The filmmaker left a career in architecture to tell stories in a unique, compelling, 3D design and animation style; his new pilot tells the tale of a dystopian future where a malevolent AI commands a colony of worker bots made of wood.
Leaving behind a career in architecture, London-based Michael McDonough decided to pursue his passion for conceptual design and animation by establishing mmcd studio as his storytelling space. Over the last few years, he has been developing “a house style of character design and 3D world creation, which focuses on simple yet compelling 3D character designs, with abstract and futuristic architecture and landscapes.”
McDonough is a one-man production crew, with the exception of sound, making use of Maxon Cinema 4D, Adobe Creative Suite, Octane Render and Insydium for his character designs and world building. Various projects include an animated short adventure developed for the fashion brand Szabo Sihag as well as proposed animated series Skippers and The Flooobs which are extensions of the design language established for Wood.
Wood is a labour of love for McDonough that has been shelved, rewritten, argued over, and recast more times than he can remember over its six years of development. The sci-fi tale, written by Norbert Szabo and Joshua Lewindon, takes place in a dystopian future where a malevolent AI commands a colony of worker bots made out of wood that have replaced humanity. Wood was conceived as a 40-minute film but reconfigured into a five-minute-long pilot streaming on the company’s YouTube channel. The grand plan is to channel the thematic sophistication of Star Trek and the iconic visuals of Alien to produce a season consisting of six to seven episodes that are each 20 minutes long. But in the end, the ambition will be scaled to suit the needs of the marketplace.
Take a few minutes to enjoy the pilot, then read on about how the film was made.
“These little block square characters in Wood came from a music video that I did for a friend that I developed eight years ago,” recalls McDonough. “I fell in love with them. Of all the projects, that’s one I have pursued building a world around the characters. It’s the writers, composers, and actors I lean on because they’re good at helping me to formulate a storyline and script.”
The animated protagonists in Minions were not a point of reference. “It would be nice if we had that kind of traction with audiences and there is a lot of merchandise!” he laughs. “We do have a long-term vision in terms of children’s books and toys that could spinoff if this ever got the interest we were looking for from studios or investors,” states McDonough. “The way that these characters move is quite childish so you can’t be quite dark. I’m trying to be broad with it because if it becomes a kid’s thing it might become too silly. I want to do something like Harry Potter, which got more serious as the narrative evolved. It’s trying to keep that fine line. I’m always striving to create worlds that you haven’t seen before or have something about them that is a bit different without blowing people’s heads off.”
Wood is the defining element for the film’s characters. “We could have looked into how to make them squashy and bouncy, and I know that in Toy Story, there are some characters, like Wheezy, the toy penguin, which have less mobility. But I was determined to stay true to the form of these characters because if you overengineer them, they’ll lose their magic.”
Working with the properties of wood meant some visual adjustments were needed. “We have a character called Ren who is much older, so the wood aged with a few dents and bashes in it,” McDonough explains. “We tried to make some adjustments to each character to make them look aesthetically like the personality in question. There are 1,000,001 textures that you can use for wood, but I tried to stick to balsa wood light and brown effect, which was part of the original design.”
The film’s setting also impacted the character design. According to McDonough, “It’s a factory and they’re there to perform a function. In reality, their maker wouldn’t give them all different looks and feel. The voices and mannerisms had to be quite accentuated, so we tried to find actors who are memorable and give each character a gravitas to remember them by without being outlandish or too silly.” One interesting creative choice was to have mouths resemble a digital equalizer. “That saved a lot of time and effort especially when you’ve got an actor who is not available and want to change a line slightly there is more freedom to cut more easily and deliver them faster,” says McDonough. “You do have the excuse that they’re robots, which are only so expressive, like R2-D2. The idea in the future is to have more expressions for the mouths and the light will play more.”
Ships allow the worker bots to move faster than if they were relying on their tiny legs. “The legs are deliberating cute and small because the characters are meant to be in mundane role and not to chase after things or have any kind of story arc,” notes McDonough. “The rig itself is an old walking rig that I found ages ago which fit this style. It’s simple. As the feet move you have some control of how the body moves. Each individual section is in its own node so you can easily move the arms. It’s quite flexible even though it’s a block piece. You can have fun with how it moves and have animation bring it to life and a personality to a character.” Because of his architectural background, McDonough felt most comfortable constructing environments. “In the beginning, the worlds dictated the story, but as time went on the characters and story determined the worlds because you have to respond to the story you’re trying to tell and their personalities. It’s more of a split out of necessity.”
McDonough is exploring Redshift and Unreal Engine to give even more scope to the environments. “When building in 3D you have to be conscious of crashes,” he observes. “You have to be as light as possible while still having some detail. For me, what you see is what you get in each scene and it’s literally all 3D.” Mental storyboards are relied on more than physical ones. “I’m not a storyboard person,” McDonough admits. “I’d rather build things even if it’s a wireframe so we can see if that looks okay. The next incarnation of what we’re trying to do is in greyscale and if it works, we can go back in the end, paint every scene, and put the detail in. But the shots are already settled. You can render greyscale in two minutes and see if that’s working like a live-action animatic.”
In setting the action on a distant planet with a Martian sci-fi aesthetic, McDonough shares, “There are lots of Western-inspired wide-angle shots to get some big architectural moments and to create the feeling of something bigger above the characters.”
“The idea was to originally make a feature film that was 40 minutes long, but we realized it was going to take forever and people have short attention spans,” McDonough reveals. “So, it was turned into a pilot episode instead. If Wood was a series, each episode would be 20 minutes long like The Simpsons and a season would have six or seven episodes. But knowledge only goes so far as to what the industry expects or what a potential investor might want. I’m speaking with people more about how we take something like this to market and scale it up to be feasible to become a series and to have studio support to get more manpower because I can do everything with these two hands!”