Last January, Early Man was the latest release in a string of movies produced by stop motion powerhouse Aardman Animations. Also known as Aardman, the studio is the creative force behind popular animated films Chicken Run, Flushed Away and the Wallace and Gromit franchise.
Despite how it might look to the untrained eye, Early Man is one of many stop motion films that relies heavily on other visual effects as well. In this case, computer-generated (CG) animation was used to create lots of the scenery and other elements involved in building the fun and colourful Stone Age world the action of Early Man takes place in.
That’s where AxisVFX, the visual effects arm of Axis Studios, comes in. AxisVFX is a creator of high-end CG imagery for both TV and film and the team made more than 1,350 shots for Early Man.
I caught up with Howard Jones, the Co-Founder and VFX Supervisor of AxisVFX, who has worked with Aardman on a number of movies, including Shaun the Sheep Movie and Shaun the Sheep: The Farmer’s Llamas. We talked about how Early Man was made, why stop motion animation is still popular and what the future holds for the CG and animation industries.
Creating the world of Early Man
Even now, years after stop motion movies have taken off, it still never ceases to amaze me how long and painstaking the process can be. With that in mind, I asked Jones how the AxisVFX team worked alongside Aardman.
“We worked collaboratively with Aardman,” Jones said. “The creative vision always came from Nick [Park, director of Early Man], but we were able to offer up different ideas to see what would work best in the film.”
Jones explained one of the main priorities was ensuring all of the elements created by AxisVFX worked seamlessly throughout Early Man. “The key thing was to make sure everything looked part of the Aardman world, and not incongruous,” he said.
Given both companies have such a long-standing partnership, I wanted to find out whether there was anything different about the process this time around. “The Axis team have worked together with Aardman on a number of projects now, so we’re used to the stop frame medium,” Jones explained.
But there are a lot of things to bear in mind when the team is working with animation and stop motion instead of a live action project. “There a number of considerations to take into account within the genre – the simplest is that often it is filmed in ‘2s’, where the animation happens every other frame,” Jones said. “Also, the time scale involved in getting the shots off the floor is very different. The first shot in a sequence might arrive months before the last, so Axis had to carefully manage the continuity of visual effects, especially when compared to a locked edit in live action.”
The process might have remained largely the same, but what about the technology? I asked Jones whether different tech, programmes and editing software played a part in the making of Early Man. “We used ‘Redshift’ for the rendering of stadium shots,” Jones said. “The stadium was very heavy to render – with up to 20,000 CG puppets in the crowd and a pitch full of CG grass. It would have taken over an hour per frame if we’d used CPU rendering, without even reaching full quality.”
He continued: “With Redshift, we got timings down to about 10 minutes at equivalent quality. By the time we upped the quality, we were between half an hour to 1 hour per frame, saving significantly more time than a CPU approach.”
Because his job involves creating sprawling, fantastical scenes, I asked Jones whether it’s the creative element he enjoys the most. “My favourite part of any project is working with the Director,” he said. ”Nick was very inspirational and being able to deliver on the Director’s vision is always a fantastic feeling.”
“My second favourite experience was creating the CG crowd. There’s a lot of animation going on, combining all sorts of different behaviours,” Jones says. “Nick would give us the general mood of a crowd, then the Axis team would use animation to realise his vision. It was rewarding to see everything come together.”
A Grand Day Out
CG and stop motion animation – a match made in heaven?
Although stop motion movies have been around for decades now (Wallace and Gromit’s A Grand Day Out short was made way back in 1989), it still seems like a beloved medium all of these years later. I asked Jones why he thinks that is, and whether it’ll always be the case.
“Animation is one of the earliest film art forms. It has a rich history,” Jones said. “Although CG animation has arrived and fully matured there is still something satisfying about watching a hand-crafted image. You can see the love that has gone into each and every frame.”
But what does the future hold? Jones told me he doesn’t think animation or stop motion animation is going anywhere, but we’ll see more combining of different mediums. “Some purists hate the idea of using CG and puppet animation together,” Jones said. “But Aardman has proved on a number of films that we can enjoy the best of both mediums, combining the two to create and extend the puppet world further.”
He gave me an example from the film The Pirates. “The largest CG element was the sea, but the boat itself was a massive physical model on a sophisticated gimbal with animatable sails,” he said. “When working on Early Man, the most obvious physical element is the stadium, but we also put a lot of effort into background digital matte paintings and skies that extend the world right out.”
His point is that creators should be able to pick and choose different approaches depending on the desired results. “If you can use the best of both techniques, then why not?” Jones said.
Will VR change the way movies are made?
I’m fascinated by VR and how it might shake up all kinds of industries – or even become an artform in its own right. But what about film?
Since there’s been a lot of talk about how 360 video and VR might change film-making, I was keen to get Jones’ take on the tech. “I’m watching VR carefully but it’s still a young medium,” Jones said. “However there are a lot of self proclaimed experts in this field right now, deciding on how films should be made; setting rules. Not always for the right reasons”
Like a few creators I’ve spoken to about the potential of VR, he thinks we need to think outside the box, stop following the VR rules and move beyond the stereotypes we all hold about what the medium can do.“I think VR should be allowed to flourish,” Jones said, “allowing creators to ignore rules as long as it benefits the medium."
Finally, because Jones works in such a creative, busy and fast-paced industry, I asked him how he broke into visual effects – and how others can too.
“CG is not something I was expecting to get into, or to be honest, knew much about,” Jones said. “I finished a Fine Arts degree in 1988 when the industry was young. At that point, I had only ever used a computer to print my thesis (having agreed to pay for the ink). Then I managed to get a job in desktop publishing. I had to learn how to use the computer, as well as a number of DTP programmes, within a couple of days. It was a challenge, but I did it.”
Ultimately, Jones’ way into the industry was through his passion for film. “However, my real interest was in editing and film so I pursued that for a number of years,” Jones said. “Soon after getting a position at Avid, I started using their VFX software. From that, I started my first job in 1998.”
Jones’ advice for anyone hoping to follow in his footsteps is to get clear about what you want – then teach yourself as much as you can. “There are a number of different jobs out there – compositing, match move, modelling, rigging, animation and so on. They all require different talents,” Jones said. “Research what best suits you and then learn the software. Apprenticeships in CG are limited, but most software will include tutorials and learning tools that make the industry a bit more accessible.”
His key piece of advice once you’ve got your foot in the door is something everyone working in a team could do with being reminded of from time to time: don’t be too precious. “This is a very collaborative industry so you’ll often need to work with colleagues on the same shot,” Jones said. “You’re going to feel frustrated and protective when your handcrafted work is changed, but to get standout quality, every scene needs to go through iterations.”