Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Article in DV user about my involvement in the Oscar nominated "Pirates! In an adventure with scientist"

“Some people think you can improve children's minds by playing them Mozart. I think you could treble the IQ of any child, or indeed adult, by putting them in front of an Aardman product like this. “

Peter Bradshaw
The Guardian, Thu 29 Mar 2012

In January 2011,Ben Lock, VFX producer on Aardman's "Pirates! In an adventure with scientists" asked me to come down for an interview to Aardman Animation’s Feature Film studios in Aztec West in Bristol. The tour of “Aztec West” I was given, simply made my jaw drop: Miniature pirate cities filling whole soundstages, a miniature Pirate ship the size of a normal boat and a miniature size stop motion puppet of Queen Victoria…. in her underpants!
This was the best state of the art stop motion studio in the world! All set up to shoot stereoscopic, including Motion Control rigs, work shops for the sets and characters next to the sets. All high end, in a nice atmosphere, with a little lake nearby to relax, graffiti inside the studio and great canteen.
But it didn’t stop there: the DIGITAL SIDE of production was also next to the sets.
Previs, editing, sound, 3d, mattepainting and compositing- this was light years away from your normal postproduction set up where you rarely feel part of the team that shot the movie.

Ben kindly agreed to have me on board as a Senior sequence TD.

What a loose term that is! For the next six months I was on roller coaster ride through the Pirates digital part of the production:

All of the film had been storyboarded, so one of my tasks was to help translating the “animatic” based on the scanned drawings, with some sound effects into a 3d animatic with basic animations of the characters, sets and the camera. This is a process called Previsualisation (Previs). I mainly helped designing the showdown sequence, with the Pirate Captain chasing after Queen Vic (in her underpants) who manages to fly off on her airship. It involved character and particle animation plus a good knowledge of film language. Because all the digital versions characters, sets and cameras inside the 3d package Maya are to the real scale, it helped enormously designing the set up for the stopmotion sets for the real life shoot. I was also helping with a process called “Post Vis” wherby you take the plates shot on the day and roughly match in CG elements to allow the directors to see how they work together in Nuke.

On Pirates most of the foreground sets were models and puppets, beyond the real sets they were extended with CG sets and characters. Adding whole landscapes, the sea, cities and shots with hundreds of (CG) characters allowed for the creation of images never really done on a stereoscopic stop motion project.
The combination of live action and CG for a stereoscopic project though is rather tough work : First, 2 pictures are taken of the set, one for each eye. But you have to do a lot more to make it work: I spend quite some time shooting hundreds of pictures of the set that were than fed into a propriety software that would in return create a scan of the set, a particle based cloud scene in Maya. This scene plus various other data taken on the set, would allow to match the virtual camera perfectly to the real camera. The cloud point also helps positioning 3d objects into the right space.

Next for me was the texturing and shader setup of some digital doubles including the pirate “Gout”, with his little Blue Peter Badge on his hat and some more. These models were only used in shots were the character was quite small in frame, otherwise the stop motion puppet was used.

The rest of the time was filled with tracking shots, animating CG objects like leaves, carpet clippers, fluid chimney smoke, modeling some trees , animating seas and a surprise concert of “The Ukulele orchestra of great Britain”!(They were playing their version of Isaac Hayes’ “Shaft” on their ukuleles in our lunch break. Peter Lord had organised this for us.) Also, I shall not forget the great “Family day” when we were allowed to show our loved one the sets of the movie.

I am going to close the article with an entry on Facebook by my good friend Jesus Diez (who was a Nuke compositor on Pirates), wrote enthusiastically in his very own “Spanish style”, one day after the premiere in Bristol that we all attended.
I think it conveys more than anything else the atmosphere I would like to have on EVERY movie I work on (trust me, quite a few production companies, don’t invite you to the premiere, deny you your credits on the movie and sometimes you don’t even get paid).

Anyway, here you go:

“It was an amazing event. Everyone was dressed smart or as a pirate (some as a smart pirate). It was great to greet some friends in the queue, all of them looked gorgeous. We had to queue and then leave our phones/cameras at the entrance, so graphic documents were going to be tricky. At the entrance, Peter Lord was greeting the visitors and I had a picture taken with him, actually two. Then, after seeing some suspicious trays with drinks, we found out that they were giving wine and beer for free. They said "one per person" so I went once, took my wine, then took my glasses off (so that they wouldn't recognize me) and got another glass (easy!). Some girls dressed as pirates (very good looking) were giving shots of rum (no need to use tricks here). Ten minutes before the show we went up to the screening room with our 3D glasses. More friends here and there, it was really nice. Then the lights went off and there he was, Peter Lord walking to the mike, dressed as the Pirate Captain with Polly the Dodo under his arm. He gave one of his glorious speeches (I realized than I missed them a little). After saying that Spielberg would never give a speech dressed like this, thanking everyone for the hard work and having some problems with the echo in the mike, he introduced... Hugh Grant! That was great! People say he is a grumpy character but he seemed really funny to me. He said things like: “At last I can do some action acting, something I was never able to do” and wished to be animated for the rest of his movies. Also, he made fun of Peter Lord saying things like "I don't really like him" or "his nose is too small for his face".
Then the movie started. Glorious, you have to go and see it, you get out with a smile on your face. And at the end, the credits! With our names on them, a really special moment. After this, some more wine, rum, beers, more friends and off to London to work the next day.

A night to be remembered...”

Pirates received an Oscar nomination for “Best animated feature” and is out on DVD now. Including the underpants.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

A path to happiness

Everything is connected: New Delhi teenagers, a London freelance animator and the Foundation for Universal Responsibility of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

(Or how my pet Illustration project suddenly got published)


In 2010 I discovered a YouTube video of the Dalai Lama called a "A path to happiness" which laid out the principles and difficulties of achieving happiness.
It made a lot of sense to me, I wish I would have heard it earlier in my life, it would have probably saved me and some other people some painful experiences.
That's why I wanted to share it with my friends and family.
I felt though that it needed to be presented in a slightly different form in order to appeal to them.

Firstly, I thought it would be essential to present it in a secular way, with added scientific examples plus some lighthearted illustrations.

The first step was to write it down which in itself proved to be a challenging process.
The Dalai Lama was teaching in his "broken English" as he himself calls it, so as I am not a native speaker either, this was a first hurdle. A Tibetan teaching in English and a German trying to make sense of it!
The teaching is very much rooted in an alien culture to me; the 2000 year old Indian and Tibetan way of thinking and living.
At the end of 2010, I finished a first draft and started to think about a style for the illustrations.

For my last 2 books, "Winning Ways" (written by Roy & Carol Gillett) and my 120 page Graphic Novel "Brixton Knight", I had developed a style similar to traditional woodcuts by scanning ink drawings and refining them in Illustrator. This time I was keen to experiment with a combination of 3d Maya renders and ink drawings.

By mid 2011, I had a first version of the 40 page booklet. I asked my friends at my local Buddhist Center, Mike Murray and Gabor Reder to give this version a first proof read.

The result was not really what I had hoped for: both pointed out that the illustrations were too upsetting and in this context not appropriate. In addition to this, I had misunderstood some of the concepts.

A long process of fine tuning started, re-editing the text, coming up with new ideas to illustrate the complex ideas in a simple way.
Also, other work left me little time to work on the project; "Sherlock Holmes: A game of shadows", Aardman's "Pirates!In an adventure for scientists" to name but two.

By August 2012, I finished my 6th version of the book. Little did I know how many more there were to come.
But at that time I was quite happy with it: in the end it was just a little book that I was to give to a close circle of friends and relatives.

I thought it would be a nice gesture to send a copy to the gentleman who produced and directed the original film I saw in 2010 on YouTube.
Searching the web, I finally found his contact details: His name is Rajiv Mehrota, he lives in New Delhi.

I sent him a copy and included a letter expressing my gratitude for producing the film and inspiring me.

Some weeks later Rajiv send me an E-Mail telling me that the Foundation wanted to publish the book.

I was glad I sat down while I was reading!
Over the next month I worked feverishly on the proofreading and fine tuning of the book, alongside the Indian publisher Hayhouse in close collaboration with CEO Ashok Chopra and Rakesh Kumar.
Aeshna Roy designed a cover especially for the Indian market.

Sometimes I had to do this process in rather surreal circumstances, like in December 2012, when I was on a freelance job in the mountains of Switzerland: having no computer or Internet in the rental flat, I was using the Free Wifi on the local buses to proofread and send off files on my phone to India and London.
Luckily with a bit of help of my friends: I could not have done the proofreading without the tireless feedback of my friends Gloria Churchill, Michael Raasch and Katie James.

On the last weekend of April 2013, the Dalai Lama gave a teaching in New Delhi (pictures below) and a couple of days later, I received these two E-Mails :

"..........The event was a huge success. We hosted 500 children who were each given a copy of your book. We are distributing a further 3000 copies.........
Rajiv Mehrota Trustee & Secretary for the "Foundation For Universal Responsibility of HH The Dalai Lama" ( "

"Each student was given a Foundation's bag with reading materials including the book.

My fiancée, Rinzing Doma, who is a teacher at "Cambridge International School" in Kolkatta, is already experiencing the popularity of the book among her students for class 3 and 4. She has kept the book in their library and each student is eager to take home to read in turn. One of the parents also called her saying their son was reading with so much eagerness.

Thank you for such a wonderful book.

Kind regards
Thupten Tsewang
Director - Administration
General Manager - Programmes
Foundation for Universal Responsibility of His Holiness the Dalai Lama"

You can order a copy of the book here: