Our Mann in Japan – winning student at CTIAF headed to Ghibli!

The re-branded Cape Town International Animation Film Festival (CTIAF) surprised the two winners of this year’s student film competition with some truly amazing prizes: a two-week internship at Nickelodeon (won by Luke Berge and Timothy Meyers), and a tour of Japanese animation studios, including the world famus Studio Ghibli, courtesy of Mastitute! James Mann from The Animation […]

The re-branded Cape Town International Animation Film Festival (CTIAF) surprised the two winners of this year’s student film competition with some truly amazing prizes: a two-week internship at Nickelodeon (won by Luke Berge and Timothy Meyers), and a tour of Japanese animation studios, including the world famus Studio Ghibli, courtesy of Mastitute! James Mann from The Animation School claimed the latter for Aurora. Animation SA spoke to Mr Mann about his award-winning short.

Q: Congratulations on your win at CTIAF! How excited are you to be visiting Studio Ghibli in Japan?

A: It was an absolutely life-changing prize and I can’t wait to get on that plane. Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki have been huge creative influences for me and I can only hope some of their magic rubs off on me when I visit their studio.

Q: So tell us a little about Aurora, what’s it about and what inspired its creation? 

A: The story grew out of the combined effort of the team in the many brainstorming and storyboarding sessions. We wanted to create something that explored the relationship and emotions a parent experiences when the safety of their child is put at stake. Benito Kok as our third-year lecture was a welcome guide, helping to steer the story through the very difficult themes of life and death. We were able to draw a lot of experience from his own development of [award-winning short] “In Sickness”. We wanted a bittersweet ending and that was pretty much the only thing that stayed constant over the whole process.

Q: Please tell us a little more about your talented team.

A: I was unbelievably fortunate to work with friends and teammates who faithfully saw this film through to the end. Daniel Morrison took on the role as lead animator and patiently reanimated our constantly shifting storyline. Tyla Koen beautifully handled our lighting and compositing literally operating on a whole new life plan to render out our shots during the night while others slept before the day shift. Making sure we had working rigs was Samantha Hillebrand, who came through even when on holiday, thanks to a laptop and exuberant personality. Grant Jacobs was our modeller and texture artist, dedicated and delivering work even before we needed it. Chris Thwaites pushed us to our limits as our concept artist and in new directions with our world in the film.

Q: Which animations, studios, artists or ideas have helped feed your creativity?

A: A tough question and possibly impossible for me to list all of my animation addictions, but certainly I can’t go on without mentioning Alexandre Heboyan. An incredible Animator and Director who came down from Gobelins School in Paris to help us craft our project at The Animation School. He had just finished production on his film “Mune, le garden de la lune,” and we all found out very quickly that he was an invaluable source of wisdom and creative energy. Merci Alex!

Q: What was the biggest challenge you and your team faced while bringing Aurora to life and what got you all over the line?

A: Clouds. Always the clouds. I laugh when I think about it but we set ourselves up for a real challenge when the idea of the story was set in a ‘world of clouds’, inspired by the likes of Ghibli’s Laputa and Porco Rosso. We had visions of flying ships and fish with earlier versions of the story. Initially, we started with very heavy FX shots using Houdini and Maya but as the production time ran out we had to look to special effects pioneered in the 1970s!

We used a Cloud Tank (fish tank) to recreate the swirling clouds for the film. Armed with a digital camera, we recorded the tank as we splashed, dropped, injected and swirled ink around the water. It was extremely quick and effective and it got us away from the computer for what turned out to be a lot of fun. Even our Aurora Borealis is generated from this inky exercise.

I’d also like to thank Antoni Schonken and Aret Lembrechts for creating the epic soundtrack that helped drive the film’s performance. They saved us with their mastery of music and inspired us on through the production.

Q: What do you hope to learn from your time in Japan and how has your education helped you to this opportunity?

A: As much as I possibly can! I’m not sure how events came together to get me a trip to Japan, but I can tell you it had a lot to do with my amazing friends and teammates on this mad adventure that was Aurora. I won’t lie when I say that I’ll have pack light and bring back a lot more than pictures from the trip. I owe every one of them a lot. Sticking with me to the end of the film and giving up all their time with family and their soft beds to work late into the morning and crawl under the desk to get some shut eye.

Q: What is the biggest challenge animation students face when entering the industry and what can they do about it?

A: I think a lot of times students think the school or university is going to give them every answer they will need to get a job in the industry. My advice is don’t just settle for the passing mark. You need to do your own investigations and meet as many of your peers as you can. Events like Animation Exchange and the CTIAF are great examples of discovering this amazing industry. I even managed to go to ANNECY last year as a student and wow, that literally blew my mind. There are really few careers you can get involved in that have such fiercely talented and passionately creative people working on things that can inspire and influence millions of people.

Q: Why did you decide to venture into animation and storytelling in the first place?

A:  I decided to study graphic design when I left school and after graduating I found myself behind a desk at an advertising agency with a tendency to take up freelance work to keep my creative independence going in the evenings. I’ve always found myself drawn (pun intended) to anything animation related and happily watch director’s commentaries on DVDs over and over again. I guess it was through hearing their passion and stories behind their work that compelled me to jump ship and head back to study again. There’s that famous quote by Walt Disney, “Laughter is timeless, imagination has no age, dreams are forever”, that’s just awesome. Following a career in animation is epic.

Q: Do you have any projects or plans coming up you can share with us, or are you just taking it one trip to Japan at a time?

A: I’m really proud to be working at Triggerfish Studios in Cape Town at the moment. Working on a Roald Dahl animation straight after graduating is a childhood dream fulfilled. I’m just relieved I’ll be able to go on the trip after my contract ends and won’t miss anything on the project!

James intends to keep a web log of his trip, so watch this space and prepare to turn a little green with envy!

Watch Aurora here!

Interview by Chris Wheeler

Enviroment Concepts

Those pesky clouds – worth the effort