People often say, “I’d love to see Big Finish audios as animated films.” Alex Watson has taken us a little bit closer to that reality, by animating two of the closing scenes from Gallifrey: Enemy Lines.
I could call it gorgeous, but you should see for yourself…
It was my pleasure to sit down with Alex and pick their brain about Gallifrey, their art, animation, and the incredible response to their work.
James Bojaciuk: Tell us about your Gallifrey animation. What is it? Where did the audio come from, for those who haven’t heard of Gallifrey?
Alex Watson: The Gallifrey audios are a Doctor Who spin-off series of audio plays created by Big Finish Productions. Big Finish uses the original actors (when possible) for the Doctor Who characters involved in their audio dramas, and they’ve developed a fairly large fanbase over the years–their stories range from more standard episodes with the Classic Who Doctors to spinoff series like Bernice Summerfield and UNIT, and now to even the modern series Doctors and companions.
The Gallifrey series, specifically, started in 2004, and features Romana II (Lalla Ward), Leela (Louise Jameson), and more recently Ace McShane (Sophie Aldred), along with various characters created by Big Finish. If any of you haven’t listened yet, I strongly recommend it; it’s my favorite part of the Doctor Who universe at this point. The animation I did is of two scenes from the end of the at-the-time-most-recent episode Enemy Lines, which is the 8th Gallifrey series to be released, followed by Time War on February 22.
JB: How did you discover Gallifrey? Why do you love it so much?
AW: In early 2014 I started listening to some of Big Finish’s Eighth Doctor audios, since I’d seen people talking about them on Tumblr, and I really liked them–after listening to Neverland and Zagreus, which feature Romana and kind of provide the setup for Gallifrey, I’d been meaning to listen to those as well since they sounded really interesting, and again, some people I followed on Tumblr sometimes posted about them. In summer 2014 the early episodes went on sale when series 7, Intervention Earth, was announced, so I went ahead and bought them then, and finally caught up around December 2014, kinda falling headfirst into the fandom in the process.
Gallifrey is so compelling, at least for me, because of the balanced mix of character development and high-stakes plots. The whole thing is fairly serialized and it’s fascinating to watch everything develop over time; its characters have a lot of depth, I’d never have predicted most of the plot twists, it has political relevance (even more so now with Time War), and it even has that particular Doctor Who mix of science and fantasy.
JB: Walk us through the animation process. What are the steps? How long did it take? How challenging was it?
AW: I had a lot less time, first of all, than I thought I would–the first semester of my senior year of college really got in the way. So it ended up taking me about two months, with the majority of that in January during my winter break. That doesn’t sound like so much time, but for most of January I was spending an average of five or six hours a day on this project.
I mostly went shot by shot, finishing all the stages before moving on to the next one so I didn’t get bored doing all the lineart first or something. So for example, if Narvin had a line of dialogue that I wanted to show, I’d first sketch out the keyframes for how he’d be standing or gesturing at different parts of the line. Then would be the lineart for those keyframes, and seeing how those sync up with the audio–maybe I’d have five frames in between two of them, and based on which words were being said at that point I could do the lineart for the frames to “fill in” between the keyframes to make smoother movements and do the lip sync. Then I’d do flat colors for all the frames for that shot, and I kept a separate color palette to make sure they were consistent, and then shading on top of that for each frame.
JB: You have a wonderful knack for preserving actor likenesses, while also presenting them in a style that’s wholly and naturally your own. What’s the key for this?
AW: Thank you! It’s actually been something I’ve struggled with as my art has improved, and I was determined to get it right for this project (the only anon hate I’ve gotten on Tumblr, a couple years ago, was somebody saying that my drawings didn’t actually look like the actors). I’d say the best way to try to preserve likeness is to draw from reference photos a lot before you try to draw from your imagination–you get used to relative proportions and features and so on, and how that fits into your style. Style itself is kind of a nebulous concept–I don’t think my “style” will ever be done evolving, it’s an ongoing process that takes from influences around you and, eventually, builds into something that feels like yours.
JB: Over 6,000 views (and praise from the cast and crew) later, how does it feel?
AW: Honestly, it feels amazing–I still can’t believe Big Finish actually featured it on their website. And it means a lot to hear such nice things from the people involved with the series itself; I made this project because I wanted to pay tribute to a series that’s really important to me, and I’m so glad that I was actually able to do that. It makes the stress of trying to finish it on time more than worth it.
JB: What were your greatest hopes and fears for Gallifrey: Time War?
AW: The main thing I was looking forward to were character interactions–and we definitely got that, especially between Romana as Coordinator and Narvin as Deputy Coordinator–the fandom had been speculating for a while about what the new dynamics would be like with them both in the Agency, and what we ended up with in the series was basically everything I ever wanted haha.
There had also been a lot of hints that somebody important was going to die, and we were definitely wrong about the outcome of that–I’d expected it to be Brax, based on the hints and timing of episode summaries. Ace’s fate, and Leela’s, was a twist I definitely didn’t see coming. I’m sure Leela, at least, will be back eventually; this wasn’t the Incident from The War Doctor series 4 after all.
I didn’t expect Rassilon to get brought in so early either, but I loved that–the way things are falling into place works so well, and since we know generally what happens in the Time War, the main question of this set of Gallifrey audios is basically, how do our favorite characters fit into all this and do they make it out alive in the end? I’m really excited for volume 2, and i hope we find out soon when that’ll be coming out.
JB: Looking at your art more generally, who and what are your greatest influences?
AW: The main thing that’s pushed me to keep going and improving in art is fanart, honestly. Before Gallifrey it was the main series of Doctor Who, and before that various other series I loved. I’ve had a lot of online friends who are also artists, which has been a great community. When I was a younger I’d started out drawing animals instead of people (blame the Warrior Cats books and a fear of criticism) and I still follow a lot of artists who draw and animate cats or other animal characters–a lot of their styles of coloring and animation have influenced mine. I’ve only taken a couple art classes, most of what I’ve learned has been either directly from online tutorials and things or indirectly from just seeing so much of other people’s art.
JB: What is your favorite part of creating your art?
AW: In general, I love being able to take a concept or image in my head and make it real. I feel like it’s easier for me to communicate that way than through writing, which is part of why I’ll be starting a webcomic soon. My favorite thing about drawing digitally is color; I love pushing the lighting and colors and digital art allows me to do that in a way I never could traditionally. I was worried that after the animation I’d be burned out for a while, but as I was working on it I realized that half the things I wanted to take a break for were just other art, and yep, afterwards I haven’t slowed down at all. Even though art is work, if it’s something I’m really invested in there’s a really strong pull to do it–it’s something that tends to help me recover energy rather than draining it.
JB: Do you have any advice for artists out there?
AW: Keep drawing, no matter what, and always save your old art. It’s a great feeling to look back at something you made a few years ago and realize how far you’ve come. The more you draw the better you’ll feel about it, and the easier it’ll be to keep going. It’s a bit of a snowball effect, but if you stop for a while, it’s much harder to make yourself get back to it.
Also, draw from reference. It’s not cheating, I promise. Everybody learns that way, and the better you learn the fundamentals the better your art becomes in whichever style you normally use.
Most importantly, draw what you love, not just what you think other people want to see.
JB: The inescapable question. What’s your favorite Gallifrey ship?
AW: Ha, of course – well, if I have to pick just one, then Romana/Narvin. Narvin’s character development is probably my favorite thing in the entire series, and so much of that is centered on how his view of Romana changes. I mean, just look at the end of Ascension.
JB: Where can our readers follow you online? Do you have any other projects you’d like to direct them to? (Current or upcoming)
AW: For animation things and, sometimes, speedpaints or livestreams, my youtube account is Aethira, the same one the Gallifrey animation is posted on. My art blog on Tumblr is also aethira; that’s where I post basically all my art. At the moment it’s a majority of original character art rather than fanart for once; I’m starting a webcomic in May called Daernika that’ll basically be the story of the Dungeons and Dragons campaign I’ve been in for all of college, and I’ve become really invested in those characters.