When freelance animation director and designer, Russ Etheridge teamed up with his wife, Ayndrilla Singharay, to make a fantastical film loosely based on a Hindu myth, they didn’t plan on their production schedule coinciding with the birth of their first child. But things don’t always go as planned and, looking back, they can hardly believe they managed to finish Armstrong, a 10-minute 2D/3D short about love and strength and what happens when the moon suddenly disappears.
Using Cinema 4D, Photoshop, After Effects and Octane, Etheridge spent nearly a year working on the film, which was written and produced by Singharay. Plans to show Armstrong at festivals in 2020 were derailed by the coronavirus so, instead it premiered on Short of the Week on May 15.
We asked Etheridge, who has been working in the motion graphics industry in the UK for nearly a decade, to explain the process for making their haunting and magical film. Here’s what he told me:
Before you went freelance, you worked for many different high-profile studios, like The Mill, Animade and MPC. How did you get into this industry?
Etheridge: I got into animation in secondary school when I was making games with my friends, so I had a lot of technical knowledge early on. I have a degree in digital arts, which felt very new at the time but in retrospect I wish I had focused more on animation courses. One of my tutors was a graduate of the Royal College of Art and he recommended that I take a two-year master’s course in animation there. I didn’t think I would get in but I did and it was super exciting because of the quality of animation that was coming out of there.
Everybody in my course was very talented and went into the industry, so I had a lot of amazing contacts right out of university that helped me get freelance jobs. But that was 2008 and when the financial crisis hit and there was no work. It was tough, but I finally got a job with MPC and really got into motion graphics there, working for big brands. It was a great experience, but really high pressure.
Mel, the film’s heroine, has a crush on her coworker, Ludo, and fills her garden with objects made in his image.
Ludo and his crisps are sucked down the plughole.
I had a few other jobs around London, but I was leaning more towards wanting to do animation and I got a job with Animade, which was started by some friends from university. It was really satisfying work and there was so much creative energy there. After three years, my wife and I decided we were tired of living in a big city, so we moved to Brighton, a nice coastal town south of London, and I’ve been freelancing since then.
Why did you two want to make this film?
Etheridge: I made a film when I was at the Royal College of Art, but I wasn’t really happy with it. My wife is a writer, so we collaborated on the story and got some funding from the British Film Institute. She was pregnant at the time and we thought it would be so easy to have the baby and stay home and work on the film, but it was so hard. You can’t do anything when you have a new baby. It’s funny now that we ever thought that.
How did you come up with the story?
Etheridge: We spent months developing the story, and she was the main writer. I gave her a brief and told her that the vibe I had in mind was this Indian TV show from the 80s that we both like called Mahabharat. It’s so over the top and it’s got gods who use their powers to do good. I wanted to try to capture that somehow. We didn’t want the film to be overly about Hinduism, but there is a myth about the moon being stolen that we like. We thought it would be so cool to have a story about people on earth who see the moon disappear and how that affects their lives and gravity and everything.
Ayndrilla was working for a women’s charity at the time and wanted the film to have a women’s empowerment sentiment. We decided that Mel, the film’s heroine, would save the world, but she also has a crush on a coworker named Ludo. We didn’t plan on having a romance in the film, but the more the story unfolded, we liked the idea. Ludo doesn’t really notice Mel and he’s always eating crisps, which is because he was inspired by a friend of mine who loves crisps. When the moon disappears, the world starts breaking apart and Mel finds the strength to fix things.
Talk about the film’s design and how you used 2D and 3D.
Etheridge: I like simplicity, and I was very influenced by illustrators at Animade who mostly worked in 2D. I increasingly focus on simple characters and shapes in my personal work. In Armstrong, everything is made from simple geometric shapes and I use a lot of 2D design principles, but I wanted the final animation to be made in 3D so I could really control the lighting to add richness and depth to the moonlit world.
The giant eagle in this unused style frame doesn’t appear in the final film.
An early concept showed a wobbly world where letters flew out of the mailbox.
There was a designer at Animade who told me her process was to draw a random shape in Photoshop and turn it into a character. I like that carefree approach, so I started by drawing sketches in my sketchbook and then using After Effects for 2D design, which became my guide in Cinema 4D. I built the character rigs from scratch in C4D, which required some thought since they are predominately two dimensional but still needed to look natural in a 3D environment.
The animation style is simple, but fairly unconventional for digital 3D. I used stepped frames to make it feel more like stop motion and a combination of 2s and 4s, which is animation lingo for the characters moving every other frame or every fourth frame.
Watch the rigging video here.
Also, I needed to keep the design of the legs, arms and all of the joints really sharp because, when the legs bend, the knees are really pointy. That’s really difficult to do using traditional binding for characters. There’s a bone and joint rig underneath everything but, on top, it’s all splines and sweet nurbs. I like the film’s handmade look, if it’s possible to have a digital handmade look, like it’s sort of rough around the edges.
Had Armstrong already been accepted to festivals before they were canceled?
Etheridge: I was getting quite a positive response from the couple of festivals I submitted to when the film was finished. But all of the summer festivals started getting postponed and canceled when the virus hit. Rather than waiting an indeterminate amount of time, we decided to release the film online and keep our fingers crossed for festivals after the restrictions have been eased.
How does making films affect or influence the type of freelance work you get?
Etheridge: I have definitely had a positive response from clients, even before the release of the film. I’m doing some more designing and directing, although my first love is getting hands-on with making characters move. I’ve got a few different plans in the works, plus little Ray to look after, so we’ll see how my career develops from here. For the moment, I’m glad to have had the opportunity to spend a lot of time on an ambitious personal project and I’m excited about what’s on the horizon.
Director: Russ Etheridge
Writers: Ayndrilla Singharay & Russ Etheridge
Producer: Ayndrilla Singharay & Russ Etheridge
Sound & Music: Mutant Jukebox