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The Directors: Dane Winn



Director and animator at Blue Zoo on exploring different styles, understanding the aim of a brand and his love of sci-fi

The Directors: Dane Winn

In 2011, Dane started work at Blue Zoo Productions, the multi-BAFTA winning animation studio in central London. After working on several children's series as both an animator and lead animator, he transitioned over to the shortform department where he now works as a director and creative lead, working on projects for Disney, Lego, Pokemon, BBC Sport and many other brands. Over the years, Dane has produced several award-winning short films and continues to make content and explore creatively in his spare time.

Name: Dane Winn

Location: London, UK

Repped by/in: Blue Zoo Productions

Awards: Winner Best CGI Film Florida Animation Festival 2018, Winner Best Animation Film Prisma Rome Independent Film Awards 2019, Winner Los Angeles International Film Festival 2019

LBB> What elements of a script sets one apart from the other and what sort of scripts get you excited to shoot them?

Dane> Some scripts we get can be very product-focused and others are more about the idea with the branding playing a supporting role. The scripts that get me most excited are the ones where there is room to do something original with the visuals. I love to explore different styles and approaches to animation workflow, so when a script idea is concise, but there's room to explore, I'm really keen to get on board.

LBB> How do you approach creating a treatment for a spot?

Dane> It starts with figuring out what I would want to do with the project and what the agency/client are looking to get from it. Sometimes briefs come in and it's clear what's needed, but a lot of the time, there's a lot of elements still up in the air. For those treatments, I try to offer a strong direction to take it, with supporting visuals that demonstrate the mood and tone. Something I'm really keen to try and do with every treatment, if there's time, is some sort of animation test. It's important for them to understand what I expect us to create and what I'm picturing, and it's a chance early on to experiment so you don't just fall back on what you've done before.

LBB> If the script is for a brand that you're not familiar with/ don’t have a big affinity with or a market you're new to, how important is it for you to do research and understand that strategic and contextual side of the ad? If it’s important to you, how do you do it?

Dane> I definitely like to understand the aim of the brand and the advert to make sure the ideas I come up align with their goals. Some research happens, but often having a conversation with them and asking all of those questions is the best way to get to the core of what they want. 

LBB> For you, what is the most important working relationship for a director to have with another person in making an ad? And why?

Dane> It's very important for me to be able to have collaborative and open discussions with the team of artists I work with. I can have an idea of what I want, but when talented artists are given room to develop and push the work, it can really amplify the idea and take it to places you didn't expect. It is also really important to be able to communicate well with the agency/client and make sure you align. Going too far astray or working in a bubble can lead to redoing work and losing sight of what the client wants, so having an open dialogue and involving them in the process I think leads to a much more efficient use of time.

LBB> What type of work are you most passionate about - is there a particular genre or subject matter or style you are most drawn to?

Dane> I love telling stories and exploring answers to fascinating questions so I naturally lean to more sci-fi ideas. I also love making; I'm very hands on in creating animations and experimenting so I don't think there is really one style that defines me, at least not consciously. I suppose I like playing with more stylized CG animation, specifically flat-shaded/2D rendering of 3D. There are so many styles to explore there and for me it's not about trying to recreate what you can do in 2D, it's just about creating lovely imagery with the tools you prefer to work in.

LBB> What misconception about you or your work do you most often encounter and why is it wrong?

Dane> I think the time it takes to produce designed animated content is often misunderstood. I say designed, because there are all sorts of animated work being done and some can lean on more procedural or dynamic based techniques, or embrace aesthetics that can be much faster to create. Certainly with most client projects however, we're asked to bespokely design and create work that needs to go through development and every aspect thought about and executed. The best projects I've worked on have allowed us the time to explore the style we're aiming for and craft something original. Some steps can be achieved faster than others, but I think people often misunderstand how much time is needed up-front for pre-production, design and asset creation.

LBB> Have you ever worked with a cost consultant and if so how have your experiences been?

Dane> My closest experience is working with producers in the early stages of a pitch to figure out what we can and can't achieve within the budget. It's a fun challenge to consider different avenues that sit within the scope of the project and what styles and methods would work, but still push the quality as high as we can. The parameters you have to work with can sometimes spark more ingenuity.

LBB> What’s the craziest problem you’ve come across in the course of a production – and how did you solve it?

Dane> File size and internet speed. There was a project I worked on a few years ago where the delivery date was cutting it very close and we had to deliver thousands of very high resolution frames that contained important metadata to a client who had to fly to Germany imminently for a conference. There simply wasn't the time or capacity to transfer it online for them to also have the time to download it on the other end, so we had to copy it to several external harddrives, which I ran and trained across London to the client's hotel to get it to them before their flight. That was a stressful morning.

LBB> How do you strike the balance between being open/collaborative with the agency and brand client while also protecting the idea?

Dane> I think having in-person/video call discussions is really important to talk through ideas and developments. If everything is left to emails and one-way conversations, there is more chance of mis-interpretation or feeling disconnected. When we are in the early stages of defining the idea and concept, I'm very keen to make sure everyone is on board with it so as it progresses there are no surprises for either side and we can focus on achieving it. Sometimes clients can shift gears and you have to adapt, but if you are having open discussions, then you can often find a solution that works for both parties instead of an omnipotent voice sending you notes.

LBB> What are your thoughts on opening up the production world to a more diverse pool of talent? Are you open to mentoring and apprenticeships on set?

Dane> Yes certainly. At Blue Zoo we have apprenticeship and internship schemes in place to help new young talent get an introduction to the industry and support their passion. I often get messages from animation students asking for notes on their showreel or advice on getting work and I always try to make time to reply and give feedback. I have wanted to work in animation since I was about eight years old so I know what it means to hear back from someone working at a studio.

LBB> How do you feel the pandemic is going to influence the way you work into the longer term? Have you picked up new habits that you feel will stick around for a long time? 

Dane> Yeah it's a really interesting one to discuss and we have been discussing it a lot. There have been some pros and cons to the whole experience. The work/life balance has been a big talking point and having that extra commute time back. It is liberating being at home for lunch and breaks and having your own space, but at the same time there is something really wonderful and unique about being in a studio; a creative space where other artists are working away on different projects and a certain energy that just can't be replicated at home on your own. For me, I'm interested in finding a hybrid approach where I can do a bit of both; in-person creative meetings, but cracking on with other parts of the job from home. For new starters, especially graduates, I really feel that being in a studio surrounded by people is an important experience to have. You can learn so much by talking to people on either side of you and asking questions and building work relationships that can be really hard, I imagine, if it means video calling someone you don't know. I can see working from home continuing for a long time, because it not only seems to agree with a lot of people's working mentality but it also makes economic sense for studios that would normally require big expensive offices in central London. The ability to hire artists far away that could never have made it into the studio physically is also pretty fantastic.

LBB> Your work is now presented in so many different formats - to what extent do you keep each in mind while you're working (and, equally, to what degree is it possible to do so)? 

Dane> I try to keep the format or platform considered from the start. When it comes to square, wide or portrait format it's always a bit of a compromise to create compositions that work for each of them, and often we'll create bespoke shots for the different ratios to resolve this, but it needs to be thought about from the start. I think with every new platform, there are challenges to adhere to, but I feel the best way is to embrace what they offer. For example VR has been an emerging platform the last few years and whenever we do a project that uses it, we try to learn what it's benefits are and why we're using it. Those questions can be hard to answer, especially if the client doesn't have a solid reason beyond promotional value, so we try to find ways to answer that for ourselves and look for ideas that can only be achieved with it.

LBB> What’s your relationship with new technology and, if at all, how do you incorporate future-facing tech into your work (e.g. virtual production, interactive storytelling, AI/data-driven visuals etc)?

Dane> I've always been into computer animation, and had a strong understanding that computers don't do the work, but they can enable you to create things you couldn't any other way, so I love technology and discovering new tools and techniques. I've certainly dabbled with VR, interactive storytelling, and procedural workflows, but my main passion is still film; the flat frame in front of you that tells you everything you need to know. Within that though, I'm always looking for new tools and technology to help me craft images and tell stories and I get very inspired when I see something I've not tried before. I do a lot of experimenting in my spare time, exploring different styles and techniques, which I post up on my instagram account, and that's been a fun space to try things that I may use for a pitch or a bigger project in future.

LBB> Which pieces of work do you feel really show off what you do best – and why?

Dane> Ada - This was a short film I directed at Blue Zoo. It was an opportunity to explore some new technology for us with Unreal Engine and to try tell the true story of Ada Blackjack. I spent a long time researching and writing the film; trying to figure out what part of her story to focus on and how to create a narrative that would conclude in a way that said something about her internal and external transformation. Working with a brilliant team, we strived to develop a visual style that captured the look of old sketches that may have appeared in her diary along with old photographs taken from the expedition to try and evoke the mood of her setting and struggle.

Glenfiddich CNY 2020 - This was a commercial I Directed at Blue Zoo for Glenfiddich, working with LOVE Creative agency to bring to life the beautiful illustrated box art for the Chinese New Year special edition bottle. This was a great project to try some new techniques with toon shading and procedural outlines to try and emulate the illustration style within 3D. I really enjoy working on commercials of this length because there are generally very few shots so you can focus your efforts on making them work as well as possible. Figuring out the journey of the plane through the artwork was a really fun challenge and the team was a dream to work with.

Fisheye - This was a short film I Directed in my spare time. It was a real passion project to tell a longer narrative piece drawing from my love of Hitchcock thrillers. I was working almost entirely on my own for this, and it was a chance to do something with complete creative control, which is a luxury you rarely have with commercial work. Though it's a few years old now, it's a good demonstration of my generalist skillset to tell a story.

Pedigree Paw Patrol - This was a commercial for Nickelodeon, directed at Blue Zoo. This was one of those projects where the idea was pretty bizarre and ambitious but we were able to pull it off by utilising some techniques we'd been trying for illustrative 2D styles with 3D, coupled with matte paintings. I'm quite proud of how much we were able to create for the client and tell a little story in a couple of minutes that delivered exactly what they were after. I try to thumbnail out the projects I Direct, I find it to be the best way to communicate what I'm thinking to the rest of the team and the agency. This was key for this project as it required so many shots and scenes and to use background paintings, we had to plan out everything to maximise the budget. It was a good project that really took a talented team of people to pull off and the collaboration with the agency helped us achieve the scale of it on time.

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Genres: Animation

Blue Zoo Animation, Mon, 05 Jul 2021 13:35:00 GMT