics and technology conference that showcases the latest technology and computer graphics for film, TV, video games and more. This includes anything from visual effects software used to create films by Pixar, Marvel, etc. to artificial intelligence and 3D printing. A huge array of companies such as Google, Industrial Light & Magic, Disney, Nvidia, Microsoft, EA Games, Weta, Sony and many more participate to exhibit, share and educate others on upcoming technology. What is really cool about it is it’s not just about visual effects or films, but also video games, coding, hardware and more abstract art applications. There is SIGGRAPH North America and SIGGRAPH Asia that each takes place once a year in different cities around the world. As a student volunteer it was a great way to meet people in the industry, apply for jobs, get special insight into the developing technologies, and to get showreel feedback.
It was hard managing all of this at once, especially because I had several interviews at a company called The Flying Colour Company (TFCC) and the day before my flight to the US they offered me a job as a Trainee Visual Effects (VFX) Artist. I needed to head into London to collect paperwork that day on short notice. It was stressful, but very exciting. I then took a little time off with my family, went to Vancouver to volunteer and meet some amazing people at SIGGRAPH, before returning to London to begin my new job. Since then I’ve learned how to use Autodesk Flame, but also helped integrate more 3D work into TFCC’s workflow.
Phil: Autodesk Flame sounds like you were being taught how to use a military-grade flame-thrower or similar! Without getting too technical, what is Autodesk Flame and how does it fit into making tv shows and film?
Dee:Autodesk Flame is a compositing and VFX software. Flame gives VFX artists tools to blend live action footage with other pictures, video clips, artwork or 3D CGI assets to create the final image. For example, a VFX studio may be given footage that was filmed in front of a greenscreen. We will then use Flame’s tools to replace the greenscreen with whatever the director wants in the background…such as a cityscape. We can also use Flame to do things like remove safety wires, add gore, remove crew members from reflections, replicate crowds, adding rain, inserting television screens, adding 3D assets like helicopters, changing lighting and so on. The possibilities are almost endless really. The name is a little deceptive…although we can also add fire using it if we have the right assets for the job! It has been intimidating and overwhelming at times but very rewarding and fun. I’ve gotten to work on some amazing shows like Killing Eve, Peaky Blinders, Years and Years, Baghdad Central and more. I’ve learned so much during that time; I look forward to learning more in the future.
Phil: Ooh, Killing Eve – expectations around shows like that are immense. Do you have to sign non-disclosure agreements? And what is it like living with spoilers etc? Do people try and wheedle out plot points from you or try and trip you up? (Of course, I wouldn’t try and do that, other people I mean).
Dee: Yup! That was a pretty huge part of getting hired and all of the paperwork involved. I can get into major trouble if I leak anything, so I often don’t even talk about what I am actively working on. I tend to wait until it is airing on TV before I say ‘hey I worked on that!’. That can be tough with shows like Killing Eve, where we have worked on multiple series so when a new series is confirmed people assume we are working on it. I have had a few people try to get some spoilers out of me before. It can be tough especially if you’ve never watched a show that you are working on, such as Peaky Blinders for me, so sometimes what I see I don’t even know I’ve seen a big plot point. So it’s just safer to not talk about it till it’s been aired! But for shows I do watch, it does sometimes ruin the surprise… but it’s also fun trying to piece disjointed shots together. We don’t get things in chronological order so it doesn’t always make sense.
Phil: Your graduate film, When, is largely autobiographical – tell us something about what it means to make such a personal piece of work.
Dee:I think it means being willing to explore yourself even if you do not like what you find…and being honest and transparent about it. It takes a willingness to be open and vulnerable to others, strangers and friends/family, about topics that are very deep, personal, and sometimes painful. I think there also needs an understanding that even though it’s personal to you, others may not be interested. They may not like it, not be interested in it, or just straight out reject it. I think it takes a willingness to face that sort of rejection but remain true to your goal. To me, it was worth feeling a bit uncomfortable to encourage people discuss these complex topics.
Phil: Were there moments when you thought, nope, I’m not going to share that? Did you have second thoughts at all?
Dee:Yes, anything that involved other people I either didn’t share or had second thoughts about sharing. Involving my family members, especially if I couldn’t ask for permission, made me wonder if they would want to be part of it or not. I never want to cross a line when it involves others’ privacy, since they may not want to have their part of the story told and it’s not in my right to violate that – also some of the more ‘serious’ stuff I decided to just hint at more than explicitly say, which I think is enough.
Phil: When has a very specific look. Can you tell us a bit about some of the creative decisions around the film?
Dee:One of the main things I wanted to achieve was the uncann, rather than horror. So I didn’t want to go for a standard ‘evil dark hospital’ theme. I wanted it to be recognisable, but not quite right. Realistic but distorted and fractured, like how it felt when I was ill. That also feeds into the sound design, where there are recognisable sounds, like fluorescent lights flickering or crowds of people, but to also take pieces of that and morph it into something very unsettling. The same goes for the narration vs the distorted whispers. I wanted there to be a thread of realism disrupted by the concept of ‘illness’ that makes it become unfamiliar.
The theme of hospitals also played into the graphic design of the project. There is an interesting similarity between medication prescription labels and nutrition labels. Numbers and nutritional information played a huge part in my illness, so including that obsession with numbers and a deep need for complete control was important to portray in the look of the project, to show how stark and life-draining that experience was.
The choice to use archived footage was an important one, because there needed to be a break out of that stark place to show the audience that it is a true story, with real people, feelings, and experiences behind it, that while it is not a horror film, neither is it a story that ends with a ‘happily ever after’. It was really difficult to figure out a way to incorporate them into the film, but I think it helps get across that fractured nature of it and the real lives behind it.
Phil: When went on to win many awards at film festivals; I know you were interviewed about it and did a few talks around mental health as a result. Were you surprised by the reception of the film?
Dee: I knew it had potential, since my second year film, Dysmorphia, seemed to strike people in a sort of similar way. I also knew it could totally flop, given how open I tried to be about everything and how untraditional the art direction was regarding animation. Depending on the situation, people cower away from these difficult topics when faced with them directly. I think if I had made the film a few years ago, perhaps it wouldn’t have gotten the same recognition since now mental illness is a more openly discussed. But the stories I started hearing from people about their experiences with eating disorders specifically surprised me. I find that while people are more open about mental illness in a general sense, eating disorders are still not talked about much. Given how abstract it was as well, there was a risk of people not ‘getting it’ so I’m glad that it made sense to people.
Phil: What is it about CGI/VFX that speaks to you as an art form?
Dee:I think it’s the world-building aspect of it. Granted, technically every art form is ‘world building’, but I find CG can bend reality in a way that feels more tangible. It’s a difficult medium to work with, but that is part of what makes it so satisfying when you achieve what you want, even if it’s somewhat of a compromise. Everything you do is a sort of puzzle; there are endless ways to create things using CG and VFX, and learning new tools is really fun and exciting. It’s a strange mixture having extreme control at times, but zero control at others. Sometimes the lack of control provides even better results, which is why I really enjoy simulations despite how frustrating it can be too.
A break-down of some of the key shots Dee created for Red & The Kingdom Of Sound (2018)
Phil: Okay – so you’re going to have to talk a little about what you mean by ‘simulations’ and where they fit in terms of VFX etc…
Dee:When I talk about simulations, I’m referring to anything involving particles or volumes (smoke, fire) but it can also involve liquid, shatter/destruction and cloth creation. These sort of effects need to be simulated by the software, meaning they take in a math formulas based on real-life physics such as gravity in order to create a realistic outcome. For example, when simulating an explosion Maya takes into consideration the temperature, velocity, and density settings to calculate the colour, luminosity, speed, transparency and movement of the explosion. You can also add wind, turbulence and other factors to further art direct the look of a simulation. The beauty of it is that it is totally random, it needs frame 1 to calculate frame 2 and so on… but that also means it can be unpredictable and time consuming. You can tweak things, like making gravity more or less intense than in real life, but it is largely a guessing game. But that is how you get more realistic results since it uses real-life calculations and formulas!
Phil: What has been your experience of COVID-19 so far, and likewise, the ‘new normal’?
Dee: It’s been a struggle. In one respect it’s been nice not having to commute…it ate up 3 hours or more of my day during the week and was also pretty expensive. So having that extra time and saved up money has been nice. However I find it’s been difficult in other regards… I miss being able to discuss work with my peers. Sat at home, it’s not as easy to ask for help or feedback when you’re alone. It also takes a lot longer to share work back and forth and feedback can be confusing when no one is there to point at the screen and go ‘there is the problem’. I really miss seeing how other artists work and what they are working on. I do admittedly feel I get more done though, since those sorts of conversations don’t happen now. It’s also more of a struggle to remember to stop working…it’s very easy to say ‘just one more shot’ and before you know it, it’s 10pm or later…but it has little consequence because you are already home. But in the long run with overworking like that, I’ve found burnout sets in very quickly if I’m not careful.
Phil: Lockdown meant the end of lots of film and tv productions – what has the impact been on your sector: you can only produce VFX sequences for stuff that has been filmed and made available to you, right?
Dee:That is correct. Luckily at the time lockdown first happened, the productions we were working on either had finished filming or had enough material to fill in the gaps. So once we finished doing the VFX for those productions…that was it really. We are still waiting on shows to get back to filming so we have stuff to work on but until then it’s just a waiting game. I know some other VFX and games studios are up and running again but it depends on what is being made. Some commercials for example are pure VFX/CGI… and same for games I suppose. It’ll be interesting to see how filming adapts to this new post-COVID world to ensure everyone stays safe.
Phil: Who and what inspires you and recharges your creative batteries?
Dee: Several people I met at SIGGRAPH I follow on sites like LinkedIn and Artstation inspire me, I like seeing where people go and how their careers and talents progress. Seeing art in general encourages me to create my own art. Ryan Barry is a good friend of mine now, we share art with each other regularly and have also began experimenting with ‘style mashups’ between his drawings and mine. He also does 3D work, more so for video games rather than film and TV so it’s interesting to see the process he goes through vs me.
Here are a few other talented artists I met at SIGGRAPH and try to keep in contact with/follow:
I’ve had more time to do some reading during lockdown and I enjoy taking different characters, worlds, or ideas and imagining what they’d look like or personify as. Normally I’d get a lot of inspiration from my co-workers and the different productions we are working on…but during this pause I’ve tried to keep up to date with what developing software and technologies are out there, which makes me excited for future learning. I also really love seeing any behind-the-scenes footage/articles about film and games. I really miss going to movie theatres though. Regarding specific films that comfort me…I’d definitely say Lord of the Rings. Lord of the Rings is what got me interested in art and filmmaking in the first place. So times where I feel I am struggling to feel motivated I watch those movies or the behind the scenes features. I find it exciting and fascination how much goes into making a film, and how much love and dedication is poured into some productions. The same goes for the original Star Wars trilogy. The innovation and creativity that was needed to problem solve makes me feel inspired and hopeful. Especially since “we didn’t know how to achieve this, but we tried our best to figure it out” is a common theme from junior artists to the directors. I know I often feel that way, so knowing that pretty much everyone in the industry feels this at some point is comforting.
Phil: When you’re not producing CGI work, what other creative outlets do you have? I know from your Twitter feed that you paint, for example…
Dee:So I do create some CG work on my own, more experimental stuff or things that I want to make in order to practice. However, behind CGI I also do like to draw both traditionally and digitally. I often find I prefer the basic structure of my traditional sketches and doodles so I’ll bring them into Photoshop and paint over them. I’ve mentioned as well that I have begun doing some style mash-ups with my friend, Ryan Barry, so that’s been a fun side project. I also try practicing some traditional clay sculpting, basic needle felting and baking if I don’t feel like drawing. I used to write short stories and poems as well, but I sadly haven’t done that in a long time now. But my creative interests are always changing so maybe I’ll get back to that!
I always look forward to the moment when I get a Skype notification, which usually means artist-in-residence, Tom Beg, has something new to show me. Tom’s been super-busy of late doing sensible things like enriching the vocabulary of his Japanese students, but has somehow found the time to put some finishing touches to his Miro-verse menagerie! We caught up for a brief chat recently and it gives me very real pleasure to share once more the fruits of Tom’s labours!
Phil: Hey Tom. I hope all is well over there in Japan. So, you got all critters modelled, textured and rigged… and then you went back to some of them to make some refinements. What was missing from them originally, and what changes have you made and why?
Tom:I thought everything had something of flat CG look, which was making everything not as satisfying to look at as it could have been. It was probably a case of me being a little timid when it came to turning on some of the extra switches after a long time out and not really knowing what kind of extra steps turning on said switches would introduce. Most of the changes are pretty subtle, but I’ve tried to throw a few things into the mix. For example, making the surfaces reflect and absorb light a little more interestingly, making the highlights pop a bit more and so on. There will be definitely be some more changes when I start animating and see what happens when these things move and react to light more dynamically.
Phil: I know you’re not supposed to have a favourite child… but do you have a favourite creature, and if so, how so?
Tom:I like the red orb with the metallic blue shell! Funnily enough of all the original sketches it’s the one I find the least appealing, but in its 3D, form I think it’s very cute and graphical. It has this mischievous personality that comes across even without an obvious face.
Phil: You’ve been looking at, thinking about, and working on these characters for months now… how have you sustained your interest in the project?
Tom:I enjoy seeing the results each step brings, so I just chip away and take everything day by day! These are strange times, so I don’t beat myself up about missing whatever informal deadlines or goals I’ve set in my mind.
Phil: How’s ‘the story’ coming along – though I’m using that term very loosely!
Tom:I’m aiming for something short and sweet which probably does indeed mean a very loose story! I’m leaning towards something a bit faux-documentary, not too much editing and just letting the creatures’ movement and visual style define how the ‘story’ progresses.
Phil: What can we expect from your next update, Tom? What’s on your to-do list?
Tom:Animation and lots of it! All these critters need someone to get them wiggling and shaking and that’s my job!
Tom:Unfortunately, the cicadas have just about cried their last call of the year, but now hornets are on the prowl and those do actually kill people so I think I should just stay inside and make this animation!
Agreed, it’s all been a bit quiet on here recently – no laughing flatworms or lunatic blobs – but that is not to say that some progress isn’t being made on Gelata Spongia Oculus Eruptus – the really rather silly animated short I’m developing with Ethan Shilling, which uses long-forgotten BBC sound effects to give a surfeit of life to a series of simple computer-generated organisms.
In what is in no way a strange email thread for the two of us, Ethan and I have been discussing the nuts-and-bolts of making an Ernst Haeckel-inspired jellyfish laugh. In truth, Ethan has been figuring out how to make our jellyfish react to the sound effects in a suitably ‘jellyfish’ way, while I’ve been writing things like, ‘Um, I think it needs to be more pink.’ Remember, it’s the sound effects themselves driving the animation, courtesy of Ethan’s ‘spectrogram’ widget, last seen in action here. See below for our latest efforts.
Early animation tests by Ethan Shilling
Our pink jellyfish modelled by Ethan Shilling after Haeckel’s zoological illustrations
Last time, I caught up with artist-in-residence, Emily Clarkson, I was able to introduce the new project we’re developing together, an animated short entitled Gertie. Things have been moving on since then; the song that underpins the whole story is finished and was given some much-needed spit and polish by a freelance arranger courtesy of the Fiverr site. There’s so much more to be done musically – not least sourcing the vocal talent – and I’m working on that too.
Emily has been working hard on finalising the character designs for the animated short, before turning her attention to some of Gertie‘s more highly-strung set-pieces. Em and I caught up on Zoom a few days back to talk character design and possible stylistic approaches to ‘bringing the mayhem’. You can listen in below.
Emily Clarkson’s character design development drawings for the trio of bullies in Gertie
Emily’s design development drawings for Gertie’s teacher character, Mrs Mason
The not-inconsiderable job of re-working a selection of the original synesthetic paintings into an uninterrupted sequence of abstract animations fell to Tom Beg and Jordan Buckner, who took the paintings we’d created and gave them dynamism, character and energy, pushing the music back though the imagery it had inspired in our collective imagination.
Come the premiere of the animation, Tom, Jordan, Keith and myself were all stuck behind the screen onto which the animation was being projected while, in front of it, the orchestra performed, so we couldn’t see the audience’s faces as the film played out – but the moment of hush, followed by enthusiastic applause, confirmed something rather magical had taken place – a transportive synthesis of sight and sound.
It’s time to catch-up with Red’s Kingdom artist-in-residence, Graeme Daly, and this time, Graeme and I decided we’d capture our conversation ‘as-it-happened’ and put it out on here accordingly. I began by asking Graeme about his most recent updates on The Green Glider…
Ash – textured / The Green Glider / Graeme Daly / August 2020
The Wasteground digital set / The Green Glider / Graeme Daly / August 2020
Tom: It goes hot and sweaty. Fallen cicadas dot the streets alongside the occasional spotting of a lizard, beetle, praying mantis or worse yet, a dreaded cockroach trying to make its way inside my humble abode. One thing I didn’t know about Japan before I came here is that it has a lot of bugs, and even though they are fascinating, they are still quite terrifying. I think because somehow, they always manage to find a way in.
Phil: I always forget to ask – what’s the view from your window? I always wonder what you’re looking out at when you’re procrastinating or taking a screen break from your Miro-verse project?
Tom: I look at the same thing that 90% of people who live in an urban area of Japan look at: blocky residential buildings and ugliest power lines you will ever see. Lots of them too. I used to be able to see Mt. Fuji from my old place but these days I’m fortunate to at least have the privilege of seeing the tops of some trees behind the rooftops and masses of wires. But if I walk a few minutes down the road, and climb some steps, I can at least see some…more residential buildings. It’s higher up, so it’s cooler I think?! Here’s a picture of said view:
Phil: Given the exuberant other-worldliness of your creations, people might be expecting your work-station to resemble a laboratory – lots of flashing lights and twitching dials… What’s the reality?
Tom:I live in a fairly small place so I try to reduce the stuff in my immediate vicinity to the bare essentials. My home office is just my laptop, a second screen, a portable speaker, a lamp and an analogue clock. I’m not really big on collecting trinkets and figures (a potentially dangerous game in Japan, the land of such things) so it’s all a bit sparse. I’m hoping to upgrade my set-up soon though, so there might indeed be some cool flashing lights to suitably disrupt my sleep pattern and REM cycles.
Phil:So, we’ve got a double-whammy from you this time; you’ve been in the business of producing swarms. In some ways, these appear simpler than some of your other critters in terms of their physiognomy?
Tom: Yes, it was a lot easier to recreate my original sketches for these into 3D models and instil them with some personality. As always there were issues, but overall, I think they came out looking pretty nice. These days I have a good grasp of the 3D processes for creating these characters individually so the challenge going forward is how to give them life as a cohesive group of characters. I’ve been researching and experimenting a little bit with a tool in Maya called MASH. It’s something that I was unfamiliar with before but has become quite relevant to my needs recently. I hope to be doing a lot of MASHing in the coming weeks.
Tom:I want to populate my world with lots of these characters, but more characters obviously means more work! MASH is a nifty tool that can be used for animating large groups of characters and objects with relative ease. There’s still a lot I have to work out, but I think it’s going to be another good tool for bringing this world to life.
Phil: There is something particularly joyous about these creatures – something delightfully rambunctious. I know you’ve been staring at them on screen for hours on end, but what are your feelings towards them? Do you have a strong sense of where they fit in the Miro-verse and how they might conduct themselves? The red ones look very disobedient to me!
Tom:I’ve been working hard to make sure all of the creatures have joie de vivre when it comes to their look and movements, and at the same time I’ve tried to make them very robust. I mean, I’m quite satisfied that they basically function and look exactly as I want, and if any changes do need to be then it’s a case of just fixing rather than throwing everything out the window. I really want this to look like a classic animation with lots of exaggerated and unusual movement. I think these little guys can pull it off!
Phil: And only one more creature to go right? Have you been saving the best for last… or putting it off?
Tom: The last creature I’m going to make is the first one I sketched so in a way it’s come full circle. It wasn’t a case of putting it off, more that for each creature I have incrementally built up my skill set and pipeline methods while learning from the mistakes I’ve made along the way. This character was kind of the natural end point as it’s a mix of abstract shapes and more human-like forms. The challenge of this character is it’s going to be a lot more modular. What I mean is that rather than the model shape essentially being fixed, this one will made of multiple models that can be moved and placed individually. I’m still working out the finer details. Stay tuned.
A few weeks back, I featured news from animator, Urvashi Lele, about the new show she’d worked on, Your Daily Horoscope. It was lovely to catch-up and likewise share Urvashi’s news, and I’ve been prompted to introduce a new strand on the Red’s Kingdom blog – Spotlight – wherein I can shine a light on other creatives, on their disciplines and their processes. I’ll be meeting up again with some of my former students, who are off doing exciting things, but also inviting other creatives to discuss the nuts and bolts of what they do, how and why. I’m flirting with the the idea of podcasts maybe, but haven’t quite broken the seal on that, but let’s see. To kick things off, I’m introducing you to animator, George Nwosisi, a nicer guy you’re unlikely to meet…
Phil: Hey George, thanks so much for helping me get this up-and-running. First things first, we need a quick potted history of your life since you graduated. What happened next and where are you now?
George:Hey Phil! It’s been a journey since I left uni in 2015, a good journey that is. From the very start, I knew animation was going to be a very competitive industry to get into. I knew I needed to get some type of industrial experience down on my CV just to get my foot in.
George Nwosisi Showreel 2017
After my graduation, I started applying for internships and putting a showreel together, animating new shots specially for the reel to keep it interesting. Thankfully, I landed my first animation intern with Digital Shoguns in north London. This internship lasted three months, which was good enough on my CV to help me jump into the next role. Soon after, I applied for Antimatter Games in Cornwall, landing a contract as a 3D animator for six months working on a game called Rising Storm 2 – Vietnam. I enjoyed my time there, and they wanted me to stay after my contract was up, but c’mon.. its Cornwall, nice place, but it was far from my family and life in general, so I didn’t renew my contract.
So I’m back home, job hunting again with nine months of experience on my CV. At the end of 2016, I got a job at Cubic Motion – who specialise in facial motion-capture animation and clean-up. During my time at Cubic Motion, I worked on games like Call Of Duty, Ghost Recon, Man of Medan and many more, but I wasn’t truly happy there because it wasn’t key-framed animation or full body character animation.
After a year and few months, I went job hunting again and was shocked when I got into Ninja Theory, which was always the one company I wanted to work for when I was back in university. I’m still at Ninja Theory and I’m loving it, as it’s what I’ve always wanted to do: 3D full body character/creature key-framed animation, working on Bleeding Edge, Hellblade 2 and other projects.
Phil: You’ve got animation in your bones, George – it’s your calling! What is it about animation that makes sense to you and what do you think are the ‘tell-tale’ signs someone is an animator? Were there signs when you were much younger? How did that love of animation shine out of you before you knew exactly what it was you wanted to do?
George: There’s always a reason behind why someone wants to become an animator – watching films, a love of gaming, cartoons or even VFX – having the thought of “Oh cool! how did they do that?”. Then the journey begins of finding out how things are done, and then the process starts. I’ve always been big fan of gaming, but I never thought “animation”. I studied gaming at college, but only the coding aspect of it. One day, I saw a friend of mine animating a biped on the computer and I was mind-blown. I haven’t stopped animating since.
Some of George’s earliest animations
Phil: Who are your animation heroes? Who inspires you or what inspires you? What have you seen recently that made you fall in love with animation all over again?
George:There are many animations out there that keep my fire going. I could sit on Vimeo for hours, watching people’s showreels, thinking how amazing their animation style is. Even looking at a character rig can make me want to animate that rig and do something cool with it. The number one animation that inspired me recently was Spider-Man – Into The Spiderverse. What brilliant film – everything from the animation to its art style, and how the animation was animated on 2s. There are also amazing animators here at Ninja Theory, whose work always pushes me to do better and go beyond the level I’m at.
Phil: What do you enjoy most about the animation process and why?
George:For me, it’s the planning, the researching, the ideas, and seeing the plan come together. Without all those things, the outcome of your animation might not be as strong as it could or should be. In one of my recent animations, the character lands and rolls on the floor; without researching parkour and reference videos on YouTube, the roll might not have been as convincing. Tweaking and pushing the animation – seeing what works and what doesn’t work – is also a fun part of the process.
Phil: And the least enjoyable?
George: Oh gosh! Finding bugs, having gimble locks and fixing it. A gimble lock is when your character’s rig gets a weird rotation and doesn’t behave in the way you need it to. Fixing this can be done, but it can be an annoying process!
Phil: How has the pandemic changed your working life?
George:Since we all now work from home, the office banter is out the window, likewise walking over to your colleague’s desk to see the cool things they’re working on or vice versa, sharing ideas, getting visual feedback there and then – all that’s missing now. The advantage is you literally get off your bed and your work is right in front of you – that and spending good time with your family. Me personally, I prefer the atmosphere of the office.
Phil: Outside of your day job, how do you stay fresh, inspired and healthy?
George:PLAY GAMES! WATCH FILMS! And GYM! Playing games and time at the gym gives me time away and keeps my state of mind good and healthy. Watching films gives me the inspiration for the next animation shot that might go in my showreel,
Phil: What remains on your ‘animation bucket-list’?
George: Getting more games under my belt, being a better animator in both character and creature animation, and also being able to play with motion capture data and pushing it to its limits. Honestly, it’s a never-ending skillset, a journey. You can always better yourself and do more and more things – and that is my plan!
Phil:Hey Graeme! Welcome back. Before we begin I should thank you on behalf of everyone for giving us that image of those dolls and their henchmen spiders in last week’s Kick-About. I’m sure everyone found that very soothing and not at all nightmarish… I noticed a few exciting updates going out on social media about new progress on your animated short, The Green Glider. How’s it coming along?
Graeme:Hey Phil, things are moving forward well with The Green Glider. I just sent the film off to see it will be picked up for some funding. Now things are really revving up, I want to get everything ready and in place if it does get funded. Currently I am translating all the concept art into 3D, and plopping things in place for each world, which is one of the most enjoyable aspects. I love trying to bring the concept art alive through Maya.
Phil: You’ve been learning Substance Painter. What is that, how are you finding it, and why did you feel it was time to acquire a new creative tool?
Graeme:I decided to hop into Substance Painter and use it to UV the bubble cars because the amount of UV pieces, or shells, for the car was absolutely mammoth, and would have taken me yonks to finish in my usual go-to, which is Photoshop. Basically, to UV an object in 3D space allows you to paint and colour your object as you see fit. To achieve this you first have to tell the 3D software the model you want to paint is flat. Imagine you’ve got a simple 3D box and you want to paint it; first you unpack the box so it’s completely flat, and only then do you start painting onto it. Then, later, your painted texture is wrapped back around the 3D box.
The great thing about Substance Painter is it’s a 3D painting program – it is like having Photoshop and Maya together in one program so you can paint onto the actual 3D model – without flattening it first – to your heart’s content, with all the same capabilities of Photoshop, such as layers and blend modes, as well as having a massive library of materials to choose from. It really speeds up the workflow of texturing models, and I can see myself using Substance from now on.
Phil: The value of this new tool for you is it means you can continue to work illustratively with your 3D models. Why is it so important to keep the original style of your concept art when you’re moving from 2D into 3D?
Graeme:I feel really averse to CGI being completely perfect… It ends up looking like plastic. Sometimes when I’m doing concept art, I’ll just do a random scribble to see the kind of texture I can get out of a brush and I decide to leave it in. Usually that scribble adds something visually interesting to the piece and those happy accidents make the piece more analogue. I have a style I like that revolves around imperfection, as it adds charm. I always try and recreate that in 3D. For example, with the 3D bubble cars, I really wanted to add a pop of blue colour on top of the main purple colour, to counteract the blazing orange; I just scribbled a bright blue stroke and ended up loving that random scratchiness to the car, so it’s something that stayed with the final model and was easily implemented with Substance. With the green glider model, it was really important to get across the original style too, especially with the leaf venation, so I modelled the venation in Maya to make it pop more, and also textured more venation in Substance to really show the leaf is budding with life.
Phil: You alwayssound so excited. I love it. What’s next?
Graeme:I’m doing some long-awaited organic modelling by tackling the characters Ash and Clover. Organic modelling is a totally different ball game to modelling cars and worlds, as for me at least, it’s more difficult to get across the characters’ nuances and quirks suggested by the original concept art. As I said, I like things that aren’t perfect, and Maya makes this difficult with characters, as a character that is asymmetrical is a nightmare to rig and skin, so I have to work within the confines of that and still get across the flaws and idiosyncrasies of the characters populating the world. I’ve said before when I’m doing concept art, there’s a “shite zone” where everything looks crap until one scribble or stroke brings things to life; when you’re modelling characters, the “shite zone” is a lot longer, where they look like horrifying spawns of Frankenstein for what feels like ages! I can’t wait to texture Ash and Clover in Substance, adding details like smile lines, grey hairs, and eye-bags. I want these characters to show they’ve earned their stripes!