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Screen Ireland Frameworks in Focus: Cashell Horgan's Lady Isobel and The Elf Knight
28 Aug 2019 : Nathan Griffin
Still from 'Lady Isobel and the Elf Knight'.
IFTN caught up with director Cashell Horgan to find out more about the frameworks programme, collaborating with professionals from other fields and the benefits of directing using game engine software.

The 8-minute film took little over a year to make with a team of animators and unity game specialists working in Max, Maya and Unity. Axis Neuron motion capture was used as a reference for the animators and for previs assembly edits. The character's costumes were designed and simulated in Marvelous Designer with the alembic files combined with baked character animations from Maya. These were then placed into the highly stylised sets and unity terrains designed by Jonathan Mc Gonnell (Penny Dreadful, Ripper Street) and built by 3d generalist Paul O'Brien, a graduate of the Ballyfermot Game Development course.

The story centres on a serial Killer, an Elf Knight who lures maidens to their death with false promises of romance and happiness, however in this dark tale it is Lady Isobel who comes to her own rescue and to avenge her murdered sisters. The damsel in distress becomes the damsel in defense against predators.

Made Image Film’s short animation ‘Lady Isobel and The Elf Knight’ was created through the Screen Ireland & RTÉ Frameworks scheme.

In unity, lighting and post effects were applied with multiple camera views in the timeline allowing multiple angles and a choice of compositions after the animation was finalised. A unique brush and filter set was also designed by collaborator Esko Mattinen taking each frame for a hand-painted brush effect to produce a much softer CGI art style.

The film features a duet with Rob Love of Alabama 3 (Woke Up This Morning –‘The Sopranos’ theme song) and Skye Edwards of Morcheeba (The Sea). Based on the ballad of the same name, a new composition with orchestration was made for the film by Michael Edwards, known for his work with Lisa Gerrard, Dead Can Dance, Patrick Cassidy and Whale Rider the movie.

The film now begins its festival run after it premiered at the 31st Galway Film Fleadh.

Lady Isobel and The Elf knight is written & directed by Cashell Horgan (The Clockmakers Dream), Produced by Andrew Moore, Executive Producers: Emma Scott for Screen Ireland; Pauline McNamara for RTE; Shorts Co-ordinator Jill McGregor for Screen Ireland; Mags O'Sullivan Marketing Executive for Screen Ireland; and Linhong Yang production manager of Made Image. Graham Isherwood led the animation team, while Post production was done by Gorilla Post’s Barry Reid.

IFTN caught up with director Cashell Horgan to find out more about the project's journey through the frameworks process.

Where did the idea to create a short animation using gaming software come from?

“We were looking initially at producing the complete film in Maya and toon shaders to render a flatter 2d style. It was during the research stages that I came across a film called ‘Sonders by Neth Nom’ made with Unity and was impressed at the final look they had achieved. I was also aware of Neill Blomkamp's proof of concept short 'Adam' designed to show off Unity's cinematic creation tools. My experience with 3d animation was limited enough and I wanted to be able to contribute creatively through my experience with live-action and claymation. After a few days experimenting with Unity and cinemachine I felt that this was the platform to use for the film and so our journey began. “

What pros and cons did you encounter from a directorial point of view when filming?

“It didn't take long to get into the basics of Unity but as a novice in Unity,  I relied upon my technical director  Paul O’Brien, a graduate of BCFE, who did a brilliant job;  to work through the tests and trails and put up with my constant ' but why not?'.”

“We used motion capture to record the full action on an Axis Neuron motion capture suit.  We could export this as fbx and go directly into Unity and remap the motion to the rigged characters. Placing the mocap on the unity time, I could choose a variety of camera angles and cuts between the cameras using Unity Cinemachine.  This gave a real sense of working live on a set because of Unity's real-time render engine I could see what was working and also discover sometimes by accident new shots and coverage for scenes this developed the boards even more and provided a previz of the complete film. 

“We gave the animators this previz as a reference but requested they animate parts of the character that weren't in shot. The advantage of this is I could choose any angle I wanted later on. The terrains in Unity have real-world physics and can be made to be very stylized so you can place your characters in the set , light it, set up wind for tree movement grass water, etc.  Another pro is the post-processing stack on the camera that allows for camera looks, filters and fogs.   Like anything in 3d, it is complex and the world of vertices and it can be frustrating when it doesn't work or works one day but not another, but it's important not to get hung up on it as that is the nature of it too.  Once you can keep working on scenes even if it's on your own as a director like the shots and sequences while the bugs in a pipeline are being sorted. That was the main attraction to Unity and why I stuck with it.”

Can you tell me a little bit about your experience working with the creative team involved?

“I'm very proud of the team we had who got it over the line, as there were so many elements that were new to everyone including people coming from a gaming background working with people from live-action and animation. I think the mix made the film very different as it has live-action shot design and a style of animation that is more realistic or limited to what animators from studios are more use to using; overlapping action and strong arcs and exaggerated expressions. Also, there was a lot of technical language and new programs to get a grip on; like marvellous designer for the cloth simulations, but everyone displayed professional patience and an 'open to experimenting' attitude, which made all the difference. I think everyone learned something and brought their own expertise and talents to the project. “

“I loved the concept art and story boarding stages, Jonathan McGonnell gave us some beautiful art direction to go on and it was very fulfilling, exploring and developing the character’s world. Same with Ian McCaffery, who broke the script down into its visual story components and discussing them.  I got the same across the team who went into minute details of character and movement and design. Musically, Michael Edwards composed as we developed the story so the two elements evolved together over the year. All the teams were working remotely - that in itself can be a bloody nightmare and took a lot of coordination by Lynhong Yangh our PM. It was only toward the end that we decided that the key creatives and technical team should move into a large house where we slept, ate and worked for the final 4 weeks of production, but not much sleep.”

Has this project given you more insight into the budding gaming industry in Ireland and do you think it’s an area that will see expansion in the future?

“From using Unity and experiencing what it can do in animation it’s impressive and I think it could free up animation directors to have more creative opportunities with projects during production. Also as a previz tool for live-action, it's very useful and free to use. It's not a big learning curve to get your head around. I would like to see more collaborations between the games, film and animation industries in Ireland because it will only lead to better work,  from some of my encounters over the production - a move to develop the creative and artistic skills along with the technical in training in games and even animation would be a good step for all. The area of games is expanding already in Ireland and the technologies are overlapping, the next few years will be very interesting in Ireland as the support and funding comes through for the games’ industry.“

Can you walk me through your experience of securing funding from the frameworks programme?

“The frameworks programme is a fantastic opportunity for filmmakers to experiment and produce works of artistic and commercial value. The programme has really developed since I did one back in 2000. We had submitted our project as per the application guidelines and a few weeks later we were notified that it was shortlisted and were asked to attend an interview. This gave us some time to further develop the pitch and put together some visuals.”

“The interview itself was pretty straightforward with an external animation professional sitting in.  I can't speak for Screen Ireland, but I felt they were looking to see if the director had a clear idea of the concept and was the company able and committed to producing the film within the parameters of the scheme. They have a very clear idea of what is involved in producing a frameworks film and that it can be a long and costly process so they are there to help you through that 1-2 year-long production. Jill McGregor oversees the coordination of all the shorts and really guided us through the various stages of funding deadlines and supporting paperwork needed to get each stage of the funding. There's a good bit of initial paperwork to submit and legal documents, accounts, etc. that our producer Andrew Moore looked after, it's not something the Director has time or should have to do, but Jill was there to assist and ease the process.”

“Each stage of production funding goes through an approval stage with Emma Scott for Screen Ireland and Pauline Mcnamara for RTE. I found both very supportive and a great sounding board as the film progressed through the 7 stages of delivery and funding towards completion. I think having objective and experienced eyes over the project did help us keep the project on track and near enough to what we originally proposed to do. Of course, I was a little cautious at first, but they had some great ideas and worked with us and were part of the creative process of the film. I think that comes from a genuine care that they want you to make a short that is as good as it can be and have every success in the festival and market place that they have experience with. For me, that's what makes a better film.”

The film now begins its festival run after it premiered at the 31st Galway Film Fleadh.




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