Blue Zoo CG Character Animation Production Studio, London UK

From polystyrene & projectors comes Mamoon

03 October 2017

From polystyrene, projectors and hand-held cameras, comes Mamoon

We’re delighted to introduce ‘Mamoon’; our latest award-winning, innovative short, that experiments with light and projection.

In stark contrast to our comedy Christmas elfs, Mamoon’s a melancholic and haunting animation inspired by the horrific plight of refugees fleeing Syria’s civil war. Mamoon (an Arabic name meaning ‘without fear’) follows the story of a mother and child, whose lives descend into darkness when the moon mysteriously loses it’s light. As their own light begins to fade, the mother must work out how to save her child, using a mysterious red glow.

Mamoon is the brainchild of Blue Zoo’s Senior Animation Director, Ben Steer, who’s response to the company’s shorts programme won the heart of Blue Zooers who voted his idea into production. Already in its sixth year, the shorts programme is an excellent opportunity for creative diversity and experimentation, without commercial expectations. With previous shorts tending to be more humourous, the brief this time was to create an emotional, human story, with the proviso that the characters be animated in Maya
and then projected and filmed.

“The idea behind this was to benefit from the beautiful optical properties created in the process, elements we usually spend a lot of time and money trying to recreate - refractions, reflections, light bounce and depth of field. The only thing that would be done in post-production would be grading, everything else would be captured in camera.”
Tom Box, Co-Producer

From polystyrene, projectors and hand-held cameras, comes Mamoon

Ben took a truly experimental path to produce this film, projecting animated characters onto 3D sets crafted from polystyrene blocks. Normal post-production has been completely bypassed; there is no rendering, no CG precision, and imperfections with the lighting give the characters a ghostly quality, reminiscent of Victorian shadow puppets.

How it was made

The original idea involved two projected characters moving along the walls of a warehouse or old building, but logistically this was too time intensive, so Ben decided to build miniature, bespoke sets. Inspired by early 20th Century theatre design, especially the work of Adolphe Appia, he came up with a simplistic, modular design that could be reused for multiple shots.

From polystyrene, projectors and hand-held cameras, comes Mamoon

Initially painted wooden blocks were used, but the footage looked surprisingly computer generated and lacked the tactile feel we were trying to achieve. This is where the polystyrene came in; the microscopic pores in the surfaces caused the light to bleed into the blocks, giving the impression that light was coming from within the structure. It was the perfect material: light, cheap and easy to manipulate. So after ordering a lot of polystyrene, we blacked out one of the spare edit suites and set up a temporary film set.

From polystyrene, projectors and hand-held cameras, comes Mamoon

During the research phase, Ben was constantly refining the animatic. In order to ensure the shots would work in the physical space, he mocked-up the sets in Maya using virtual cameras and simple cuboids, before sketching on the characters in Photoshop. This way, he could present his ideas giving a good impression of what the resulting footage might look like.

The characters were designed to be 2.5D, so were fully 3D but designed only to be rendered flat shaded mostly in silhouettes. The characters were modelled and rigged in Maya.

From polystyrene, projectors and hand-held cameras, comes Mamoon

From polystyrene, projectors and hand-held cameras, comes Mamoon

Character design by Marylou Mao.

The animation process required a different approach to our usual methods. Animating without depth allowed us to shape and break the model in order to create better silhouettes. Normally we would animate to the exact length of a shot and, when the shot is finished, the animation ends. On numerous shots in Mamoon, an entire animated sequence would play out in real-time before being filmed from multiple angles, affording us greater freedom in the final edit.

For each shot, the set would be physically built in its rough form then photographed from the intended camera angles for reference. The photo would then be used as a backdrop in Maya for character blocking and placement. Once animation was complete, the set would be rebuilt and the important elements would be mapped out using a projector and Photoshop. The resulting Photoshop image would then be put into After Effects and layered up with the animation, which was then aligned to the set elements to create the finished projected sequence.

From polystyrene, projectors and hand-held cameras, comes Mamoon

The tools

For the camera, we used a Blackmagic Pocket Cinema which was affordable and great at capturing raw, uncompressed HD footage we could heavily grade without artefacts. We wanted a handheld feel to give it a slightly organic, documentary-style cinematography, rather than pre-calculated animation.

To light the set we used the same techniques employed on stop-motion sets - a combination of small, dimmable dedo lights with barn doors and black wrap, with tinted gels for smaller pools of coloured light and LED panel lights for larger, ambient sources of light.

After filming the shots were graded in Nuke, and the plan was to release it online, but after feedback at private screenings the feeling was that Mamoon was better suited to a big screen as opposed to a mobile phone. For that reason we’ve now hit the festival circuit, giving people the chance to view it on the big screen before it’s released on the internet.

From polystyrene, projectors and hand-held cameras, comes Mamoon

Where to watch it

We’re delighted that Mamoon has been shortlisted for several festivals, and the next one it’s being screened at is the Manchester Animation Festival on 14th November. Please keep an eye on our social channels for further announcements!

We're also thrilled that Mamoon has already won Best Animation at the Toronto International Short Film Festival, and Best Art Design and Best British Film at Canterbury Anifest.

If you’d like a taster and haven’t already seen the trailer, please watch it here.

‘’At the time, there was a lot of press coverage of the Syrian refugee crisis - I saw the Blue Zoo brief as the perfect reason to get creative with something I felt passionate about. I found the brief really intriguing and felt strongly that light should represent life, just as lack of light should represent death. If a character is dependent on light then shadows, objects and glass could hinder and distort them. Projectors also only project from one angle, what if multiple projectors were used for multiple characters? This presented a fascinating, if challenging set of parameters in which to devise a story.’’ Ben Steer, Director

From polystyrene, projectors and hand-held cameras, comes Mamoon

From polystyrene, projectors and hand-held cameras, comes Mamoon