Friday 6 January 2012

Interview with Michael Cawood, Director of Devils, Angels & Dating

Hello guys and gals,
Since its first post back in 2009, the 11 Second Club has enjoyed seeing the progression and development of director Michael Cawood's new film, Devils, Angels and Dating.

Produced through a global online collaboration, the film has now finished and is now released! We would like to wish the whole production team  a warm congratulations and wish it good luck at the festivals.

Congratulations on finishing production on “Devils, Angels & Dating”. How does it feel to have the film ready for festivals?
Well it’s been more than a five year journey for me and it’s going to take a while to adjust when it’s all over! My wife even asked me the other day, what it’s going to be like when it’s all done? After all she’s never known a life without the film as long as she’s known me. We only met and got married in the last few years. It’s become a way of life and I’m really looking forward to seeing what else there is out there afterwards. The possibilities are endless.

I’m actually very proud of it of course, although I’ve been living with it for so long it’s hard to come to it objectively. I love the source idea behind the characters, the style and the setting although if I were to work with them again I’d have very different ideas on where I’d take it and what I‘d do with them. I can see the film in its current form as something representative of the way I was thinking five years ago. But it’s not just a film of its time it’s also a film of the method I chose to make it so it’s been educational seeing how it has evolved based on that, and I can certainly see how I’d want to try things differently next time to keep more on track with my core ideas and themes.

The project was a successful online collaboration between many different animators and technical artists. Was there ever a plan B to getting the film produced?
Not really. I moved around a few studios over the years and I considered approaching them to see if it could become an internal studio project in some cases. In some ways that would have been a plan A if it could have happened, but that would only happen if I had job stability with the company. It would also assume that there was a built in team of all areas of expertise that already work well together… and of course a steady income so that I could have a life while I was making it.

The problem with that idea was that the project could become attached to the success of that studio. If they changed their plans all my hard work could get buried, never to be seen. At the very least there were plenty of ways I could lose control of it. In the earlier stages it was an appealing idea but as it grew it became bigger than any one studio and less and less of an option.

Please talk a bit about some of the challenges you faced as director?
Where to start? Well directing itself wasn’t hard. I’d already lead, supervised and directed projects in the past so it wasn’t new territory. The real challenge came with such a big burden on top of having a social life and a seperate job. Something is going to suffer and many things did.

I also experienced more than my fair share of having to remove people from tasks or re-assign work. It’s one of the ugliest aspects of any lead role but on a volunteer project with people you’ve never met in person the number of ways it comes up are considerably more common. I had to toughen up quite a bit, and I’d certainly say that some of the greatest delays in the progress of the film came from my lack of toughness with the team in the early years. I was too nice. You have to be nice though with talented people working on your project for no pay, but you also have to weigh that individual’s interests against the interests of the rest of the team that are waiting for the finished product to add to their demoreels. It’s a tricky balance and not one you can learn from the working world where everyone is paid to do what they’re told.

What did you enjoy most about your role? 
I got kicks from all aspects of the film, but I think what really got me excited was problem solving with the story. Figuring out new ways to approach the characters, new ways to edit the timeline, ways to condense things, plus things, make them more interesting or entertaining, work around gaps in the production talent pool or save time and resources. Bringing ideas to every scene that would build on the believability of the story. There’s nothing quite like it. I enjoyed everything all the way down to the most technical of problem solving, to fixing pixels, rigs, animation, layout and effects but ultimately nothing quite gave me a kick like solving a big film making issue. My wife will tell you I don’t often reveal my inner child, but when I did she’d see me transform into the most excited boy she’s seen!

Other than through 11 Second Club and your website, was there anywhere else that you received critical feedback?
I started by reaching out to people I knew and I was surprised to find how slow and limited that feedback could be. When I started to ask the wider world at large complete strangers could really surprise me, and it became obvious that you never know where your best advice or the freshest perspective could come from. But you can’t control when and how that feedback comes to you and one of the things I had to learn to become resilient to was; a) the lack of responses when I did ask for feedback and, b) the severity and inappropriateness of the feedback when I wasn’t ready for it. The internet isn’t always kind. But I learned how to look for the value in all the feedback.

Please talk a bit about the origins of the story. Were any parts inspired by another tale?
Not really I like to find my inspiration in more original material, so I never copied any other stories. Perhaps I should have, as it would have made the structure much easier, but ultimately I was creating my own story from themes and issues that I felt were original or untouched in animation. In this case I wanted to look at modern forms of dating and the need two people can have to find a soul mate.

I wanted to work with characters and a setting we’ve not spent much time with before and to spice it all up with visuals that were unique. If anything the combination is almost too far and could perhaps have been grounded more, I added the shots of the Earth mid way through production for that exact reason. I found I’d created too many metaphors.

Of course the reason for that was to avoid adding production value. Showing what the characters did in the heavens, affecting the people on Earth, would have been way outside of the production limits of a volunteer project. So I used symbolism to try to represent it, and I do wonder how many people will make the connections. I wouldn’t do it the same way if I had a paid production and more resources.

A new concept is introduced for story, where dating is controlled by the use of a remote control. Please talk a bit about the challenge of relating the audience to this idea.
I had this idea of a character manipulating a virtual figure to create his perfect date before firing off an internet search, and that image stuck in my mind from some of the earliest versions of the story. It ultimately never found the perfect place in the story but evolved into the “Peeps”, as we call them, inside the Sphere, which was a representation of Earth. I came across the idea of using “Wands”, or the remote controls, as a way of allowing the story to move powers amongst the characters giving me room to introduce twists in the story.

The other reason for the Wand was that it provided a visual way to show the audience when a character was thinking about using their power. With the glowing buttons, it even provided a “One ring to rule them all” –style compulsion in a visual way, to show that the characters were fighting their impulses, their nature… the way they were expected to act.

I guess all these devices were ways to externalize their inner performances. It gave them limits as well, for example when Death’s Wand is taken away from her she can’t use it to defend herself. Similarly there were times I wanted Devil to throw his wand away as a sign of him wanting nothing to do with that evil power, but ultimately forcing him to rely on other ways to overcome his weaknesses. I ended up losing that story element to condense the film and make it more achievable to complete in a timely manner. That was one of those happy filmmaking moments when I was jumping up and down as I’d shortened the film. I’d sacrificed a cool story feature but I was far enough into production to see that the value of a shorter film outweighed the value of keeping it.

The Angel and Devil wands
Early on in the project, you mentioned Antz being an influence on style, aiming for a ''chiseled look to the modeling with clean textures''. Please talk a bit about how the final design compares with your original vision.
Yes, I have always had strong feelings about character design and I was a bit tired of conventional realistic approaches to characters. I loved finding visual short-hands for character types and personalities, and ways to make the characters stand out in a single thumbnail image. After all it was clear that these days your film lives most of its value online in one of many video portals where you live and die by one small image and your title. So appealing characters that were unique and well developed was really important to me.

Concept Art
I’d seen lots of examples of models I liked with just the right amount of dimensionality and cartooniness, and Antz was just a convenient short hand way to describe that look to people. I had other examples I collected together in a style board to help the team understand what direction I wanted to take it. Ultimately I realized how important it was for people to want to put these characters on their showreels, so they had to be appealing and well developed. I’ve been designing characters for most of my life, so I wouldn’t have put up with anything less than a really strong design that appealed to me.

Please talk a bit about your choice to have a narrator?
Once upon a time the characters spoke, and then I realized what they were saying was 90% of the screen time but only 10% of the value of the story and I switched to silent characters. This had two effects; 1) I didn’t have to worry about casting great voice talent, which if done wrong could easily have dragged the film down, 2) it made the acting more challenging, which is both good and bad. Voices are frequently a bit of a crutch for animators and I know from my own experience that it’s much easier to connect a character with an audience syncing to a voice. As soon as you have to perform without a voice you see the differences between the real animators and the ones that rely on those crutches. So it was always an issue I wrestled with, as I knew I wasn’t planning to be the only animator on the film.

At one point I had a halleluiah moment when I realized I could use the characters thoughts laid over the film in the form of a musical as a way to enhance the complex emotions the animators had to perform, but after a year of musical development I found that working in the music world was a very different beast to animation. The film was too far along and it became harder and harder to get a meaningful musical to work, especially when much of the animation footage was already starting to take shape. We do actually have one short scene with a sample of some singing. It worked great, but writing more of that and weaving it into a compelling experience was a much bigger challenge than I could manage. So I went back to what I knew, and once again had silent characters with an orchestral score.

The Wonder Years
I’m not quite sure when I considered trying a narrator. But I know the Wonder Years had something to do with it, and I realized it could be a way to draw the audience into the world and make at least one of the characters more endearing to the audience. I recorded some tests myself and the results were favorable so I ran with it. Fortunately Justin S. Barret had already performed the reactionary emotional sounds of two of our characters and we’d built a good relationship so I knew he could do a good job of it.

You described Cupid's character profile as ''never really the good guy, but no-one is pure evil either''. Then, at the end of the film, Cupid is sentenced to a horrifying death. You received some feedback on these decisions to say they found this difficult to relate to.  
You did, however, keep faith in your character. Please talk a bit about this decision.
Argh, but is he really dead? Hehe. I don’t like to think of anyone as evil. We all just clash when we come from different backgrounds and circumstances and we’re put to the test. So I’ve never been a fan of the blatant, “Mwahaha” bad guy. I just don’t find it believable.

The best bad guys are the ones we get to understand more and relate to, and then we know our hero might actually lose as secretly we’d understand why the baddie has to win. It creates far more ‘on the edge of your seat’ tension. So for a long time Cupid had a twist ending in which he returned later on, having swapped the Wands (the powers) with the other characters. It showed how they were all happier swapping roles and trying something different that suited their nature more. But when you’re putting an unfinished animatic out into the world for several years it’s surprising just how much the audience won’t tolerate nuances and subtly, especially when they’re not used to looking at static drawings telling the story (the animatic). So over time I felt compelled to try other endings that finished off Cupid and avoided muddying the good vs evil template too much.

I’d already considered introducing a baby or bringing back the Shadow devil but both would require more modeling and rigging work. So it wasn’t until someone pointed out that I could adapt the Devil rig to look like the baby that I realized it was achievable. I still kept the idea of swapping the powers over but there was no longer any confusion about whether Cupid was a good guy or a bad guy. He was just driven to do the things he did by his background and his circumstances… in my mind he’d been a single man for centuries and was getting a bit tired of hooking other people up all the time. If it were me I think I’d have flipped too!

(shot progression of Cupid)

My favorite character is Death. Her character is appealing in design and her story is told well. Please share your personal thoughts on this character. 
Yes, it’s funny, but I’d set out to make this film assuming that the straight man, Devil, was going to be the favorite. But more and more people were drawn to Death. I had a screening of 50 or so people and gave them a questionnaire to find out who was the most popular character. Death came out on top by quite a margin. I think it has a lot more to do with her look and the fact she’s a female in a traditionally male role.

Effects-wise she’s much easier than the other two as she had a modeled tail, while the other two both have non-solids for tails (a flame and clouds). Combine that with the obvious enthusiasm the modeler had for making her and she was one of the first characters to really find a look, and everyone wanted to animate her. She did have some over the top ‘sexy’ moments to do though and I was concerned that no-one would want that material in their reels, but in the end those were some of the first shots to get done, and somehow I feel like we got away with it as we had a few female animators that didn’t have any problems working on shots like that.

In light of her popularity I can certainly see the value of building on her more if I were to do anything else with the property. I wish I’d given her a more three dimensional role in this film and fleshed out her character, but my thinking was more focused on the contrasts in character that were an innocent Devil and an old corrupted Cupid, they seemed more on theme at the time. She was really just something for them to fight over initially and making her Death gave her enough power to put them both in their places and provide a challenge for them. But now I see that she has a lot more potential.

(Bringing Death to life: from story board to final shot)

Do you intend to produce a second film similarly?
No, not yet. I need to get back to earning some pennies again as I’ve made some enormous sacrifices to finish this and it’s not sustainable. I’ll always have some sort of idea boiling away in the back of my mind; I’m just hoping that the next one that consumes me will be something I can make a living on. Besides that, the very reason this ‘collaborative zero budget animated short film’ was a success (where so many others failed) was that I adapted to the changing world, and worked out what needed to change. If you start a second project in the same way you’re likely to fail, as the world has already changed. So for the next project I’d adapt again, and make the best of those new circumstances.

Is there anything you'd like to add about your thought-process or experience producing “Devils, Angels & Dating”? 
One of the biggest hurdles I had to face in the early stages was whether to share the idea publically to attract talent vs keeping it all secret. Even the other teams starting production now, that are using many of the lessons of Devils still aren’t showing most of their progress publically. It’s an old mindset that has many advantages further down the line when you come to try to make money out of the film when it’s done. But most people never make it that far, and if you struggle to attract good talent then the film may not be worth much at the end of it anyway.

So I made a sacrifice early on to go public with it. This ensured that I’ve attracted the strongest team of just about any volunteer film ever made. Everyone knew that they would be made to look good by their team mates and they could show their work as soon as they wanted. There was no waiting for the film to be finished, and the results speak for themselves. The trick is making sure that every task is worthy of someone’s reel. The ones that weren’t, pretty much all fell to me to do, so the film was designed with strong showreel worthy shots in mind. There was still a lot of less glamorous work for me to do, but the film was edited in a way to reduce that as much as possible.

What advice would you give to anybody else looking to make a film using an online collaboration?
It’s really important to weigh up why you’re making the film. Think about how much work it’s going to be and what sacrifices you’ll have to make. It’s easy to look at Devils, with a credits list over a hundred names, and assume that you can start something and you’d only have to do a small percentage of the total workload. But realistically the team leader has to do most of the work, and far more besides that no-one is even aware of.

I’ll be going into more details about how every department workload breaks down in “The Art and Making of Devils, Angels & Dating”. I feel it’s important to evaluate what worked and what didn’t and share it with the world for others to learn from, so I plan to write an eBook about it which will give me a chance to go more in-depth about the things no-one in animation production or volunteer projects talks about. I’ve setup a crowd funding campaign to allow people to pre-order the book, which will help fund the making of the book.

Beyond that I hope to make the development website into a valuable resource for animated filmmakers to learn from for years to come, and when the dust settles I plan to rework the site with that broader audience in mind. The kind of thing I wish I had when I started out.

Thank you Michael for stopping by and sharing some words. I wish you success in your next project. Here's the film, I hope you all enjoy!

To visit the website, please visit There is some terrific concept art posted on there, so please check it out.
Interview by Steven Hawthorne