Kiss Me First: Interview with Kan Muftic, Animation Director
Can you explain a little bit about your brief for Kiss Me First? What were you asked to do?
My role in Kiss Me First was both a director and an art director. First of all, we had to figure out what the world looked like, and create it from the ground up. The first big task, was figuring out a specific, unique look that we wanted to have. We wanted it to have its own visual language. So I invited a bunch of my friends, who are really some of the finest artists in the industry, to help me out with that. We spent quite a lot of time exploring what that look would be. The challenge was not to make fake, realistic humans in CG, but to actually give it a sense of stylisation, to a degree where it doesn’t break the believability, which we call Uncanny Valley. So we were very careful to push the characters towards the edge of Uncanny Valley, but not fall into it. That’s a very difficult thing to do. And in the world itself, we have beautiful landscapes in sunlight, but we also have forests and night scenes and some really scary, dark digital environments. It was literally creating a whole world from scratch, which contained lots of different moods.
The project is an ambitious one because the virtual world plays such a significant role in the drama. Had you ever done anything like this before, on this scale?
The thing is, I was very lucky to have worked in video games for years, and then from video games I moved on to working on big Hollywood films, so I’ve seen quite a lot of CG on a large scale. But I think the really useful thing to me was having worked in games, which is probably the most complex form of animation. It’s not just animation, it’s interactive animation, which is incredibly difficult to make. So bringing that knowledge and experience was invaluable for me, and for my team.
Do you think that the level of artistic expertise that goes into gaming is overlooked a little in this country?
I think so. For some reason, games and animation are still being considered a genre. It’s still looked down upon from people who do television and film, but actually, if you just look at the numbers games generate, in terms of money, or in terms of popularity, and the presence in the society we live in, there’s almost no comparison. It’s crazy. The presence of animation and games is not going away. It’s a different world. I’m 41, and I did grow up with games, and I did grow up making games, so I’ve seen both sides. There are so many incredible games out there, or ones that are being built, with the new platforms like VR and AR (augmented reality) and a lot of other things are coming up. We try to tackle all of these things in Kiss Me First. Especially because of my contacts in video games, I knew what was going on and what people were working on, what type of games people will probably be playing a few years from now. All of that definitely influenced everything we did. We didn’t want it to look like just another piece of CGI, we wanted the game of Azana to feel like the next massive game.
Did you read the book, or would that have been a distraction?
Well, it ended up being very different to the book. I think the book is set in a chat room, which, when the book was published, was the most current thing at the time. But as you know, we’re living in such rapidly-changing times in terms of technology that meant we couldn’t go with that. The best thing we could think of was stepping into this VR video game territory, which allowed us to create a visual world that is astonishingly exciting and full of wonder. It allows a real drama to develop right in front of our eyes. It would be a much bigger challenge if it was just a bunch of text scrolling across the page.
Did you work closely with the cast?
Yeah, we had a very interesting process. The wonderful team at Axis and I had to pre-plan everything – concept art, storyboard animatics and even create previz sequences prior to Motion Capture shoots. This animation is so deeply complex. The process of making animation is almost like the reverse process of doing a TV show. You have to pre-plan everything – we concepted and storyboarded every scene – we came in as prepared as possible to predict what was going to happen, so we didn’t waste any time. There is no spontaneous decision-making in animation. The only time you do that is when you’re working with actors. I was very lucky and privileged to be introduced to them early on, and we had long conversations about what we wanted to do, and I introduced them to the world that we were creating. And then we went and did motion-capture at Shepperton Studios. Having spent time briefing them and doing rehearsals, I have to say, they were really wonderful. And because the process is so intense and intimate, I think it’s safe to say that we became friends in the process.
How heavily was Bryan Elsley involved in the creation of the virtual world?
It’s Bryan’s show. He is the general; the three of us directors were his captains, two live action directors, and me as animation director. It was extremely collaborative – Bryan and I spent an enormous amount of time working on it, just talking it through. He involved me in the process from the very early stages of writing the script right through until the end, which was very important, because animation takes so long. I had an insight into the whole creation of the show. Both Bryan and Mel (Exec Producer Melanie Stokes] were really open and transparent and very collaborative.
What were the biggest difficulties you encountered along the way?
For the last 70 years, thanks to the extraordinary work of Disney and then companies like Pixar, it’s had the unfortunate effect of making animation into a genre just for kids. But animation isn’t a genre, it’s just medium - a platform. The first big challenge here was doing animation that isn’t for kids. Kiss Me First is a very serious psychological drama. So how do you do that? This show is about human interaction and human emotion and the human condition. To discover that, you have to go into dialogue, you have to get really close and personal with the characters, so we had to figure out a way to create characters and animate them in a way that they have real emotions that they’re relatable, that we can empathise with them. That’s by far the hardest thing to do in CG. The biggest companies in the world, with the biggest budgets, haven’t figured it out yet. We tried to be as smart and as artistic as we can in that regard. And I’m very proud of what our team has done.
So how do you feel about the end product?
I couldn’t be more proud. It’s a new format of a TV show, but we’re also pioneering animation that is not just for kids – this is a serious psychological drama that just happens to be illustrated in animated form. And I hope the audience will engage with it on a deep emotional level.