Personal Creative Development – Aiding Final Years – Philip McDowell


In support of your portfolio, mid-semester you’ll be required to choose a 3D/2D/VFX/Animation related discipline to continue your personal practice.  Consider continuing development of your first semester work if you wish.  Alternatively you can elect to help out on a final year project and use that as your discipline focus.

This assignment will run alongside the main studio guided assignment.  Formative feedback sessions will take place over the semester.

Include research into your medium, which could include artists, methodology, practical uses by studios.  Your own reflection and application of feedback.

Hand-in due Friday10th May

In talking with my friends in class as well as Michael, I came to a conclusion that I wanted to focus on animation. 

Initially, I wanted to just continue with using the Jack and Jill rig provided to us at the start of the first semester. However, I was at a loss thinking about what to animate.

I chose to help with final year projects instead.

This brought me into the path of Philip McDowell. 

Initial Discussion with Philip

Once Alec introduced me and Philip, we both meet relatively quickly to discuss his animation.

His animated short is based on  gangster movies, so the genre would be a mix of crime elements with comedy elements.

The focus of his short would be to emulate the gangster films of the 1930’s during the pre code Hollywood era. Within this era we saw a bevy of violent films where they typically got away with the violence until 1934. This year marked censorship and restrictions on the use of such violence.

To conclude, Philip used pre-restriction movies as a motif and style for his short.

What about his characters?

Well Philip told me that they where made to be puppets.

So generally I tried to establish what type of puppet Phillip meant. Phillip pointed me in the direction of puppetry that is used in Thunderbirds and Team America. Therefore, marionette puppetry.

I did a little bit of digging around and found that Thunderbird’s actually used a form of marionette puppetry coined by the series’ creator Gerry Anderson, this term was “Supermarionation”. This allowed the creators of Thunderbird’s to acquire the look and feel capturing realistic movements.

Team America was purposefully made to look under budget and to have “Amateur” puppeteer-ing. This can be viewed throughout the film, it was not meant to be a serious film.

These references alone were enough for me to understand how these characters should move.

Philips task for me

So as assistant animator…. Bit of a stretch.

So as the boy who helped out, I was tasked to animate one scene, a small scene but a prominent one.

The scene revolves around two goons getting shot up. Philip was very generous in what I had to do. He just said to keep it within 10 seconds, which is 240 frames.

The camera was set up in a way that showcases the ‘flailing’ moments of a shooting, comedic.

So let the gathering of references begin.

The Gathering of References

So, Philip talked about the many influences in the way he wants me to animate the scene. It is a relatively small, but this moment in time he is happy enough for me to do this scene alone.

The first thing Philip mentioned to me was to keep in mind the puppetry movements of the two characters and pointed me in the direction of Thunderbirds, Team America and Millers Crossing. So, I read up on these. (Read above for background research).


ThunderBirds was a show in 1965 that created a new wave in marionette puppetry and as stated earlier, one of the creators of the show coined the term ‘Supermarionation’.

I found, from a collection of videos that there was scarcely any movement. In fact, a good portion of the time, the marionettes either sat and moved little, or stood and moved a little. A lot of the animation went into the head and face.

Take this video for example.

Within this video, there seems to be a lot of wiggling. Small movements mainly happen between the head and shoulder region. Their hands do not move, the movement mainly appears within the joints of the elbow and shoulder. Like Phillip, the shots usually are set up to show the waist up.

Now, the movements are very stiff, jittery and minimalist.

What Phillip wanted was something more crazy, frantic, comedic. Although I am getting a sense, I need to exaggerate these movements, and there is a similar in-design and movement film that I can think of. Team America.

Team America

Team America, is a film written and directed by the creators of a little known garage animation, South Park. I know, I never heard of it either.

Because of the intentionally bad and poor movement of the characters, these actions are grander and lively than ThunderBirds. On top of this we see feet… FEET.

 In this, the marionette strings are used intensely, giving the movements of the characters a lot of swaying movement, in which they, in a sense, ‘dangle’ from the string. 

An exaggeration of expression is also assisted by the yanking of the strings by the  puppeteers themselves, giving the illusion that they are expressing more than they are.

Different to ThunderBird’s, Team America uses joints within the hands, allowing them to move. Trey and Matt try and derive movement from the marionettes as much as they can. Although, they are still very stiff and float as well.

There is a lot of twisting a quarter of the way, as well as bobbing up and down.

Millers Crossing

Phillip gave me a description of this film. However, when I found this scene I knew right away what he was looking for. 

This scene seemingly merges ThunderBird’s, Team America and live-action film together.

The part I am talking about is when the main character shoots a hit-man from outside of his own home.

2:29 – 22:50

This is what Phillip highly recommended to see. The over reaction to being riddled with a Tommy-gun, mixed with re-using the same shots, adds the comedic scene. It is over exaggeration at its finest.

For 20 seconds, we see the shaking, almost marionette like movements.

I noticed that the guy being shot, wiggles. His arms fly in the arm, they wave, his torso wiggles. However, the movements still seem somewhat stiff. Moving in increments.

He also moves his torso as if he is on a pivot, as his lower half of his body barely moves, about from the knees moving a slight bit.

He stays in place, only to move back in the end, when he arches his back forward and his leg backward, before he falls. The only time his leg seems to move throughout the entire scene.

Keeping these movements in mind, I decided to see what Phillip had to say. He seemed very set in his ways for a Millers Crossing esque over exaggeration of movement.

On top of the references Philip gave me, I decided to also look at how other 3D animators animated similar characters.

Within this film, the animators seem to stray away from the stiff movement of marionettes, instead focusing their efforts in emoting with the usual 12 principles like follow through and exaggeration.

Within this short film, we see that there is a mixture of stiff, fluid and floating movements found in previous research. Unlike the example above, this follows the marionette-esque movement more closely.

I find the rig within this video is similar to Phillips, therefore, I chose to look because of this and how the animator depicts impact of being “hit/shot” by an arrow.

I looked closely at the arcs and line of action (or impact?). Also, the timing of the person being hit to him being on the floor. Just so that I got realistic movement down.

My own references

I decided it would be a bit of fun to capture myself and my friends reacting to being shot. I will use some of them as reference, however, it was a bit of fun in the meantime.

add here

I noted that, the actions that I did, where not longer than 5 seconds or more. Taking away the part at the start that I say action. Therefore, I might have to copy and paste some of the movement to get to 10 seconds.


Here is my playlist for the different stages of the animation. If you want to watch all of the takes, then I am happy that you do.

I want to focus on a few that has different or somewhat changed aspects within them.

So, incorporating my references and recordings, and placing them into the movement of Rico and Butch.

My process

What I did at the beginning was determine the best way to animate was. The scene was heavy on my computer. So I resorted to the macs in our room.

I decided to start animating one at a time. I started with Rico, the smallest.

What this video does not show you is the full beginning. What I had done was go revert to the Millers Crossing scene in which the character only moves his torso. I was unhappy with this movement as it did not translate. So I took a break an eventually showed others in my class.

The feedback I got was to move his legs. Phillip did say that I do not have to worry about the legs if it was too much, he was happy with the hands, arms, torso and head moving.

So, I decided to move the legs and that is what you see in this first take.

After this I duplicated frames and added them, keeping an eye on the frame count. It was still not reaching 240 and once taken out of stepped, it was very fast. I went in to the graph editor and fixed the key frames.

Perplexed and confused I asked Natasha Henry, who was also animating her scene at the time. She showed me a way to spread key frames out from the graph editor. I used this method and I not only passed the frame count but the movements where much smoother.

I continued to animate the scene and sent Phillip, in progress clips. He seemed pleased with the animation and he was happy to let me continue. This was the look he was going for.

With this good news I kept on animating, this time moving to Butch. I tried to manually offset his movements, so that they didn’t look the same as Rico’s, or inherently the same. So Butch got shot a couple of milliseconds after Rico.

I raised Butch’s arms a little more and moved them more too, but the reasoning behind them was the same.

Here is a beginning look at his animation. This is an example of what the animation look like before I stretched the graph editor. Keep your eye on the character Butch on the right.

I stretched his animation out after this.

Coming towards the end I noticed there were issues. Mainly to do with clipping. If you look at the gap in between them, look at their arms. It looks like they are sword fighting. Funny looking, but needed to go.

Here is a final look.

But as you can see there is still a bit of a clipping issue, there seems to not be one. I find every time I play this back there is a bit of clipping, but when using perspective view, they are not touching.

To circumvent this, I mad the movements further a part. Below is the final playblast.

I also asked our semester 2 lecturer Michael to take a look. He said the start needs to happen a lot sooner and he gave me a well needed and sought out lesson on the graph editor. Michael should me different ways of animating as well. Barely any key frames on the timeline, like I tend to get carried away with, he used the graph editor more to achieve his movement.


Over all, I found the experience animating for another project exciting. I liked the idea of going in not knowing a thing and learning as I am going. Phillip was very nice with what I have to do. His feedback was more and more encouragement, which felt really good to hear.

Animating this sort of scene is a little different than any other scene I had to animate before. Essentially the character rarely moves. I believe that I achieved the movement that Phillip initially had in mind, as the references and learning a bit about marionettes and puppetry really helped me nail the movement.

On top of this, I learnt a new way to animate thanks to peers.

What I would take away is that, if I have two characters interacting within a scene, this closely, maybe I should pose one and animate the other one without hiding anyone. This would be handy in catching any clipping and make the animation feel a little more lively and fluid.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s