It’s been rather too long since artist-in-residence, Graeme Daly, and I sat down for a proper blether about his continuing adventures as a freelancer, film-maker and photographer. I keep up with Graeme’s various creative endeavours via his Gentle Giant blog and Twitter feed, but nothing tops an old-fashioned chinwag…
Graeme Daly and Phil Gomm in conversation / August 12th 2021
Ash, from Graeme’s computer-animated short film, The Green Glider, rigged and ready to animate.
From Pools, Graeme’s short experimental film deriving from photographs taken deep in the Irish countryside in the depths of winter.
It’s time to catch-up with Red’s Kingdom artist-in-residence, Graeme Daly, and this time, Graeme and I decided we’d capture our conversation ‘as-it-happened’ and put it out on here accordingly. I began by asking Graeme about his most recent updates on The Green Glider…
Ash – textured / The Green Glider / Graeme Daly / August 2020
The Wasteground digital set / The Green Glider / Graeme Daly / August 2020
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!
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: 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!
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: