Prazinburk Ridge is an animated short created almost entirely by a single person. The impressionistically styled film tells the true story of English rugby player Douglas Clark, whose intense athleticism saved a harrowing mission during World War I. Writer/director Martin Bell leveraged his skills as a previs supervisor at Proof Inc. to create the short in Unreal Engine.
“I’d been looking for a personal project for years just to make something,” recalls Bell. “All I’ve ever wanted to do is make my own films, but, in animation, it’s difficult because you normally need a team. I also wanted to do something that would stand independently and not go the sci-fi route because that’s an oversaturated genre for Unreal.”
All I’ve ever wanted to do is make my own films.Director Martin Bell
Bell turned to the war genre because of his experience creating countless battles for previs at his day job and via a personal connection. “My brother wrote a biography about Douglas Clark, the British WWI hero,” Bell continues. “I remembered an exhilarating action sequence from the book that seemed like a simple enough story to accomplish by myself.”
Pushing to the Next Level
“What finally pushed me to get it done was having down time during the pandemic and also seeing Richard Linklater’s Apollo 10 1⁄2. I realized I could adopt a similar cel-shaded style and shoot 12 frames per second. I’d get a traditional feel with fewer frames to manage.”
By leaning into technical limitations, Bell could give Prazinburk Ridge a unique style. “It’s the same reason Kevin Smith made Clerks in black and white– because he couldn’t afford color film,” Bell observes. “I know that by applying cel shaders and post-processing in Unreal, I could make it look painterly. They say art is never complete, but working within the confines of what was possible ultimately freed me to finish this project.”
Although Bell prevised the entire movie and recorded all the dialogue himself, he ultimately replaced his lines with voice-over actors, including Edmund C. Short, Ciaran Crawford, and Christopher Winchester. “I worked hard to direct the actors to match my speed of delivery because the movie was already running ten minutes, and I liked the pace,” he says.
To bring the characters’ physicality to life, Bell did all of his own performance capture. “I’d bought a first generation Noitom Perception Neuron mocap suit on Kickstarter back in 2015,” Bell says. “It’s less advanced than their more recent models and requires more cleanup, so I got into the habit of capturing raw data directly into Unreal just to get the main action. I captured eye animation using an iPhone with the MocapX app. Then, I would clean up each shot and hand keyframed lipsync in Maya.”
“Because of the pandemic restrictions and the actors being in different locations, we recorded some sessions over Google Meets. I had a version of the movie without lip-sync, which I then animated in Maya, matching the lip sync up to the final voice performances.”
In all, Bell estimates he spent more than 100 days over a couple of years completing the project. “Spending time off and on again helped to mature the project in my mind,” Bell observes. “I think it’s a better film than what would have been had I pushed it all through in the Summer of 2020.”
Taking the Next Steps
With the movie completed, Bell decided to release the entire film online instead of waiting for distribution or completing an entire festival run. “The festival cycle can take two or three years, and I really wanted it to be seen sooner than later,” says Bell. “I’ve had a good reaction from everyone who has clicked on it and watched so far. I’m also still applying to festivals and getting it out there as much as possible.” The film’s first in-person screening was at the Wigan and Leigh Film Festival in late September 2022.
As Bell promotes Prazinburk Ridge, he continues to work as a previs supervisor and finds his day job better informed by his experiences in real-time animation. “Previs is a lot faster to accomplish in Unreal Engine, but it also has a bit of a knock-on effect,” says Bell. “The big limitation today is the amount of available talent who are highly skilled in Unreal. There’s still some work to be done to level up enough talent to make a big change in previs.”
When asked for his advice to fellow budding animators looking to make their own real-time projects, Bell has plenty of tips as he looks to pivot into more projects and potentially live-action feature directing. “It’s imperative to not think of Unreal just as a renderer for other applications such as Maya,” stresses Bell. “You’re better off getting more comfortable with Unreal and laying out your entire project in it. And if you want to finish your big project, ensure it’s something you need to do. If something needs to exist, you can will it into existence.”
You’re better off getting more comfortable with Unreal and laying out your entire project in it.Director Martin Bell
For more information about Martin Bell and Prazinburk Ridge, please visit https://www.yescommissioner.com, https://www.pitchpublishing.co.uk/shop/man-all-talents, and https://www.duggyclark.com.