20 June 2014

New Blog Location

I've moved my primary blog to my main website at MichaelCawood.com

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22 March 2014

Motion Control Camera Experiment

After the two large Skylanders projects had been completed the small team of staffers left at Panda Panther turned to creating some new showreel pieces for the company reel. They'd recently bought a motion control camera rig to shoot stop-motion elements. We moved it from one New York basement to another and took several days of professional training from a British master of motion control to learn all it's tricks. The desire was to find a good way to blend live, modeled and stop motion elements into CG and 2D animated elements. It was something I'd wanted to have a go at for some time and a good excuse to experiment. The idea was to create an intro and outro for the company reel. The visual elements came purely from the the creators and owners of the company but within that brief we experimented with how to make something that gelled well between all the unique elements.

A unique challenge was trying to make a camera move in Maya, that would not make the real world camera collide into the walls or ceiling. The basement roof was covered in pipes and there were pillars to avoid. This is a very expensive piece of kit so we couldn't have it hitting anything. After a lot of experimental maneuvering of the camera rig I measured out an oddly shaped space that we could apply to our 3D scene to limit the movement of the camera. We also had to consider the speed the camera was able to move. Fortunately we were only shooting a static set. 

Truthfully two major things could have been done differently to make things easier and better. There was a black curtain behind the set that was supposed to give the sense of the abyss of water. The 3D camera move still had to be tracked to make it work in 3D as there were tiny variations with the source camera move in Maya, and a black curtain is about the worst thing you can imagine using to track. The hero object in the scene was also modeled out of cardboard, yet had to be animated like a living fish. A CGI version of the fish had to be made to match the real world version and naturally making them match was time consuming. If this had been a client's project you probably would have taken the simpler route to make sure it was done in a timely manor.

As other work came into the studio and people took much earned holiday time this project got put onto the back burner, and as chance would have it I moved on from the company before they finished, it so it's with great curiosity that I saw it turn up on their reel. There were some immense challenges that needed to be overcome but I'm glad they finished it.

20 March 2014

Annie Awards 2014

I went along to the Annie Awards with Julie and my buddy Dan. It's the biggest awards ceremony for the animation industry. Still very US-centric but there is some international representation there. It's still quite an under-appreciated event. Just as glitzy as many other awards ceremonies but you can still buy reasonably priced tickets to get in and watch from the balcony. We met quite a few interesting people in the party afterwards.

28 January 2014

Love in the Time of Advertising - Short Film

Love in the Time of Advertising is online. The fascinating thing is how many people I have come across over the years that had a hand in making this film. It's been a long time coming, and I was lucky enough to see several early versions. But even then it was really strong... and really knew what it was. It just had to go through production. I guess the earliest versions I saw were in the last few years of production, but I'd have loved to have seen some of the versions way back when it was still in story development. That would have been fascinating, as it's such a wild idea and getting the tone, the world and the rules of the world working would have been quite challenging. Anyway, it's well worth checking out. An inspiration to short filmmakers.

10 January 2014

2 Years Online - The Stats for 'Devils Angels and Dating'

It's been just over two years since Devils Angels and Dating premiered online on YouTube. In the full spirit of disclosure, that we've run this project, I wanted to share the statistics behind the people viewing it. As you can see we've passed 1.4 million views, most of which came in the first summer.

You can learn much more about the making of the film at the development site, http://devilsangelsanddating.ning.com/

18 December 2013

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes - Trailer

I spent the summer working at MPC with a great crew at MPC in Santa Monica, LA (many of which I'm still working with, two movies later). It's astonishing to me to see a trailer for this so soon. There's a lot of talented people working very hard on this right now. I can't say much about it yet... just watch the trailer. What I will say is that I very much liked the 4pm tea and biscuits routine the company had (British company in the middle of La La Land... it felt very eccentric).

03 December 2013

Sir Billi - Animated Feature

It's been a seven year wait but finally... I had the DVD in my hands.

Back in 2006 I took an enormous risk to quit my seven and a half year tenure at Rare, a large character focused games studio owned by Microsoft, to work on a little known animated feature in Scotland, called Sir Billi the Vet (later renamed Sir Billi). I spent six months there, ultimately supervising about 30 minutes of the animated footage and pulling together a respectable animation crew that thrived during a very troubled production.

I finally watched the film... It would be very easy to criticize it (and many have) but watching it has been quite enlightening for me. It's possible I've grown my first patch of grey hair doing so, and I may have a permanent frown from the wind changing while I was watching (old wives tale). But it was interesting. It holds up as an excellent example to filmmakers... of what not to do. I think it could be used in classes to highlight many typical flaws that most filmmakers only skirt past without ever really doing so badly that they'd get called out for it. But here it's all on display as though it knows it and can't help but act as a lesson to future filmmakers.

I could pick on certain things that let it down, but that would point fingers at fellow crew members that I'm sure did the best they could in a rough working environment with limited resources. Besides criticism is best left for films that were nearly good except for a few obvious flaws, or filmmakers you would have expected better from. This is neither... so there's no point. As the film started I was actually wondering if it was going to be better than expected as it flew just short of mediocre. But as the half way mark passed, and the questions begin to form in your mind, it degenerates into.... well you get the idea. It's beyond saving.

I was amused to see just how much of the film hadn't changed since I worked on it, but I'd only seen the first half back then. There was no second half, the script was still in development. Now, that might sound terrible, at the time it certainly seemed it, but in hindsight I've worked on many productions for which that was the case. I've gotten used to the idea that these things evolve a lot in production. You hope for more, strive for it, and just pray that when it does all get shuffled there's not too much damage to the artistry people have already put in. Typically you expect some improvements as the film progresses, even to work that can be quite good, in aid of making a better film. But for this film there simply wasn't the money or the man power to replace much work and the original flaws were never removed.

Still, it did act as a huge marker in my career, highlighting what I've learned since 2006. I knew a lot before going into it and quickly realized how valuable I could be to the film, but establishing your right to contribute creatively on a production is the biggest battle. It was a small studio so I had better input than many other bigger films I've worked for, but every studio has it's politics. I'm proud that I managed a few meager improvements while I was there but I would have had to have been around for the long haul if I was going to make a bigger difference and that wasn't an option at the time. Still, I see so many things I'd do differently that even then I didn't spot, and that makes me feel good about how much more I've learned having moved on and had other experiences.

I have some good stories from my days working on the film, and I've made some lifelong friends. Many people passed through this production, and as time has passed we've gotten to know each other even if we weren't on the crew at the same time. It just shows how small this business is. I'm glad the film is finally out on DVD for the sake of the artists that needed something to show in their portfolio, but it has been so long since many of us worked on it I don't expect to see it turning up in many portfolios.

I think the thing that's most informative about this is what I've learned about privately funded budget features. This isn't the only one I've been involved with but it's been a huge lesson. Not entirely bad. I can honestly say I see ways to make this sort of project work really well, and it's all about building on the right foundation of story, talent, funding and production expectations. I'm looking forward to the opportunity to make that happen someday.