The ups and downs of making a short film

Editor’s note: In this Guest Post we’re thrilled to bring you some insight and behind the scenes content from Aran Quinn about what it’s like burning the midnight oil for your personal work as well as the arduous task of making a short film.

Photo by Taylor K Franklin

I made a short film. It’s an Alien wildlife Mockumentary set on a distant planet, Planet Tobler. Starring, Christopher Lloyd (Back to the Future, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Adam’s Family)

Trailer

The craziest thing about the short film was that it took over 5 years to complete. I shelved the film for several months at a time because of distractions, mental blocks and doubting whether the film’s ideas and designs were good…or terrible.

During these years my taste changed, my skill sets strengthened, but I kept coming back to this idea.  Ultimately, completing Planet Tobler all came down to luck and timing.

Here is what the first frame looked like:

And here is what that frame ended up looking like in the final:

How it all began

I was a Junior Designer at The Mill in 2012. I had only worked there for a few months. I had down days here and there because my knowledge of Adobe programs was limited, so I started drawing and animating a few naked characters for a laugh. Co-workers that passed by my desk would stop and stare at what I was making. Their interest and support encouraged me to keep building this little world of characters and environments. Brian Gossett said my illustrations looked like they could be out of a nature show. Straight away I told myself I was going to make a mockumentary based on my favorite TV series, Planet Earth. It was an unusual piece for me from the start as I broke my typical workflow for a narrative animation. Normally I follow a basic step by step process:

  1. Script,
  2. Designs,
  3. Storyboards,
  4. Animatic (If there is a voice-over or dialogue, it needs to be recorded and placed in the animatic)
  5. Animation.

But Planet Tobler sort of started in the middle and grew in every other direction which I don’t really recommend.

Advertising rebellion

Planet Tobler was my way of releasing energy and pent-up frustration after a long day’s work. We had just finished an animated commercial for a mattress company. I remember thinking the mattress spot was the coolest thing I had ever worked on. I couldn’t get over the fact that I got to work with such amazingly talented and intelligent creatives, and that they thought I was good enough to be a part of their team. I couldn’t believe I got paid for it. But every time I showed it to my friends who aren’t in the industry, they would nod and force a fake smile. So I looked at it with a bird’s eye view and it hit me. I just made my friends watch a mattress commercial. It might have looked nice, but it was for a mattress. It was there and then I realized that a lot of the time I was (and still am) making something that people just want to press “skip” on YouTube. I got so caught up in the way the character looked and moved that I forgot what I was making them for. I told myself that’s fine and all but I need to start balancing this out with more wild and personal content.

Now and again something that you believe in will come through the door and that’s amazing, but most of the work in a big studio or company is out of your control, and you’ll find it tough to be emotionally invested in big corporate content. I’d find myself frequently asking “If this wasn’t my work, would I care about these 5 seconds of nicely executed motion-designs?’ This concern pushed me to make something not tied to advertising or the internal politics of a studio, ie. who gets to be the CD, who’s the AD, who’s designing and who’s animating what, who’s even available at that time, etc. Big commercials attract big talent and I still absolutely love working on aesthetically pleasing ads. My skill sets and eye for detail are at the level they are because of working on commercials with clients that have high expectations. I’ve been so lucky with the creative teams who I’ve been surrounded by and what they’ve taught me. But for Planet Tobler, I wanted to focus on investing a piece with a look, concept, and message that I totally believed in. I didn’t want to be tied to other people’s opinions and concerns. Another huge thing was that I had the most junior position on the team, so I knew I was years away from leading a job and I thought what better way to experience leading a project than making my own short.

 

Development

When I started designing Planet Tobler, I had just read a book called, “Steal like an Artist”, by Austin Kleon. It blew my mind. The book inspired me to identify what traits of my favorite artists I was specifically influenced by, mix those traits together and make a unique cocktail that I could call my own. I broke them into 4 main categories:

Backgrounds

At the time I was heavily influenced by George Dunning’s film, ’Yellow Submarine’, illustrated by Heinz Edelmann. I loved the psychedelic visuals and colorful environments they created, so I let that inform the backgrounds for Planet Tobler.

Characters

Eamonn O’Neill’s “I’m Fine Thanks” trailer had just come out and I was incredibly inspired by it. Eamonn was 2 years above me in college in Ireland and seeing his work evolve to such a high level encouraged me to push my own evolution. Between his designs and Raymond Lemstra’s illustrations, I was hooked on angular shapes to represent facial characteristics. I used this idea for triangular noses, rectangular head-shapes and other moments.

Storyline

I heavily referenced BBC’s Planet Earth. This film is a tribute to David Attenborough’s style and approach to wildlife.

I wrote Planet Tobler by taking the most memorable moments from Planet Earth and twisting them into something cosmic and wild while trying to preserve the spirit of a nature doc. I’m dyslexic and writing can be a challenge, but luckily my mates, Eric Chang and Alex Trierweiler took my writing and helped me elevate it. Eric added a few scenes of his own and Alex, who’s a video editor at the Mill, created an intro with live actions shots that I referenced for timing and composition when I replaced it with animation. I was lucky to be in a studio with so many talented artists who were down to help.

Extra layering

After merging these 3 ideas together I ended up with something that felt original, but I really wanted to push the film further by injecting some more of my personality. I wanted to add some cheek to it by playing up the quirky moments, but savoring the purity of wildlife. I find it funny how embarrassed people can get when a little naked character pops on screen. It’s silly how taboo the naked body still is, so I wanted to embrace it and draw a bunch of naughty bits. We all have them after all. Making the film was a refreshing outlet for all these notions that rarely have a place in advertising work.

When you’re making something full of penises and nonsense, you have to fully believe that all the hours that go into making a dick animate for a few seconds are really worth it. The number of late nights that I spent alone, listening to a song on repeat while drawing a character flapping around in the nip is uncountable…I’d be sitting there, replaying an animated scene on a loop to myself, thinking…is this really good, or really, really stupid? But I reckon if your work can make you laugh and smile, it’s all worth it.

Before and after


Timeline

I was making the film most week-nights and weekends for over a year without any breaks and although I was falling in love with the story and this world I was creating, the workload had me exhausted. I was falling asleep in bars after a few drinks because I was so wrecked. The amount of photos of me snoozing on a bar stool or a friend’s shoulder on a night out is inexcusable. I was that lad you’d see in the corner, and think…jaysus. I felt jaded and I started to drop the film on the shelf here and there for weeks or months at a time, so I could try and have more of a life outside of work.

I broke my routine and basically forgot about the film. Months passed and I was offered to direct a short film at The Mill, based on the poem, “Wayne the Stegosaurus”, by Ken Nesbitt. It took 5 weeks to make from start to finish and it fortunatelypicked up awards from across the globe. My tastes changed and I came to love the idea of simplicity which pushed me away from wanting to work on Planet Tobler. The popularity of Wayne the Stegosaurus messed with my head because it was so different in comparison. It felt cutesy and innocent while Planet Tobler was cheeky and raw.  Wayne’s aesthetic was simplistic and refined, it’s characters didn’t have outlines, and the colors were limited to a strict palette. Planet Tobler’s style was very loose, the designs had outlines and the colors were wild and unlimited. I started to heavily doubt the whole idea. I’d try working on it again, but I didn’t feel the magic anymore. My next two pieces for F5 and OFFSET were simplistic and well received, both had similar art direction to WTS. I had two solid films under my belt and felt completely creatively satisfied. I was working on really fun commercials but also indulging in fun films and title sequences.

Still, Planet Tobler was always in the back of my mind. By this point, all of my experience at The Mill had really taught me the value of a team and a schedule. I realized that level of support is what Planet Tobler had been missing. Sometimes the greatest benefit of experience is learning what not to do. If I was to pick up Planet Tober again, I knew I had to have a team. But I didn’t want to burden anyone with a project that had no money.

Making of – Little Bug

My later work

Planet Tobler

Ask for help!

Damien Bastelica was working at the Mill in those days and he came over to my desk out of the blue and asked, “got anything for me to work on?”. It was 7 pm. I thought he’d be wanting to pack up and get out of the office, but I quickly realized he was one of the hardest working people I’d ever meet. It was an utter stroke of luck. Fast forward a year later and Damien finished animating 3 really intense and long scenes. We stayed late at the office all the time, jamming away on shots together. I can’t thank Damien enough for putting so much time into this short film. Working with a friend whose skills you trust and admire is a great way to lift spirits and that little bit of competitive energy keeps you motivated.

Working with Damien got me back into the flow and reignited my love for the project. I started believing in myself and the film again. I stopped doubting myself as much, stopped wondering will people think it’s hip, or is it cool? Is it in fashion? Is it a piece that popular websites will post about? Once you clear your mind of all that and learn to love being in the moment of making, the piece will always be the better for it.

Seeking praise or looking for feedback?

At this point, I felt the film was a wrap so I sent it to a few friends in the industry. The first person I sent it to was Parallel Teeth, aka, Robert Wallace. He politely let me know the first couple of scenes felt a little basic compared to the rest of the film, and they were vital scenes that were going to suck the audience in or not. I looked them over and realized the entire first half of the film fell flat in comparison to the second half. It was really obvious that those shots were made by someone more junior(me 4 years ago) vs the scenes closer to the end (Damien and I 1 year ago). In the back of my head, I knew these shots looked far weaker than others, but laziness told me no one would notice. Clearly, I was mistaken. It’s so important to be surrounded by or be in contact with people whose work and opinions I respect and trust. So there I was…thinking I was done animating, but in actual fact, I needed to re-animate a third of the scenes to allow the film to feel cohesive. I really wanted to be done with it, but it felt silly to ask for advice, receive sound and honest feedback, and not act upon it. These scenes took another 5 months to re-make. This film has taught me to break out of my comfort zone and ask for help, be it advice or a favor.  It’s so much easier to make something when you’re not working alone.

Making of – Zaggi

Gavin Little and audio

In the early days of college, I was told that sound is 50% of a film. I still believe that’s true. Without the proper sound design, a film falls completely flat.

For Planet Tobler, sound was vital to the soul of the piece. Gavin Little, founder and sound designer at Echolab, and his team elevated this film to another level. The music was composed by Steve Lynch and I’m in awe of his work.

I had worked with Gavin before on 2015’s OFFSET title sequence. Knowing that he’s unbelievable at what he does, I sent him the film to see if he had any interest in working on it. The film had no sound design and only a rough VO recorded by my friend. Gavin wrote back saying he’d love to create the sound and music for it. I was ecstatic. Gavin became the biggest asset in this film and ended up co-producing the film with me. We quickly became close mates and his sharp wit and experienced background really pulled everything together. It was Gavin’s suggestion to shoot for the stars and reach out to Hollywood actors. He knew how to get in touch with agents and organize a recording session. I really can’t thank him enough. He’s hands down one of the biggest gents out there.

Narration and Christopher Lloyd

This was a rollercoaster of emotions. I didn’t know how many layers were involved to get to someone at this level. It took 7 months from initial contact with Christopher Lloyd to when we actually got in the recording studio. He’s a busy man and this wasn’t his first rodeo. This is a passion project and our lack of budget meant we had to be patient and do our best to juggle Christopher’s time with that of studio’s willing to help us out. Gavin once again came to the rescue and found an amazing studio in LA, Beacon Street Studios, that worked for both us and Christopher. I patched into the recording session from New York. I was giddy and pretty nervous to work with a guy I grew up seeing in movies. I called via Skype, dialed into the recording room, slapped my headphones on, got ready to hear Christopher Lloyd’s unmistakable voice and then….my internet went down! I tried rebooting twice in an utter panic and still no luck. I was having a complete meltdown and it took me way too long to realize I didn’t need the internet and could just call them on the phone. So I get patched in and was told Mr. Llyod has already arrived, he watched the film and ran outside for a cigarette. Oh no, what a first impression.  From there on, it was pretty surreal. “O, hello” Mr. Llyod said through my phone in a very charming and soothing voice….”Hi, Christopher” I nervously replied. The recording lasted around 45 minutes. I smiled the whole way through as he acted out the script and went off into his own world with it. It was a really lovely feeling. The kind of feeling where the hair on the back of your neck stands up, and you can’t stop smiling. I was stoked, over the moon.

Submitting to film festivals

Planet Tobler is currently being submitted to film festivals around the world. Some of the festivals have strict and strange rules about previewing it. Because of this, the film won’t be released online until later this year. For now here is an excerpt from the film, revealing the daily habits of the Zefwop bird.

With previous works, I’ve uploaded them online for public viewing as soon as I’ve finished them. The company I work at, The Mill, has a PR department. Their kind team was awesome enough to submit the films or sequences I’ve made or was a part of into festivals for me. Since Planet Tobler has been independently produced by Gavin Little and myself, we decided to deal with festival submissions ourselves. Having never dealt with festival submissions before, my knowledge of the whole process was very basic at the start…

These are the steps I took to learn more about what festivals I should or could submit to:

  1. Email friends who had experience in submitting films to festivals for advice.
  2. Look at filmmakers websites or Vimeo accounts you admire and see if their films have received awards and where they’ve screened. Then do research on those festivals it went to.
  3. I came across 3 great sites that broadened my knowledge of film festivals. https://filmfreeway.com and https://www.withoutabox.com are free websites that privately host your film. You add details like a bio, a trailer, images and a credit list of the film. Then they simply email you festivals that are up and coming. They also categorize the festivals into sections such as “Academy Award Qualifying”, “What’s Hot”, “Documentary” etc. This site is also great for giving you a heads up of festivals ready for submissions, http://www.animation-festivals.com/submit-to-festival/ .
  4. I, unfortunately, found out that my timing wasn’t the best for completing Planet Tobler in regards to festivals. If you can schedule your film’s deadline for the start of summer, that would be the best time since festivals start opening for submissions around May and tend to end during February/ March, the following year.



Conclusion

Luck played a huge role in this short film and I really want to give a massive thanks to everyone that had a part in getting it finished.

  1. If I never came to the Mill, I never would have been surrounded by the people who influenced and encouraged me to create it.
  2. Brian Gossett first remarked that these animations felt like a nature show. I’m so thankful for the inspiration and motivation that he ignited in me.
  3. If Damien never offered to help, I would have never been motivated enough to finish all the animation myself.
  4. If Gavin hadn’t agreed to take on the project or pushed me to reach out to Hollywood talent, I’d have a completely different film that wouldn’t be anywhere near as special.
  5. If I didn’t receive encouragement from my friends and family who knows if this wacky film would ever have left my head.

Balance is my biggest takeaway from this project. I want to work on at least one creatively stimulating project per every 3 jobs. Two for the rent and one for me.

If you’re planning on making a short film, and it’s weird and wildly ambitious, I wish you the best of luck, because I think it’s one of the nicest ways of expressing yourself. Remember to reach out to people, share it with friends, ask for help, and know that if you do keep at it, it will get finished!