Interviews with Animators

Interviews With Animators: James Cunningham

Blake Harris 07.06.2016

In this week’s installment, we speak with the talented James Cunningham, who has directed 12 award-winning short films…

Last week, we raved about Accidents, Blunders & Calamities, a beautiful and hilarious animated short. To learn more about its making, we got in touch with James Cunningham, the film’s director. Since graduating from Elam in 1997, Cunningham has done some extraordinary CGI work. Including Delf (which was selected for the Saatchi & Saatchi new directors Global showcase), Infection (which competed at the Cannes International Film Festival) and Poppy (which won the Grand Jury Prize at SIGGRAPH in 2010). 

19 years later and James Cunningham is still going strong. And in addition to creating acclaimed films, he is also now a Senior Lecturer at the Media Design School, an animation and visual effects new media school in New Zealand. Which brings us back to Accidents, Blunders & Calamities, as 44 of his students helped on that film. We spoke to him about what that was like, highlights from the creative process and the best piece of advice anyone in the animation industry can follow. 

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Blake J. Harris: Before discussing Accidents, Blunders & Calamities, I was first curious to hear how you ended up teaching at the Media Design School.

James Cunningham: I was running a 3D animation team at a post-production studio in Auckland and all the best students we hired came from Media Design School. I used to attend industry moderation nights so I could cherry pick the best artists before anyone else. About 7 years ago the industry went quiet and I was getting tired of commercials. Right at that time two senior staff at the school left and I came in to run the new combined 3D department. The school is very industry focused and so I fit in very well and made it even more of a real world production environment inside the school.

Blake J. Harris: How did the idea for Accidents, Blunders and Calamities begin? What was that initial kernel?

James Cunningham: The film came about in response to the need for a story to tackle our biggest class of 44 students. I had my radar on for a story for a while and was flicking through the books on my bookshelf at home and picked up my copy of the Gashley Crumb Tinnies by Edward Gorey. it is pretty grim and brutal, way too full on if animated. I wondered if I could rework that with animals and for some mad reason thought lets make it even harder and make each line not only rhyme but have alliteration going on too. I remember the F was one of the early ones locked in. As silly as a firefly igniting is I knew it would help set the tone.

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Blake J. Harris: In my effusive analysis, I talked about how much I appreciated that you didn’t just jump straight into the A-Z. You framed it around a cute, welcoming and tone-ally productive little narrative. Was that always the plan? How did that evolve?

James Cunningham: The framing device of the father and the kids made it a little more personal and gave it a little more meaning. No matter how hard you try to look after your kids and teach them about the dangers in the world a big stick out of a tree may just strike you down out of the blue. The kids also did something very important for the film, they really helped set the tone and make this bitter disturbing pill more palatable. If they kids are laughing and love this story then it’s okay for the audience.

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Blake J. Harris: You worked with 40+ students on this. What is this process like?

James Cunningham: When you have 44 artists that is a medium sized studio so we needed to raise our game in terms of organization to manage it all. We had 3 full time faculty, myself included, for 15 weeks. We added industry standard Shotgun for our pipeline and team management. However, leading up to the class co-producer/cinematographer Oliver Hilbert and myself went out and shot as many of the shots as we could. With a school class you have everyone there on day 1, including animators and compositors before you have shots ready to animate. Normally you would hire them much further along and grow the team as the work grew. By shooting early we could have shots ready to start and get the artists productive from the beginning. Without that we would have either not finished on time or had to reduce the complexity or quality of the shots.

Blake J. Harris: Wow. And how are the students organized? Logistically, I mean.

James Cunningham: The class is divided generally into 3 specializations; animators, technical (model, texture & light), and compositors (merging layers and 2D clean up of shoot errors). In this case I was able to use the story to divide and conquer. We were able to assign all the technical artists at least one creature and all the artists at least one shot so they could focus their time into that.

Blake J. Harris: What kind of animation (and video/editing) tools did you use to create the film?

James Cunningham: Our pipeline at the school is pretty advanced and we try and mimic a real world professional studio. Our tool-set for the VFX involves Maya, Nuke, Yeti, Vray, ZBrush, Shotgun, Syntheyes. We shot on a Sony Fs7 and I edited in Premiere, then conformed in Hiero.

Blake J. Harris: From an animation standpoint, what were the biggest challenges?

James Cunningham: The biggest challenges for the animation were shots like Adder & Octopus as the rigs were difficult to use and making their deaths funny was tricky.

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James Cunningham: Even the Vinegar Fly was tricky, as it was so small it was hard to see in the shot. The rooster was also tricky, getting the timing of the plane, the rooster and the water, then getting the water to look okay, that took a long time. The fur on the hero possums of course was difficult. The render times per frame for the close shots was 1-2 hours per frame and that made it hard to see results and make revisions.

Blake J. Harris: Do you have a favorite “letter”?

James Cunningham: May favorite letters are probably M and O. Mary the mantis was me in the shower with my great hand shadow performance and the sound designers gave me an especially girly scream.

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James Cunningham: Ollie the Octopus was so much fun shooting. We went up in a seaplane, they took the door off and up we went holing on to the camera as hard as we could, watching the wee screen and trying to imagine an octopus there on the float, getting blown to bits. I am also very proud of the initial set up shots in the burrow. A group of students spent a week of so building that and then we filmed it in the classroom. It looks great and that level of realism creates such a nice warm opening to the story

Blake J. Harris: Where there any ideas that got pretty far but ended up being scrapped from the final film?

James Cunningham: We didn’t scrap any letters or ideas that got well developed. It took a long time to nail J, R and X but once we had them they worked great.

Blake J. Harris: Can you tell me a little bit about the next project/s you’re working on?

James Cunningham: The next film is called The Dragon’s Scale. It is going out to film festivals now and the trailer is here.

James Cunningham:  It is a story about a son and his father on a quest to fix the son’s voice. It is a drama with some CGI creatures and a bit more of a personal story. We also decided to get more of the dramatic New Zealand landscape on camera.

Blake J. Harris: What’s the best piece of advice (either about animation, or the animation industry) that you ever received?

James Cunningham: My best bit of advice on the animation industry is “Don’t be a dick.” It is rule number one in our class. The industry is small and you will work with lots of people.

Blake Harris

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