"It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves."

Sunday, July 19, 2009

#3 - In Conversation With AM Student Steven Hughes On His Short Film, Animation and Life In General

This is #3 in the series of conversations I have started with my fellow Animation Mentor(AM) schoolmates. You can find #2 here and #1 here.

This time its Steven Hughes who is also participating in the Virgin Media Shorts Competition with his wonderfully animated short - The Icarus Effect.

You can watch Steven's short in all its glory here. I wish him all the best for the competition !

So without further ado, lets get this started !

Anirudh Bhalotia (@|b) - Hello Steven, thanks for your time and getting this conversation started. Tell us a bit of yourself, like how did you get into animation, how did you hear about Animation Mentor (AM), when did you graduate from AM and what you been doing/working on currently?

Steven Hughes (SH) - Hi Anirudh, I guess friends would say that I was always an arty person, and I first started using 3D graphics on an Amiga way back in the day, about the time Pixar released Tin Toy. The only Studio animation then was 2D and Quantel Paintbox ruled TV video effects, so I was always encouraged to get a 'proper' job instead. I am finally looking to change that and work in digital animation or visual effects. Living in the UK means there isn't quite the selection of studio's that there are in California, but there is still a great choice out there.

AM is one of those things you hear about but are never quite sure if it's for you. I had visited the web site but was still undecided about signing up, but then two things happened; I realized that I needed structured training, and a chat with a forum friend who was currently working through AM showed me his progress reel and that convinced me that AM was exactly what I was after. I graduated from AM in September 08, also known as Graduating Class 9. I'm currently taking one of those 'short breaks' now I have finished my short film.

@|b - Congrats for your short film – The Icarus Effect. It’s looking great with nice animation, lighting, rendering, overall a very well package short indeed. How much time did you get to work on this right from the story stage till the final output as we see it?

SH - Thank you, I am pleased I managed to finish it...

I worked through the standard AM process for the short, with 3 months for story development, planning, layout and animatic. During this time I also created most of the digital assets (modeling, rigging, texturing), although I would still tweak these throughout production especially when I needed a break from animating. It was also a great time to start finding the sound effects needed and even recording my own, as this always takes more time than expected. It's worth considering the music you want to use as well, which does help set the pace of the film, but it can take a while to find a musician to help out, or to license some music.

Then there was 3 months of animating, where I was putting in around 25 hours a week as well as doing my full time job. After graduating I took a short break from my short film, dabbling with some minor things, such as the look and feel for the security camera shot, and the shader for the forcefield. The short break turned into a longer break, until finally I saw a competition by Virgin Media Shorts - there is nothing quite like a deadline to really focus your efforts. By this point I had a lot of work to do and not much time, so you get to make creative decisions very quickly and get creative with workarounds to problems. This means that ultimately you are making compromises, and nothing is going to be 100% to your satisfaction, it just needs to be good enough for the time you have. This final push took about 6 weeks, and I even borrowed a friends PC to render on while I worked on other shots. Once again I found myself putting in long hours just to get it done as I couldn't get any time off work. I finally submitted the film with less than 24 hours before the deadline.

@|b - As someone who is into the process of making his own short, I had quite a tough time brainstorming ideas and then finally get onto some idea which can be used for story telling in an interesting way. What was your process for getting the basic story outline nailed down? Or rather from where did you get this idea from, was it your own experience or remembering someone else’s or something like that? What advice in this context would you like to give to aspiring animators who would like to get started with their own short films at some point of time?

SH - Yes, the story creation can be hard to deliver 'on demand', and I found that in the early stages it was more about the evolution of a story idea. I had some personal criteria as the building blocks to my short which helped define the story; as digital animators we don't always visualize the use of light and shadow so I wanted to utilize that as part of the visual style, and I also wanted a story with a lot of physicality to allow me to explore more body mechanics. And a jet pack, that was key, who doesn't love a story with a jet pack! And no, unfortunately this is not built on personal experience ;)

I knew I had to stick to 30 seconds for my short if I was ever going to get it done in the time I had available, and it started out at 30 seconds but ended up getting a little longer in order to make the story work. So really it could only have one punch line, one message in such a short amount of screen time. Some of the details in the story actually come out as you start laying out the shots, finding what works and what doesn't, layering in other visual clues for continuity etc. The story really is something that grows from the original draft. Whatever story you want to tell make sure it's one that you enjoy, because you'll be working on it a lot. When you hit those times where your motivation starts to drop (and we all have bad days) you will find you can be carried along by the desire to complete something you want to do, rather than working on something you have to do.

@|b - What was the biggest challenge you came across during making this short film and how did you overcome it? Were there some problems which kept cropping up time and again during the pursuit of getting your short done?

SH - I find that you do get that one problematic shot, the one you just can't get quite right, and the one you dread starting work on again; it might be the camera move that isn't working, a pose you can't lock down, almost anything, and you just can't seem to get it quite right. That is something you just have to work through.

However, since it is a short film you end up facing all the challenges of production, from concept through to render times. While there were technical issues to resolve, as well as stylistic choices to be made, I think the biggest challenge was the motivation to complete the film after graduation. I'm very driven by deadlines, it helps me to focus my efforts in the area's needed to complete the work in the timescale, so when the deadline for completing the animation passed (my graduation), it was hard to start on the final phase of lighting, tweak the models, finalize the textures, and polish the animation. After all, we all want our short film to be perfect, and without a deadline it is too easy to keep dabbling until it is perfect. Setting your own goals is good, but for me personally I needed to find a reason to work on a shot until it's complete, and more often than not I would have a more compelling reason not to work on it. It was only when I wanted to enter my short into a competition that I had a new deadline and the drive to finally finish my short film.

@|b - How important was the research/pre-production/planning process on getting your short done and looking back what is that one thing which you wished you had done more of?

SH - The planning stage is immensely important, and scheduling your time for each task. Once you have the basic draft of the story you can storyboard the shots. Sketching this out is fast, and you can try different ideas out very quickly. Once you have that, you need to move on and setup your layouts. I actually stuck to my storyboards very closely, they were a great reference later on when I was trying to get the composition for a shot right, a couple of times I had placed a camera and thought it was ok, then when I referred back to the storyboard I was able to match what I originally imagined and it felt like the visual aspect of the shot improved. That’s not to say to should always stick to the storyboard, there are enhancements you make along the way which dictate changes in different aspects of a shot (composition, animating to camera etc). One example is that I actually ended up adding in the burley security guards very late in the initial stages, but it was essential for the story to work. If you overrun on time for one task you need to save time elsewhere, so don't overrun! If this means it isn't quite perfect then that is how it has to be. Only at the end will you know if you have any time to revisit anything you feel needs more love and attention.

The rigs for the props also changed throughout production, as I would find a need to do something specific to suit the animation and the rig would need to change. It would have been nice if all my props and characters were finished before I started animation, but it isn't always possible work that way. I'm not sure if there is something I would have done more of, but there certainly is something I wish I had more of, and that was time!

@|b - Different animators have their own ways of reference and planning. Some prefer doing a lot of thumbnailing, some just can’t get by without doing video reference or some do a bit of both. What’s your way of reference, something to keep you in check and avoid taking a detour from the main essence of the shot/scene you working on?

SH - For the character work I start with thumbnails to find something that is close to what I visualize. Then I found it very beneficial to use video reference - however I am no actor, so the video reference is exactly that; a reference, as it helps me understand the timing. I can be hard to judge the time needed for some shots, such as if a heavy lumbering move across the screen. By quickly filming some reference you can lock down the timing, and then you also have reference for the body mechanics or the facial poses. Sometimes there is some subtlety in a reference that you find appealing so you work it into a shot, and it might be something you never planned for originally. Referring back to the storyboards was one way I made sure I was staying true to my original ideas.

Here are a couple of storyboards, concept drawings I did in the planning stages -

@|b - For any beginner in animation, there is always the temptation of making an epic right from your first independent short. What’s the ideal duration a first timer should strive for so that he doesn’t eat more than he can chew and also enjoy the entire process of actually seeing the short from story to screen?

SH - Ah, the epic first film, I think we all start there (I know I did). To know how long your short should be you need to start by understanding how much real time you have available to dedicate to the project. Generally people are not very good at estimating how much time something will take. Your gut instinct, your intuition will often mean you don't allow enough time so you have to allow for that, but it's something you get better at with experience. Depending on what you want to portray in your short will also help determine the duration; two characters on screen who interact a lot will mean you have twice the animation work for the same length of screen time. Conversely a medium shot of a single character that is mostly standing in place requires much less time to animate for longer screen time. For someone starting out I would recommend no more than 30 seconds - which really means that you should plan for 20 seconds and you'll find it will take 30 ;) But I would also add that you should try and use a single character for your first short, avoid dialogue, and keep the environment as simple as possible. By being realistic you stand a better chance of completing it and having something nice to use on your reel.

@|b - What keeps you inspired as an artist as I am sure there would be times when no matter what you do or how work you hard, things just don’t go your way. What keeps you inspired and motivated and are there any other creative endeavors you pursue to keep your creative juices flowing and keep things in perspective? As I understand it’s very important to take a break often rather than struggling with something for extended period of time and not getting anywhere. Your thoughts on this?

SH - Yeah, those are some interesting topics. We all have bad days where we find we can't animate for toffee. At times like that I like to switch gear in the production and I may work on a bit of modeling, or maybe texturing, even a concept sketch, anything that keeps the production moving forward but that also takes your mind off the problem. Even then there are times you can't focus at all, which is usually the body's way of saying 'enough!’ At these times it's time to take a breather, do something enjoyable, if it's the evening I might watch a movie or play the guitar. Inspiration comes from many places, even going out for a meal can give you food for the mind as well as the body (a chance to do some people watching). I do get inspired when watching films or other peoples work, there are some amazing artists out there.

@|b - What’s the best advice you ever got and something which you want to pass on to your fellow animators?

SH - The best advice I ever received when I was starting out was "to get involved with a forum". As long as it's a friendly community the feedback you can get will be essential, it can help you to grow as an animator as well as to improve a shot. Don't take other peoples comments personally and you will benefit tremendously from it, you need a thick skin!

@|b - On a concluding note, any words to students who are waiting to get their first job in the industry?

SH - I'm actually reminded of a quote by Randy Pausch which struck a chord with me when I heard it, "brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough. They’re there to stop the other people".

@|b - Thanks once again Steven, for taking the time to do this wonderful conversation.

SH - Thank you Anirudh, it’s been a pleasure.

You can reach Steven and see some of his other work on his site.

No comments: