Animation and Japan and allsorts…

Showreel Shuffle

This is a test shot of Li, one of the first puppets we got hold of before we started shooting on Toby’s. Li is one of the acrobats, so the instruction was to do something that would get her into extreme poses. I wish I could have carried on the crab walk for a bit longer, but it was the end of the day.

Whenever I put a showreel together, I always make it up of scenes that I like and enjoyed animating, and shots like this don’t often fit in anwhere, except maybe as a funny bookend. They feel a bit out of context in comparison. With a complete scene, you can show how you deal with character interaction more clearly, and with actions continuing across several shots. I’m aware that it’s a bit of a test of the viewer’s attention span in a way that a reel full of snappily cut action shots isn’t, but making a reel full of jumping about and characters falling over feels like I’m making a trailer for ‘You’ve Been Framed’. Or ‘Miranda’.

Toby’s Travelling Circus

Here’s a short film about the show I’m working on at the moment for MacKinnon and Saunders, Toby’s Travelling Circus. Some nice insights into what we’ve been up to from Chris (Producer), Barry (Director) and Holly (Art Director). Toby’s airs on Channel 5 on Saturday mornings this September.

SpongeStop MoPants

Well, didn’t see that coming! Looks a treat too.

Dwarf Inc.

We made our third trip to Japan last March, As you do, we made various plans to visit places and do interesting things away from the tourist trail. I spent a while scratching my head trying to come up with things to do that didn’t involve video game arcades, Steampunk themed pubs and emporiums selling intricately sculpted plastic gonks (of which there are many). After a last minute email exchange that I really didn’t expect to lead to anything, we found ourselves in a studio space in rainy, suburban Tokyo, home to a furry, toothy creature and his various animal chums…

The Domo-Kun animations are made by the animation company Dwarf Inc. The creation of animator-director Tsuneo Goda, Domo is, as they say, huge in Japan, and has a cultural presence extending way beyond his position as mascot for Japanese TV station NHK. To call Domo a ‘cult’ character rather underestimates his appeal.

To find the studio, we used a combination of printed out google maps and handwritten directions from Dwarf Inc’s website. Japanese cartography and street naming conventions are very, um… different from those in England, especially if you’ve underestimated the time it takes to travel across Tokyo. Fortunately, Abiko-San, a modelmaker working there, grabbed us as we passed the side street leading to the studio, presumably having spotted two puzzled Westerners squinting at damp bits of A4.

As we arrived, the full Dwarf retinue was present. Domo’s creator Goda-San, and one of Dwarf’s longest serving animators Minegishi-San, were milling about chatting. Another English visitor had been booked for the same day, a modelmaker/sculptor named Alex, who’d just finished working on ‘Pirates!’ at Aardman in Bristol, lives in Manchester, and to compound the coincidence, her cat was at that moment being looked after by my director Barry Purves. As we said at the time, small world! We settled round a long table in the boardroom and drank coffee and green tea whilst introducing ourselves. Due to varying shades of miscommunication, and language barriers, our hosts presumed that Alex and I knew each other already, rather than our being there together through sheer chance, booking our hols in Japan to see the cherry blossom!

Before we got there, I imagined we’d be shuttled round a busy, working studio and briefly introduced to people over a half hour before being shown the door. We ended up leaving Dwarf after nearly three hours of enjoyable, thought provoking conversation. After we were seated, a roundtable chat was chaired by resident producer Tetsuya Murayama, who translated and kept the conversation rolling as I tried to translate my questions into Japanese in my head, before admitting defeat and just asking things in English. We saw their showreel, packed with really engaging, funny and intricate work. Their films are economical in their storytelling, yet quite baroque in their animation and the detailed modelmaking and sets. The film below, one of their character Koma Neko, showcases Dwarf’s typical flair for narrative and design.

It was fantastic to have the run of the studio on a quiet day. The night before they’d just finished shooting an NHK ident with all the Domo characters in Hallowe’en costumes. The puppets were still sat there, the bats still up on rigs. As Murayama-San said, it was great timing as normally, people have to whoosh through the studio when they’re shooting, so we’d caught them on a good day. The puppets looked lovely, Domo is HUGE! We had quite a discussion about tie downs v magnets. I imagine Domo is immaculately tensioned for his appearances though, no falling over mid shot for him!

As we were about to leave, there was much dashing to find gifts for us in the shape of Domo phone charms and stickers, We visitors ended up with a handful of splendid meishi (business cards), presented in the Japanese manner, with both hands, card facing the recipient, which the recipient then duly examines. Being an idiot, I didn’t have a card of my own, something I rectified sharpish when I got back home!

We had a great time that afternoon, we were both giddy when we left, they were such a nice crew of people. Since then, emails have been exchanged, and I’ve replied in a combination of competent (I hope!) Japanese and english. I got a nice email back from Abiko-san, the freelancer who found us wandering the streets. Below is something he’s been working on with an animator friend of his, I hope they get the rest of the series made, I like their style, and their Lego cameos, very peppy and full of ideas!


Test walk. He’s walking and, thank gawd, working!

Rigging and texturing attack

Being the inveterate fiddler that I am, this character took a while longer to finish than I imagined! I’m happy with the end product though.

Having made some headway into texturing with the last character, I finished the model, then went to town putting his textures together. This not only meant learning parts of Photoshop I’d never touched on before, but led to hours of tweaking photos of bits of metal, rust, concrete, you name it, taken on my travels. The idea was to make him some kind of service robot. The emblem on his chest went through various iterations; I made one which looked great as a scribble in my notebook, but the final photoshop drawing looked kind of anaemic. Much grappling with Japanese fonts too, which can be a pain if you insist on using saucy looking ones from Japanese websites which are geared up for use with a Japanese keyboard.

He’s fully rigged with controllers, so now I’m giving him a nice bouncy walk. No reverse foot rig this time, I put in a Toe Roll instead, and the reverse foot seems to stop the toe from moving. Maybe there’s a workaround? I thought his stretchy rubberized neck would be a pain to rig, but no. Its weights are painted in a smoothed gradient, which was easy enough to do. Adding controllers was the tricky bit, his arms are FK only, which led me up a blind alley when it came to making controllers for them. The problem was getting the controller to control the joint’s rotation, at the same time as having the controller basically stick to the skeleton, following its translates and rotations. The solution was to group the control objects/curves to themselves, then orient constrain the joints to the curves, not the groups. But you probably knew that anyway. Lots of thinking about if and when to freeze transforms and the like. Anyway, here he is! Ain’t he pretty?

Here are some links to sites I found useful when it came to rigging him, especially for foot/toe roll…




Test-O-Bot #01

I’ve left this a while haven’t I? In between being busy with work and life in general, I’ve built my first ever rig. To my surprise and delight, it works!

The poly count is a bit higher than I’d have liked, but other than that, he’s turned out very well; I went with a rigid bind just to get used to the rigging process, hence all the ball joints. He has FK arms, IK on the legs (with the very handy reverse foot setup to keep his feet in place), and not wanting to go too crazy with his textures, I plopped some decals here and there. Perusing a still boxed eggplane model kit I bought in Japan, I liked the idea of taking all the safety markings you see on aircraft, and imagining similar markings on a rig.

I still have his toe roll attributes to add to the feet, so I haven’t rendered out any animation with him yet. Anyway, here are some pics…


I built this following a tutorial by Jason Edwards at Simply Maya. I liked his style, he just gets cracking and solves problems along the way, explaining what he’s doing and why, rather than leaving you to keep playing back a blur of  hotboxes and menus to figure out what he’s doing.

I changed a few things to keep it interesting, also I followed slightly different blueprints to Mr Edwards, so the end result looks more like an Ump, which is a silly name for a gun. I was working on the Savoia at the same time, using some of the tricks I picked up from making the gun. This is partly wanting to road test newly learned skills, and also I get a bit  frustrated being held by the hand, and want to go off piste a bit. I think part of me just enjoys making a mess, and I’ve got to a point where I feel confident enough to clean the mess up on my own!

Kurama no Himatsuri

Now then! Back in November, we went to Japan for a couple of weeks. Out of many little excursions we went on round Kyoto, this was the most memorable, for various reasons. Kurama is a village up in the mountains outside Kyoto. Some time in the Heian period, in order to appease the gods, the emperor ordered that Yuki shrine be moved north to Kurama. This was quite some feat, the path, a kilometer long, was lit with torches as people worked day and night. Kurama fire festival has been held every year since then, in commemoration.

We arrived a few hours before the craziness started, so we ambled up the mountainside and looked around the shrines dotted along the way. Really beautiful, with people attending to their devotions, ladling water onto dragon statues and the like.

We knew it would be packed, or at least get that way, before we arrived. At about seven o’clock, we were back down in the village, where the police were shouting directions (very politely) and moving plastic barriers about. Because there was no official timetable or guide to what was going on, we ended up in the crush of hundreds of similarly confused tourists, waiting for some clue about what was going to happen. My elementary Japanese saved me when we got separated looking for food. “Watashi no kanai wa are desu!” My wife is over there!

After much hanging about, we ended up being politely funneled towards the main residential street. Families were gathered round braziers outside their houses, some dressed in period costume, whilst the men and boys of the village (there’s an element of coming of age ceremony to the festival) marched up and down the street chanting, carrying very large burning torches. Quite a lot of the bustling crowds were camera toting westerners, which the locals didn’t seem to mind.

We mooched along the street for an hour or so, taking in the sights and sounds, and wishing we lived in a nice little village in Japan basically! However. Heading back to the station, any obvious path to it seemingly blocked by polite but inept policemen, we were squeezed like toothpaste from a tube, onto the flaming toothbrush at the epicentre of the village (that doesn’t quite scan. But you get the idea).

The tide of bodies washed us up in front of a row of houses, and the centrepiece of the festival, a throng of costumed, chanting men erecting a wall of fifteen foot long flaming torches. The photos don’t quite convey the subtle nuances of the atmosphere here, it kind of felt like being in the middle of a scene from The Wicker Man that was cut for being too terrifying. At this point, all bets were off, as we abandoned our dash to the train and freedom, and just settled for not getting trampled or burnt too badly. The lady owner of the house we were trapped in front of seemed to be tasked with chucking water on the torches, to stop them burning out of control, and dousing any of the festival celebrants should burning embers fall on them, which did happen to a few of the men humping the big torches along. Wicker Man, like I said. All in all, quite a night out. One of those experiences that you can appreciate better in posterity! And we ate the best kitsune udon we’ve ever had in Kurama. Sugoi!


More adventures in poly modelling. This is the Italian Savoia seaplane from Porco Rosso. It was very pleasing to make, I had a few hiccups along the way though. The fuselage is based on a cylinder with a sphere at the front to help round out the nose. Trying the same method for the ridges on top of the engine didn’t really work, and the simple way turned out to be the best.

Having put that film still up, I’ve just realised the blueprints I used are a bit different to the plane in the film. What’s that little propeller on the side for? I might texure it properly when I get a moment. I’m enjoying modelling just as much as animating, which is a nice surprise. The problem solving side of it is very gratifying.

I found the blueprints I used to build it on this site…


You have to sign up to get access to decent sized images, worth doing though.