Artist-In-Residence: Tom Beg #9


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 behaviour to different 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.



Fox Quick (2021)


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).


Ink Part 1 (2021)


For our recent Ernst Haeckel-inspired Kick-About, I produced a short little animation, capturing the rather wonderful effect of rubbing alcohol on drawings made in black marker pen. As the process of producing an animation requires lots and lots of individual frames, I was able to isolate some of these landscape-like transformations as a series of satisfying photographs in their own right. More soon.



Film: Ink (2021)


It was while producing these images for the Kick-About No.18, that I picked up the wrong sort of marker pen, which reacted to the spritzing of alcohol in some fascinating ways. I noticed how the solid lines of ink blossomed unexpectedly into a squirm of tendrils or fine feathery hairs. I noticed too how some consequence of the varying drying times of the ink and the alcohol produced a creeping tide-mark that moved across the surface of the tile – before suddenly retreating again. It was a bit like observing some organism in a petri dish or under a microscope. Suitably-inspired, I set about capturing these evolving ‘Art Forms’ through time-lapse photography.


Photographing the interaction of the ink and alcohol taking place on a ceramic tile, frame-by-frame.


With Ernst Haeckel’s beautiful and often bizarre zoological illustrations as my prompt, it was difficult not to think about images of virology and bacteria (I suspect the global pandemic might have something to do with it too!) and my affection for the b-movies of the 1950s surfaced as quickly, producing something moodier and more ominous than I’d originally planned. 

What’s fascinating is a technique, which previously gave rise to a sort of image suited to tasteful greetings cards, should now produce something so tonally different. However, given what we know about some of Haeckel’s other ideas, perhaps the underlying menace is not so wide of the mark.

The many individual photographs comprising the film were originally in colour, but I ultimately took the decision to produce the finished film in black and white. It was one of those instances when the sum of the film won out over its parts, with the music and the vintage flicker of the images crying out for monochrome. I’ve included the colour alternate version here for your curiosity.




Artist-In-Residence: Tom Beg #8

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!



‘Zoodles’ (2020)


This week’s Kick-About was an exuberant and playful affair, in which the participating artists parked their usual conceptual ruminations and had some fun – and how could we not, given we had Norman Maclaren’s Boogie-Doodle as our inspiration?

During my time as a tutor on an undergraduate programme in animation, I spent a good part of my time wrestling with – and against – the constraints of the ‘3 act narrative structure’, as students sought to tell epic-sized stories in just under four minutes or so. Often – increasingly often – I yearned for more direct ways of expression and content-creation, pushing students to produce their ideas with greater immediacy, to just ‘get stuff out’ in the first instance, as opposed to wait for the various ‘theories of storytelling’ to offer something up. Boogie-Doodle delights because it ‘just exists’; it’s what play looks like, an expressive and exuberant risk.


Boogie Doodle, Norman Maclaren, 1941


I had a few ideas as to how I might approach the Kick-About #14. I considered created Boogie-Doodle-inspired soft-sculpture using this technique, then siting the sculptural elements on wire to set them wobbling about. Another idea was to produce a series of synesthetic speed paints in response to listening to jazz music, similar to the images produced for the animation, La création du monde, but then I realised I might have made some apposite work already.

I have a small leather notebook with thick creamy pages that is home to my daily ‘to-do’ lists, which is my very low tech way of trying to give some structure to these strange indistinct times of ours. This same book is also where I doodle absently when I’m on Zoom calls. Given the instinctive ‘straight-ahead’ method of animation on display in Norman Maclaren’s Boogie Doodle, I ultimately decided to liberate some of my own doodles from the various corners of my notebook and release them into the Kick-About for a runaround of their own. My personal favourite is the grumpy-looking blue ‘ball bird’; I think it likely this doodle left my pen on some drab Monday morning…





And, by way of an ending, here’s the wonderful Sarah Vaughan doodling too.


Throwback Friday #24 A Quick Thumbnail Sketch (2017)


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.