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Post With The Most 31/08/2015

At time of writing, the new academic year is a sleeping giant. It waits for us - like Smaug. It's tempting to tiptoe around this still-dormant powerhouse so as not to provoke it prematurely, but it's with excitement too we anticipate its resurgence.  Perhaps we've all had enough of these more leisurely times? Perhaps it's time for us to draw our swords and slay more dragons? Mind you, when it does awaken, there'll be no stopping it, and we'll all be running headlong just to keep pace.

Yes, Smaug is snoring - for now - but that doesn't mean everyone is dozing. Our newest recruits to the Computer Animation Arts community are busy working on their Summer projects, as we seek to make them nice and limber for the creative escapade on which they're about to embark. I've included a tiny fraction of their various 101 thumbnail sketches of 'life-forms, machines and structures', all derived from the same two sheets of largely ordinary household items...

In months to come, you'll see our first years go from project to project and from strength to strength, so watch this space; as George Bernard Shaw observes: “Think of the fierce energy concentrated in an acorn! You bury it in the ground, and it explodes into an oak!"

My earlier 'Smaug' simile is apposite: the new academic year can feel very much like a fearsome beast with the potential to gobble up the unprepared and the unwary.  I think everyone remembers their first year/first term experience at University, wherein everything is intimidating and new, but beginning again can be just as daunting for year two and three students, as they experience the upswing of difficulty associated with course progression and contemplate steeper learning curves.

For this reason, I asked CAA 2015 graduates Emily ClarksonSam NiemczykPeta-Gaye Brown and Vikki Kerslake to share with us their experiences of their final year on Computer Animation Arts. I'd encourage current students and incoming CG-lings to really listen to what these seasoned veterans have to say.  Allow their stories to inspire, counsel and ready you for what is to come.

First up is Emily Clarkson, whose adaptation of the Celtic legend, Morrigan, impresses with its stripped-back storytelling, striking art direction and simple, communicative character animation (a no small feat of technical achievement, as you'll soon see!).  First enjoy Emily's animation, which made the official selection for the New Designers 2015 Screening Awards - and then let Emily and Computer Animation Arts take you behind-the-scenes...

Morrigan / Emily Clarkson (2015)

CAA / Why did you want to do a year-long project in your final year?

Emily / Throughout the course we had designed and built entire animations in a relatively short time. Final year was an opportunity to spend the whole academic year creating something. It felt like the chance to really polish my most complex ideas to date.

Still from Morrigan / Emily Clarkson (2015)

CAA / Describe the 'pros and cons' of committing to a year-long project?

Emily / The upside of a year-long project is the opportunity to be brave and to really challenge yourself technically, building bigger, better and more complex ideas and going beyond the blobby cells and viruses of first year to fully-fledged, emotional bipeds - even quadrupeds! - and so much more. Your final work goes beyond the degree. Embarking on a big project gives you more creative opportunity to showcase your talents ready for hunting for your first job. In my case I was able to take my animation to New Designers 2015

The downside to a year project is having more time, which may lead to complacency, particularly at the beginning, where you tell yourself ‘I have ages to do all of this.’ and things can slide. By Christmas you know exactly what you wish you’d spent that time on! Another intrinsic problem is picking a subject that won’t drive you crazy and one you can stay motivated about for the whole year. Losing interest can make things really hard, especially when you want to give up on the idea, but you’re past the point of no return.

Warrior model sheet / Morrigan / Emily Clarkson (2015)

Morrigan model sheet / Morrigan / Emily Clarkson (2015)

The Hag model sheet / Morrigan / Emily Clarkson (2015)

The Crow model sheet / Morrigan / Emily Clarkson (2015)

CAA / How important was the pre-production phase to the realisation of your film?

Emily / Pre-production is very important to creating your final film, but none of it is set in stone. It provides a detailed guide and helps you to a speedier production. It will be slightly compromised and evolved by limitations in 3D, and sometimes through feedback - especially in the storyboarding and scripting phase. In all honesty, I didn’t complete my pre-production, which led to me grinding to a halt later in production to manically design something (my environments!) at a much later stage in the year schedule than I was comfortable with! This was because I panicked at how fast time was passing and jumped into the first thing I'd finalized in 2D - my characters. The result was a set of slightly rushed environment builds I was never entirely happy with in 3D. That said, it did push me to faster and freer idea generation in regard to their design and resulted in some of my most striking thumbnails.

Environment thumbnails #1 / Morrigan / Emily Clarkson (2015)

Environment thumbnails #2 / Morrigan / Emily Clarkson (2015)

CAA / You collaborated with a voice-over artist: what was that like?

Emily / Collaborating with a voice over artist was a bit of a nerve-racking experience, but ultimately a really good one. I’d not done it before and I worried about conducting myself in a professional manner without making things awkward when negotiating cost. Like everything, finding the right voice wasn’t instantaneous. It took a few attempts. My first contact was simply too expensive. My second didn’t work out either, as the samples provided didn’t match my criteria. My third contact became my final voice, and communication with this particular lady was a great experience. I was really happy with her performance, and contacted her following New Designers to link her to the final animation. Everyone involved in a project should see their part in it and be credited. It’s also a nice way to keep contact, as you never know if you might need another voice over artist in the future.

CAA / Describe the 'best of times'....

Emily / The best times are always when things start to work and come together, particularly when characters come to life with functioning rigs and facial expressions, creating personality. I found some of the most pleasing moments to be nearer the final stages of post-production, particularly editing. This is an evolutionary phase, which often takes the animation slightly away from initial storyboards and gives it new life. The feedback at this stage really helped to finesse my animation. If you are lucky enough to be invited to go to New Designers, it is an opportunity not to be missed. It provides a wonderful chance to go back and tweak things you weren’t happy with. I found this to be quite cathartic experience - finally being able to tidy up my animation. And this final, final version is something I'm really proud of.

The Warrior final model  / Morrigan / Emily Clarkson (2015)

CAA / Describe the 'worst of times'....

Emily / The worst of times was Christmas when it felt like everything went wrong. I had to build a custom rig in Maya, which I was not familiar with, and implement it across five characters. The difficulty this created ate up a significant amount of time. Time management in a year-long project is crucial and I lost control battling this rig. In hindsight, I should have reverted to a conventional rig much sooner. Another complicating factor at this point was handing in for Minor project in January. I’d barely managed to complete one rigged character and I worried I'd be instructed to do something else for the Major project, having submitted less than I'd anticipated.

CAA / In hindsight, what might you have done differently? 

Emily / I should have managed my time better and gotten my priorities straight. I often found myself asking the question ‘HOW am I so behind when I work ALL the time?!’ and it was because I didn’t complete all my pre-production before launching into Maya. In the long run it cost me more time than it gained. It’s very easy to become absorbed in a small piece of production. I should have pulled back and looked at the big picture more often. It is easy to concentrate on a small thing only to realize it really didn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. I should have asked for help more often, particularly in the design phase. I’d get stuck with something and think I had to work it out for myself. But there was really no shame in asking for help. Idea generation is pretty hard sometimes! I wish very much I'd canned the custom rig much sooner than I did. I might have saved myself a lot of heartache!

CAA / What advice would you give a current year three student in terms of tackling a year-long project?

  • Find a subject that really genuinely interests you. Make sure it's something you can stay motivated about for an entire year, something to sink your teeth into and enthuse about.
  • Nail that pre-production work to the best of your abilities before you launch into main production. 
  • When collaborating with a voice over artist, leave plenty of time for negotiation.  Be very clear about what you want and when you want it. 
  • Be objective enough to let go of something that doesn’t work - even if you've slaved tirelessly over it.
  • It's all well and good building your assets, but you need time to animate them and post-produce everything. Set yourself a realistic timetable in which to do things and stick to it as best you can from the outset in September. It might be easier to work it out backwards. Leave realistic time for the end processes of rendering, editing and sound design - but most of all, ANIMATION!
  • Always remember to step back and look at the big picture when you’re fussing over some detail and it’s taking longer than expected. Ask yourself “Is this necessary?” If not, park it. Make sure by your deadline you're telling the WHOLE story, not half of one with some really nice details.
  • Challenge yourself. Believe in yourself. Be awesome. GOOD LUCK!

2015 Showreel  / Emily Clarkson

For further insights into the making of Emily's final year animation, Morrigan, check out Emily's 'director's commentary', in which she drills down into some of the technical nitty-gritty of her creative process.  Pen and paper at the ready, it's a fascinating watch!  

Morrigan / Director's Commentary

Samantha Niemczyk and Peta-Gaye Brown began talking about, and planning for, their adaptation of The Erlking weeks before their return to complete their third year of Computer Animation Arts.  It was clear from the outset the two of them meant business and were going to push themselves determinedly to create something technically ambitious - and sumptuous to look at!

Stills from The Erlking / Peta-Gaye Brown & Samantha Niemczyk (2015)

In common with Emily Clarkson's Morrigan, Sam and P-G's The Erlking went through multiple iterations both before - and after - the final hand-in.  The end of the academic year was not the end of the creative process - far from it.  Sam and P-G's film is absolutely a labour of love and the fruit of steely persistence.  Take a moment to soak-up the unheimlich delights of their final version of The Erlking and then watch their 'Director's Commentary'. There are a few audio synching issues with Sam & Peta-Gaye's Erlking video, but don't let it spoil your enjoyment of what is an honest, warm and genuine insight into a highly successful collaboration.  Watch and learn!

The Erlking / Peta-Gaye Brown & Samantha Niemczyk (2015)

The Erlking / 'Director's Commentary'

The challenges of degree level education are varied and numerous.  It's bloody hard work - and arguably even more so if, like many students, there are non-degree related issues making their presence felt.  It is not uncommon for students of the creative arts to experience episodes of depression, anxiety and crippling self-doubt.  It is less common for a student to discuss their experiences of mental illness openly and honestly.  To do so takes courage, confidence and maturity.

CAA graduate Vikki Kerslake has never before discussed her experience of completing her Computer Animation Arts degree alongside her battle with depression.  Take a look at her year three film, The Koi & The Crane, a mediative and serene animated short.  It would be easy to draw trite conclusions from what is remarkably peaceful about Vikki's work.  It might be too glib to suggest her animation is indicative of renewed equilibrium and inner calm, but as you'll see from Vikki's moving testimonial, The Koi & The Crane represents an extraordinary personal achievement.

 The Koi & The Crane / Vikki Kerslake 

Vikki / I was diagnosed with clinical depression when I was quite young and still in school. Depression, as far as I know, is the result of a chemical imbalance in the brain, causing various issues emotionally and mentally.  It a very difficult condition to live with.  Following diagnosis, you usually undergo counselling or a form of therapy, such as cognitive behavioural therapy and/or medication. 

Living with depression is like dealing with an uncontrollable presence constantly undermining you and putting you down.  You feel as if you have no worth and it is impossible to see any future. It is always there, all day, all night, and you can’t escape it.  In me, it caused fatigue, extreme shifts in emotions, and self-harm.  I felt I could never go into much detail about the condition for fear of upsetting people. This led to me “putting on a mask”.  I would make sure as few people as possible were aware of the severity of my situation.

Year one life-drawing, Vikki Kerslake

My social anxiety - an irrational fear or phobia of rejection from social environments - caused nausea, sickness, and loss of appetite. At its worst, I was unable to leave home or attend school.

When I was first diagnosed, I was nearly fainting in school, experiencing sickness before going in, not eating until I got home, and at my worst, not leaving home or entering shops for fear of being in public spaces.  I was referred by doctors and councillors to a special school for those with mental illness or those unable to attend public school for various reasons.  As a result of jumping around schools I was only permitted to do four GCSE exams at a low level.  Art, however, was something in which I'd been interested my whole life.  I was very fortunate to be accepted onto UCA’s BTEC art and design course, which allowed me to start Computer Animation Arts some years after.

My time on Computer Animation Arts was a real turning point. My degree gave me the chance to focus on something. The day-to-day challenge of project work and meeting deadlines gave me cause to very slowly pull away from the stresses of my condition. I was, however, unable to interact properly with other students and tutors, missing out on forming friendships with course mates in particular.  I would not attend lessons frequently - or I would travel the hour’s commute to UCA and then immediately go back home.  I struggled at times to keep up with work.  I would often disappear from university and feelings of regret and shame fed my depression.

I took medication for a short while, but stopped two years ago. I started to learn to tell 'the voice’ to go away. This was once I realised it was simply a voice, not a reality. I made visits to both the UCA councillor and Sarah Thompson, UCA's learning support manager.  In general, I just tried to push myself to come into university, particularly on quiet self-directed study days. This was a good chance to get used to learning to be productive and feel more comfortable in the environment. 

I always used art as an outlet in some way, and looking back, it is a bit evident in my art style that I used sketchy black and white drawings when I was struggling the most. I think this was a good thing, as it is a way of letting out the emotions in some way, even if it is subconscious.

One of Vikki's earliest drawings on Computer Animation Arts

Slowly, I would do things like enter social situations more regularly, using the phone, attending lessons and being in university more often. It was a slow and steady process.  By year three, I was at my most confident and able to spend much more time in the university spaces.  I was able to be more sociable and gain more project based advice.  I could find it emotionally exhausting, but simple things helped me, such as giving myself rewards for dealing successfully with a full day at Uni or keeping an appointment.  I also had my mum at home for support throughout.

Vikki at New Designers 2015 (Vikki is third from right)

Exhibiting at New Designers 2015 was a great experience.  It was a chance to gain confidence, being around people when normally I wouldn't be in that situation. I was able to speak with course mates and tutors more than before. I was at my most confident in terms of dealing with my social anxiety. I had the opportunity to meet other people in the industry and the pleasure of having ArtsThread feature my work on their blog.  None of this would have happened a year ago, so it goes to show how valuable my time on the course has been in terms of my confidence.

Vikki's work as it appeared on ArtsThread

It's still hard at times to manage my anxiety, but the depression is much less of a problem. It’s something I feel I have a lot of control over now.  I no longer feel like I have a diagnosis.  I still experience great difficulty dealing with social anxiety and depressive episodes do threaten to return, but it's become easier to recognise those emotions and signs, and is easier to manage as a result. The future, as scary as it is, feels positive.

Still from The Koi & The Carp / Vikki Kerslake (2015)

In light of her experience, I asked Vikki if she had any practical advice for students who might be struggling with depression or anxiety:

  • Make sure you tell someone about any struggles you're experiencing. This is important, as depression can escalate. 
  • Remember it won’t last forever and it's not your fault if you feel uncomfortable, down, or harmful towards yourself. Just keep pushing through and make sure you can talk to someone. 
  • Finding a subject matter for your projects you enjoy will make you happier working on it. 
  • Speak with tutors to make them aware of your situation and together find ways to deal with the university environment in a way that works for you.  Don’t feel like you don’t deserve a little support!
  • Try to keep up with your uni work, even if you are feeling a little down. It will provide you with some structure, allow you to be creative and express yourself, and it can be rewarding to accomplish goals and meet deadlines.  Think of them as baby steps towards a final fantastic reward - your degree!
  • Keep going. Don’t give up on yourself. You can achieve great things!

More strange sights out in the French countryside...

There's this idea that tutors enter cryo-tubes in August to recuperate and rest-up before the new academic year begins.  The cryo-tubes thing isn't true, but, yes, they do go on holiday.  This tutor is not especially good at holidays.  I can only lounge about so long before the compulsion to crack on with something wins out.  I'm not holding this up as a moral good, I'm acknowledging it as a human flaw.  I annoy myself (and others), because I am a terrible fidget, albeit a productive one.  This Summer holiday was no exception, as between bouts of not doing very much, quaffing Pineau des Charantes and munching baguettes, I engaged once more in the evocation of entities otherworldly and strange...

The artist at work! (Note dog-eared manuscript of current novel (left) and glass of Pineau (right)

My previous dalliances with photographic phantasmagoria have been stubbornly low-tech, in so much as I was using 35mm film to capture my sometimes-balletic manipulations of various light sources, which meant I always had to wait to see what the camera itself had seen during the long exposures.  Often, the results were fascinating...



Often they were not!

This image was made by putting a hurricane lamp inside an IKEA paper lampshade and moving it about, but you'd be forgiven for thinking I'd just photographed a very smoky bonfire...

This year, I went digital. The first big challenge was that the super-sharp, high-tech digital camera kept seeing me as part of the images. In previous years, I'd been charging about in the darkness, whirling lights around (once falling down a concealed cesspit!), confident in the knowledge I would be elided from the resulting work.  Not so this time!  The camera saw everything, including the furtive looking guy with the unruly facial hair and black-ops outfit...

It became clear I'd have to find a means of physically absenting myself from the images I was attempting to make.  How fortunate I'd also thought to bring reels of strong black elastic thread to the old French house, which I could attach to things and 'puppeteer' from behind the camera.  I'd likewise sourced loads of tiny LEDs, which, once tied to the elastic, could be used to create the various effects I was after.

One of the mini LED lights attached to the black elastic thread

What followed were ten nights of 'making stuff happen' in a variety of locations - some inside, some out.  While the digital camera allowed me complete control over the various exposure settings, this wasn't remotely a technical exercise.  In common with previous years, I kept things playful and instinctive. Hits and missed ensued, but alongside mishaps and unremarkable syntheses of time and light,  I was able to bring about some satisfyingly magical - and sinister - permutations...

The Last Word...

"Experience is not what happens to you; it's what you do with what happens to you." 
Aldous Huxley


  1. Another impressive, informative and interesting Post With The Most!

    Thank you very much for including my work, and for including these amazing interviews. Vikkis story is so very similar to mine, yet is so inspiring, as is Emily's. Amazing work from our fellow classmates, too.

    And I love the long exposure photographs; simply stunning.


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