Disruptive video-mapping and digital innovation with animation student Jamie Knight
Jamie Knight is a freelance animator, video-mapping expert and founder of Pillfish Studios. Due to graduate from our BA (Hons) Animation degree this summer, Jamie’s journey with Plymouth College of Art started in 2015 when he joined the college. His undergraduate studies have taken him across the world to France, Germany and Hungary, networking with Oscar and Emmy Award-winning visual effects supervisors and producers whose work has featured in the Star Wars and Jurassic Park series.
We sat down with Jamie to find out how he came to specialise in video-mapping, why he’s determined to help the city of Plymouth become a hub for digital innovation, and what it was like meeting the man so well-known for his dinosaur designs and special effects that he had a dinosaur named after him…
Would you say that travelling overseas has influenced your development as an animator?
I’ve taken advantage of some incredible opportunities during my time studying BA (Hons) Animation at Plymouth College of Art, but none that have influenced my development as much as the Euranim project. Euranim is a three-year programme designed to boost the careers of animators and digital artists through the development of video mapping skills, led by a partnership of European art and design universities including Plymouth College of Art, Turku University of Applied Sciences (Turku, Finland), The Animation Workshop (Viborg, Denmark), Howest (Kortrijk, Belgium), and MOME (Budapest, Hungary).
The first time that I really got to grips with video mapping and the potential that it offered to me as an animator was during my trip to Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design (MOME) in Budapest, which was an incredible experience. It was also there that I met my mentor and good friend Tamas Zador, who is part of the Glowing Bulbs collective of international video artists specialising in video mapping, architectural mapping, stage design, installations and live VJ performances. I met Tamas in Budapest and he’s been in contact offering technical support and advice to me ever since.
So as well as developing your own animation style, you picked up some unique technical video mapping skills?
That’s right. In Budapest, as well as collaborating with transnational teams to create new animations, I also learned how to use Resolume Arena 6 software (used for video mapping and VJing). Afterward I brought that knowledge back to the UK with me to hone it further.
The technical skills that I’ve picked up in video mapping have resulted in opportunities for me to lead workshops on video mapping for tutors around the world, in locations such as the Arenberg Creative Mine in France, as well as here in Plymouth.
Would you say that the time spent meeting other people in the industry has been useful to build your professional networks?
The networking opportunities that I’ve had during my time at the college have been invaluable. For three years running now I’ve attended FMX in Germany with BA (Hons) Animation lecturers from the college. FMX is billed as “Europe’s most influential conference dedicated to Digital Visual Arts, Technologies, and Business”. We’ve also attended The Stuttgart International Festival of Animated Film (ITFS) in Germany.
Between those two festivals I was able to sit in on professional film pitches and attend cinema screenings with investors and distributors, learning firsthand about the business side of the industry. And through attending these events, I’ve met people like Paula Fairfield, sound designer on Game of Thrones, Nathan Robitaille, who was recently nominated for an Academy Award for his sound editing on The Shape of Water, Palme d'Or-winning American animator Bill Plympton, and David Kamp, who supplied foley (everyday sound-effects) for films like the Hunger Games series, and who has provided me with foley for my current film!
I also met Phil Tippett, a director and Oscar and Emmy Award-winning visual effects supervisor and producer. Phil specialises in creature design, stop-motion and computerized character animation. His work has appeared in things like the original and new Star Wars trilogies, and his specialism in stop-motion, modelling and practical effects enabled him to transition from practical to digital effects. He’s credited with the realism of the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park and is so associated with dinosaurs that he had a real dinosaur named after him, Elaphrosaurus Philtippettorum!
Phil is currently creating his own Mad God stop-motion series, which he presented at FMX. I took the opportunity to approach him after the showing of the film to have a chat. He has been a big influence on my own work, so to meet him was amazing. He was really down to earth, and Mad God is a passion project for him, so I think he was happy not to be asked any more questions about Jurassic Park. I was able to show him the stop-motion model for my film Black Tar and he invited me back to his hotel for drinks at the bar with his friends, VFX supervisor Frank Petzold (Armageddon and Starship Troopers) and Karl Meyer, Founder of Gentle Giant Studios and Vice President of 3D Systems, who offered by buy my stop-motion model on the spot!
I got some fantastic feedback about my work from these industry professionals, and was even invited to come to their studios in Burbank, California. They shared some amazing advice, we spent the entire night drinking together and they even got me into the Gala event to have dinner with them. It was an amazing experience. Opportunities like these, when you travel to big industry events, are priceless.
It sounds like you’ve been a part of some prestigious European video mapping projects. Which would you say was the biggest?
This year I attended Video Mapping Festival #1 in Lille, France, to help with the technical and production side of the video mapping there. That was an amazing experience, with video projections spread out across the whole city. I think that the festival brought around 80-thousand visitors to the city.
Knowing that I have the skills and experience to help coordinate an event like the Video Mapping Festival, I’m determined to stay in Plymouth after graduating and use these skills to benefit as many people as possible and contribute to regeneration across the South West. I’ve already supplied video mapping on the college’s behalf to Royal William Yard last Christmas and worked as a producer for the video-mapping on the Illuminate festival, but in the runup to the Mayflower 400 celebrations in 2020 I’m hoping we’ll be able to apply that kind of city-wide video mapping across Plymouth.
I chose Plymouth College of Art because of all the opportunities to use industry-standard facilities and to work with people with industry experience. I feel like the hard work is all paying off, but the path I’m on would look very different if it hadn’t been for all the support that I’ve received from the BA (Hons) Animation Programme Leader Tony Smith and Oli Raud, the college’s Strategic Funding Manager, who organised our involvement in a lot of the European events.
What can you tell us about the animation studios that you’re setting up?
There are two sides to my plans for Pillfish Studios. One is to provide video-mapping services for events and installations. I will also be working on my brand, specialising on creating the kind of animations and music videos that might be less overtly commercial, but have a clear audience in mind - the video for the song Schism, by the American rock band Tool, gives a good indication of the style I’ll specialise in. It’s dark and confrontational, but there’s a heavy focus on storytelling and creating a voice for people struggling with difficult situations.
Which leads to the other side of my plans, to contribute to the growth of Plymouth as a hub for the creative arts and to give something back to my community. Ultimately I want Pillfish Studios to grow into a studio space with an open door policy for people in the community, offering people an outlet to express themselves in a healthy way. During my degree I volunteered some running workshops for children through the charity Jeremiah’s Journey, a charity that offers support to children who have experienced the death of a parent or carer. Seeing the way that those children took the animation brief that we developed for them and ran with it, was a brilliant experience. I also wish to utilise video mapping as a sensory experience for children with disabilities and aid people who require rehabilitation. Helping people to access these animation opportunities to express themselves is very much a part of my plans for Pillfish.
With so many opportunities for video mapping in the future, how much do traditional animation techniques still play a part in your creative process?
Hopefully you’ll see the answer to that in Black Tar, my final major project at the college. Black Tar is an animation that I feel passionately about, incorporating a variety of the different working methods that I’ve learned over the past three years, new and traditional.
Black Tar combines stop-motion animation, projection mapping to a live location, and filming of the end result. Technically speaking, it’s going to demonstrate my model-making skills, armature building, character design, projection mapping, and colour grading. There’s a real international element to it as well, with a soundtrack composed by Zomblaze, from Budapest, Hungary. This is a new kind of video-making and I’m really excited to share the final film.