Merry Christmas to one and all!

18 Dec 2009

Things are a little over excited here at Slurpy Towers - it's nearly Christmas, and we've been feeling the festive love for well over a month now. In fact we brought our Christmas tree on November 13th this year, and have had Wham's Last Christmas on repeat pretty much ever since!

We've put up the decorations, stolen some holly, experimented with mince pies (we didn't have a pan with the holes in, so they were more like mince pasties really), brought the presents, got our auto responder set up and ready to go, and made our Christmas Cards.

This was the first year that we sent out special Slurpy Christmas cards, and we designed one which featured our two Directors Katie Steed and Aaron Wood in a 50s style Christmas scene (with Katie doing all the work and Aaron sitting about shaking his presents!)

And here is a short video that we made on 'The Making Of' this years Christmas Card. It starts with a rough sketch on paper, which is then scanned in and coloured using Photoshop CS4. It has been sped up by about 800%.

RIP Roy E Disney, the world of animation will miss you

17 Dec 2009

The world of animation has lost one of it's greatest and most passionate individuals. Roy E Disney, nephew to Walt Disney lost his year long battle with stomach cancer and died yesterday, 16th December, aged 79.

Roy will always be remembered as the man who twice stepped in and prevented the Disney corporation from being consumed by their own greed and success. He twice ousted Directors who no longer had the companies best interests at heart, and he resurrected the dying company from the embers of what it had once been into the creator of such modern classics as Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin.

Born just one year after Steamboat Willie was such a huge success for the company, Roy has been a Disney legend and an animation stalwart for his entire life. When he was a child he was often invited in by his Uncle and Father (Walt and Roy O Disney, the 2 founders of the studio) to judge whether they were appealing to their target audience. He ousted Walt's Son-in-law Frank Miller when he felt that the studio was not being true to his Uncle's wishes, and he ousted Mike Eisner when he became a power hungry, money obsessed and possibly slightly crazy (check out DisneyWars) beast.

Roy was the corporation's last link with their founders, and to the end he remained his Uncle's voice; their Jiminy Cricket, whistling at the new custodians if they were deviating from the legacy that Walt and Roy O left.

"On behalf of everyone at Disney, we are saddened by the loss of our friend and colleague Roy E. Disney. Roy’s commitment to the art of animation was unparalleled and will always remain his personal legacy and one of his greatest contributions to Disney’s past, present and future." Bob Iger

2D animation versus 3D animation

15 Dec 2009

Around this time of year, we at Slurpy are often sent emails by animation students asking our opinions on various matters for their dissertations. When we have time, and when the sender has asked nicely (why do these people think we're going to waste an hour of our time on their homework if they don't even have the common curtest to say please and thank you?) we answer them to the best of our ability.

And every year we seem to get one asking us whether or not we think the death knell has sounded on 2D animation. Partly because this is a question which I feel incredibly strongly about, and partly because I think it will save me effort this time next year, I have decided to answer one such email here on this blog.

- It's no secret that 3D has become the new medium of choice for animators, but why do you think this is?

3D has allowed smaller studios to make feature length films, because they don't need the same budget or talent pool behind it. This is a never ending cycle, because the more people see that most of the films coming out are 3D, the less inclined they will be to study and learn 2D animation. While this is a good thing in that it was widened the playing field and allowed studios other than Disney, Pixar and Dreamworks to show the world what they can do, it is also an incredibly bad thing because the smaller risk associated with making a 3D film seems to have come with a dearth in quality of storytelling. Less time is being spent in pre-production because it is less expensive to make changes to the film once a scene has been animated.

The current audience generally judges films and games primarily by how 'realistic' they look, and 3d films automatically look more realistic than 2d. It doesn’t help that 2D is always judged by the standards of Disney, and Disney were producing several of their worst films (ie. Atlantis and Home on the Range) at beginning of 3D, and people therefore equated better films with 3D and tired old films with 2D.
I hold out strong hopes that the new Disney film 'The Princess and the Frog' will start to erode this opinion in people's minds, and films will be judged on their own merit, rather than by the medium in which they are made.

- Do you believe that in order to stay relevant, 2D animation must change and evolve? If so, how? If not, why?

I actually believe the opposite. I don’t believe that the medium is as important as the storytelling, and a good story makes for a good film. 2D can evolve all it wants to, but it’s never going to be 3D, so it shouldn’t try. Choose the right medium for the story, and the medium should quickly become irrelevant. Walt Disney was an experimenter, always at the forefront of any new technology, and I know that he would have been very keen to embrace 3D animation (and would probably have managed to do so before anyone else. But Walt Disney is not Walt Disney simply because he was an innovator, his main accomplishments were that of a storyteller, and his constant search for the latest technology was simply to find the best ways of telling his story.

3D has it's purpose, and it's been used to make some wonderful films, but it cannot relate to people in the same way that 2D can, simply because it is too close to replicating life without ever being quite perfect. Disbelief is automatically suspended when people know that they are watching a 2D film, yet a 3D film has to work extra hard to avoid the ‘uncanny valley’ to make people believe their ‘close but not quite perfect’ people, and the part of the brain that is aware of things that aren’t quite right with the model are not enjoying the film that is being told.
Very few of the 3D films that have been made recently would have worked as well in 2D, and very few of the classic 2D films would have been better in 3D. This is because of media specificity - the medium in which a film is made dictates the emotions felt when watching it. For this reason, 2D should stick to what it does best, and 3D should do the same.

- Do you think that children as an audience have changed since the golden age of 2D (Loony Tunes, Disney Classics)?

No, I think it’s mostly the adults that have changed. Adults are more afraid of the violence depicted in cartoons, and don't always have a child's ability to disassociate it from real life.

Cartoons that were made in the 60s, 70s and 80s are still shown regularly on TV, whereas little other content from those decades still has the same appeal. The appeal of classic cartoons doesn’t change with passing generations, and the issues that affect children remain the same.

- Is there a future for traditional 2D animation?

Without a doubt.
It took people a while to notice that 3D films are necessarily better than 2D ones, but the hunger for good films will always be there. Disney’s current slate of 2D productions should reassure large studios that 2D is not a risk so long as it is supported by a strong story.

The Princess and the Frog

I cannot even begin to tell you how excited I am about the new Disney film 'The Princess and the Frog.' Not only is it a return to Disney's roots, it also seems to be an acknowledgment from the studio that they are not ashamed of their target audience. For Princess and the Frog is a fairy story, and what's more, it's an all signing all dancing princess related fairy story in classic Disney style, so if you haven't seen it yet, watch and adore...

For too long now Disney have been trying to break away from the type of films that made them so beloved by audiences all over the world. First it was Atlantis trying to emulate the increasingly popular art form Manga, and then it was Treasure Planet trying to get the teenage boy market. I don't even have a clue what they were trying to do with Home on the Range!

It was such a pity that this run of poor films (and I'm not including Lilo and Stitch in that assessment) coincided with the emergence of 3D, because it led audiences and studio executives to believe that 2D was the past and was no longer relevant to a world in which both films and games and judged primarily on how close to reality they look. So I have all of my fingers and all of my toes crossed that Princess and the Frog is an unashamed return to classic form, and that Disney embraces the loyal audience that it does have, rather than chasing after new ones.

Soccerex 09 Titles - Sky Sports 1

10 Dec 2009

We at Slurpy have just finished working on the title animation sequence for Soccerex 09, which is on Sky Sports 1, Sky Sports 2 and Sky Sports HD over the coming days. The sequence shows a football as it journeys down a pitch past various players before arriving in the goal and transforming in to a globe, which shows Africa where the Soccerex Event took place. The textures of the piece and the colours used also reflect an African palette, because we felt it was important to combine the energy of the sport with the importance of the geographical location.

Our friends suffer greatly for the privilege of knowing us. Some get frequent phone calls asking about different
types of music, others are forced to ensure that we eat and sleep a reasonable amount during tight deadlines, and some (most in fact) are asked to perform bizarre acts in front of a camera.

Let me clarify that. We often need live action footage as a reference for our animation, and this short title sequence was no exception. Several of our friends spent their lunch breaks performing headers and sliding tackles for us to provide the footage for this film. Their dedication and grazed knees are much appreciated.

We hope you like it, let us know what you think!

A warning

3 Dec 2009

In the life of every small studio, or every small business for that matter, there will undoubtedly be troubles with Clients not paying, or at least not paying within the decade that you sent the invoice. This is to be expected, and the minor cash flow problems that ensue, plus the annoyance of constantly finding clever new ways of politely reminding Clients that they haven't actually paid are all part and parcel in the life of the small business owner.

We've learnt a lot in the past 2 years, and would like to take this opportunity to share a few nuggets of wisdom with any one who cares to read them:

  • Always take 50% upfront. That way the Client is invested in the project just as much as you are. Why should you be the only one taking a risk?

  • Don't trust anyone who is not willing to give that 50%.

  • Many people will offer you a percentage of future profits in return for work that you do. Listen to these offers, but think carefully before accepting anything. What guarantees do you have that you'll make any money? Are they offering you a percentage of the gross or the net profit? Why are they willing to give up a percentage of their business?

  • Don't trust anyone who tells you their business will make a million in the first year.

  • ALWAYS get signed Terms and Agreements for every project. Even if the Client is your best friend.

  • Be upfront and honest with your project deadlines. Tell the Client about anything that may affect the delivery date as soon as possible.

  • Clients may expect you to work for cheap because of their 'great contacts' or their promises to recommend you on. If you do good work, it will speak for itself.

  • Don't try to be the cheapest. Try to be the best.

These things are all written in just about every business manual every written, but it's taken us 2 years to fully understand and take on board the importance of each. We went in to business thinking that we could and should be friends with all of our Clients, and that if we treated people well then they would do the same for us in return. Alas we've been proven wrong in a fairly painful way.

We started making a website for a woman we met once a week and were on friendly terms with. It was to help customers reclaim unfair credit card payments. As we knew the woman we didn't get T&Cs signed and we didn't get her to pay upfront. We saw her every week, where was she going to go?

Nine months or so later, and after every excuse in the book about why she hadn't paid (including cancer, a miscarriage, a car accident and an operation) we stopped work and sent a letter to her partner in business. We haven't seen her since this point.

That was when her partner started to realise there was something funny going on (her partner had paid her for the website and was shocked to hear that we'd never received anything for it). She did some digging and found things about this woman that you wouldn't believe. Not only was the name that we knew her by not her real name at all but also she had a fairly impressive 12 other names! She was quite possibly using the credit card website as a way of defrauding her customers, and she had already taken several thousand pounds off the partner. I asked around other mutual acquaintances and found that she had taken about £30,000 from people I know. In short, a con woman.

Hard to imagine that there really are people like this in the world. Needless to say, we contacted the police and they're investigating (very slowly), but we doubt we'll ever see proper payment for the huge amount of work that we put in on the site (not to mention a ridiculous amount of time chasing payment etc). A lesson learnt hopefully, but not one that I'd care to repeat.


1 Dec 2009

Neil Gaiman is another writer whose work has proven difficult to translate in to the medium of film. I'm sure we all remember the debacle that was Mirrormask.

It helps then, that the director of the latest adaptation is Henry Selick, the genius behind The Nightmare before Christmas (and anyone who thought that accolade belonged to Tim Burton could probably benefit from a little research on the subject). What Selick can do better than any other director I can think of off the top of my head, is to remain absolutely true to the writer's vision while still producing a film that audiences love. I don't know why that skill is so rare, but far too often Hollywood films suffer from the ego of the director who feels an all consuming need to put his own creative stamp on the film to the detriment of the author's work.

Adaptations normally go in to 2 categories - ones which adhere too rigidly to the text without making allowances for the fact that it's a different medium (I'm going to site Harry Potter here, although the main fault with those movies is of course Hermionie's eyebrows), or one which pay little attention to the real core of the book and use it merely as a springboard or marketing tool (the recent Narnia series leaps to mind).

Henry Selick sits between these two categories. A rare breed - a director with so little ego that he allowed his most famous creation, and a film that took 4 years of his life, to be preceded with the words "Tim Burton's". Having realised the visions of both Tim Burton and Roald Dahl, he was probably the first name that came up in a google search for 'director, creepy, strange, macabre' and therefore he was clearly an excellent choice to direct Neil Gaimon's best seller 'Coraline.'

Coraline is the story of a young girl who walks through a secret door in her new home and discovers an alternate version of her life. On the surface, this parallel reality is eerily similar to her real life - only much better. But when her adventure turns dangerous, and her counterfeit parents (including Other Mother) try to keep her forever, Coraline must count on her resourcefulness, determination, and bravery to get back home - and save her family. It's a splendidly weird, funny and frightening book which deservedly sits next to Alice in Wonderland on any bookshelf.

It's also an excellent movie. It's beautifully hand crafted, and retains it's stop motion aesthetics while not allowing the technique to limit it in any way. There were no short cuts taken, and an absolute minimum of computer effects added in post production. What the animators saw on the set was exactly what we saw on the screen.

This beautiful film was made even more so by it's clever use of 3D. Coraline is the first stop motion film to have been made using stereoscopic 3D, and it uses it carefully, thoughtfully and to great effect. The claustrophobic feeling of the real world is heightened by the minimum depth used, causing a palpable relaxation and joy when the corridor expands towards the more spacious Other World for the first time. This is what 3D was made for - not cheap effects and finding every opportunity to wave a long object towards the audience, but to subtly enhance the experience. Old 3D (red and green lenses) gave a lot of people headaches, but the new stereoscopic 3D is a huge advancement in the field and was used successfully to add another dimension (literally) to what was already a excellent film.

We were lucky enough to hear Brian Van't Hul (the visual effects supervisor) at Bradford Animation Festival this year, and he explained some of the challenges involved in making a stop motion 3D film. For every frame they have to calibrate the distance between the left eve and the right eye (based on the amount of perspective that they want to include), then they set the camera to take one photo, move that distance and take a second. They do this for every frame (24 in a second) and put them together to create what we see on the screen. It's adds an awful lot to an already time consuming process, and Van't Hul practically admitted that it was done mostly as a marketing gimmick. I wouldn't like to see every film in 3D, but in cases such as Coraline, where it has been carefully thought out and used to improve the narrative and the audience experience, I think it has a place.

Teri Hatcher and Dakota Fanning voice the lead characters, with parts for Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French too, and they all put in a completely real and convincing performance. Teri Hatcher, who I watch avidly in Desperate Housewives each week, was excellent as both the Mother and the Other Mother, giving each both character (and the transformations thereof) such subtle naunces of expression and forceful character that she was completely captivating in every frame.

Many adults leaving Coraline have been heard muttering how it was too scary for their sensitive little cherubs, and that it's too frightening for it's PG rating (mostly while the aforementioned cherubs are jumping about happily next to them recounting how funny that bit with the Scotty dogs was). This is adults trying to protect kids from the type of films that formed their own fears; films like the Wizard of Oz, or The Witches (which literally had all the guests at my 6th birthday party hidden behind the couch). People need to experience fear early in life so that they're not crippled by it later, and Coraline fits perfectly in to that need. The young protagonist defeating the forces of evil will leave kids exhilarated and empowered, not petrified and hiding in their Mother's apron's for the rest of their lives.

I can't begin to mention every detail of what made this film great, but I cannot recommend it enough. The animation, direction, pacing, acting, plot and atmosphere are all outstanding and it fully deserves the awards that are being showered upon it. Go and see it. Preferably in 3D, but it's still a great film without.

ALSO, make sure you watch to the very end of the credits. There's a sequence there that took the animators 6 weeks to create, but which was then cut from the movie. Because it's so beautiful (and because the animators were probably threatening a nervous breakdown) they put it at the end as a reward for the stragglers.