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!
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!
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
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
Character design development for Gappy Gertie / Emily Clarkson
At some point in the middle of the lock-down, Emily Clarkson and I had a heart-to-heart on the phone. We talked about ‘what to do?’ in response to COVID. It was an existential question, and one being asked by creatives of all stripes in 2020. Emily and I are both freelancers and grimly aware things are not going to be getting any easier for creatives any time soon. There is the phrase that goes ‘content is king’, but producing content is salve too. Right now, making new work and supporting other creatives through collaboration looks like a sort of power in an otherwise disempowering moment. It was certainly the thinking behind the fortnightly Kick-About. Again and again during these unsettling months, I’ve returned to the Philip Larkin poem, To Put One Brick Upon Another, for guidance and resolve:
To put one brick upon another, Add a third and then a forth, Leaves no time to wonder whether What you do has any worth.
But to sit with bricks around you While the winds of heaven bawl Weighing what you should or can do Leaves no doubt of it at all.
By the end of our telephone conversation, Emily and I had come to a similar conclusion. In preference to biting our nails or throwing rocks at the moon, we too decided to put one brick upon the other. In common with Tom Beg and Graeme Daly, Emily and I would work together to develop a new animated short, and we weren’t going to think too much about the nuts and bolts of it either. Who is going to fund it? Don’t know. Who is going to watch it and where? Don’t know. How are we going to make it, using which techniques, which programmes? Again – don’t know, but to make something at a time when lots of other things feel as if they’re coming unglued seemed like a plan as sane as any other.
That was then, and now I’m happy to reveal we have a story, a finished script – we even have a song! – and the pre-production phase is underway, as Emily begins the character design process.
And the name of our new project?
Arranging the song Gappy Gertie on Sibelius / Phil Gomm
You haven’t heard of Gertrude, but Gertie is a girl you know Because always there’s a Gertie. You’ve likely bullied one, although Her name was probably Constance, Simeera, Chen or Sue. You’ve forgotten her most likely, but she hasn’t forgotten you.
It’s early days, so we’re keeping the exact size and shape of our story under-wraps, but it’s a school-based narrative about a girl called Gertie, who is bullied horribly by her peers. Gertie is inspired by one of her teachers to ‘search for the hero inside herself’ and a series of events are in this way set in motion. The story is built around an original song, and you might say my eureka moment came when I realised I could happily make the name Malala (Yousafzai) rhyme with Brian De Palma! It’s blackly comic – very black in fact – and I must say I enjoyed writing it very much.
There’s been a lot of back and forth between Emily and myself via email, but we caught up again recently when Emily set-up shop at Red’s Kingdom and here’s what she had to say as our work together on Gappy Gertie continues:
Gertie character design development #1 / Emily Clarkson
Phil: Hey Em, so here we go again then! We have another animation project in the offing together, a project with no established funding, a project taking up time and energy when we should both probably be doing more sensible paid things… So, why are we doing it? Why start something new when everything looks so gloomy? Have we lost our minds?
Emily: With things so gloomy, I think if we don’t do such things, we will lose our minds! Or at least, I certainly will. Starting something new creates a space to pump some energy, practice some skills and express ideas.
Phil: Absolutely! This isn’t the first time a new script from me has landed with you – a wall of text, description and some fudgier, spongier bits. What do you do first (apart from sigh inwardly!)?
Emily:Usually, I read it through, picturing the concept, and if it strikes a particularly excitable chord, I’ll find myself muttering ‘oh we could do this…or this… oh I wonder if that thing would be good to riff off…?’ and so on. And after that I’m usually falling over the questions I will inevitably ask in the next email.
Phil: So, what do you think about Gertie? What were your first impressions of the story?
Emily:I felt an immediate sadness at the cruelty towards Gertie. I was never bullied at school, so I can’t speak from personal experience. I went to an all-girls school. I remember there being very distinct friend groups in my class, but there wasn’t any animosity between them (that I remember). In terms of drama within my class, we were fairly low key! What made you want to write a jaunty tune for a horrendous bullying experience?
Phil: Haha! Blame Lars Von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark! I’ve always enjoyed the way music is so immediate and invasive. Music goes in really quick and I think there’s some fun to be had with the form of the musical short. We assume stories driven by songs and singing must always have great big grins slapped on their faces, but, come one, The Wicker Man is largely a folk musical and I love the way the music in that film works to draw you in, but shock you too – all those people singing along so happily at the end of the film as Edward Woodward goes up in smoke.
You’ve already made a start on character designs for Gertie and her tormentors. Apart from the pointers in the script and in some of our conversations, what are you riffing on?
Emily:I am absolutely riffing on my school experience in regard to the aesthetics. Female students between the ages of twelve and sixteen come in literally all shapes and sizes, so the uniform fit everyone completely differently. For example, it was standard to roll up our elasticated, box-pleat skirts. Some rolled well above the regulation ‘four fingers above the knee.’ (Yes that was a real rule.) It wasn’t all about showing off your thighs though. For some of us it was to make sure the skirt hem wasn’t dangling half way down your calves! Not a good look.
You made Gertie a young traveller/Gypsy girl. Was there a reason you chose to represent the travelling community over other communities?
Phil: There’s no overt identity politics agenda about that, no – likewise the decision to make the bullies themselves a mix of ethnicity. Every community makes targets out of people considered different to them, that’s all. No one is above it or better than anyone else. Gertie is more based on some vague recollections of kids at my primary and secondary schools who came and went, kids who were in someway out of the usual routines, who appeared suddenly, and then vanished again. They were regarded by some in the class as poor and dirty. It was all that stuff about not ‘having a proper home’ – whatever that means, as there’s plenty of dysfunctional families living in ‘proper homes’ too. Sadly, I think everyone is looking down on someone for some stupid reason or another. My experience at school was it was mostly about how someone looked, so their red hair, or a big mole, or too short trousers – or a strange smell – oh yeah, and being a virgin or not being a virgin. That was always a very big deal!
Developing the bullies #1 / Emily Clarkson
Developing the bullies #2 / Emily Clarkson
Developing the bullies #3 / Emily Clarkson
Emily:Have you experienced or witnessed bullying growing up yourself?
Phil: I was bullied pretty unpleasantly for year or so at my secondary school. I kept it a secret. I used to get the train to-and-from school, and the bullying would take place on the platform in the afternoons when everyone was waiting to go home. I also need to admit I bullied someone once – when I was much younger. For a short time, I was pretty loathsome to a rather over-weight boy in my class. I got in so much trouble for that. I still remember standing in a room at my primary school and being utterly eviscerated by the head teacher. It was an early lesson in understanding your victim is a person. I think about that boy to this day (I’m thinking about him as I write this) and I was thinking about him when I was writing the script. I was thinking about my bullies too, wondering if they still think about me.
Sissy Spacek as Carrie (1976), directed by Brian De Palma
Emily:Your script pays homage to Brian De Palma’s horror film, Carrie. Was Carrie White a beacon for ‘poetic justice’ for you as a young cinema goer? Or was she more a terrifying monster?
Phil: My sympathies were always with Carrie! I don’t know anyone who hasn’t at one point or other dreamed of burning everything down that way. Carrie does what we dream of doing, but fortunately, we’ve got Carrie to do it for us, so we have the catharsis of that high-school conflagration, the spectacle of someone failing to ‘rise above it’ in such spectacular style. There is some other less-well thought out concern of mine floating about in here, something more serious about the way young people keep being encouraged to rise to the ‘opportunities’ presented them by the failures of others; to be obedient and mild-mannered, to not give their energy to their fury, but to go to school, go to work, to be good. In light of climate change, Brexit, Trump etc., I do sort of feel as if going ‘full-on Carrie White’ might be what’s needed sometimes!
On a side note, I think I might be one of the few people on the planet who actually saw the original UK version of Carrie – The Musical. I saw it on a school trip when it was staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1988. Carrie is infamous for being one of the biggest flops in theatrical history, but I was blown away – I was thirteen! Perhaps this also explains why I don’t think it’s weird to put horror and musical theatre together…
Original poster for the musical Carrie (1988)
Phil: So I’ve got the song to finish arranging, which is taking me longer than I hoped. I’m nearly there though. What’s next on your to-do list?
Emily: More character designs. I need to nail down how the bullies look. And in addition to that, design their various outfits. After that I need to design our teacher, Mrs Mason, and move onto the environments. And then, to the storyboards! Lots to crack on with!
Gertie’s school disco outfit development sketches / Emily Clarkson
Emily and I will be updating our progress on Gertie here at Red’s Kingdom as-and-when we make some. Like I said, the content is coming first, because that’s the bit we can take control of now. Regarding the future of the project – funding etc – we are interested in hearing from anyone with a fabulously rich very elderly relative… More seriously, we’re also looking for a musical director/singer interested in working with us to get Gertie’s song up off the page. If you’re reading this and you know someone who knows someone, then do please get in touch, if only to put one brick upon the other while the winds of heaven bawl…
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.
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!
It’s time to catch-up with Artist-in-residence, Tom Beg, a moment to which I always look forward because I know I’m in for a visual treat or two – and this latest update is no exception.
Phil: Hey Tom, it’s nice to have you back again. So, let’s start with the most obvious question… Exactly what were the creative and technical challenges of realising this most surreal of your Miroverse critters, which appears at first glance to combine a rather exhausted-looking whale with an ambulatory witch’s hat?
Tom: Hi Phil. Yes, I’ve been away for a little while, but I’ve been chipping away at this animation whenever I’ve had the chance. For the first time so far in this project, I also have a little bit of animation to whet the appetite. If you compare my initial sketch to this 3D character, you can see I took a few decisions to make it fit it better with the overall aesthetic I’ve been working towards, by tweaking and adding where I felt things could be improved.
So far, I’ve been creating these creatures with a very old-school method of animation in mind, more like a traditional stop-motion animation, where each part would have to be moved individually and all animation would have to be generated by hand. However, in all the images I’ve produced, there are multiple characters with multiple poseable elements, all of which will need animating to create a convincing effect.
I’m not a traditional character animator, so I needed to start developing a strategy to make these characters come alive in a satisfying way. With that in mind, for this character I decided to adopt a ‘dynamic rigging’ workflow. To put it simply, while the bulk of the main animation is done by hand, beneath that is an underlying system of physical properties, based on the real world, calculated by the software and computer, which help to make this character move in an organic, dynamic way. I’m getting a lot of animation that would usually have to be done by hand at a great cost of time and energy. Now I’m essentially getting that extra movement for free.
This has meant another layer of complexity on top of what I was already dealing with, so there were a bunch of issues when it came to building the control system of this thing. At times I had to call on the help of the secretive ‘Maya Jedi Council’, who helped me get through a couple of the technical difficulties I was having. In the end I’m totally happy with this character in terms of the flexibility it offers for animation and the amount of movement I can get from it – so happy in fact, once I’ve made the next three creatures, I’ll go back and update the previous ones with this new system.
Phil: I get such a strong impression of this creature’s character; I’m getting an Eeyore-meets-Orko vibe...
Tom:I absolutely wanted to try and create a creature with two personalities; one half a kind of regal and majestic whale-like creature, while the other half is like a parasitic creepy-crawly. I think their relationship mimics things like Parasitoid wasps, which lay their eggs inside other bugs, or other so called “zombie” parasites that take over and control their unwitting, helpless victims. It’s all very morbid stuff!
Tom:As soon as I started to produce the sketches in 3D, I imagined this animation to be somewhere between pure cutesy and whimsical like any typical kind of colourful character animation, and a somewhat creepy Boschian-like nightmare. Maybe like you, I grew up with a much-rewound VHS tape of Fantasia and in the spirit of that film, I want the creature’s behaviour and personality to come across as very ‘not of this world’, and coming from a place of abstraction and pure imagination in the tradition of classic avant-garde animation, like the works of Oskar Fischinger. I’m digging deep for influences so once this project starts to move into time-based media, I think all the pieces will come together.
Phil: And now for my traditional last question… By my reckoning, your 5 drawings down with three more to go – who’s next?
Tom: If I look at the remaining three initial sketches and try to imagine how they will move and come alive, in terms of unknown technical challenges, I think I can say with a little more confidence I have come to terms with the main Maya mysteries of the Miroverse. With this latest attempt I got things moving and animating in an organic way that is intuitive and easy to produce. There isn’t much more I could add without taking the animation style in a slightly different direction or without adding yet another level of complexity of top what I already have. However, for each creature I’ve tried to challenge myself to attempt something new, so I’d like to keep up that tradition.
For the next creature I’m thinking to go with these drone-like blue bug things which I imagine to behave like irritating wasps, buzzing around and being a general nuisance. The questions I’m going to ask are what can I do to further to improve the overall visual quality of my images and how can I continue to refine my control system.
“drone-like blue bug things which I imagine to behave like irritating wasps“
Truth be known, I’ve been badgering Emily to get her feet under Red’s table for a while now and we’ll be talking about her initial reluctance a little later. Before that, I just want to say a few words about Emily as they’re words she would never use about herself, but someone has got to say them. Emily is one of the most commensurate animation-centric creatives I know, and it’s been my pleasure (and saving grace) to work with Emily on a bunch of very challenging, time-pressured and under-funded projects. Emily has seen me at my best – and at my very worst – absorbing my stress, my ineptitude and my poor temper without rancour. Emily can build entire worlds in her mind and communicate them to other people through ravishing production art; she is a designer of charismatic characters, and a skilled animator with nifty comic timing.
If Emily is reading these paragraphs, her first instinct will be to bat these endorsements away. Okay, her first instinct will likely be to blush rather unhappily, and then bat these endorsements away, but don’t listen to Emily, listen to me. Better still, before we meet Emily for a proper chat (and while her blushes subside), I’d like you to watch Marcus & The Mystery of The Pudding Pans (2019) commissioned for The Seaside Museum Herne Bay and funded by Heritage Lottery. Everything you see here, Emily envisioned for us first.
Welcome back (oh, and I will be asking questions later on the provenance of the pudding pans, so I hope you were paying attention!). So, let’s meet production designer and all-round class-act, Emily Clarkson, and begin by finding out why, on God’s green earth, she was worrying about taking up her rightful place as an artist-in-residence at Red’s Kingdom…
Emily Clarkson, concept painting for the Harp District, Red & The Kingdom Of Sound (2017)
Phil: Hey Em! You’re here then? I’m very happy about that, but when I originally asked if you wanted to take up residency in Red’s Kingdom, you were definitely a bit reluctant! I’m going to take a guess and ask if you’re suffering from ‘imposter syndrome’?
Emily: I guess the answer is yes? I don’t feel like a fraud who is about to be exposed, I just don’t think I’m capable a lot of the time. My experience of imposter syndrome is characterised by performance anxiety, obsessive comparing, (‘at this age, I should be here… etc’) and a lack of confidence. When you asked me to take part in the A.I.R (Artist-in-Residence) I just felt a bit odd, as I see it as a spot for those who are successful, experienced and who can share lots of wisdom.
Phil: You realise how crazy that sounds to me, right, given everything I know about you and everything we’ve accomplished together? My own experience of imposter syndrome is that it is rarely evidence-based; it’s a ‘feeling’ and not based on any empirical observation. If the real test of a creative’s legitimacy is that they often undertake creative projects – sometimes for actual cash! – so you pass this basic test?
Emily:Yes, I would pass the test. Yes, I make creative work (and have been paid to do so in the past!). However, I’d say my imposter feelings aren’t rooted in doubts about my creativity, but more in my capabilities in a professional setting. Being creative doesn’t feel like a high stakes situation; it’s freedom of expression, exploration, experimentation and sometimes just a fun way to chill out. Being creative in a professional setting is achieving very specific tasks in a concrete time frame, with the added stress of mistakes having consequences. That is the root of my imposter fears – messing up badly and having a directly negative impact on my employer’s credibility and mine.
Phil: Tell me more about ‘obsessive comparing’. I’m sure this is something most of us can relate to, given the likes of Instagram etc. Do you have any advice for ‘breaking the cycle’? How do you get past it?
Emily:The obsessive comparing comes out of (what I perceive to be) society’s expectations. By the time you’re 30, you’re supposed to be in some kind of stable job and living independently at the very least. Social media makes it very easy to see the accomplishments of others. It’s hard not to look around and feel like a failure and far behind those who appear to have their lives more together!
I don’t have a fix for breaking the cycle of comparison. It’s something I’ll always do. More recently I’ve taken comfort in tweets by professional artists and creatives who point out age means nothing in this field. What I took from them was everyone makes their own unique journey in the creative world. Two people in the same career will have arrived there in entirely different ways, at different times, with totally different experiences and credentials! I just have to remember that. Maybe I should turn it on its head and think instead of being ‘behind’? I’m taking the scenic route and meandering my way through different possibilities.
Either way, I’ve learned a creative career isn’t necessarily time sensitive. It’s there, waiting for the moment you choose to do it. Being successful at it depends on how long and hard you work at it!
Phil: You and I have worked together on two big projects, Red & The Kingdom of Sound and Marcus and The Mystery of The Pudding Pans. For both projects you were the principle production designer. What is it about production design you enjoy?
Emily:Have you ever read or heard a kick-ass concept, where you can’t help your imagination running away with designs, solutions and ideas? You just have to nail the ‘feel’ of that idea. That’s it. The act of doing justice to the concept is the bit I enjoy. Bringing to life what may never have existed visually before is thrilling, especially when it inspires an emotional or thought-provoking response from other people who see the end result.
Inside the Seaside Museum, the digital set derived from Emily’s concept art, Marcus & The Mystery Of The Pudding Pans (2019)
Phil: Are you able to talk about some specific examples of production design in these projects – how you resolved particular designs or made sense of something that was otherwise poorly described in my scripts? Hahaha!
Emily:In Red and the Kingdom of Sound I was assigned environmental design initially. The big deal about R&tKoS was the world was built entirely out of musical instruments, entire cities of them. The art style was based on UPA (United Productions of America, a kind of Looney Tunes and old Pink Panther-style, line art and block colours, which I love. One thing I was intimidated by was the colour scheme, so I took colour-picking out of my hands by using real world reference. Red’s adventure takes place over the course of a day-to-night. I colour-picked from photographs of instruments, and the sky at different times of day.
“The horn district gleams in the last light of day… The music here is characterised by a quick succession of notes that align with a montage of shots compressing Red’s journey through the Horn District. We’re shown him going under arches, ascending staircases, arriving on bridges etc…” from the original script for Red & The Kingdom Of Sound.
One of my favourite environments to design was the Percussion District, also known as the construction site. Unlike other segments of the orchestra, percussion entailed multiple instruments, so I had LOADS of structures to play with; drums, xylophone, cymbals, tambourines – all sorts! That segment of the script was chock-full of moving parts, like a wildly swinging wrecking ball and a conveyor belt of doom, which made everything fun and exciting! It was even more fun to animate the shenanigans!
For Marcus and the Mystery of the Pudding Pans, I started with the characters after visiting the museum and actually HANDLING 2000 year old pottery! The script clearly described our four main characters personalities, so it was just a case of marrying up their shapes to their characters. The Drama Queen (Gaius) was cracked and smashed. The Old Bore (Saturio) was covered in barnacle-like structures, the Sage (Belsa) was a round welcoming-shaped bowl, and our protagonist, Marcus, was the new and smallest member. My favourite character was Scuttle, the crab. He was the perfect mime in the script with great character. His physical design was purely trial and error until he jumped off the screen at us.
Phil: You were also the storyboard artist for Marcus & The Mystery Of The Pudding Pans. Can you give some insight into what that process is like? You’re essentially ‘directing with a pencil’ and likewise adapting someone’s words into images. Your ‘mind’s eye’ is very powerful, Em! Do the images arrive fully built in your head? What does it mean to storyboard?
Emily:My mind’s eye is an instinctive thing. My vivid imagination has been picturing stories since I was a child. In storyboarding, I use the same skill to picture events in a script, but then embark on the huge challenge of getting it down in a visual way and framing it for a camera. (I find framing for camera is the hardest bit!) Super-descriptive, evocative writing practically appears fully-formed in my head. Other times, things can be foggy until discussed with the author. A lot of my creative thought processes are about whether it ‘feels’ right. When I’m trying to storyboard a script, my main goal is to communicate what I’m reading as authentically as possible, without spending too much time on it (You can’t spend years and years on a storyboard!) I usually feel out the rest in the animation process!
Phil: Any sequences you particularly enjoyed storyboarding?
Emily:I enjoyed sketching out the shipwreck sequence because of the silliness of it all. Gaius recounts such tall tales! It really lent itself to a cartoony-style of storytelling. The studio ‘reveal’ and fake tentacle was a funny punch line, especially when Scuttle is highlighted as the stagehand managing a bunch of props at once. I enjoyed designing fake cardboard tentacles for Scuttle to dangle from his stepladder!
Phil: You were also an animator on both Red & The Kingdom Of Sound and Marcus & The Mystery Of The Pudding Pans. Animation is a laborious, slow job, but I think you find it rather thrilling – why?
Emily:Granted, animating is long winded, BUT that’s literally the moment the production comes to life and it’s really satisfying. Character models start to feel like actual beings and people. It’s the turning point in production when you can start showing clips to people and there’s a reaction, a suspension of disbelief. You connect to what you’re watching. That bit is always exciting to me.
Phil: Can you recall a particular moment in a particular project when that connection to a character first happened?
Emily:I know I got very excited every time I saw team submissions of Red moving during the production of Red & The Kingdom Of Sound. Those developments genuinely felt like unwrapping Christmas presents! My personal ‘it’s alive’ moment came from my first major character scene, chapter 14, shot 9. The Percussion District...
‘Imagine a montage of shots that begins as a wrecking ball swings into shot followed by Red ducking, swerving and dodging… the overall impression should be dynamic and exciting’ from the original script for Red & The Kingdom Of Sound.
I was given all the freedom to play with Red as a character, and I felt it was my first major animation accomplishment on the film. The character went from being essentially a 3D puppet, to a panicked character, whose evasive techniques were ridiculous but balletic.
The big difference with Marcus & The Mystery Of The Pudding Pans was the speaking characters. (Red was always silent.) Also, this time the characters were bowls, who didn’t have limbs with which to act! One of my favourite sequences to animate was Scene 14 (it must be my lucky Scene number.) All the pots sink to the ocean floor, then, at the prospect of sitting dormant for a thousand years, the big old boring one starts gasbagging about their history. Each pot had to react differently as time passes and it was fun applying their personalities to the situation.
Phil: You’ve always been very honest about freelance life. What are the highs and lows, and what is your advice for anyone trying to make a living on the strength of their creativity?
Emily: Freelance life is a perpetual state of ‘where’s my next job?’ So when a client decides you’re the one to solve their creative problem, that’s already a bit exciting. The work is unbelievably varied and it depends who’s asking for your aid! I’ve had calls from advertising, filmmaking, live events, you name it! If you like variety, it’s brilliant. You never know how high profile your projects could be. Your work could turn out to be something for a big brand or feature celebrities or it could turn into a viral sensation.
Every job comes with its own challenges. Sometimes the best bit is nailing down something that’s been particularly prickly only to find the client loves it at the end. It was amazing the first time I had someone I’d worked for come back with another job for me months down the line. It was exciting to be doing more work, but I also had concrete evidence I must have done a good job before – something to stick to that imposter syndrome!
Freelance is completely unpredictable. You never know how long you’re going to need your money to last. There are times when a job ends and there’s nothing coming up. It gets worse when that period of silence extends. It’s prime territory for some dodgy mental health; doubts surface, about your skills, about whether you can make it in this line of work… It can be really, REALLY hard to stay positive and keep the faith.
No one really teaches you how to go from school to freelance. I’m bumbling along and learning as I go. What I have learned is, when things get quiet, keep busy. Practice something new. Explore creativity and go in a weird direction to your usual methods. Stagnation is an awful, negative, place to be.
Networking is everything. And it’s something you have to constantly work at. I’m led to believe consistency is key. If you have a constant presence in the online universe, you’re more likely to be spotted in the vast digital sea of creatives. At least, that’s what I am hoping!!!
Phil: Can you tell me about some of your other projects you’ve worked on? Any favourites? Any really challenging projects? Any personal projects?
Emily:My favourite project to-date was Red and the Kingdom of Sound. There was a really amazing sense of community throughout. I unexpectedly had multiple roles throughout and really enjoyed each of them. The best part was witnessing an audience’s completely honest, joyous response to the final film – with live orchestra! – auditoriums of smiling little faces, madly clapping at the end of the performance.
Marcus & The Mystery Of The Pudding Pans was probably my biggest challenge because of the level of responsibility and again, I had multiple roles. (It was a very small crew.) The last few months of production gave a new meaning to the term ‘crunch time’ haha! But the final live exhibition was well worth it.
Towards the end of 2019 I worked on a project featuring David Attenborough for the Wildlife Trusts, called ‘the Nature Recovery Network.’ Which was amazing. The short film entailed segments of 3D animation with live action footage- something I had zero experience in. Fortunately I was able to contact Ethan Shilling to help me fill my skill gaps with his 3D wizardry!
For personal projects, I tend to go traditional, card making, scrapbooking, or art journaling. More recently, I’m playing in digital. I made animated holding screens for a Twitch streamer. Then, in place of a birthday card, I sent my brother a homemade Final Fantasy themed gif. I have started a mini project in After Effects that came out of missing a job opportunity. Shortly after the role went to someone else, I discovered a physics-based plug-in that would have been ideal for the job. (Sod’s Law!) So I took the plunge and bought it, making it my mission to work out how to use it to make cool things!
Phil: What or who are your creative inspirations? Who do you look to for inspiration? What gets the juices flowing?
I tend to take inspiration from stuff I consider textured or quirky in some way. ‘Coraline’ springs to mind. It had a wonderful dark, whimsical style, and everything was totally tangible having been almost entirely handmade for the stop motion production. More recently I saw ‘1917’ and was utterly awestruck by the camera work. I can’t forget the hauntingly striking lighting in one scene. (Flares over a ruined French town. You’ll know it if you see it!) The behind the scenes revealed that the sequence was sussed out using scaled models, which is something I really admire. One of the best examples of a textured animated film is ‘Spiderman: Enter the Spiderverse’. The mixed-media type approach opened my eyes to the limitless ways you can present animation. (I’d never have dared to animate some elements on one’s and other elements on two’s). The three-dimensional smearing, the sound effects as text onscreen, and textures – like colouring outside of the lines – blew my mind. I’ve never seen such an organic, moving, representation of a comic book before.
I’m often inspired by art style in games. So off the top of my head, fun silly games would be ‘Kirby’s Epic Yarn’ and ‘Paper Mario’, where the developers literally play with yarn and paper textures. Big strong art styles that spring to mind would have to be ‘Journey’ and ‘Abzu’. (I’m a sucker for a view, scale and scenery) Then, to contrast completely and delve into horror, the sound and environment design in ‘Alien: Isolation’ blew me away. It balanced the look of the original ‘Alien’ film with the projections of future space travel beautifully, and I always liked the gritty, chunky, mechanical nature of it.
Pinterest – okay, I’ll admit I probably don’t use it properly. I just pin a ton of stuff to a couple of badly organised boards!
I essentially have three art folders; 1) Art Journal/ Book, where I pin anything and everything I’m inspired to try myself, things like sketchy life drawing, graphic posters, character design, abstract watercolour, and illustrations. 2) Travel journaling, where I’ll pin other people’s beautifully artistic travel journals. I adore urban sketching, pasted with nick-nacks from adventures. And finally 3) Scrapbooking, where I pin other people’s beautiful and ingenious methods of photo and memory keeping, in the hope it’ll spark ideas for my own scrappy stuff.
Emily’s travel journal on a theme of Barcelona
Phil: I’m curious. How did you manage the lock-down, Em? How have you been pushing things along and not twiddling your thumbs too badly?
Emily:I’ve tried to keep busy! I started out with some painting and decorating; then I got back to the sketchbook. I’ve got a tiny square art journal – The Book of Mish-Mash – which I’m trying to post to Instagram as I go. It’s very much a freeform art book, no rules, just full of mixed media and creative whims. I’m hoping I’ll complete it before the year is out…
‘The Book Of Mish-Mash’
On a completely different tangent, I’ve taken on a digital marketing course, the intention being to learn from it, then build a decent website and make myself an efficient business hopefully. It’s given me some valuable pointers I can turn toward freelancing. Beyond that, I feel like I’ve seen the matrix in online advertising! (The course is free and run by Google if anyone is interested- Google Digital Garage).
Besides the little After Effects plug-in experiment I mentioned earlier, I’m hoping to take part in the ‘Kick-About’ every two weeks here at Red’s Kingdom. The prompts have been brilliant so far. It’s fun just bashing out artwork so freely, and the community, and variety of work produced, makes for brilliant viewing, reading and listening to! More please!
And after that, my conversation with the always lovely, multi-talented Emily Clarkson turned to the idea of how we might collaborate together on a new project. We chucked a few ideas about and we might have the beginning of a cunning plan. More as and when it happens.
While Lost Boy didn’t pick up any gongs, the festival organisers provided Graeme with a YouTube-based compilation of audience feedback on his film. Genuine, authentic feedback on early-career work can be notoriously difficult to come by for young creatives (and old creatives too), so I was heartened by this particular festival’s commitment to capturing it and giving it back to the artist. Making time for the giving of feedback is a powerful act of pedagogy.
I asked Graeme for his thoughts on the value of the festival’s feedback. He had this to say:
Graeme:Listening to the feedback from the festival was amazing. I had a smile on my face the entire time. The people in the video added a lot of interesting ideas to my understanding of the film, as in when one audience member describes the look of Lost Boy as being almost “like a pop-up book” or when someone else says “it’s very lyrical to a man’s perspective of life”. That’s what’s great about getting feedback – be it negative or positive (I’ll take either!). It gives me space to think about the work from a different perspective, and a fresh pair of eyes can highlight things you’ve never seen. I always craved feedback like a sponge when I was in uni. I could see some students found it hard to take sometimes, but I always wanted it, because it’s there to improve your vision and you can never be too precious. There will always be people out there who see things differently.
It has to be said I’ve never experienced a festival like FEEDBACK. The majority of times I just get an email back from a festival saying my film has, or has not been selected; the festival happens and then you’re notified if your film has won something or not. FEEDBACK was a different ball game… and a better one. Feedback is so transformative for artists – as I said, it opens up a cornucopia of lateral ways of thinking about your piece, especially now I’m no longer at uni and not surrounded by so many inspiring people. It can be hard, wanting feedback and not receiving it, when it’s essential to all creatives, and now more than ever. FEEDBACK festival has got it right. I can’t thank them enough for putting all of this in place and actually taking the time to provide feedback. It’s given me even more steam to get on with The Green Glider. This little video will be something I will cherish forever.“