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AJ Aiken

freelance animator, illustrator and story artist

Welcome to my website!

I am a freelance animator, illustrator and story artist based in Scotland.

Scroll down to see my day-to-day updates, sketches and life drawing. Choose from the menu above to view my portfolio, storyboards, and showreels, see my most recent projects, or get in contact.

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Featured post

Janey was the life model at this Tuesday’s session, and she brought her dog along! It was fun to do quick gestures of the dog while also capturing her lovely poses.

Andy was modelling at this week’s life drawing. He held some great poses, including one where he played the guitar. As he was actually playing the guitar rather than pretending to, I feel the final drawing has real movement.

Moving for work has meant I’ve had to search for another life drawing class … thankfully this last week I found one! It’s a great little group and the model this week, Helen, came up with some lovely poses. It’ll be good to get back into regular classes again.

A few weeks ago I began working as a character and storyboard artist on an animated feature film called Spiked. I’ve been drawing a lot but of course I’m not able to share what I’m working on yet, so here’s a little doodle I drew today!doodles_01

One of the last times I was up in Edinburgh I sketched these at the museum in Chambers Street. Though I took no notes on colour at the time, thankfully National Museums Scotland has a searchable database – it’s fantastic for research.

While watching The Sound of Music again recently I was struck by the scene where Mother Abbess sings ‘Climb Ev’ry Mountain’. I decided to do a tone/composition study because the lighting and cinematography of the scene is so lovely.

When Maria enters the room, it’s very dark. The lighting is harsh and dramatic, and all that’s highlighted are the faces. Maria spends a lot of time with her back turned and her head bent. As the song begins Mother Abbess moves closer to the window, bringing more light into the scene. Maria follows, until she is also lit by the window.

The shots at the beginning, while Maria and Mother Abbess are talking, are fairly short and change position frequently – much like Maria’s answers. Once Mother Abbess sings, the cuts slow.

I began with rough but quite detailed studies. However I became aware I was focusing more on the poses and acting than I’d wanted to, so I did the latter images with a broader brush.

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I liked this bust of George Roberts, Provost of Selkirk in the 1800s, and had to draw it.SWSCR

Recently I taught some animation workshops for groups of mainly high school aged children and youth. This is the first time I’ve taught animation in any depth, though I ran one workshop on pixelation a few years ago. My main goal was to give a basic framework for people to think about animation in a different way, and teach skills that they can use themselves.

In the two and a half hour workshop everyone drew a character or object on a piece of animation paper. This became a key frame. I gave a very brief overview of key frames, breakdowns and in betweens and explained charts so each person could add a chart to their key frame. Using the chart, everyone then created breakdowns and in betweens to morph between their key frame and the next. For anyone who is unfamiliar with 2D animation, this blog post may help if you want to learn a bit more.

I ran two of these workshops, and you can see the results of both in the video above.

At the end of the workshop, I gave everyone paper and clips to make flip books. I left the direction of these completely open, and the results were varied and brilliant.

The final session I ran was a day and a half long specialism workshop, where I began by going much more in depth with the technical aspects of animation. I showed a few short animations as inspiration including The Illusion of Life, which is a brilliant little video summarising the 12 principles of animation in a clear way. As individuals and as a group they worked through a couple of exercises exploring timing and weight. I was impressed with the way people picked up on some of the principles from the video, thinking about squash and stretch and anticipation in particular.

After drawing thumbnails for their ideas, they began animating on paper. I encouraged everyone to key out their animation, using their thumbnails as poses. The group really thought about how many drawings they wanted between each key, and after the exercises they’d learnt a lot more about breakdowns and in betweens, especially the fact that they don’t have to be exactly halfway between one drawing and another.

Given that there was only one lightbox I pushed everyone to learn to flip the pages, and seeing people pick it up in only a couple of hours was incredible. Flipping the entire scene was also fantastic. I think there’s something really tactile and fun about animating on paper, and I’m glad I could share that.

The films that were created are far beyond anything I anticipated. Real thought went into the making of them, and everyone made an effort to put into practice principles they’d only just learnt. The end results are beautiful and funny. I’m thrilled to have been a part of it.

The Gaelic King is now available through Amazon, iTunes, HMV and Zoom in the UK!

It’s exciting to know the film is out there, and people are watching this story for the first time. I thought I’d share some of the work I’ve done on the film from the last two years. There are some mild spoilers below. Click on the smaller images to see a larger version.

I first heard about Dalriata’s King (as the film was known then) in May 2015 through its director Philip Todd, with whom I’d worked on a documentary feature called Knox.

The first job I had on the film was sewing costumes. I have made a couple of dresses, so brought along my mum’s sewing machine for a few hours of costume making. Despite sewing one pair of trousers inside out and having to unpick them and try again, my efforts seemed to be appreciated …

I was asked if I would be interested in joining the crew as a storyboard and concept artist. After reading the script, I agreed. I met with Phil and with John, the art director, in early July and began by creating concepts for the Tree Demon characters.

Exploratory sketches and concept drawings of the Tree Demons

Next I began storyboarding, feeling much as if I’d been dropped in the deep end as the first sequence I worked on was a complex battle scene when Alpin and Lachlan fight with the Picts against the Tree Demons for the first time.

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Part of the thumbnail storyboard for the Demon Battle

Over the next couple of months I storyboarded only a couple of different scenes. The time it took to do these was surprising, and frustrating. I also drew some Celtic-inspired designs for Lachlan’s standing stone, ideas for Pictish paint tattoos, and some designs for the Demon Lair.

Concept drawings for Lachlan’s standing stone and the Demon Lair

Just before the first block of shooting in September I was asked to board an action scene that was literally being shot a couple of days later. This was the moment I feel, through a combination of urgency and sheer panic, brought about some of the best story work I did on the film. My thumbnail drawings are barely legible and all out of order, but the experience helped me to speed up my sketching and make cinematography decisions very quickly.

Thumbnail storyboard for the Horse Charge

Towards the end of September I came on set in Airth for a day. I was camera assistant, which meant operating the clapperboard and making sure the camera equipment wasn’t in shot in the 9th century roundhouse. Up until this point I had been very firmly in pre-production and it was exciting to see the story come to life. One scene that stood out when I first read the script is when Finn and Alpin talk about whether the story of the King’s Power is true. Watching Noah and Jake make this real was thrilling. This was also when I first got to experience the wonderful camaraderie of the shoot. As a film student I spent a fair amount of time on shoots that went awry for one reason or another. Yet despite damp and late nights and forgotten lines the cast and crew were cheerful, encouraging and focused. Excellent catering created a perfect package. I decided I would try to help out more on the second block.

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Building the village

About a month later I was again on my way up to Airth, this time to help build the Gaels’ village. This involved thatching, heaving stuff about, and nailing things together. Most of this was all right, but the hammer defeated me. I hit my thumb more than the nail. I think there’s a good chance it was mostly the fault of the rusty, blunt nails … but nevertheless I gave up on that and stuck to thatching and holding the bottom of ladders.

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Village complete, ready to shoot

At the end of October I was back on set as runner and camera assistant: people-herding, rubbish collecting and holding an umbrella over the camera. During the course of the day I got to know a lot of more of the cast and crew.

I continued to storyboard during the shoot, drawing Alpin’s reaction to Finn’s capture and part of the final battle that took place in the village.

My sister joined me on the set the next time I went. She played a villager while I went back to clapperboard. Despite mud and some accidental blood the celebration ceilidh was great fun to shoot. We both drove up again the next weekend for the final day of block two, my sister having spent another day on set during the week. As we’d brought a car I was put on driving duty, picking people up from the train station and ferrying them from base to set. Once I was on set I did some umbrella and horse holding, the latter of which was more fun even if he did stand on me and knock me over.

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Wrap photo for block two (courtesy of Fellowship Film)

Two days later I was in LA for the CTN animation eXpo, as part of a delegation from Scotland. It was a fantastic experience but there was something special about going from a rainy film set in Scotland to Hollywood, the ‘dream factory’, and knowing that what was being made back in the UK was just as good as anything being made there.

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Part of the thumbnail storyboards for the Prologue

In early March in 2016 I was asked to storyboard the entire third block, which was the prologue and several flashback scenes. Phil and Nathan, producer, were heading to Cannes in May so they wanted something to present. I offered to spend more time on the storyboards so they could be made into animatics. The process began in much the same way, with rough thumbnails, but I then took these drawing and worked them up digitally.

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Part of the finished boards for the Prologue

Adding tone, to give a better sense of time and atmosphere, I then handed all the images over to Phil who edited them as if they were video. The result is a kind of previs which shows the final result without the cost of shooting. I worked on these boards through March and April, and though there’s lots of things I’d fix now I’m still pleased with the final result. (You can view two of the finished animatics here.)

I got to join Fellowship Film as they visited the Celts exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland in June. It was hugely inspiring, and humbling. The beauty of the artwork made me realise there really is nothing new under the sun. Indeed, in some ways, it seems we’ve artistically gone backwards …

While I was through in Glasgow for the Animation Base Camp, I was asked if I would create the opening map animation. Perhaps foolishly I agreed, despite having a fairly basic knowledge of After Effects. While in Glasgow I made a placeholder test, which satisfied me at the time. I didn’t spend much time on the map until after the third block of shooting.

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Shooting a scene from the Prologue at the Dunadd set

The shoot began in early September at a location very near where I used to live, Gilmerton Cove. I recommend a visit if you’re ever in the area. We spent two days at the Cove, followed by three at the Dunadd location. I was in charge of the unit base, keeping track of people going to and coming back from set. At the Cove, with minimal cast and crew, this was a fairly easy job – except when we had a bit of a panic when the camera appeared to stop working. The Dunadd days, especially the final day of the shoot which was a mammoth operation, involved the juggling of many more people. It was especially tricky keeping track of what was going on at the set when the distance and rain interfered with the walkie-talkies. There was also one close call for Jake’s character Alpin, who had to appear both in his ‘present-day’ form and as a younger version of himself. All the present-day shots had to be filmed before his costume, hair and makeup were changed, but due to a mixup he almost had his hair cut before all the scenes were complete. Thankfully this was straightened out before his hair was. Unlike my previous times on the shoot I didn’t get to see much of the filming, but I did go up for a short while on the final day to see part of the destruction of Dunadd.

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Wrap photo for block three (courtesy of Fellowship Film)

It was encouraging to see how useful the storyboards were during the final block. During the previous shoots my thumbnail images were only used by Phil and by David, the cinematographer, because no one else could decipher them. Because these storyboards were complete, everyone could have a look at them, understand what shots were coming next, and see how it would all fit together in the end.

Initial sketch and design of the map

After we wrapped, I went back to working on the map animation. I ended up creating enormous files in Photoshop and After Effects as I had to zoom in on the map at a 4K resolution. My computer complained throughout the process, as did I. Yet I’m pleased with the result, and it allowed me to learn much more about the software which I’ve since put to use in my other work.

Screenshots from the final map animation – view the final video at the start of the trailer

In October, as I had free time, I asked Phil and John if there was anything more I could help out with. Shortly afterwards I began work on some visual effects clean-up shots, including removing green screen, pylons and modern roads from frame.

Green screen and pylon removal, before and after

This was another steep learning curve, though I often had to resort to old-fashioned painting out or over methods rather than relying on an After Effects preset.

The cast and crew screening in November was a wonderful night, and allowed me to bring along my family so they could see what I’d been up to for the previous year and a half. It was exciting to see The Gaelic King, as its name had become, as a film and not as bits of a film – script here and storyboard there – as I had for most of the time. It was also great to see people enjoying the story so much.

However there was still a little more work to be done … from January to March of 2017 I continued to do some fixes and clean up on visual effects.

Adding blood to Alpin’s face, before and after

It has been a long wait since then, but I’m thrilled to finally hold the DVD in my hand and be able to share it with the world. It’s been a wonderful experience – hard work, but great fun. I’ve also loved being able to work on so many areas of this film from near the beginning to the end. Though I’m sad it’s over I’m pleased to be doing some concept designs for Fellowship Film’s new project, and I look forward to what’s next.

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The shiny new DVD

Many, many thanks to everyone who was involved and who made my time on the film so great. There are too many of you to mention!

It was the final life drawing session last week, modelled by Ina. I’ll miss the weekly sketching, but hopefully this will push me to draw more the rest of the time.

I keep mentioning on this blog that I want to do more drawing from life, so when the stable I’ve begun riding at advertised an informal show jumping event I went along to sketch the participants. At the beginning it was hard to put more than a couple of lines down, but after a while I relaxed and sped up and managed to capture more detail.

One thing that was great fun to draw (though not so good for those riding) were the refusals and run outs. I felt I was able to create drawings covering a huge range of personalities and action.

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Some sketches of models Hayley and Garry from the last two weeks.

Scots warrior-king, Alpin, must fight to rescue his brother and regain the kingdom of Dalriata.

The Gaelic King is an independent feature I was a story and concept artist on. Truffle Pictures has closed distribution deals for the film across North America, the UK, Japan, Italy and the Middle East. It’s releasing in the UK on the 10th of July, and you can preorder it from Amazon and other retailers.

I also created some motion graphics and effects work for the film, such as the map at the beginning of the trailer. You can see some of my other work for the feature on my Storyboards and Projects pages.

Had a great life drawing session on Tuesday, modelled by Imogen.

A friend of mine is cycling the Hebridean Way in September to raise funds for International Justice Mission, the largest casework-based anti-slavery organisation in the world. In exchange for donations she’s offering to iron and vacuum and mow lawns, so she commissioned me to create a drawing illustrating this!

If you’re interested in sponsoring Arlene, you can find out more on her donation page.

This was a fun commission. I’d love to create more like this.

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Here are some of my sketches from the last couple of weeks of life drawing, modelled by Jenny and Michael.

There’s a little maple tree outside my window in the new house. At the beginning of the year when we had quite a lot of snow I did a quick study of it because I loved the way the snow blobbed around the branches. A couple of weeks ago, I did another study. It’s fun to compare them (I didn’t refer back to the snowy one at all) and see the differences, particularly in the way I’ve painted the branches.

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I had another great session of life drawing at The Haining with model Jacque on Tuesday.

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Had a really lovely life drawing session on Tuesday, with Topaz modelling. I felt I hadn’t warmed up enough, but I relaxed over the course of the evening and in the end managed to do some nice drawings.

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Yesterday I sketched Elsa as she chewed on a toy. Occasionally she’d bring it over to me and dump it at my feet before retreating across the room to stare at me. She usually wore an accusing look at this point – “What, you haven’t thrown it yet?”

I’m a bit unsure about my painting below; it’s quite wonky but it was fun to play with colour. Usually I stick to sketches, but the Sketch app on the iPad Pro is amazingly versatile and I’m looking forward to trying more painting on the go.

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