Last year, composer Andrew Fisher very kindly agreed to write the theme for my audiobook adaptation of my first children’s book, Chimera Book 1. Andrew nailed it first time out, taking all the inspiration he needed from artist Phil Cooper’s artwork, and delivering a wonderful mix of b-movie-meets-magic, all shimmer, Halloween chills and a pang of melancholy. A few months later, Andrew invited me on as his first guest on his all-new The Two Rivers Café podcast, where he challenged me to make a new short film on a given theme, to which he would then compose an original score. The theme I chose to work with was ‘wine’ – which was counter-intuitive considering wine doesn’t agree with me! You can listen to our conversation here and watch the film we made together below. Andrew will be talking to, and collaborating with, other creatives in subsequent episodes, and I’m looking forward to spending more time in The Two Rivers Café .
Wine Doesn’t Agree With Me (2021) Phil Gomm / Andrew Fisher
In between his various creative endeavours triggered by The Kick-About, and his day job designing and delivering the curricula for his English classes, Japan-based creative and Red’s Kingdom artist-in-residence, Tom Beg has continued work on his animated short, Tabula 5465. Time for a catch-up…
Hey Tom, it’s been a while since we had you back in Red’s Kingdom: I know how busy you are, so I was excited to see a recent update on your short film, Tabula 5465, which means you’ve somehow been finding the time to continue work on your animated short. Tell us about all the latest developments.
Tom:Animation on the next creature is well underway. It is still a work in progress, but it is starting to materialise as something. Now I have a bit of time coming up, I’m aiming to make more substantial progress. Stay tuned for more updates later, but for now, you can look at what I have produced so far.
As far as other more under-the-hood developments go, there have been things tweaked and added here and there. For example, to assist in the animating process, I have created a few simple extra controls to the rig of the character to make it easier to get some nice organic bobbing and swaying movement. On my previous character this was extremely clunky to implement, so I am glad to have it as as something I can control independently from everything else.
Speaking more in terms of things that have a more obvious visual impact, I have made progress towards getting the final look of the animated sequences. I was able to render out a low-resolution version to test out various post-effects. In the end, I got something that was quite close to how I imagine the final film will look.
I’ve also been chipping away at an animated version of the title sequence and branding that is going to open the animation. It’s all very retro-pop!
Learned any new technical tricks lately?
Tom: One of my goals ,as this project developed, was to start using a tool in Maya called MASH, and I’ve been making the steps to start incorporating it into the pipeline of this animation. Unlike just about every other tool in Maya, MASH is a lot of fun to just play around with and get some interesting effects almost instantly. My purpose for it in this animation is to populate the backgrounds with more simply animated creatures, while the hero creatures in the foreground do the heavy lifting.
I couldn’t help but find out what would happen if 1000 creatures were to suddenly be brought into existence. I can conclude that a slow-moving computer and some amused giggling in a one-room Japanese apartment is what happens. But after the silliness, I did get round to more subtly incorporating it into the animation, as per my original plan.
When you’re working on a long project like this one, the motivation to keep going with it is never guaranteed – especially when you’ve got so many other responsibilities. When your mojo is running a bit low, what are your ‘hacks’ for getting back into the saddle?
Tom:Due to my day job, the actual production of the animation comes in waves, but even when I am not doing something related to art and animation, I am usually doing something that is exercising my brain in a creative way. That can be something like working on new lesson ideas, studying Japanese, or even just taking a walk around my neighbourhood and going down a road I’ve never been down before. It all tends to yield at least one interesting new sight, the discovery of something new or a burgeoning interest in something. I used to watch so many Japanese films when I younger because I was just so curious about what they had been making over the last 100 years, and here I am in Japan, learning a language that ten years ago, I could never have imagined having any understanding of.
Mostly, I recommend just finding something new that isn’t your comfort food. I think I am naturally curious person about creativity, especially when it comes to things outside the mainstream. I don’t love everything I see, but I am interested to see it at least once. One of the things I used to do when I was a student was just to marathon-watch lots of truly weird and bizarre stuff that probably should have never been made or seen by anyone. Unfortunately, even this became my comfort food and I had to branch out into even weirder stuff! The 70s was certainly an interesting time in cinema! At the very least it always encouraged me to see the world a little differently.
Do you ever find that your ‘extra-curricular’ projects are feeding into your teaching? How much do your students/colleagues know about your other life as an artist, animator and film-maker?
Tom:I think creating art is about thinking about an audience and making something which could be interesting for that audience. In essence, that is the same as making relatable and enjoyable lessons. To be honest, I don’t do much direct cross-over, besides some amusing PowerPoint tricks and worksheet design. I always feel like if that cross-over was made more explicitly obvious then maybe I have moved too far away from the point I am supposed to be demonstrating or encouraging students to interact with. However, at the end of the day, both animation and teaching are about eliciting some sort of reaction from someone so they feel interested enough to want to experience more or learn more from that thing. That is what I strive for on all fronts!
What’s next on your slate for Tabula 5464?
Tom:Just animating. I think I said that last time too, but my schedule is clear this time!
Finally, paint me a picture of life in Japan right now, weather, wild-life, the Olympics…
Tom:Rainy season is over (and it certainly did rain, as you may have seen in the news) so now the summer heat is in full swing, and the sweating from places you never imagined sweat could come from begins. Our old Kick-About friend, the cicadas, have also started their annual singing competition. Oh, and yes, the Olympics. Let’s just say that is a thing that is happening…
With many thanks to Deanna Crisbacher, I’m happy to present Fundus – a short experimental film originating from the series of photographs I produced for the Kick-About No.30. I had the strongest feeling these inner/outerspace images should move and liquefy, and in so doing, would further push my experience of them into the cosmic! I tried a few techniques out myself to achieve this, but ultimately called on Dee’s much more impressive box of tricks to produce the morphing effects I was after, with the addition of some apposite music, and a nod here and there to some classic science-fiction films. Thanks again to Dee, and also to the Kick-About community for the continuing impetus to make new work so directly.
Bottles (1936), a Happy Harmonies animated short, directed by Hugh Harman, is one of my favourite things. Here’s why.
Tellingly, when my husband looked over my shoulder and saw me watching this very grainy upload of Bottles, in preparation for writing this, he said fondly, ‘Oh, that one.’ For the next ten minutes, we watched the animation together, suitably transfixed. Afterwards, my husband said, ‘Yep, still scary’, and, happily, I agreed.
As a child, whenever an old-style cartoon came on the television, Bottles was the one I was hoping for. The story, such as it is, begins with an old apothecarist falling asleep one suitably stormy night, initiating a musical dream sequence in which the bottles on the surrounding shelves come to life to perform in a series of variety-style skits. Even as a nipper, I detected that Scooby-Do, Captain Caveman and their like were ‘cheap’ animations. Something about their flat colour and all the labour-saving devices of their locked, unmoving poses told me corners were being cut. I enjoyed these cartoons, of course – better those than Grange Hill, or worse, The Littlest Hobo, but for me they were the equivalent of those packets of Swizzel’s Rainbow Drops – puffed rice dyed colorfully; a bit cheap, a bit thin, a bit light, and always a bit disappointing. Not a proper sweet, only the semblance of one.
But from the opening moments of Bottles you know it’s different; there’s the aliveness of the rain, and the painterly expression of light, and the parallax of the different layers of scenery pulling you filmically into the frame. This is what a labour of love looks like, the art and graft of animated storytelling.
Narratively, Bottles has an exhausting ‘and then, and then, and then’ structure, which I enjoy guiltily, in so much as it forgoes the necessity of character development or other expectations of the craft. My own first forays into creative writing were comic book-style adventures committed to the pages of blue exercise books, in which a spaceman in a smart red suit encountered peril after peril, page after page – and then, and then, and then!
When I watch Bottles I am reminded of my own direct-to-the-page instinctiveness, telling stories with all the boring bits cut out; not for me the moments when the spaceman in the smart red suit had to eat, sleep or urinate; not for me, any long episodes of walking, or talking, or arriving or leaving. Instead, bring on the battalions of robo-spiders, the purple space-krakens and the erupting volcanoes; and then, and then, and then!
As a lecturer in story for animation, I always had to speak to the importance of the ‘three act structure’, and all the other established systems for organising narrative for audiences effectively. All good and useful stuff, but secretly, I loved it more when students worked instinctively and less rationally. When I think about the imaginative forces regulating Bottles, it’s not some careful calibration of narrative structures, but rather the primality of a fever dream.
That inanimate objects come to life when we sleep is one of those knowledges that all children share. That we both love and fear this idea is captured in Harmon’s animation. In Bottles, anthropomorphism is like a contagion, moving along the shelves of the apothecary, imparting rampant squash and stretch to anything it touches. What I especially enjoy about Bottles is its no-holds barred horror, which doesn’t simply reside in the animation’s more obvious macabre set-pieces. There is something uncanny itself about the style of the animation, no matter its subject-matter, disturbing in the same way as those incessant, arm-waving inflatable ‘tube-men’ outside car dealerships. It’s the failure of stillness and the absence of pause, the gangly, boneless, grabbiness of everything.
But it is the poison bottle-come-skeleton everyone remembers about this cartoon, if not its more innocuous-sounding title. This guy is truly the Halloween loadstar; from this cackling character every plastic skeleton in every joke shop, from this character, every plastic mask, and He-Man’s Skeletor, but all of them pale imitations. ‘Death walks the night!’ the skeleton croaks, before unstoppering its own head and administering the droplet of shrinking potion that begins the apothecarist’s surrealistic adventure at the outset of the cartoon. There’s a witch in the mix too, rubber-faced, grotesque, terrifying, and a trio of ghosts – the spirits of ammonia. For this little boy who liked his entertainment served with a hearty helping of morbidity, Bottles managed that most satisfying of combinations: cosy horror, feelings of comfort in a subtle blend with sensations of peril and fright.
In tone and in spectacle, Bottles reminds me strongly of The Mascot (1933) a remarkable black and white stop-motion film by Ladislas Starevich. This too is a tour-de-force of animism, and likewise shares with Bottles its scene-stealing evil character, in Starevich’s film, a yakking devil presiding over a bizarre night-spot popular with gurning turnip-people and ambulating detritus. Another thing the two animations share is their racist cultural stereotypes; The Mascot features a minor black character with exaggerated lips and Mohican-style hair, while Bottles treats us to the ‘dance of the Golliwog Perfume bottles’, accompanied, natch, by the beating of drums. I hardly need put the necessary caveats around this moment in the animation, or rather my discomfort about it as an adult viewer, but as the rest of the cartoon’s featured bottles pertain to real brands, I was curious to understand if ‘Golliwog Perfume’ was an incidence of a racial stereotype created specially for the cartoon’s roster of vaudeville routines. I was amazed to find Le Golliwogg was an actual real-world perfume, launched in 1919 in France, and in 1925 in USA, and that its bottle featured a particularly grotesque example of the golliwog character, designed by Michel de Brunoff and his brother-in-law Lucien Vogel, both of whom where editors of the French Vogue. And there was me thinking the skeleton was the most disturbing thing about Harman’s animated short.
It’s only when I re-watched Bottles that I understood how conspicuously it haunts some of my own stuff, not least the Chimera stories, which imagines a world in which all inanimate objects are capable of life. But Chimera owes more than a nod to the pitch of Bottles too, by which I mean its headlongness, and likewise my resistance to de-fanging some of the books’ more intense scenes, and so ensuring I leave in the bits I suspect will linger for longest in the impressionable minds of my younger readers. Looks like I have carried that skeleton around in my imagination for forty-plus years. Of course, I’m rather glad of it. “Death walks the night!”
There are a number of things I miss about my previous role working in higher education – and many things I do not.
One of the things I miss most about those days was my day-to-day proximity to other creatives, to their respective projects, and to their conversations about them. An average day would see dozens of discussions about storytelling, art direction, materials, research, conceptualisation, producton design, visual representation and promotion. Manifesting ‘something from nothing’ was always the business of the day, as we all worked together to get an idea ‘from script to screen’ or from 2D into 3D, from a dream of a thing to the thing itself. I know now how luxurious my old job was. Actually, I knew it then and never once took it for granted. It was life-affirming to be in the company of people who could first see things in their mind, and then develop those images into concrete, substantive outcomes – an act of magic and an act of faith.
Hardly surprising then I might have wanted some of that back, to work again with a diverse community of artists, to give a fair whack of my time and energy to making a space in which more of those conversations could take place. So it was I had the idea for The Kick-About, a blog-based creative challenge, in which creatives of all kinds were given the chance to make some new work in response to a fortnightly prompt – myself included. One year later, and we’ve just published Edition 26 of The Kick-About, a gathering together of participants’ favourite submissions, and one thing is clear: there is power in community, not least because the expectation of an audience for new work is an effective means of seeing off procrastination and preciousness by encouraging decisiveness and utility. There is creative freedom too in ‘short sharp snaps’ of creative activity, that ability to start something up and then close it down in a succinct period of time.
Speaking personally, I’ve found The Kick-About to be a hugely satisfying experience, and after a decade-or-more of very happily giving my best ideas away to other people, it’s been reassuring and exciting to discover there are still more ideas where all those others came from. I’ve loved the problem-solving aspect of the fortnightly prompts – resolving cogent, authentic responses to the various prompts in lots of different ways. You might also call it ‘flying by the seat of your pants’ – and yes, it’s been fun.
Gathered here are all my Kick-About responses, digital artworks, sculptures, photographs, shorts films and short stories, and collaborations with other artists. Agreed, it makes for an eclectic ensemble, but I’m reminded – happily – of being nineteen years old and studying my Art Foundation course, which was all about trying and doing everything and not worrying about what it was all for, or what you were going to do with it, or what you were going to do next.
So yes, I do feel younger for running around with my fellow kick-abouters, and if not quite nineteen, then not far off. I just want to say a very real and heartfelt thank you to everyone in the Kick-About community, whether you’ve played once, or always. Your company and creativity is, and has been, restorative, and I’m very much looking forward to doing it all again with Kick-About No.27. Onwards!
Aside from all the conspicuously unheimlich delights of Czech stop-motion animator and director, Jiří Barta’s 1989 short film, The Club Of The Discarded, a recent re-watch put me in mind of recent times: lock-down days of grinding similarity, the proximity of neighbours and their noise, the allure of difference, and feelings of redundancy.
As a fitting book-end, I wanted to (re)share a past projects of which I’m very fond, not least because I got to work with a loyal team of generous creatives. If you’re familiar with Red’s Kingdom, you’ll recognise the likes of Emily Clarkson, Ethan Shilling, Deanna Crisbacher and kick-abouter, Simon Holland, all of whom worked on this short educational animated film about the provenance of some ship-wrecked Roman pottery. Let me also introduce you to production team members, Nat Urwin, Tom Smith, Charlie Serafini, Alan Postings, and Jeffrey Wang, whose time and talents this film absorbed so totally for so many weeks.
Commissioned by the trustees of the Seaside Museum Herne Bay and funded by Heritage Lottery, the film was also made with the help and support of the children and staff of the Herne Bay Junior School. I had the pleasure of meeting a whole bunch of the school’s exuberant pupils in our search for the ‘voice of Marcus’, a role that ultimately went to Lake Blumenthal, who auditioned for me so impressively – while dressed as a lion!
Though completely exhausting in only the way putting together an animation can be on a tight schedule and even tighter budget, Marcus & The Mystery of the Pudding Pans was a very happy, life-affirming collaboration. I was interviewed on local radio about the project, which you can listen to here – or rather, you can hear my answers to the interviewer’s questions about the development of the animation in this archive of my side of the interview.
It was all the way back in November I last caught up with Red’s Kingdom’s artist-in-residence – filmmaker, animator and digital artist, Tom Beg. Since that time, I can assure you Tom hasn’t been twiddling his thumbs. On the contrary, he has been hard at working bringing the illusion of life to the first group of his otherworldly critters, so it’s time for a bit more show and tell.
Phil: How are you, Tom? And life in Japan? What are the headlines?
Tom:Nothing too exciting for me personally but it is coming up to my fifth anniversary of living here, so that’s something. Also, Japan’s educational year actually ends in March, and starts again in April, so in February most students who are planning to go to high school or university are going through what is known as juken jigoku or “exam hell” if translated to English. This means soon it will be spring and graduation ceremonies (socially distanced ones, of course), with cherry blossom flavoured Kit Kats, and cherry blossom flavoured everything available in abundance.
Phil: I’ve been very excited to see your most recent updates, including a sneak peek at the project’s branding. To kick things off, tell us something about your creative decision-making in regards to your animation’s title.
Tom: The animation’s title is Tabula 5465. Basically, it is inspired by the naming conventions of exoplanets. Tabula is the Roman word for a slate or tablet, on which things are written, while 5465 is a reference to the physical dimensions of Joan Miro’s painting Women and Birds at Sunrise, the painting from which the designs and ideas for the creatures in my animation derive. The logo represents the orbits of eight different planets, each representing the different creatures in my animation. The font was inspired by the one used for the titles in The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau.
Phil: I’ve been watching your animation updates appear on your Vimeo channel, and enjoying how you’re bringing more life to your creatures with every iteration. What’s guiding your decision-making in terms of your animation strategy?
Tom:Just making sure everything feels alive and behaving as if it belongs in this world. For this sequence, firstly I thought about how the creatures would behave if they were simply idling about and not doing much at all. From there, it was thinking about how they might potentially go from this idling-around behaviourtodifferent states of movement.
Phil: We’ve talked previously about the challenges of directing a film that is driven, not by story, but by the behaviours of your characters. What is your current thinking about how the film hangs together as a whole?
Tom:I think it’s going to be more in the style of a documentary or educational film. Rather than have the creatures perform for the camera, I’m animating as if they are being filmed in a natural state. I imagine when filming nature in real life, there is probably a certain joy in just watching things happen without any interference, even if it’s totally mundane behaviour. That’s what I’m aiming to capture. It’s not really a story with a three-act structure, but the story of these creatures and how they behave in their own world, and as a group.
Phil: What are some of the frustrations in regard to the animation process?
Tom: The physic simulations require a lot of calculation that can’t be done in real-time, so if I want to move something, I can’t get accurate feedback instantly. I have to do something called a playblast, which is a way of watching the animation play back at the correct speed. The videos you’re seeing in this post are playblasts. They aren’t full renders, but they play the animation accurately at a lower visual quality for preview purposes. Then there is dealing with models passing through each other because they aren’t actually solid things. I’m constantly having to adjust timing and position. It’s like cutting off the head of a hydra – you fix one and then another one appears!
Phil: And what’s delighted and surprised you?
Tom:I snuck out a few low-resolution renders with the lighting and materials applied, and it is looking quite nice. Unfortunately, you’ll have to wait a while longer to see those….
Phil: Out of curiosity, are you able to add up all the different individual tasks and processes you’ve had to go through to get to the latest stage – and how many processes come after this point to produce a final sequence?
Tom:So far there’s been: design, modelling, rigging, texturing, lighting, going back and fixing the modelling, fixing the rigging, animating, fixing animation, fixing animation and fixing animation. After fixing more animation, I will need to cache the animation and set up the various render passes that will give me the information I need to get depth of field, motion blur etc. After that, rendering the actual animation and compositing the various layers into a final sequence with all the effects applied that give it the final polished look.
Phil: And finally, what’s up next?
Tom: The three-armed pink tentacle creatures probably. I will animate the creatures in the order I made them, although they won’t necessarily appear in the animation in this order.
I wanted to engage with the most recent Kick-About prompt – the 5 Canons of Rhetoric – as it related to the idea of moving from an initial instinctive idea to something recognisably cogent and complete, and communicated successfully to others. I chose the pangram, ‘The Quick Brown Fox Jumps Over The Lazy Dog’ because, in its use of every single letter in the alphabet, I thought I could argue it was a single sentence encompassing every other English language idea possible; every book, every song, every poem, every philosophical treatise, every argument, and so on. As the animation goes on, you see different ideas vying for representation and moments of indecision, flashes of inspiration – helpful and otherwise – and a final resolution of the phrase we recognise collectively as ‘right’.
(There is some pesky pixelation due to compression in this Vimeo version: with a bit of luck, you’ll find the original video to view hosted here).