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The Knights of The Light Table on Night Runner’s neon-noir music video
Not every professional animator starts off with a clear understanding that they want to work in the industry. Patrick Stannard entered animation late in college. In his sophomore year, the realization set in while he was making short video games with friends: "I found that in making those games, I was leaning more towards animating the characters. I liked having control over their weight and how they moved."
Soon afterwards, he spoke with his instructor, Steve Stanchfield, about switching majors and was encouraged to follow Jason Ryan's video tutorials over the summer. By his junior year, Patrick had an internship with Walt Disney Feature Animation. Shortly after graduating and looking for full-time work, he commented on a YouTube video from Powerhouse Animation — at the time a small animation studio located in Austin — and received a phone call back. Patrick loaded everything he owned into a U-Haul and drove to Texas.
While working, Patrick began animating for Game Grumps Animated in his spare time: "Their show is kind of like Mystery Science Theatre 3000 but for games. You get a lot of these comedic skits that happen — A lot of them beg to be animated." After a few videos, Game Grumps co-host Dan Avidan hired Patrick to animate a music video for his band's song, Heart Boner.
As Patrick's music video side-projects grew more ambitious, and demanded more book-keeping, he found the need to start his own studio: The Knights of the Light Table was born in 2018. During this time, Patrick was taking on more duties at Powerhouse Animation, so he brought in Dublin-based artists Michael Doig and India Swift to direct Starlight Brigade, which we featured on this blog last year.
Recently, we spoke with Patrick, Michael and India about their latest music video — this time for Night Runner's song Magnum Bullets, featuring Dan Avidan. You can find the full music video embedded below. Be sure to keep scrolling for an in-depth interview about the many sources of inspiration behind the short, the Knights' ever-evolving production process, advice for small animation teams who want to create ambitious projects, as well as their favourite fan art.
What did the creative brief for this project look like, and how much involvement did Dan Avidan, Night Runner and Game Grumps have on this project?
Patrick: The brief was — Dan called me on the phone and said he wanted us to make a music video for this really cool song that he worked on. Then he let me come up with the ideas for the video.
One of the benefits of working with Dan Avidan and Game Grumps is they give us a lot of creative freedom. I think that the biggest edit they had was, at one point, we had a character lip-sync the song but Dan didn't want to have characters singing with his voice — he wanted it a bit more removed — his connection to the character was more implied.
These were the initial designs we sent to @Nightrunnermx for #MagnumBullets. Any one of these could have ended up being our protagonist. In the end we fell in love with the #Tri #Wolf design. pic.twitter.com/Em5rZZNd3O— Knights of the Light Table (@KotLT_Animation) March 3, 2020
We noticed that you posted a variety of different character designs for the video’s protagonist on Twitter. Can you walk us through some of the designs you were playing with?
Patrick: Definitely! Some people noticed Lone Digger vibes. Lone Digger is an animated music video for Caravan Palace. A lot of it just came from listening to the music and I immediately got — of course a lot of 80s influences. I kinda played around with a lot of stereotypical sci-fi 80s character tropes. I also wanted it to be very visually striking, so that's where a lot of those neon-bright colours against dark shades come from.
The contrast on these characters is really high. A lot of that factors into capturing an 80s aesthetic, where characters really pop on screen. The first exploration was the weird galaxy wolf design and then eventually I made Triangle, who has a triangle on his head. Those first two were the very first drawings I did for the project. After that, I think I did a couple other designs that were a little more mundane.
India: I would actually be interested to know, Pat, what was it that made you want to put the symbols on the characters' foreheads?
Patrick: I think it was — I definitely had influences on it, but it may have been subconscious. I might have been looking at really cool tattoo designs, and again it came down to an immediately readable image that would benefit storytelling. It's something I think about a lot when I am boarding: How much can I tell from a single image? Once I had the shape on the forehead, I saw the potential for what we could do with it.
I saw at one point someone mentioned PlayStation buttons?
Patrick: Yes! If you actually look at those shapes, you will notice that each shape represents a number. Circle is one line, X is two lines, Triangle is three lines, Square is four lines: One, two, three, four.
PlayStation owns a copyright to those shapes in that order. That is why our shapes do not have an X.
We have a character, Star, who was originally X. She went through the most revisions of any character. I brought in India to help and explore silhouettes.
Big Bad Stag (#BBS) and #Star both went through many stages before being finalized. Star was X but was changed so as to not conflict with PlayStation Shapes— Knights of the Light Table (@KotLT_Animation) March 5, 2020
X now only exists in the deep-lore, one day we may tell her story...#Conceptart #art #Nightrunner #MagnumBullets #KotLT pic.twitter.com/ujoVAGVsKr
Can you speak to the inspiration for the look and tone of the project? We can see some influence from cyberpunk, film noir, and 80s anime.
Patrick: The 10-second elevator pitch of the design aesthetic is The Secret of NIMH meets Blade Runner. Those are some of my influences in terms of what I want in the look and story. I want things that are moody, with a lot of character drama and tragedy — I don't know why I like tragedy so much, but that's just a thing.
Those were my two main influences: First, Don Bluth, you can see it in their hands. I love the old knotty structure to his characters' hands. Then you see Blade Runner in the aesthetics of the world, which is very cyberpunk and neon-noir. I think it's something I've always gravitated to. Night Runner gave me an opportunity to create something I always wanted to make.
From the camera movements to the match cuts to character acting to fight choreography, this feels like a very ambitious animation project. What did the planning process look like and which elements of the song did you feel were important cues for this video?
India: I do remember, Pat, at the very beginning you had these amazing beat boards — even before we started storyboarding — Patrick had these very clear ideas of iconic shots he wanted throughout the video. It was all about the story coming full circle, with mirroring of these shots.
I think the four I remember were Circle with his hands spread out, dead against the safe with the briefcase missing — then I think you had someone sitting in the car with the briefcase — you had Big Bad Stag being shot — and then you had that final image where Triangle transitions into Circle.
Patrick: In terms of the video, the lyrics tell a certain story. We took the lyrics and we added our concept and story on top of that, which was more personal — with the characters involved. We told that story through parallels and juxtapositions.
Uh, are you familiar with the Coen Brothers?
Some of the rough #Scribble #Storyboard(s) by @LordDirk and @OldSwifty. Of all our projects #Nightrunner #MagnumBullets remained the most consistent from concept to final delivery! pic.twitter.com/3BKoeMmpSt— Knights of the Light Table (@KotLT_Animation) April 14, 2020
Sure. Fargo, Burn After Reading...?
Patrick: I am a huge fan of the Coen Brothers movies. They have this great Netflix show called The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. There's a moment in Buster Scruggs that I love, and it's at the end, so I apologize for the spoilers, everybody:
Buster gets shot in the head.
This character is a gunslinger. He's very quick on the draw. Some new guy shows up — who we don't know — who wants to challenge this guy. This new guy, he looks fancy. He looks like he's a really cool fella himself, but we don't know if he's going to beat our protagonist here, who is the fastest gun in the west.
The camera is holding on the protagonist, an extreme close-up on the face. You hear the other guy, the fancy guy, say, "Do you need a count?" — A countdown to pull the trigger. Our main character says, "No sir." Immediately, you hear a gunshot. You don't see the bullet go through.
You do see his expression change. Next shot he takes his hat off, and he tilts the hat just enough that you can see there's a hole right in the middle of the hat. He turns the hat over and you can see the exit wound. It's this wonderful piecing together of this puzzle that we already know the answer to.
In terms of how that applies to Night Runner, juxtaposing one image next to another tells you more than what is in the shot itself. In the beginning, the transitions are all about juxtaposing the celebration, the lavish life this mafia don — this Big Bad Stag — is living, with our characters who are preparing to get their revenge. It's a hand holding a champagne bottle, and then match-cut to someone pulling a sword out from a sheath. The glasses of alcohol become the spinning revolver on a gun.
The other images we wanted to include were the meta-commentary of the relationship between Triangle and Circle, and the parallels of starting on Circle and ending on Circle. I didn't think of the pun until someone else said it in an analysis video — of the story coming full circle.
India: It's amazing to me that you didn't know, just because everything is so neat. It feels like you had that concept ingrained from the beginning, that everything would lead back to the starting point again and reflected elsewhere in the video, but in a new light.
This week we're featuring @EllePowerr, a supremely versitile artist who helped out on nearly every aspect of #animation on #Nightrunner #MagnumBullets. Even her roughs and WIPs were loaded with appeal, just look below! pic.twitter.com/faV0xBBRDq— Knights of the Light Table (@KotLT_Animation) March 31, 2020
We could also tell that colour played a significant role in this project. Can you tell us a little about the how you used purple, gold, white and cyan throughout the video?
Patrick: I will say a little bit, and then I will hand it over to Mike. He is our colour wizard, so he had a huge hand in that. We did have a lot of conversations about it.
We definitely designated colours to characters. Big Bad Stag's world is very bright and gold and the world that the wolves are in is very dark and grimy — more blue and subdued. Overall we wanted the colours to progress throughout. Mike had a beautiful colour script.
You'll notice a buildup throughout the music video. When we are getting to the fight scene at the climax of the film, the colours become supersaturated — bright and vibrant. At the end, the sun's rising, the colours are not as aggressive.
Michael: The character designs and the colour motifs within were decided by Patrick, so I tried to extend them throughout the settings as well. I wanted to make sure that the sky felt violent throughout. When you have those external shots of the car, the sky is very red and angry almost, with this feeling building.
It became a great backdrop for the wolves approaching Big Bad Stag, this vibrant pink behind him — almost tying into the gold and magenta in his clothing. It really felt like you were getting closer to hell for these wolves. That's where I tried to tie in the lighting, going from a light pink to an almost pure magenta behind the characters.
What I find interesting about the wolves is they have a very stark white fur that interacts in the video differently from any other material. Any lighting that hits them, the shadows always turn blue. Not glowing, so much as emissive — interacting with the light differently. It was interesting to play with, to make sure they stand out in each shot, without feeling like they didn't fit into the scenes they were in at any given time.
This project ran both before and after one of our other projects — Starlight Brigade. I had done a colour script for this project before we worked on Starlight Brigade. When we returned to Night Runner, I saw that I had been too tame. I hadn't pushed the visuals in terms of contrast and value as much as I could have. The challenge, for me, was to try to make something that felt unique.
Beyond the 80s thematics of purple, gold, white, and cyan, there was attention paid to how color progressed through the story. Doig is truly the Merlin of #KnightsoftheLightTable! pic.twitter.com/ndHmRdj3T5— Knights of the Light Table (@KotLT_Animation) March 3, 2020
Patrick: Because the colours changed so drastically and evolved throughout the piece, keeping characters feeling consistent was also a challenge.
Michael: There was a part where I was trying to make the Big Bad Stag's vibrant gold jacket, when it was in the shadow, not feel too... green. Dimming the contrast on that, trying to keep him feeling within the yellow-warm colourspace was quite hard.
India: There's a realism that you want to convey, so that people get invested in the story and feel like they can really feel the characters and believe that they are there. Then there's that symbolism side, where you really want to push what the colours are saying, even when it's not realistic. You have to find a balance.
Michael: Yes, that's the edge I had to walk along. I was trying to make it feel like they fit, but sometimes it's not as appropriate as the symbolism and colour motif.
Another thing was: How do you make something glow on white? A lot of the times the wolves would be blue, a sort of subtle white-ish blue, rather than full-on white, so I had room to go to a higher value above it and still have it read clearly. I think it's more successful in certain shots than others.
India: Is it like having to balance the surrounding colours to make them darker, so the wolves look brighter by comparison, so they still look white?
Michael: Yeah. If you have a colour glow on top of a white surface it looks like a dirty white, rather than neon bright and emissive light. That was quite a challenge there.
In what ways did your production process change from your work on Starlight Brigade and previous projects?
India: I would say it was mostly Mike, as all the learning came in on the compositing process. I think Starlight Brigade definitely had an impact on the way Mike handled the shots.
Michael: The shadow passes and light passes on the characters in Night Runner were deliberately influenced by what we learned working on Starlight Brigade. That was one of the things Patrick wanted to push for throughout all of Night Runner. We ended up bringing in David Liu to help push the lighting aesthetic that we achieved.
What David — and the other lighting artist on the project — did was create a matte shape over the silhouette of the character. They were drawing in the shadows by hand and we would use that as a matte layer in compositing to adjust the colour of whatever it was on top of, which we hadn't done before Starlight Brigade.
India: I would say Night Runner was, perhaps, a more complex animal than Starlight Brigade. There were a lot of individual elements to each character. They had glows, lighting, specific colours that were isolated...
Michael: That's very true. One difference was the number of layers each character had. Of the wolves, Triangle was the most complex, and then Big Bad Stag. Triangle had his default colour layer, his fur layer, and he had leather he would wear on his jacket and his boots — which was all exported from Harmony. Then he had the line layer, which had the blue glow embedded into it — that was coloured in Harmony. Then the glow layer for the symbols. I think that's it.
India: One of the things that made a huge difference as well from Starlight Brigade to Night Runner, is we really took advantage of Harmony's functionality for colouring lines. It's quite an easy process, and it really helped in selling the glows on the wolves fur — to have the line that surrounds them be blue instead of completely black.
Michael: We also learned about the Colour-Selector Node, which enabled us to export those particular colours out of the colour sublayer — rather than having multiple stacked layers in Harmony, we reduced it down to one in places.
Which scenes from the video were most challenging? Which were your favourite to work on?
Patrick: There's a lot of real complex shots in there. It depends on what your job was. If you were an animator, the answer would be different than if you were responsible for compositing. That said, the climax shot of the bullet was probably the most difficult in terms of... almost everything.
India: That's true. I definitely enjoyed animating the more emotional shots. I love doing character acting, but I also really enjoyed animating the action shots because it's something I was unfamiliar with. Getting Patrick's help with the choreography — and him really taking me through the posing, and how to push the poses, was a real learning experience for me.
I am super proud of the end shots and how they came out. Everyone really pulled together to create something striking and special. It was a big group effort on those last climatic shots of Triangle riding the bullet.
@OldSwifty #animated some of the most complex shots in @Nightrunnermx #MagnumBullets, taking lead in both the intense #fight scenes and the heaviest emotional moments. Here are some of our favorites! pic.twitter.com/wCbFDIFKv3— Knights of the Light Table (@KotLT_Animation) March 17, 2020
Patrick: There's one particular shot, I know it as Shot 39, that took me a long time. A lot of it was that my time had been taken up by other projects, but it's one of those shots that was more complex to make than it ends up looking.
It's the shot where Star Wolf slices through four guys. What makes it difficult was not necessarily the camera angles — it's not like it's a three-quarter top-down view with a lot of weird perspective — the hard part was, there was so much on-screen. Every time somebody got sliced there were effects flying out, you had characters in front and in back — and then it had to transition to the claw, which was flying through the air. All of those things combined made for a dense shot.
Even in its roughest stage @OldSwifty and @LordDirk provided a lot of #Animation information in their boards. A testament to their versatility and skills as animators!#nightrunner #Magnumbullets pic.twitter.com/hIcYyRlpsU— Knights of the Light Table (@KotLT_Animation) April 14, 2020
India: I remember colouring that scene! I can attest to the fact that there were HUNDREDS of layers in there. It was incredible to look at though. One of my favourite shots, for sure.
Michael: Exporting it was fun.
Patrick: That one, where the claw flies out, the motion blur behind it started out in Toon Boom as a bunch of different layers that we were moving over.
Michael: Yeah, I think I kept those in and used them in the composite later.
We noticed that there was a significant amount of fan art on the #StarlightBrigade and #MagnumBullets hashtags. What was your favourite piece of fan art that you have seen so far?
India: That is a really hard question!
Patrick: There's so much. There was one for Night Runner that I saw recently with a pink background. It was just gorgeous. You know the one I am talking about? It's a picture of Triangle, a portrait in terms of its layout, he's clutching his bloody hands in front of him. I think someone used it as their phone wallpaper.
India: I think the 3D mockup of Big Bad Stag is one of my favourites, just because you don't really picture these characters in 3D and they have such particular graphic designs that seeing it realized that competently and well in 3D is kind of a mind-blow. It's something you never think you're going to be able to see, so it's fantastic.
What is it about these projects that inspire artists to create their own characters for these worlds? What brings people into them?
India: I can't say this is the same for everyone, but I think the passion that a small team brings to a project is what spurs people to emotionally invest in it. Audiences can see the amount of care and attention that's poured into these projects, how much every team member who works on those projects cares about them — and how much we are pushing to make something special. I think that's what really resonates with people.
Michael: There's something that happens when you present an audience with a carefully constructed world or a snapshot of a story: They can see beyond the edges of the frame. They want to be able to see further, and I think that encourages people to either discover or create it for themselves. If you create the appetite or hunger for more of an experience, I think that really resonates with people — they either find parallels in the story for themselves or like a particular setting or scene.
I see people attempt to capture particular story moments that resonate with them, that they want to capture the feeling of it — and create something with that encouragement.
India: Definitely having more of the world in your head. I think people can sense that there is more to it. How about you, Pat?
Patrick: I think you hit the nail on the head. There is something to be said that Starlight and Night Runner are not the only projects we've done, but they are the ones that received a lot of the attention. I do think much of that has to do with the fact that they are narratives — or snapshots of narratives, like Michael said. You are peering into a small portion of what could be expansive worlds or universes.
I think people connect to these videos if they make people feel something emotional, if they convey a concept to them, and then they want to play in that world. We are more than encouraging to that. We think that's fantastic.
We would also like to play more in all of these worlds. We've just got to get someone to fund it.
Do you have any final thoughts for our readers or any projects you would like to highlight?
Patrick: Personally for me, Night Runner — I am more attached to it than I was on Starlight. Starlight I absolutely loved and helped out as much as I could, but Night Runner was the one I was involved on narratively. This was the kind of a story and style that I had wanted to do for a while. I am thankful for it.
India: It's important for people to realize that creating this kind of work — and this standard of work — isn't out of reach. It's something that a small team can do. If you hone your skills there is no reason why you can't get together a group of people to make something equally cool.
Interested in seeing more work from the Knights of the Light Table? You can catch another glimpse of their animation on the Kickstarter campaign for Beyond the Western Deep: Volume 2 and be sure to follow the Knights on Twitter at @KotLT_Animation.