Friday, 12 July 2013

2006/2007 - Third and final year at uni - Animation - Graduation Film!

So here it is, the post I’ve been dreading writing the most, my final year at uni and graduation film: ‘Out of Ashes.’

The culmination of three years of hard study, blood sweat and far too may tears, the end of a long struggle, completion of an epic journey, a tale ending not in tragedy but in success.

Why then have I been dreading writing this? Well let’s just call it a difficult year for me, both in and out of university. As an artist I know, I am highly self-critical but alas, even now revisiting this film makes me wince and cringe in every possible way.

However before I launch into reasoning for the above statements, let’s have a look at some of the artwork, shall we?

Layouts and Backgrounds

So below are the three layouts and final backgrounds that provide the main outdoor setting for our film. Layouts obviously, are the top three line drawings and this was technically one layout with a few tweaks to represent the different seasons. The bottom three are the final rendered backgrounds as they appear in film. I thought it might be nice to lay these out together for comparison.

For all you non-animators out there and anyone not in the know, the black ‘holes’ in the bottom of the layout images, are, well, holes actually, one’s specifically shaped for a peg-bar which is used to hold animation paper in place so that many sheets may be layered and correctly aligned.

I should also clarify, particularly for any new readers that this graduation film was rendered using charcoal in a method similar to that used by William Kentridge. The yellow glow is simply what happens when you place a charcoal drawing over a light box, an interesting effect that we decided to utilize.

Above and below are examples of the interior setting and also display the process with the middle image being how the charcoal rendering looks in natural light or in this instance captured with the light box off.

Now whilst I was director I was also lead background designer, assistant animator and sole renderer for the entire film. Our team was small, actually that’s not true our team was huge to begin with, a rag-tag bunch of folks who didn’t get onto other films and apparently all wanted to alter the entire storyboard to match their own visions, so that was fun.

Our number blossomed to eight, swiftly shrank to six, then dwindled to four or so dedicated individuals. By the time we were half way through the year, the only artists really working were our lead animator, the most wonderfully ditzy Azad Mohammed and myself, although this is because the two second year students were busy with their own projects. 

We also had a producer for about five minutes one day. 

Thankfully, we did manage to pick up an editor, the charming Chris Alvarez who was also willing to composite and pick up the slack of producer-related jobs, or that’s how it read on paper. I’ve no idea what producer-related things he did but praise be that he slaved over all of the composting and editing! Our sound designer I never met, however in emails Xan Williams proved to be prompt, very capable and a pleasure to deal with.

Below are a final two examples of the backgrounds. Firstly an upshot of the clock, it’s pendulum is missing because, as a moving part, it required animating.

This second image shows the third setting of our film, the woodshed. The final in this group perhaps looks less complete than the other’s I’ve shown but this is because we knew we were going to animate a light source over the top.

A bit about team ‘Ash’

So Azad, or A-Zee as we called him, was a 6ft tall blonde lady in the body of a black man, I kid you not. He was a well-travelled, religious and energetic, French speaking, basketball player, a hip-hop, body popping kinda guy who always had a smile on his face and always managed to make me laugh. I honestly don’t think I could have survived the year without him!

Here we are graduating together; he doesn’t drink so that’s imaginary champagne he’s toasting with.

For anyone wondering how skinny I managed to gain two stone or so in under a year, this is the fabulous result of a diet constructed around stress, vodka and fast food, who’d have guessed they’d be bad for your waistline? :P 
*Ahem* Anyway, A-Z would do the ‘late’ shift, arriving at around midday and staying until the evening, whilst I would do the 'early' shift, starting around nine or ten and leaving around four or five. This was probably the biggest mistake; I was putting in far less hours at the university than I should, but then spending large amounts of time locked in a tiny dark room hovering over a light box is enough to send most people screaming for the hills. Of course I worked at home too, in between Paul O’Grady and whatever else trash television was showing, still it wasn’t enough.

Also: Wednesdays. Yep, Wednesday’s were our cursed day together at university, for one reason or another that little blighter of a mid-week day never produced a single thing. Both Azad and I would tear through paper, cursing (actually I think that was just me he was far too polite to swear), so much so that we ended up dubbing them, ‘Black Wednesdays,’ and would then laugh in that kind of stir-crazy frustrated artist way at how the day had cursed us every week. Black Wednesday’s would suck our creativity away, the more we tried, the more excited and feverishly we attempted to move forward the more it seemed to take away. A little factoid that spurred me to write a short story about a place called Black Wednesday Isle, which in turn, as I am sure you recognise, became the title of my character portrait blog.


I had a lot of imagery in my head of the settings but the characters not so much. This is perhaps because when I write a character that I want people to transpose themselves into I usually leave a lot of the details blank so that they can fill in the gaps and identify accordingly. In a way the old man and boy of the tale were blank faces, one’s that anyone could imagine as their son, brother, father or grandfather.

This coupled with the sensitive subject matter and my lack of practice in character design made fleshing them out visually a real challenge. I don’t think I will ever be happy with how they finally looked and even less so with how they moved but that is more a combination of technical difficulties with the production method and a mis-match to the vision in my head. As I’m sure the artists out there will agree things are always way better in your head!


As I said Azad was lead animator, he did all of the hard work making things move on reams and reams of ye olde animation paper. I then took his shots and laid them underneath the singular sheet I was working on in order to copy, capture, erase and repeat until the shot was complete and the remaining paper looked like a big black smudge. 

Animated shots then had to be taken into compositing to remove the white paper for each individual frame and laid to match the final rendered background. This compositing was done by Chris Alvarez, which I am ever thankful for, my input to rendering ended at the charcoal stage, anything more and I think I would have literally collapsed. 

There was one shot however that I can lay claim to as being entirely my own in animation and background if not in compositing. Precious shot no5, I animated, rendered, created the layout, the background, yeah that shot was my baby; I even did the AfterFX lighting, thereabouts!
Thus below is my line test for shot 5. 


AfterFX proved to be the camel that broke the horses back. Yes I realise that isn’t how the saying goes but I assure you trying to work with this bit of software with zero prior knowledge felt an awful lot like trying to steer a horse mounted camel.

We chose to use AfterFX in post-production for lighting on four of the shots to give the effect of lantern light, as a bright white spot would have been almost impossible to maintain whilst utilising the Kentridge erasing method of animating.

However as this part of production was close to the end of the film and the pressure of ever-tightening deadlines loomed I will admit it reduced me to tears. Still we got there in the end. Here’s an example of two of the shots we used AfterFX on for lighting, they run a bit faster than in the final film I do believe.

Covers and Film Posters

What? You thought the work ended when we finished the film?

Nope, we also had to put together a whole bunch of promo material including DVD covers, disc inlays, film posters and display boards. The display boards were partly for exhibition at the university but also in case we were nominated or awarded at a film festival, having a board to show off all your hard work certainly then is a good idea.

So here are the two boards and DVD cover we made for ‘Out of Ashes.’
DVD cover 

 Board 1

Board 2

Board 1 is the better of the two in my opinion, however the second includes some nice details which clarify our methods somewhat. Bottom left you can also see my concept oil painting for the project, a painting that is…everyone together now… ‘still in England!’ Or at least I hope it is as I cannot find a copy of it anywhere on my hard drive.

Conclusion, Insights and Link to Film

In reflection, one thing I learnt is that there is a stark difference between academic success and the sense of reward when you actually feel successful. Up until this point in my life, my work was graded and I judged the quality according to those grades. Upon completion of this course, I realised that the number on the sheet of paper in front of me was not representative of my work. For starters I should clarify I was thrilled to pass, and with a 2:2 which although was not the 2:1 I had hoped for was still in the mid-range of grading and afforded many congratulatory pats on the back. No, what I loathed was the project itself; the work spat out the other end looked like nothing more than a nasty globule to me, a greyish-green lump tarnishing my folio and any possible future I might have in art.

Of course that’s all 100% an exaggeration, the melodrama singing loudly in my brain, mourning the loss of what never was. The film wasn’t bad at all, at least so my peers told me countless times. In fact it was so ‘not bad’ that it received a nomination at both the prestigious Edinburgh film festival and one a trillion miles away in Seoul! Now if that isn’t an honour or a grand form of hat-tipping recognition then what is?

Still I was dissatisfied, my hopes for the project were, and still are to this day, dashed, because to me it missed every point I was trying to make, and I think perhaps I will always feel that way about it which is a shame. With distance from university, the project and troubles in general I think I have come to realise that I see it as a negative reminder as opposed to a piece of artwork. The problem isn’t with the project so much as the memories it brings to mind. It makes me think of fatigue and struggling against the odds, of having lofty ideals and falling from grace and tells me that even perceived success can be tinged with a sense of failure. It is basically, everything I fear as an artist, personified!

The positives from this terrible feeling of failure that I and I alone experienced here is that I finally began to learn how to be less precious with my work. Not always wearing my heart on my sleeve is invaluable, as is being able to let go and learn from mistakes as opposed to mulling on them. Knowing when to call it quits on a problematic sketch and start afresh. Most importantly, realising that it doesn’t matter if I make one hundred ‘bad’ sketches or awful films because in the long run the things I learn from doing that are far more valuable than a graded slip of paper or an inflated ego. Sure I’ve ‘failed’ many times before in life, haven’t we all? My point is that I don’t think I understood that there were benefits in not always getting it right.

So in the end I did receive new growth, ‘out of ashes,’ kind of ironic, really.

You can view the final film embedded here:

Or failing that you can find it under the following link on you tube:
'Out of Ashes'
where it is being kindly hosted by our editor :)

Oh and here’s a couple of obligatory hat-toss images for you featuring all the bright and brilliant students in our year. I am also in there somewhere, you can play ‘where’s wally?’ if you like.

Hooray we’re freeeeee!

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