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Piranha Bar’s Gavin Kelly on the “bespoke technique” used in animated documentary ‘Last Hijack’
08 Jan 2016 : Seán Brosnan
‘Last Hijack’ is in cinemas from January 8th
With hybrid animation-documentary ‘Last Hijack’ hitting cinemas today (January 8th), we caught up with Piranha Bar’s Creative Director Gavin Kelly to talk about his team’s highly praised work on the show.

‘Last Hijack’ Interactive is an online documentary, allowing the viewer to experience the hijack of a ship in Somali waters, switching at will between the perspective of the Somali pirate and the English captain who is kidnapped. It consists of a film and an online production, directed by Femke Wolting and Tommy Pallotta. The film premiered at the Berlinale earlier this year and has received acclaim – including a Digital Emmy Award for Best Non Fiction production and a Prix Europa at Berlin 2014. The film has been singled out for praise in particular for its’ “immersive” animation.

Nicky Gogan and Caroline Campbell from Still Films produced the animation for the documentary with Gavin Kelly and the animators at Piranha Bar, using a bespoke technique developed with Tommy Pallotta over a number of months.

Speaking to IFTN about how the animation landed at Piranha Bar’s door, Kelly said: “Nicky Gogan of Still Films invited director Tommy Pallotta over to the Piranha Bar studio where we had the first of many conversations about the project. She was developing the animation for him with the assistance of the Irish Film Board. Tommy instinctively recognized that our studio was interested in developing new looks and pushing animation technology, which was exactly what he wanted for Last Hijack.”

Pushing the boundaries and developing new looks led to the team bringing actual oil paintings on canvas by artist Hisko Hulsing (‘Montage of Heck’) and illustrations by Aaron Sacco (‘A Scanner Darkly’), into a software pipeline that involved 2D, 3D and sophisticated compositing.

Explaining more, Kelly said: “The 'Paintmation' look was developed at Piranha Bar to fulfill Tommy Pallotta's vision of expressive recollections rendered with a hand- finished organic feel, despite every frame being created entirely in a computer. Although they are constructed with all the cold precision of digital code and advanced animation software, the characters and action seethe with a fluid surface and brush worked details. The resulting sequences are a richly painted realisation of the journey from famine and war, to piracy and infamy as Mohammed struggles to come to terms with his choices.”

The budget and time-scale of ‘Last Hijack’ necessitated the use of digital tools, but creating computer animation with a hand painted feel is extremely difficult as the two areas don’t play well together.

“We had to develop a complex pipeline, from 3-D animation to multi-layered compositing which gave the computer animation an illustrated look. We painstakingly painted up our character models with textures created by Arron Sacco and combined the 3D animation of these characters with multiple passes to create a sense of a flat surface. We developed a shader in Flame that used a filter process which follows the contours of the animation to generate paintstrokes. All of this was then composited with backgrounds from Hisko which we multilayered for extra depth.”

With the story of ‘Last Hijack’ centring on the middle-aged Mohammed trying to provide for his family with one last heist – Kelly states that it was the idea of subjective memory that drew him to the project.

“I love how in this film the style matches the content of the scenes. Mohammed is haunted by memories of his past and by visualising the traumas he lived through we gain a deeper understanding of his choices in the present day. As memory itself is subjective, biased and even fabricated, the fluid and imprecise expressionism of paintmation helps us represent the shifting sands of our mind's eye.”

Kelly also states that animation can sometimes delve into a story in a way a camera can't - meaning the story can hit home better with an audience.

“I believe that animation is a fantastic tool to draw the audience deeper into the narrative and provide a fresh perspective on the story. Of course it is incredibly useful in illustrating things a filmmaker's camera cannot show but it also provides great engagement for the audience and adds an extra dimension to the film.”

‘Last Hijack’ is in cinemas on January 8th. Check out our interview with co-director Tommy Pallotta here.

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