The making of Mamoon
Paul Champion talks to Tom Box and Ben Steer from Blue Zoo about their latest short film, Mamoon
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.
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:// vimeo.com/219699171
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.