Insomnia: A Making-Of
Documenting my laborious attempt to create a 7-8 minute animation.
I always loved the "behind the scenes" sections of my favorite DVD's as a child, sneaking a glimpse of the production process was (and still is) just as fascinating as the film itself.
This blog is an attempt to document my own ongoing, meandering and folly ridden process of creating a short animation titled: Insomnia. Now, I wouldn't dare compare my ramblings to any of the incredible bonus features to be found on The Matrix for example - especially as I haven't actually finished the film yet (wish me luck). However, they might hold a morsel of interest for the select, masochistic few interested in the many ups and downs of The Personal Project.
May you learn from my mistakes.
The music video for Ed Sheeran's
"Cross Me" was something I was lucky enough to work on as a freelancer
October 2019 - Taking the plunge
I had been a freelance Motion Designer for about six months at this point and things were pretty good. I had more money than I knew what to do with and was finally able to choose which projects I wanted to take on.
But, as it turns out, money doesn't buy you happiness (duh?!) and picking projects is great, but they are never really your projects. Still at the mercy of the client and often far removed from much sense of ownership, a freelancer is frequently brought in mid-way through a job to essentially problem solve and 'get it out the door'.
So, what better cure for restlessness than turning down subsequent freelance work and launching yourself into the unknown! It was time to make a film.
Working on my film from home wasn't going to be an option, one aspect of industry life I loved was the social side of working in a team. Though I would of course be producing my film alone, finding a shared workspace with some sort of community was a must for my mental health.
Fortune just so had it that not 10 minutes cycle down the road from my North London flat was a coworking space full of the loveliest humans one could possibly hope to meet.
After a whistle-stop tour of the space and an introduction to Rudy, the semi-resident studio dog, I packed up my equipment and moved in.
All moved in.
Rudy was a bit wary of me at first, but I think I've won him over...
How would this all work, financially speaking? How would I find the time needed to make a 5-10 minute animation, something you can expect to potentially take years to complete, and still survive in London, one of the most expensive cities in the world?
Well, I had enough savings at this point to last about a year without working. However, I didn't like the idea of this film costing me money - I wanted to keep saving.
Thus I devised a plan of working for money 6 months of the year and working on my film the other 6 months. I figured it would be nice to take paid projects when I was lacking the motivation for my own work, so I would break up the freelance months throughout the year.
Calculating my monthly expenditure and having a handle on my finances as a whole was to be incredibly important if I wanted to make this viable. Fortunately the London freelance rates for Motion Design are currently rather lucrative. I generally charge between £300 - £350 a day depending on the client, so even at the lower end (£300 a day), 6 months of paid work equates to between 35-40k pre-tax. Knowing I have an average monthly expenditure of around £1,800, these earnings should be more than enough for me to keep saving whilst not having to sacrifice life's purchasable pleasures.
I'm writing this a year on, and a side effect of taking this much time off has been a complete re-evaluation of my work/life balance. Our world is a very different world to to that experienced by our parents. The 9 to 5/time = money formula is no longer compulsory, and in embarking upon my silly animation about a man who can't sleep I discovered a new and much more pleasurable way of living. In this later post I talk a little more about these discoveries.
Keeping track of all my earnings/expenses in google sheets has been an invaluable way to keep on top of things (for this example I've changed sensitive information - these aren't my exact finances!) Here's a link to a template of this spreadsheet, maybe someone will find it useful.
I had my freedom, I had my studio, now I just needed to think up an idea... Which is much easier said then done.
The first few weeks of "freedom" were spent in various coffee shops in and around Muswell Hill with my laptop and notebook, binging Vimeo staff picks for inspiration, scribbling down ideas, drinking too many cappuccinos and all in all feeling a bit lost.
Unbelievably, the perfect idea refused to conveniently present itself and the days and weeks dragged on. If I was going to spend all this time on a short it would surely have to be a masterpiece? Oscar nom worthy at the very least!?
I soon came to realize however, that if I didn't just get started I would spend months wandering in metaphorical circles looking for the non-existent perfect plot.
Having suffered from bouts of insomnia in the past, I was drawn to the idea of sleeplessness as a premise. With barely more to go on then "A guy struggles to get to sleep" I decided to pick this as my route and force a story out of it.
Millennial me, featuring the "I'm so creative" notebook + laptop combo.
Once I had cobbled together a rough beginning, middle and end for my story in a series of scrappy notes, I moved on to storyboarding in an attempt to flesh out the narrative.
It would be safe to say the whole process was a disaster. I've never liked storyboarding, I can draw okay, but not quickly... Which is a problem when you want to get ideas down fast. Drawing frames into my sketchbook also meant I couldn't easily rearrange shots and ideas which resulted in creative block. I tried digital drawing, this went even worse. I even tried cutting out frames and pinning them to a corkboard, but this was just as much of a faff.
In the end I discovered that ideas flowed best when I simply wrote them down into a script. I found that as I wrote, I could clearly envisage the camera angles, animation and timings that would work, and the film stared to take shape in my mind.
The ill-fated cork-storyboard. I had hoped pinning the frames would make for quick rearranging, in hindsight using drawing pins was a terrible idea - they're too bloody fiddly.
As a distraction from my storyboarding woes I started on some of the fun stuff, the design of my main character for instance.
In an attempt to reduce the overall workload a constraint I had set myself at the outset was to write a story involving only one character and one environment (I ended up breaking this constraint, marginally).
I collected a fair amount of reference for my hero and sketched a few designs, overeager as always I jumped into 3D far too early (3D is where I'm most comfortable), and as you can see in the clip to the right, my final design differed hugely from the early drawings and models.
Some of the many iterations my character's design went through.
Turntable of the current progress - August 2020
Early sketches - I originally planned on my character wearing a pink, polka dot dressing gown for the majority of the film.
Next I needed to rig my character. This is a process in which you add virtual bones and controls to the 3D model in order to manipulate it for animation, kind of like a puppet.
I used Mixamo as a starting point, which I would recommend for anyone who wants to get a head-start on this process. After uploading my model and having it auto-rigged, I pulled it back into C4D and began the laborious process of weight painting (defining how certain bones will move the mesh) and adding numerous bespoke controls, eXpresso (the visual programming system used in C4D) and joints - all to enable my character to do what was required of it when it came to animating.
This is still an ongoing process, as I animate more of my film I'm constantly tweaking and adding to the rig as various issues and new requirements arise.
Testing out the face controls - as there is no talking or narration in the film I need him to be as expressive as possible.
An early animation test, the coloured lines surrounding the character are the controls, like strings on a puppet.
The tedious and perpetual process of weight painting. And the back of my head.
An animatic is a preliminary version of a film, produced by playing through the storyboard shot by shot. In my case I'm using rudimentary 3D animation. Doing this enables you to get a real feel for the film as a whole and whether or not the story makes sense. It also provides a framework to build on.
I began the animatic stage as soon as I had a primitive character rig. I set up each shot as a separate C4D scene and used Xrefs to pull in my character and environment. An Xref references a file outside of the scene, this allows me to link all of my shots to my character rig file and as I continue to make changes to the rig, all of my shots update automatically with the new version.
Piecing together the animatic is a very slow process (months), and it's still not quite finished. I find that though I'm desperate to see the final narrative come together, it's extremely draining, creatively speaking. The most import aspect of a film is of course the story, and it's at this stage you need to really nail it down.
Breaks from working on the animatic come in the form of paid work, more rigging, side projects and well, this blog... In fact I should really be getting back to it now...
A snippet of early animatic (top) compared to the current version (bottom). A few months of work between the two.
Lockdown, March 2020 - Disaster Strikes
I don't want to for a second pretend that my Covid experience has caused me the kind of hardship and turmoil I have seen experienced by numerous friends and colleagues of mine, but all of our experiences, our ups and downs, are relative. I did find it tough.
It was with a heavy heart that the morning after lockdown in the UK was announced I moved my computer equipment out of Lydian Workspace and into my bedroom. I had planned to work on my film throughout March and April, but once the novelty of animating in my boxer shorts dwindled, I found motivation for self-initiated work quickly plummeted. Before lockdown I had some semblance of a daily routine. Once I couldn't leave the flat however, I slowly but surely regressed to a long forgotten teenage version of myself, late bedtimes, late mornings, zero exercise and numerous takeaway meals... It wasn't pretty.
It was also during this period that I committed perhaps my biggest, for lack of a better phrase, fuck up thus far. It came in the form of effectively blowing up my computer. As I plan on rendering my animation on my own machine, I figured it was time to invest in a fancy new graphics card to speed things up. With my new graphics card came the need for a new power supply, and in installing the hardware I used an incorrect cable to connect both of my hard drives to the power supply - cue smoke billowing from my PC. Idiot. One hard dive was completely bricked, the other I was told could have data recovered but to the tune of roughly £800. My most important files and Insomnia are backed up to Google Drive but my last sync had been a few weeks prior, so I lost a fair chunk of work.
Needless to say, with no motivation and weeks of lost work, I put the film on the back-burner for the remainder of lockdown while my psyche repaired itself and took on some paid gigs instead.
Dead drives, poor things had no idea what hit them.
An indulgent reflection on my current lifestyle - August 2020
(AKA philosophical ramblings, feel free to ignore completely.)
I have been plugging away at this film on and off now for the best part of a year and during this time my attitudes towards success, work, money and even life have changed quite dramatically. The following is a snapshot of my current thoughts on said subjects, if nothing else it might provide me with something to look back on in ten years time and think "Oh, so this is where it all went wrong..."
At the outset of this journey yes, I wanted to make a film, but I also wanted to experiment with an alternative way of living. How would I function taking 6 months off a year? Would I lack motivation to produce anything self-initiated? Would I be crippled by anxiety, worries about money and being left behind in a fast-paced industry? Fortunately, so far at least, none of these concerns have come to fruition. In fact, quite the opposite.
In Britain, it seems to me we are brought up to seek the capitalist definition of success and happiness. We're bombarded with it. Get a degree, work hard, become the best in your field (if you don't you're a failure), make lots of money, spend lots of money and retire when old and decrepit. At least this is certainly the message I internalised. This is what I was aiming for when I was working full time and it was going reasonably well, all things considered. So why, if I was doing everything right, was I horribly anxious on a daily basis? Why was the next career jump never enough? Hang on... I've not been lied to, have I?
Before deciding to make a film, going freelance and becoming my own boss presented me with a conundrum: Yes I could work more hours and earn more money, but did I need more money? Yes I could keep working my way up the industry ladder, aim to become a Creative Director and perhaps open a studio, but would that really make me happy? For some people it certainly would, but if I had to be painfully honest with myself, I wasn't one of them.
After largely disconnecting from the working world this past year, I now truly believe that our relationship with money is deeply flawed. The most important thing I can buy isn't more stuff, it's time and freedom. Freedom to follow my interests and hobbies, freedom to spend time with friends and family, to get out of bed when I want, to choose what to work on for the day and when. No rota, no rules, no asking permission to take holiday - no one managing my time but me.
The past six or months or so I've taken off paid work have given me ample time for reflection, and my life goals have been slowly realigning. After making a conscious effort to adjust my mindset, I honestly no longer feel the pressure to be 'successful' in the traditional sense, and let me tell you, what a weight that has lifted. My film might be well received, win awards, open doors... But it's more than likely it won't, and that's okay because the real success was being able to make it in the first place.
I should say that I am fully aware of how privileged my circumstances are, I appreciate that many people out there will not have the same opportunities that I just so happened to have (by luck, or by way of some existential privilege I find myself in). However, I can vouch for giving the freelance life a try if you have the chance to do so.
I also appreciate that freelance isn't for everyone, there is quite rightly a lot of comfort to be had in a secure job at a good company. But just knowing there are alternatives might be food for thought for a frustrated few.
I guess the convoluted conclusion I personally have drawn from my year of 'semi-retirement' is that success is subjective. We're all aiming for someone's version of success - just make sure it's your own.
October 2020 - Look Development
Now that the animatic is pretty much locked-in, I'm turning my attention to more nitty gritty areas of production such as: finessing animation, populating the environment with models and textures, adding lighting, colour and atmosphere.
Technically, if I were to follow the process properly, I should probably finish the majority of animation before diving too heavily into smaller details like environment detail and lighting. The problem is it's hard to maintain motivation when you've been staring at crappy, uninspiring greyscale edits for so long.
Hence the justification for the below images is 'look development'. Experimenting with colour grading, lighting setups and an overall visual tone I can be happy with and eventually roll out across the whole film. (Really I'm just desperate to see what the damn thing will look like).
Before and after colour correction, the 3D software I use creates a raw image which I then open up in different editing software to alter colours, contrast and other aspects of the image.
I was apprehensive that as the entire story takes place at night, lighting scenes adequately might be problematic. However, trial and error (and watching Monsters inc. for "reference") proved that all you really need to achieve that night-time feel is one big blue light shining through windows to cast sharp shadows, a softer light pointing in the opposite direction to fill in darker areas and the occasional rim light to help the character to stand out against the background.
When modelling and rigging props needed for the story, such as a floppy rubber toilet plunger, it can be hard to resist rendering out some fun tests. Just another form of procrastination, really.
This bring us to the present day, I'm honestly shocked you read this far!
I'll be adding new posts and musings as my film develops so feel free to check in occasionally to see progress... Or lack thereof.