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Today's update is my most ACTION PACKED news update ever, maybe. It's definitely the longest! Anyway, by now most of you know the drill - I've been lucky enough to work for Aardman Animations on their next stop-motion feature film since November 2010, and I've been making sporadic updates talking about the job and the industry ever since. I've touched on issues such as the creative process at Aardman and the working relationship between directors and animators, and have also attempted to give vaguely useful advice regarding animation (which I've got from the stop-motion guys here) whenever I can, so take a look at previous entries if you're interested. Anyway, without much further ado:
I am usually very limited with the stuff I can say about the films (contractual obligations and all that!), however Aardman co-founder, director and awesome guy Peter Lord has been pretty liberal on his Twitter account recently meaning I can technically say whatever he's said on that! First up are a couple of shots from around the studio - the first is one Peter Lord took while working with the composer.
Second, we've got a shot of the tavern set - bloody hell, look at all those lights! Now you can see why it takes so long for sets to get sorted! You can also see an abundance of gaffer tape, which is roughly as valuable to the crew as water.
Anyway, this next shot shows Dean (one of our animators) checking out what he's shot on his computer tower - look at all those cables! No wonder we have about twenty people dealing with a unit at a time. Anyway, the set on the left is part of a London street (I can't really say much more than that) which appears about two-thirds of the way through the film. Near the bottom-left corner of the shot you can see a box full of character mouths - which leads me to...
How we do lip-sync at Aardman has changed drastically in the last two years, primarily because we now use interchangeable, magnetic mouths rather than having the animators painstakingly make a new one for every frame. The guys in the Rapid Processing department make these, there are loads of them - some of the main puppets have almost 150 different mouth positions alone! The puppets all have magnets built into their heads, so the animators can switch between these without moving the puppet mid-shot - pretty clever! We have a lip-sync animating team who listen to the film's lines, then figure out which mouth positions should be used for each frame. This information is put down on a dope sheet (not that kind of dope!) for the animators to use, so they can refer to it and switch between mouth positions while shooting. This frees up a huge amount of their time (back on the old Wallace and Gromit films they'd have to sculpt each position individually, which could take hours) and means they're really just focusing on the performance and 'acting' of each character, without having to stop every single frame and worry about what the mouth is doing. Pretty slick!
Another part of the unit you've probably noticed in that photo is the green screen in the top-left corner. Some of these are enormous (we have one in a unit covering an entire town, it is at least 40 feet long) and are all essential when filming. Why is this? Because the VFX guys are doing a lot of set extensions and CGI work - not on the animation, of course, but instead on adding backgrounds and some pretty impressive elements, like the sea - imagine trying to animate the sea for real on a stop-motion film! It would be impossible. VFX also fix a lot of little issues with shots - how do they do this? With plates! For those of you not aware of this term, it's a bit like how layers work in Flash - for example, sometimes if we're doing a really complicated shot, a background plate might be done with extra characters and then the VFX guys composite it together with the main shot. Plates are usually shot however for rig removal, whereby bits of the rigging (usually metal arms and supports that hold puppets up) are digitially 'painted out' from the shot. This generally involves getting the camera to move precisely as it did for the shot, but with all the puppets removed. This way, the clean plate can be layered below the main shot, so when one of the VFX guys removes anything from the shot that shouldn't be there, the clean plate shows through and the viewer has no idea that anything has been removed - that's the magic of film! As the cameras are programmed to move on a track (so we can repeat exactly the same camera move over and over again) and because we have exact control of the light levels in the studio, it's a lot easier to create 'perfect' clean plates for stop-motion than it would be on a live-action film, particularly if you were shooting outside. This, incidentally, is how Aardman can get characters and objects to jump or move around the shot without people seeing the wires or metal supports - we just remove them in post-production!
One of the perks of this job is attending crew screenings of the film, of which I've now been to two. For the last one we actually hired-out a screen at a local cinema to check out the movie as it was at the time (roughly 50% complete and 50% animatic/storyboard) with Peter Lord doing a little introduction - this, along with the inevitable premiere, is probably the closest I will ever get to feeling like a famous person! Speaking of which, I now have the world's crappiest IMDb page in existence - check it out in all its pitiful glory here. I've barely got two credits to my name, but I love it!
One final 'behind the scenes' note - we've started working on the full-length trailer, which should be out within the next few months. Apparently it'll be attached to the upcoming Tintin movie, so watch this space! If you missed it, the teaser trailers for the film are out now.
If you want to get a somewhat personal, day-by-day account of working at Aardman, make sure to check out Peter Lord's Twitter account.
A couple of months ago I received an e-mail from Newgrounds user and all-round nice guy Patonion (he did the 'I Can't Draw' animation) asking me how I went about getting a job with a big company like Aardman. After feeling profusely embarrassed about this given I'm hardly an authority on the subject, I gave it some thought and sent him a long, rambling response that probably went into too much detail. Luckily for you guys, I've decided to paraphrase what I wrote to him so pay attention, jobless film lovers! Here are some general pointers you might not have thought about:
1) Tailor your cover letter. Oh boy, we're starting with a fun one! Regardless, this is important - there is honestly little worse than sending twenty different companies the same non-specific, general cover letter rather than writing a new one for each company. It's boring as anything and very time-consuming, but each company wants to know why you are specifically suited to their company, not the TV/film industry in general. You should use application forms and job advertisements as checklists, whereby you go through each thing they're looking for (ability to use a certain program, specific skills, computer proficiency etc) and make sure each and every one is addressed in your cover letter or CV.
2) Get a driving licence. This sounds dumb, but it isn't! Lots of companies expect their junior-entry staff (trainees, assistans, runners etc) to be able to pick up equipment, take crew to places, and buy stuff. Get driving!
3) Make lists of companies and producers. This is absolutely critical so pay attention! If you're serious about getting into the industry, you're going to be contacting a lot of companies and individuals, so start by visiting media sites online (if you live in the South West like me, some good sites include Mandy, Bristol Media and South West Screen) for job vacancies, and check local guides or websites for lists of production companies in your area. Gather as many company names and contacts as you can, and then get sending! Before I got the job at Aardman I was routinely sending batches of CVs and cover letters to companies every two months, and adding more companies to my list in the interim. Furthermore, I started physically mailing companies as well as just relying on e-mail - anything to make people remember your name above everyone else! If you want even more contact details, you're completely within your rights to call production companies, politely explain who you are and why you're calling, and ask if there are any jobs going or, better yet, ask if you can have a list of producers on any upcoming projects. Remember, if a company doesn't have vacancies right now, that doesn't mean they won't in the future - get your CV to the right people and maybe they'll remember your name in the future!
4) Prepare yourself for a load of crap! Let's start this final section with a few questions - are you good at handling constant rejection? Are you willing to do a lot of work experience and potentially unpaid work that may well lead absolutely nowhere? When you get your first relevant job, are you prepared to put your interests on hold and basically spend 6 months carrying boxes and making people coffee all day? If the answer to any of these is 'no' then you might have a serious problem with the media industry! Look, I don't want this to be all doom and gloom - afterall, everyone at Aardman has been lovely - but there are a lot of companies out there that will dick you around, offer interviews and then cancel them for no reason, and who will generally be absolutely awful to you. If you want to get into an industry like this you really need to have perseverance, because people with no will power who don't keep going at it are not going to get anywhere. Stay positive, keep applying for everything, keep sending out CVs, and don't give up!
That's about it for today's (questionably) exciting update! As ever, if you have any questions about the job, or how the film's going, or any technical sides of making a stop-motion feature at Aardman, just ask and I'll do my best to cover it in a later update. Thanks for reading!