The mak­ing of Mamoon

Paul Cham­pion talks to Tom Box and Ben Steer from Blue Zoo about their lat­est short film, Mamoon

3D World - - FEATURE -

Ever won­dered what hap­pens when you mix Maya char­ac­ter an­i­ma­tion, pro­jec­tors, hand-held cam­eras and lots of poly­styrene blocks? Lon­don-based multi BAFTA award-win­ning an­i­ma­tion stu­dio, Blue Zoo did, and then found out! Its short, Mamoon, is the lat­est of­fer­ing from the stu­dio’s in-house an­i­mated short film pro­gramme that was es­tab­lished in 2012, de­signed to push the stu­dio into new cre­ative di­rec­tions, while nur­tur­ing both the in-house tal­ent and a cre­ative cul­ture in the stu­dio. “Gen­er­ally, agen­cies re­quest work that fea­tures heav­ily in our showreel” ex­plains Tom Box, co-founder/man­ag­ing di­rec­tor. “So the short film pro­gramme helps us to push the stu­dio for­ward, ex­per­i­ment­ing with new tech­nolo­gies and styles with­out com­mer­cial pres­sures. Over the past five years, the pro­gramme has been a great suc­cess with short films gain­ing world­wide recog­ni­tion and bring­ing a wider range of work into the stu­dio.” With pre­vi­ous shorts tend­ing to be more hu­mor­ous, from singing naked elves to germs voiced by Adam Bux­ton – one half of the comedy duo Adam and Joe – the goal for Blue Zoo was to push it­self in a new di­rec­tion en­tirely.

In Fe­bru­ary 2016, Blue Zoo put out an open brief to all em­ploy­ees invit­ing them to put for­ward a treat­ment for any ideas they might have. The brief was fairly sim­ple – cre­ate an emo­tional, hu­man story with the pro­viso that the char­ac­ters be an­i­mated in Maya, but then pro­jected and filmed. “The idea be­hind this,” Tom re­veals, “was to ben­e­fit from the beau­ti­ful op­ti­cal prop­er­ties cre­ated in the process, el­e­ments we usu­ally spend a lot of time and money try­ing to recre­ate – re­frac­tions, re­flec­tions, light bounce and depth of field. The only thing that would be done in post-pro­duc­tion would be grading; ev­ery­thing else would be cap­tured in cam­era.” After the brief was set, ev­ery­one had a few weeks to put a pitch to­gether before pre­sent­ing it at a stu­diowide

“i came up with the idea of build­ing minia­ture be­spoke sets” Ben Steer, an­i­ma­tion di­rec­tor, Blue Zoo

pre­sen­ta­tion. Ev­ery­one was then in­vited to anony­mously vote for their favourite, with the idea re­ceiv­ing the most votes go­ing into pro­duc­tion. The win­ning idea came from an­i­ma­tion di­rec­tor, Ben Steer. “At the time, there was a lot of press cov­er­age of the Syr­ian refugee cri­sis,” Ben ex­plains. “I saw the brief as the per­fect rea­son to get cre­ative with some­thing I felt pas­sion­ate about. I found the brief re­ally in­trigu­ing and felt strongly that light should represent life, just as lack of light should represent death. If a char­ac­ter is de­pen­dent on light, then shad­ows, ob­jects and glass could hin­der and dis­tort them. Pro­jec­tors also only project from one an­gle, what if mul­ti­ple pro­jec­tors were used for mul­ti­ple char­ac­ters? This pre­sented a fas­ci­nat­ing, if chal­leng­ing, set of pa­ram­e­ters in which to de­vise a story.’’

The pre-pro­duc­tion stage

As part of the pitch, Ben con­veyed his ideas by cre­at­ing a rough sto­ry­board, so the first step was to re­fine it. At this stage, the idea in­volved two pro­jected char­ac­ters mov­ing along the walls of a warehouse or old build­ing, with the walls them­selves dic­tat­ing the can­vas and the land­scape through which the char­ac­ters had to travel. “We soon re­alised that film­ing on lo­ca­tion would be ex­tremely chal­leng­ing due to lo­gis­tics and time”, says Ben, “so I came up with the idea of build­ing minia­ture be­spoke sets.” In­spired by theatre design from the early 20th cen­tury, and most no­tably by the work of Adolphe Ap­pia, Ben came up with a sim­plis­tic, mo­du­lar design that could be reused for mul­ti­ple shots.

“At first, wooden blocks painted grey and white were used to project onto but the footage looked sur­pris­ingly com­puter gen­er­ated and lacked the tac­tile and hand­crafted feel we were after,” says Ben. “We knew that if light was to fea­ture so heav­ily through­out the piece, the sur­faces needed to re­act to the char­ac­ters be­ing pro­jected onto them. The an­swer came in the form of poly­styrene. The many mi­cro­scopic pores in the sur­face meant that the light bled into the sur­face, giv­ing the im­pres­sion that light was some­how gen­er­ated from within, as op­posed to with­out. It proved to be the per­fect ma­te­rial: light, cheap and very easy to ma­nip­u­late with the help of a hotwire cut­ting tool. So after or­der­ing a lot of poly­styrene, we blacked out one of the spare edit suites and set up a tem­po­rary film set.”

Dur­ing pre-pro­duc­tion re­search, Ben was con­stantly re­fin­ing the an­i­matic. In or­der to en­sure the shots would ac­tu­ally work in phys­i­cal space, he made mock-ups of the sets in Maya us­ing vir­tual cam­eras and sim­ple cuboids, before sketch­ing on the char­ac­ters in Pho­to­shop. “This way, Ben could present the ideas to oth­ers for feed­back while giv­ing them a good im­pres­sion of what the re­sult­ing footage might look like,” Tom adds. The char­ac­ters

were de­signed to be 2.5D, so were fully 3D but de­signed only to be ren­dered flat shaded mostly in sil­hou­ettes. The cast of an­i­mated char­ac­ters, con­sist­ing of a mother, baby and child, were mod­elled and rigged in Maya.

into pro­duc­tion

Due to the unique na­ture of the pro­duc­tion, the an­i­ma­tion process re­quired a dif­fer­ent ap­proach to the stu­dio’s usual meth­ods. “An­i­mat­ing with­out depth al­lowed us to shape and break the model in or­der to cre­ate bet­ter sil­hou­ettes,” Ben re­calls. “Nor­mally on a pro­duc­tion we an­i­mate to the ex­act length of a shot and, when the shot is fin­ished, the an­i­ma­tion ends. On nu­mer­ous shots in Mamoon, an en­tire an­i­mated se­quence would play out in real-time before be­ing filmed from mul­ti­ple an­gles, af­ford­ing us greater free­dom in the fi­nal edit. For each shot, the set would be phys­i­cally built in its rough form then pho­tographed from the in­tended cam­era an­gles for ref­er­ence. An­i­ma­tion would then be done us­ing this photo as a back­drop in Maya for char­ac­ter block­ing and place­ment. Once an­i­ma­tion was com­plete, the set would be re­built and the im­por­tant el­e­ments of the set would be mapped out us­ing a pro­jec­tor and Pho­to­shop. The re­sult­ing Pho­to­shop im­age would then be put into After Ef­fects and lay­ered up with the an­i­ma­tion, which was then aligned to the set el­e­ments, to cre­ate the fin­ished pro­jected se­quence. The process would of­ten in­volve go­ing back and forth, tweak­ing el­e­ments of the set and an­i­ma­tion, which was quite time con­sum­ing. We tried out var­i­ous pro­jec­tion map­ping soft­ware but this process gave us the con­trol we needed and fit­ted into our usual work­flow process. As al­ways, the sim­plest process works out to be the best!”

To light the set, the same tech­niques were em­ployed as would be found on stop-mo­tion sets – a com­bi­na­tion of small, dimmable dedo lights with barn doors and black wrap with tinted gels for smaller pools of coloured light, and LED panel lights for larger, am­bi­ent sources of light. “As the project pro­gressed,” Ben ex­plains, “we re­alised that pro­ject­ing pools of light with the pro­jec­tor it­self was very ef­fec­tive and af­forded us more con­trol while re­tain­ing the same look as tra­di­tional light­ing tech­niques. This meant that we could paint pools of light or shade where they were re­quired in After Ef­fects. For the cam­era we wanted a hand­held feel to give it slightly or­ganic, doc­u­men­tary-style cin­e­matog­ra­phy, so it felt like you were ob­serv­ing a spon­ta­neous story un­fold­ing, not a pre­cal­cu­lated an­i­ma­tion.” A range of dif­fer­ent op­tions were tried and

“an­i­mat­ing with­out depth al­lowed us to shape and break the model” Ben Steer, an­i­ma­tion di­rec­tor, Blue Zoon

tested from purely hand­held, to us­ing gyro-self-lev­el­ling hand­held tripods, to floor mounted tripods. “The so­lu­tion for each shot was al­ways a com­bi­na­tion of tech­niques depend­ing on the type of shot and the mo­tion of the cam­era and the char­ac­ters,” Ben re­calls. “But tra­di­tional hand­held tech­niques proved to be un­us­able due to the small scale of the sets, which am­pli­fied even the small­est of cam­era move­ments to unbearable lev­els!” At the same time as film­ing, the an­i­matic was sent to com­poser Matthew Wil­cock at Zelig. “In­spired by Steve Re­ich, we gave him the brief of a min­i­mal­ist piece of mu­sic in which lay­ers build up into a loop­ing or­ches­tral mix of choirs and strings,” Ben re­veals. “The idea be­ing that the mo­du­lar, loop­ing na­ture of the mu­sic could help re­flect the mo­du­lar na­ture of the set.”

Every an­i­mated project is only as good as the pipe­line that sup­ports it, in terms of tech­ni­cal and lo­gis­ti­cal. At Blue Zoo there are dif­fer­ent lev­els of pipe­line, from full pub­lish­ing and task ver­sion con­trol to more re­laxed, sim­pler pro­cesses. “As every project is a dif­fer­ent size, do­ing a very ex­per­i­men­tal project with a very pre­scrip­tive pipe­line could have throt­tled cre­ativ­ity,” says Tom. “Whereas for big­ger projects we might use ftrack for ev­ery­thing, for this project we used our pipe­line pub­lish­ing tools for the as­sets, but opted for a more or­ganic ap­proach by us­ing Google Docs to keep track of shot sta­tus. For us it’s a case of us­ing the right tool for the job, rather than forc­ing a ‘one size fits all’ ap­proach.”

After film­ing, the shots were graded in Nuke and the plan was to re­lease it on­line, but after feed­back at pri­vate screen­ings, the feel­ing was that Mamoon was bet­ter suited to a big screen as op­posed to a mo­bile phone. For that rea­son, Blue Zoo has de­cided to show it at se­lected fes­ti­vals, giv­ing peo­ple the chance to view it on the big screen before it’s re­leased on the in­ter­net. If you are at an an­i­ma­tion fes­ti­val over the next 12 months, keep an eye out for it! The teaser trailer

is on Vimeo here: https://

The short made use of light physics that you get for free, such as re­flec­tions and re­frac­tions.

a blacked-out spare edit suite was con­verted into a makeshift film set for 8 weeks.

The set was built out of mo­du­lar com­po­nents to sim­plify the scope of the project.

The process in­volved recre­at­ing the set in cg then re-pro­ject­ing the el­e­ments back.

Mary­lou Mao de­signed the char­ac­ters, aim­ing for an il­lus­tra­tive sim­plic­ity while an­i­mat­able in cg.

The char­ac­ter’s faces are cre­ated us­ing lofted curves to give max­i­mum con­trol to their shape.

an orig­i­nal sto­ry­board used for Mamoon dur­ing the pre­pro­duc­tion stage.

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