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Creating Characters, Worlds and Stories in Animation

Darren Robbie speaking at Bristol JS in August, 2017
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About this talk

Darren has been involved in animation for 20 years - working as a director at Aardmans, Un1t in London, freelance & recently finished a TV series for Disney Junior. He'll talk over the process he goes through and cover one or two examples in more detail.


I am just gonna wing this, I'm afraid. I'm an animator, an animation director. The reason I'm winging it, is cause I'm shooting a commercial at Aardmans at the moment and I literally just finished. I did a... I mean, I did a game with Adam few years ago now. Wasn't it? Four years ago now, which was good fun and something different for me. I've been in animation for 20 years now. I went London College of Printing. To cut a long story short, I made a short film there, showed at the London Film Festival and Aardmans invited me to Bristol. So, 20 years ago, I joined Aardmans, started animating Morph, things like that. Became a lead animator at Aardmans and I was one of the lead animators on Chicken Run. Couple years after that, I started directing commercials. I found feature films just a bit too much. So, I think, I think Chicken Run, I think we spent three years on that in total. It was exhausting. So, I was a director at Aardmans up until five years ago. I left to join a company in London and various other things, some which worked better than others. For the last two years, I've just finished directing a kids' series for Disney Junior in Dublin. And to make a full circle, I'm now back at Aardmans doing a commercial, which is quite nice actually. So, I thought I'd just show you some of the... A quick, kind of four minute, clip, some of the commercials I've either directed or animated. Most of my work traditionally as you know with Aardmans, is stop frame, or Claymation. So, I come from a very different world, from I guess, from your coding a more techy side. So, started off very hands on. Everything's very hands on and crafty. And then for the last, I guess, six or seven years, I've been directing CG, mainly, which is kind of the way the industry's gone. And I can tell you more about that. But, I thought first, let's have a bit of fun and have a look at some of the stuff I've directed. And then I was going to talk you through in more detail, one commercial I made, which I found quite satisfying. Often, I don't know if anyone's in, works in commercials, but it can be quite frustrating. You do feel like you're banging your head against the wall a lot of the time. So, when a nice one comes up, you gotta cherish it. Anyway, so, here's some of my work. It's an old reel, cause I've been away, so, sorry about that. - [Narrator] You can always rely on Columbus for your travel insurance. - Columbus, help! - [Narrator] Now we can look after your home insurance too. We put you up if need be while we fix the damage. Our craftsman have a great pedigree and all their work is guaranteed. Oh, just look at that workmanship. And you can save yourself a pound or two. - Thanks, Columbus. - [Narrator] Call us or visit for a quote. Columbus, it's your world, enjoy it. - It's not working you can still get-- - A refund's okay, but what me mate's brother's uncle's wife does is kick up a-- - Fuss won't get you anywhere. I'm telling ya, you should find somewhere with better-- - Interest on your credit card. You'll be paying it out of your pension, so you will. - [Spokesperson] The fastest drivers on earth are in a race across America. And nothing will stop them from giving you their Nascar gear. Thanks for drinking. - Ho, ho. Ho. - Sah-weet. - Uhm? Oh, come on, man, it's the molidays. - I tell ya, I work a long day everyday. I hang my head out the window. - Oh man, we're delivering everything you can think of. - [Narrator] But, you can't always do something nice for your car. - I think it's more than that. I think that you care about me. - You're a good friend. - Best friends? - Um, ah, yes, best friends. - Yeah. - I did about 30 of these commercials here. So, you see little clips of them. - Out the pizza box. So, this Techron's a good thing, you know. Right? - Turtle gets me to work, to school. - No, no, I'm a cool car. - So, I always fill up with Chevron with Techron. - Oh, in that case, yeah, I am cool after all. - [Spanish Narrator] - Hey, I hear they have gas at the warehouse store. - I don't like where this is headed. - Oh, no! It's Apocalypse Chow. Just needs a bit of fine tuning, hey lad? - Well, I heard that the king's running off with some American woman. - Hmmm. - [Spokesperson] Sometime, somewhere, over the past 75 years, we've all needed a PG moment. - [Narrator] Multiple Sclerosis attacks the nervous system causing body parts to shut down without warning. - [Spokesman] Radiohead. - Wait for 12 hours and then buy something? I love it. - Okay. Thank you. So, years of a wide range of work there from various companies, Coca-Cola, Chevron. A lot of these big companies kind of funded Aardmans in a lot of ways so doing the commercial work is what funds Aardmans in a lot of ways. Those, that was maybe 10, 15 years ago. Things have changed, of course. There's obviously less budgets and less interesting briefs as well which go with that. I used to, I think, I found the world, the commercial world attractive at Aardmans because they're only 30 seconds. You've got to tell a nice little story compactly in 30 seconds and I really liked that challenge. And also, you used to be able to be quite inventive with a lot of clients and agencies. You could be a bit more imaginative. So, what I was gonna do, is focus on one of those spots. You might notice, I tend to prefer the handmade stuff and the more we go into the CG world, I think the more I prefer it. I think I found the CG stuff more exciting 10 years ago or when Pixar first started coming. Now, I think I like, I like that fact of the mistakes, all the things that are slightly wrong in the handmade stuff. That's what appeals to me. And, so for example, with Nick's stuff, with Nick's stuff on Wallace and Gromit, I like the fact you can see the thumbs moving around, especially in the early stuff. It's all very smooth and slick now. I like to see things slightly wrong. That's what appeals to me. So, I'm just going to focus on one of those commercials because... Where are we? Because, one, it was an really interesting script. Everytime we get scripts through, we have to pitch on them. We have to pitch on them, in which case, I'm sure all know pitching. You have to put your ideas forward. How are you gonna make this spot, how are you gonna make it interesting? And often, they're quite dull, the scripts and you have to try and make them a bit interesting. But, I think for this one, we had a good script to start with. So, let me just play it to begin with. The whole thing. And then I can talk about why I liked it. Here we go. - Ah, sure, never mind the receipt, Mary, if it's not working, you can still get-- - A refund's okay, but what me mate's brother's uncle's wife does, is kick up a-- - Fuss won't get you anywhere. I'm telling ya, you should find somewhere with better-- - Interest on your credit card! You'll be paying it out of your pension, so you will! - [Narrator] Getting the right information isn't always easy. For clear guidance on consumer rights and on personal finance, contact the National Consumer Agency. - Right, now at first glance, you probably think, well, that's not that interesting. But, what I liked was the script was nice and simple. We had no idea how it was going to be filmed. So, what you are given, let me see if I can find it, is literally a script, is literally the words. And you've got to think and you have to think how am I gonna film this? How am I gonna make it interesting? Not that one. And not only that, it was a very low budget, as you can probably tell. And the interesting thing about that, I thought, was it informs a lot of your choices. I can't seem to find the script. But it is literally half a page of A-4 with all the words written. I read the script. I thought it was very good. I liked the fact that they were Irish accents cause Irish accents are great for comedy, I always find, animating characters. And, I liked the agency. They were very up for ideas. So, my first thoughts, when I first started looking through the script. The first thing you do is start cobbling visual cues together. And, coming up with some rough character sketches. So, here's one of my first rough character sketch. I was focusing on the taxi driver. And for some reason, they really liked this guy here. They really liked him. They were sold on him and I think that's kind of what won me the job. So... Once we went through that, then I started doing more detailed character sketches based on that design. Again, they have to all stay in the world and they have to be practical. Now, again, one of the other reasons, as I said, because it was a low budget, we couldn't afford proper full puppets like we do in a lot of the big budget jobs we do. So, I had to think of a way of doing them cheaply and quickly. So, I've actually got him here. It's got no legs, but this is the fellow. So, it's really simple. It's got solid base. It's like a kind of like a Weeble. I don't know if you know what they are. It's got a sold base, it's got a simple head that sits inside and I can just turn it around and it'll hold. It's basically like an egg in a cup. So, I can get all the movement I need in his head, really. I've got simple mouth shapes which I can just stick on. Stick on and stick off. Eyes that move. And that's kind of it. Arms are made of plasticine. I won't move them now cause the plasticine gets brittle over time and it just hardens off. So, he's a really simple character. Now also, again, because we had very little budget and, like I say, I liked the script, I liked the agency. I thought, how are we gonna shoot this? So, I thought we'll shoot it... I'll do it on paper. And this was kind of long, drawn out process of going through again, pulling ideas from various sources, getting ah, I guess like mood boards together. We've just got lots and lots of ideas down. What have I got here? Things that might bear no relevance at first glance. And then you start thinking actually, I could build this. Because they had no money, I could build it in cardboard. And that's how I designed it. So, I designed all the buildings to be made literally out of foam core, and we stuck on the designs of each building, the roads, the details, everything. So, they were really simple, cheap sets to make. And I also though, great, I can make the taxi that way as well. And we did they same thing with the taxi. Which again, I've got here. So, it's a really simple thing to make. I've just made it out of foam core with the designs printed on paper, stuck them on. And I think that's why I liked it cause it was fun to make and it was like being a kid again, you know? I could make all these little toys out of rubbish. I dunno. Well, stay there. So, again, so I did, you saw that plan there I did of the taxi. So, this thing. I think, ah, what's that one? No, that's not good. Anyway, so going through the various processes, we came up with the finished ad. I don't know if I've got much more else to say on this one. I could play it again. So, now you can watch it again maybe and bear that in mind. Those creative decisions were made, as I say, by, bythe combination of lack of money and the fact that I wanted to have some fun on it. So, in terms of budget, I don't... I seem to think it was like 50 grand, which might sound a lot, but believe me, in a TV commercial, it's absolutely nothing, peanuts. I think you say some of that's Coca-Cola one I did. I think the budget for that was half a million for the states. I'll play it again just so you can see it again. - Ah sure, never mind the receipt, Mary, if it's not working you can still get-- - A refund's okay, but what me mate's brother's uncle's wife does is kick up a-- - Fuss won't get you anywhere. - I just want to say as well, another interesting thing with the script, I was thinking, was how can we cut, how can we have all this... When you get the script you've just got the dialogue typed down. How can I go from dialogue from one character to another and try and show, you know, try and keep the film moving along? So, I was quite pleased as well with how I managed to switch the scenarios in a smooth way to try and tell the full story. Um, the actors then, cutting in on each other, kind of gives me, as the director, an opportunity to cut the action around that. - But, what me mate's brother's uncle's wife does is kick up a-- - Fuss won't get you anywhere. I'm telling ya, you should find somewhere with better-- - Interest on your credit card? You'll be paying it our of your pension. - So, again you can see how I was cutting from one scene to another and getting into a whole new environment in a way. - ...wife does is kick up a-- - Fuss won't get ya anywhere. I'm telling ya, you should find somewhere with better-- - Interest rates on y our credit card? You'll be paying it out of your pension, so you will. - [Narrator] Getting the right information isn't always easy. For clear guidance on consumer rights and on personal finance, contact the National Consumer Agency. - There ya go. Are there any questions on that particular commercial or anything, yeah? On that, I think we had two, yeah, two animators. I think the turn around was, we probably had two weeks to shoot that, two weeks. Which again, is pretty quick for a commercial. Normally, we have three or four weeks filming for a 30 second commercial, stop frame that is. CG is a whole other matter. Have we got any CG animators in here at all now? Yeah? Cause what I find quite interesting is the way CG and 2D work, is that you plot out your key frames. So, with 2D, traditional 2D animation, you can get your fantastic poses. You know, I don't know if it's whoever, Bugs Bunny or something, running. And then you know you've got to get from this point to that point and you can plot your end point at that frame. 25 frames in a second so you can think, he's got to be there in 50 frames. And you can plot your end point there. With stop motion, it's a bit more risky because you can't do that. You are literally filming one frame after the other. I think, ah, Peter Aardmans always likens it to life. And I kind of see that. You take a step. You kind of know where you're going with stop frame but there's not guarantee, you know? You might go off around the way a bit. You know that at two seconds, you got to be at that point. But you have to animate that along to that point. There's not going back. You can't make a mistake and then go back. I guess you can, actually. That's a lie. You can cut back and start again. But, it's not like 2D or CG where you fill in the missing frames. You get your key frame and then you can fill in the middle ones and make it all smooth and work. But stop frame, I have to be there and you slowly work it out. And that's another thing I like, especially directing. I hate it as an animator, absolutely hate it cause it just drives you insane but as a director, I like the fact that animators make subtle mistakes and they kind of correct themselves and they get there. And I enjoy that, you know? I enjoy watching it because it's never exactly as you imagined. Whereas with the CG stuff, especially a lot of stuff I've been directing lately, it's worked over and over and over and it kind of crushes it a bit, I think. You know, ah... As I mentioned, I've just been directing a kids' series for Disney Junior and I think we go over things five or six times until everyone's happy and it always makes... To me, it just feels a bit slick and a bit lifeless. I like the mistakes. That's what sells it for me. I'll leave it there. But, that you very much for your time.