Making of shot-2290 (Circus Jam)

Animation Mentor is a great school. Last year, in addition to the awesome classes, they ran an anim jam—a chance for students and alumni to animate on a theme and have the results published with all the polish of a professional short. Check out the result!

A chance to collaborate

I missed out on taking a collaborative class so it was exciting to hear the anim jam announcement. We were told about the jam concept and that there would be three sets based around a circus theme. The first set opened and was filled quickly—so quickly I was asleep and missed it completely!! The second set went live at a different time of day (yes, Animation Mentor care about timezones and their international community!) so I signed up for shot 2290. What was shot 2290? That was up to me.

Shot ideas

At AM (Animation Mentor) we are encouraged to think about storytelling. I enjoy coming up with ideas for shots. For inspiration, we had the set design, a set of props and character skins—with a medieval flavour.

A stage with circus tents in the background, a stage door, trampolines and trapezes. Top left: Stella in medieval mackup. Top right: Stan, a knight in black armour. Bottom right: cartoony muscians. Bottom left: sketch of Stella, Stan and a fair-haired knight.
Anim Jam medieval circus set and characters

I jotted down these ideas:

  • prince saving the princess from the knight
  • princess saving the knight from the prince
  • mock fight
  • use the cannon with the imps
  • juggling
  • clowning: Stella baps Stewart with the juggling pin
  • Stella catches Stan and carries him off
  • he was afraid of heights on the trapeze
  • she saved him from Stan
  • imps playing music

Got to say, there were some awesome props that were never seen in the final cut, including the trampolines shown above and a super amazing vintage fire engine!

Choosing an idea

I decided to focus on the idea of a fight between the 2 knights: Stewart vs Stan. I also thought it would be funny to stuff Stan, the biggest character, into the cannon. I’m not sure how Stan felt about this, especially after we did a test pose…

A large man standing in an upright cannon. His upper body does not fit and his arms are spread in mute appeal.
Stan stuffed in the cannon on Circus Jam

Still, I liked the idea and so I jotted down a rough plot:

  1. both enter
  2. glare at each other
  3. march to sides of set (one at a time or together?)
  4. Stewart turns and slams his shield into position
  5. Stan jumps into cannon
  6. Stewart surprised, then braces
  7. Stan levers cannon down to aim at Stewart
  8. Stan strikes sword along ground and lights cannon fuse
  9. Stan aims sword at Stewart
  10. BOOM (shockwave through set)
  11. Stan flies across into Stewart and both are bowled out of the set.

The pitch

I made a quick animatic and shot some video reference to share the idea with the rest of the set 2 crew.

Got a thumbs up (that was pretty much the greenlighting process) and a suggestion that I team up with others to share the workload.

Collaboration and story evolution

I asked for help and Clarissa Amiata volunteered. We tossed some ideas around she agreed to tackle the second half, and suggested having Stan shoot some monster balls for Stewart to dodge (which, as you can see in the final cut, turned out awesome).

Animation: video reference

I shot some initial reference and added to it as needed later on. I especially needed new reference for a jump hookup (added later) and waving the sword around—the cardboard tube in my initial reference was too light. Cricket bat helped!

Animation: Blocking

My first blocking passes tackled layout, the walk and turn. I was going for a riff on “pistols at noon” Western thang, so the walk was pretty key. Plus, walk mechanics always need attention, might as well start them early.

By the final blocking pass, Stewart’s entrance had been replaced with a jump (I forget why. I think it was feedback I received to add more variety.) and I added some craziness with monster ball making faces.

I started blocking on 18 August and finished on 8 September, to give you a rough idea of timeframes. This was all done in my spare time whilst working a regular day job.

Animation: spline cleanup and polish

Not too much to say about spline cleanup, just got to get everything moving then make it appealing (and mechanically sound). Blocking sets a lot of the timing but you do get to tweak the rhythm of all the moves. Here’s my first and last pass:

I worked on cleanup from 8 September through to 19 September, and then started polishing. At this point I thought that polish was like cleanup—just keep improving things a bit each pass. I’ve come to learn that’s not a good approach to polish—you should bite off a chunk (say 100 frames) and polish it! That means, make it awesome and make it final! (I learned this later in my AN05 class—thanks Ethan Hurd! I still need to practice it!)

Direction—the cut

On 30 September we got some key direction. Our Director (Bobby Beck) had worked out a story cut from all the available shots. Luckily my shot made the cut, mostly  because it tied in with other shots story-wise. It also helped that I had been making steady progress. This story cut was the first time we saw the entire “set 2” as one sequence and it was very cool to take that in.

Along with this cut came notes: my shot was shortened to make the story stronger—a welcome change that reduced my workload!—and had a new hookup at the start with Patricia Milton’s shot of Pinky in a hula hoop (I love that shot!). I’d never tackled hookups before and our first attempt was amusing! It’s hard for 2 people to animate half a jump and have it work correctly!

Everyone worked through their polish and hookups and the results speak for themselves.

Here’s where my animation ended:

My shot received additional fix/polish animation from Aaron Johnston and Bobby Beck, with awesome results. I especially love the overlap added to Stan’s body as he pulls out monster ball.


We got to see the updates as the lighters went through the shots and made them look amazing. This was a new experience for me—every day or two there was another awesome new clip to watch, and one day (12 November) it was my shot! Ben Sarlo worked magic with the lighting! 🙂

Overall impressions

It was a great process! Very similar to how we approach our own shots at first, but then we had director advice and shots were cropped and cut together and we had hookups with other animators. Feedback was regular, but different to when peers give you their thoughts in AM—feedback was coming from the lead animator (Sergey Berengard on set 2) and director and it was much more specific on what needed work to get the shot to the required level. Plus there was the overall sense that we were all involved together, which was very neat!

Seeing it all lit, rendered and with sound, it’s fabulous. Loved being part of it!

Read more: Circus Jam: Online Collaboration – The Making of the Future

Curiously you’ll read the director had an easier time with shot 3—where shots were planned and storyboarded in advance and animators picked a shot and worked on it. I’m glad I had a chance to put more of my own ideas into my shot though 🙂