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 #7


I always look forward to the moment when I get a Skype notification, which usually means artist-in-residence, Tom Beg, has something new to show me. Tom’s been super-busy of late doing sensible things like enriching the vocabulary of his Japanese students, but has somehow found the time to put some finishing touches to his Miro-verse menagerie! We caught up for a brief chat recently and it gives me very real pleasure to share once more the fruits of Tom’s labours!


Phil: Hey Tom. I hope all is well over there in Japan. So, you got all critters modelled, textured and rigged… and then you went back to some of them to make some refinements. What was missing from them originally, and what changes have you made and why?

Tom: I thought everything had something of flat CG look, which was making everything not as satisfying to look at as it could have been. It was probably a case of me being a little timid when it came to turning on some of the extra switches after a long time out and not really knowing what kind of extra steps turning on said switches would introduce. Most of the changes are pretty subtle, but I’ve tried to throw a few things into the mix. For example, making the surfaces reflect and absorb light a little more interestingly, making the highlights pop a bit more and so on. There will be definitely be some more changes when I start animating and see what happens when these things move and react to light more dynamically.



Phil: I know you’re not supposed to have a favourite child… but do you have a favourite creature, and if so, how so?

Tom: I like the red orb with the metallic blue shell! Funnily enough of all the original sketches it’s the one I find the least appealing, but in its 3D, form I think it’s very cute and graphical. It has this mischievous personality that comes across even without an obvious face.



Phil: You’ve been looking at, thinking about, and working on these characters for months now… how have you sustained your interest in the project?

Tom: I enjoy seeing the results each step brings, so I just chip away and take everything day by day! These are strange times, so I don’t beat myself up about missing whatever informal deadlines or goals I’ve set in my mind.



Phil: How’s ‘the story’ coming along – though I’m using that term very loosely!

Tom: I’m aiming for something short and sweet which probably does indeed mean a very loose story! I’m leaning towards something a bit faux-documentary, not too much editing and just letting the creatures’ movement and visual style define how the ‘story’ progresses.



Phil: What can we expect from your next update, Tom? What’s on your to-do list?

Tom: Animation and lots of it! All these critters need someone to get them wiggling and shaking and that’s my job!



Phil: And finally… how’s the cicada situation out there?

Tom: Unfortunately, the cicadas have just about cried their last call of the year, but now hornets are on the prowl and those do actually kill people so I think I should just stay inside and make this animation!


Throwback Friday #20 La création du monde (2013)


Last Friday, I featured a bunch of digital speed paintings created in response to Darius Milhaud’s ballet, La création du monde (1923), which was the first stage in a creative process wherein an entire community of creatives were challenged to visualise Milhaud’s jazz-inspired ballet. The next stage was using the resulting imagery to create an animation to be projected in live-synchronisation with orchestral performances of La création du monde (facilitated by Keith Burden, whose work with audio-visual installations and projection-mapping is highlighted here).

The not-inconsiderable job of re-working a selection of the original synesthetic paintings into an uninterrupted sequence of abstract animations fell to Tom Beg and Jordan Buckner, who took the paintings we’d created and gave them dynamism, character and energy, pushing the music back though the imagery it had inspired in our collective imagination.

Come the premiere of the animation, Tom, Jordan, Keith and myself were all stuck behind the screen onto which the animation was being projected while, in front of it, the orchestra performed, so we couldn’t see the audience’s faces as the film played out – but the moment of hush, followed by enthusiastic applause, confirmed something rather magical had taken place – a transportive synthesis of sight and sound.



Artist-In-Residence: Tom Beg #6


Phil: Hey Tom, how goes it in Japan?

Tom: It goes hot and sweaty. Fallen cicadas dot the streets alongside the occasional spotting of a lizard, beetle, praying mantis or worse yet, a dreaded cockroach trying to make its way inside my humble abode. One thing I didn’t know about Japan before I came here is that it has a lot of bugs, and even though they are fascinating, they are still quite terrifying. I think because somehow, they always manage to find a way in.

Phil: I always forget to ask – what’s the view from your window? I always wonder what you’re looking out at when you’re procrastinating or taking a screen break from your Miro-verse project?

Tom: I look at the same thing that 90% of people who live in an urban area of Japan look at: blocky residential buildings and ugliest power lines you will ever see. Lots of them too. I used to be able to see Mt. Fuji from my old place but these days I’m fortunate to at least have the privilege of seeing the tops of some trees behind the rooftops and masses of wires. But if I walk a few minutes down the road, and climb some steps, I can at least see some…more residential buildings. It’s higher up, so it’s cooler I think?! Here’s a picture of said view:



Phil: Given the exuberant other-worldliness of your creations, people might be expecting your work-station to resemble a laboratory – lots of flashing lights and twitching dials… What’s the reality?

Tom: I live in a fairly small place so I try to reduce the stuff in my immediate vicinity to the bare essentials. My home office is just my laptop, a second screen, a portable speaker, a lamp and an analogue clock. I’m not really big on collecting trinkets and figures (a potentially dangerous game in Japan, the land of such things) so it’s all a bit sparse. I’m hoping to upgrade my set-up soon though, so there might indeed be some cool flashing lights to suitably disrupt my sleep pattern and REM cycles.



Phil: So, we’ve got a double-whammy from you this time; you’ve been in the business of producing swarms. In some ways, these appear simpler than some of your other critters in terms of their physiognomy?

Tom: Yes, it was a lot easier to recreate my original sketches for these into 3D models and instil them with some personality. As always there were issues, but overall, I think they came out looking pretty nice. These days I have a good grasp of the 3D processes for creating these characters individually so the challenge going forward is how to give them life as a cohesive group of characters. I’ve been researching and experimenting a little bit with a tool in Maya called MASH. It’s something that I was unfamiliar with before but has become quite relevant to my needs recently. I hope to be doing a lot of MASHing in the coming weeks.

Phil: I think you’re going to have to explain that, Tom; people reading this are going to think you’ve gone a bit ‘Richard Dreyfuss’ in Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Tom: I want to populate my world with lots of these characters, but more characters obviously means more work! MASH is a nifty tool that can be used for animating large groups of characters and objects with relative ease. There’s still a lot I have to work out, but I think it’s going to be another good tool for bringing this world to life.



Phil: There is something particularly joyous about these creatures – something delightfully rambunctious. I know you’ve been staring at them on screen for hours on end, but what are your feelings towards them? Do you have a strong sense of where they fit in the Miro-verse and how they might conduct themselves? The red ones look very disobedient to me!

Tom: I’ve been working hard to make sure all of the creatures have joie de vivre when it comes to their look and movements, and at the same time I’ve tried to make them very robust. I mean, I’m quite satisfied that they basically function and look exactly as I want, and if any changes do need to be then it’s a case of just fixing rather than throwing everything out the window. I really want this to look like a classic animation with lots of exaggerated and unusual movement. I think these little guys can pull it off!

Phil: And only one more creature to go right? Have you been saving the best for last… or putting it off?

Tom: The last creature I’m going to make is the first one I sketched so in a way it’s come full circle. It wasn’t a case of putting it off, more that for each creature I have incrementally built up my skill set and pipeline methods while learning from the mistakes I’ve made along the way. This character was kind of the natural end point as it’s a mix of abstract shapes and more human-like forms. The challenge of this character is it’s going to be a lot more modular. What I mean is that rather than the model shape essentially being fixed, this one will made of multiple models that can be moved and placed individually. I’m still working out the finer details. Stay tuned.

We certainly shall!



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


Artist In Residence: Tom Beg #4


Phil: Hey Tom. Nice to catch up with you this week. I always look forward to seeing what you’ve been up. This image is joyous – like a shoal of outlandish helium balloons. It looks to me like you enjoyed translating your Miro-verse ‘anchovies’ into 3D existence…

Tom: Yes, the Miro cinematic universe, otherwise known as the Miroverse, is starting to come together but there is still a long way to go. I don’t consider the creatures and critters I’ve made so far to be finished, but now I have a pipeline of sorts established, it’s certainly quite enjoyable to be able to pop them into an empty scene and play around and pose them, or see how they interact with light and shadow. This has always been my favourite part of the 3D process. Also, all of this is a bit of testing and planning for when the time comes that I have to make these things come alive. It’s good to get a feel for what the possibilities and limitations might be.



Phil: I have many questions when I look at your characters, and they create an impatience in me to see them come alive and exhibit their signature behaviours. Any thoughts on how these critters might express their physicality? They look as cheeky and social as house sparrows…

Tom: Each of the creatures have their own bespoke control system that allows them be animated and manipulated in various ways, so this will certainly give a lot of opportunity for them to be able move and behave uniquely. That being said, there is likely going to be a lot of these things inhabiting a scene at any one time, and I’m a one-man studio making this in my free time. I’m going to have establish a kind of formula for animating them and giving them personality.

Phil: Another of my ‘many questions’ regards vocalisation – what these creatures might sound like? What are your current ideas in terms of potential sound design strategies?

Tom: I’m not a musician and I’ve never created sounds or soundscapes from scratch myself so it’s definitely going to pose a big challenge. I’m thinking about how I can use existing sound libraries to my advantage by manipulating, layering and distorting them until something interesting emerges. When I look at these creatures there are so many real-life sounds that immediately spring to mind, and since Miro’s paintings are an expression of the real world, it would make some thematic sense to use the real word in humorous and interesting ways.



Phil: A bit of an aside here, but producing work like this on the computer is a long-haul; what do you listen to while you work to keep mind and body together?

Tom: I like to stick to my comfort listening when I’m building stuff and doing somewhat repetitive tasks in computer software. I’m not sure it’s the right time to branching off and dabbling in some 1980s experimental Japanese noise rock or something like that. Here’s a little selection of the movie soundtracks that are often circulating around on my YouTube playlists while I’m moving the vertices and orienting the joints. Star Trek: The Motion Picture by Jerry Goldsmith, Walkabout by John Barry, The Empire Strikes Back by John Williams, Aguirre: The Wrath of God by Popol Vuh, Cannibal Holocaust by Riz Ortolani, and Transformers: The Movie (if solely for Death of Optimus Prime.)

Phil: And finally, who is up next and what do you predict the creative and technical challenges to be?

Tom: It’s these floating balloon whales with giant “cone things with tentacles” attached. I think with that description I’ve roughly summed up the creative and technical challenges I might face…


some floating balloon whales with giant “cone things with tentacles” attached


Artist In Residence: Tom Beg #3


Phil: Hi Tom, how are you doing? How are you finding the ‘new normal’ in Yokohama?

Tom: Not bad. I’m back to my regular day job (with all sorts of social distancing restrictions) which means I have to balance doing my regular thing and this other thing. I’m just getting used to working out exactly how much energy I can put into both without suffering a full-blown burnout breakdown. It’s also just transitioned from spring into summer here, so I’m coated in a layer of sweat at all times. The humming air-conditioning unit becomes your best friend at this time of year.

Phil: First you gave us a goggling cluster of eyes, next a gaggle of jellied Sea Monkeys, and now we appear to have a bristling asteroid field of jaunty traffic-cones… What creative and technical challenges did you face bringing this latest cg asset to life?

Tom: One thing I needed to work out was how the blue cloud blob could have some variation if it needed to be duplicated, and also give it a sense of alive-ness. I experimented with quite a few methods of modelling, and in the end I went for a design somewhere in-between my initial drawing while allowing some flexibility and ease of variation within the 3D software. I think when it’s all animated, and all the parts are spinning and bending, it should look quite hypnotic and weird. There’s a load of moving parts, so I needed to make a control system robust enough to control each individual piece, but also not so finicky it would takes hours and hours just to get a few things moving about. It’s made me rethink some of my previous models and I’m already considering how they could be refined at some point.


Tom’s original Miro-inspired sketch


Phil: When I was little, there was this weird underground shopping centre I’d visit on Saturdays to spend my pocket-money; there was this toy shop down there selling all-manner of wonderfully rubbery toys – dinosaurs, giant insects, blobs, slime, bugs. It was heaven. When I look at your Miro-inspired creations, that’s where I expect to find them. How’s you’re thinking coming along in regards to what sort of story world your characters might inhabit?

Tom: It’s going to be like a big toy box of Pokemon outcasts and Digimon misfits wrapped up in this Miro-inspired universe. So far, I’ve just been making the characters, but there is a world they need to inhabit too. I feel like these characters and creatures are trapped in this bizarre universe and have to go on some kind of hero’s journey narrative to uncover what their purpose is.


The 3D model

Materials development – designing the look and feel of the surfaces of Tom’s ‘traffic cone asteroid’


Phil: You’re a bit of a film buff with some suitably eclectic tastes (I still remember a screening of Street Trash you organised which fairly traumatised an entire demographic of young impressionable adults!). I’m going to assume you’re already having lots of ideas about potential visual strategies for new animation; any existing filmic references that are feeling particularly pertinent to your project?

Tom: As you know, I love films that straddle the line of obscenity and the ridiculous but at the same time have a kind of artistic credibility (so maybe not Street Trash.) I’m not looking to go that far into the realms of the obscene but I am looking to create something unusual and a little bit ‘out there’. In all of my images so far there something totally zany and cartoonish about everything, but even so I want to capture them filmically with some elegance and reverence. The likes of René Laloux’s Fantastic Planet and the way that film plays with scale and space is looming large in the background. There is the sheer weirdness of Kenichiro Mizuno who is a renowned artist, animator and filmmaker here in Japan. He is the kind of the guy whose images you instantly recognise but have no idea what kind of imagination could produce such wonderfully bizarre creations. Finally, as a filmmaker I love the way Werner Herzog films nature and imbues our reality with a feeling of strangeness, the surreal and the otherworldly, such as in his documentaries: Encounters at the End of the World, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Fata Morgana and Lessons of Darkness etc. But the way he can film anything, no matter how seemingly comical or unsophisticated, such as the dancing chicken in Stroszek, with such sincerity is something I really admire


The completed model and friends


Phil: Which of your drawings is next in line for the 3D modelling treatment?

Tom: Next up is a kind of anchovy, seahorse, dolphin, jellyfish hybrid. I’m chipping away at it slowly in my free time.


a kind of anchovy, seahorse, dolphin, jellyfish hybrid


Phil: Finally – can you describe your ‘work station’? In his last update, artist-in-residence, Graeme Daly, described his own ‘creative station’ as a bit ‘sad’, so not the pristine laboratory of dreams people might assume he’s working in. What’s your set-up like and any advice for other creatives who are trying to get cool stuff done in less than ideal home-working situations?

Tom: I’m actually just building all this stuff on my laptop in my one-room Japanese apartment. Honestly, I’ve never had the latest LED illuminated gear, the powerful graphics cards or the liquid-cooled systems. Perhaps it would help in some way and of course this kind of stuff has its place in the production pipeline, but having big, badass tech has never really been the motivation for me to make stuff. Tech make your life easier but at the same time I personally feel like it very rarely helps you make anything significantly better than on a more modest setup. I like to think of all the wonderful, timeless things that have been made on the humblest of equipment, with the most primitive methods, on the tightest budgets, in the most restrictive environments. I’m quite sure every filmmaker you have ever heard of got their start that way. When it comes to art sometimes limitation is freedom because you stop thinking about what you could be making and just make it!


Artist In Residence: Tom Beg #2


Is it weird I want to eat this latest offering from Artist-In-Residence, Tom Beg? Is it in anyway strange this fruity, jellied character has me licking my lips in an involuntary Haribo-craving saliva response? Is it peculiar I just want to grab these cheery-looking creatures and squeeze them like those rubbery monster-shaped finger-puppets I adored as a nipper? Another powerful impulse is to take Tom’s latest creation and chuck them at a window, and watch them crawl down the glass like those wonderfully sticky stocking-fillers I likewise delighted in as a child. (These are all compliments by the way!).

Tom and I have been in touch regularly via Skype and in our most recent conversation, I asked him about this newest addition to his Miro-inspired cast of 3D characters…


Tom’s original sketch


Phil: I understand giving life to this second of your characters inspired by Miro’s painting proved quite challenging…

Tom: I have, for one reason or another, never really delved into the world of character production in 3D. On a technical level, character production locks you in quite severely into each process, and as someone who tries to make art and use software instinctively, this is somewhat intimidating because I don’t really like the idea of being tied into these processes so strictly. Any oversights or limitations with your work, however minor or innocent, can have some serious knock-on effects down the line which can cause anguish and many wasted hours.

For example, if your initial 2D design doesn’t make some sense in reality, then it will be very difficult to build it as a 3D model. If your 3D model and its underlying skeleton don’t adhere to the principles and rules of the 3D software, then the processes by which you build the tools to make your character move and come alive can become hampered and unwieldy. I’ll spare the grim details of my 3 a.m. battles, but in this case, I’ve been away from the software for a long time causing some, let’s say, ‘rustiness’ – and because my ‘character’ is a three-armed, nine-fingered, one-eyed, six-tentacled thing I dreamed up without any consideration for reality, I made maybe every possible mistake at every possible step. However, I needed to build and understand this one in order to get an understanding of all my other characters, creatures and objects. Making those mistakes and the battles to rectify those mistakes is just another part of the production process.


Building up the 3D model in Autodesk Maya

Tom unpacks the modelling pipeline


Phil: When I look at this latest character, I think of jelly sweets and all the rubbery toys of my late 1970s childhood.

Tom: That’s interesting! I‘ve been so wrapped up in just getting it made, I haven’t really paused to think about what this character ‘means’ to me. My initial goal was to just to translate the feeling of my initial Miro-inspired sketches into 3D, knowing that they were probably not going to look exactly the same once re-imagined. Seeing them now, I’m reminded of Sea-Monkeys and mini kids aquariums with plastic fish and decorations.


The completed model, rigged and ready to animate.


Phil: Any sense yet of the universe in which your characters might reside? Any inklings about the wider world of your short film?

Tom: At the moment the characters are occupying these infinite nebulas with very little sense of depth and space. Even when producing the last two images it’s been somewhat tricky to figure where things should be placed in relation to each other, or how big they should be, or how many there should be. The good thing is these sorts of ponderings are starting to define the world I eventually need to build. I do have some ideas floating around, so once all the initial assets have been made, I’ll be able to play around with the finished stuff – like toys – and get a better sense of what it is all going to be.


Tom’s ‘sea monkey’ in various poses


Phil: Finally then, who is up next and what are your predictions around the challenges you’ll face?

Tom: Even though I consider this character a big step forward for this project, and me personally, there will always be some challenges because no 3D model or design is ever the same. In terms of my initial sketches there are some which are more recognisable as typical characters, with eyes and arms, and there are others which look more objects. I want to start building a couple of these more object-like ones and work out how I can imbue them with that same sense of character and aliveness.


All of Tom’s initial drawings, two down, which one will be next?


Artist-in-Residence: Tom Beg

“It’s alive!” A new work in progress from Tom Beg

One small thing I’m doing at Red’s Kingdom is inviting other artists and creative individuals to take up short residences here so I can catch-up with what they’re doing and showcase their work accordingly – older work, new work, and work-in-development. During my happy stint as course leader for a degree course in animation, I was fortunate to meet entire communities of talented individuals, many of whom I’ve gone on to work with on various projects and now count as good friends.

One of the noticeable effects of the Covid-19 pandemic is the way it has inspired a sort of season-of-good-will mood of introspection and reaching-out. The disruption of normal routines means we’re thinking differently about the legitimacy and value of our own dogged pursuits, but also thinking much more about the well-being and resilience of absent friends and thus renewing efforts to stay in touch. My decision to begin blogging again is certainly part of this response, and likewise the impulse to contemporise friendships and past affinities that might otherwise have been allowed to drift.

All of which brings me to the subject of Red Kingdom’s first residency – animator, film-maker, and educator, Tom Beg. Say what you like about the particular strains put upon the pursuit of meaningful conversations by Skype and Zoom et al. but when an old friend of yours is self-isolating in Japan and, via Skype, you can pick up with him where you last left off, the technology still feels pretty astonishing.


Tom Beg, Owl (2015)

Before Tom left for his new life in Japan, he already had a number of impressive and well-received animated shorts under his belt, and a Masters Degree too. His ambitious undergraduate final year film, The Picture Of Dorian Gray (2011) was ‘staff-picked’ by the good people at Vimeo and was awarded ‘short of the week’, and his Life-cycle of a Mushroom (2011) was commissioned as part of a interdisplinary collaboration between UCA and UoK. Owl, Tom’s 2015 music video for Collectress, a personal favourite of mine, combines extraordinary other-worldly visuals, folk horror and total directorial confidence in its execution.

Since Owl, things have been very quiet. A few weeks ago now, Tom and I talked on Skype for the first time in a while, and I essentially said as much, and Tom essentially agreed. By the end of our conversation we’d forged an agreement to kick something off, however small, however explorative, and regardless of the ultimate outcome. We needed a visual prompt, a jumping off point, something to respond to instinctively without second-guesses. In 2013, Tom and I worked together on the live-synchronisation animation, La creation du monde for ACT, where we both derived obvious satisfaction from mucking about with some mid-twentieth century-style abstraction. Perhaps it was this that led me to choose Miro’s Women and Birds at Sunrise and offer it up to Tom as blue-touch paper for an impromptu lock-down challenge? No matter, what’s exciting is what happened next, but before we get to that, here’s a bit of back and forth between Tom and I on his work old and new…


Joan Miro, Women and Birds at Sunrise, 1946

Phil: Hey Tom, what’s going on? How are all-things Covid with you?

Tom: For the past four years I’ve been working as a school teacher in Japan, the country that I currently call home. I’ve been enjoying the life of living abroad and all the ups and downs that come with deciding to uproot your life and go somewhere completely unfamiliar and do something totally different.

Usually spring time in Japan represents a time of change; the cherry blossoms bloom, a new fiscal year begins and students start the new academic year. Unfortunately, the current global health situation means that right now, I along with all other teachers and students are navigating our daily lives from the confines of home, except for the occasional daring, masked runs to the supermarket whenever my onion supplies run uncomfortably low.

Despite the stalling of daily life, I’m sure like for many others, the downtime of lock-downs and states of emergencies has offered a chance for some personal introspection and a desire to get through all of this with a positive view towards the future. My job as a teacher of teenagers who don’t speak my native language requires me to be creative in all sorts of imaginative ways, but after a long time away, I felt the urge to get creative in a way that is probably a lot more familiar to people who have known me from the time before I figured out what all the buttons on my fancy toilet do.


Still from The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Phil: Your final year film Dorian Gray continues to receive attention on Vimeo. What are your recollections of working on that film?

Tom: In 2021 it will be 10 years since I made my graduate animation, The Picture of Dorian Gray. While revisiting it these days with many lessons learned elicits more than a few winces, I know even today it still sometimes manages to tickle the senses of people in the right way – which is strange because it’s an 8-minute animation I produced in 15 weeks, made with very little expectation that anyone except myself and tutors would watch it, but the internet finds a way and it ended up becoming something of a mini-viral hit (by 2011 standards!).

Thinking back, the production of the visuals in particular were so off the cuff that maybe it could it could be classified as something like guerilla CG filmmaking, mostly made with a desire to just get it done and let my instincts take over the production process.



Phil: What was your inspiration behind your animation for the Spectacular Science collaboration, The Life-cycle of a Mushroom?

Tom: The Life-cycle of a Mushroom wears its influences on its sleeve perhaps more than any other animation I’ve ever made, those influences obviously being silent movies and animated shorts like Disney’s Silly Symphonies. I wanted to capture the feeling of the roaring 20s and Jazz-age hedonism and make mushrooms and the biological process by which they reproduce just kind of sexy and fun. Like Dorian Gray this one took off online more than I could have ever imagined. Maybe people thought the same as me, that highly poisonous mushrooms could be wonderfully jazzy and slinky.


Still from The Lifecycle of a Mushroom.

Phil: I’ve always loved Owl, your music video for Collectress. I think it’s pretty much a perfect thing and deserves a much wider audience and reach. Can you tell me something about the creative process behind its production?

Tom: For Owl I wasn’t looking to emulate any particular style. The music I was given was suitably ambiguous, offering the impression of something without ever explicitly expressing it. If I had to mention any influences then Moriyama Daido’s photography book, Tales of Tono, Stan Brakhage’s experimental short film, Mothlight, and the landscape shots from the British silent movie, A Cottage on Dartmoor were all on my mind at the time. The whole project was a big mixed-media undertaking incorporating marker pens, infrared film photography and 3D animation. I wanted to make something that purposely had a low-fi feel and didn’t look or feel like CG animation. More importantly, I didn’t want there to be a clear-cut answer about what it all meant, just as the music left me with my own questions.


Some of Tom’s marker pen production drawings for Owl.
Still from Owl.
Still from Owl.
Still from Owl.


Phil: A few weeks back we got talking on Skype and we both talked about the ‘itch’ to get into something new. I sent you the Miro image as a catalyst, and in just a few days, you were back producing all these wonderful developmental drawings and thumbnails. A few days later, you were back in the saddle modelling from your drawings in 3D. I’m properly excited to see those cogs of yours turning again. What’s the plan?

Tom: Stepping back into the world of computer animation software and the trials and tribulations of wrestling with something as big and bulky as Maya is a daunting but gratifying experience because while it has been a really long time, it’s nice to know things really haven’t all changed that much. Sure, there’s new renderers to learn, old trusted tools unceremoniously removed from existence and new buttons that do mysterious things, but the basic principles remain the same. It’s simply a case of adapting your ideas to fit those.


Tom’s ‘fantasias’ on a theme of Miro’s Women and Birds at Sunrise.

Whenever I’ve made CG art in the past there has always been that moment where whatever I’m working on suddenly becomes ‘right’ and that it’s nice to know this kind of feeling can still be conjured up even after many years in the wilderness.

As for this new piece, right now it doesn’t have a name, it doesn’t have a run time, it doesn’t have any music and it doesn’t have a deadline – a potentially disastrous combination, but like my decision to set off for a far-off country four years ago, it’s just being done with a desire to just see what happens and learn a few lessons along the way. That’s really quite exciting.


Further developmental thumbnails.
A 3D-modelled maquette derived from Tom’s initial drawings.
Developing the 3D model.
A rigged and ready-to-animate model.

Every few days or so, I get a notification on Skype to say Tom has shared another update or image of this as-yes-untitled new project of his. I actively look forward to them. As Tom’s new work continues to take shape and develop, I’ll be sharing updates here at Red’s Kingdom. I know he’s currently working on another of his exuberant-looking Miro-inspired life-forms and thinking too about the opportunity for breaking new creative ground as a sound designer in response to all the noise and commotion implied by his drawings. More as and when from Tom Beg, Red Kingdom’s inaugural artist-in-residence. It’s great to have him around again!

Find Tom at tombeg.com and follow him on Twitter @earthlystranger