Toonocalypse started as a visual concept to show the traditional, venerated technique of 2D animation in a brand new context and to tell an alien invasion movie like no other. When producer Siggy and I, both fresh out of university, came up with the original idea in 2010, we were thinking of ways to combine my 2D animation background with Siggy’s live action one, and the idea of a 2D/live action movie was the result.
The project was ultimately abandoned due to lack of time, experience and resources but over the next three years the idea remained a discussion. It was only after setting up a production company called The 2D Workshop with colleague and writer Callum Barton that we decided to develop and write the film.
We knew from the start that it wasn’t enough to have a cool visual concept with a very light story, so we started from scratch with a focus on character and plot. It had always been the plan to have the film shot in a found-footage, amateur style, which lent itself perfectly to a story told from the point of view of two students.
While the film is light hearted and comical, we wanted there to be conflict between our characters over the treatment of the Toons and how accepting they should be of these unknown creatures that become embedded in their lives. We knew we wanted a character who had a childish attitude towards the Toons, more interested in their entertainment value than their wellbeing, and one who was genuinely worried, not only about the effect the Toons may have on humans, but also the effect a human lifestyle might have on the Toons. These two characters ended up being called John and Michael respectively. We wrote the Toons themselves to be much simpler, like young children, partly to make them more loveable and partly to add the idea that John and Michael were inexperienced parental figures struggling to maintain their friendship and normal, student lives with this new burden of responsibility.
The more we wrote, the more it became clear that a lot of the fun of Toonocalypse would not simply be from the dramatic VFX sequences, but also seeing these loveable cartoon characters in mundane, day-to-day situations with their bumbling guardians.
The development of this style required us to identify what makes amateur footage look amateur and then apply it to the animation. The first job we had after the shoot was editing. Unlike a normal movie where the average shot is about 5 seconds long, amateur film makers will tend to leave the camera running, meaning we had shots that were over a minute long. Not only did this add to the amateur nature of the footage, it also created tension in some of the films more dramatic, post-apocalypse shots.
Usually, a finished piece of 2D animation is very clean, flat and colourful. To successfully composite it into the hand held live action we had to add effects like motion blur, focus blur, camera shake, film noise and exposure shifts. It was this degradation of the initial animation that ensured the characters sat convincingly in the real world environment. Added to practical effects that allowed the Toons to do things like pick up spoons and decorate a Christmas tree, the idea that the Toons were really in the environment was created.
The final detail of compositing the characters successfully was the sound design. While sections required huge explosions and monster roars to pull off dramatic scenes, some of the most important sound design was in the tiny noises, such as a spoon clinking off a bowl, that made the viewer believe there was real interaction between the Toon and an inanimate object.
In contrast to the amateur footage, the start and the end of the film are both completed in fully realised 2D animation. We wanted the alien world to be extremely high detail and full of movement and colour. To achieve this we combined high-res, animated matte paintings with live action atmosphere effects and CG details such as air particles and lens flares to create a visually sumptuous environment. This was combined with sound design and a dramatic, epic score to create an awe inspiring start and end to the film.
Making the film has been a huge challenge, a huge learning curve and a huge amount of work, but above all it has been an exceptionally fun experience. After wondering for years if the film would ever get made, I have found it truly gratifying to see it realised so successfully by such a great cast and crew.