And so it began – that is as soon as I found out about the Birmingham Silent Movies Animation Competition, it began in earnest, the frenetic culling of a million ideas flying around in my head in order to fulfil the brief given. To produce an animation using either the letters of the word, ‘Birmingham,’ or some key buildings, or landmarks from around the city, accompanied by one of a handful of tracks specially orchestrated by the CBSO. Bear in mind I also had to factor in the following, one the shortest pieces of music was just shy of a minute, the longest, over three and the slow realisation that I only had a month and a half to complete my film. This is a really important point and one that needs careful consideration, thought and planning, as time is a major ingredient in animation, a point echoed by the masters of the medium. John Lasseter from Pixar has been on record casually recalling that their team of animators spent up to a year animating just a few minutes of material! It seems the more you delve into the world of animation, whether it’s an Aardman blockbuster, or the Oliver Jeffers/Studio AKA, ‘Lost and Found’ short, this always rings true, with even a few seconds of footage, in some cases taking months to produce.
Added to this was the music I eventually settled on, although the shortest time wise, was a missile of a piece from start to finish, packed with an energy and pace of sound that never let up, flying from note to note like a speeding train roaring across endless tracks and through countless tunnels, with not a single station in sight! Therefore, how could I produce something to match the impact of that score and with a story to do it justice? Bring on the waves of panic! However, I love a challenge and my determination to create something to be proud of never wavered. Plus, if you ever get to watch Harold Lloyd, a silent movie great in films like, ‘Safety Last,’ scrabbling up the side of a building until he clings precariously to a clock many floors above the ground you’ll never be short of inspiration. In fact one of the hardest parts of the whole process was narrowing down the ideas to focus on one that would be practical to realise.
In this I was lucky as I did manage to discipline my creative spirit and concentrate on the task in hand. I always had the idea of using the letters from ‘Birmingham,’ originally planning to create a stop motion animation as I’d created a few shorts in this style before. However, the decision to use 3D modelling animation computer software became my preferred option, because, not only could I animate the characters from different perspectives and angles, I could also the animate the camera filming the central action taking place as well. This meant that my story could be a lot more filmic in style and I could draw on techniques used in the film world, such as slowly panning a camera round with the suggestion of what was to come, rather than having to spoon feed all the bits of my story to an audience already well versed in modern cinematic styles.
Although in a light bulb ‘Eureka’ moment I finally created a kitchen table scene as my backdrop and animated the players and scene in the story, I’m really indebted to the brilliant 3d modelling skills my teenage son, Ollie is gifted with, because no sooner had I suggested a specific font to turn into characters he was on the case and not only that, he never batted an eyelid when I said that I needed them ready for animating – each part modelled needed to be able to be twisted, turned, moved, or simply matched to another similar part. In animation terms this is known as the process of ‘rigging.’ To top it off I asked for all of these letter characters to be wearing roller skates! It was then my job to source the 3D bull model, as I also had to realise my drawing skills are somewhat limited and then to delve into the city centre during many lunch hours, armed only with a digital camera. Needless to say I took to it like a duck to water, photographing as many buildings as I could from all weird and wonderful angles. The brilliant thing about this whole production was taking in and noticing all the fantastic buildings Birmingham has to offer, ones that you normally only see from the corner of your eye as you rush from one place to another. Some of these photos eventually made it to the pinboard you see in the film and the canal pictures proved invaluable as I wove those into the main story.
I’m really glad I had a chance to enter this competition. I’d encourage anyone to have a go at such a project, as it was brilliant fun with the end result being something I was proud to have created, even if it meant me investing heavily in using up a lot of my free time to get my entry submitted by the deadline. Not only did it hone my creativity and harness my imagination and software skills, it made me really watch what was happening in the world around me, picking up on ideas, events, buildings and actions I’d previously only taken for granted. Enjoy!!