Thursday, 16 September 2010
Interview for Stop Motion book
"When a new series comes in I first need to work out exactly what the company commissioning the series wants and exactly how we are going to deliver it within the time and budgetary limits. Sometimes you have to decide on the best director for the job. Usually the writing and storyboarding phase is a huge process that you need to go through, but with Creature Comforts, as it is all recorded live dialogue and conversations, so there was no script. We'd get a character designer in as soon as we had interviews digitised into the edit machine so that we can have pictures to overlay the audio: it’s always easier to think of a character when you have the visual on screen. We’ll try different voices to see how they fit and start working towards an animatic for each episode.
Next I need to get an Art Director and a Model Making Supervisor on board. We’ll have a pre-production meeting with them, the DOP, the director and an animator to plan the first puppets and sets we’re going to build. We need to answer questions such as: how big does this puppet need to be in order that the animator can animate it comfortably? How much action does this character have to do? Once we’re happy – then we can start the model build. The model making team will consist of a team leader, sculptors, mould-makers and assistant animators who’ll be doing the lip sync mouth sets (replacement mouths). The art department will have set and prop builders and a rigger – the model makers and the set and props team work pretty closely together to ensure everything matches up in scale, things like the time of day is important for the angle of light or any practical lights needed on the set. Also as sometimes the sets we make need to be huge expansive vista's that need to fit into a small unit, we have to cheat the scale of the background set. To get this right we always do a rough mock up of the set in front of camera using polyboard or even cardboard and usually a cut out 2-D picture of the characters. Then we can accurately measure the dimensions of the set and provide them to the set builders.
To find the rest of the crew we advertise on our website, in the case of animators we ask for showreels. For Creature Comforts we had about 200 animation showreels in – some were from students and some from experienced animators. We looked at each one. In some cases, with a beginner, there may be just one shot where you can see they have got the timing and the character. One guy who came onto Creature Comforts had only animated one shot, in his bedroom – and it was perfect! He just had that spark and he has carried on through the series, he’s an absolute natural. It’s not necessarily based on experience – it’s based on talent.
We did two week trials for people who hadn’t worked for us before. We give them a line of dialogue and a character and throw them in at the deep-end. Once they’ve had a go at it, a director will go in and help them: act it out for them, give them some advice, find out if there’s anything troubling them – really as much guidance as we can give. Then they animate the same line again, and if there’s a marked improvement in their work and we can see they are getting it, then we continue their training, but if it didn’t work out, then that’s it, I’m afraid, at least until the next trials!
We needed 30 animators on Creature Comforts but over half of those were our regular Aardman animators and there were another 10 or so who had been trained for the earlier UK series of Creature Comforts, some of whom came straight from college – they went through the same process, only they had 6 weeks of training, where we started with the simple squash and stretch exercises and took them through the whole range right up to full lip sync and action. They are all now regular animators for Aardman or working on other projects around the UK or on features in the States. That level of training is pretty vital. People who come from a college course haven’t had that intense training; they don’t get that kind of experience on a course, mainly due to lack of equipment and time.
We generally allow two weeks for a model to be made from start to finish – most of the time is spent on making the armature, the actual skinning of the puppet is pretty quick. The sets and props are mainly made in house, occasionally outsourced if there’s anything large or too complicated that would keep our staff tied up. When the set is ready the base is put on legs in the studio and rough lighting is put in place; the rigger will bring the puppet in and place it on the set and the director will come in and line up the camera and the puppets to the positions he thinks will give the best look.
When a puppet comes out of model making we don’t see it as a finished character. It takes the animator to put a certain sense of character into a model; they put their own stamp on it. We then take a day or two to get everything in place – everything lit, rigged in, the set and props dressed to camera and absolutely everything on set (light stands, rigging stands, set bases) glued down – it all needs to be rock-solid in there and hopefully we’ll have time to do an overnight test to see if anything shifts or changes through the night.
On a series we generally run an 8 hour day, with an hour for lunch. The animators aim to shoot an average of 4 seconds a day. Multiple character shots will obviously take longer to shoot than a single character and so the schedule has to allow for that. Even the type of puppet mouths can have a huge impact on the amount an animator can shoot in a day. Simple sausage shape stick on mouths mean that there isn't large amounts of sculpting to do in comparison to the usual full mouth replacement system used for the majority of the puppets and the animators on these characters will sometimes shoot as much as 10-12 seconds in a day. The shot needs to be approved as soon as it’s finished. The director will go in and look at the shot, maybe decide if it needs another half second to finish a move, or any other changes. Once the shot is creatively approved, the DOP and the camera assistant will check the shot technically, make sure there are no flashes, light changes or set shifts, and if there is a rig, they need to do rig removal plates (clear shots of the set, which they will also have done at the start of the shot). Then they will re-board for the next shot.
In-between shots, while the DOP, camera assistant and sparks are setting up the next shot, the director and animator will go into the LAV unit (Live Action Video) to rehearse the shot. We’ll play out the audio and either the director or the animator (or both if a 2 character shot) will get roughly into the position the characters are in on set in and act out the shot. It really helps the director to direct the animators and be able to clearly say – “I want it like this, or that...” And also to look back at the video and say “I really like that gesture you did there “It allows you to put human characteristics into your puppet. When you’re saying a line you naturally make body movements that you’re unaware of, that you don’t register you’re doing – all those subliminal things that you would want to put into your animation to bring your characters alive. The other thing it does is give you time to come up with any gags or background interaction between two characters – or you might decide that you need a bit more time in the shot to allow for some background action. It can be great fun rehearsing the shots. Every Friday we have rushes with the whole crew, we’ll stop half an hour early, have a beer and watch what we’ve done that week.
Sound is hugely important and we put a lot of time and effort into making a good sound base. For Creature Comforts we clean the interviews up as much as possible and make up a track that’s relevant to where they are in their animated world now. We generally spend about 3 days per episode on track laying. We’ll send the sound editor a rough cut and notes on exactly what we want. We use a Foley artist quite a lot, and we make our own sounds. We’ll be thinking early on about what the music will be like. We’ll commission someone who has the right experience. Musicians often work to a detailed brief but I've always preferred to keep it vague and allow them to write what they think would be the best music for the piece whether it be title music or background music. I find that you often get the best stuff this way. Once all animation is complete and all the shots have any rigs removed and had any effects passes added we need to lock down the edit to the correct length with title sequence and credits and any commercial break spaces if relevant. Once locked and played out on to a master tape, we’ll go to a post production house and grade the final picture. The DOP will go through every shot enhancing the colours, making it all look as beautiful as possible. We'll finish the sound mix, paying particular attention to lip-synch and probably have both Dolby 5.1 mix and stereo versions. We're then ready to deliver the programme to the company as per their specifications and with all the paper work that goes with it. They generally will want 16:9 and 4:3 versions and often we will need both PAL and NTSC versions. Sometimes tapes sent to broadcasters will come back a few days later rejected because of breaking some kind of audio or visual guideline like a dead pixel or an illegal colour – one dead pixel broaches the transmission guidelines! It’s very simple and quick to correct and deliver back.
Posted by Gareth Owen