Two University of Portsmouth academics hope to create the first full-length CGI feature film ever attempted by a British university.
It all started with Paul Charisse, senior lecturer in animation, who has extensive film industry experience, including creating facial animation for the character of Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
He had an idea for a short film based on a piece of music he had written, which he hoped to make at the university with the involvement of students. So he approached Alex Counsell, principal technician in Portsmouth’s School of Creative Technologies, who also teaches motion capture to students of animation and computer games (and has produced computer-generated material for television advertisements and corporate clients).
Mr Counsell’s response, he himself recalled now, was “don’t let’s ask how, let’s try anyway” – which led Mr Charisse to develop a full-length screenplay titled Stina and the Wolf, the story of a young girl living in “a superstitious and oppressive army town” in the mountains with “her surreally disabled uncle and unforgiving aunt”.
The pair decided, Mr Counsell went on, to pursue the project “outside teaching and research, to keep it separate from the curriculum, as a practical film-making experiment, voluntary for students and fitted round our work commitments…We have a list of the skills we need and advertise around the university and externally. We have had students from over nine faculties, including architecture, fashion and computer science.”
The two academics have also created what amounts to a production company (which may become a fully fledged one) called Foam Digital. Animation students working on their final-year projects are encouraged to find a client, and many have opted to work on Stina and the Wolf. The experience has proved very attractive to potential employers in the industry who like to see that students can work collaboratively towards a creative goal as well as possessing solo animation skills.
The support of the industry has been essential in others ways.
The academics decided early on, Mr Counsell said, that “hand animation would be far too slow” and that they would have to use motion capture and computerised animation techniques. They cast children from the drama department at the Gregg School in Southampton but approached a company called Vicon for technical help. It loaned the project motion capture cameras worth £150,000 for five weeks, while other firms provided software for free.
So how is their hugely ambitious film going?
Mr Counsell reports that they have “done full costings, set ourselves goals for each year and reckon we could make it in three years” – if only someone could provide them with £10 million to £12 million.
In the meantime, they have created “a cinematic trailer showcasing scenes and techniques” as well as a short spin-off film about Stina and her uncle for showing in festivals. However, “progress depends on the number of students involved each year. Although we have a rough cut of the film, we want it to have the production values you would see in the cinema; now we have to go and ‘colour it in’. We probably have 10 minutes almost complete.”
Even if it is never finished, reflects Mr Counsell, it will still have been “valuable for our students as an educational project. The simple answer is: we don’t have a completion date.”