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Winnie the Witch Rig Poses

Mathew Dame

I'm an Animator and Rigger who works in CelAction and Toonboom Harmony, producing 2D animated Broadcast series for Children's Television in the UK and America. My current Job Role is Lead Toonboom Rigger at A Productions.

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My art style and sensibility has always suited this area and throughout my school life I always knew I wanted to work in Animation, so I’m incredibly fortunate that this seems to have worked out! This made it an easy choice to go on to study Animation at University, which I did in the East Midlands, which is where I got my BA. I was in my final year when I first heard about AUB whilst researching the BFX festival that was to be held there. I took a gamble and shelved my Third year film in order to get a team together for that and I had an absolute blast working in the animation studios at AUB, meeting the Tutors there and frankly, I never wanted to leave. It blew my previous institution out of the water and when I heard about the offer of a Masters Scholarship I applied immediately. Somehow I managed to get it which I am still so grateful for and hold it to be the reason for my current career path without a shadow of a doubt.

I’ve been very lucky in that I never really was in the position where I wasn't sure exactly what I want to do professionally, I know a lot of people find themselves in that position at School or University. As far back as I can remember I’ve always wanted to be involved in producing one form of animation or another so my educational decisions have always been in pursuit of that. I probably owe a good deal of that to being raised, in part, on the classic animated films. But beyond that, I always had a fascination with puppets and puppetry with one of my all time favourite films, still to this day, being the Dark Crystal by Jim Henson. I would watch this endlessly while wearing my Thunderbirds costume which was another total obsession.

Away from the Television, I’d always be creating these characters out of all my toys and I'd totally lose myself in bringing them to life and I think this is the real essence of why I have always been encapsulated by the desire to be an animator. Of course, I’ve always been into drawing and art in general, but I’ve never really felt like that was my real passion or anything. I think that’s why it’s never been illustration or any other design disciplines that won me over. It was Animation and that magical ability to breathe life and thought into inanimate drawings/objects, creating believable characters and engaging emotional performances out of them. It’s still very surreal that I’m now in a position where I do that for a living and thinking about all the kids watching as I once was, getting all excited about those characters and stories. It’s a really lovely and rewarding thing to be a part of.

Creatively, I was heavily inspired by puppetry in films and TV as a child and still am today. The physicality of it and the artistry of transferring a human performance into an external avatar in such a convincing way has never failed to transfix me. Animation at its core is essentially puppetry in all its forms and I genuinely get so excited when I nail a particular performance in a scene or capture some subtlety of acting in a character. In my day to day as an animator, that’s what I’m truly motivated by and pushing for when I’m working on a scene. The feeling you get when you watch it back and the character has weight and feels as though it’s making decisions and thinking and reacting, it’s just unbeatable.

Rather than the work itself, however, what’s changed most would be my approach as a professional which has been refined by my increasing familiarity with the studio system as I’ve gone from contract to contract. I’ve learned how to strategically prioritise my time, fall into a consistent workflow for animation, create good pipelines for Rigging etc. It’s these skills that have really benefited me as I’ve continued to work on Productions.

My studies at AUB essentially revolved around looking into the current trends of the UK children's animation industry and particularly at CelAction and its adoption as an ‘industry standard’. I was really interested in how this modern form of digital cutout animation was being utilised, basically replacing the traditional methodology whilst trying to emulate it.

At the time the Mr Bean Animated series was heavily in the spotlight as the ‘poster child’ for CelAction as it was attempting to replicate what had been achieved in terms of animation quality in Series 1, which had been a totally hand drawn, traditional production which had ended up causing huge financial problems for the studio involved. I was so inspired by how close they were able to capture that hand drawn aesthetic using highly sophisticated rigging methods with the two being almost inseparable.

It has always been a dream to work on that series ever since and has been a benchmark for the level of quality I wanted to be able to achieve through both my rigging and animation work in CelAction. So in 2018, when I got to work on Series 3 as part of the animation team, it was an absolute dream come true. Getting thanked by Rowan Atkinson at the wrap party and having my work praised by the likes of Kitty Taylor (another inspirational professional I had interviewed as part of my studies) was so surreal and a real point of reflection for me to see how far I’d come along since my time at AUB.

Another example of defining work might be my debut as a Character Rigger. It was my first time being fully in control of building the Rigs and having the responsibility for designing them from the ground up. To add to this, the Pilot we were working on had gained a reputation for being “impossible to feasibly realise in an Animated Series”. Needless to say, I was nervous to approach it. After countless hours of hard work, experimenting and solving what felt like endless problems, I eventually created a set of rigs that were used for the Pilot Episode of Winnie the Witch. After coming into the studio and viewing the work we had done, Andy Blazdell the Co-Creator of CelAction itself said how impressed he was by my rigs and that I had made some real breakthroughs in rigging techniques and what the software could achieve. That was definitely a moment I felt pretty proud of what I had created and it will stick with me.

As an Animator, the real skill is more about adopting a different character, a different style and all kinds of other variables that need to be in cohesion with the aesthetic and sensibilities that differ from one Production to another. So really the victory is in being a ‘chameleon’ rather than forcing everything into your own shape or something that represents you as an individual creative. If I had to pick out something of a common thread throughout my work though, I would probably say my strong point is in the acting of my character performances as this is something I tend to get praised for in my scenes. Another unique aspect I have that isn’t overly common is my ability to do both Animation and Rigging, a duality that allows one aspect to propel the quality of the other. You can see in my animation that I am able to push the rigs to the edge of what they can do with my knowledge on their construction helping me to get the most out of them. Conversely, my Rigs are better created with the needs of animation in mind giving them better functionality, ease of use, all things that will lead to a better animated performance.

There was of course a whole host of creative, practical skills that I learned at AUB. It definitely helped me to improve and refine my creative self. For me though, it’s more interesting to look back before my time at AUB, when I really had no clue how I would even go about ‘getting a job’ in animation. My BA level studies had done very little to prepare me for that leap from education into industry. The Masters course however, totally changed my approach to the industry and professionalism as a whole. It gave me the opportunity to properly research the current industry in terms of trends and skill requirements and identify a place within it that I could strive towards. It taught me to regard the industry as a business and gave me the tools to mould my skills, my approach and my body of work from a ‘student’ level to an ‘Animation Professional’. I totally believe it’s this focus on the industry and the professional development that I think sets the course and indeed the university apart.

I definitely owe my step onto the career ladder to my time at AUB and I’m still using the same entrepreneurial approach to the industry that I was encouraged to develop, with my recent self-motivated move into learning and transferring my current skillset into Toonboom Harmony being driven by this analytical focus on where I foresee the industry moving.

Immediately I would say I definitely wouldn’t be on the career path I’m on right now if it weren’t for Paul Ward and Paul Hilton, my course leader on the MA and one of my tutors. It was through their support and contacts that I managed to get onto a small work experience placement at a studio where I was consequently offered a full time position. Rather than be faced with the dilemma of having to choose between the job or my studies, they gave me the flexibility to restructure my MA focus, and with their help and never ending patience, I was able to complete my masters alongside my job role. I’ll always be so grateful to them both for this and willing to help them however I can.

I was once given some advice by an animation director on a production regarding the aspects of a ‘perfect’ employee in animation. He said you firstly need to be “amiable and a pleasure to work with”. You also have to be “talented and produce really high quality work. Finally you must be “Punctual and work quickly, meeting all your deadlines”. The trick, he said, is picking two of those and making those your assets, because being all three is impossible. That’s always stuck with me and I think is important to remember in an industry where you can get lost in the minutiae of it all, so that’s something I would pass on to an aspiring animator.

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