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.“
Phil: Hey Tom. Nice to catch up with you this week. I always look forward to seeing what you’ve been up. This image is joyous – like a shoal of outlandish helium balloons. It looks to me like you enjoyed translating your Miro-verse ‘anchovies’ into 3D existence…
Tom:Yes, the Miro cinematic universe, otherwise known as the Miroverse, is starting to come together but there is still a long way to go. I don’t consider the creatures and critters I’ve made so far to be finished, but now I have a pipeline of sorts established, it’s certainly quite enjoyable to be able to pop them into an empty scene and play around and pose them, or see how they interact with light and shadow. This has always been my favourite part of the 3D process. Also, all of this is a bit of testing and planning for when the time comes that I have to make these things come alive. It’s good to get a feel for what the possibilities and limitations might be.
Phil: I have many questions when I look at your characters, and they create an impatience in me to see them come alive and exhibit their signature behaviours. Any thoughts on how these critters might express their physicality? They look as cheeky and social as house sparrows…
Tom:Each of the creatures have their own bespoke control system that allows them be animated and manipulated in various ways, so this will certainly give a lot of opportunity for them to be able move and behave uniquely. That being said, there is likely going to be a lot of these things inhabiting a scene at any one time, and I’m a one-man studio making this in my free time. I’m going to have establish a kind of formula for animating them and giving them personality.
Phil: Another of my ‘many questions’ regards vocalisation – what these creatures might sound like? What are your current ideas in terms of potential sound design strategies?
Tom: I’m not a musician and I’ve never created sounds or soundscapes from scratch myself so it’s definitely going to pose a big challenge. I’m thinking about how I can use existing sound libraries to my advantage by manipulating, layering and distorting them until something interesting emerges. When I look at these creatures there are so many real-life sounds that immediately spring to mind, and since Miro’s paintings are an expression of the real world, it would make some thematic sense to use the real word in humorous and interesting ways.
Phil: A bit of an aside here, but producing work like this on the computer is a long-haul; what do you listen to while you work to keep mind and body together?
Phil: Hi Tom, how are you doing? How are you finding the ‘new normal’ in Yokohama?
Tom:Not bad. I’m back to my regular day job (with all sorts of social distancing restrictions) which means I have to balance doing my regular thing and this other thing. I’m just getting used to working out exactly how much energy I can put into both without suffering a full-blown burnout breakdown. It’s also just transitioned from spring into summer here, so I’m coated in a layer of sweat at all times. The humming air-conditioning unit becomes your best friend at this time of year.
Phil: First you gave us a goggling cluster of eyes, next a gaggle of jellied Sea Monkeys, and now we appear to have a bristling asteroid field of jaunty traffic-cones… What creative and technical challenges did you face bringing this latest cg asset to life?
Tom:One thing I needed to work out was how the blue cloud blob could have some variation if it needed to be duplicated, and also give it a sense of alive-ness. I experimented with quite a few methods of modelling, and in the end I went for a design somewhere in-between my initial drawing while allowing some flexibility and ease of variation within the 3D software. I think when it’s all animated, and all the parts are spinning and bending, it should look quite hypnotic and weird. There’s a load of moving parts, so I needed to make a control system robust enough to control each individual piece, but also not so finicky it would takes hours and hours just to get a few things moving about. It’s made me rethink some of my previous models and I’m already considering how they could be refined at some point.
Tom’s original Miro-inspired sketch
Phil: When I was little, there was this weird underground shopping centre I’d visit on Saturdays to spend my pocket-money; there was this toy shop down there selling all-manner of wonderfully rubbery toys – dinosaurs, giant insects, blobs, slime, bugs. It was heaven. When I look at your Miro-inspired creations, that’s where I expect to find them. How’s you’re thinking coming along in regards to what sort of story world your characters might inhabit?
Tom: It’s going to be like a big toy box of Pokemon outcasts and Digimon misfits wrapped up in this Miro-inspired universe. So far, I’ve just been making the characters, but there is a world they need to inhabit too. I feel like these characters and creatures are trapped in this bizarre universe and have to go on some kind of hero’s journey narrative to uncover what their purpose is.
The 3D model
Materials development – designing the look and feel of the surfaces of Tom’s ‘traffic cone asteroid’
Phil: You’re a bit of a film buff with some suitably eclectic tastes (I still remember a screening of Street Trash you organised which fairly traumatised an entire demographic of young impressionable adults!). I’m going to assume you’re already having lots of ideas about potential visual strategies for new animation; any existing filmic references that are feeling particularly pertinent to your project?
Tom: As you know, I love films that straddle the line of obscenity and the ridiculous but at the same time have a kind of artistic credibility (so maybe not Street Trash.) I’m not looking to go that far into the realms of the obscene but I am looking to create something unusual and a little bit ‘out there’. In all of my images so far there something totally zany and cartoonish about everything, but even so I want to capture them filmically with some elegance and reverence. The likes of René Laloux’s Fantastic Planet and the way that film plays with scale and space is looming large in the background. There is the sheer weirdness of Kenichiro Mizuno who is a renowned artist, animator and filmmaker here in Japan. He is the kind of the guy whose images you instantly recognise but have no idea what kind of imagination could produce such wonderfully bizarre creations. Finally, as a filmmaker I love the way Werner Herzog films nature and imbues our reality with a feeling of strangeness, the surreal and the otherworldly, such as in his documentaries: Encounters at the End of the World, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Fata Morgana and Lessons of Darkness etc. But the way he can film anything, no matter how seemingly comical or unsophisticated, such as the dancing chicken in Stroszek, with such sincerity is something I really admire
The completed model and friends
Phil: Which of your drawings is next in line for the 3D modelling treatment?
Tom:Next up is a kind of anchovy, seahorse, dolphin, jellyfish hybrid. I’m chipping away at it slowly in my free time.
“a kind of anchovy, seahorse, dolphin, jellyfish hybrid“
Tom:I’m actually just building all this stuff on my laptop in my one-room Japanese apartment. Honestly, I’ve never had the latest LED illuminated gear, the powerful graphics cards or the liquid-cooled systems. Perhaps it would help in some way and of course this kind of stuff has its place in the production pipeline, but having big, badass tech has never really been the motivation for me to make stuff. Tech make your life easier but at the same time I personally feel like it very rarely helps you make anything significantly better than on a more modest setup. I like to think of all the wonderful, timeless things that have been made on the humblest of equipment, with the most primitive methods, on the tightest budgets, in the most restrictive environments. I’m quite sure every filmmaker you have ever heard of got their start that way. When it comes to art sometimes limitation is freedom because you stop thinking about what you could be making and just make it!
Phil: Hello again, Graeme! You’re back then? Great – so what’s the latest on the development of your new animated short? Where are you at and does it have a title yet?
Graeme: Hey Phil. I’m glad to be back at Red’s Kingdom to share some animation shenanigans. I’m thrilled to announce the film has a title, and it’s called The Green Glider. Currently, the main development has been translating the style of the illustrations into Maya and really knuckling down to nail the story, so lots of drawing, plus sound design for the animatic to really get into the nuts and bolts of what The Green Glider will look and feel like.
Phil: One of the loveliest things about your developmental sketches and production art is their illustrative style, but when it comes to moving your 2D ideas into 3D, what are the challenges?
Graeme: The challenges are always to maintain that quirky style within Maya. I love painting and illustration because imperfection adds charm, and many times with my sketches and illustrations I’ll do a scribble without thinking too much into it or “colouring within the lines”, and then that one line makes things more visually interesting. Translating that into the glum greyness of Maya is always a challenge, as the program runs on maths and numbers… and I failed maths in school. But I love trying to manipulate Maya so that it bows down to me…!*
*(Graeme gives an evil laugh!)
I was told in uni to treat the developmental stage like a laboratory where I have my beakers and potions and I just experiment. I always do that in the pre-production phase to see what sticks.
‘Evil’ bubble car thumbnail sketches
‘Evil’ bubble car turnaround
Phil: You’re obviously an artist who likes to keep things loose and expressive and you work things up quickly, which gives them their charm and their energy. Do you find the more exacting rigors of 3D animation frustrating?
Graeme: It’s definitely frustrating, but so rewarding when things do work and look how you want. With sketching and doing illustration I can trust the process; there’s always this period where everything looks like shite. I call it… the “shite zone”, but then, from just playing around and trusting the process, I most of the time end up with an illustration of something that looks evocative in relation to what I wanted.
In regards to 3D spaces such as Maya, you can’t be as lackadaisical and free-form – at least to an extent. If you do, your resulting models will have horrendous geometry and nothing will look right or function properly. You’ll end up modelling something a few times because you didn’t take a step back and think about how to model it before tackling it. It is something that goes against my free-flowing nature, but I always take a step back, put on my thinking cap and ask myself, “Graeme, how are you going to go about this?”
Phil: So The Green Glider, Graeme… What is it?
Graeme: The Green Glider is the macguffin of my film. Its pertinent and really important in bouncing the story along. It completely changes the outlook and ambitions of the main character Ash, and propels him into an unknown world full of mystery and magic.
The green glider developmental thumbnails
The green glider turnaround
Phil: You’ve included a test render of a scene from your film in this week’s update – the bubble car against the backdrop of the city. How many different processes, techniques and tweaks have come together to produce this one proof-of-concept render?
Graeme: Wow! This is going to be lengthy with a lot of technical jargon, but here goes… So as mentioned I wanted to get across the feeling of the original concept art, so that was the main goal.
Original concept painting
Test 3D digital set render
To start off with, I created lots of alpha maps for elements that are in the distance, such as those yellow window lights, and dialling down their transparency to get some nice atmospheric perspective; you’re not going to see those elements way in the distance, so there’s no need to have actual modelled geometry clogging up the scene and dialling up render times. An assortment of coloured blobs that move slightly can easily and more effectively represent the space of a city. Dialling things back to their simplest form is always in the back of my mind when I’m composing sets and shots.
Orange glow with windows Alpha Map
Orange glow with windows colour Map
Alpha maps are drawings turned into 3D geometry, which means I can preserve the original style of the concept art. I can even turn a full piece of concept art into an alpha if I want. You can put an alpha map on any piece of geometry – a sphere, a cube, anything! You can also have 2D animated textures, which takes things to the next level. Alpha maps are always my go-to when I want to translate into 3D the original style of my illustrations.
When I had a bunch of alpha maps finished for the background of my shot, I moved onto the central block of the metropolis. I realised the alphas would look flat when I move the camera, so to combat this I extruded the plane to give it more depth. When I animated it all for the fun of it, I loved how it looked, so this technique will be implemented into the final shots to express the constant movement of the city.
Moving City Block Plane
To bulk out the inner part of the city, I used simple blocks, some with the same texture as the city alphas and some with plain orange. Around the edges of the city to produce the impression of even more depth, I planted more alphas (which are just orange brush strokes) to make it seem as if the environment was being lit by orange street lights. I also added more yellow window alphas to more planes and more cubes to make things even busier.
The Cityscape from above Screenshot 2
The spiky triangle things are the pillars that will hold up the many roads that surround the metropolis. I want triangles in there because triangles are seen as negative shapes. To get the gross green haze that is fizzing up from the water of the world I just plopped in a Fog effect, which really gives the scene a more hazardous vibe.
I modelled and textured the little blue car for a collaboration project back in Uni. It suited my new protagonist’s personality perfectly, so I didn’t need to create a new one. Those evil looking bubble cars in the turnaround concept art will be surrounding him and over-populating the roads. I can’t wait to model and texture those nasty things! I was really inspired by Hot Wheels cars I loved as a kid.
Even now, there is still a way to go with the metropolis set; I have to texture the roads and bridges, but getting that analogue feel of my concept art is always my priority.
Phil: I understand you’re collaborating with a composer for this film, and that sound and music are playing a key role – how’s that side of your project development coming along?
Graeme: Brian Freeland is my composer. Brian created the music for my graduate film, Lost Boy. Yonks ago, I gave Brian a lengthy email explaining my idea for this new film and the vibe I was going for. Brian had a song composed that had never seen the light of day and gave me permission to use it as a placeholder for The Green Glider animatic. In the meantime, I’ve sent Brian an iteration of the animatic so he can work his magic on a new composition. I’ll be updating him with the latest animatic as soon as it’s done. I trust Brian completely, and it always feels like Christmas when he’s something new to share, so I try and bide my time patiently!
Phil: What’s your working day like? Or rather, when and where do you knuckle down and get on with your film? How are you making yourself get on with it?
Graeme: Honestly, I just really enjoying doing it – even the parts that aren’t so fun. I just have to suck it up and get on. I’m strict with myself and my work. It’s ingrained in me since my uni days and it’s a good trait to have or else nothing would get done. I try only to take breaks when something clicks or I get over the hump of something. It can be really easy to take a break when Maya is being a lippy little shit and won’t do what you ask, but I always have to get over that hump before taking a break because it makes coming back to it a lot easier – then it feels like something you don’t want to take a break from and you’re raring to get back to it.
I pretty much start working from when I wake up – albeit it’s a later start than I would like, as my sleeping pattern is a bit shit right now, but that’s due to me being such a night owl. I LOVE working at night! It’s when I feel my most creative and I get a good chunk of work done when most people are asleep.
My little ‘creation station’ is really sad actually. It’s on the dining room table. My tiny London apartment doesn’t have space for a desk, so I mainly do my work there, but I also have a little garden, which is a luxury in London, so I spend a lot of time working there too… and also working on my tan. I like to bring my laptop and Ipad with me to our local park, where I’ll do some script writing or complete some sketches – keeping my two metres distance of course! Being in such a small apartment means I have to get out, as sometimes a change of scenery does wonders for the mind and work flow and working in an open space revs my creative cogs. A library would work wonders too, or the constant lulling chatter and hiss of barista steam from a café is ideal, but they’re both off limits at the moment. These little excursions will have to do until I make my millions and put a down-payment on my industrial loft with floor to ceiling windows drenched in natural light, a mezzanine overlooking its mammoth grandeur and the warm rust tones of exposed brick…
Phil: Finally, what’s up next on your job sheet?
Graeme: Right now, I’m working on finessing the script for The Green Glider and nailing the storyboard and animatic, so the story is in its most definitive form. Then I can start rallying the troops and get a little team together that will hopefully like to hop on board. Then I’ll be on the hunt for some funding. I want the story as solidified as possible so when I do reach out, those creatives can see exactly where the film is heading. There’s loads of stuff going on behind the scenes too. I like to chip away at things constantly, so I’ll be doing 3D bits here and there. Soon I’m going to jump in and start modelling the characters. I think you have to learn to juggle and keep all these plates spinning when making an animated short. I will try and keep them spinning and not smash any of them with my clumsy ass. I know this time is precious and it will be a different ball game when I am back to work full time. so I’m giving it the full whack with the time I have!
Is it weird I want to eat this latest offering from Artist-In-Residence, Tom Beg? Is it in anyway strange this fruity, jellied character has me licking my lips in an involuntary Haribo-craving saliva response? Is it peculiar I just want to grab these cheery-looking creatures and squeeze them like those rubbery monster-shaped finger-puppets I adored as a nipper? Another powerful impulse is to take Tom’s latest creation and chuck them at a window, and watch them crawl down the glass like those wonderfully sticky stocking-fillers I likewise delighted in as a child. (These are all compliments by the way!).
Tom and I have been in touch regularly via Skype and in our most recent conversation, I asked him about this newest addition to his Miro-inspired cast of 3D characters…
Tom’s original sketch
Phil: I understand giving life to this second of your characters inspired by Miro’s painting proved quite challenging…
Tom:I have, for one reason or another, never really delved into the world of character production in 3D. On a technical level, character production locks you in quite severely into each process, and as someone who tries to make art and use software instinctively, this is somewhat intimidating because I don’t really like the idea of being tied into these processes so strictly. Any oversights or limitations with your work, however minor or innocent, can have some serious knock-on effects down the line which can cause anguish and many wasted hours.
For example, if your initial 2D design doesn’t make some sense in reality, then it will be very difficult to build it as a 3D model. If your 3D model and its underlying skeleton don’t adhere to the principles and rules of the 3D software, then the processes by which you build the tools to make your character move and come alive can become hampered and unwieldy. I’ll spare the grim details of my 3 a.m. battles, but in this case, I’ve been away from the software for a long time causing some, let’s say, ‘rustiness’ – and because my ‘character’ is a three-armed, nine-fingered, one-eyed, six-tentacled thing I dreamed up without any consideration for reality, I made maybe every possible mistake at every possible step. However, I needed to build and understand this one in order to get an understanding of all my other characters, creatures and objects. Making those mistakes and the battles to rectify those mistakes is just another part of the production process.
Building up the 3D model in Autodesk Maya
Tom unpacks the modelling pipeline
Phil: When I look at this latest character, I think of jelly sweets and all the rubbery toys of my late 1970s childhood.
Tom: That’s interesting! I‘ve been so wrapped up in just getting it made, I haven’t really paused to think about what this character ‘means’ to me. My initial goal was to just to translate the feeling of my initial Miro-inspired sketches into 3D, knowing that they were probably not going to look exactly the same once re-imagined. Seeing them now, I’m reminded of Sea-Monkeys and mini kids aquariums with plastic fish and decorations.
The completed model, rigged and ready to animate.
Phil: Any sense yet of the universe in which your characters might reside? Any inklings about the wider world of your short film?
Tom: At the moment the characters are occupying these infinite nebulas with very little sense of depth and space. Even when producing the last two images it’s been somewhat tricky to figure where things should be placed in relation to each other, or how big they should be, or how many there should be. The good thing is these sorts of ponderings are starting to define the world I eventually need to build. I do have some ideas floating around, so once all the initial assets have been made, I’ll be able to play around with the finished stuff – like toys – and get a better sense of what it is all going to be.
Tom’s ‘sea monkey’ in various poses
Phil: Finally then, who is up next and what are your predictions around the challenges you’ll face?
Tom: Even though I consider this character a big step forward for this project, and me personally, there will always be some challenges because no 3D model or design is ever the same. In terms of my initial sketches there are some which are more recognisable as typical characters, with eyes and arms, and there are others which look more objects. I want to start building a couple of these more object-like ones and work out how I can imbue them with that same sense of character and aliveness.
All of Tom’s initial drawings, two down, which one will be next?
With the current lock-down giving many of us more time and attention to give to our own personal projects, I thought it high-time Graeme and I caught up…
Phil: All right, Graeme! Welcome to Red’s Kingdom. Make yourself comfy. Now I know you because I used to teach you and we’re mates, but let’s imagine I know nothing about you. What are the five top facts a person needs to know about Graeme Daly?
I might look scary and resemble Hagrid’s long lost cousin, but I’m actually a big gay loveable giant.
My graduate film, Lost Boy won the best film award at Farnham Film Festival and has been accepted into more film festivals.
I’m double jointed in my elbows… It grosses people out.
I have a titanium plate and six screws in my left ankle (I was pissed as a fart and fell off a slide).
I am told I give really, really good hugs.
Phil: What is it about animation that excites you?
Graeme: I love animation and it will always be my medium of choice, as you are truly only limited by your imagination. I love those wild animation talks with other creators when you’re trying to get a project off the ground; if you want a character’s head to pop off and turn into rocket, animation can do that. If you want a character to be encapsulated by a fizzing nervous ball of energy, animation can do that, or how about chased by a massive ball of tobacco? Animation opens up the possibility of achieving anything where something similar with live shoots would be near impossible and really expensive.
The stylistic capabilities of animation are endless. There is obviously 2D and 3D, but what about making 3D look 2D? You can choose inspiration from any other type of art and implement it, then kitbash and warp it to your heart’s content. There is so much wiggle room for experimentation with animation, which is one of the many reasons why it excites me so much.
Phil: Who or what are your creative inspirations?
Graeme: Inspiration can literally come from anywhere. I have Tesco’s finest luxury brand toilet paper in my bathroom and it has this lovely pointillism-type tree pattern on the paper I’m going to incorporate into some tree designs for this new film I am working on. So, inspiration can even come from something you wipe your arse with!
I love artists that work with line and texture, so Basquiat is up there, and I love the concept art of Michel Breton who did the gorgeous concept art and background designs for Les Triplettes de Belleville, directed by Sylvain Chomet. I really love his line work. It somehow looks delicate as a whisper but is still so impactful. I also love the art from The Illusionist, also by Chomet. Sergio Pablos inspires me. Pablos made the film, Klaus, which was all 2D, but 3D trickery was used for the lighting. It’s absolutely stunning and inspires me to mash different mediums together.
Phil: Your graduate film is Lost Boy. What was your experience of making it? I’m talking about the highs and the lows and all the in-betweens…
Graeme: Ah Lost Boy… well it took a year and a half to finish which is a long time for a 4 minute film! I was happy to have completed it in the end, and I’ve made my peace with all the things I know I could have done better – but it’s always a learning curve and I learned so much from Lost Boy.
I absolutely loved working alongside our year group – to work in such a collaborative studio environment with other creatives working their arses off and helping each other was the best feeling. To see all our films flourish before our eyes, to see the many fuck ups, but then getting our films done anyway – that meant everything to me. I love that bunch of people with all my heart.
Starting Lost Boy was a real struggle because it was so personal, but ultimately it was the most cathartic experience to get this film out of me. When I attended Farnham Film Festival people came up to me after the awards saying they related to it so much or they felt like they knew me and my personality… it made me well up and warmed my heart. That people related to Lost Boy means the world to me.
I think that’s what it means to be an artist, to put your heart on your sleeve as anxiety provoking, embarrassing, weird or personal as that is. I think a good artist will always inject themselves into their work either between the lines or quite literally, which was the case with Lost Boy – having a 3D immortalised version of myself with the same beard and cigarette in his gob every shot! I think that’s the massive thing I learned from making Lost Boy. It was the most transformative year and a half of my life thus far.
Phil: What have you been up to since you graduated?
Graeme: I got a job as a runner at the Mill in soho in London and moved in with a couple of friends from Uni and Luna the cat. I enjoy having chats with the other artists and creatives at the Mill, but I really love being at The Mill because of the other runners, as they crack me up constantly and they are always up for getting a bit sloshed after work on a Friday. They really are a talented bunch of people who I know will go on to do great things. I can’t wait to hug the shit out of them when I am back to work! Outside of The Mill I’m working on a new animated short I’m really excited about…
Phil: what can you tell us about it?
Graeme: What I can tell you is how the idea came about. I was in school when I was 15, a chubby-faced, closeted gay guy with shitty highlights, hating everyone and everything. In school, art and creative writing were the only subjects I gave a shit about. In English class we were given a creative writing brief to write something with the heading – “My Pessimistic view on life” or maybe my memory just made that up – but that’s how I remember it. I thought, perfect! I can get out some teenage angst through this essay.
But it didn’t end up like that. The essay took a life of its own. I remember writing it really quickly. It just sort of flowed out of me. It was like therapy. I think there is a lot of subliminal messages in that essay, how it reflected me in that moment. I was just too naive to know I was putting myself in the character’s shoes, that I was the one who felt trapped and smothered. School was really hard sometimes and that essay was definitely a form of escapism. I loved writing it. I could see it all so vividly in my head. It felt more like a painting. I still have the original written essay. It’s gone through multiple house moves, still has the original tea stains on the paper, and smells like an old book. I saved it because I always knew I was going to make something out of it one day, so it’s crazy for it to be happening now.
I can tell you in a nutshell what the new film is about. I don’t want to give too much away just yet, but it revolves around a person who feels trapped in his everyday life, who eventually finds a hidden gem of an oasis where he finds some peace. It really has a lot to say about the current crisis of pollution, rising water levels and so on, and how we basically have a choke hold on this planet, but how one person can be the change we need. It is told in a whimsical manner, which I think we all need a bit more of right now.
Phil: What’s your grand plan, Graeme?
Graeme: Besides living with my husband, Henry Cavill, on a secluded island with a tree house where we live happily ever after?
The grand plan is to be working on arty stuff and make films – shorts and feature length, independent and collaborative – until I’m old and grey with a Dumbledore-style beard. I will always continue to tell stories and create worlds. I’m in this for the long haul now and I wouldn’t want it any other way. I will continue to collaborate, absorb and grow my craft as much as possible by soaking up inspiration from people who are smarter than me and culture around the world that I haven’t a clue about. It’s crazy when you talk to someone more intelligent than you how much you realise you don’t know shit! I’ve been told I’m like an information sponge and that trait will persist forever!
Phil: Any top-tips, practical advice or wise words for other creatives/freelancers/filmmakers who might be reading this and experiencing the lock-down doldrums?
Graeme: I would say just be kind to yourself. I think people are starting to feel shit about themselves because they aren’t motivated or aren’t coming out of this pandemic with a new skill, or haven’t worked their arse off on something, Just know it’s okay to relax and it’s okay to feel like shit too. Try to de-shackle yourself from your negative thoughts and really listen to what you and your body needs – sometimes chilling and taking a breather can do wonders. I like a kind of a ‘proactive’ chill session like maybe watching a film from a director that you really like or reading a book from a writer you love.
I find I get an idea for something when my mind isn’t occupied by stressing about what I have to do or what I haven’t done. If your an arty creative type, try creating something just for the sake of it with no end goal and nothing to stress over. What happens when you do that and enjoy the process is your mind relaxes and you start to ask questions. It’s hard to describe but if you let your mind wander a bit but keep it within the boundaries of a small piece of work , it can start to problem solve without really having to think too much into it. It’s when you stop overthinking that the magic happens.
One of the hardest things for shiny new graduates is the inevitable bump back to earth that happens after all that collaborative buzz and focused attention of the final year fizzles out, often to be replaced by much more humdrum daily activities and the indifference of very busy people. Hard too is revving up to start a bold new project when there is no deadline or wagging finger or obvious demand for ‘another new thing’. I think Graeme’s got it pretty much right (I think he’s also got it right about living with Henry Cavill in a tree). You’ve got to keep finding the pleasure and the escapism in your own creative activity and trust in your own process to solve problems and surmount obstacles. You’ve also got to keep sitting down to do it.
Red’s Kingdom will be following the development of Graeme’s new film on an as-and-when basis, so we’ll be welcoming him back soon no doubt for more news and, post-lockdown, maybe a few of his celebrated hugs.
In the meantime, you’ll find Graeme in all of these places:
One small thing I’m doing at Red’s Kingdom is inviting other artists and creative individuals to take up short residences here so I can catch-up with what they’re doing and showcase their work accordingly – older work, new work, and work-in-development. During my happy stint as course leader for a degree course in animation, I was fortunate to meet entire communities of talented individuals, many of whom I’ve gone on to work with on various projects and now count as good friends.
One of the noticeable effects of the Covid-19 pandemic is the way it has inspired a sort of season-of-good-will mood of introspection and reaching-out. The disruption of normal routines means we’re thinking differently about the legitimacy and value of our own dogged pursuits, but also thinking much more about the well-being and resilience of absent friends and thus renewing efforts to stay in touch. My decision to begin blogging again is certainly part of this response, and likewise the impulse to contemporise friendships and past affinities that might otherwise have been allowed to drift.
All of which brings me to the subject of Red Kingdom’s first residency – animator, film-maker, and educator, Tom Beg. Say what you like about the particular strains put upon the pursuit of meaningful conversations by Skype and Zoom et al. but when an old friend of yours is self-isolating in Japan and, via Skype, you can pick up with him where you last left off, the technology still feels pretty astonishing.
Before Tom left for his new life in Japan, he already had a number of impressive and well-received animated shorts under his belt, and a Masters Degree too. His ambitious undergraduate final year film, The Picture Of Dorian Gray (2011) was ‘staff-picked’ by the good people at Vimeo and was awarded ‘short of the week’, and his Life-cycle of a Mushroom (2011) was commissioned as part of a interdisplinary collaboration between UCA and UoK. Owl, Tom’s 2015 music video for Collectress, a personal favourite of mine, combines extraordinary other-worldly visuals, folk horror and total directorial confidence in its execution.
Since Owl, things have been very quiet. A few weeks ago now, Tom and I talked on Skype for the first time in a while, and I essentially said as much, and Tom essentially agreed. By the end of our conversation we’d forged an agreement to kick something off, however small, however explorative, and regardless of the ultimate outcome. We needed a visual prompt, a jumping off point, something to respond to instinctively without second-guesses. In 2013, Tom and I worked together on the live-synchronisation animation, La creation du monde for ACT, where we both derived obvious satisfaction from mucking about with some mid-twentieth century-style abstraction. Perhaps it was this that led me to choose Miro’s Women and Birds at Sunrise and offer it up to Tom as blue-touch paper for an impromptu lock-down challenge? No matter, what’s exciting is what happened next, but before we get to that, here’s a bit of back and forth between Tom and I on his work old and new…
Phil: Hey Tom, what’s going on? How are all-things Covid with you?
Tom: For the past four years I’ve been working as a school teacher in Japan, the country that I currently call home. I’ve been enjoying the life of living abroad and all the ups and downs that come with deciding to uproot your life and go somewhere completely unfamiliar and do something totally different.
Usually spring time in Japan represents a time of change; the cherry blossoms bloom, a new fiscal year begins and students start the new academic year. Unfortunately, the current global health situation means that right now, I along with all other teachers and students are navigating our daily lives from the confines of home, except for the occasional daring, masked runs to the supermarket whenever my onion supplies run uncomfortably low.
Despite the stalling of daily life, I’m sure like for many others, the downtime of lock-downs and states of emergencies has offered a chance for some personal introspection and a desire to get through all of this with a positive view towards the future. My job as a teacher of teenagers who don’t speak my native language requires me to be creative in all sorts of imaginative ways, but after a long time away, I felt the urge to get creative in a way that is probably a lot more familiar to people who have known me from the time before I figured out what all the buttons on my fancy toilet do.
Phil: Your final year film Dorian Gray continues to receive attention on Vimeo. What are your recollections of working on that film?
Tom: In 2021 it will be 10 years since I made my graduate animation, The Picture of Dorian Gray. While revisiting it these days with many lessons learned elicits more than a few winces, I know even today it still sometimes manages to tickle the senses of people in the right way – which is strange because it’s an 8-minute animation I produced in 15 weeks, made with very little expectation that anyone except myself and tutors would watch it, but the internet finds a way and it ended up becoming something of a mini-viral hit (by 2011 standards!).
Thinking back, the production of the visuals in particular were so off the cuff that maybe it could it could be classified as something like guerilla CG filmmaking, mostly made with a desire to just get it done and let my instincts take over the production process.
Phil: What was your inspiration behind your animation for the Spectacular Science collaboration, The Life-cycle of a Mushroom?
Tom: The Life-cycle of a Mushroom wears its influences on its sleeve perhaps more than any other animation I’ve ever made, those influences obviously being silent movies and animated shorts like Disney’s Silly Symphonies. I wanted to capture the feeling of the roaring 20s and Jazz-age hedonism and make mushrooms and the biological process by which they reproduce just kind of sexy and fun. Like Dorian Gray this one took off online more than I could have ever imagined. Maybe people thought the same as me, that highly poisonous mushrooms could be wonderfully jazzy and slinky.
Phil: I’ve always loved Owl, your music video for Collectress. I think it’s pretty much a perfect thing and deserves a much wider audience and reach. Can you tell me something about the creative process behind its production?
Tom: For Owl I wasn’t looking to emulate any particular style. The music I was given was suitably ambiguous, offering the impression of something without ever explicitly expressing it. If I had to mention any influences then Moriyama Daido’s photography book, Tales of Tono, Stan Brakhage’s experimental short film, Mothlight, and the landscape shots from the British silent movie, A Cottage on Dartmoor were all on my mind at the time. The whole project was a big mixed-media undertaking incorporating marker pens, infrared film photography and 3D animation. I wanted to make something that purposely had a low-fi feel and didn’t look or feel like CG animation. More importantly, I didn’t want there to be a clear-cut answer about what it all meant, just as the music left me with my own questions.
Phil: A few weeks back we got talking on Skype and we both talked about the ‘itch’ to get into something new. I sent you the Miro image as a catalyst, and in just a few days, you were back producing all these wonderful developmental drawings and thumbnails. A few days later, you were back in the saddle modelling from your drawings in 3D. I’m properly excited to see those cogs of yours turning again. What’s the plan?
Tom: Stepping back into the world of computer animation software and the trials and tribulations of wrestling with something as big and bulky as Maya is a daunting but gratifying experience because while it has been a really long time, it’s nice to know things really haven’t all changed that much. Sure, there’s new renderers to learn, old trusted tools unceremoniously removed from existence and new buttons that do mysterious things, but the basic principles remain the same. It’s simply a case of adapting your ideas to fit those.
Whenever I’ve made CG art in the past there has always been that moment where whatever I’m working on suddenly becomes ‘right’ and that it’s nice to know this kind of feeling can still be conjured up even after many years in the wilderness.
As for this new piece, right now it doesn’t have a name, it doesn’t have a run time, it doesn’t have any music and it doesn’t have a deadline – a potentially disastrous combination, but like my decision to set off for a far-off country four years ago, it’s just being done with a desire to just see what happens and learn a few lessons along the way. That’s really quite exciting.
Every few days or so, I get a notification on Skype to say Tom has shared another update or image of this as-yes-untitled new project of his. I actively look forward to them. As Tom’s new work continues to take shape and develop, I’ll be sharing updates here at Red’s Kingdom. I know he’s currently working on another of his exuberant-looking Miro-inspired life-forms and thinking too about the opportunity for breaking new creative ground as a sound designer in response to all the noise and commotion implied by his drawings. More as and when from Tom Beg, Red Kingdom’s inaugural artist-in-residence. It’s great to have him around again!
Find Tom at tombeg.com and follow him on Twitter @earthlystranger