Taking Notes – An Interview with Simon Taylor

Here’s something a little bit different. An interview with Simon Taylor, the animator and director of ‘Taking Pictures’ which I featured a few days ago.


What’s your name and where are you from?

My name is Simon Taylor, I’m originally from Kent but moved nearer to London a few years ago.

What’s your superhero back story?

Christmas Eve 1992 – a nine year old boy sits watching Wallace & Gromit: The Wrong Trousers and thinks to himself “that looks fun, let’s do that”. He is swiftly bitten by the radioactive animation bug.

I always enjoyed making films with friends both live action and animated. I carried on making animated shorts throughout school and university, entered a few festivals, and when I finished my degree (Italian and Film Studies, not animation) I did a Masters in Computer Animation. That was followed by Animation Mentor. I got my first animation job working on an animated series called Castle Farm in 2009 and since then I’ve been working steadily – mostly on animated children’s TV series but there’s been some feature work and some commercials along the way.

Currently I’m at Blue Zoo working on Tree Fu Tom.

What was the inspiration for the film?

I’d been looking to do a short animation test of some subtle acting, something different to most of what I had on my reel. After going through the usual routine of looking for audio clips nothing was really exciting me so I decided I’d be more inspired if I made a short rather than just another one-off shot.

The initial inspiration came from the “Before” films by Richard Linklater. Even though “Taking Pictures” turned into its own thing I liked the genuine feel of the relationships in those films and wanted to capture that in animation and not fall into the usual plot and acting cliches.

What was the story process like?

I’d decided to do a “boy meets girl” style story and had an image of the “quick draw” moment in my head which was based on something my girlfriend Kate and I did once while we were passing time in a queue. I really liked that moment and the story grew outwards from there.

I didn’t want dialogue but it was also important to me that there be a narrative reason for there not to be any talking. I didn’t want them to be pantoing when they could just talk. There’s a park near where we live with a river that splits it down the middle so I thought that would work well as a setup. The next thing was to have a reason for them both to be there so I made them both photographers.

I wanted the characters to be different on the surface (both visually and personality-wise) but to bring their respective personality traits out in each other. I also wanted to steer clear of the “manic pixie dream girl” trope where she’d just be the kooky girl bringing him out of his shell. Because the film is really short I didn’t want the big “and they lived happily ever after” ending, I thought it would feel more believable that way and audiences could make their own mind up. There is a photo of them together in the end credits but that’s open to interpretation.

Hopefully at least some of those thoughts came through in the minute and a half they’re actually on screen!

Can you talk about the rigs used in the piece? Only the pigeon was custom-made?

The two main characters are from iAnimate.net from when I studied there for a bit. He is the “Jose” rig and she is a modified version called “Josie”.

The pigeon was rigged by my friend Anton Blake and it was really lovely to animate, I almost want to make another film just about the pigeon! [Ed’s note: That pigeon is great. Really nice design job by Tommy Taylor (no relation to Simon!), with modelling by Darko Mitev and of course rigging by Anton Blake. It’s really good to see custom rigs with the more ‘stock’ iAnimate characters].

I’m by no means a rigger but the other “rig” of sorts was the setup I had for the neck straps on their cameras. Originally they were going to be an nCloth simulation but that became more trouble than it was worth. In the end I just put twenty or so joints in and wrote a simple Python UI to make them easier to select and reset and follow the character’s body around. I had locators parented to the characters in the strap’s default hanging down position so I could quickly reset the strap when needed. Everything was in world space so it wasn’t the most elegant solution but it got the job done!

What’s your animation workflow? 

I nearly always start with video reference. After that I pick out my key poses, check I’ve chosen the best rotation orders for the shot and block them out in stepped mode. Once I’m happy I’ve pushed the key poses as much as possible I’ll add breakdowns, antics and settles and then move to spline and polish it up. I try to get a balance of having enough detail in stepped that I’m in control and not too much that I spend ages cleaning things up.

I didn’t block the neck straps though, they were animated straight ahead once the rest of the shot was finished.

Once you’ve finalled a shot, what’s the next step?

Once the character animation was done I referenced in the most recent version of the environment and made sure all the lighting, shaders etc were all correct. It wasn’t always that simple though as I was rendering and troubleshooting at the same time I was animating so sometimes I’d have to re-render things and have to apply changes throughout the whole film.

Once everything was set though I just rendered out a beauty pass of the character, ambient occlusion, ground shadow, depth and environment and my compositor friend Elaine Thomas made it all look nice. [TECHNICAL DETAIL ALERT] And if anyone’s interested it was rendered in linear colour space instead of sRGB using 32bit EXRs to give the image the most amount of latitude in post.

While the rendering was still going on the sound was done by Jim Fowler once the edit and animation was locked down. The music was written by Lior Trachtman, I hadn’t directed music before so that was fun and she wrote a lovely piece of music that supported the visuals without being too literal to what was going on but still hit occasional accents.

How long did it take?

About a year and a half working in my spare time. I hadn’t expected it to take this long actually but it turned out for the best, I had a bit of a break in the middle and came back to it with a fresh perspective and changed a few bits. The ending for example was a lot longer and didn’t have the pigeon return (they just saw each other and then it cut to black).

Was there anything that you found particularly challenging?

On the animation side it was a fun challenge to try and capture the femininity of the girl’s character without it feeling cliche. Kate acted out a lot for me which really helped with the physicality. I did fall into a trap on one shot where originally, after he drops his camera, she brushed some hair behind her ear and giggled which just undermined her character I thought.

On the technical side the biggest challenge was probably the lighting and skin shaders. Originally I was going to just use Maya’s built in Mental Ray physical sun and sky but when I learnt about the benefits of linear colour that then broke because of how it plays with the camera. I’m not a lighting artist so I imagine this will all sound incredibly basic to someone who does that for a living! In the end I used a directional light for the sun and a blue colour on the camera’s environment.

The characters also have their own three point light setup to give them some more depth. One of the biggest rendering problems was “alien face”. Because the two main characters don’t have a very defined nose if I didn’t get the combination of subsurface scattering on their skin and the lighting quite right they ended up with grey faces and no nose!

What’s next?

I’m happy to have finished the film now so I’m enjoying having more free time. Maybe the next time Kate and I are out and about we’ll do something daft that will inspire something new! I think though that if I do make another short I’d like to do something more collaborative. Elaine’s compositing made such a difference to the look of the film and I wonder what could be achieved with a dedicated modeller, lighter, rigger etc as well. For now though I’m having a rest and making the most of my work at Blue Zoo.


Thanks to Simon for agreeing to the interview!

Forgive the absence…

I had a rather busy end to 2014! I’ll be posting more stuff here soon but I just wanted to quickly draw your attention to this motion graphics piece featuring an Ira Glass quote that I’m very fond of.

I’m not a hundred percent certain who created it, but I’ve been told it was probably Saar Oz. Really lovely work – and thanks to Dieter who’s tweet sparked this post in the first place.

Characters In Motion

A quick post, as I just saw this and loved it. This is going to be very much an animation nerd post, so ye be warned.

Big Hero Six is the new film from Disney, and by all accounts it’s a great film – we in the UK won’t actually know until the end of January because apparently oceans are still a thing.

There’s a great bit of playlist that’s been released as part of the marketing, a character study for each of the main characters in the film. It’s a great exercise to do as for animators who are developing a character, to feel out how they should be animated for a film – you pick a simple action, such as walking into a room and sitting down in a chair.

characterStudyScreenshot

It’s a straightforward thing to do, and mechanically animating it to feel believable is one thing – but animating with character is something else. Every single one of the tests has different choices that speak to who that person is, what they feel about themselves, how they treat others. Now you’re not just moving things around on screen, you’re creating the illusion of life. Really brilliant stuff from the guys at Disney and I’m seriously looking forward to the film. As I said, animation nerd.

Japan Cubed

So I was experimenting with a technique in a video tutorial that the guys over at Greyscale Gorilla put together a long time ago (I would highly recommend the training over at Greyscale if you haven’t checked it out yet, there’s some great ideas for people looking to bring some 3D into their motion graphics projects – and their products are also fantastic).

I made the choice of using photos from Japan as a little throwback to when I lived there (and not at all because I’m feeling a little nostalgic for Nippon-koku, honest). The technique from the tutorial allows for a huge amount of flexibility in the images that are used and the timing of everything, and it’s perfect for transitions and photo montages. I’ll be playing with this idea in future as I already have some thoughts on things I want to try with it.

Of course there’s always things about it that I would tweak, but for a five second test done in a couple of hours I’m happy with it.

Why Is That Guy Sat On An Elephant?

An excellent question, and one that the second film for The Pioneers sets out to answer. This was the second of the two projects for The Pioneers, with this film focusing on the source of the inspiration for their logo design. It was also an opportunity to create some caricatures of Jonathan Haidt and Daniel Khaneman.

The video followed the same production methods as the previous film – based off scripts that were created by The Pioneers team, with some input and suggestions from myself and my brother. I then storyboarded out the film, working up concepts for each element, and got sign off from The Pioneers. After that, it was a matter of creating all the art and putting together the final animation, before handing it back to my brother to put together the sound design.

As always there was a lot of collaboration between myself and The Pioneers, a lot of back-and-forth communication, making sure the final film was going to meet their vision for the project. I’m pretty happy with the results (as happy as I am with anything that I make, admittedly).

The Pioneers have shown the film to both Jonathan Haidt and Daniel Khaneman, both of whom were happy with it – in the case of Jonathan Haidt, he liked it so much he got in touch with The Pioneers and (last I heard) was talking to them about putting together some new studies.

Who Are The Pioneers?

Well – these guys. They’re a new London startup who hired my brother and I to produce a number of short animated films. These films were to use the characters created by the graphic designer who put together their branding, be super-simple 2D in terms of aesthetics, and be relatively light and funny where possible. They’d be providing the scripts, my brother would do the sound design, and I’d do everything else.

The process was straightforward. After receiving the script, I board the film out and those boards are then signed off on by the client. This is usually happening concurrently with the recording, with two or more scripts being recorded on the same day to keep costs down. At that point it’s a matter of creating all the artwork (put together in Illustrator) and doing all the animation (all done in After Effects).

Creating the different characters based off the original designs was fun and an interesting challenge. I think I ended up producing better stuff building off the initial framework than if I’d had to design them myself from scratch.

I’m currently working on the next film and will be updating with that in a week or so. The “Shot A Week” project I’ve been doing will return once I have a bit more time in my schedule.

A Shot A Week – Week Two

So, first of all, this shot was supposed to be week two. There’s a not-so-interesting story about the Godus beta and a hard drive failure that required a restore and lost me a week of work but that wouldn’t be that useful to explain to you, so I won’t. That being said, here’s the shot for this week, which was “kick a ball”.

 

– I never got the blocking phase of this uploaded, so this shot was done without feedback from anyone. In my opinion, it shows.

– I was looking at the reference pretty heavily for this shot, and that certainly seemed to be getting the feel of the kick through, including the really strong twist in the button when she follows through the ball, was something I was really happy to find in the reference itself, but I don’t feel like I did it justice.

– I did discover that you can turn off Stella’s bunches. I quite like her with a pixie cut. I’ll look at adding her bunches back in to the shots once I’m getting more into my stride with them.

– This shot in general has kind of disappointed me, as I ended up rushing the splining, and I just feel like it started to get a bit muddy. I felt good about my blocking, and the kick which is essentially frame by frame animated from the launch into it through to the foot landing at the end of the kick. The beginning and the end aren’t working for me.

– I didn’t know what to do with the hands at the end, and kept fiddling and playing with it in the splining process. I also wanted to have that feeling of being up on the toes on the run in (as the reference) but it just doesn’t look right.

As I was watching this back ready to upload it I keep spotting endless things that I want to fix – but I’m out of time to work on this, and even though it’s taken an extra week to get this post up this shot certainly hasn’t had two weeks spent on it, thanks to other commitments. That said, and to paraphrase Beckett; try once, fail once. Try again, fail again, fail better. This shot certainly feels like a fail. With the next one, I’ll fail better.

Quite a short write-up these week, I’ll try and expand upon these a bit further with the next one!

Here’s the reference for those of you that want to check it out. All feedback is always welcomed, and please feel free to click through to the Vimeo site and download the original file if you want to frame by frame it. If you do want to leave feedback, a comment on this post would be utterly fantastic.

All good learning experiences, of course. On to the next shot! Week three is “jump over a gap”.

A Shot A Week – Week One

“Take a big step to the side”

 

Here we are at the end of week one. It’s been a lot of fun this week getting back into animating and a big thank you to all those people on Twitter and Facebook that gave some critique on the blocking pass I posted earlier this week. I think I’ll look at posting the blocking passes to Vimeo and just asking for feedback there in future just to keep everything in one place.

At the end of each week I’ll post the shot as it was when I hit deadline and then leave some critique as to how I felt things went.

Things that worked

– Stella rig is great; easy controls to work with but still loads of flexibility. First time animating with it and loved it, which bodes well for Stan and the imps.

– Overall am happy with how the shot turned out … ish. It could’ve been worse, I like the idea and the movement more now, but I feel like I could’ve done better.

Things that didn’t work

– Arcs, still clunky in some places. Aiming in future to use the grease pencil tool to track the shape of things (like the edge of a hand, say) rather than using motion trails.

– Need to work on breaking up motion, offsetting stuff more; I try really hard to work clean when blocking, but I think I hang on to that too long when I’m getting into splining, I need to learn to offset things to get better overall movement.

– Context; putting more thought into this at the beginning of the process. The final context for the shot came at quite a late stage (Wednesday), so I did a bunch of thumbnails, shot more reference – for shots in future I need to lock that down by Monday evening at the latest.

– Hair pass didn’t happen as I ran out of time. Ditto a proper polish pass.

– Scheduling the shot through the week, and avoiding that slipping. I ended up splining on Saturday and Sunday, rather than Thursday and Friday as I meant to. That meant no time for feedback on the splines.

As a last note, I think I kinda moved away from the initial direction for the shot – which was “take a big step to the side” – whereas what I ended up animating is more like a sideways jump. Something else to bear in mind when blocking the next shot.

With regards to scheduling things through the week, I’m going to aim for Monday planning, Tuesday block and post for feedback, Wednesday fixes and start splines, Thursday and Friday splining and post for feedback on Friday night, Saturday and Sunday polish (and then final on Sunday night). Any feedback I get after final is posted I can save and come back to once I have a few shots done and want to polish any rough edges for inclusion in a showreel. One problem I had with this week’s shot was recognising that I didn’t have any context for it early on, which meant redoing things halfway through the week. I also didn’t get the shot online for feedback until Wednesday morning. Uploading it on Tuesday evening would mean being able to catch people when they might have a chance to look at it for five minutes before heading off to bed, and of course tapping into all the animators in different timezones while I’m snoozing the night away.

So shot one is finished, lessons to be learned. On to the next shot – “kick a ball”.

A Shot A Week

So this week I’m starting a new thing to up my character animation skills, and develop a new showreel composed of entirely new material. I’m calling it A Shot A Week because things need names (it’s a very Ronseal name though). Also because giving it a name makes it more of a thing.

So here’s how I see this working. Every week I do a new shot. To start with I’ll be working my way through a list of body mechanics shots from my time at Animation Mentor. Each week I’ll be going through the whole process, planning, blocking, splining, polishing, with a view to finishing the shot on Sunday evening. I’ll be uploading in-progress shots to my Vimeo account and probably posting on this blog as well – I’ll certainly be publishing the final versions of the shot on Sunday. If I don’t get the shot finished by Sunday, tough. It gets sidelined and I start the next one. So the posts on Sunday should be a good indicator of how far I’m managing to take each shot.

So not only am I working on developing my animation skills, but also on finishing shots, and how fast I get through those shots as well. Should be fun!

Paperman

With the arrival to these shores of Wreck-It Ralph in recent days (why oh why are we getting it six months after the rest of the world, I do not know), I thought I’d throw up a quick post regarding Paperman, which I believe is being shown in front of Wreck-it. I think it’s awesome that Pixar has moved that concept of short-before-feature over to Disney; a good animated short is a joy to behold.

The combination of 2D and 3D is fascinating, and definitely gives Paperman a unique look that I think would be hard to achieve by any other means. It’s not really cel-shaded, but at the same time is far more detailed than I think traditional hand-drawn would want to go (given the amount of time and effort required to control the drawings through each shot).

Take a look. The in-betweening software is akin to witchcraft.

I’m not sure if this tech will go places in future, but anything that broadens out the range of styles that are being used in mainstream animation can only be a good thing.