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Putting together an awards show can be a messy business. There are judges to amass, entries to entice (speaking of which, get your work in now) and standards to maintain.

There's also the small matter of marketing the darn thing, which is where getting far-more-talented partners involved helps endlessly.

For the promotional film launching 2021's shots Awards The Americas, we worked with Nexus Studios' mega-director Laurie Rowan on creating a film that tells us the truth about where you creative-types get your fabulous ideas (whilst providing a few laughs along the way).

Gorgeously developed and animated in 3D, with a high level of realism to both textures and movement that gives it an uncanny puppetry feel, It's A Messy Business was a total joy to see unfold. 

Curious about the technical wizardry involved, we sat down with Rowan to discuss the dirty business of design.

shots – It's A Messy Business

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What appealed to you from the initial brief?

A number of things appealed to me about the brief, not least having read shots since being a teenager with aspirations to be involved in film. 

Primarily though it was the level of artistic licence they were offering with the main guiding principle being; make it truthful. I don’t think there’s a more appealing brief. 

How did the project develop?

I had a think about what are the most predominant conversations I have around filmmaking and the creative arts. A question that almost always presents itself and that I find quite difficult to answer is; "How do you get your ideas?" So I thought I’d address that here, once and for all.  

It’s a willfully odd film designed to capture attention by hopefully being just on the right side of obtuse.

The result is a short, comedic, horror inflected narrative about the mysterious ideation process that probably raises more questions than it answers... but is broadly truthful.

It’s a willfully odd film designed to capture attention by hopefully being just on the right side of obtuse. For something with such a short run time I think it covers a lot of ground and sets up then subverts expectations. And it’s funny.

What was the most technically or creatively challenging aspect of this project for you?

Telling a fairly ambitious story with finite runtime, production time and resources. It was a challenge to make sure each story beat and shot selection was doing as much work as it possibly could.

What was the most enjoyable aspect of the project?

This entire project was a joy for me. 

I’m even more excited by the final product than I was about the idealised notion of the potential of the project, and that’s not always the case.

There was a good positive spirit throughout and palpable sense of enjoyment between the team, cast and the commissioners. I loved watching this project reveal itself layer by layer. 

There’s the core of your expectations, then there’s the embellishments that each team member brings with their unique skills and sense of craft that enriches the project which you couldn’t have anticipated. I’m even more excited by the final product than I was about the idealised notion of the potential of the project, and that’s not always the case.

Click image to enlarge
Above: Rowan's storyboards.

What techniques and / or any new technologies were used on the project?

It was my first project where I’d sought to faithfully recreate a miniature setting with the photographic attention to detail that requires. This was an exercise in understanding our limitations and deciding from which elements we draw our value. I think all our decisions made thematic sense.

I wanted the film to feel as if it was an epic high concept film - condensed in every respect. So in terms of physical scale, the clipped nature of the script, the dramatic punctuation and tonal shifts. We particularly indulged this in our animation technique enforcing the rule that all character poses are made from rigid pre-angled props to further emphasize that this film was a small scale approximation of something much larger.

What's the process for developing animation like this? 

We designed the characters with their physical assembly in mind. For instance, both human characters are perfectly cylindrical as if created on a lathe which is consistent with their painted wood materiality. 

We kept structures simple and then sold the realism with tangible detailing and imperfections. From there we just kept tangibility as the watch-word throughout every stage of production and very consciously worked against the fluidity and perfection CGI is able to afford you. 

Anything we identified that couldn’t be done in the real world by a talented puppeteer was refined, or rather un-refined. 

In our QA process, anything we identified that couldn’t be done in the real world by a talented puppeteer was refined, or rather un-refined. 

Animation is weighted to feel miniature and you can feel hands beneath the set attempting to remain stable. Similarly, the cameras and lighting were designed to mimic true-scale. 

Our only concession is the characters’ faces, but in that case depth of expression took precedence over adherence to our own rules.

Click image to enlarge

What do you find is the biggest hurdle to overcome on a project like this? Why do you think that is?

The biggest hurdle was distilling what is an ambitious narrative into its most efficient form, in terms of run-time, storytelling mechanisms and accommodating the production pipeline. That was quite a juggling act. It was an exercise in really selective focus and identifying achievable areas from which to draw the most value from. 

I had to be resourceful in directing specifics to animation; so that required a lot of webcam acting, diagrams and draw-overs. 

It’s these kinds of hurdles that in fact aid you in defining your project and coming up with creative solutions, such as the tradeoff between a willfully staccato puppetry style and textural attention to detail.

How did you find it creating the film out of the office / in lockdown? Did it affect your process at all?

Absolutely normal by this point, unfortunately. 

The biggest implication was probably over talking on Google Hangouts because I craved human contact. I had to be resourceful in directing specifics to animation; so that required a lot of webcam acting, diagrams and draw-overs. 

Final question... where do your amaaaazing ideas come from?

Ah gawd, I’ve invited this on myself haven’t I? 

I’m actually incredibly fortunate, because I have a horrifically developed psychic third eye just above my coccyx, that does a lot of the conceptual heavy lifting for me. 

I’m not being figurative. 

If I didn’t have that, I’d say... they come from an acceptance of late nights and an overall belief that something will come, right? If you keep drawing and writing, something has to come. Surely. 

That or Wikipedia.

shots Awards The Americas 2021 is now open for entry, with our early bird discount ending this Friday - January 29th.

Entry deadline is February 12th.

For more information about the awards, including categories, criteria, the line-up of jury heads and cost of entry, please click here.

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