This is a story of how I nearly got to make an animated film. At one level it is a tale, familiar to any academic, of a highly promising project which, in the end, didn’t get funded. Looking back on it, it is also a tale of youthful ambition, of seeing how high we could fly on the thermal currents of optimism, soaring over clouds, revelling in the glorious CGI views of our imagination, before the reality of a grant panel decision brought us back to the ground.
The story begins, as is not uncommon in chapters of my life, in a pub. This one was the Turf Tavern in central Oxford. A drinking den supposedly dating back to the fourteenth century, hidden down a tiny alley, and popular with students, researchers, city workers and tourists alike. The Turf was the scene of many Oxford legends. Notices at the back of the garden proudly inform customers that this was the location where, in 1963, a young Bob Hawke (Australian Prime Minister 1983-1991), set the record for drinking a yard of ale in eleven seconds. Another claims (without citing evidence) that the Turf was where a young Rhodes Scholar, Bill Clinton, famously “did not inhale” marijuana.
I was sitting inside the Turf, on a cold November evening in 2010, enjoying a drink with my younger brother Jake. We picked this place not with any illusion that by drinking too much and not inhaling illegal substances we would become future leaders of the western world, but simply because they had a good range of beer and it was just around the corner from my college.
It was the first time I had seen Jake in several years. We didn’t meet often as our paths had diverged. I had taken a degree and PhD in physics, and after working on various international projects, I was now a physics lecturer in Oxford. Jake had a taken degree in Media Studies from Lampeter University, widely regarded in the higher education world as one of the craziest universities in the country—a tiny college hidden in a corner of rural Wales, an hour’s bus ride from the larger university town of Aberystwyth. Yet Lampeter evidently had a strong attraction for many. It was sometimes called black hole, as like a region of space-time bent by a strong gravitational field to prevent light escaping, many students were reluctant to leave upon graduating, despite the lack of jobs in the region. So it was with Jake, who after graduating, spent a year unemployed or stacking supermarket shelves. I went out to visit him once, where he live in a dilapidated farmhouse with a group of friends. There was some sort of arrangement with the landlord where he didn’t bother them about the rent, and they didn’t bother him about the fact that the place was unfit for human habitation.
Eventually his endurance paid off and he landed the media job he wanted in Aberystwyth, producing computer graphics for a university spinout company named See3D, specialising in virtual reality. This week he had some work-related thing in London, and stopped off in Oxford to crash on my sofa for the night before heading in to the capital. Anyone looking at the pair of us sitting in the corner with our beers would probably not guess that we were brothers. I was a scruffily-dressed spectacled science nerd. He sported a smart beard, tattoos and nose stud. While he could be scruffily dressed, on this occasion he was making the effort to dress as a media professional with jacket and T-shirt.
We sipped our beers, and I listened to him talk about work in 3D animation. The technology was developing fast. Pixar continued to wow the world with a steady stream of features, each more impressive than the last, which animators around the world would analyse to get ideas for their own models, rigging, surfaces and rendering. The quality of the open-source software available was getting better. Meanwhile the hardware for viewing stereo-3D was getting cheaper and the prospect of a 3D television in every home seemed not far off.
Yet business was not booming. The academic work they had hoped for had not materialised. They kept going doing commercial projects—visualisations of prototypes for small engineering firms, architectural models, and rendering of proposed wind farms for planning applications. Occasionally some more interesting projects such as modelling for the Houses of the Welsh Countryside documentary for S4C television.
Media work was the fun stuff. What they really wanted was to do some character animation—programming the 3D puppetry of Pixar-style characters. The best they had done to date was a toy advert for Dexter the Digger. It would be great to do a proper film. Did I have any ideas for proposals for a character animation?
Actually I did. That year I had been thinking about ideas for science outreach projects—ways of promoting the astroparticle physics experiments I worked on to school children and the general public. Some weeks previously I had been in a meeting of an Institute of Physics group, where the chair had been complaining that CERN and the Large Hadron Collider were getting all the publicity and we needed ways to promote the other projects, such as the cosmic ray telescope he worked on.
Could we do something with animated characters? I liked the idea. Nearly all the science education animations on YouTube were basically just moving pictures of particles or planets or whatever, with a narration. Having a cartoon scientist explain this would certainly add something. I was also aware that giving children a tour of a lab is one of the best ways to show them what we do, but that’s not usually practical, and even when you can get them in, you can’t show them everything as equipment is inevitably closed up, they would have to dress in full-body clean room outfits, and the health and safety office haven’t authorised it. But in a cartoon world, we could have a fictional scientist and child visiting a 3D model of some real-world experiments—an idealised lab tour with none of the petty access problems. And if done in stereo-3D, any viewer could virtually join the tour.
Over another pint, Jake and I developed a plan to create the next YouTube hit. Then we turned in for the night. He departed for London early the following morning. At this point the most likely outcome is we would have both forgotten about the idea, and let it go the way of most crazy ideas dreamt up down the pub. Except somehow this one got stuck in my head. The idea of being able to make my own film was just a little too seductive, so instead I spent my evenings for the next week writing a short screenplay. I had a vision of an opening depiction of the Big Bang and the creation of dark matter, before fast forwarding fourteen billion years. I wanted a scene with our two characters discussing astronomy while star-gazing in the mountain, before moving to an underground laboratory to see the particle detectors.
I had no real idea how to write a film proposal, so I just made it up as I went along. It turned out that I was probably overthinking it, as after I sent it in, Jake’s boss saw me more as a potential customer than a crazy amateur writer with an idea for a film. The reality was quickly established. Both of us wanted to do this project. Neither of us had the funding to do it.
However I knew of grants I could apply for to get funding for public-understanding-of-science activities. Unfortunately nearly all of them had a maximum amount well below what we would need for this project. However the STFC (the Science and Technology Facilities Council, not the Swindon Town Football Club) Public Engagement Large Awards Schemes offered grants of up to £100,000.
The following week I went out to the west of Wales to discuss the project. Getting to the Aberystwyth involves taking a slow train from Birmingham which trundles through the hills of central Wales, and across the flat expanse of the Dovey Estuary and Borth Bog before reaching the Victorian seaside terminal at the end of the line. Driving would not have been any quicker, given the narrow rural roads, frequently blocked by slow moving farm vehicles or a herd of stray sheep. Yet the region is no rural backwater, but a diverse cultural hotspot. The town is the home of the National Library of Wales, and has long been a centre of Welsh literature. The local culture acquired some extra colour with the 1970s hippy invasion of Ceredigion. The same forces that had driven the freethinkers of the US to San Francisco applied to Wales, but with rather more constrained geography. Cheap property attracted new arrivals from Birmingham and London seeking an alternative lifestyle, free love, self-sufficiency, and LSD.
Today you still find small tepee-living communities in the hills, along with writers, artists, crafts enthusiasts—and computer game and graphics designers. When the home computer market appeared in the 1980s, a cottage industry sprung up producing games, distributed on tape cassette and floppy disk. Sadly, they did not have quite the success of the descendants of the hippies of Silicon Valley, and as the big players came to dominate the industry, it became harder for the little games designers of west Wales to compete.
It was partly with the aim of developing this local talent that See3D had been founded, kick started with grants from the Welsh Assembly and European Union. With this they had built a very nice building, with 3D theatre, on the university campus. But sustaining the business was a challenge. In principle, in the internet age, digital work could be done anywhere in the world. Why not run your firm in a region in an attractive rural region with a low cost of living? Yet the contracts would usually go to the firms in Cardiff, Bristol, or London. To get the deals, you had to ben in the city, and hang out in the fashionable Soho bars with other media professionals, where, while sipping their cocktails, they no doubt complained about how hard they had it, as to compete at the top, you really had to be in New York or L.A.
Yet See3D had survived, and now, perhaps, thanks to a chance encounter in an Oxford pub, they might just get the break they needed to get into media production.
After my first trip to meet the team at See3D, we realised the grant deadline for that year’s award scheme was only a few week weeks away. We got straight to work. Their artists prepared a set of storyboards for my script. Meanwhile I went through every detail of the grant guidelines, drafted a case, project plan, and budget, and sent enquiries to everyone I knew who had done these projects in the past to try and get some advice.
A week before the deadline I got the storyboards. While it was thrilling to see the visual rendering of my idea, it had a fatal mistake—the scientist looked like an Albert Einstein clone. Of course—ask an artist to draw a picture of a scientist and that’s what they will do—but if you then ask a science funding agency to fund it, they will reject it as a stereotype. I asked the artist to redo the drawings, which he did, and submitted the new version, with a less crazy-haired scientist character.
The application proposal was a two stage process. Our first submission was rejected at stage one. When I received the feedback I was surprised to read the comment that the panel thought our characters looked like stereotypes. Only much later did it occur to me that the university administrators probably sent in the wrong file.
But that was just a first try, and we rushed it and weren’t properly prepared. Next year we would be back.
The following year I drove back to Aberystwyth to prepare our second bid for an award. We got together in the top floor of the See3D office building, with a great view down the hill and out over the Irish Sea, and thrashed out a creative plan for our future 3D blockbuster. This time we would be more ambitious. If we were to make this idea work, we had to do it properly, so we upped our funding request to the maximum with a proposal to make three short films, in which our animated characters would: travel to a deep underground lab to see a dark matter search experiment; venture out into the Namib desert to visit a gamma-ray telescope; and finally travel to the South pole to see the landing of an ultra-high-energy neutrino detector carried by balloon across the Antarctic ice.
This time I took weeks redrafting my proposal. I collected letters of support from school teachers and science communicators. I drew up a full plan to deliver our films and promote them to schools, science museums. This time I could confidently say we gave our proposal—Astroparticle Adventures 3D!—our best shot.
Our proposal got past stage one. We were invited to give a presentation to the selection panel. We received the reports the referees had written about our proposal, and they were very positive. It was looking good. I took the train up to Birmingham and waited to be called into a meeting room at the Thinktank science museum. Jake’s boss drove out across Wales with a 3D projector. We gave a well-planned presentation with confidence. We could answer all questions put to us well. We departed Birmingham full of optimism that we would soon be starting work on our first film.
But it was not to be. Two weeks later I got the email saying that we had not been successful. The critical feedback said that they were not entirely convinced we could deliver the promised outcome. They also said expressed a concern that a 3D projection system was in excess of what many schools have. That point was a little irritating as I had written in my proposal that the cost a 3D TV set had fallen in recent years and was well within a school budget. I suspect the reality is just that they had received a large number of equally good applications and, in the end, they did not go for ours. There were other groups with proposals for short animated films. Our determination to go for a stereo-3D character animation may have been a problem, as other teams going for conventional 2D-narrated clips could offer a more animation for less money. The use of 3D has always divided people. While we thought it gave our proposal the extra excitement to really engage the audience, other’s just saw it as an expensive gimmick.
When we received the news I immediately resolved to try again the following year, but sadly that was not to be either. The See3D management and investors decided that the business was not sustainable and the firm closed down some six months later. Jake moved on to another job in IT management at the National Library of Wales. I toyed with the idea of looking for another animation firm to take on the project, in 3D or 2D, but then got tied up by other commitments and never pursued it.
Looking back at the story now, I see it as a project that didn’t work out, but which I still learnt a lot from. It taught me a lot about the business of applying for grants, and the workings of the media industry. It made me realise how much I enjoyed writing and gave me plenty of other ideas for mixing science outreach with fiction. It gave me something to do with my brother, with whom I have kept on touch and visited every year. Maybe one day I will revisit the idea again. Perhaps at some point in the future I will have another chance encounter with a CGI artist in the pub, and give chasing this dream another shot.
Acknowledgements: Thanks to Jake Henry, Tom Bartlett, and Sian Tedaldi for sharing this adventure. The storyboard artwork was done by Matt Cawte. This project was not funded through the STFC Science in Society Large Awards Scheme.