Set in the snowy tundra of the Artic, Dane Winn’s Blue Zoo short Ada is a story of bravery, a story of resilience, a story of a determined mother desperate to return to her son. Based on the true story of Ada Blackjack, a 23yr old Inupiat woman stranded on a barren island after an unsuccessful Artic expedition, despite the unusual circumstances and inhospitable location of this 11-minute animation it’s a surprisingly relatable and deeply immersive piece.
“There weren’t many true survival stories about women shown in film”
Fascinated with real-life survival stories, because of the “wonderful balance of emotional and physical growth” they offer for characters, Winn felt Ada Blackjack’s tale was perfect material for his short film. “I was aware there weren’t many true survival stories about women shown in film”, the director explains. “Ada Blackjack’s story grabbed me right away because not only is it unbelievable to hear what she went through, but that no one really knew about it when I asked them. I think I understood what resonated with me about her story and I was excited to try and show that”.
For snow-covered stories like Ada, where environment is almost like a character in its own right, immersion is key. You want to feel the wind on your face and the cold in your bones. You felt it watching John Carpenter’s The Thing or reading Ian McGuire’s The North Water and it’s present here, coursing through Winn’s short as well.
The sound design does some of the work, with the persistent thrum of wind never-ending, but the stark aesthetic of the piece is equally effective at transporting you to this freezing, desolate world. The constant cold of the land is cleverly portrayed through a sort “grain” over the image and the monochrome style feels perfect for not only the setting, but the time period.
If the visuals are impressive on a surface level, dig deeper into the process and the innovative craft used in Ada only amplifies your admiration for them. With part of the brief to “use realtime rendering technology exclusively for the film”, Winn and his team employed Unreal Engine (an ‘advanced real-time 3D creation tool’ originally designed as a game engine) to avoid lengthy render times.
“We’ve come out of the experience hungry to use the process on future projects”
“The artists could see how the final visuals would be as they iterated and that meant we could experiment and attempt different setups much faster without the fear of losing a night’s rendering time”, Winn explains as we discuss the workflow in Ada. “The other benefit was being able to update assets and animation in a non-destructive way where all departments could continue working on the same shot in their respective fields and see it come together at once. It was a big learning curve, but we’ve come out of the experience hungry to use the process on future projects”.
Created as part of a company-wide short film programme At Blue Zoo animation studios, where Winn works as a director and 3D generalist in the commercials department, we spoke to company co-founder Tom Box to find out more about why short film is instrumental in what they do:
Ada is the latest in an expanding catalogue of short films from Blue Zoo, can you tell us a bit about why these films are important to your studio? It seems like you already have enough to do.
The #bzshorts initiative has been running in the studio for over 5 years and is very important to us on a variety of fronts. It’s a core part of our studio’s culture to challenge ourselves and keep pushing onwards, never being complacent with what we have accomplished, both individually and collectively.
We use the programme to constantly explore new ways of working and experiment with different animation styles, you’ll notice that none of our shorts are similar to what our core business is (kids tv shows), and none of our shorts use our standard day-to-day pipeline or production techniques. We know our artists know the tools, and we know they can nail those styles, so sticking to the norm limits the challenge and inhibits personal development.
Moreover, producing hundreds of minutes long-form kids TV each year can be perceived as a bit of a factory, when inside our studio it’s a powerhouse of creativity and ambitious ideas. The shorts programme flexes those muscles for the world to see, to show what we can also do, to keep ourselves and our studio rooted in the future.
How do you decide on the short films you want to make? What makes a good Blue zoo short?
For me, that is one of the trickiest parts of the whole project. Being able to set a brief that is creatively liberating, whilst not dictating what we want to see and ensuring people don’t waste their time pitching an idea what is not suitable for the studio to fund – it’s an almost impossible balance! We try to make every brief as different as possible, which could mean experimenting with a technique, discipline, film genre, or all three.
“We want the shorts to be enjoyed by audiences, so story and characterisation always come first”
What we avoid is technical demos. We want the shorts to be enjoyed by audiences, so story and characterisation always come first. We also never ask staff to make elaborate pitch decks, for example, for Ada we didn’t even allow a storyboard, just an “elevator pitch” concept which the director pitched infront of the whole studio, to ensure story is king. From there everyone votes on their favourite, which then goes into production a few days later.
The Blue Zoo shorts have received some great critical acclaim, playing festivals world-wide and even earning a BAFTA nomination, but as a company, how do you value the success of these shorts?
For us, they are about nurturing opportunity, for the artists that create the shorts and the studio as a whole. For example, in our last short Let’s Not Go Away, the pitch was won by Katie Gascoyne, who is a recruitment coordinator in our HR team, Katie ended up directing the short, which was an official Sony Music video.
So while a nomination or award is always a wonderful way of gauging the success final film, seeing an artists take a step closer to their life ambition as a result of the programme is the ultimate success. And when the studio can step up a gear from the international recognition the shorts bring, it can take all the artists along and upwards with it.