04/01/12 - What On Earth!?

For the past few months I’ve been working with the Scottish Dance Theatre on some animated projections for their upcoming show for kids, ‘What On Earth!?’. The project is still in production, but the lovely people at SDT have been kind enough to allow me to blog about my involvement as we continue to work away on it.

'What on Earth is a curious nocturnal journey full of surprise encounters with strange flora and fauna – dreaming of planet Earth. This dynamic, physically adventurous, by turns spooky, funny and thought provoking roller coaster is for children from 6 – 11 but fun for all the family'

Official promo photo by Andy Ross for Scottish Dance Theatre

I was really excited when Janet Smith and Sally Owen (who are collaborating on the choreography for the piece) first got in touch with me about the possibility of my getting involved with the project. The prospect of having my animations projected as part of such a well respected and talented dance company was, needless to say, irresistible :)

I've never done anything like this before, certainly nothing on this scale, so I've been feeling my way along to a certain extent, and I thought the best thing to do initially would be to get invloved as early as possible in the choreography process. Sally and Janet were keen to get me into the first few rehearsal sessions, so I basically just sat and observed them to try and get a feel for what they were developing. It was really interesting to see them at work, and their process struck me as being a bit like animation, only in extreme fast forward - both practices are concerned with movement, or more specifically the control of movement, and the dancers would be constantly performing their own individual movements, refining them, subtly changing and perfecting them in front of the mirror and with each other - something I found myself strangely identifying with, despite being a clumsy, uncoordinated lump of a man. I remain very jealous of their ability to make such swift changes to their animations. It's not fair :(


Over the next couple of weeks or so the choreography began to take shape, and the first section that seemed to emerge was based around a duck character that Sally had been developing (the piece would later be christened 'Quench'). It was to be set in a swamp, a bottle of water would be on centre stage and the Duck would try to figure out how to pick it up. Once he did so, the swamp would drain and dry up and some strange, thirsty, wiggly creatures would slither on to harass the Duck and eventually help re-hydrate the swamp scene.

This was one of the first images I came up with.

Not really a swamp is it? But I liked the idea of the reflected flower in the water, and for some reason I was keen to use sand in some way (that's what the textured background is). This idea developed a bit more, and I came up with the version of the swamp that you can see in the video below, which also includes a very rough outline/animatic of the whole section.

In hindsight, I think I jumped the gun slightly with this. I was a bit too eager to bring something to the table, and as a result ended up bringing something a bit bland and in the wrong aspect ratio. As with most of these things though, at least it was a starting point, and I hadn't spent too much time on it.

I think I find it hard sometimes, when I'm actually being paid to do my own style of work, to let go of that horrible instinct to sanitise and clean up all the rough edges that you tend to have to do with normal commercial work sometimes. Sally and Janet reminded me that they were hiring me for my rough edges (which was really nice to hear actually :) so it was time to get the OHP and marker pens out!

This is a quick mock up image I did in about half an hour just to loosen up a bit. I was far more happy with this style. If it was to be animated, the different layers would all be moved quite roughly by hand under the camera and then composited in after effects, a technique I wanted to develop and refine for the new version of Quench and probably other sections of the show as well.

Once we had decided upon the aspect ratio (a decision that is perhaps more complicated and tricky than it sounds - because the show is to be toured at various venues throught the UK and Europe, the stage size will range from the fairly big to the relatively small, so we were cautious, maybe slightly overly so, about deciding on the final size and ratio of the screen. Better to be safe than sorry though) I was able to go ahead and produce Quench version 2.

So in keeping with the OHP style, I came up with this mock up and asked Sally and Janet to approve it before I went ahead with any animation.

An initial version of this background loop included some slightly over the top movement of the foreground reeds/straws, where I was blowing them in an attempt to simulate a light breeze. It didn't work, so I just gave them some much more subtle swaying movement in after effects. The rest of the movement is all done with acetates, manipulated and filmed on an overhead projector. I've put together a quick shot breakdown of some of the elements which you can see below.

The transition to the dried up swamp at the end works better with the little bit of crunchy sound design I've done for it, which I'll hopefully get uploaded once the rest of the section (where the ground re-hydrates) is properly finished. The music for the piece actually pauses at this point too, as we felt that the animation would need a brief bit of space for the consequences of the Duck's actions to properly hit home :D

The timing seemed to work pretty well when Quench was performed alongside the animation at the Rep in November as part of Backstage Pass (an event that the SDT have put on the last couple of years where you get a glimpse behind the scenes at the Rep and are treated to excerpts from various shows and works in progress). It was great to see it in something approaching it's final context, and I was pretty happy with it, apart from the slightly rushed bits at the end. I'll post more about that once its done.

25/01/12 - Storyboard

It was good to get Quench out of the way - a visual style was beginning to come together, so I felt this would be a good time to try and nail down some of the ideas that Sally and Janet had talked about for the rest of the show.

The storyboard below (you can click on it for the full version) is a pretty rough outline of the whole show, minus the bits that don't involve animation. I won't go into the details of the sequence as I'll talk about the individual sections when I get round to them - it was really just an attempt to get a handle on the contents of each scene, how they relate to the choreography, and also to get a sense of the flow of colour throughout the piece.

I'll admit, I was struggling to get my head around what was happening with some parts of the choreography and how some of the transitions between scenes would work. The process of developing the storyboard (along with a more detailed script and list of actions for each scene) over the course of a week or so, in between other things, really helped pinpoint the problem areas for me so I could go on to discuss them with Sally at a later date. I usually try to avoid doing storyboards for my personal work (boring boring boring - I'd rather just animate stuff), but it was pretty much essential for this project, and has proved very useful as a reference point for later discussions.

If you have a look at the whole storyboard you might notice a fairly hefty chunk of it devoted to a dream sequence. This is what I went on to develop next, as it was probably the most complicated and detailed piece of animation that needed to be produced for the show - I'll tell you how I wasted a couple of precious weeks on that one next time :)

12/02/12 - Projection Tests

It's really hard to get your head around working on something that looks so small on your little laptop screen that will end up being projected to four and a half by eight metres. How much detail do you need? Can you get away with big blocky flat areas of colour? If something goes really fast across the screen, it'll be, like, super-fast on a big screen won't it?

It turns out that you probably don't need to worry too much about those kinds of things. I was worrying about those kinds of things quite a lot, but I think on the whole the projection tests we did at the Rep the other day seemed to work pretty well. It's possible that I was just a bit over excited about seeing my work on a massive screen, but I did have a big list of stuff to look out for, and most of it was ok.

I was mostly worried about compression. The worst part of any project for me is the process of rendering the final thing and trying to get a not-ridiculously-big file size while avoiding ridiculously-badly-compressed-and-ugly-looking-image-quality. My perfectionist brain struggles to handle even the tiniest little imperfections that compression throws up - but it was fine! You can't even see these things when it's projected, and even if you can, they look deliberate to anybody else but me!

In short, stop worrying, it'll all be ok in the end.

09/03/12 - Duck's Dream

From quite early on in this project I was aware that there was going to be a fairly hefty chunk of animation that I'd have to tackle at some point. It came in the form of a dream, Duck's Dream, set to the Beatles' track 'Because', and I struggled with it a bit, as usual. Here it is in it's final form, before I go on to moan about it...

I say final form, but there is a key element to the whole thing missing at the moment, as with all the other animations for this project that I've talked about here so far - the dancer(s)! This piece, more so than the others, doesn't really work or make much sense without the performances of Joan Clevillé or Solène Weinachter (each playing Duck in the two casts of WoE!?) making the link between themselves and the animation. In the final performance Duck anticipates the pylon rushing towards him, looks down with a big grin on his face when he first takes off, and is heartbreakingly sad at the end as he realises he's stuck in the dirty, oily water as all his mates fly away above him.

Joan performed it in front of the projection for me the other night in the studio, and he, Solène and Sally have adapted the choreography from the initial version I was working with to make it work beautifully with the animation - I can't wait to see the final thing in the Rep!

My initial idea for the look of Duck's Dream was a bit more experimental than it ended up being, and I spent quite a bit of time (possibly too much) trying to make it work. I really wanted to try and push it to make it look a bit different, so I eventually came up with this projection mapping idea, with 200-odd little trees for Mr Duck to fly over...

It took me two or three days to get from the sketch above to the image below, but it didn't really work as I'd hoped. The idea was to treat the trees as a 3D background that I could animate with the projector to create the illusion that the ground was passing below, in combination with some hand held camera movements between the trees and the vertical projection screen behind them, and some After Effects compositing. There were a few problems that cropped up though...

You can't really see it in any of the images I took, but the tripod holding the projector up just took up too much space in my already cramped living room/studio, so I couldn't really get the best camera angles or movements without getting in the way of the projection. The nature of the triangle set up meant if I wanted it to look like the trees were scrolling from top to bottom (which I did), the movement had to be very stop/start, unless they were moving every one or two frames which would've been too fast for the nature of the piece. This staccato movement also doesn't combine very well with the smooth movements inherent in any computer based compositing or animation, as you can see in the horrible looking tests below.

Of course, there are work arounds to these problems, but it was getting to the point where I had to make a decision as to whether to carry on with this and try to make it work (and possibly waste more time), or just cut my losses and go with a more traditional/conventional approach.

I decided on the latter, obviously, and looking back I think I made the right decision for the piece - the slow, controlled movements and compositions that you're able to produce in After Effects are a much better fit with the music and choreography than the projection idea or the rougher style I've been adopting for other parts of the project would've been.

I'll maybe go into more detail about the final version of the dream at some point.

20/03/12 - Signing Birds

This is a short piece of animation used as surtitles for the sing language section of What On Earth!?

It was a tricky one, this, and I'm still not entirely sure it's going to work in combination with the dancers. I went with the OHP style as it felt like a good fit, and a good way to keep the images simple and direct and fluid. But it's possible that it still might draw too much attention away from the signing dancers. We might get around this by playing with the positioning of the projection - perhaps if it's filling the screen behind the dancers, almost silhouetting them maybe, you'll be able to take in both elements at the same time. We'll be looking into this soon when we get in to rehearse at the Rep.

I still love doing this style of animation though - the best way to do it, I've discovered, is to basically make it look rubbish while you're drawing the acetates, film all the basic movements on the OHP, and then try and salvage it in After Effects, adding elements to try and improve the shoddy work you did earlier. You'll never get it to look good, but it looks deliberately bad, at least :)

27/03/12 - Bats!

This is the first bit of animation near the start of the show when one of the dancers turns the TV on from their bed. Hopefully it'll elicit a scream or two from the kiddiewinkles :D

This bit was fairly straightforward to put together once I had the great voiceover to work with, and it was quite refreshing to come from the epic Duck's Dream to something releatively quick and painless to produce. The only technical consideration was the positioning of the TV - it was originally quite low down the screen but because there would be a bed on the stage at this point, we needed the TV to be further up in the composition so that the audience at the front would still be able see it. Not much of a problem. Just trying to think of stuff to say really, aren't I?

Anyway, animation production is pretty much done and dusted now, just waiting to get into the theatre for tech and dress rehearsals next week. I'll keep posting about any stuff I've not mentioned yet, and I'll hopefully get some footage of the performances up on here too.

If you're in Dundee, you can see the show on Wednesday the 11th April at 2pm or Thursday the 12th at 11am at the Rep. It's also showing in Stirling on the 18th of April and in Banchory on the 28th of April. There will be more shows later in the year around the uk and europe as well I think...

04/04/12 - Seedling / Shadery

This bit of animation serves as a very slow transition as the Seedling part of the dance leads into Shadery. As the sycamore seed falls to the ground, a pile of pillows on the stage will sprout as the dancer slowly emerges, forming part of the forest that grows behind her. That background will then remain for the next part of the show, which is a more lively forest dance.

The Sycamore seed is made from a couple of bits of acetate and some paper stuck together with blu tac, and then hung and spun in front of a lightbox. That footage was then taken into After Effects, edited into a loop, cleaned up frame by frame in Photoshop and then animated on a path as it decends to the floor. Here's a quick breakdown of that process...

The transition to the forest needed to be very slow to suit the music and the pace of the dance, and it was good to play around with the negative space and how different parts of the composition are revealed over time. I'm looking forward to seeing this bit on stage as I reckon it could work pretty well. Hopefully...

18/04/12 - Finished!

What On Earth!? premiered last week at the Rep Theatre in Dundee. Here's a little edit of some of the footage I took at the dress rehearsals...

The video below, Joan Clevillé performing Duck's Dream during the dress rehearsals, is my favourite part of the show I think, and probably the most successful bit of collaboration between dance, choreography and animation in the project. Both Joan and Solène Weinachter (who performs the same part in the other cast of the show) really bring the piece to life and I love the way they seamlessly react to what's going on behind them - it's better than I could have hoped for thanks to them, and of course Sally Owen who choreographed this section. Thanks guys!

Needless to say, there were one or two technical issues to sort out during the technical rehearsals, but I guess that's what these things are for :) The biggest (and scariest the first time I saw it) was that the projector seemed to want to horizontally stretch all of my animations. This was probably caused by the wide angle lense being used and the fact that the projector didn't seem to support the resolution I had rendered everything in. Not to worry though, I ended up simply squashing everything in Final Cut before rendering it out again so when it was stretched by the projector this time it just looked as it should do - not an ideal solution, but it was all I had time to do unfortunately.

Another slightly trickier problem to figure out was some quite ugly looking areas of the projection that appeared as glaring white spots in certain areas of some of the animations. It turned out that these were 'hot spots' on the screen, where the projector bounces any particularly bright parts of the image back off the white of the screen at the viewer. We tried to fix it by playing about with the colour and brightness options (as well as pretty much every other setting, out of desperation) on the projector, but I ended up having to adjust some of the brighter layers in one of the original animations (the clouds in Duck's Dream) and re-render the whole thing. Apparently this is a common problem though that could also have been solved by hanging some white gauze in front of the screen to diffuse the light slightly. You live and learn :)

Those were the only major problems though, the rest of the setting up process was (for me anyway) pretty relaxed. The lighting designer, Emma Jones, did a great job of lighting the whole show in just a couple of days (so many cues!) and she was really sympathetic to the animations and made sure they all worked as well as they possibly could with all that light bouncing about. Thanks Emma!

The show as a whole went down really well with the kids, lots of random laughs and giggles at bits of the show that didn't seem that funny to us usually, but that's all good :) There are of course parts of it that I would do differently if I'd had more time to work on them, mainly to add more detail to certain bits such as the end of the Shadery section where you hear the sound of the trees being chopped down - it would've been nice to play around a bit more with that transition, as well as a few others, but it's always the case that there's stuff you'd like to change I think. Sally and Janet did an amazing job of pulling the whole piece together during the couple of days they had in the theatre leading up to the first performance. It was really interesting to see them refine all the transitions and connections between scenes and I was quite surprised at how much of a difference these seemingly subtle changes made to the piece as a whole. I think they plan to keep refining and editing it before the show hopefully goes on tour later in the year...

It's always a bit sad when a great project like this comes to an end, but it's been such a pleasure to work with everyone at the Scottish Dance Theatre - huge thanks to everyone there, especially Sally and Janet for being such generous collaborators, and of course all of the amazingly talented dancers who brought the show to life with such energy.

I hope you've enjoyed reading my ramblings about the whole thing too. I'll shut up about it now :D