When I first received an email from the founders of Late Night Work Club asking me to make a film with them I was both honoured and terrified. The collective idea sounded incredible and I honestly respected everyone on the roster. I’d never even really considered making a short narrative piece though.
I really had no idea where to start with making my own short. When talking to friends about why I’d never made a film before I’d usually just say that I dont really think in narratives. I often have ideas for shots, or technique experiments but I rarely sit and flesh out entire stories.
It feels really strange and a bit self important to write an in depth post like this, but I hope that if there are any people out there that are interested in making a dive into indie animation my experiences can help bridge the gap a little. Also, I really want to share the work of all the people who were amazing collaborators on the film. If you see a name linked in this, please check out their work because my friends on this are all super great! The Full Film is now available HERE
If you’re completely new to animation there are a handful of terms that you might be unfamiliar with. I’ve included a quick glossary at the bottom of the post to help you out.
So, lets begin at the beginning…
I’m not sure how normal this is (‘fairly’, I suspect) but I like the process of solving problems. I’m grateful that the LNWC overlords gave us the theme Ghost Stories because it gave me something solid to hold on to while I played with ideas.
I knew that I wanted to do something far removed from a typical ghost story. I wanted to explore the idea that ghosts were almost like people’s way of anthropomorphising problems or emotions as a way to start to understand them.
Initially I had this idea of a kind of grim fairytale about a beautiful cannibal eating travellers. It wasn't until I met Dave Prosser at a pub in London and tried to explain my concept to him that I realised I really wasn’t excited by what I was talking about. Dave had a really funny idea about a sitcom with a ghost and a hologram. The simplicity stuck with me and I went away and tried to think about something with a compelling premise.
At a certain point the term Phantom Limb crossed my mind. It was almost like a spontaneous joke, but the idea of the ghost of a loved one’s limb seemed kind of interesting and it instantly suggested a narrative. I then began the process of trying to detangle why it was interesting to me.
I went into the film with loads of nervous energy. I had accumulated a lot of opinions and ideas about film making and it wasnt until I had to sit down a make something with them that I realised how disjointed they all were. Writing the film was definitely the hardest part of the process for me.
One of the big things I learned while making the film is the separation between premise and writing. The premise itself didnt connect with any part of my personal life but I wanted to make sure that the writing of the film did. I think the premise I chose could have turned into loads of different stories and it was really interesting to start figuring out what my version would be.
I think I’m a bit exhausted by the perfectly rounded out stories that seem to held up as the bench mark for animated film making. I wanted to keep things looser and almost dream like but still have a clear emotional through line. I ended up moving away from this idea a little, but it was my starting point.
At first I was writing scenes as a script writer would. On paper. Proper formatting. The problem was that I could never picture how long each scene would be on screen. I didnt know if I was writing a 2 minute film or a 14 minute film (I know screen writers use simple formulas for estimating time on screen based on number of pages, but it didnt really seem to apply to my tiny, dense film). It probably sounds silly, but this was a real problem and paralysed me. The only way for me to get my head around the timing was to draw each shot and cut them together. This was a slow process and what I thought would take a week or two ended up taking almost 6 weeks. At the end I had over 500 individual storyboards and an animatic that was slowly getting towards something I could understand.
The boards were very simple, and at this point I had no clear idea of how I wanted anything to look. The main thing I knew I was going to be very hard pressed to animate everything I needed. I tried to board everything in a way that even if a shot had no animation it would read in the film, almost like a comic.
As the story unwound itself into something I could understand (and felt connected to) I began to get a much clearer picture of how things should be presented.
I was extremely lucky to have the help of some great sound gurus on the Phantom Limb. Sound designer (also- musician, hand model, graphic artist amongst other things), Oswald Skillbard had contacted me a couple of months before LNWC had started and we’d talked about the prospect of making something together. I doubt he expected something of the scope the film I came back to him with but he was on board from day one. This was a huge help when putting everything together. He recorded the actors as well as creating loads of bespoke sounds for the film and all of the technical work that goes with it.
On the music side I knew that I wanted Martha’s (the female character) song was going to play was integral part in the story. It needed to have a very distinct emotional tone when it was played early on, and then a new feel when it was played with two hands at the end. I got the help of some old friends Kirsty Tickle and Jonathan Boulet who are both established touring musicians. They took care of everything to do with writing and performing of the music. I have a pretty hard time directing music but the pair were really patient with me as we figured out how the different threads of the score would sound.
Finding the look
After beating my head against my storyboards for a month or so and figuring out the sound I had a pretty good grasp on the core parts of the story but no locked off animatic. I had been really adamant that I wouldnt move on from the storyboards until I had an animatic that I really liked but time was slipping away really quickly and I new I had to start designing and animating if I was going to get the film done on time.
I honestly didn't have a clear idea about what I wanted Phantom Limb to look like. I wanted the story to be starting point for the style and build something honest around it. I knew that I wanted to mirror the personal intimacy in the film in the visuals, I also wanted to flatten things out as much as possible and turn complex things into simple geometric compositions. I wanted to play with negative space and subtract things from the image that could help tell the story (in reference to the amputated arm). I’m not sure if this was a laboured metaphor but it did help set up some rules that held the style together.
I tackled the visual development 3 ways. Lots of drawing, researching and collaborating.
The reference sheet above shows some of the images that helped me understand the look I was making.
A lot of my initial reference was from films rather than illustration or animation. Anton Corbijn’s Control was a big influence on Phantom Limb. I was really interested in flattening everything in geometric imagery, paring back any superfluous elements and using negative space. Control did this incredibly. Other important films included Spike Jonze’s ‘I’m Here’, Mike Nichols’ ‘The Graduate’ .
I wanted a simple look but also something with a crafted feel that related to the emotional tones of the narrative. Artists Like Dadu Shin, CRCR, Charlotte Dumortier, Adrien Merigeau, Niv Bavarsky, popped up regularly in my reference library.
I have a lot of incredibly talented friends and I relish any chance I get to collaborate with them. Two friends in particular played a big part in the early stages of Phantom Limb. Jason Pamment and Colin Bigelow. I first worked with Jason when he was art directing The Cat Piano in 2008 and has been a big inspiration to me ever since. He has wonderfully sensitive work and an incredible eye for design. Jase worked with me on the first concept animation — I did a little story board and sent it to him. He came back with a beautiful background over which I animated. This was a bit of a crazy shot because it was for the LNWC trailer and had to be done long before I’d storyboarded or done any look dev at all. I knew I liked the shot but when I got to revisit the design after storyboarding I knew we could push it further- hopefully into something more distinct to the story.
Colin came on board for a few days between Christmas and New Year’s. I worked with Colin at Nexus Productions where he was an art director. He is a master of finding gorgeous design solutions and adapting to nearly any brief. After having a few coffees together and talking about the story, the drawings I’d done and the reference I liked we started bouncing things off each other. Colin worked from his home studio down the road from me and we’d email drawings back and forth.
These are a series of iterations Colin made as we closed in on a style.
Colin and Jase would go on to help with the final background designs once we were in full production.
By the time I’d written the story and developed the backgrounds with Colin and Jase the characters came together quite quickly. I wanted to keep their broad shapes simple and easy to reproduce. I toyed with the idea of having their proportions more cartoon like
In the end I went with proportions closer to what I would normally draw in my sketch books. The head shapes and silhouettes were designed to be easily recognisable and hopefully reproducible.
Its a bit awkward to admit, but the final design for James had a striking resemblance to David Maingault grad film character (particularly in the boat scene). I didnt realise until his film came out later (his designs definitely pre-date mine!). It certainly wasnt intentional — the design was largely based on the winter clothes I’d wear to the studio every day and easily reproducible head geometry) but I felt kind bad about it. David’s work is incredibly good though. If you havent seen it, I really recommend it. Nobody’s ever said anything about the resemblance but I wonder if anyone else drew the comparison… I guess they will now! If we’re drawing comparisons, this cartoon from my childhood is probably a good one too! -Funny Bones-
Martha’s costume design was inspired by a collection from Burberry and fed off James’ proportions.
While I was organising the characters Colin put together these gorgeous colour boards based on my storyboards. This would be the bedrock for creating the backgrounds later.
Now that the guts of the film had been decided on it was time to animate. Everything was animated straight into Photoshop. I talk about my process in depth here if you’re interested in learning how use PS for animation.
The process was pretty straight forward because its the part of the production I was most used to. It was definitely very time consuming though and made much more difficult by the fact I hadn't locked down my animatic yet. Its easy to get distracted from the hard work of animating when I had story to worry about.
I’ve made a couple of my PSDs available for you to download and dig through HERE . They are probably intimidating to look at, but they are the product of a pretty straightforward process. They’re probably a bit crazier than normal because towards the end of animating something I’ll move things and break them to get a finished piece (because its unlikely that I’ll have to revisit them).
I’d usually rough in a shot with layer animation to get the timing. I’d pop it in the animatic to make sure it worked with the story and wasnt jarring. Sometimes I’d block a sequence of shots like this to make sure everything sat right. Then I’d go in and clean up the frames and in between everything. Inbetweening was generally done on video layers, which was a new process for me.
Anything that involved effects animation (like the goo of the hand) was animated straight ahead on video layers. This was the first time I used straight ahead animation for effects, and it was defintely the way to go. I wish I’d tried straight ahead animation earlier!
This was the first time I’d really organised a team myself so it was a pretty steep learning curve. I animated about 90% of the film myself but I did have some absolutely essential help from some friends. James Hatley, Jean Gui Culot, Alexis Sugden, Bill Northcott and Jarrod Prince all did a shot or two. I sent off packets of work to each of the people that were interested and let them take their time on it. My aim was to make sure they felt like they owned the shot but I had to make sure the styles all meshed. It was an interesting and kind of overwhelming experience. I made this little document to send out to animators when they first got started to make sure they knew the process from the get go. I also made a Google Docs spread sheet that everyone could access and keep a handle on the tracking.
The pictures below is an example of something I might send back to an animator.
On top of the animation help, I had a hand with digital ink and colour. Rimon Bar and Alexis Sugden both helped out on this.
One of Jason’s lovely BGs
The background work for the film was shared out amongst a handful of awesome designer friends. Colin Bigelow and Jason Pamment both got their hands dirty as did German Casado. Bjorn-Erik Achim did the opening shot of the winter road. I took on the remaining third.
Because the backgrounds would be done by a group of different people Colin put together this really great design guide for everyone so we could the style pretty fast (true pro right?!)
As you can see here, we’d do a layout as the first pass. That meant that animation could start. Then work into colours and texture.
Pulling it all together.
Compositing is something I’ve never been very good at. As a result I planned to do minimal comp in Phantom Limb. Miraculously though, my friend and long time collaborator Ryan Kirby had a couple of weeks free between jobs and offered to help with pulling everything together. He did an incredible job. Comp was largely used on the vehicle shots. The car shot below was probably the most complicated scene, with 3d generated in After Effects. I also used a keyframed distortion on some shots to achieve a pretty ok line boil effect and Scott Benson figured out some sweet snow effects for the opening shot.
During these last few weeks of comp Skillbard finalised the sound design and foley, edited the music into place and did a master mix.
And then it was done.
So then it was all done. All the very late nights and months of animation/soul searching were over. We had a huge Late Night Work Club party (well actually loads around the world!) and let our films live out their lives online. I also entered PL into a handful of festivals which gave me a chance to meet a lot of new people and drink a few too many beers.
The whole experience lasted about 4 and a half months. I spent between 12 and 15hours a day in the studio 6-7 days a week. At the end there is a film and a debt of favours I dont know if I’ll ever be able to fully repay. I learned a lot about making things (and how not to make things) and developed a huge appreciation for all the people out there who do this sort of thing regularly and without (and with!) help.
If you’ve never seen the work of Late Night Work Club, I urge you to check it out. I honestly think its one of the best indie filmmaking ideas out there (I didnt think of it, so I’m allowed to say that!) and if you’re wanting to make youre own short film, best of luck to you! Shoot me an email/tweet if you have any questions about the stuff I’ve written about.
(Oh I can predict a few of the questions straight up, because I’ve been asked them before- I am Australian but I was working from my studio in London. I wrote some of the film in NYC and the rest at my studio. I had to make a decission to stop taking on freelance work while I was making the film, so no, I wasnt juggling this and work at the same time. Everybody worked for free on the film, except the colour and clean up people. There was no creative pay off for that work so I would never ask them them to donate time to that for free. I paid my studio and home rent, food and travel with savings from me previous year freelancing around London. About half of the crew was in Australia, other half in London and Europe. Late Night Work Club peeps were super supportive the whole time which made everything a lot easier)
Story Board, Boards — Sequences of drawings used to tell a story. They are usually formatted to match the final output (in this case 16:9, widescreen) and focus on shot choices, acting and clarity.
Animatic- Taking storyboards and putting them together in a video to establish timing and pacing. They are also used to plan camera moves and background sizes.
Compositing, ‘Comp’- Taking all the separate visual elements for any given shot and piecing them together in software like After Effects. This is where camera final camera moves are built and any animation that cant be hand drawn are made.
Layout- Different fields of animation have different ways of using the word Layout. In the case of Phantom Limb I’m using to to describe final background drawings. They take into account character size and placement and are ready for background painting.
Tracking. Tracking is just the act of keeping track of all the shots in a project — their progress, the people involved in them and most importantly Their unique name.