The wait is over, America! Mummies Alive, narrated by two-time Golden Globe nominee Jason Priestley, makes its US premiere on Smithsonian Channel this Sunday, June 7 at 9e/p!
To celebrate, we're taking a look at the series' animation. This is our chat with Impossible Factual's Creative Director Steve Maher, about creating the historical drama for the show. Mummies Alive investigates the lives and deaths of six mummies spread across 5,000 years of history and part of what makes the series so unique, is its ability to recreate the lives of these fascinating people.
Saloon: Steve, it was so great co-producing with you. The animation is incredible and surpassing anything we've seen on other factual productions! How did you do it?
SM: Thank you! The art, design and animation direction was directed from Impossible Factual by me and Animation Director Christian Johnson. The final animated sequences were done at RealtimeUK.
Saloon: How does that work, with so many people involved?
SM: The animation was creatively directed from IPF's office in Manchester and made by Realtime's amazing teams under the in-house direction of their CG Director Ian Jones, at their two studios in the north of England.
Saloon: What were the challenges, if any, doing motion capture for the characters?
SM: Directing motion capture well is the same as directing live action drama. The difference being your actors are in skintight lycra outfits covered in markers, and the world in which they act out their role is a vast open ‘volume’ containing a few props surrounded by mo-cap cameras. It takes a great deal of imagination on the mo-cap actors part, but we always go into the shoot with detailed storyboards. Our lead mo-cap actor, Neil Newbon, was brilliant and able to physically personify the attributes of all of the main characters other than the Inca Maiden. They were all very diverse, and moved and acted differently, so we spent a lot of time discussing character physicality, age etc. and we did story-based detailed research before we began capturing action.
Saloon: Do the actors act out just part of, or all of their stories?
SM: All the acting and animation is mo-cap. Neil, for instance, was Sylvester (the Gunslinger) and the barman, captured separately, with me, Christian or Ian standing in for one or another of the characters when interaction was required. There was also a lot of heavy duty falling and dying to do, so crash mats were much in use!
Saloon: How big a part did a mummy's body and history play when designing your main characters?
SM: The physical and historical research data we had for our hero mummy was the starting point in every case. Everything was was fully researched with the relevant experts and by the main show researchers.
Saloon: How did the art director select the locations?
SM: The live action crews gathered reference on site wherever possible during the episode shoots while other reference came through detailed historical research. Then Christian or I pulled that together with Lily, into a visual brief and design sheets for the animation team.
Saloon: What would you say is the key to effective hyper-real CG?
SM: The hardest thing to achieve is convincing facial animation. Human beings are attuned to detecting unusual behaviour in other human beings. The very real but heightened nature of these animated characters - based as they are on the scanned faces of real people - can, if not used carefully, give a viewer a feeling of entering the "Uncanny Valley" - real but not real. That’s what you want to avoid in the way you direct the scenes and use these assets.
Saloon: Who made the decision to put a little Roman girl in "The Hero of Herculaneum"?
SM: Mick, the director, wanted to humanise our Roman soldier and give the audience another empathetic touchstone. The children’s remains found in the boat vaults are impossibly moving and we needed to try and honour what happened to them and try to embody the huge number of victims who were perhaps less active than our Roman soldier.
Saloon: What was it like animating the death scene in "The Inca Maiden"?
SM: The motion capture session for that episode was disturbing and very moving. We acted it out fully many times and then selected excerpts for the sequences.
Saloon: Did the lighting or lack thereof in the episodes add more time to the production process?
SM: It certainly gave more opportunity for dramatic lighting and lighting was a process that much time was spent on.
Saloon: How did you come up with the design for the Pharoah’s chair?
SM: It’s based on the throne discovered in King Tut’s tomb - which certainly pre-dates Tut - and in Egyptian historical terms is not a bad starting point for our earlier king's throne.
Saloon: What was your favourite episode and why?
SM: It’s difficult to pick a favourite. I like the look and feel of "Bog Bodies", the epic action of "The Hero of Herculaneum" and the moving drama of "The Inca Maiden".
Saloon: Did you need to show any materials to Jason Priestley, to help him prepare for the narration?
SM: Jason worked with the soft picture locks - without animation in most cases - and did a brilliant job.
Saloon: Just joking, but why are so many people getting punched in the face? Did you want to get across these were violent times?
SM: I think we were all just jealous of Neil Newbon’s good looks so we spent a lot of time hitting and shooting him with arrows in the mo-cap studio! In truth, we selected our stories so they would have big physical action sequences to make the most of what we could do with animation, bullet time etc…
Saloon: Why CG over live-action re-enactments?
SM: You have greater control of all aspects of the look and direction of the animated sequences. In factual stories that deal with ancient societies, you have a much greater opportunity to get the costume and world looking right.
Saloon: Do you think CG adds or takes away from the stress of a history series’ production?
SM: Animation adds to the stress of any kind of production - particularly for the animators!
Saloon: What kinds of characters can you see being brought to life in the future? Has there been discussion about animating more women from the past?
SM: We’re looking at mummy stories for Series 2 now and already have a couple of dramatic stories about women on the list...
Mummies Alive premieres on Smithsonian Channel Sunday, June 7 at 9e/p.
Mummies Alive is a production of Saloon Media and Impossible Factual Ltd. in association with Smithsonian Channel and Shaw Media. Executive Producers for Smithsonian Channel are Tim Evans, David Royle and Charles Poe.
For Impossible Factual
Creative Director Steve Maher
Animation Director Christian Johnson
CG Artist Lily Aigbogun
Senior CG Producer Jane Forsyth
CG Producer Fiona York
CG Director Ian Jones
CG Art Director Stu Bayley
Performance Capture Artists Neil Newborn and Abby Nicol
Motion Capture Audiomotion Studios
Post Production Services Evolutions
For Saloon Media
Series Producer Steve Gamester
For more information on Mummies Alive animation, be sure to check out Saloon's and Impossible Factual's Mummies Alive Facebook Album. For series and broadcast information, visit Smithsonian Channel or the Saloon Media Mummies Alive Series Page.