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!

Taking Pictures

Sorry for the absence – I’m running about a bit at the moment –  but I just wanted to highlight a new short film that I saw recently. I present to you all Taking Pictures. This is a lovely short that was written, directed and animated by Simon Taylor, a very talented animator that I was fortunate to study alongside when I was at Animation Mentor.

I really like the style of the animation, and that pigeon rig is fantastic. I might see if I can get Simon to answer some questions on the process of putting it all together.

I’ll be back soon with some more inspirations and a new showreel.

Axis Animation / Fable Legends

I’m a gamer. I grew up playing games, of all sorts, and I’ve always loved them. Unsurprisingly, I’m a particular fan of the art and animation that goes into games – whether that’s a well-animated character, fantastic effects work, or a beautiful composed battlefield (the maps for Heroes of the Storm are full of gorgeous details that cover design, animation and art, all of which have the classic Blizzard art style).

I’m also a big fan of game cinematics and game trailers. They’re a great example of storytelling in a very short format, that usually have to meet a number of goals. They need to set the scene of the game, explain it’s setting, give you a sense of the characters and the stakes, without being explicitly about moment-to-moment gameplay (which is often their downfall – too many games have had fantastic trailers and then fallen a little short when the final product is released).

Which brings us to Axis Animation based in Glasgow. They produced this game trailer for Fable Legends from Lionhead (I’ve always been a fan of the Fable games, even back in the Molyneux days when it was a case of ‘oversell and then under-deliver’). I love the combination of technologies here, with the pushed art style from the Fable games, with lovely mocap and animation work and some very nice frost and ice work on the ice wizard. You can see the video, with some additional stills and character breakdowns, on the Axis Animation website here.

Axis have done a number of different trailers and projects that I like, and they have a VFX wing plus a sister animation studio called Flaunt Productions – expect some posts highlighting their work in coming days!

Skazka – The Mill (again)

I know I’ve been going on a bit of a Mill kick with posts lately, but I keep finding such great stuff on their Vimeo channel that I’ve missed. Here’s a fantastic piece for OFF St Petersburg 2014 – I absolutely love this film, the fantastic abstract particles, the way the scenes build and move, the human elements of the dancers – it’s just brilliant.

The particle work was apparently all X-Particles in Cinema4D – it’s a plugin that I know of but haven’t had the opportunity to get hold of yet, and I definitely want to look into it after seeing this gorgeous piece. There’s more behind the scenes goodness over on The Space Between, with a more detailed look at the inspirations for the piece. One thing that I adore is the combination of analog and digital techniques, with hand-painted typography brought into 3D, the printing and painting effects that were then brought into the 3D environment, and the motion capture work for the dancers (original choreography brought into the digital space).

Very different to the last piece that I highlighted by The Mill, and that’s another thing that I love. They’re quickly becoming a studio that I definitely want to work for at some point (to my shame, although I knew the name, I’d yet to have a close look at their motion graphics or commercial output).

My Way // The Mill for Eviivo

Back with another lovely piece from The Mill, here’s a beautifully charming advert for Eviivo – an online booking management system. I really love the art style they went with, and coupled with the great music writing, turned out a really lovely piece.

There are a number of things to love here – firstly, it’s a charming, funny, piece – but it also tells the story of the company and how that can help their client. They haven’t lost focus on delivering to their audience the point of the film itself, which would be easy to do as you get swept up in the creation of the piece.

There’s another great blog on The Space Between on the process of making the film, it’s evolution into what it ultimately became – starting with the song and building the visuals – it’s such a good example of the different creative fields fitting together and complimenting each other to create the final product. I was also interested to hear that it was put together in Cinema4D in a relatively short time frame as well.

A city … in a suitcase?

Here’s a really lovely spot that was brought to my attention via the people at CreativePool. It’s called City In A Suitcase, and was done by A+C Studios – they do a lot of stop-motion work, and so were a good fit for the project.

There’s also a great ‘making of’ video that can give you an insight into how it was done. There’s a really lovely feel to the paper craft look, something that director Dan Richards was particular interested in using, with the integration of the live action footage into the piece using a process called ‘pixellation’ – not a term I’d come across before, but essentially shooting the live action footage on fours so that you get the choppy feel to the movement of the hands, so it’s less jarring when integrated with stop-motion shot on twos. There’s a little vfx magic going on, with elements like the planes added from blue screen footage, but the vast majority is in-camera. Really great piece.

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.