At BVE this year we were lucky enough to host Melanie Stokes, executive producer and Kan Muftic, Director of Kiss Me First, currently airing on channel 4 and globally on Netflix, for a behind the scenes discussion on the making of Kiss Me First and the various challenges to be overcome in a project that was 4 years in the making.....
“We’re going on this journey together” was not just the marketing strap line for Kiss Me First, but as we found out it was very much a production mantra between the producers, directors, writers, animation teams, actor etc. It took the entire teams creative input and commitment to produce a look that was believable, engaging, and uniquely Kiss Me First
Concept evolution and adaptation
One of the first challenges of adapting Lottie Moggach’s book was the speed at which technology has moved. The original concept was that young adults become someone else via chat rooms ( which was all the rage back then). However, would this really relate to today's 18 year old? That said, with the nature of connected technologies it opened the door to a different possibility. According to Melanie Stokes, executive producer, it was writer Brian Elsey’s epiphany that instead of entering chat rooms and becoming a different character, could they enter a virtual world and ‘live’ there? Out of this slight change emerged the concept of Azana, and the real potential for Kiss Me First to come to life.
‘Games are becoming more and more immersive, and a bigger part of our lives. It’s what gives us the creative licences to create Azana. Imagine Facebook, Instagram, Youtube and Worlds of Warcraft… people are always online… it’s not hard to imagine that this world could exist... a world where you are online more than you are offline.’
By using the concept of the characters leaping from live action to animation, and vice versa, it provided the production team a rich, creative, way to introduce characters. From the idealised way in which they saw themselves, to the realities of the actual life they led.
Creating a unique world
However, one of the biggest challenges the production team faced was creating a unique landscape that could differentiate from all of the other animated landscapes. With all of the high end Sci fi and gaming landscapes – Azana needed to look and feel unique. It needed to be believable, and authentic, as a place where we would want to go and ‘escape’ too, somewhere that we would want to spend our time. All whilst remembering that, ultimately, they needed to create a serious drama in a VR space.
'So’ Kan Muftic explains ‘We decided to approach it with an illustrative direction, as opposed to trying for hyper realism.'
With that comes a unique challenge…. the key to any drama is the character and their narrative, can we relate to them, do we care about them? In a live drama environment, we are relating to people. We can see their emotions and their own reactions. In kiss me first the narrative needed to be seemless as the characters moved between the real world and the Azana. It need to continue with a story where we still related to the characters, and could clearly identify the avatar as the actor and vice versa. However, how much emotion can an avatar carry in order to really make this happen?
The challenge with hyper realism is that the closer you get to a real person, the less you start looking at an abstract object (animation) with human characteristics. When you start looking at hyper realism you have to be careful that the audience doesn't start just looking at a human with flaws. ‘It’s the curve of belief and disbelief... the uncanny valley’ as Kan explains. ‘Finding out just how far you can push the animation, until you see a human with flaws…. it’s a difficult thing to do, it’s not something anyone has really figured out. I don’t think it’s a matter of budgets either, its more about understanding what you want to do, and understanding the performance levels you want.’
When you start looking at hyper realism at some stage the audience starts looking at a human with flaws. ‘It’s the curve of belief and disbelief.
The process and the animation for the series took almost two years. Many of the technical graphics and processes from Axis animations were created for this project, with constant collaboration between producers and animators. After all they couldn’t be too human, but they needed to be really appealing and believable avatars.
Crucially, it was working with the actors that enabled the animators to really bring the characters to life. By recreating the facial tics, and unique mannerisms of the actors they were able to add a different dimension to avatars. This attention to detail, with a team of artists and animators often hand drawing the actors own mannerisms gave the avatars the added element of believability that linked the actor to their avatar.
"It was a team effort between the actor, the animation at team to be able to find a way to let CG character display emotions, without looking to human. At the end of the day we created highly stylised characters, we didn’t want them to look like humans we wanted them to look like really appealing avatars."
Creating a common production language
One of the other challenges of working in a live action, animated and CGI project what the marrying of production processes. ‘Live action drama and animation are just two different languages.’ Melanie explains. ‘Live action drama is a messy organic process. It lets you do script revisions, it allows for sparks of performance brilliance. It allows revisions in post… in fact at all stages there can be changes.
At the end of the day in our show we had to work with the mess of live action drama and the precision of animation.”
However, animation has to storyboarded, and agreed, at the start. You just don’t have the luxury of just deciding ‘we will just do this’. It has to be locked down and agreed at the start otherwise you are just wasting tonnes of money! At the end of the day in our show we had to work with the mess of live action drama and the precision of animation.”
‘What we learnt is that the creative process is about trust and developing a language and a vision together, developing the storyboards, costume design, the motion capture shoots with the actors.” It would seem that the Kiss me first team really did go on this journey together.
Watch the full Kiss Me First BVE session below: