Friday 21 June 2013

Animating London

For the last six months I've been working on the graduation project for my animation course at Central Saint Martins. I wanted to make a short film that combined storytelling with my love of location sketching.

I started drawing London initially because I was looking for a way of re-engaging with my favourite places, after having lived here for a while and struggling somewhat to always appreciate it as much as I used to. That led to meeting other urban sketchers and getting involved with a whole community of artists, all drawing and painting their surroundings and everyday life, for all sorts of reasons, and creatively I've found that a fantastic atmosphere to be a part of. I wanted to try to convey the excitement of drawing and how it can bring places to life.

I was also very interested in how to tie together hand-drawn animation, which is tightly planned out and time consuming, with location sketching, which is by its nature spontaneous and relatively quick. There's been a lot of different takes on animated sketchbooks — probably the most famous is Bastien Dubois's Oscar-nominated "Madagascar, Carnet de voyage". I was also inspired by the work of a fellow Urban Sketcher from Berlin, Bo Soremsky, who animates many of his location drawings.

I ended up settling on a documentary style with a cartoon version of myself as the presenter, allowing me to impose a narrative, while using as much as possible from my sketchbooks. I visited the locations several times to work out a framing for the characters to move around within, and once I was happy this was all working, I went back and did a full sketch on site.

Sketching the background for my Crystal Palace scene

It was quite a different way of working, because I had to be much more conscious of compositional elements, particularly the aspect ratio of my film, and also omitting the people walking by, concentrating solely on the landscape. Normally, backgrounds in animation would be drawn using photo reference and/or the artist's imagination, but for this project I was keen to do as much drawing as possible from life and on location, which added a welcome unpredictability to how things would look in the finished film. I wasn't concerned with creating a 'perfect' drawing so much as creating a record of the actual visit, mistakes and all.

The original drawing from my sketchbook before starting the project

The drawing I used as a background, done on location with much more attention paid to composition

Returning to redraw scenes, it was interesting to note the changes that had occurred in the intervening time. In the Strand, the view that I drew six months ago has now completely changed with the demolition of an entire building. At Crystal Palace Park, the fence had been replaced, and foliage cut back. Comparing the two drawings now, I also see I drew the dinosaur in the first one with a smile, and the second time looking rather grumpier. Completely unintentional, but perhaps a reflection of my psyche at the time — who knows!

Another interesting dimension to presenting drawings in film is the use of sound. I was able to work with sound artist Sophie Mallett who recorded many of the ambient sounds for the scenes I sketched at those particular locations. Of the project, she said: "I imagine that site recording is the same as sketching on site. There's an activity tying you to the place that makes you physically stay longer than you normally would. There's a sensation of the space changing over that time, as you move past a superficial understanding of the place to a personal experience of it... The project meant that I stayed longer, listened more, and through the 'lens' of the microphone heard more than the typical London cacophony."

I've posted a clip from the film above, but you can see the full three-minute film along with animations from my classmates and artwork from all the courses at the college, by heading to Kings Cross this week. The CSM Degree Show is open to the public from now until Sunday 23 June...



  1. Great intro. I especially like that the sketching and sound compliment each other so well.

  2. I loved this and really wanted to see the rest! Loved the puzzle.
    Unfortunately,I am in the Pacific NW and cannot make it to Kings Cross.
    Good work!

  3. This is great! Is there going to be a way that people can see it in full if they can't make it to your degree show, Nathan?

  4. Brilliant Nathan - this is a great project period - not just for a degree show!

  5. Thank you all. The film will be online in full eventually, but just for the moment I won't upload it as I will be submitting to some film festivals, and they apparently often refuse films if they have already been shown online.
    Matt, I love your pictures. I think it's such a stimulating place for the imagination - you really capture that. I'm jealous you got access to the subway!!

  6. Very cool! I hope to be able to see the whole film sometime.

  7. Good stuff Nathan! I too will miss it as I'm not in London until July but I enjoyed what I saw there, very cool.


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