Sometimes a job comes along that is, quite frankly, ridiculous. That was my first thought when Director friend Adam Miller called me a few weeks ago.
“We need some animation of Tony Blair,” Adam explained.
“Right,” I replied cautiously.
“In a tiny submarine.”
“Really tiny, as in microscopic.” Adam said. “He’s inside an artery destroying the Ebola virus.”
I laughed nervously.
“And we need it in three days time.” Adam didn’t laugh.
“Can you do it?”
I’ve worked with Adam before, first on the Omid Djalili Show and then on two series of the puppet comedy show Mongrels. On both occasions it’s been creatively challenging, intense but a lot of fun. So I said yes. I mean who doesn’t want to animate a microscopic Tony Blair defeating the Ebola virus?
As it happened I didn’t even have three days to do it. I was leaving for a family weekend away on Friday morning so I had two and a quarter days to deliver something that wouldn’t need changes or fixes over the weekend when I’d be unavailable. Luckily Adam and the production team at Noho Film & TV were very clear on what they wanted, so as long as I could deliver that we should be able to avoid lots of protracted amends.
The sequence was broken down into three shots of the submarine, starting very close on Tony before he turns his craft into the bloodstream. We decided we’d use stock footage for Tony, so the first task was to find something appropriate. It had to be a recent clip, something without too much distraction and, ideally, something that looked like he might be sat controlling a submarine. We rejected lots of clips where he was talking and I eventually found one where he was listening to a reporters question before responding. Tony smiled, turned his head and listened. Perfect! And the background behind Tony was a flat colour, something I could use as a key to cut him out.
While I waited for approval of the chosen clip I began to work on the submarine. It needed to be a one man submersible, with a big enough window bubble so that Tony would be recognisable inside it. I wanted to use some parts from an earlier model I’d build for Hyperdrive but, as is typical, the archive drive decided not to work. I didn’t have time to recover it (I’ve done that since) so I decided to just go ahead a build a basic sub. The body is made from a stretched sphere, with a window hatch cut into it. The detail was cobbled together from bits of a tie fighter and an ancient low poly ROV model I’ve had for over ten years. Archiving old stuff can come in very handy. All of those bits needed adjusting and adding onto the model to create the overall design. But as there wasn’t time for a traditional concept design stage I was hoping it would be acceptable to the clients. Luckily it was. Once I had a basic shape I sent them a very basic animation test to get their approval. Once I knew I was heading in the right direction I added further detail to the model. I kept the textures very simple as there wasn’t time to do much else.
The animation had to meet some very specific requirements. The clip of Tony is quite expensive to use so it was important to get him out of shot as quickly as possible. I tried animating him ducking down into the ship but he just looked wrong. Eventually I changed the motion of the sub so that he is hidden after a couple of seconds. The sequence also had to work with the timing of the live-action footage – the final render would end up on a medical monitor. Once all this was approved by the client I began the render process. The render is broken up into several different passes which are composited together to create the final image. Tony was rendered speratly so I could control his visibility in the shot. As well as an ambient occlusion pass I created a dirt pass for the sub, helping to break up the basic textures and add some realism.
The various sub renders were combined with the background – a very rushed 3D model of an artery – and some animated blood vessels. (These were actually created years ago for a medical project by Chris Chatterton, one of my animation team at Qurios. Again, it’s good to archive stuff, you never know when you might need it.) Finally I created a simple graphic overlay to show how well Tony was doing in his fight against Ebola.
After a couple of very late nights and early mornings I finally got everything completed at about 1am on Friday morning. I uploaded the shots and went to bed. At 8am I got in touch with Adam and he gave me his approval on the finished shots. They still had to be seen and signed off by three different producers but I was confident enough at this stage to set off on my family weekend away.
Thankfully they didn’t ask for any changes! It was a really fun experience, albeit a lot of hours in a very short period of time. The clients never wanted this to be super realistic or feature film quality. It was always meant to be just a quick gag shot but I think it came out OK.