Animation grew out of shadow play, and its spirit is revived, via cutting-edge software, in this luminous film. Towering polystyrene blocks serve as the canvas for a complex light display in which brightness and darkness clash. Using only these elements, director Ben Steer (of London’s Blue Zoo studio) tells the tale of a community torn apart when their sun is blotted out.
Mamoon’s stylistic approach is unusual, and needs explaining. The characters and other moving elements were animated in Maya and After Effects, with photos of the polystyrene sets for reference. The animation was then beamed onto the sets, using multiple projectors, while a camera rolled. Imperfections – a wobbly shot here, a blurry outline there – were left in. The resulting film is a striking hybrid of CG slickness and DIY frailty. “We wanted a handheld feel to give it a slightly organic, documentary-style cinematography,” say the creators.
Many animators continue to experiment with age-old tricks of light projection – Sarah Wickens’s What Light is just one example. But few integrate these techniques into their narrative like Steer does here. The main characters are a fugitive woman and her son. We learn volumes about them simply from changes in their hue or brightness. Their two-dimensionality is factored into the plot: they end up on different planes, tragically separated. Their light bleeds into the polystyrene, lending them a ghostly air that’s echoed in the whispered arpeggios of Matthew Wilcock’s score.
Steer was inspired to tell this story after reading reports of Syrian refugees. The context is hinted at in Marylou Mao’s character design, as well as the title – “Mamoon” is an Arabic name meaning “fearless”. But the references stop there, and that’s Mamoon’s strength. The film takes the hoary trope of light battling darkness, boils it right down, and brings it to life in a new, vivid way.
Blue Zoo is best known for producing chirpy CG kids’ series like Q Pootle 5. For several years, it has also run an in-house shorts program, as part of which its animators are invited to explore their creativity. The most striking work to come out of it so far, Mamoon has picked up some heavyweight awards, as well as a Bafta nomination. The studio has just announced that it will open a new division dedicated to 2D animation. With luck, it will produce more stuff of this caliber.