Making Born in a Void.
Way back in 2014 I read my first email about Late Night Work Club #2 from organiser Scott Benson. Scott writes the best emails. Anyone who has received one can vouch for the power of his epic, life affirming letters. When it hit my inbox I was working full time in Sydney at Mighty Nice so I wasn’t sure how I’d be able to make time for a film. After Scott’s email though, it was hard to resist. The finish date was set for about 6 months later (this would change many times in the coming year) and the theme for the anthology would be ‘Strangers’. I figured I’d make something simple, short and hopefully it’d all work out.
You know how there’s that saying about band’s struggling with their second album? Well, it turns out that this applies to films too. I learnt a lot while making my first film Phantom Limb (PL) (which you can read about here). Diving into making something for Late Night Work Club I knew I wanted to try different techniques and experiment with different ways to tell a story. Ultimately making this film consisted of a lot of false starts, a bunch of messing up, and a new found appreciation for doodling late at night.
I wanted to share this kind of bumpy road here, which to be honest is an uncomfortable experience. I thought it could be a useful context for anyone else struggling with a personal project; or has done so in the past. If you’d rather skip all the frustrating prelude I encourage you to scroll down to The Nitty Gritty where I talk about the process of putting the final product together. For the rest of you…
I started putting together some ideas in notebooks. I just use a fine line ink pen and an old ugly sketchbook and try to stay away from a computer.
During these early days, I kept circling back to the idea of seeing yourself as a stranger- this feeling that at any point you can hold multiple opposite beliefs, hopes and ambitions. While these thoughts were bouncing around in my mind, the idea crystalised into a story about a man whose bones left his flesh and lived a separate life. I didn’t have a very clear idea of how this could work as a narrative, but it seemed to have some potential.
Shortly after jotting down this idea I received a really nice email from one of the organisers of an artist residency in Tokyo called JAPIC- a 10 week program in Japan with reviews with esteemed Japanese filmmakers, and some cultural exchanges with universities an art institutes around the country. The organiser, Kasumi Ozeki had seen some of my work at Hiroshima Animation Festival and encouraged me to enter into that year’s residency. I only had a couple of days to put together a film proposal so I took the idea of the aforementioned flesh idea and drew out some frames. These were just little story beats and I didn’t really have a firm idea of how it it all clicked together. I knew that the residency had a reputation for being extremely competitive, but if by some chance I was lucky enough to be admitted I hoped that I would find a solution to the problem of juggling a film while fulfilling commitments to full-time work.
Miraculously after a few interviews and some emails back and forward the mentor’s in Tokyo selected my work for the residency. Which was wonderful. I knew that a lot really amazing people had been part of the residency and many more who weren’t given the the opportunity. This honor really weighed on me. Like a lot of people I struggle with feeling like an imposter and added to that I’d committed myself to making a film that I’d only really just started thinking about. The situation made me nervous, but I was looking forward to having some time in a strange city to figuring things out.
By the time I’d landed in Tokyo I hadn’t really made any progress on my film, apart from the premise and my initial drawings.
Each morning I’d make little lists for myself each morning and map out my time and settle into working. I typically spent my days working on the film and then I’d spend an hour or two every night trying out some kind of experiment. These could be a drawing, an animation doodle or maybe simply trying out some new medium. Japan definitely has a knack for overloading senses. The clash of traditional culture with bizarre pop iconography, the bombardment of a strange language and even stranger food keep the mind racing constantly. I feel like these influences oozed out while I was making my late night doodles.
In the first couple of weeks I tried to feel my way through the bones story. This was a pretty arduous process where I tried to simply get the storyboard on paper.
The longer I explored the more disillusioned I became. In part due to the physical/anatomic allegory, my film was feeling dangerously similar to Phantom Limb, my previous film. The whole thing kind of felt like an academic exercise. I could definitely see stories that “worked” but none that I really cared about.
I know it’s not usually a great idea to question the worth of my work while I’m making it, (I’d talk myself out of pretty much every project I start if I were open to that) but after after exploring the story properly and not finding things I connected with, I was starting to wonder if perhaps this film was an exception. I knew I wasn't really the best judge and I guessed my mentors would encourage me to see the project through since they had seen enough potential to select it in the first place. In the end I made myself an ultimatum. I’d try and produce an animatic for the film within 4 weeks and see how I felt about it then.
While I was making the animatics I was also continuing with my nightly doodles. Here are a few that I could find. I didnt really know where these things were going but they felt fun and much more interesting than the work I was doing on the film.
The animatics came together kind of quickly and in the end I had three very basic edits for three very different films; using the premise of bones separating from flesh. Two were kind of sad and about loss, and one was a kind of crazy sci-fi story about a skeleton who rents his bones to a group of mega wealthy boneless flesh humans at night. It was a bit of an Eyes Wide Shut pseudo sex party deal. I could see that this idea and one of the quiet ideas would work as films but I didn’t love either of them.
By the time I was finishing the last of the animatics I was using my evening experiment time to do a kind of weird self portrait.
I’d been really into drawing with aliased lines (the sort you might see in MS Paint) in photoshop for the last few nights and using this technique meant that this drawing came out super quickly. I was into the colours and the shapes and the suggestion of a character without being super explicit. I’d noticed that I often do drawings on light backgrounds so after I finished this drawing I thought I’d try flipping that formula.
This is where the drawing above came from. Because the technique was so fast, I kind of got into a trance and before long I’d made a series of about 10
I could immediately see a story forming through the drawings and I was really excited about the style. I spent the next few days making little animation tests in the style and quickly fell in love with the process.
The story I could see forming was of this being, alone in a void, torn between enjoying solitude and needing connection. Its a feeling that I had distinctly while I was in Japan, and struggle with generally.
I spent the final few weeks of my residency making a series of animation experiments as a proof of concept. It felt very intuitive, fun and a world apart from the film I had been making before. Now that I had this idea in the works, the decision to leave the bones idea felt much easier.
I knew that music and sound would be a huge part of this film so I got in contact with Skillbard very early in the process and they started putting together some concepts while I figured out the visuals.
After I’d done these tests it was time to head back to Australia. Even though I’d managed to stress myself out a fair bit in Japan it was great to let ideas ferment and reform into something new.
Making the film
At this point I knew a few things. I knew the style. I knew I wanted to tackle the project using a looser more intuitive approach. I knew I wanted to explore ideas of creative solitude and connection. I knew that I wanted to start the film with a point of view perspective and then slowly expand this point of view as the character experienced the world, and found his place in it. Back home in Australia, it was now time to somehow turn these insights into a fun film.
Because the test shots came so intuitively and because I had a rough idea of the story my initial goal was to create the film without storyboards. I wanted to try and animate scenes in sequence and see what came out. I thought it would be a liberating process. It was not. The problems I ran into are obvious and are essentially the reasons preproduction exists in larger projects.
The first issue with not storyboarding was that I was just constantly stressed about every story decision. The fun experimental shots were fine but when it came time to progress the story I never knew if I’d be painting myself into a corner. I was hoping I would get over that and just go with the flow, but I hated not knowing how all the pieces fit together. I think that it would have been a lot simpler if there were no characters involved, but since there were characters, I felt “story” had to play a role.
The second issue was that it made it impossible to bounce edits and ideas off friends. This meant that it was extremely easy to get stuck for days at a time. During the production of my last film I was lucky enough to consider helpful reviews of my work throughout the process, both from LNWC members and studio mates. I missed this during the making of Born in a Void (BiaV).
With previous projects I’d been quite careful to ensure I had a simple one sentence premise that had a bit of a hook to it. This was something I’d actively tried to avoid with this film because I wanted to stay loose, ultimately though it became clear that the story needed a little more…direction. Gathering a lot of the work that I’d already done I managed to distill the idea into a single tagline — “A being, born alone in a void, becomes obsessed with it’s own reflection”.
After dealing with these teething problems I took a few steps back and started making an animatic. It was considerably looser than normal though and left room for improvisation. Working rough meant that I could experiment with shots quickly and I threw out a lot more shots than I used. Ultimately the story ended up being quite strange and floaty which is what I wanted from the start, it just took a while to figure out how to get there.
With the creative process more under control it was time to focus my attention on the area I’m most comfortable with- making the animation. I’m going to get a little wonky as I explain some of the technical process here. It’s probably only interesting to animation makers but since you’ve made it this far that’s quite likely you!
Making Phantom Limb was my first proper personal 2D project and I learned a lot….mostly that I need to find faster ways of doing things. BiaV has much more animation than PL because I was able to find ways to speed up the process.
The film was made primarily with 4 pieces of software. Photoshop for painting backgrounds and designing frames, TVPaint for animation and boarding, After Effects for compositing, and Premiere for assembling the edit.
Photoshop and Design
Most of the early designs were done in Photoshop (the ones talked about above), but once the designs were completed I didn’t have much of a reason to use it again. The few backgrounds I had to paint were all put together quite quickly using a single aliased brush and a bucket fill. I didn’t want to use any textures in the film that I couldn’t draw by hand. Most of these backgrounds could be drawn and exported in a matter of minutes.
TVPaint has become my primary animation and storyboard tool over the last couple of years. Because I’ve never really been trained in how to use it I developed a very simple workflow. You can watch a very rough intro tutorial I made for the software here.
While I was storyboarding I used a kind of janky process in TVPaint where I’d storyboard everything in one long timeline, with backgrounds and characters on separate layers. I’d then export image sequences into premiere and re-time the images to make an animatic. This process is not ideal because if you add frames into the middle of your boards things get messy and you break your edit. This resulted in a lot of redundant storyboard renders and an edit that referenced many different storyboard versions. I know there are other solutions out there but ultimately the process was workable and a lot faster than Photoshop.
Even though the animatic was pretty rough the time pressure encouraged me to dive into animation. The first step was to take the rough animatic and label each shot with a shot title. It might look something like sh640_wakeUp. This would let me easily search for the description, or the shot number, depending on what I remembered at the time.
I had originally expected to animate the film solo, but in the end I got a few weeks of amazing help from a couple of friends (shout out to Richard Chhoa and Bryce Pemberton!). I’d typically hand off the few shots I had a clear direction for, and all the ones that I was figuring out I’d do myself.
Each shot was brought into TVpaint and depending on the action we’d decide if we wanted to use straight ahead animation or keyframed animation. For the most part characters were animated with keys, while props, effects and debris was animated with straight ahead. Once that decision was made, we’d rough in the shot and re-export the sequence into premiere to make sure it worked in the edit.
Just a little side note- Much of the time I’ll change the playback speed of TVPaint to 12fps while I do my roughs. Then when I finish roughing things out I use a script made by Nathan Ontano that retimes so that it works at 24fps. This makes it easier to keep frame rates consistent in AFX and also possible to add the occasional piece of animation on ones.
When animating and cleaning up I typically use one round single weight brush with no aliasing (this means it has a harsh pixelated edge). This lets me animate, select, and fill very rapidly. I typically animate at 1920*1080 pixels when I rough and then clean up at two times that resolution (3840*2160) with the same aliased brush. When After Effects scales down this large image it creates a smoother anti-aliased edge.
The animation was basically split into two streams. There were assets and there were shots. The film’s universe has a lot of floating debris and I wanted to make sure each piece had a unified feel. These pieces were animated by hand and cleaned up in one colour, usually black. The assets would be recoloured in after effects and would populate the scene.
The only pieces of debris that were animated for specific shots where the ones within the characters. Having the debris float and respond to the character’s movement really helped sell the look but it added a fair bit of complexity. Originally I’d planned to use a system where I animate small dots on the character, then motion track the dots in AFX and attach debris to this motion. It ended up being quite fiddly and in the end we just animated it all by hand, straight ahead in the cleanup stage. (Thanks to Bryce for doing a lot of that!)
Compositing played a much bigger role in this film than anything I’d made previously. Many of the shots were actually designed in After Effects by taking premade elements and arranging them in 3D space and framing them with a scene camera. This was a pretty liberating way to work.
I knew from the beginning that I wanted to use a lot of ‘point of view’ shots in the film. To do this I would use my little point and shoot camera to record the camera movement in real time and then track that movement in After Effects, using the in built tracking tools. I’d then copy this animation onto the After Effects camera. Often I’d have to tweak this camera a little but for the most part it worked quite well. I didn’t like was how silky smooth it made everything feel, so I’d usually knock the frame rate of the shot back to 12fps in order to keep in sync with the style of the hand drawn world.
The most challenging shots to build were the time lapse shots. This is largely due to their length (over 30 seconds) and use of fluctuating frame rates. It became a crazy rabbit warren of nested precomps within precomps. I was happy with the end result but if I were to do them again I’d find a smarter way to plan them out.
Earlier I mentioned that the assets were recoloured in After Effects, to do this I used a tool called Ray Dynamic Colour. This invaluable script was created by Sander van Djik. It lets you define a colour pallet and then change the colour of objects in your scene with a single click. This helped me build out compositions quickly.
As a very final step I took the render of the edit and played it on a big old flatscreen TV. I have this horrible habit of watching my edits on a tiny window within premier so seeing things big can be kind of shocking. I noticed loads of little mistakes and some crazy masking problems so went back through the comps and tidied everything up.
Pulling it all together
This main ‘production’ phase took a few months full time. I also hired a couple of friends to help me out for stints, most notably Richard Chhoa who helped on animation for a few weeks and Bryce Pemberton who helped on clean up for about a month. They gave up their university holidays and they did a killer job. I couldn’t have got the film finished in time without them. Also studio mates Robertino Zambrano and Jeremy Carlen got their hands dirty in a couple of shots which was awesome.
The whole time I’d been animating I was in contact with Skillbard getting updates on their music. I think originally we’d talked about making the film driven by the music but in the end it was a bit of back and forwards. I’d use the music demo’s as inspiration for the atmosphere of scenes, then animate the shot. After that Skillbard reworked the score to suit and did sound effects to help the characters feel as though they inhabited the world. The Skillbard guys poured a lot of love and attention into every scene and it was a real honor to work with them.
Skillbard have actually just written up a really sweet behind the scenes of their own, where they talk about how they put all this beautiful stuff together.
If I’ve been vague regarding the timing…it is because… it was a very spaced out schedule. With Phantom Limb I think all the members had an urgency to finish on time but this time around it was clear that the deadlines would be missed. This meant a bit of cat and mouse as I tried to finish my film on time but not too early, because finishing early would likely mean turning down paid work unnecessarily. After I got back from Japan there was a gap of about 7 months where I didn’t get to work on the film, which was a huge mistake. I lost a lot of momentum and had to work quite hard to rediscover the idea’s that had inspired me in the first place. In the end I took off about 4 and a half months to work on the film during the middle of 2016. This is where almost all the final animatic and animation were done. The sound was locked at the very last moment, I was on holiday in the Philippines, wandering around a jungle town in Palawan stealing Wifi so that I could check out the final cut Skillbard shot over.
And we launch
Originally we’d planned to launch on the 8th of November, but Nicolas cleverly pointed out that it would clash with the US presidential elections. We rescheduled for the following week (and dodged a bit of that Trump shockwave). We launched online and at screenings in Los Angeles, London and I put one together in Sydney. At the IRL events we were lucky enough to screen some friends films. In Sydney we screened Greg Sharp’s The Future, Dave Carter’s Fish With Legs, Peter Millard’s Six God Peter and Jennifer Zheng’s Tough. We managed to fill a warehouse in the suburbs on a Tuesday night, the atmosphere was super nice and it was great to see how much the indie animation scene had grown in Sydney over the last few years. As with the last Late Night Work Club anthology, it was such an honor to screen alongside these crazy great shorts.
Making Born in a Void was a bit of a weird ride, with a lot more twists and turns than my last Late Night Work Club film Phantom Limb. My totally impractical process isn’t something I’d repeat but it definitely taught me a lot about the way I work best and the kinds of things I want to make.
I often read stories about people who have an idea and then march forward confidently until they have executed it. Occasionally I have experiences like that but they are rare. I wanted to write a little about my windy path to a weird film here partly as a reminder to myself about how it all went down, and partly to help dispel that myth.
Reach out if you have any questions! And good luck with whatever you’re making right now.