Spotlight #5 Deanna Crisbacher

When I needed someone to help me transform a series of digital photographs of local rural landscapes into a range of vivid far-off exoplanets for our most recent Kick-About challenge, I contacted my friend and former student, Deanna Crisbacher.

Dee and I have worked together on a series of animation projects, including Red & The Kingdom Of Sound, Spectrogram and Marcus & The Mystery of the Pudding Pans. In all these instances, Dee moved heaven and earth in support of the projects, her work characterised by meticulous attention to detail, pristine visuals, expansive technical know-how, and a formidable work ethic.

In addition to inviting Dee to collaborate on the exoplanet project, I also took the opportunity to catch up with her for a longer conversation about her life and times and the continuing impact of the ‘new normal’.

The ten planets of Wanderer (2020), created by Deanna Crisbacher

Phil: It’s potted history time, Dee. So you graduated back in 2018… what happened next?

Dee: Things for me were extremely hectic post-graduation. I had begun applying for jobs a few weeks prior, so by early August I was attending interviews at a few studios around London. During this time I was preparing to fly to the US for my annual family visit, but that year I was also going to Vancouver to volunteer at the SIGGRAPH conference.

Phil: What’s SIGGRAPH?’

Dee: SIGGRAPH (ACM Special Interest Group on Computer Graphics) is a yearly computer graphics and technology conference that showcases the latest technology and computer graphics for film, TV, video games and more. This includes anything from visual effects software used to create films by Pixar, Marvel, etc. to artificial intelligence and 3D printing. A huge array of companies such as Google, Industrial Light & Magic, Disney, Nvidia, Microsoft, EA Games, Weta, Sony and many more participate to exhibit, share and educate others on upcoming technology. What is really cool about it is it’s not just about visual effects or films, but also video games, coding, hardware and more abstract art applications. There is SIGGRAPH North America and SIGGRAPH Asia that each takes place once a year in different cities around the world. As a student volunteer it was a great way to meet people in the industry, apply for jobs, get special insight into the developing technologies, and to get showreel feedback.

It was hard managing all of this at once, especially because I had several interviews at a company called The Flying Colour Company (TFCC) and the day before my flight to the US they offered me a job as a Trainee Visual Effects (VFX) Artist. I needed to head into London to collect paperwork that day on short notice. It was stressful, but very exciting. I then took a little time off with my family, went to Vancouver to volunteer and meet some amazing people at SIGGRAPH, before returning to London to begin my new job. Since then I’ve learned how to use Autodesk Flame, but also helped integrate more 3D work into TFCC’s workflow.

Phil: Autodesk Flame sounds like you were being taught how to use a military-grade flame-thrower or similar! Without getting too technical, what is Autodesk Flame and how does it fit into making tv shows and film?

Dee: Autodesk Flame is a compositing and VFX software. Flame gives VFX artists tools to blend live action footage with other pictures, video clips, artwork or 3D CGI assets to create the final image. For example, a VFX studio may be given footage that was filmed in front of a greenscreen. We will then use Flame’s tools to replace the greenscreen with whatever the director wants in the background…such as a cityscape. We can also use Flame to do things like remove safety wires, add gore, remove crew members from reflections, replicate crowds, adding rain, inserting television screens, adding 3D assets like helicopters, changing lighting and so on. The possibilities are almost endless really. The name is a little deceptive…although we can also add fire using it if we have the right assets for the job! It has been intimidating and overwhelming at times but very rewarding and fun. I’ve gotten to work on some amazing shows like Killing Eve, Peaky Blinders, Years and Years, Baghdad Central and more. I’ve learned so much during that time; I look forward to learning more in the future.

Phil: Ooh, Killing Eve – expectations around shows like that are immense. Do you have to sign non-disclosure agreements? And what is it like living with spoilers etc? Do people try and wheedle out plot points from you or try and trip you up? (Of course, I wouldn’t try and do that, other people I mean).

Dee: Yup! That was a pretty huge part of getting hired and all of the paperwork involved. I can get into major trouble if I leak anything, so I often don’t even talk about what I am actively working on. I tend to wait until it is airing on TV before I say ‘hey I worked on that!’. That can be tough with shows like Killing Eve, where we have worked on multiple series so when a new series is confirmed people assume we are working on it. I have had a few people try to get some spoilers out of me before. It can be tough especially if you’ve never watched a show that you are working on, such as Peaky Blinders for me, so sometimes what I see I don’t even know I’ve seen a big plot point. So it’s just safer to not talk about it till it’s been aired! But for shows I do watch, it does sometimes ruin the surprise… but it’s also fun trying to piece disjointed shots together. We don’t get things in chronological order so it doesn’t always make sense.

Phil: Your graduate film, When, is largely autobiographical – tell us something about what it means to make such a personal piece of work.

Dee: I think it means being willing to explore yourself even if you do not like what you find…and being honest and transparent about it. It takes a willingness to be open and vulnerable to others, strangers and friends/family, about topics that are very deep, personal, and sometimes painful. I think there also needs an understanding that even though it’s personal to you, others may not be interested. They may not like it, not be interested in it, or just straight out reject it. I think it takes a willingness to face that sort of rejection but remain true to your goal. To me, it was worth feeling a bit uncomfortable to encourage people discuss these complex topics.

Phil: Were there moments when you thought, nope, I’m not going to share that? Did you have second thoughts at all?

Dee: Yes, anything that involved other people I either didn’t share or had second thoughts about sharing. Involving my family members, especially if I couldn’t ask for permission, made me wonder if they would want to be part of it or not. I never want to cross a line when it involves others’ privacy, since they may not want to have their part of the story told and it’s not in my right to violate that – also some of the more ‘serious’ stuff I decided to just hint at more than explicitly say, which I think is enough.

Phil: When has a very specific look. Can you tell us a bit about some of the creative decisions around the film?

Dee: One of the main things I wanted to achieve was the uncann, rather than horror. So I didn’t want to go for a standard ‘evil dark hospital’ theme. I wanted it to be recognisable, but not quite right. Realistic but distorted and fractured, like how it felt when I was ill. That also feeds into the sound design, where there are recognisable sounds, like fluorescent lights flickering or crowds of people, but to also take pieces of that and morph it into something very unsettling. The same goes for the narration vs the distorted whispers. I wanted there to be a thread of realism disrupted by the concept of ‘illness’ that makes it become unfamiliar.

The theme of hospitals also played into the graphic design of the project. There is an interesting similarity between medication prescription labels and nutrition labels. Numbers and nutritional information played a huge part in my illness, so including that obsession with numbers and a deep need for complete control was important to portray in the look of the project, to show how stark and life-draining that experience was.

The choice to use archived footage was an important one, because there needed to be a break out of that stark place to show the audience that it is a true story, with real people, feelings, and experiences behind it, that while it is not a horror film, neither is it a story that ends with a ‘happily ever after’. It was really difficult to figure out a way to incorporate them into the film, but I think it helps get across that fractured nature of it and the real lives behind it.

Phil: When went on to win many awards at film festivals; I know you were interviewed about it and did a few talks around mental health as a result. Were you surprised by the reception of the film?

Dee: I knew it had potential, since my second year film, Dysmorphia, seemed to strike people in a sort of similar way. I also knew it could totally flop, given how open I tried to be about everything and how untraditional the art direction was regarding animation. Depending on the situation, people cower away from these difficult topics when faced with them directly. I think if I had made the film a few years ago, perhaps it wouldn’t have gotten the same recognition since now mental illness is a more openly discussed. But the stories I started hearing from people about their experiences with eating disorders specifically surprised me. I find that while people are more open about mental illness in a general sense, eating disorders are still not talked about much. Given how abstract it was as well, there was a risk of people not ‘getting it’ so I’m glad that it made sense to people.

Phil: What is it about CGI/VFX that speaks to you as an art form?

Dee: I think it’s the world-building aspect of it. Granted, technically every art form is ‘world building’, but I find CG can bend reality in a way that feels more tangible. It’s a difficult medium to work with, but that is part of what makes it so satisfying when you achieve what you want, even if it’s somewhat of a compromise. Everything you do is a sort of puzzle; there are endless ways to create things using CG and VFX, and learning new tools is really fun and exciting. It’s a strange mixture having extreme control at times, but zero control at others. Sometimes the lack of control provides even better results, which is why I really enjoy simulations despite how frustrating it can be too.

A break-down of some of the key shots Dee created for Red & The Kingdom Of Sound (2018)

Phil: Okay – so you’re going to have to talk a little about what you mean by ‘simulations’ and where they fit in terms of VFX etc…

Dee: When I talk about simulations, I’m referring to anything involving particles or volumes (smoke, fire) but it can also involve liquid, shatter/destruction and cloth creation. These sort of effects need to be simulated by the software, meaning they take in a math formulas based on real-life physics such as gravity in order to create a realistic outcome. For example, when simulating an explosion Maya takes into consideration the temperature, velocity, and density settings to calculate the colour, luminosity, speed, transparency and movement of the explosion. You can also add wind, turbulence and other factors to further art direct the look of a simulation. The beauty of it is that it is totally random, it needs frame 1 to calculate frame 2 and so on… but that also means it can be unpredictable and time consuming. You can tweak things, like making gravity more or less intense than in real life, but it is largely a guessing game. But that is how you get more realistic results since it uses real-life calculations and formulas!

Phil: What has been your experience of COVID-19 so far, and likewise, the ‘new normal’?

Dee: It’s been a struggle. In one respect it’s been nice not having to commute…it ate up 3 hours or more of my day during the week and was also pretty expensive. So having that extra time and saved up money has been nice. However I find it’s been difficult in other regards… I miss being able to discuss work with my peers. Sat at home, it’s not as easy to ask for help or feedback when you’re alone. It also takes a lot longer to share work back and forth and feedback can be confusing when no one is there to point at the screen and go ‘there is the problem’. I really miss seeing how other artists work and what they are working on. I do admittedly feel I get more done though, since those sorts of conversations don’t happen now. It’s also more of a struggle to remember to stop working…it’s very easy to say ‘just one more shot’ and before you know it, it’s 10pm or later…but it has little consequence because you are already home. But in the long run with overworking like that, I’ve found burnout sets in very quickly if I’m not careful.

Phil: Lockdown meant the end of lots of film and tv productions – what has the impact been on your sector: you can only produce VFX sequences for stuff that has been filmed and made available to you, right?

Dee: That is correct. Luckily at the time lockdown first happened, the productions we were working on either had finished filming or had enough material to fill in the gaps. So once we finished doing the VFX for those productions…that was it really. We are still waiting on shows to get back to filming so we have stuff to work on but until then it’s just a waiting game. I know some other VFX and games studios are up and running again but it depends on what is being made. Some commercials for example are pure VFX/CGI… and same for games I suppose. It’ll be interesting to see how filming adapts to this new post-COVID world to ensure everyone stays safe.

Phil: Who and what inspires you and recharges your creative batteries?

Dee: Several people I met at SIGGRAPH I follow on sites like LinkedIn and Artstation inspire me, I like seeing where people go and how their careers and talents progress. Seeing art in general encourages me to create my own art. Ryan Barry is a good friend of mine now, we share art with each other regularly and have also began experimenting with ‘style mashups’ between his drawings and mine. He also does 3D work, more so for video games rather than film and TV so it’s interesting to see the process he goes through vs me.  

Here are a few other talented artists I met at SIGGRAPH and try to keep in contact with/follow:

Regarding other artists that I follow online, here are a few:

I’ve had more time to do some reading during lockdown and I enjoy taking different characters, worlds, or ideas and imagining what they’d look like or personify as. Normally I’d get a lot of inspiration from my co-workers and the different productions we are working on…but during this pause I’ve tried to keep up to date with what developing software and technologies are out there, which makes me excited for future learning. I also really love seeing any behind-the-scenes footage/articles about film and games. I really miss going to movie theatres though. Regarding specific films that comfort me…I’d definitely say Lord of the Rings. Lord of the Rings is what got me interested in art and filmmaking in the first place. So times where I feel I am struggling to feel motivated I watch those movies or the behind the scenes features. I find it exciting and fascination how much goes into making a film, and how much love and dedication is poured into some productions. The same goes for the original Star Wars trilogy. The innovation and creativity that was needed to problem solve makes me feel inspired and hopeful. Especially since “we didn’t know how to achieve this, but we tried our best to figure it out” is a common theme from junior artists to the directors. I know I often feel that way, so knowing that pretty much everyone in the industry feels this at some point is comforting.

Phil: When you’re not producing CGI work, what other creative outlets do you have? I know from your Twitter feed that you paint, for example…

Dee: So I do create some CG work on my own, more experimental stuff or things that I want to make in order to practice. However, behind CGI I also do like to draw both traditionally and digitally. I often find I prefer the basic structure of my traditional sketches and doodles so I’ll bring them into Photoshop and paint over them. I’ve mentioned as well that I have begun doing some style mash-ups with my friend, Ryan Barry, so that’s been a fun side project. I also try practicing some traditional clay sculpting, basic needle felting and baking if I don’t feel like drawing. I used to write short stories and poems as well, but I sadly haven’t done that in a long time now. But my creative interests are always changing so maybe I’ll get back to that!

Spotlight #4 Phil Cooper

Berlin-based artist Phil Cooper at work in his studio, September 2020

Regular visitors to Red’s Kingdom may already be familiar with the work of the artist, Phil Cooper, who is a regular participant in the fortnightly creative Kick-Abouts, in which artists based all over the world come together to create new work (or curate existing work) in response to a prompt. So far, Phil has given us beautiful hand-cut, hand-painted tableaux of lycanthropes and enticing portals, short spoken word fiction, maquettes of forlorn-looking buildings bracing themselves against storm and tempest, black and white photography, and one very sexy – if self-absorbed – lighthouse keeper!

When not kicking-about with the rest of us, Phil’s proper job is producing wonderful paintings, drawings and collages, which get snapped up almost-at-once by his followers on Instagram and via his website, Phil also keeps a very beautiful and generous blog – Hedgecrows – which he began all the way back in 2012, and is a rich source of pleasure and inspiration, a veritable treasure trove of dreamy, transportive imagery that offers up a comprehensive insight into Phil’s passions, preoccupations and talents.

The completed Chimera Book One cover art painting on Phil’s suitably untidy table-top.

Given all his existing artistic activity, I was delighted when Phil expressed his interest in working with me to produce my children’s book, Chimera as an episodic podcast – or rather, produce new original artworks in response to the book to accompany the release of the audiobook here on Red’s Kingdom next month.

Our first priority was to start thinking about a ‘book cover’ for the Chimera podcast. Phil and I have been chatting little and often about the project for a number of months, but we caught up for a proper natter just after Phil completed the Chimera cover art and sent it my way, a conversation in which Phil and I explore the provenance of his creative direction. Highlights include Phil discussing Clive Hicks Jenkins winning the V&A 2020 Illustrated Book Award for his work on Simon Armitage’s Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes and two middle-aged men reflecting on the strangeness of growing up in the 1970s!

During the course of our conversation, Phil and I make enthusiastic reference to a number of our mutual childhood touchstones – kitsch Christmas cards, boxes of fireworks and Halloween window displays. Consider the following a visual aid!

Phil Cooper and Phil Gomm in conversation, September 2020

The finished Chimera Book One cover painting by Phil Cooper, September 2020

Details from Phil’s painting for the cover art for Chimera Book One

Spotlight #3 Dan Snelgrove

Last Friday, I was excited to announce the first in my series of children’s books is being produced as an audio book to be shared here at Red’s Kingdom, starting next month! I have the pleasure of collaborating with a number of talented individuals on this project, including actor, Dan Snelgrove, who is lending Chimera Book One (and its many characters!) his vocal dexterity and flair for rich characterisation.

I caught up with Dan between his recording sessions for Chimera, largely because I couldn’t wait to find out how he was getting on, and to learn more about his approach to giving voice to the book’s array of fantastical characters.

Some of the highlights of our conversation include, ‘the omelette of acting’, and A Dungeons and Dragons Guide To Characterisation…

Actor and voice artist, Dan Snelgrove at work in his studio performing and recording Chimera Book One

Spotlight #2 ‘Clever’ Keith Burden

Between 2013 and 2019, I was involved in a series of ambitious European-funded creative projects centred around the visualisation of sound, and specifically the visualisation of classical music. During this time, I was fortunate enough to work with many very talented people, a number of whom I continue to work with on new projects today and whom I count as close friends and creative allies. If you know this blog even a little bit, you may already be familiar with the likes of Jordan Buckner, Tom Beg, Ethan Shilling and Emily Clarkson, all of them veterans of this extraordinary cycle of collaborations.

One name you won’t know is Keith Burden, but I’d like to change that. Keith Burden is a consultant in audio-visual technologies for performance spaces and the wizardry of project mapping, and the unsung hero of my various excursions into synesthetic concert experiences and the live synchronisation of animated imagery.

Happiest left to his own devices behind the scenes, usually dressed in stage-blacks and hunkered down behind a bank of hotly-humming computers, Keith is not one for blowing his own trumpet, so in this edition of ‘Spotlight’, I’ve taken it upon myself to strike up the horn section on his behalf.

Maison de la Culture, Amiens, France – December 19th, 2013 / If you very peer very closely at this image, you’ll see Keith Burden seated behind the table in the ‘cock-pit’, surrounded by computers, controllers and lengths of cable. Tom Beg and I are conferring in the background. We’re at the back of the stage hidden behind a huge screen, onto which we will soon project La Création du monde in live-synchronisation with the Orchestre de Picardie. Not sure what the shopping trolley is for.

His face illuminated by one of his three monitors, Keith continues his scrupulous pre-performance checks to ensure a glitch-free projection.

Phil: Hello Keith. Thanks for doing this. I know this isn’t your thing, being in the limelight and all that, but you do this transformative, rather magical job for people and for places, and I wanted to drag you – kicking and screaming if necessary – out from behind your kit. We met back in 2013 for the first of the sound visualisation projects, working with Darius Milhaud’s jazz-inspired ballet, La Création du monde (1923) to produce an animation to accompany a jazz-themed concert headed up by Chris Brubeck. I knew you first as ‘Clever Keith’, a guy with some seriously heavy-duty flight-cases, a vanful of cables, computer monitors and some very expensive, very powerful projectors. You were a bit like an agent in a Mission Impossible film, only in a fleece, and with bits of gaffer tape stuck to your trousers. How would you describe your role in our various creative collaborations?

Clever Keith: I see my main role as a form of conduit to get your plethora of artists’ work integrated with the live artists’ performance.*

*Keith is being characteristically modest here. Keith is much more like the black sleeve that encases hundreds of other smaller wires in some heavy-duty, utterly essential cable! Keith’s jobs include conceptualising the response to the space in regards to the logistical relationship between the hardware, the image, the audience, the musicians and the existing infrastructure – and then adapting everything at very short notice when the performance space is actually nothing like he was told it was going to be! There’s the install of the kit, all the time spent familiarising himself with the music and the visuals, there’s the checking and re-checking and checking again, and last but far from least, there’s the adrenalised act of live-synching the visuals and music itself in-performance, which can be like landing a passenger plane on a very windy day.

A selection of the various different concert venues across Europe to which Keith and I travelled during our adventures together in light and sound, all of which presented their different challenges in terms of projection and synching visuals with the nuances of the different orchestras.

Phil: When I was at school, I did one of those ‘career-picker’ exercises; I think I got ‘Florist’ when I inputed all my existing interests and career aspirations! I don’t remember seeing ‘projection-mapper’ or ‘live-synchroniser’ or ‘projector-wrangler’ being on the list. How did you get into this line of work in the first place?

Keith: A whole series of happy accidents after school, including my interest in photography, allowed me to develop a fairly unique set of skills. I was fortunate enough to be trained by three companies, Linn Products, Naim Audio and Quad Electro Acoustics, which provided, not only the foundation of my audio work, but also the signal chain for the visual and control element. Specialist 2 channel Hi-Fi turned into Home Cinema, which then became Custom Installation, which led onto interactive projection mapping.*

*Projection mapping, similar to video mapping and spatial augmented reality, is a projection technique used to turn objects, often irregularly shaped, into a display surface for video projection. These objects may be complex industrial landscapes, such as buildings, small indoor objects or theatrical stages. By using specialized software, a two- or three-dimensional object is spatially mapped on the virtual program which mimics the real environment it is to be projected on. The software can interact with a projector to fit any desired image onto the surface of that object. This technique is used by artists and advertisers alike who can add extra dimensions, optical illusions, and notions of movement onto previously static objects. The video is commonly combined with, or triggered by, audio to create an audio-visual narrative. In recent years this technique has also been widely used in the context of cultural heritage as it has proved to be an excellent edutainment tool thanks to the combined use of a digital dramaturgy. (Thank you Wikipedia).

So begins the process of blending the images of two separate projectors to produce a single seamless rear-projected image on the big screen at the Maison de la Culture, Amiens, France, December 19th, 2013. The checkerboard image is used to ensure the two projected images are aligned perfectly. I suspect Keith sees this checkerboard in his dreams..

Phil: Tell us about some of the jobs you’ve done, the unusual ones, the spectacular ones, the most expensive ones, the strangest ones….

Keith: One of my favourites is the Painted Room in Greenwich’s Old Royal Naval College. Less than 2 hours to install and calibrate a seven projector system onto the walls, ceilings, and on this occasion, also the floor, to illuminate the performers. With one technical rehearsal the previous month, we were able to use the projections to illuminate the appropriate elements of the Painted Hall that tied in with that part of the performance.

I would say some of the most enjoyable works are where we are able to project discretely, where the audience get to experience the projections without being aware of all the technical elements. St Johns & St Elizabeth’s Hospice Light Up a Life Christmas projections have allowed us to project within the courtyard area of the hospital. In Turner’s old art studio, we were able to transform the space into a Tuscan landscape that subtlety changed to an evening under the stars, as the scenes changed throughout the evening. Leeds Castle fireworks was a fantastic canvas that allowed us to choreograph the visuals to the music and the fireworks for one of the finest fireworks displays in the country.

Most live events have challenges, but when you are sharing the stage with other performers, and in addition you have moving platforms with flames and lasers firing from them, it makes the set up not so straight forward! At Glastonbury we provided the visuals for The Egg when they headlined the Arcadia Stage.

The Arcadia Stage, Glastonbury

Some buildings lend themselves to projections and other have been painted white to allow us to project onto them We projected onto the Turner Contemporary in Margate, back in 2012 for the Olympic Poetry projections with Lemn Sissay. The clean lines of this building made it great visual experience. By comparison, a small disused unit in London was painted white, along with all its fixtures and fittings, converting the space into a “Doodle Bar”, not only for the benefits of the projection mapping and interactive projections, but for the people attending the event to doodle on any surface they wanted.

Phil: One of the things you do is make ordinary spaces into magical ones through light, colour, illusion and sound. Is that the element of the work you enjoy?

Keith: Being able to create these magical spaces, allowing structure to breathe and move in ways people do not normally see, is massively rewarding. We are so lucky to work in many architecturally beautiful spaces, but many events are in marquees, function rooms and sports halls. Rugby Portobello Trust use a basketball court/sports hall, with our operating position being located in the gym adjacent to the room.

The transformed space at the Rugby Portobello Trust.

Park Village Studios is a photographic studio with a 3-sided curved white walls and we operate from a walkway overlooking the area. On one visit to this venue we turned this studio into a Cotton Club for a wedding. Some of the projects I have most enjoyed, similar to the sound visualisation projects with you, is where I’ve been involved with the creative process from an early stage. The workshops we’ve done with Snape Maltings, Suffolk, have been massively rewarding, working with children and young adults with varying levels of ability, as well as with schools like The Charles Dickens School, based in Thanet, where all their work was finally presented to friends and relatives as projections. I’ve likewise helped with mapping projects for The Guildhall School students, including beneath Tower Bridge and the beautiful Waddesden Manor

Right up to the lockdown, I’ve been working on a couple of live music projects that both use the visuals to compliment the music. With the Blues Chronicles, we are showing 20 short films introducing artists prior to the band performing them, and at the Jazz café I am responsible for the bespoke visuals behind Stompy’s Playground, who have assembled an outstanding 5 piece string ensemble to lovingly recreate the themes and compositions from classic Studio Ghibli films.

Phil: Talk us through the process: you turn up at a venue, you’ve got an empty stage, a massive screen, a couple of hours before rehearsal and cases of kit…

Keith: The process follows a similar pattern at each venue. After managing to get all the equipment onto site it is the connectivity of the system I initially focus on. All the power and signal cables are run between all the equipment, with the appropriate control cables. Once this has been completed, we can fire up the system and check each component is working and they are talking correctly to each other. However many times I do this, there is always a moment when you see all the equipment powered up and running correctly and you can relax, take a deep breath and get ready for the calibration.

With the work on your projects, we have been working mostly in theatres, who have been sympathetic to the projections. With the house lights turned down, the calibration of the control and projectors starts, usually with the projections, ensuring we’re hitting the correct surfaces with the correct projectors, then stitching them together to complete the final product. The control element is refined from this point onwards and put through its paces during rehearsals. Unfortunately, the nature of rehearsals means there is a lot of starts and stops, which is not always helpful for the visual element, but allows us to push the system to the limit. The doors then generally open, and the next time we see the visuals is when the orchestra start the piece.

Phil: How nerve-wracking was it, live-synching visuals to classical music in front of audiences of hundreds of people? 

Keith: Sometimes the nervousness starts before we reach the venue! Once we have the final material, and it has been played successfully on our machines, then initial nerves subside. Usually I have been provided with the music prior to the event, so I can rehearse and familiarise myself with both the music and the visuals. That said, the sound of the different orchestras and venues, along with the different conducting styles, did create totally different landscapes to work within.

Phil: What does it feel like when the synch between the sound and image is perfect?

Keith: It’s like covering your body with honey, then allowing the bees to lick it off over the next few hours.*

*For the record, Keith is also a bee-keeper. If you were thinking this is just a rather colourful turn of phrase… it may not be.

Phil: What does it feel like when it doesn’t go to plan mid-performance, and how do you get it back on track?

Keith: At first I was afraid, I was petrified – kept thinking I could never live without you by my side. But then I spent so many nights thinking how you did me wrong, and I grew strong and I learned how to get along…*

*For the record, Keith can also be very silly.

Phil: What were your favourite events you worked on as part of these European projects?

Keith: The first event is always exciting, as it usually when a lot of talk and convoluted explanations are realised by all those involved – the visual artists see their visual projected for the first time, the orchestra see the visuals for the first time. Working with you and your team, then Milhaud in 2013 has great memories, along with the bonus of Mr Brubeck’s performance alongside ours. It’s hard to choose a favourite event from the projects, each venue offered its own challenges to a greater or lesser extent, but at all these venues we were always made welcome and I think the orchestra staff and their crews really helped make these events very special. The most enjoyable element was being exposed to Darius Milhaud’s La creation du monde and Berlioz’s Romeo and Juliet – prior to these projects I was unfamiliar with them both.

Phil: For me, one of the great pleasures of working on these projects was sitting in during the rehearsals and getting to know the musicians and their music. How about you?

Keith: I totally agree. Although we became very familiar with the La Création du monde and Romeo and Juliet, so we get to hear these performed by the orchestras, but then we get the additional bonus of the pieces of music that are being performed alongside, such as Strauss’s Don Quixote, Verdi’s Requiem – and we mustn’t forget The Snowman in Zilina*

*We were out in Zilinia in December to screen La creation du monde. We were on a double-bill of live-synch performances that included the Christmas classic, The Snowman. There is so much more Keith could tell you about this trip, not least because we drove there from the UK, but what happens on tour, stays on tour, right?

Phil: In light of Covid 19, how do you see the future of your industry? Any big ideas?

Keith: I think in the near future interactive projections and immersive installations may be an area that could be worth investigating. With all the hardware safely away from the virus, it may make it a more practical solution for many users.

Phil: It’s high-time we had another adventure in light and sound! What are we going to do next?

Keith: I think we better get the egg and toffee hammer out!*

*I’m not going to explain this reference either, which has nothing to do with a) projection-mapping or b) bee-keeping, but in someway associates with the culminative effect of two people sitting in a car together for hours on end on their way to-and-from Slovakia.

Spotlight #1 George Nwosisi

A few weeks back, I featured news from animator, Urvashi Lele, about the new show she’d worked on, Your Daily Horoscope. It was lovely to catch-up and likewise share Urvashi’s news, and I’ve been prompted to introduce a new strand on the Red’s Kingdom blog – Spotlight – wherein I can shine a light on other creatives, on their disciplines and their processes. I’ll be meeting up again with some of my former students, who are off doing exciting things, but also inviting other creatives to discuss the nuts and bolts of what they do, how and why. I’m flirting with the the idea of podcasts maybe, but haven’t quite broken the seal on that, but let’s see. To kick things off, I’m introducing you to animator, George Nwosisi, a nicer guy you’re unlikely to meet…

George Nwosisi

Phil: Hey George, thanks so much for helping me get this up-and-running. First things first, we need a quick potted history of your life since you graduated. What happened next and where are you now?

George: Hey Phil! It’s been a journey since I left uni in 2015, a good journey that is. From the very start, I knew animation was going to be a very competitive industry to get into. I knew I needed to get some type of industrial experience down on my CV just to get my foot in.

George Nwosisi Showreel 2017

After my graduation, I started applying for internships and putting a showreel together, animating new shots specially for the reel to keep it interesting. Thankfully, I landed my first animation intern with Digital Shoguns in north London. This internship lasted three months, which was good enough on my CV to help me jump into the next role. Soon after, I applied for Antimatter Games in Cornwall, landing a contract as a 3D animator for six months working on a game called Rising Storm 2 – Vietnam. I enjoyed my time there, and they wanted me to stay after my contract was up, but c’mon.. its Cornwall, nice place, but it was far from my family and life in general, so I didn’t renew my contract.

So I’m back home, job hunting again with nine months of experience on my CV. At the end of 2016, I got a job at Cubic Motion – who specialise in facial motion-capture animation and clean-up. During my time at Cubic Motion, I worked on games like Call Of Duty, Ghost Recon, Man of Medan and many more, but I wasn’t truly happy there because it wasn’t key-framed animation or full body character animation.

After a year and few months, I went job hunting again and was shocked when I got into Ninja Theory, which was always the one company I wanted to work for when I was back in university. I’m still at Ninja Theory and I’m loving it, as it’s what I’ve always wanted to do: 3D full body character/creature key-framed animation, working on Bleeding Edge, Hellblade 2 and other projects.

Phil: You’ve got animation in your bones, George – it’s your calling! What is it about animation that makes sense to you and what do you think are the ‘tell-tale’ signs someone is an animator? Were there signs when you were much younger? How did that love of animation shine out of you before you knew exactly what it was you wanted to do?

George: There’s always a reason behind why someone wants to become an animator – watching films, a love of gaming, cartoons or even VFX – having the thought of “Oh cool! how did they do that?”. Then the journey begins of finding out how things are done, and then the process starts. I’ve always been big fan of gaming, but I never thought “animation”. I studied gaming at college, but only the coding aspect of it. One day, I saw a friend of mine animating a biped on the computer and I was mind-blown. I haven’t stopped animating since.

Some of George’s earliest animations

Phil: Who are your animation heroes? Who inspires you or what inspires you? What have you seen recently that made you fall in love with animation all over again?

George: There are many animations out there that keep my fire going. I could sit on Vimeo for hours, watching people’s showreels, thinking how amazing their animation style is. Even looking at a character rig can make me want to animate that rig and do something cool with it. The number one animation that inspired me recently was Spider-Man – Into The Spiderverse. What brilliant film – everything from the animation to its art style, and how the animation was animated on 2s. There are also amazing animators here at Ninja Theory, whose work always pushes me to do better and go beyond the level I’m at.

Phil: What do you enjoy most about the animation process and why?

George: For me, it’s the planning, the researching, the ideas, and seeing the plan come together. Without all those things, the outcome of your animation might not be as strong as it could or should be. In one of my recent animations, the character lands and rolls on the floor; without researching parkour and reference videos on YouTube, the roll might not have been as convincing. Tweaking and pushing the animation – seeing what works and what doesn’t work – is also a fun part of the process.

Phil: And the least enjoyable?

George: Oh gosh! Finding bugs, having gimble locks and fixing it. A gimble lock is when your character’s rig gets a weird rotation and doesn’t behave in the way you need it to. Fixing this can be done, but it can be an annoying process!

Phil: How has the pandemic changed your working life?

George: Since we all now work from home, the office banter is out the window, likewise walking over to your colleague’s desk to see the cool things they’re working on or vice versa, sharing ideas, getting visual feedback there and then – all that’s missing now. The advantage is you literally get off your bed and your work is right in front of you – that and spending good time with your family. Me personally, I prefer the atmosphere of the office.

Phil: Outside of your day job, how do you stay fresh, inspired and healthy?

George: PLAY GAMES! WATCH FILMS! And GYM! Playing games and time at the gym gives me time away and keeps my state of mind good and healthy. Watching films gives me the inspiration for the next animation shot that might go in my showreel,

Phil: What remains on your ‘animation bucket-list’?

George: Getting more games under my belt, being a better animator in both character and creature animation, and also being able to play with motion capture data and pushing it to its limits. Honestly, it’s a never-ending skillset, a journey. You can always better yourself and do more and more things – and that is my plan!