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Behind the scenes: Stick Man

South African artists were instrumental in creating BBC1’s 
very English Christmas animation Stick Man

The animated films based on Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler’s books have quickly become something of a Christmas viewing tradition for British families. Since 2009, The Gruffalo, The Gruffalo’s Child and Room on the Broom have all premiered on BBC1 on Christmas Day.

This year, it’s the turn of Stick Man. First published back in 2008, it’s the story of a happy-go-lucky father stick who is separated from his family and struggles to get back to them in time for Christmas.

Stick Man has the same quirky look and rich tone as its predecessors, and is again produced by Michael Rose and Martin Pope of indie Magic Light Pictures. But the production of Stick Man was very different. For a start it has a new director, London-based Jeroen Jaspaert, whose credits include CBeebies’ Bing Bunny.

The animation team is new too. Animation for the previous films was outsourced to Germany’s Studio Soi. This time, however, Magic Light chose South African animation studio Triggerfish to do all the prep work and production.

Magic Light’s Michael Rose said he tried to make the film in the UK and Europe again, but couldn’t get the £1.6m budget to work – despite the existence of the UK animation tax credit which has revitalised the UK sector. Stick Man, explains Rose, is the largest and most technically complex of the four films – with lots of sets, characters, water and snow. “Our £1.6m didn’t stretch far enough,” he says. “Whereas going to South Africa, not only do they have a 20% tax credit, but the exchange rate is very favourable, so we get a lot more value for our money.”

Rose says the South African animation industry is developing fast. He’d got to know Triggerfish in recent years, and had been impressed, citing projects such as Adventures in Zambezia and Khumba as examples of their “technically superb cgi work on a modest budget.” Rose adds: “We thought if we ally their cgi skills with our storytelling this could be a tremendous partnership.” A crew of about 75 people worked on Stick Man at Cape Town-based Triggerfish, overseen by co-director Daniel Snaddon.

Rose points out that a large proportion of the Stick Man work was done in the UK, including post, direction, sound, storyboard and development – on which Magic Light could claim the UK tax credit too.

Stick Man is also made in a very different way from its predecessors. The first three films were created by compositing cg characters over model sets. This gave the films a very distinctive, tactile feel. But, because Stick Man needed so many different environments – from a park, to woodland, rivers, the sea and homes – the whole project was produced in cg.

Even so, the ambition was to maintain the feel of the earlier films. “We wanted it to be as close as possible to the other films. Computers are always trying to smooth things out and you can get a very floaty effect that you see in some cheap TV animation. So the art was really to push the computers and artists involved, to base everything as closely as possible on real models and their imperfections.”

The team also spent a lot of time working on the snow and water scenes, which feature heavily in Stick Man. Both are difficult to get right in animation. “It’s tremendously complex getting water that looks like water, but that fits in the animated world,” says Rose.

Meanwhile, Magic Light attracted a high profile voice cast to Stick Man, including Martin Freeman, Jennifer Saunders, Rob Brydon and Sally Hawkins. Their voices were recorded in brief sessions just after the initial storyboard and animatics had been completed; the animators then used their voices to build their characters around. At the end of the process, the voice cast returned to do pick ups.

Post production was all done in the UK, and here Magic Light drew on people that it had worked with on the previous films: including sound designer Adrian Rhodes, editor Robin Sales and colourist Robin Pizzey. Rene Aubry again provides the original score, which emphasises Stick Man’s journey from happy times with his family to getting lost in the forest, and back home again.

In all, the production has taken over 18 months, and Magic Light is now turning its attention to a two-part animation of Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes for Christmas 2016 for BBC1. Magic Light hopes that Stick Man will have as wide an audience as its predecessors – which have sold to 180 countries.

Looking back, Rose says the big challenge has been to ensure a much loved book works in a new medium. “It has got to be a film which works in its own right. But we wanted the experience that families have of reading the book to translate to the screen.”

A half hour animated film based on the children’s picture book written by Julia Donaldson and illustrated by Axel Scheffler, Stick Man tells the tale of a happy go lucky father’s epic journey to make it home in time for Christmas

Production Company
Magic Light Pictures
Michael Rose and Martin Pope
Jeroen Jaspaert
Daniel Snaddon
Polly Hill
Line Producer
Mike Buckland
René Aubry
Sound Designer
Adrian Rhodes
Rob Pizzey
Robin Sales
Casting director
Karen Lindsay-Stewart       
Animation Studio
Triggerfish Animation Studios, Cape Town
Goldcrest Post
Martin Freeman, Jennifer Saunders, Rob Brydon, Russell Tovey, Sally Hawkins, Hugh Bonneville

Posted 09 December 2015 by Tim Dams

The graphics of Bond

Ever since the early days of 007, the on screen graphics have been an integral part of the Bond movies.  Key locations such as Q’s lab and the villain’s lair are lavishly equipped with monitors, screens, computers and phones – all filled with eye-catching high tech screen graphics.

For Spectre, the job of designing these complex graphics fell to Rushes MGFX Studio, led by Barry Corcoran, and John Hill of Vincent who joined the team as creative supervisor.

They worked closely with the Bond production team, including director Sam Mendes and DoP Hoyte van Hoytema, who wanted to capture all of the screen graphics in-camera. It meant all of the screens had to be populated with the graphics on set, rather than being added later in post production.

This would allow the actors to interact with the screens. “If you capture these things in camera, they look much better – with the light spill coming off onto their fingers and faces,” says Corcoran.

But it meant the design work had to start well in advance of initial shooting so it was ready for the start of the shoot.

The brief was to ground the graphics so they appeared realistic and believable, but had a ‘near future’ look which would still look fresh in years to come. For the MI6 technology, Rushes devised a proxy operating system, with an app-based, slightly military feel. “We wanted it to look and feel like an existing product that would be available in a few years time,” says Corcoran. Banks of monitors showed off this work in Q’s lab.

An even greater number of screens were used in villain Oberhauser’s lair, to display complex analytical data infographics and specially adapted news footage.

To lend a realistic feel to the graphics, the work was based on extensive research into areas such as nanorobotics and the latest military and medical thinking.

One scene, for example, sees Bond injected with a ‘smart bullet’ tracking device, with its journey into his arm followed on a computer screen. Rushes animated the hand and arm, and designed the smart bullet and showed its journey into his bloodstream. This five second shot took the Rushes team up to three weeks to create.

The graphics were often called on to showcase Bond’s gadgets. Here the Rushes team was briefed to not just show the graphics – but to help drive the narrative by explaining how they worked. The brief, says Corcoran, was, ‘Don’t show me a picture of a rocket launcher, I want to know the inner workings of it, and how it is going to rotate and where the switch is that Bond is going to flick.”

In all, a core team of four, which scaled up to nine when required, spent 13 months working on the motion graphics for Bond.

Posted 03 December 2015 by Tim Dams

Feature films buoy London's post production scene

Like a bespoke studio lot, Soho is home to an array of post production, vfx and sound facilities. A swathe of features have coursed through London this year, from tentpole features like Spectre and The Martian as well as British films such as Dad’s Army, The Program, The Lady in the Van and Youth.

And most companies say they continue to be busy with feature film work. “It’s buoyant,” says Steve Milne, executive chairman of Molinare, which has provided full post and vfx on Dad’s Army, completed DI on Paul McGuigan’s Victor Frankenstein and has just started work on Absolutely Fabulous – The Movie and is about to begin on James Marsh’s Deep Water starring Colin Firth and Rachel Weisz. He predicts a vintage year in film for the post house in 2016.

Visual effects
Framestore head of film Fiona Walkinshaw also says the London post and vfx scene is very busy, pointing to the large numbers of films that are shooting in the UK – and the difficulty that many are having in finding studio space.

Framestore, which has 750 staff working in London, has recently provided vfx on films like Working Title’s Everest and StudioCanal’s Paddington, as well as big US tent pole The Martian directed by Ridley Scott which also shared its vfx work with MPC and The Senate.

Framestore has just started working on Andy Serkis’ take on Rudyard Kipling’s classic Jungle Book for Warner Bros, which Walkinshaw says will “probably be the biggest film that we have ever done – all the main characters are computer generated.” She reckons up to 250 people will work on Jungle Book: Origins at Framestore at its peak. 

London’s status as magnet for international talent and its reputation for quality, as well as the UK’s generous film tax credits, mean that the capital can more than hold its own in the increasingly global battle to win business from US studios.

Marvel, for example, has become a constant presence in London, carrying out vfx here on superhero films such as Guardians of the Galaxy and about to start on Doctor Strange.

Warners has also invested heavily in the UK since embarking on the Harry Potter films. It has developed Leavesden and acquired Soho facility De Lane Lea, while producing big budget features such as Pan, In the Heart of the Sea and The Man from Uncle.

The latest James Bond film, meanwhile, spread its work among a host of London post houses. Spectre's vfx work was shared between Cinesite, MPC, Double Negative, ILM, Peerless and Bluebolt, while Framestore worked on the iconic title sequence (pictured above).  Rushes supplied Spectre's impressive UI screen graphics, while Company 3's Greg Fisher was responsible for the grade.

Competition remains fierce, though, against countries such as Canada, the US, India and New Zealand. A number of UK vfx companies are reportedly downsizing in London at the moment, amid fears of a ‘race to the bottom’ between facilities looking to undercut each other on price to attract footloose US features.

However, Walkinshaw believes London will continue to hold its own, citing in particular the talent on offer in areas such as R&D and supervising shows. “London is incredibly innovative – it never ceases to amaze me how good senior London talent is,” she says, adding: “Our prices are competitive and the quality of the work is good and the talent base here is so strong.” It means US studios can feel confident in assigning work to London companies.

Digital advances
And there is ever more vfx work to do. Vfx houses are now completing more and more work on features as advances in computer technology allow effects to become ever more integral to the film-making process.

For example, some 65 of the 90 minutes of Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity were fully digital. “Being able to do something like that really wasn’t possible five years ago – you couldn’t have contemplated making that film and rendering it at photo-real quality.”

It means the shot counts handled by the likes of Framestore are rising dramatically. “We could end up doing 1000 shots on The Jungle Book, whereas seven or eight years ago 100 shots would have been a big award on a film,” says Walkinshaw.

A Marvel film might now contain 3000 shots or more, meaning that the work will be shared around multiple vfx houses in London.

This could rise further still. The leading vfx houses see great potential in creating ‘digital humans’ who can double up as actors in certain scenes. For the moment, it’s difficult to do as faces are so intricate and viewers are quick to spot a digital version that isn’t quite natural enough. But, says Walkinshaw, “We are getting very near to a place where we could create a digital human that would be believable in a shot.”

Full service post
By contrast, smaller budgeted British and European independent films work with many medium sized Soho facilities. Lipsync, for example, has recently worked on projects such as Trespass Against Us, Alone in Berlin, The Falling, A Royal Night Out and Mr Turner. The market, acknowledges Lipsync owner Peter Hampden, is very competitive “driven by challenging budgets.”

Lipsync offers all aspects of post, including sound, grade, flame and vfx, arguing that it can “maximise production resources and pass on economies of scale” to producers.

Hampden says its primary business is offering post services to TV and film producers. To help attract this business in a competitive market, Lipsync can also provide finance too, and began investing in features in 2007. This year it struck its 100th post investment deal with The Nice Guys, Joel Silver’s forthcoming film starring Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe and directed by Shane Black.

Competitor Molinare has also been stepping up its presence in the film post market. With a long TV heritage, it only entered the film picture post market in 2005 and the film audio market in 2013 after a complete rebuild of its studios.

But it believes there are lots of opportunities for UK facilities in film. Milne reckons that the success of projects like Pride have helped Molinare’s audio reputation. “There used to be a clear gap between TV drama and independent film markets but now with talent moving seamlessly between the two, Molinare is well positioned to benefit.”

Tellingly the facility is working on Ken Loach’s next film – and also won picture post on Netflix’s £100m series The Crown, directed by Stephen Daldry – neatly demonstrating the wide range of projects that UK facilities are now working on.

Posted 02 December 2015 by Tim Dams
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