I've Got A Golden Ticket

I once met Rutger Hauer. And Syd Mead. I've chatted to Eugene Jarvis, Alexey Pajitnov and Mark Cerny. I spent a week in South Korea with Ian Livingstone. I've pretty much met most of the people that I would have, at one point or another, considered heroes. Last week I met another.

Choosing to back the Bring Back Morph Kickstarter campaign was a no brainer - deciding what level to go in at was trickier. I admit I was tempted by a personalised Morph style model of myself (£1500, oof!) but in the end I went with the pledge that rewarded its backers with a 2 person studio tour. It wasn't cheap, but I wanted to do my part to help ensure Morph would return, and visiting the Aardman Animations studio in Bristol was a very enticing bonus. I just hoped that Peter Lord, CBE would be there on the day of our visit.

He was and he's lovely.

We arrived at the Aardman studio in Bristol just after lunch and there were already one or two others waiting in the foyer (a young lad with his dad; a chap called Matthew, who it turns out is the world's no. 1 Wallace & Gromit fan, with his mum). We were joined by four others, including a couple of animators who had flown over from Amsterdam. Whilst we were marvelling at the models and sets on display in the lobby Peter came down and introduced himself to us all. I shook the hand that had animated War Story and Adam. And Morph.

After a quick trip up the sweeping staircase to drop off our bags we were escorted by Peter (and Katie) down to the studio where Morph was being produced. Alas, photography was not permitted within the darkened walls of the old banana storage unit, just in case we revealed any trade secrets. We were introduced to Merlin, who is directing this new series of shorts.

We learned so much in the short time we were there. Merlin told us all about the shooting process for Morph, which is unique in that one animator will work on an entire episode. Up to three episodes will be in production at any one time and as such there are three identical stages. Each is a perfect reproduction of the artist's desk where Morph and Chas live, with the familiar jar of pens and the famous wooden box (the original of which housed a microscope owned by Aardman co-founder David Sproxton as a boy). We briefly chatted to the animator working on stage 2 that day and got to see, at close hand, the lighting and camera setup (yes, Aardman use Canon DSLRs controlled by Dragonframe). We learned they're blasting through up to six seconds of footage a day, which really is going some in the world of stop motion animation.

We got to see some props and other characters (yes, Nail Brush is making a return!) and saw a complete set of Chas models for a run cycle that was animated using the replacement technique. One of the most interesting stories was that of how Aardman source their plasticine for Morph. The stuff that you buy off the shelf just isn't the right colour apparently so it has to be mixed with other colours in the studio. Plus, it's way too soft these days (and melts under the lights) so they add chalk to it. Aardman then put this in an old bubble gum manufacturing machine to get it thoroughly mixed together. When that machine finally breaks down I guess they'll just have to commission a replacement!

Before we left, Eric and I tried to commit the 15 episode titles to memory (they were conspicuously pinned to the wall). I'm afraid you'll just have to wait to find out.

Some of the characters on display in the model making workshop.

Next stop was the model making workshop. This hive of activity was home to a small group of craftsmen, beavering away on miniature props for the various productions going on at Aardman. A table proudly displayed many of the famous models and characters from Aardman's history and even though I suspect it had been arranged purely for our benefit it was great to see the Cuprinol man, the blue Amigo Loans guy and dozens of other familiar faces up close.

Our journey continued on to the Morph Memory room. Now this definitely was set up for our benefit, but that doesn't matter because it was great. I could have spent two hours in here looking at old photographs (the walls were covered) and exploring the artefacts. In one corner stood a set of scales, the original set I presume, used to weigh out the plasticine for Morph. There was yellow sticker with an M marking the amount needed for our hero - five and three quarter ounces (as Merlin had previously informed me). Peter spent yet more time telling us stories and answering questions.

We returned to the room where we started for some refreshments. I was slightly nervous about asking Peter to sign my Aardman book of 3D animation. I needn't have worried; remember Matthew? The no. 1 fan I mentioned? He had a pile of books nearly as tall as me.

I chatted to Peter about books whilst he was signing my copy and he asked if I had read Richard Williams' book The Animator's Survival Kit. He then casually mentioned "Of course Richard's working here at the moment. He's officially retired, but he asked if he could come and do some work here." One of the dutch animators overheard this and almost fainted. Richard Williams was next door?! For those of you who don't know who Richard Williams is, let's just say he's quite important in the world of animation.

We were treated to a seat in Aardman's own screening room where we watched a few choice Morph episodes and got a glimpse of the new Shaun The Sheep movie. Our tour had come to its end and I can honestly say that I don't think that Peter Lord, Merlin, Katie and everyone else that we met, could have done any more to make our Kickstarter reward any more enjoyable.

Aardman is a magical place, the walls are adorned with beautiful, whimsical illustrations; every room is filled with miniature treasures; even the elevator warns you to "Mind the doors Gromit!" with the instantly recognisable voice of Peter Sallis. I'm so proud to have been a part of the Bring Back Morph campaign, and I have a sneaking suspicion that we might see another Kickstarter appeal at some point, maybe for a much larger scale project.


Let's Make Morph

One of my favourite Morphs of the day, by Rachel Day.

On Sunday I traveled up to London to attend Let's Make Morph - a tribute to Tony Hart. Not quite a Flash Mob (as reported by several news sources) but still a fairly large gathering of people, many of whom brought along their own Morphs. The Facebook group which started the whole thing had around 800 members. There were probably more like 300 people there on the day, gathered at the end of the Millennium Bridge outside Tate Modern. The Morphs came in all shapes, sizes and colours. I just added a black armband to mine, which otherwise stayed fairly faithful to Lord and Sproxton's original design.

I had written to the Aardman founders in the hope they might attend (alas, no response) but we were joined by Tony Hart's daughter Carolyn. She seemed really pleased to see so many people gathering in memory of her father, and took a lot of time talking to everyone there.

Throughout the afternoon, as I listened to people talk about Tony Hart, I would repeatedly hear the same phrase: "Tony Hart, legend." And although it's probably mostly just a language meme (like wicked or well gutted) it's also completely true. Tony Hart was legendary. I did become an artist because of him (and my Dad). It's a travesty that his death was marked by a three minute segment on the news the following day and nothing more.

I met two other people on Sunday who, like me, had succeeded in the ultimate goal of getting a picture on the Gallery (actually a Jim'll Fix It badge was probably tops, but there was always the lingering fear that you'd get vilified like that kid who got a TV, computer AND Intellivision in his bedroom make-over).

Buy some plasticine, make a morph. Then go and draw a chalk New York skyline or add a cartoon face to a boot print.

(Click here to see my photos from the day.)

Twenty Years Ago Today

No, not Sgt Pepper - Hungerford. Twenty years ago something happened in this country which I don't think had ever happened before. Certainly not in my lifetime anyway. I was sixteen when I heard the news of the Hungerford Massacre. I've just watched the BBC report again, for the first time since it happened, and I've realised how different things were back then.

It was a Wednesday and I first heard of the events during the early evening news. I have a terrible memory, but I'm fairly sure Ryan had not yet killed himself. I remember the view from the helicopter of his mother's house ablaze. I remember the interviews with some of the villagers. More importantly I remember the news report ending and the return to normal programming. This clearly wouldn't happen today. I'd be switching to News 24 where I would watch newsreaders and reporters repeating the same tiny snippets of information over and over - invariably transitioning into pointless speculation and opinion giving.  (Are there multiple gunmen? The death toll could be as high as fifty!)

When the news returned the facts were reported. One gunman. Sixteen murders. One suicide. There was speculation of course; even mention of Rambo being an influence, but nothing like the news of today.

This event was one of a handful from the eighties which I remember clearly. I have few memories of my late childhood, for some reason, so on days like these the internet is a wonderful resource and reminder. During the course of my morning browsing I've read TV listings from the eighties and watched clips from the period. I've seen pictures of Johnny Ball, rediscovered the Renault Fuego and yearned for a Texan bar. I've also been reminded that Ryan's first victim was murdered whilst picnicking with two young children. I found this detailed piece of writing on the massacre and noticed that the author had dedicated it to Hannah and James, both in their early twenties now. Whilst I sit here typing this, having actively sought to remember this day of twenty years ago, I'm sure they are doing the exact opposite.

What's New In Mobile Games?

So, after being almost entirely disconnected from the mobile games industry for some quite considerable time, I'm back in - sort of. In a few days I will officially be CCO (that's American for Creative Director) of our new company. When I have something interesting to tell you about that I will. For now I'll just say that it's not really mobile games, although maybe it is. But mobile games is what I want to talk about now.

A few days ago the Develop Conference kicked off in Brighton (well it began; kicked off implies some sort of massive fight between two warring gangs - actually quite apt given the location). Day one is dedicated to mobile, and it was the first games industry conference I have attended for nearly three years.

Reading this piece is what prompted me to comment here. Jon's writing here is pure factual coverage, devoid of opinion (and I'm sure he does have opinions). I have opinions - here are some.

Chris White's keynote left me feeling like I was in a time-warp. His talk of handset fragmentation, porting difficulties, power disparity, circumventing operators and harnessing mobile's true strengths (connectivity, on-board cameras, ubiquity) were all things we spoke about at length at GDC in 2001. He then went on to say that developers must ensure that mobile's unique strengths are used to enhance the customer's experience, and are not just gimmicks. To demonstrate this we were shown a Hangman game that featured badly cropped camera phone photos. I rest my case.

I shouldn't be too harsh. Glu are an excellent organisation, one of the leaders in the industry. Chris was an eloquent speaker. I just felt so uninspired. Mobile games certainly haven't moved on much since I left IOMO, and to be honest they haven't moved on much since we developed some of the first all those years ago. The bottom line is: you're not going to see innovation from fully fledged mobile developers all the while that operators demand film licences and maximum handset coverage. And the smaller developers (those not having to worry about 20 man porting and QA departments) are unlikely to be entertained by the operators.

Mark Burk then gave an engaging talk which revealed some of M-Metrics' data from the last six months. This information could be useful in deciding how mobile games are sold and marketed, but what can developers do about it? Currently only the operators make those kind of calls.

Next a panel in which representatives from four UK operators were joined by one from a publisher. Unfortunately the operators had seemingly all taken a shot of horse tranquilliser and Fergus (the publisher) clearly had a gun held to his back. The theme was co-operative initiatives and they covered Unified Release Dates (wow), Handset Categorisation (why) and Enabling Cross Network Communities (it already exists, it's called the Internet). But maybe the only reason I'm down on them is because they misunderstood the gist of my question and left me looking like an opinionated fool (not hard).

Operators: You are selling a completely new type of product through an hitherto non-exist channel. Don't classify yourself as a shop and certainly don't say "We've tried all the standard retail methods, try-before-you-by, two-for-one etc.". See XBox Live, PopCap, Hangame.

After lunch Nokia revealed some more info about the new N-Gage platform. I was intimately involved with their first stab at N-Gage and looked on with keen interest. It's clear that they're trying to do XBox Live for mobile and their platform should certainly offer that opportunity (one thing Nokia does well is UI). However, I can't help wondering if they just didn't notice that Sony Ericsson seem to have stolen most of their thunder (and market share).

After a couple more sessions from Paul Gouge (very slick) and John Chasey (who?) the day was rounded off by Stuart Dredge who gave us 20 Hot Trends In Mobile Games. I think he was very astute and looking down the list I can see nine of the points are pretty central to our new company's plans. Now I'm sure that plenty of other people in the industry share our aspirations. I hope they do - if Develop Mobile has nothing new to say next year then I think this industry really will have missed its chance.

It's already in danger of being the next Virtual Reality.

Strange Mist

Earlier tonight I went out to get a Chinese take-away for our dinner. It was bitterly cold and I was glad to be in my car. I set the heater to molten lava and drove off towards Mr Ying's. As I turned west onto the seafront road I was met with a wall of fog like I'd never seen before. Visibility was down to barely a few yards. I could just make out the dim orange glow of the street lamps hovering above me. I dropped down to third (well, I let the car drop down to third; I'm a lazy, automatic-owning, gas guzzler) and slowly made my way.

The Wah Ying Chinese Take Away was probably less than a mile away and I was hoping the mist was just a product of some onshore phenomenon. I was wrong. As I made the final left turn into Cliff Road the atmosphere around me thickened even more. It was no good, I couldn't even make out the glow of my own headlights. I may as well have been driving with my eyes closed. I stopped the engine and stepped out of the car.

My feet met gravel, which was wrong. I should have been walking on tarmac. I took a few tentative steps forward, unable to even see the ground crunching beneath my feet. Roadworks, perhaps? I thought. Then suddenly the mist started to clear. Within a few seconds it was gone, except for a few wispy tendrils around my ankles. Where was I? The houses I had expected to see were not there. In their place a forest of bare, twisted trees. I spun around swiftly. My car! Where was it? I had taken no more than half a dozen steps; it couldn't be out of sight already. As I stood frozen, trying to fathom its disappearance and, more importantly, trying to work out where I was, I realised I was not alone.

A faint crunch of someone (or something) shifting its weight on the stony ground. Then, almost inaudible at first, but definitely getting louder, a deep, breathy growl. Behind me, slightly to the left. No, the right. All around me? I was gripped by fear and without even turning to see what unearthly creatures were stalking me I bolted, stumbling with my first few steps. I saved myself from falling, but shredded my palms in the jagged ground. Up again and running. Running faster than I had ever ran before, into the twisted, dead forest. I kept on running, fleeing, for my life.

The creatures pounded the forest floor behind me as they chased me back into the mist. Surely they would bring me down; devour me in this alien place. But the mist, which I thought had brought me here to die, had returned to save me. As quick as it had gone it reappeared, wrapping its grey arms around me, swallowing me into its soul. I kept running but me feet no longer met the ground. The mist was lifting me, carrying me to safety. Below, the beasts were howling and snarling and leaping pointlessly into the air in anger. I drifted up and on, enveloped in the mist. I was saved. My exhausted frame slumped into the cushion of air; my blood soaked hands fell lifelessly by my side. I must have drifted into unconsciousness, for the next thing I remember was being back in the warmth of my car, arriving at my destination. For a moment I doubted my senses. Had I been day dreaming? Hallucinating? But then I felt the slippery warmth of my blood on the steering wheel...

Actually, I made most of that up, but it was flipping misty!