Interview: How Sara Kenney's emotional film Angels And Ghosts was animated

Simon Armstrong reveals how Ticktockrobot developed and animated Angels And Ghosts, screening at the British Animation Film Festival.

This weekend marks the third year for the British Animation Film Festival, taking place in London's Leicester Square. One of festival's best films is Sara Kenney's Angels And Ghosts, a gripping animated adventure exploring the potent themes of mental health and family bonds.

Director Sarah Kenney has first-hand experience of knowing people who have had psychotic episodes and wanted to find a way to tell a story which reflects both the patent and family perspective. Oscar-nominee Samantha Morton narrates in a monologue the emotive tale of Amber, a young woman on a quest to find her absent brothers.

Fresh from winning the Best Animation prize at the 2014 St Alban's Film Festival, animation director Simon Armstrong of Ticktockrobot was on hand to give Digital Arts a behind-the-scenes tour of the highly imaginative world, characters and production of Angels And Ghosts.

Use the slideshow controls above and right to read the interview and see more from the film.

MB: What's the extent of Ticktockrobot's involvement in the film?

SA: "Funded by The Wellcome Trust and created in association with Wowbagger Productions, we designed, storyboarded and animated Sara Kenney's passionate script.  We worked closely with Sara, developing the story, through the design process to completion.  

"We also designed and delivered the other marketing assets- from the official website, posters and virals to assisting in the management and authoring of the twitter and Facebook feeds.

MB: How did you develop the look of the characters?

SA: "The film focuses around three siblings, the protagonist Amber and her two brothers, Bobby and Josh. As the story is dramatic and emotive, art director Graham Carter approached the design of these characters differently to his usual playful naive approach. 

"We decided to create the characters as 3D rigs in Maya, a first for Graham's work. To help retain his style, Graham supplied the modellers with textures he would normally use in his prints, which were in turn mapped to the 3D meshes to give them a illustrative feel. Where possible, we kept things simple to be in keeping with the aesthetic; but the eyes, head shapes and mouths were rigged so that a high level of detail was possible in the animation."

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MB: Were there any creative challenges with the characters?

SA: "Graham's signature 'hammerhead' shape to the character heads could have been perceived as too ‘cartoony’ so the body was elongated to balance their proportions and 'mature' them.   This process was reversed to define the same characters as children in one scene.

"While designing the characters, Graham thought it would be useful to have a particular feature that would gel the family together visually and give them a unique quality. This became a pivotal motif for the film.  So it was decided to give the hair a paper-like quality, styled individually, yet embodying the same properties."

MB: The Brain Room is a key scene in the film, tell us about how it was developed.

SA: "It's a major scene, for not just the film, but the entire campaign, as it's the symbolic representation of Amber's research. The room represents Amber’s brain scouring the internet and it's here we find out more about her brothers' affliction and discover how to help them.

"The internet itself was represented by a circular wall of endless filing cabinets, giving the impression of an endless sea of information.

"Using filing cabinets gave a wonderfully classic analogue feel to the environment, coupled with steam vents, wood walls and ladders on runners. Blue glows signified the digital energy of the Internet, and also of Amber's brain as she discards or stores information in a central cluster of knowledge.

"The website also helps the audience to learn more about the issues raised by the film – so we decided to create the website using the same room, so visitors could step into the same world to find the information they needed."

MB: The robot is a recurring character – what inspired the look for it?

SA: "This was a real collaborative effort between myself and Graham. The general look mimicked the Brain Room in texture and colour, using a digital vs. analogue theme. It also alluded to how Amber's imagination is lead by this robot, a strong anchor for her fond memories.

"The robot had to shift in scale and purpose throughout the story so we needed to create a figure that was adaptable yet recognisable. The toy and the remote had traditional sizes and features such as power switches and wind up keys, again re-enforcing the analogue vs. digital motif . When the robot is reimagined by the children, its design replicates that of a child's imagination.

'It's over the top and on a grand scale, with nonsensical yet sensational slot machine rollers on its chest, utilising the theme of form over function. When Amber reimagines the Robot as a protector, the scale and design is tempered by that of an adult’s imagination.

"The cockpit is functional and the hands are cumbersome but essential to its purpose of fighting, and remaining in control. There are brash spikes and heavy shoulders to represent its strength, yet the open cockpit and the retracted neck denote a certain frailty to the machine, much like the protagonist who imagined him."

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MB: There's a scene reminiscent of a London tube that gives a sense of paranoia – what inspired this?

SA: "The tube is based on actual research that Amber stumbles upon in the Brain Room (her search for information). The original research used virtual-reality headsets to reveal the extent that paranoia occurs in the general public.

"To evoke this, Graham designed characters that were both detached from our imagined world and believably designed by it i.e. a world within a created world. The heads have no prominent features except eyes, meaning that shifts and movements by them become much more poignant. The sectioned, undulating motion of a tube carriage compounded with the flickering lights and a ‘CCTV’ edit mix drew the viewer in much like the original experiment did."

MB: What can you tell us about scene set in a creepy forest? What did this represent?

SA: "This scene is the climatic point of Amber's journey, embodying her frustration and helplessness. It needed to visualise forces out of Amber's control, such as nature.

"We created a Foreboding Forest, where the tree vines morphed, twisted and grew into DNA strands that whipped, lashed and attacked. Amber and the robot are the embodiment of nurture fighting nature (the Forest ) to control what Amber wishes desperately she can overcome."