December 15th, 2017

Last week, a group of artists and producers The Mill LA drove up to Hollywood’s iconic TCL Chinese Theatre for the premiere of The Pirates of Somalia, culminating two years of work on the film from shoot to post.

Directed by Bryan Buckley of Hungry Man, the film illustrates the true story of Jay Badahur, a young amateur journalist who sets off to Africa to chase his first investigative piece in the heart of the piracy industry.

The Mill completed approximately 225 VFX shots for the live-action feature. Additionally, our Design team created three vibrant animation sequences, around 50 shots total, slotted contrastingly throughout the film to establish backstory and allude to plot points in a graphical way.

02 Bullet Shoot

The unique animation style was developed especially for the first sequence the team completed – the longest of the trio at 1.5 minutes – which zeroes in on Somali pirate boss Abshir Boyah.

01 Boyah Water

We sat down with The Mill’s Art Director Lisha Tan and Animation Lead Tim Devlin to dig into the process behind the eye-catching animation.

How’d this project come about?

Lisha: It came in a couple of years ago. I was given a copy of the script with the pages highlighted where the animation was going to take place, visual references, and a small package of cast photos and early costumes.

Based on what I gathered from that, I proceeded to make a mini look book to get us started, and I designed some initial concepts for how I saw each character. From there, I put together six style frames to cover off various framings for the types of shots just to give Bryan a general vibe.

03 Rough BoardsInitial boards

He really loved the initial design explorations, and a week later we got on a call and our Pirates journey officially began.

04 Characterdev Boyah 01

05 Characterdev Boyah 02Initial character development

Bryan was really collaborative throughout the story process. We would send boards back and forth and we worked together on concepts and story for about two months before the animation team joined. At that point, I had every key frame and character boarded out into the sequence, and we were off.

Initially, there was only going to be one animation sequence in the movie

Lisha: We’d gotten about halfway through the main sequence. Bryan and the team at Hungry Man were really happy with how the animation had progressed at that point, and the decision was made to add two more to the film.

Tim: The narrative of the main sequence revolves around drug use, so we reflected that with a hallucinogenic effect using lots of bright colors and pseudo-psychedelic animation. The whole look of the first animation opened the door for us to push things stylistically and maintain that same look in the other two.

06 BoyahcompositeBoyah sequence look development

07 Map FrankfurtMap sequence look development

08 Map Dubai CompositeMap sequence look development

10 CloudassetsCloud assets

What sort of challenges came with this animation style?

Tim: It was so stylized; we had to animate it in a way that would give integrity to the technique. Finalizing the way things moved and looked took some time to develop – it wasn’t intuitive animation. We had to create a language first.

Boyahsequence 05Boyah sequence final

Boyahsequence 03Boyah sequence final

11 Bulletsequence FloatingBullet sequence final

Lisha: The animation was truly mixed media. We had a lot of work to do and a tight timeline, so we had to be smart, using 3D to help with the painstaking cel animation. The last shot in the main sequence shows a crowd cheering – that was literally our animation team, dressed up in costume and shot on green screen, clapping and dancing, later to be converted into background crowds. It worked perfectly.

12 Boyah Cheer

Can you walk us through the character design?

Lisha: I knew Bryan wanted something quite edgy looking. Fortunately, the cast already had such amazing features and costumes. I pushed it into more of a comic book realm and developed a visual language for all of them – how their noses looked, how their eyes were – so that they all fit into the same family. We started off with only a handful of characters, but we ended up with a whole family of them down to villagers and little kids.

13 CharacterlineupCharacter lineup

14 BoyahexpressionsBoyah expressions

15 CaptainphilexpressionsCaptain Phil expressions

16 CeoexpressionsCEO expressions

What’s your biggest takeaway?

Tim: We had the opportunity to interpret the style however we wanted, so we came up with something visually very fun. Bryan was very encouraging of that. In the process, it actually helped us further develop our own animation voice, informing our approach on other projects.

I’ve worked on around a dozen movies. This one was particularly rewarding – there’s a weight to it. Watching everything in the theatre, it felt really good to see everything come together in context.

Boyahsequence 09Boyah sequence final

The Pirates of Somalia is available to watch on iTunes.