Artist-In-Residence: Tom Beg #9


It was all the way back in November I last caught up with Red’s Kingdom’s artist-in-residence – filmmaker, animator and digital artist, Tom Beg. Since that time, I can assure you Tom hasn’t been twiddling his thumbs. On the contrary, he has been hard at working bringing the illusion of life to the first group of his otherworldly critters, so it’s time for a bit more show and tell.


Phil: How are you, Tom? And life in Japan? What are the headlines?

Tom: Nothing too exciting for me personally but it is coming up to my fifth anniversary of living here, so that’s something. Also, Japan’s educational year actually ends in March, and starts again in April, so in February most students who are planning to go to high school or university are going through what is known as juken jigoku or “exam hell” if translated to English. This means soon it will be spring and graduation ceremonies (socially distanced ones, of course), with cherry blossom flavoured Kit Kats, and cherry blossom flavoured everything available in abundance.

Phil: I’ve been very excited to see your most recent updates, including a sneak peek at the project’s branding.  To kick things off, tell us something about your creative decision-making in regards to your animation’s title.

Tom: The animation’s title is Tabula 5465. Basically, it is inspired by the naming conventions of exoplanets. Tabula is the Roman word for a slate or tablet, on which things are written, while 5465 is a reference to the physical dimensions of Joan Miro’s painting Women and Birds at Sunrise, the painting from which the designs and ideas for the creatures in my animation derive. The logo represents the orbits of eight different planets, each representing the different creatures in my animation. The font was inspired by the one used for the titles in The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau.  

Phil: I’ve been watching your animation updates appear on your Vimeo channel, and enjoying how you’re bringing more life to your creatures with every iteration. What’s guiding your decision-making in terms of your animation strategy?

Tom: Just making sure everything feels alive and behaving as if it belongs in this world. For this sequence, firstly I thought about how the creatures would behave if they were simply idling about and not doing much at all. From there, it was thinking about how they might potentially go from this idling-around behaviour to different states of movement.



Phil: We’ve talked previously about the challenges of directing a film that is driven, not by story, but by the behaviours of your characters. What is your current thinking about how the film hangs together as a whole?

Tom: I think it’s going to be more in the style of a documentary or educational film. Rather than have the creatures perform for the camera, I’m animating as if they are being filmed in a natural state. I imagine when filming nature in real life, there is probably a certain joy in just watching things happen without any interference, even if it’s totally mundane behaviour. That’s what I’m aiming to capture. It’s not really a story with a three-act structure, but the story of these creatures and how they behave in their own world, and as a group.  

Phil: What are some of the frustrations in regard to the animation process?

Tom: The physic simulations require a lot of calculation that can’t be done in real-time, so if I want to move something, I can’t get accurate feedback instantly. I have to do something called a playblast, which is a way of watching the animation play back at the correct speed. The videos you’re seeing in this post are playblasts. They aren’t full renders, but they play the animation accurately at a lower visual quality for preview purposes. Then there is dealing with models passing through each other because they aren’t actually solid things. I’m constantly having to adjust timing and position. It’s like cutting off the head of a hydra – you fix one and then another one appears!

Phil: And what’s delighted and surprised you?

Tom: I snuck out a few low-resolution renders with the lighting and materials applied, and it is looking quite nice. Unfortunately, you’ll have to wait a while longer to see those….

Phil: Out of curiosity, are you able to add up all the different individual tasks and processes you’ve had to go through to get to the latest stage – and how many processes come after this point to produce a final sequence?

Tom: So far there’s been: design, modelling, rigging, texturing, lighting, going back and fixing the modelling, fixing the rigging, animating, fixing animation, fixing animation and fixing animation. After fixing more animation, I will need to cache the animation and set up the various render passes that will give me the information I need to get depth of field, motion blur etc. After that, rendering the actual animation and compositing the various layers into a final sequence with all the effects applied that give it the final polished look.



Phil: And finally, what’s up next?

Tom: The three-armed pink tentacle creatures probably. I will animate the creatures in the order I made them, although they won’t necessarily appear in the animation in this order.



Artist-In-Residence: Tom Beg #8

It’s been a while since we heard from Japan-based artist, animator and filmmaker, Tom Beg.

Is this because Tom has been twiddling his thumbs or resting on his laurels? Hardly. In addition to teaching English to Japanese school children, and gunning for fluency himself in Japanese, Tom has been continuing work on his ‘Miroverse’ bestiary – his charming and strange cast of CGI-critters first inspired by the paintings of Joan Miro. Something of a project milestone has been reached, with all eight of Tom’s characters being put through their respective ambulations. Time then to catch up with Tom and find out a little more about what it has taken to bring his gang of improbable characters to life…



Phil: I found it very gratifying to see your Miroverse critters moving at last…

Tom: Yes, it’s exciting to see the fruits of my labour and produce some moving image at long last. After building and designing for such a long time, there’s always something satisfying about seeing previously inanimate things you’ve been working on finally come to life, and move how you would expect them to, or sometimes move in ways that gives them personality and character you perhaps didn’t originally expect.



Phil: Let’s imagine you can’t talk too technically about the process of animating… How might you describe what you had to do and how you did it? Is it anything like puppeteering? I have this very analogue image of you standing up ‘above’ these creatures, and moving them like marionettes or old-school rod puppets…

Tom: For the test animations, I’ve been trying to establish a base animation style and pipeline for each of the creatures. I want them to have a very organic and restless look, which I think comes off pretty well in these tests. It might be hard to imagine, but animating them was actually a lot more mathematical than perhaps you might expect for such wiggly things.

In Maya, you can animate very traditionally, or you can animate based more on numbers and graphs and letting the computer calculate what happens. I was actually working more with the latter method, which might be surprising. Lots of typing in different values to work out how many frames of animation would be appropriate for whatever movement. It’s lots of looking at things that don’t look like animation in the typical sense but are nonetheless controlling what’s happening on the screen. When it comes to final animation, it’s going to be a mix of this and more traditional animation puppetry.



Phil: Did any of your critters resist you? I mean, did you think they needed to be animated in one way, only to find they didn’t suit it or demanded an alternative approach?

Tom: In some ways, because it’s not like these are real world things, with real bones, muscles and lots of references to draw upon. I’m also fighting the computer somewhat because a lot of the movement is calculated by the software, so things would behave erratically from time to time, especially at the beginning. That being said, they were mostly painless to get moving. I usually started with a basic full body movement and then animated and refined each part of the creature once that was in place. When there was a convincing feeling of aliveness, I would go back and add some secondary movement and fine-tune lots of settings to give things more or less weight and elasticity.



Phil: For those less technical amongst us, give us an idea of how long these short sequences took to render – I think this means you having to explain 1) how many frames there are in a second of animation, and 2) how long each frame takes to render and 3) what you have to do with all those frames once they’ve been produced?

Tom: Depending on the creature, the render time for one frame of animation can range from about one minute 30 seconds for the quickest, to just over five minutes for the most complicated. There are usually 25 frames in a single second of animation, and each clip is ten seconds long. If the average time for one creature animation is three minutes, that will take something like 12 hours to render. I was sleeping to sounds of whirring computer fans multiple nights in a row and waking up in the morning to get my finished renders, which is very satisfying – but very annoying when you overlook something, make an error and have to do the whole rendering thing again!

When it comes to rendering the final animation, I really must consider how long each frame takes. Adding just 30 seconds onto the render of a single frame will increase the total render time by hours and cost me in more ways than one! When it comes to rendering, time really is money – because I have an electricity bill to pay!

Anyway once everything is rendered, I load all the frames of animation into DaVinci Resolve, a free editing suite, and I can see the final images in action. This is always the best part!



Phil: What’s the next phase of this project look like?

Tom: Hopefully, I’ve proved these creatures can move fairly convincingly, so the next part is to actually turn everything into a short animation. That means lots and lots of animating and lots of decisions about this thing as a film. I’ve been watching a lot of Jacques Cousteau documentaries, experimental animation and microscopic biology videos in preparation!



Phil: Finally then, how’s life in Japan? I think we need to know about the flora and fauna; what excess of wildlife are you dealing with currently?

Tom: The number of creepy crawlies has dropped off but like everywhere we are battling the effects of the pandemic on the economy and people’s daily lives, but things have to keep ticking over and even in these strange times Japan isn’t a country that lets you rest or take your foot off the pedal, especially if you want to try and reach beyond your comfort zone. It has been a struggle to balance all the things I want to do with my life here, especially under the cloud of coronavirus but I’ll keep reminding myself there is still this weird animation that must be made!



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