Artist In Residence: Tom Beg #5

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!

Phil: In a previous chat we talked a bit about vocalisations for your bestiary – how they might sound. I suppose a better question is ‘who are they in terms of their personalities?’ because it’s from there everything else will flow. Got a sense yet of who these creatures might be, or what their respective temperaments might be like?

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

Imposter With A Penknife

Who was it who said a consultant is someone who steals your watch just before they tell you the time?

‘Consultant’ is not a job title I ever really understood, but to hear some people talk, you could be mistaken for thinking consultants were the shadow lords of the workforce, moving among us in purposefully opaque and mysterious ways, ominous portents of incipient restructures and slick purveyors of flash-bang ideas guaranteed to rile incumbent staff whose own expertise and experience they marginalise and appropriate.

If you were to visit the very grown-up zone of my Linkedin profile, you’ll see me described currently as a ‘communications consultant’ for Amnesty International. Not long ago, I finished a sizeable chunk of work for the organisation and I’m working on another project for them right now.

‘Communications Consultant’ is one of those job titles that needs de-mystifying. As titles go, it manages to sounds both super-serious and a bit Mickey Mouse. Hand-on-heart, when I started in the role back in November 2019, I didn’t understand the job title either, I just hoped I’d be able to figure it out and make a decent fist of it.

In common with most non-sociopaths, imposter-syndrome is a low-level condition from which I suffer daily to a greater or lesser degree. On bad days, I’m expecting to be found out for the terrible old fraud that I am, judged wanting by all those really creative people out there living their best lives. On good days, I just second-guess myself in various sensible ways that encourage me to keep trying to make the best work I can.

When I first set foot in the door at Amnesty International as a freshly-minted ‘comms consultant’, my imposter syndrome was pretty much all the way through the roof. What the bloody hell was I doing here, I worried secretly, even as I smiled, shook hands and tried to remember everyone’s names. Only a few months before, I was course leading a three year degree in animation, striding about campus scruffily and waxing lyrically about The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and The Brothers Quay. Now, I was about to engage in a diagnostic review of one of Amnesty’s big fund-raising programmes, seeking to identify effective ways by which fundraisers might communicate to their donors as engagingly as possible. As I stared glassily at my new work-station, I’d never felt less-prepared or more convinced of my obvious and acute unsuitability for the work I was about to undertake…

That this blog post includes a bunch of rather swish-looking Amnesty-branded visuals tells you that, ultimately, this first freelance gig played out with a degree of success. Turns out all those largely enjoyable years spent with students trying to identify the most visual way of saying something were pretty useful after all – no, not just useful, essential. What also helps is surrounding yourself with other talented and trusted individuals. It’s one thing to discover you need a physics-defying multi-utensil Swiss Army Knife by which to encapsulate a complex programme of Human rights emergency reponse work, and quite another to bring such an impossible object into being. Fortunately, I was able to turn once more to my friend and long-term collaborator, Ethan Shilling, who worked as my technical director on Red & The Kingdom of Sound, Marcus & The Mystery of the Pudding Pans and Spectrogram. According to Ethan, after the rigors of bringing 1500 year old Roman pottery to life, manifesting an impossible penknife was actually a bit of a doddle. Clever git.

I’m a little comfier with the job title ‘consultant’ now. I see now that it is a job that requires a bit of imposter syndrome because of the evaluative ‘strangeness’ it opens up between you and the thing you’re looking at. You might say a consultant is truly the idiot in the room (I suspect many people would heartily agree!), but that is their value. They don’t know why things are done in a certain way, so they have to ask, and in the asking, they open up new enquiries and possibilities.