LBB’s Alex Reeves sits a selection of animators down to work through the depths of animation hell that they put themselves through
You can make a live action film quickly and easily if you want. Just point a camera at something and hit record, right? OK, it usually takes a bit more than that. But animation takes a lot more, every time. Whether painstakingly positioning individual hairs on a miniature character for a stop motion animation or oil painting every frame of a film by hand, like the team working on the phenomenal Loving Vincent, animation can sap a lot from a person’s soul, even if it’s ultimately worth it.
To explore this, LBB’s Alex Reeves caught up with Adam Tunikowski from Juice, Martin Allais from 1stAveMachine, Kenny from Shynola and Wes Anderson’s animation director Mark Waring (who’s repped by Passion) to hear about the times they reached the absolute bottom of the pit of animation despair.
“For some time now, governments have realised that it’s easier to tell historical facts or story with a piece of ‘eye-candy’ film rather than a boring documentary,” considers CEO and founder of Polish animation studio Juice Adam Tunikowski. “We've seen more and more projects done this way in Poland. As Juice, we had pleasure of helping out with films like the ‘Animated History of Poland’, which I believe was one of the first projects of this kind in this part of the world.” This set off a chain of similar projects for the studio, covering such subjects as Poland's economy or tourism. “We loved those projects as they gave us a lot of creative freedom. In the end, the client (in this case the government institutions) usually had little to say about the design of the films and rather focused on the territorial side of it.”
The original brief for ‘The Unconquered’ was about telling the story of Poland’s fight for independence between 1939 and 1989. “Yet, there was something very unusual about this film in particular and you could feel it right out of the box,” says Adam.
“Since the story revolved around a big piece of history, first we had to narrow it down to the facts that seemed most crucial or most visually appealing to tell. Obviously, we were pushing for things that were simply good looking, where IPN (the Polish Institute of National Remembrance) was pushing more towards hard historical facts. We were aware of the budget limitations so we were trying to find the aesthetics that could cover for a lack of rich environments. This is where the first concepts from Michal Misiński (director/art director from Juice) appeared. They were a hybrid between concept art and 3D visuals – everyone was immediately drawn to it. We wanted to make that thing work in motion. We just didn’t really know how to make it work yet!
“I would love to tell a story on how smooth it was, but quite contrary, it was a very bumpy road. I think the first moment that we realised it was going to be an enormously hard project was when after two or three months of working over the storyboards and layout animation, we were still constantly going back to the script. Obviously, this is a history driven piece, but what was different for The Unconquered from all the other projects we did was the fact it was running directly under the IPN institute. That means it had to be historically accurate – from uniform design, through to the shapes of weapons to the storyline. It was extremely hard to fit every idea from the client in and still make it a good narration. I believe we’ve never worked so long over a single layout! It had to take around 10 months before the final story was nailed and we could really start working on the animation.
“Surprisingly, what seemed to be the most difficult part ended up salvaging the project – creating a look which was this ‘concept-art-inherited’ idea. It seemed to be pretty impossible at first, but thanks to the amazing work Selim Sykut and Andrzej Sykut did (they were responsible for look development) we found a pretty amazing way of making the scenes look good and rendered it fairly quickly with not much post processing involved. What worried us the most turned out to be actually a great help in solving a lot of our problems.
“What really made this project a hell was when we found out that the motion capture session we did had calibration issues, and a lot of the data was corrupted or behaved in an unpredictable way. Since the project was on and off and the budget was tight, we had to proceed with what we had, and this mistake had to be paid for with countless hours and animation horror…
“I think that one single decision and mistake you make in such a situation is that you think you’ll be able to salvage the things you did wrong. And you constantly build further on those mistakes and that creates a huge mess. This is a common misperception in our business and usually it backfires. This case was no different; building animation on the broken motion capture material resulted in this weird hybrid thing – there where a lot of elements taken out of the mocap and reanimated manually.
So, neither was it an animation or a mock-up. It took countless hours to do this and basically redoing mocap or animating it all manually would be quicker. But for no particular reason, we chose to carry on with the mistake we'd made.
“It’s a combination of the budget and something called ‘positive thinking’ when you plan rather for the best than the worse. In this case paid off in the end but obviously it would be much easier to redo it from a scratch. Somehow, a lot of times this decision gets very hard is when you can't see your own actions from a perspective.
“The more you work in this field the easier it gets. I think that one of the main problems of animation and CG projects is that there’s not much ‘recycling’ you can do. It seems like everything we touch is like building it from a scratch. There are tools that you’re writing and the pipeline that you’re perfecting, and those things are great, but usually they serve only as a spine. You need to build a whole body around it again, and again and again.
“This is a line of work where you also need to put together a very specific type of artists and each and one of them has to do something that has a very good quality as well as the borderline between art and maths. There’re a lot of ego problems internally and on the top of that, you have outside forces that can make a concept even better or make an artist crumble. All this together sprinkled with the low budgets makes it often a very hard line of business to survive. Look at Rhythm and Hues story and so many others like them.
“I think, funnily enough, there was an element of surprise for everyone in this film. We were experiencing a lot of doubts regarding the animation itself (a hybrid I mentioned earlier) but also regarding the story of the Unconquered. With the government changing in Poland and new people joining IPN Institute we also had to face some hard decisions to make in terms of the story. Like keeping once a national hero Lech Wałęsa’s back to the camera as he’s not a favourite character on the political chessboard nowadays. So, looking at the political tensions we were also worried about how the film would be received. But soon enough we learned that everyone (well, maybe a vast majority) really loved it and it truly touched people to watch history being presented this way.
“Luckily, we were also complemented by an innovative approach to character animation by many of our brand colleagues from other companies. It’s funny, because a huge mistake became a purposeful innovation! To be honest we’ve even tried to repeat it in another movie we’re peppering right now – a prequel about Polish history between 1918-1939.
“I believe this is why everyone is in animation, because in spite of all the trouble and sleepless nights it’s always worth it. People who watch it and give you a major thumbs up make it worthwhile, as the artists are usually so exhausted after the process it’s really hard for them to look at it with the right perspective.”
Samsung ‘Holiday Dreams’
1stAveMachine director Martin Allais knew that ‘Holiday Dreams’ would be a challenge from the start. The brief was always to create an animation that would play in real time on various Samsung screens, which the film would follow throughout the two-minute film.
“They came to us because we always do in-camera projects, no tricks, no post,” he says. “So, from early on we were committed to the project and we understood what a massive task it would be. We were delighted to do it of course.
“We needed to make everything run at the same time. It was all based on the performance of the camera, the screens and the story working seamlessly together. Technically, it was very complex and it needed all parts of the team to be locked together for this one single seamless shot.
“The moment we walked into the agency and were briefed, we knew this was going to be a very challenging project. We had never done it before, but we have experience in creating difficult processes, and making things hard for ourselves, so it was also very exciting. We always love it when these kinds of challenges emerge.
“No doubt, the timing, was the thing that made this animation hell. We needed all the 90 seconds of animation done in two weeks because it needed to play on the screens on the day of the shoot. It was a gigantic effort that we made it all happen in Barcelona with 12 animators and a total crew of 25 people working hard to make the deadline.
“The most complicated part of it was not even the animation, but to keep everybody working all the time along the right path. From a direction perspective, it was for sure one of my hardest jobs and a great learning curve along the way.
“It was already a very hard quest. So all my decisions were to make this easier, which, by the way, wasn’t easy at all! Anyway, sometimes the pressure brings out the best in you. Bless my team! But my remit was to make sure the quality of the animation looked fantastic despite the time frame.
“I still keep asking myself the same question, but I guess deep inside I love the thrill of it. For me the project is the process, and the experience behind it, pretty much like when you enter the game room in a video game, you have to win yes or yes. No is not an option.
“Animation is an art made by teams, there’s no other way. So, the bigger the team, the more things have to be taken into consideration; opinions and processes. When something goes wrong it can affect the production and can snowball into something bigger. I love this process and I don’t think it’s painful, but you have to be in ninja mode and respect the process and strategy to be successful.
“It was totally worth it. We got awarded in Cannes and more important were the soul stripes we won on that project. Nobody can take that away from us. What I love about animation is that you create a family so it can be also a very awesome life and self-learning experience. And as always, I’m waiting for the next challenge.”
The GLOW Title Sequence
Richard ‘Kenny’ Kenworthy from Shynola
Black Dog Films / RSA Design and Animation
“We were asked to create an animated title sequence for the NetFlix series 'GLOW'. There was no brief beyond that, which if you ask me is the perfect brief,” says Richard ‘Kenny’ Kenworthy, a third of creative trio Shynola. But a good brief doesn’t make for an easy ride…
“The show was based around a real sport-entertainment show from the ‘80s, so we wanted to make a title sequence that felt like it had conceivably come from the original, albeit at 4K. We researched a lot of title sequences from around that time and there were some fantastic ones, particularly for ten pin bowling, which in those days was seen fit to be prime time television. Lots of glowing rotoscoped neon lines and flying logos which are so out of date they felt original again in contemporary company.
“Firstly we had find footage of wrestling to rotoscope. That meant sitting through hours and hours of mind-numbing wrestling, looking for the right shots. What we quickly realised was that the authentic footage was the wrong ratio, low resolution, blurry, and digitised from VHS.
“Because the source footage was so poor it was hard to know what you were meant to rotoscope. Often a shot would need to be extended to be widescreen and in the worst cases we would do pre-vis hand drawn animation over the footage to help determine where the wrestler's limbs were in all the mush. We'd decided to rotoscope the footage with regular, smooth lines, reminiscent of neon signs, and the only way to achieve that was using splines. The problem with splines is that they are a ball-ache to manipulate, but total hell to animate, because every spline has one key per frame, the individual points on the spline all sharing that one key. That means if you effed up a frame, all subsequent frames would often by effed up too. Each piece of each body was its own spline. So for two ladies in a ring you'd be looking at something like 40 to 50 individual splines, all of which had to be roto'd, one at a time. We had to be meticulous and the going was very slow.
“Having the referee in the shot in his bloody stripy top was a decision which would add another 20 to 30 splines to the workload. And all because it looked fucking cool.
“I think it animation projects are actually less huge than a live action shoot, the difference is that as an animator you're doing the workload of the entire crew - you're working on the shot, frame-by-frame, alone.
“But we love our job. We're paid to do our job. It's painstaking, not painful.”
Isle of Dogs
Represented by Passion Pictures
Mark Waring knew Isle of Dogs was going to be a gigantic undertaking as soon as he spoke to director Wes Anderson about it. Between them they were keen to have a strong and conscious aesthetic. “This film should feel crafted and hand made,” he says. As animation director, a lot of the craft decisions that achieved that were down to him.
Wes and Mark didn’t want to hide the stop-frame technique they were employing by creating the super slick, almost-CGI standard of animation that is possible now. Instead, their aim was to “be proud to show the craft off, revelling in the small details and the lovingly hand-made aspect of the medium.”
For instance, for the human characters, replacement faces were hand-sculpted rather than modelling them in a computer. “A limited number of sculpted expressions and mouth shapes were made,” Mark explains, “to give the animation a deliberately jumpy and non-perfect feel, showing off the skill of the craft and expressing to the audience an understanding of how this was made.
“Wes was clear that this was the way to approach the script, and it was my job to make sure that this was put into action. We had to make sure that this was something that had a disciplined approach that cut across all the departments, animation, art direction, puppet making, set building etc. to create a coherent design aesthetic for the film.”
Even with the army of animators that a Wes Anderson feature production has at its disposal, this was going to take a while. As Mark knows: “All animation is time consuming!”
“The process of photographing a model character, moving it a little bit and then taking another photo, 24 times for every second of film you see will always be a time consuming task. This is the nature of stop frame!
“On 'Isle of Dogs' we were shooting about two-three seconds of footage per animator per day, which may not sound a lot, but that is pretty good going on a feature film! Obviously we had a lot of animators, so at full steam we were getting close to two minutes of usable footage per week from the team.
“A lot of people comment that animators must have a lot of patience. This suggests that everything is very slow. The truth is, we are going as fast as we possibly can – it just takes a long time! In fact, it isn't patience that animators possess, it is perseverance!”
Mark wasn’t deterred by the magnitude of the task. Why did he decide to take it on? “That's like saying why did you climb Mount Everest! Because it was there!
“The answer really is that there was no choice – because in order for it to exist it had to be an animated film. There was no other option for how this journey was to be made, it was obvious that we just had to do it that way. To visualise the stylisation, craft and handmade physicality of the characters and sets, for Wes this was the only choice of medium, and the only way that this film was ever going to be made.
“This was ultimately realised primarily through stop frame, but several drawn animated sequences were also introduced throughout the film, adding to the hand-made aesthetic, as well as an extra layer of complexity into the production.
“There were so many characters, locations and effects that I knew would have to be realised in stop frame, I immediately recognised it would be a huge, but ultimately exciting challenge.
“You have to go into these projects with your eyes fully open as to what it will entail. It is a marathon and not a sprint, and as such you must pace yourself and be aware that along the journey there will be many ups and downs. Although a lot of things can be initially thought of as difficult, this isn't necessarily a problem. You just have to look at each task and work out the solution. There is always a way forward, the difficulty is not doing it, it is finding it.”
One of the biggest challenges, Mark reflects, was to build the world that this would all take place in. “The sheer number of characters and sets required was on a scale that hadn't really been attempted before in stop frame,” he says. “In all, over 1,000 actual puppet characters were made and well over 300 separate sets and locations created.
“Space is always an issue in stop frame as everything is real, so finding ways of creating vast landscapes, huge buildings and the illusion of depth in shots were always going to present a challenge. Clever design and art direction and cinematography were utilised to create a stylised world that could be then made to our best advantage. Also, utilising different scales and sizes of puppets and sets helped to create the illusion of a world that was much bigger than its constituent parts.”
The bane of the animators lives was all the fur, remembers Mark: “We knew that fur would be a big part of the animal characters, and that fur is notoriously difficult to keep still in stop frame. As such we decided to embrace the 'hands on' aesthetic and show the work of the animators by moving the fur each frame rather than trying to keep it still – which would have been almost an impossibility. The result is a lively, vibrant motion that makes the characters feel alive with energy.
“The advantage of this animation decision was that it could also be controlled, to give the impression of a light breeze blowing over the animals – we called it the 'Trash Island Wind'.”
There’s something about animation directors like Mark that seems masochistic, but he remains unnervingly plucky. “I don't think that creating something like 'Isle of Dogs' is necessary a painful process,” he reflects. “Yes, there are times when the challenges look insurmountable and complex issues of space, time, money, crew etc raise their heads, but this is true of any large project, be it animation, live action, building construction, banking, whatever. By the nature of pulling together a team of over 200 creative people and placing them in a confined space, under massive time and budget constraints, frantically working flat out on long hours for over two years it is amazing that we don't kill each other! But the stop frame animation world is a small one, and it is a happy community of amazingly talented individuals who are always more than happy to come together for the common good, and with passion and desire create the most incredible work.
“There probably is a level of masochism in what we do – but the pain is always worth it as you know that there will ultimately be an end. And when that day comes you can step back, admire your work and proudly say, 'we did that!'”