Posted 19 November 2018
Interview by Marianne Hanoun

From university project to a premiere at the BFI: The making of short film, Uki

When the opportunity to develop a self-initiated project arose at the end of their third year, Ieuan Lewis and George Warren leapt at the chance to realise an idea for a stop-motion animation. The duo – then students on the graphic design course at Kingston University – sought advice from industry, reaching out to animators including The Brothers McLeod, who told them about the BFI funding scheme. Going on to beat over 300 entrants for a place on the programme, they came up against a tight deadline, and were soon working for over ten hours a day, seven days a week for two months. The result, Uki, is a stop-motion short film about a lonely Inuit who struggles to survive after an oil tanker leaks oil off the coast of Alaska. Premiering at the BFI today, and soon to be shown on BBC Four, we caught up with the pair to talk about the details of the process – from creating a makeshift studio in a garage, to sleeping in a tent during filming.

Project Background

The BA Graphic Design course we both studied on at Kingston was very unconventional in lots of ways, as it felt more like a visual communication course than a traditional graphic design course. We’ve both been fans of animation and film from a young age, and had been thinking about making a more ambitious stop-motion film since the end of our second year of university in July 2017.

We knew we had a self-initiated project brief at the end of third year, so we planned to use this opportunity to do pre-production for the film, and then animate it over summer. We started coming up with initial script ideas and character designs over the summer, but put the project on hold in September to focus on our last year of university.

Concept drawing by Tom Stockwell
Storyboard drawing by Tom Stockwell

Getting to Grips with Stop Motion

Coming up with a concept
Initially, we just began drawing different characters from our heads and started coming up with rough narrative ideas based off their character traits. Quite early on we had this concept we wanted to explore which was “At what point do animals or humans become food?” We wanted to test how a natural disaster could impact a relationship like this.

We liked the idea of making a stop motion film as it gave us more control over things like set design, lighting and even the acting – which is something you wouldn’t normally get on a live action film without significant funding and a large crew. It also made having a story set in Alaska a lot more feasible.

We began writing the script and drawing a rough storyboard before moving to pre-production. Stop motion is a very slow process, and requires a huge amount of planning, so pre-production took us a number of months and involved a lot of experimentation.

“Before making any of the models we did a lot of visual research into Inuit culture and the Alaskan environment.”

Making Inuit-inspired models
Before making any of the models we did a lot of visual research into Inuit culture and the Alaskan environment. We both really love the style of traditional Inuit craft, and tried to keep that handcrafted feel with our models. For most models, we’d pull together a few reference photos we found online and highlight which aspects of the objects or images we liked. We asked illustrators Tom Stockwell and Sean O’Brien to draw up some concept drawings to help start refining the visuals and the models, before we began making the main characters, props and prepping larger set pieces. Tom Langford also gave us a hand with making when possible.

For the main character, Uki, we must have made four or five full versions of him. We made multiple different heads and facial features, each time testing how well they worked and going back to the drawing board if we weren’t happy. We learnt a lot about the craft just by experimenting and general problem solving.

The Uki puppet

Reaching Out for Advice

Meeting other animators
It’s quite easy to stay inside the bubble that is university; you can sometimes keep your ideas closed to yourself and peers. But we actively spent time contacting studios and speaking to people in the industry to get advice. What we found so great about stop motion was the amount of people in the industry that took interest, and who were willing to give up their time to help us.

We went to Clapham Road Studios to speak to Matt Day (who actually ended up colour grading our film). Initially we just wanted to ask him about lighting and what camera lenses were best to use. Over the summer, Ieuan had interned with the guys at The Brothers McLeod who also helped us a huge amount; and went to A+C Studios (a stop-motion studio in Margate) who spent an afternoon with us showing us around and giving us animation and model-making tips. We also spent a lot of time trawling through stop-motion forums, analysing behind the scenes of animated films like Isle of Dogs and reading as much about it as we could. It’s safe to say we got a little bit obsessed.

“What we found so great about stop motion was the amount of people who were willing to give up their time to help us.”

Learning about the BFI initiative
By March 2018 we had the final script and the main characters made. It was around then that Greg McLeod (the other half of The Brothers McLeod) got in contact to tell us that the BFI and the BBC were looking to commission short films as part of their Animation 2018 initiative. It was perfect timing, as we had just created a pitch document for our university crit. We personally had no previous relationship with the BBC or BFI – but they had worked with the Brothers McLeod before. So we asked if they could be our mentors for the scheme.

Brothers McLeod 2017 showreel

Securing Funding

Preparing for the pitch
To secure funding, we submitted a pitch document and then had an interview. 300 animators applied for funding for the BFI Animation 2018 scheme, and only around 20 got through to the interview stage – which we actually found out when we arrived at our interview at the BFI headquarters.

This, in itself, took us by surprise; to even get to this stage having come from a graphic design course was already a massive achievement. We spoke through our treatment and showed the panel the puppet we had created, but what came across was that we spoke about the journey we had been on with a lot of enthusiasm. The BBC and BFI wanted to support that.

“What came across was that we spoke about the journey we had been on with a lot of enthusiasm.”

Making an animatic
After finding out that we had been successful and were awarded funding, we had to deliver an animatic for the BBC, which Greg from Brother McLeod’s drew for us. An animatic is a moving storyboard which illustrates and blocks out what is going to happen in the film. It's often quite crude but is really helpful in getting the pacing and idea across. It’s very much a draft of the film; as you watch it you can pick it apart and put it back together and see what works better. This went through the BFI and BBC and we got feedback on this as we went along.

The production company Wingspan Productions and animation consultant Helen Brunsdon were involved through the early stages of the production. They gave a lot of feedback on our animatic, as they knew it was a lot easier to fix potential problems at the storyboard stage than having to reshoot sections of the film which would potentially set us back weeks. We actually ended up adding a whole new scene after getting feedback on our first animatic pass, which really helped push the narrative further. It took around three or four passes, but once the animatic was locked, we could begin filming.

Stills from the animatic, drawn by Greg McLeod (The Brothers McLeod)

Making a Makeshift Studio

Converting the garage into an animation studio
Because we didn’t have the budget to rent a studio for the duration of the shoot, the only available space that we had access to was George’s family garage. George’s parents kindly let us live with them for the two months of filming. Although, as they didn’t have enough room in the house, Ieuan had to sleep in a 5-man tent in the garden. It wasn’t ideal, but we were determined to make it work and converted the garage into a makeshift animation studio.

We spent two days clearing it out, and patching up holes in the roof and door so that no light came through. We also managed to find an old wooden desk that we extended to create a large animation table, which we filled with sandbags to make sure it didn’t move. Everything was extremely DIY out of necessity, it just involved a lot more problem solving.

Inside the duo's garage-based studio
The duo's studio, featuring their makeshift animation desk
Inside the duo's garage-based studio

Bringing Uki’s World to Life

Starting to shoot the film
On average we shot between 6 to 8 seconds of footage a day. Each second normally contained 12 separate frames, which means painstakingly moving the models in small increments 12 times per second. Because of this, we had to be wary that the light levels didn’t change during the day, and that the lights and set are stuck down so that nothing moves halfway through a shot. Animating a character and getting them moving in a realistic way was quite a challenge, too. We often filmed ourselves acting out what we wanted the character to do, so that we could reference the movements whilst animating.

“As a duo we know each other’s strengths, weaknesses and skillsets pretty well, so we often delegate work depending on our skills.”

Working together
Whilst filming we usually set up the shots together and then George lit and animated most of the shots, whilst Ieuan prepared and built sets and models for the next scene. Once George had finished a sequence, Ieuan would do the post work, taking out puppet rigs in After Effects as well as compositing backgrounds.

It was very much a call-and-response process: there was always something that needed doing. We very much mirrored each other, which was great. As a duo we know each other’s strengths, weaknesses and skillsets pretty well, so we often delegate work depending on our skills. We also had product designer Tom Langford on set for three weeks helping to make sets with us, and providing a much needed moral boost after two months of working seven-day weeks.

Inside the duo's garage-based studio

The great thing about stop motion is that as you're taking individual high-res photos and not video footage. The camera equipment you need is a lot more affordable than if you were shooting commercial level live action films. We used a Canon DSLR that George already owned and an old manual aperture Nikkor lens, along with a piece of animation software called Dragonframe. This set up is very similar to the equipment used on films like Frankenweenie and Isle of Dogs. Also because the scale of the sets is so much smaller than live action, the lights can also be a lot smaller as you can use longer exposure times than you would normally for video.

Adding sound into the mix
About halfway through filming we also began talking with our composer and sound designer Tom Angell about the tone of the music. We wanted the sound of the film to be quite atmosphere heavy as we liked the idea of Uki being against the elements and the wind haunting his mind. Tom also recorded a lot of the sound effects himself and even mic’d up his dog to record barks and whimpers. At the end of the filming process, we had three colour grading sessions with Matt Day at Clapham Road Studios.

Animating the characters
Inside the duo's garage-based studio
Inside the duo's garage-based studio

The Final Film

Getting the film out in the world
The film is premiering at BFI Southbank on the 19th November. We are looking forward to seeing people’s reactions – but also seeing all the other films that are part of the scheme. It is also being broadcast on BBC Four on 2nd December at 10pm as part of a British animation night, and will also be on BBC IPlayer and the in the BFI archive if you miss it.

One of the biggest challenges while working on Uki were the working hours. Animating stop motion is a very time-consuming process. And due to having such a short deadline for a project of this scale, we would be animating for ten or more hours a day, seven days a week for about two months straight. I think we had about four days off over the filming period, which was at times quite hard – especially as we had spent a lot of that time working alone. At the end, though, it was definitely worth it and we’d do it again – just hopefully with a bigger budget and crew.

At this stage, we’d call the film a success just because it’s been a massive learning curve for us. It has allowed us to learn about all the different aspects of the industry, the craft behind it, and will hopefully lead us to other opportunities in the industry.

Final stills from the film
Final stills from the film
Final stills from the film

Interview by Marianne Hanoun
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