Adam Phillips, part 1
A Disney feature animator takes one final look at the big studio gate and thinks “what’s next?” It’s a common story lately. The massive 2D exodus from the Burbank studio, the closings of Orlando, Tokyo, Vancouver and Toronto – it’s all been well documented. Oh how the mighty have fallen. But the phoenix rose, and I’m not speaking about Disney Feature, which may or may not rise with its new all-3D plan. I’m talking about the employees who were tossed out into the street after Disney abandoned the 2D techniques which Walt, Ub Iwerks, The Nine Old Men, Glen Keane and Andreas Deja had pioneered. While some artists transitioned internally to 3D projects, and many landed jobs elsewhere, the most interesting story that emerged from this transitionary period is Project Firefly – the studio formed by cast-member castaways. This Orlando-based studio founded by 4 ex-Disney artists now houses 30-employees in a 6,000 square foot office located on the Universal Studios backlot.
Then there’s Adam Phillips, who left Disney last year under slightly different circumstances. He quit. Adam was running the Effects Department at the Sydney-based feature studio (which is still in action, pumping out sequels), and he strode into his supervisors’ office and laid down his pencil. His craft was calling, and by that time it had been calling from outside the studio walls for over a year. Adam had won the 2003 Flash Forward Film Festival with his ‘hitchHiker’ short, and taken the runner-up prize at the first TGSNT competition with ‘Bitey of Brackenwood.’ And in March of 2004, Adam had posted ‘Bitey’ on the Newgrounds.com Flash portal, where it’s been viewed nearly a million times since. He’d become instant Flash-animation royalty, but Adam was now risking Flash-animation poverty.
Who put the word ‘free’ in freelance? That’s probably what Adam was thinking as he embarked on a new career as an independent. But Adam made it work, and it didn’t hurt that his website had turned into a cash-producing venture. Amidst the freelance work, he was producing ‘Prowlies at the River,’ the follow-up to ‘Bitey.’ The story continued the saga of ‘Brackenwood,’ a universe that has become an online sensation. Not surprisingly, ‘Prowlies’ simply cleaned up at the festivals. He won the 2nd Annual TGSNT festival, and ‘Prowlies’ took home the top prize at the 2005 Flash Film Festival. Somewhere in there, Adam animated a video for the band Ween, wrote chapters for various Flash animation books and started a popular online Flash community. His freelance hours are now spent animating for companies like Halo Pictures and his most recent effort saw him animating special effects for a new german TV show. But when the opportunity arises, it’s all Brackenwood.
Leaving a cushy animation job at a major studio isn’t the solution for every artist with designs of their own, but Adam sure makes it look easy. Now let’s find out exactly how he did it, what he thinks about 3D Flash elements and what he draws with – it’s the first of a 3-part interview with Adam Phillips, Mayor of Brackenwood.
AARON SIMPSON: When you worked at Disney, what type of software did you use to test your animation?
ADAM PHILLIPS: The line-test machines are Apple G4s and the software used to shoot the drawings is proprietary software called SceneMachine.
AARON: Your exceedingly strong effects skills, evident in the water and fire sequences throughout your Brackenwood shorts, are surely aided by the long hours you’ve put into your Disney work. Did any of your Disney work benefit from the long hours you’ve put into your Flash shorts?
ADAM: The best thing about Flash is that it forces you to think of quicker or easier ways to achieve a complex effect. This was always really useful when plotting out a scene in traditional animation, because in that mind-set I was constantly (and quite automatically) developing more streamlined methods to speed up the animation process. Especially with an in depth knowledge of the compositing department’s software tools, there were many times when I could do just one or two drawings, then simply direct the Compositor to apply a specific treatment to achieve the effect I was going for.
AARON: Do you ever use reference for your effects work?
ADAM: Most of the effects in my ‘Brackenwood’ stuff is just a result of my experience in 2D traditional, but occasionally some effect will crop up that I’ll need to think about carefully. In those cases, I’ll go out and grab some digital footage on my camera, then bring it back and watch it a few times. If the footage is really good, I’ll import it into Flash as video, and study how it works at various frame-rates.
AARON: When did you officially leave your fulltime Disney position?
ADAM: In December 2004.
AARON: Was the decision to finally leave Disney a difficult one?
ADAM: It was a very impromptu thing. There was a billboard at the train station that I would see every day as I was going home. It was an advertisement for an employment website called jobseekers or something like that. Anyway, there’s a picture of some goofy looking chick thinking to herself ‘when will I ever have the guts to quit my job?’
It played on my mind over the next few weeks, and I discussed it with my girlfriend who thought that the only thing holding me back was that job. So one day I got a new scene on my desk and for the millionth time, wished I could be home working on the next Bitey movie.
I walked into the Supervisor’s office and gave two week’s notice. I always loved the job so it wasn’t a bitter thing, but damn it felt good.
AARON: Have you been finding more time to work on your own projects now that you’re freelancing?
ADAM: That’s the thing – I have even less time now, because I’ve taken on so much freelance work that Bitey is waiting in his tree going “where the hell is Phillips?”
AARON: At what point did you realize that your ‘hitchHiker’ short was an internet hit?
ADAM: When I saw the site traffic spike after I won Flash Forward in New York. That’s also around the time that I began to seriously develop ‘Brackenwood,’ ‘cos up to that point, ‘Brackenwood’ was a distant dream. After Flash Forward, it suddenly hit me that I didn’t need to pitch ‘Brackenwood’ as a pile of designs and scripts – I could actually create entire episodes and compile them into one solid pitch.
AARON: Explain the process of how you get your animation drawings from paper into Flash.
ADAM: I use a Wacom 9×12 Intuos and I draw directly onto the Flash stage, so I don’t use the scanner at all.
AARON: What inspired you to produce the tree swinging sequence in ‘Prowlies’ in 3D?
ADAM: The inspiration for the tree-jumping sequence itself was simply to show how impressive Bitey really is; how he’s the King of speed and agility and how he knows it. 3D popped into my head right away for that sequence because in my imagination, the camera work was too complex with too much constant movement to be 2D.
3D just seemed to be the right thing for it, but it was taking too long, and I thought ‘it would be quicker to just draw this,’ so I decided to make it all in Flash but with just one 3D tree – the one that the camera swings around. So apart from that tree, the entire tree-jumping sequence is hand-drawn Flash symbols tweened into the darkness.
AARON: Do you plan on adding any further 3D sequences to your upcoming Flash-animated ‘Brackenwood’ shorts?
ADAM: Well, it’s a 2-way thing. On one hand, I like to only use certain techniques when it’s required to tell the story. I hate the type of filmmaker that goes ‘Wow! What a cool technique. What can I do with it?’
On the other hand, 3D and any other new or special techniques/software can open up many more possibilities. So when I’m storyboarding, I’ll go ‘can I do an animated background here? Yep, I’ll try it with 3D and if that doesn’t work I’ll explore some 2D equivalents.’
That’s the end of the first of a three-part interview with Adam Phillips, Mayor of Brackenwood. Check back soon for parts 2 and 3!