By Bernard Kotze
There is always an element of blind trust involved when it comes to doing anything creative. It means grabbing on to the faintest little flutter of an idea and not letting go until you’ve pulled the whole thing from out the ether, tiny little bit by tiny little bit. It can’t be planned. Every time is completely different and this makes it enormously stressful for other people working on a project, especially when doing something new and adventurous. The first instalment of the State Capture series was exactly that.
Watch it here:
Chapter 1 – Ignorance Is Bliss
Our boss lady here at Chronicle, Diana Neille, suggested that we pitch an idea to the Daily Maverick team: A detailed exploration of state capture in the South African political system, in animated form.
None of us had ever attempted this before so we boldly jumped in thinking that most optimistic of thoughts, ‘how hard could it possibly be?’*.
Diana and fellow writer Aletta Harrison started working on the script as I began figuring out the aesthetic. From the get go I wanted to go for a film noir thriller feel. The subject matter was perfect. I was, however, lacking a central theme so when Aletta suggested that the whole ordeal felt like a chess game, things started clicking into place. I realized that the tiles in the office would make the perfect chess board and I proceeded to spend the better part of the day on my knees taking high res pictures of the bathroom floor, thoroughly creeping out and confusing my new co-workers.
As the script shaped up we started to realise that the film would have to be at least eight minutes long, as the subject matter was just too complicated to condense down any further. Initially we had banked on the video being roughly four minutes. This was already an ambitious undertaking considering that we wanted beautifully designed motion graphics, music and a compelling presentation. Nonetheless I jumped in head first. The opening sequence started coming together nicely as the script was being polished. After a number of delays we finally got the script recorded with the help of the fantastically generous crew at ZANews.
I was ready to start in earnest.
Chapter 2 – Leaving The Shire
It was a beautifully sunny week. All was well. I was having an enormous amount of fun and the work was turning out beautifully. Because of my relative inexperience I had neglected the pre-production process completely and stated at the beginning, full of faith that it would all fall into place. This approach had always worked for me when writing music and was working great in terms of the design taking shape but I completely underestimated how long it would take to finish this project. After a week and a half I had only 40 seconds of animation done. 40 seconds I was very happy with but nowhere near where I needed it to be.
Panic started to set in. I had to come up with a solution, and fast.
In desperation I tried what was essentially an enhanced picture slideshow and started from scratch. This approach was much easier but not nearly as interesting. Eventually it dawned on me that there could be a way to blend the two approaches, using what I had already done and building on it. Making the pictures dynamic and visually interesting while buying me time to spend on the key sequences that needed to pack a punch. The transitions became very important in keeping the interest and flow going but at the same time also being a vehicle for the design elements to come through.
After another week of desperate experimentation and tremendous lows I finally had a game plan and a detailed schedule. My deadline would be the 15th of December, the day our offices closed for the year. Working through the shot list one by one proved to be the only way to stay sane and not get swept up under the pressure of the looming deadline.
I had 3 weeks to finish.
Chapter 3 – No.
No no no no no.
OH F@#K NO!
I was the first person at the office in the mornings and the last to leave at night. My personal hygiene had become questionable and I was running on a mixture of adrenaline and caffeine. The project had swallowed me whole but I was making headway. Then, the unimaginable (yet at the same time completely predictable) happened…
…my computer crashed.
The faithful little workhorse that is my Mac Mini shut down and refused to start up again. Trying not to panic I calmly proceeded to run diagnostics. As it turned out my hard drive and the data on it had become corrupted. So much so that even when I tried to reformat the drive, I couldn’t. It was out of action and had to be taken in for repairs. I was in deep trouble. Luckily I had made a backup on an external drive earlier that day (which thankfully was not corrupted) that meant I had only lost a couple of hours of work. It still meant that I had no other computer with Adobe After Effects to work on. My girlfriend’s brother, Larry, had just purchased the Adobe Creative Suite on his laptop and he graciously allowed me to borrow it for a couple of weeks. After about three days of scrambling and hustling I was once again back in business.**
3 days lost, however, on my already insane schedule made it abundantly clear that I was not going to make my deadline. At that point I had gone weeks without showing anybody anything. Styli Charalambous from the Daily Maverick had pretty much given up on the project and on me. I could see it in his eyes. Like a disappointed father figure withholding love after I had performed poorly in an important cricket match. The only person that still had a tiny bit of faith in the project was Diana Neille who was now sitting in New York City.
It was going to have to be a solo endeavour, against all odds, deep in the trenches and with the enemy approaching. The only way out was to dig deep and have something amazing to show for it at the end.
Chapter 4 – Deadline? What Deadline?!
There was by now a stack of plates in one corner of the edit suite, my sleeping bag in another and a thick smell in the air that led my colleagues to believe a homeless man was residing there. The 15th had come and gone and there was still so much to be done. Public holidays and weekends have long since been a thing of the past for me and I just hoped I could finish before Christmas. I locked myself in the boardroom with my computer for 12 to 14 hours a day. As the motion graphics were finally coming together I hopped around and started writing the score. I had less than a week to write eight and a half minutes of complicated orchestral music. Luckily my background as a freelance composer had prepared me for just such a thing. With no time to think, I just jumped in. It often helps to have so little time. It is all too easy to second guess yourself and overthink things, only to come back to your original idea. In terms of themes, hit points and ideas, I had just one crack at it before having to move on. Experience was really the only reason this was possible.
Finally, late on the evening of the 22nd of December and after MANY technical challenges, it all came together. It took me a while to realize this, sitting in front of my computer screen for a good 30 minutes, completely dazed.
It was kind of magical to see everything come to life with the music over it. Up until that point I had really no idea if it would work. The best way to describe it is like a painter applying a coat of varnish to an oil painting for the first time. The colours become desaturated and dull when the paint dries initially but as the varnish goes on, everything it touches explodes and the colours start popping. It starts breathing.
This was my first real motion design project and the first time I had taken something from the beginning right through to the end, being in control of every little detail. Although this is an absurdly time consuming and difficult activity, it has been by far one of the most satisfying things I have ever done.
*Just as a side note, I don’t think underestimating a project like this so gravely is a bad thing. With almost everything I attempt, I have an attitude of ‘how hard can it be?’ This allows me to jump in without reservation and aim for the stars. Inevitably I realize that whatever I am attempting is completely absurd and I’m in way over my head. At that point I am too far down the rabbit hole and there is no alternative other than just buckling down and figuring it out. Although enormously painful at times, this approach has served me well in all of my creative endeavours. It is also incredibly satisfying to get out the other side having achieved what in retrospect was an insane goal.
**Throughout this whole project I have become more and more of an Adobe fan. The ease with which projects can be opened on different platforms and in different versions of a program without losing any information or altering the project really saved my ass.
Adobe is not paying me to say this.
I just really dig their software.