I recently saw RCA Animation graduate Josh Wedlake’s The North Sea Riviera at Vienna Independent Shorts and like much of the audience, I totally fell for his deconstructed narrative and bold CGI treatment. Watching this film felt like a vindication of my belief that the medium is resolutely not a barrier to craft, charm and warmth. The film conjures incredibly evocative spaces and complex emotions and feels like a labour of love from a very unique perspective.
The most exciting aspect of the film (for me) was the fuzziness of the render. One of the things that gives analogue film such warmth is the material quality of film - the film grain. Similarly, paper cut, plasticine, or cel animated film have a native noise or grain that strengthens their perception as authentic or crafted. Conversely, CG animators will work exceptionally hard and wait an extremely long time (at high cost) to remove their equivalent to this grain - render artefacts or undersampling - from computer-generated images. This often results in smooth, crisp images that many criticise for being ‘soulless’.
The North Sea Riviera - with soul in buckets - not only includes the render artefacts but embraces them, making them work alongside the content to reinforce the wonderful atmosphere of the film. The undersampling works even on a deeper conceptual level, I think. Wikipedia has this to say about undersampling (albeit in a more general signal processing context):
undersampling is… a technique where one samples a bandpass-filtered signal at a sample rate below its Nyquist rate (twice the upper cut-off frequency), but is still able to reconstruct the signal.
The soundtrack of The North Sea Riviera sounds a lot like a shipping forecast, the story feels like it wafts in and out like a radio signal, and the effect of the undersampling is to introduce a kind of static to the images on screen. All this works together, and like Wikipedia says - we’re still able to reconstruct the signal. Much like when unpredictable subconscious thoughts interact with a wandering mind, The North Sea Riviera introduces a narrative static that is incredibly fecund, allowing enough space for the film to come alive, despite it’s unconventional structure.
I emailed Josh to find out more about him and his film. He responded with some fantastic answers.
CGWTF: Tell me about yourself! Who are you, where are you from, are you still studying and if not, what are you doing now?
Josh Wedlake: I’m Josh, I’m originally from Peaslake, a little village halfway between London and the South Coast of England. It’s a nice place and if you’re ever passing through you should stop for a pint in the ‘Hurtwood’, or go for a walk up Leith Hill on a sunny evening. I’ve finished studying for now and I’m currently living in New Zealand, taking some much needed time out from animation! At the moment I’m coaching rowing and teaching in a school out here, taking every free moment I get to enjoy the outdoors. I graduated from my Animation MA at the Royal College of Art in London last year. It was a pretty stressful two years and I needed a break from it all before I started on anything new. I’m still drawing from time to time and I’ve got some ideas in the pipeline for new illustrations and films.
CGWTF: I’ve seen your film The North Sea Riviera at Vienna Independent Shorts, and I’ve visited your websites, but I’d love to know more about how the film came to be…
Josh Wedlake: During my first year at the RCA I worked on a few projects, some of which are finished, but many of which aren’t! I have a habit of trying to make films which are too ambitious. One of these projects was a hand drawn pencil on paper film which involved a lot of dull clean-up work… long hours at the lightbox which weren’t particularly interesting. I would come up with small unrelated sketch scripts and lines of dialogue to keep myself interested while I was drawing, and I’d jot these down in a notebook, not really worrying about whether they connected together or not. This continued over the long summer holidays between the end of my first year and the start of my second year while I was temping on a hotel reception as a night clerk, trying to save enough money to pay the rent for another year living in London! I would start work at the front desk after the majority of guests had arrived and I’d finish just as the sun came up. There was very little work to do and hardly anyone to talk to so I’d spend most of the night studying scripts of films I hadn’t seen, trying to visualise how I would direct them.
Things seemed to be progressing well until my dissertation deadline crept closer. Added to that worry I had some freelance commercial animation projects with pretty tight deadlines so all the casual script-writing stopped and progress came completely to a halt for a month or so. After I’d submitted my dissertation I had three or four days to email my classmates and tutors a first draft script for the film I was going to spend the final year of my MA producing: ‘The North Sea Riviera’. I had pages and pages of disconnected notes, but nothing really worked out, nothing that anyone else could make sense of. As I frantically raced through the notes I realised that a lot of the ideas in the sketches were thematically similar. I started changing characters and locations so that I could link the different sketches together. I had a really strong sense of where the film was going to be set, and the overall atmosphere of the piece, but the characters weren’t worked out at all, the action had some broken continuities, and there was a patchwork of dialogue which didn’t really fit the visuals, and all kinds of different styles of voice over - narration, radio play voices, train of thought etc.
I ironed over as many of the inconsistencies as I could and rushed out a shot by shot breakdown of the film for my classmates to read. I described everything in prose and didn’t make a storyboard at all. I had barely any sketches of how the film was going to look. I’d wanted it to be far more low-poly than how it ended up, but not having those planning drawings meant I got carried away in the modelling stage!
Most of my classmates showed exciting drawings or enticing concept art, and outlined conceivable plot lines, but I started the year by mumbling my way through an overblown script and eventually had my ‘pitch’ for the project cut short by the Head of Animation at the RCA, Joan Ashworth, who felt the whole thing was too long and confused and didn’t make a lot of sense. She was probably right but I was stubborn as usual and decided to make the film anyway! Most of the class was totally lost on my presentation and had no idea what I was going to spend the next year working on. Not only that, but I didn’t get much useful feedback. Fortunately two of my good friends on the course, Carla Mackinnon and Christian Schlaeffer gave up their evenings to read the whole script and came back to me with some great feedback. They were pretty encouraging as well. Without the help of those two I probably would have flunked out of my MA. Between them they kept me sane and helped me workshop out problems with my writing as they came up.
I started production within a week of putting together the jumbled script and tidied it up as I went along. I spent around 8 months actually producing the film. Character Animation probably didn’t get going until about 5 months in, leaving me just 3 months to animate the whole eleven and a half minutes! There were a huge number of sets and characters to model. I did all of the modelling, rendering and comping myself.
Marcus Armitage who was in his first year at the RCA at the time helped me out when I was in dire straights by animating some of the background characters. He’s a really talented 2D animator, but he taught himself how to animate in CG in a matter of days and pushed out a few shots really rapidly!
CGWTF: The film is all fuzzy! I couldn’t figure out if this was an effect you’d added in post or if it was embedded into the render, but I like that you included it.
Josh Wedlake: That was partly an accident, but I’m glad that you like it! I knew that rendering the film was always going to be a nightmare. Some of the scenes were so complex that even with no textures and flat shading they would take forever to render cleanly. To add to this problem, character animation took longer than I anticipated so nothing was ready to render when it was meant to be and I had less and less time left to render. To get the film done in time for the RCA Showreel I ended up flicking the render quality over to draft and cutting down the number of samples per pixel just to get it all rendered in time. I was using the ‘Cycles’ render engine in Blender which was still fairly experimental at the time and I’d coded a lot of my own shaders in OSL which added to the problem by making things even slower and noisier. Guy Nesfield, one of the technicians at college kindly gave me exclusive use of the college’s render farm and I just about got it done in time! The fuzziness gave it a unique look and helped kill some of the sterility of the CG world.
That said, I’m still not one hundred percent sure about the fuzziness and I’ve debated re-rendering the film now that I have the time. The design concept of the film intended to play on the deadness and uncanniness which CG has. Jack and Tom, the two protagonists are living out their lives in a kind of limbo-space - just going through the motions. The creepiness of CG adds to that and makes the characters even more puppet-like and symbolic rather than them being seen as living, breathing beings. I wanted to produce something in CG that wasn’t as polished and saccharine as the majority of CG animation we see, most of which tries to imitate that Pixar-esque style. Not that I want to bash that kind of animation; I’ve got a lot of respect for animators who are skilled enough to make slick well finished work; but I don’t think it’s a style which is applicable to all stories and all films regardless of the content. The intense production value also means that it’s something which just isn’t viable if you’ve got a grand narrative to tell and limited time and resources to produce it! If CG animation is going to be a medium which independant cinema makes use of, I don’t think we should be trying to copy the huge studios, as even those guys are finding it hard to make ends meet financially.
CGWTF: There’s so many fruitful disconnections in the film. Is this something accidental that developed over time, or something you consciously created? Did you fight to retain the sense of disconnection, or need to justify it to anyone?
Josh Wedlake: As I mentioned earlier I had a break halfway through scriptwriting to work on my dissertation, 140-plus pages on audience perception of narrative construction. I’d been thinking about film quite scientifically, dissecting films by Tarkovsky and Wenders, even going so far as to re-edit Tarkovsky’s Mirror into chronological order! Though I didn’t do it consciously, it’s inevitable that some of the concepts relating to oblique editing and intentionally fragmented and disconnected narratives made their way across from my academic work into my writing. I didn’t set out to produce an academic film, but I did want to make something which although surreal and bizarre, had some of the imperfection of the real-world narratives we experience every day. In conventional feature films everything has a place and reason for being. Some prop which shows up early on in the setup, then has some special significance later on, or becomes a trigger for something else which happens. In the real world things aren’t always so set up, things aren’t so well ‘fated’. I wanted to create some dead leads and some near misses. Things which the audience could grab onto and say ‘hey I know what that means’, then later on their guess doesn’t quite work out, or the symbol meant something else.
I don’t know if my tutor, Tim Webb, ever quite understood why I wanted to ‘trick’ the audience into misunderstanding the plot. But I didn’t really see things that way. In the real world we’re always trying to make sense of things around us, we want that psychic edge, we’re constantly trying to interpret happenings which are for the most part totally meaningless. Tim found the final shot of the film most confusing, I think because it doesn’t wrap anything up for us. The narrative kind of leads the audience round in a circle and we end up more or less back where we began, except maybe, depending on how you interpret things, the two leads have swapped roles. But that misleadingness, for me, is more similar to what real life is like. Having Tim there to disagree with me, made me more certain of which direction I wanted to take the film in, and for that I’m really grateful to him. I think that’s one of the great things about the RCA, the tutors are always up for an argument!
In early edits the film was a lot more confusing. As I panicked trying to get things animated I started to lose track of what was going on and what it all meant. When your narrative is misleading, you start to get misled yourself! I remembered something I’d read in a David Mamet book on directing - ‘Just because you’re lost it doesn’t mean that your compass is broken’. I think what Mamet means is that when you’re on barely any sleep and you’ve got more shots left to film than you have days to the deadline, you need to keep looking back at your plan to remember what you’re meant to be doing. The problem was that my plan wasn’t really fully sorted out, and in the franticness of production, it was hard to make time to think about the big picture. Fortunately editor Tony Fish came to my rescue. Tony was able to keep calm about how far behind schedule I was, and he was probably the only one of my tutors who saw a way out of the mess I was in. He’s got a huge amount of experience on all kinds of productions and having him on board forced me to get my ideas in order. Just by retelling the story to him each day as we talked through the edit over Skype, made me realise that some shots were totally irrelevant, some could be shortened, and whole new ones needed to be added to make the film comprehensible. At the time I thought his editing was ruthless, axing whole scenes which had already been modelled, lit and animated, and adding more work to my ‘to do list’ when it was already overflowing with other crucial shots, but in hindsight it definitely made the film a whole lot better. Tony only saw value in a shot if it added to the film as a whole; the hours you’d worked on something didn’t count for anything; no matter how good a shot looked, if it didn’t contribute, it was worthless. If Tony hadn’t been involved the whole film would have been a lot worse; abstract to the point that no-one apart from me would have been able to decipher it. There’s always that balance in film-making, and ultimately I think you have to remember that you’re making the film for an audience to watch. I’m totally indebted to Tony for clarifying all my ideas. I think if you’re ever embarking on a one man film, and you’re considering getting someone else in to help you, of all the possible roles that person could take, editor is by far the most valuable.
The film didn’t start to work as a coherent piece until very late in the day. I was having to field all these questions from test audiences about why the two protagonists were even in the same film, questions like, ‘could you just cut that whole Tom guy out of the film and have it still make sense?’ Questions which revealed that the film wasn’t getting through on a fairly fundamental level. I guess as an audience it’s hard to watch something when half the shots are unfinished and things are blocky or plasticky, but still these were fairly big comprehension issues. In addition, I didn’t really know myself what the film was about while I was working on it, which is the major downside of the sort of unconscious writing techniques I’d used to put the film together. When you don’t know entirely what something is about, it’s hard to know whether it’s right or wrong, but maybe that makes it more original and more authentic when you eventually get there. I guess that’s the kind of workflow you have to get used to if you work with imagery which your subconscious throws up when you’re bored; nonsense that you try to force into the structure of a film and share with other people.
On the very last day of production in the dubbing theatre, I remember Mike Wyeld, my sound mixer, casually observing how nihilistic the whole thing was. I think thats when I clicked and realised the major theme of the film. The film has misleading devices not for those devices own sake, or because I’m trying to engage in some kind of Arthaus cinema and throw off the less patient half of the audience, but because in a nihilistic world view everyone is constantly following misleading symbols in the real world. If Mike had been there on day one of the year when I was pitching the film, I might have had a clearer way to ‘litmus test’ those edit problems; I could have asked myself, yes or no, does this shot contribute to the theme of the film?
CGWTF: I’m so jealous of anyone who can afford to study animation, especially at the RCA. I’ve met a few really talented animators who’ve studied there. What’s it like?
The RCA is a really incredible place to study, but it’s really stressful. There’s a kind of friendly competitiveness which naturally arises when you’re surrounded by really talented people who all have a passion for their discipline which leads them to work all day and all day night with a short break at the college bar in-between! There’s always something going on so your days are as busy as you want to make them. You can find lectures or seminars at any time of the day or night, and the drawing studio is constantly running courses, usually there were at least two 3-hour classes.
One of my personal favourites was Martin Morris’ drawing classes. Martin made me totally rethink the way I go about drawing and took everything back to basics. Nothing has quite blown my mind as much before or since as Martin’s first intro to drawing class. Picture the scene - it’s the first week of your MA at the RCA and you’ve sat in hour upon hour of orientation lectures which have been made slightly more appealing by the glasses of wine you’re served at the door of every new room you walk into. You’re eager as anything to actually do something productive, and the first thing on your schedule which isn’t just another ‘how to find the library’ talk is Life Drawing. You get to the studio a bit early as you don’t want to make a bad impression. Unfortunately everyone else has had the same idea, and the studio which can comfortably accommodate around 20, already has close to 100 in it, most of whom are now breaking sweat. You’re a bit nervous as you don’t want to be shown up as that guy who got into art college but can’t actually draw. Adding to your mounting problems you can barely see the model among all the easels, so you struggle to make the stiffest, most lifeless drawing you’ve ever made. After 15 minutes of agonising silence the unshaven guy in a blue boiler suit who’s been sat in the corner surveying the whole charade suddenly jumps up and starts shouting angrily. This is Martin Morris and you will never draw quite the same way again. He questions everything, the tools you use, why you have an the easel, where you chose to stand, what the drawing says about the model and so on. For the most part, no-one can answer any of his questions, and nearly everyone in the room realises they aren’t even sure why they came to life drawing in the first place, given that a traditionally drawn nude is about the last thing anyone visiting an RCA graduation show would expect to see.
I’ve drawn since I was quite young and so a lot of how I drew was either self taught or very traditionally taught. A lot of the things I was doing I’d never even thought about why or how I did them, they’d just become habits which were handed down to me from another teacher or artist without rhyme or reason. Life drawing itself was a habit. I studied art, therefore I had to learn to draw, right? Martin has a unique method which makes you question everything you do. He’d talk enthusiastically about cave paintings, Picasso, Bonnard and Ben Hartley, and walk us round the British Museum making all of this history suddenly relevant to how we’re drawing right now. I teach art now in the school I work in out here in New Zealand and I’ve borrowed some ideas from Martin’s classes. It’s incredible to see kids who have no confidence and take hours to produce the simplest of line drawings, grab a stick of charcoal and start firing out sketches with vitality and energy after a few minutes.
The drawing studio at the RCA also ran classes on anatomy, and one of the most unique opportunities there was learning facial reconstruction from a forensics expert. We put together a model of a head using wax to build the muscles and flesh around a plaster cast of a skull. College wide lectures would be given by everyone from Nick Park (Wallace and Gromit) to David Hockney and Brian Eno.
The one thing everyone who studies at the RCA says, is that it’s not your tutors but your classmates who really make the experience, and yes, to a certain extent this is partly true. It seems absurd paying tuition fees essentially for the pleasure of sharing time with other like minded people, but the cost of keeping the huge range of facilities going and drawing in the visiting lecturers is, I guess, no small sum. The scholarships and bursary schemes are pretty generous though so if there’s anyone out there thinking of studying at the RCA I’d recommend getting in touch with admissions before being put off by the cost.
CGWTF: There’s very much a strong aesthetic sensibility to a lot of RCA animation grads that seems to push away slightly from the sentimental tendencies of animation. Was this ever discussed on your course?
Sometimes it was mentioned by the tutors but I think its become more of a tradition among students more than anything else. As I said, the course is really strongly steered by the students. The tutors kept us in check, helped us solve creative and technical challenges, and made sure those deadlines were actually met (despite constant lobbying for extensions!), but they didn’t really force us into one style or another. Most of us probably applied to the RCA because of a former graduate whose work we admired, and so the tradition gets passed on from one generation to the next. There was never talk of a ‘house style’ at the RCA in the animation department, though I know I had friends in other departments, who did feel that their department enforced a certain way of working.
It’s also probably to do with how the RCA is set up with its great cross-discipline ethos. You wouldn’t bother applying to the RCA’s Painting course if your oeuvre was primarily sentimental portraits of rabbits and kittens with their owners. Likewise if you wanted to make animated films for children, the RCA wouldn’t necessarily be the best place to be (though some have, in later life, proved otherwise… http://www.studioaka.com/Films/ahpookishere !). If you want to study animation as it’s commonly known you can go to the NFTS or Central St Martins. These are both great schools, but I don’t think the courses at either of them benefit from the connection to the fine art world which the RCA has. When we went over to the NFTS to team up with their sound design students, we could sense that they had this preconception of us as crazy ‘artists’ severely lacking technical ability and production schedules, which to some extent was true! If you hold us up against their well organised teams of writers, directors, producers, animators and so on, it must seem like a miracle that any of the one-man-band RCA students ever finish their films!
The low numbers of RCA students producing work in CG probably adds to the lack of sentimentality in RCA films. CG is so dominated by the Pixar style that often when people learn the fundamentals of CG animation they pick up all the habits of that style without even meaning to. It’s like learning to draw the Loomis way - do it once and be forever haunted by the faces of 1950s advertising in your portraits! I always guessed that the lack of CG animators at the RCA probably reflected the fact that CG requires such a large base of technical knowledge, and the average RCA Animation cohort normally has students who don’t come from an animation background as such, but rather have experience in different areas of the arts. For example, I came from an Architecture BA at Cambridge. I had classmates who came from Fine Art, Illustration, Graphic Design, Video and so on from all over the world. There was a joke that the tutors used to interview as if they were picking a football team - they needed the 4 or 5 skilled Character Animators to play in defense and give the course a solid base, a handful of midfielders from different subject areas, then a few budding Tracey Emins with ‘out there’ work, up in attack.
Looking back on my work now having taken a year out, I wonder how much of what I did was a product of the institution. I certainly don’t think I could have produced ‘The North Sea Riviera’ if I hadn’t been to the RCA. I’d have been making very different films indeed, so in that sense, how I think about film conceptually has been hugely altered by studying there. Being away from it now, I guess things will change again!
Huge thanks to Josh for taking the time to respond so openly to my questions. fantastic to get an insight into how he brought such a beautiful and unique film to fruition.
Have a look at the links below to find out more.