A sense of drowning and the inability to pick yourself up again, captured by Mark Spokes on World Suicide Prevention Day, writes LBB's Nisna Mahtani
Blue Zoo animation in collaboration with PAPYRUS UK uses World Suicide Awareness Day and Suicide Awareness Month to showcase that all-too-well-known ‘sinking feeling’. The animated film is expertly crafted to shine a light on the main characters who tell the audience their story, one that many sadly share.
Using the free and open-source 3D creation suite Blender with a combination of direction from Mark and 60 talented artists, the short film shows what it’s like to drown within your emotions and be pulled back to life by the people around you. People who take the time to ask and listen. It’s a touching tribute to show the significance of a helping hand when life seems to be too much to handle.
Mark speaks to LBB’s Nisna Mahtani about how the animation was conceptualised and created.
LBB> This is your directorial debut. What made you want to pitch to create this film?
Mark> Several of my closest friends have made suicide attempts as young men. I wish I had been more supportive by asking them about their mental health.
For Blue Zoo, it was when we learnt that suicide is the biggest killer of under 35s that we chose PAPYRUS UK to lend our support. So when I first saw the bief, I realised I wanted to make a film that would encourage people to reach out to others, and have that difficult but possibly life-saving conversation.
LBB> You’ve beautifully captured a sensitive subject. What inspired your creative direction?
Mark> I wanted to create a strong visual metaphor that would capture what it’s like to struggle with depression. Sinking into the ground, struggling to move forward, whilst everyone else moves on without noticing. Eventually, you might be tempted to simply let yourself sink all the way under.
Thankfully, the friend character, Jack, notices the main character as he sinks into the black void and rescues him. This part in particular is there to encourage anyone watching the film to reach in to their loved ones who may be struggling with depression or thoughts of suicide.
LBB> What was the involvement of PAPYRUS UK in the film? How did they respond to your ideas?
Mark> PAPYRUS were a brilliant client to work with. They explained clearly what the message should be, whilst also giving us a lot of creative freedom. PAPYRUS loved the concept but initially they weren’t sure about the ending which shows the two friends rowing together surrounded by negative space. When I told them the initial idea, they thought the rowboat scene was too abstract and that the audience wouldn’t understand.
The final shot is a message of hope, that the friends will work together to help the main character overcome his struggles. We explored alternative endings but after some time we came back to the original idea and once they saw it in storyboard, they actually loved it!
LBB> What made you choose this particular style of animation?
Mark> Blue Zoo produces both 2D and 3D animation which meant we had artists of both specialisms to work with. We opted for a flat, graphic visual style in order to better marry 3D character animation and 2D effects. The muted colours of the minimalist backgrounds helped draw viewers attention towards the characters and the story.
LBB> The film is successful in capturing a difficult-to-explain feeling. How did you translate this through the directing and animating process?
Mark> It certainly was a challenge to create the right balance in tone. I wanted the film to portray real hardship and struggle, but also hope. The character performances had to be emotional without going over the top. The animators did a fantastic job of portraying these nuanced performances that felt young and relatable.
LBB> The song choice works extremely well. What was your process of song selection and ultimate choice of this cover?
Mark> During lockdown, Blue Zoo formed a virtual choir to help keep people involved in the studio’s social life. It was decided before the brief was pitched that the choir would perform a cover for the film and ‘True Colours’ seemed like a great fit. Music is often an after-thought in these projects so It was great to have the audio so early on to help mold the film’s edit.
LBB> How important was your use of colour and how did it contribute to the overall feel?
Mark> The use of a minimal colour palette and of negative space allowed us to focus on the two hero characters and not distract from the key messages. The colours become darker and more desaturated as the young man sinks further and further. We decided to remove all colour from the black ‘void’ section to help reinforce the metaphor. We even used real charcoal textures to give it an abstract, ethereal quality.
LBB> The film was created by around 60 artists in Blender. How did that work and what were the benefits of that approach?
Mark> At Blue Zoo, short films are an opportunity to experiment and try a fresh approach to creating animation. Blender is a program that is being used more and more in commercial animation. For this project, I was excited to use Blender’s Grease pencil tool to create 2D animated effects within a 3D scene. We used Tangent Studio’s Loup as an external pipeline to manage the project remotely from lockdown.
Learning a new software can be challenging but Blue Zoo’s talented staff adapted quickly. So many artists asked to work on the film that most were only responsible for one or two shots. This allowed them the time to learn on the job.