The Mighty Pie in the Sky: From Comics to Cloud Rendering (and beyond!)

by Danny Rollings

Part I: Origins

Who is Dan Masterton?

Creator of the joyfully endearing and SoDak award-winning Ewebibtikus Klaw’s Adventures Galore (2012–), Dan Masterton is a South Londoner, a loving husband and father, and by no means your stereotypical animator.

Rather than being led to animation by the usual childhood love of the likes of Disney and Pixar, Dan went from loving comicbooks as a kid, to starting out as a comic artist, to working primarily as an illustrator for commerce, before eventually making his start in corporate animation. Half my life ago in 2006, he became creative director at London’s PA Design Studio, as part of the PA Consulting Group; which is not as boring as it may at first sound.

A lot of new animators turn their nose up when it comes to corporate animation, but I can guarantee it’s so varied and fast-paced, it’s a real buzz sometimes. You get the chance to experiment with story and style more than you would working on a long-term film or TV series. Deadlines are often short, so you are forced to improve rapidly. Shortcuts, scripts, plugins and a strong knowledge of animation, physics, and anatomy are all essential.

Keeping the balance

One such example is Social Intelligence: The Power of Social Media, originally produced in early 2012, and revised in 2014. Over the years Dan has racked up a huge amount of experience in all things animation, in both the 2D and 3D realms: from traditional to Flash, Toon Boom to After Effects, all the way to character and game animation. With this ability to experiment has come a great and varied career within animation, one that he’s able to ensure isn’t entirely taken up by his corporate responsibilities.

Alongside spending time with his wife Caroline and their young children Sam & Lucy, by some miracle Dan manages to find the free time to produce his own short films. Although these can take an incredibly long time to produce, with his first outing, a 10 minute short known as The Learnings of Dr Lune (2005) taking four years.

Even with these responsibilities he somehow manages to keep pushing forward with his personal projects, and does so simply because he loves doing it – no matter how slow and frustrating it can be. Seeing others enjoy his work is a massively awarding feeling for him; however as much as he loves animating, he admits that he’d be unable to do so without Caroline’s continued support.

Physically, making a film in your free time is demanding, and can put a lot of pressure on you. My wife has been an absolute hero and massive support for the hours I’ve had to put in.

The importance of story

Talking to Dan even for a short time soon reveals how kind-hearted a person he is, which makes the incredibly dark themes of his earlier films, the aforementioned Dr Lune and Death and the Comedian (2009) all the more surprising. Whatever the overall mood, there are two common themes you’ll find throughout Dan’s personal work: poetic speech, and perhaps most importantly, an emphasis on storytelling. Always story led, he invariably begins by finding the narrative within a given project, even managing to incorporate story into some of his most technical corporate animations. A storyteller first and an animator second, Dan’s love of storytelling goes all the way back to his childhood.

Once upon a time

Son of veteran author Graham Masterton, Dan grew up around storytelling, making short movies with his brothers while living and breathing comicbooks; not only reading them, but writing and drawing them too. Throughout his childhood Dan dreamed of becoming a comic artist, and back in school would use Microsoft Paint to draw up Judge Dredd cartoons, all the while thinking they were pretty darn amazing – as I’m sure most of us did as kids. Bet we thought of ourselves as a young Pat Hines before we even knew what a Pat Hines was (some kinda tinned beans?).

When considered in the context of his father’s primary focus on dark themes within his many highly detailed novels within the crime, horror & thriller genres (among others), it becomes clearer how Dan came to begin his journey into animation utilizing themes of darkness and despair. Now just what led Dan from illustration to 3D animation in the first place begins with a well-known but not well-loved film set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…

Ewebibtikus Klaw episode two’s storyboard
A sneak peek at Ewebibtikus Klaw episode two’s storyboard

Part II: Enter the Third Dimension

Fuelling the CG fire

A not so long time ago in the Milky Way galaxy, Dan knew someone who had just finished working on the environments for Star Wars: Ep I – The Phantom Menace (1999), who gave him a copy of Daz3D’s landscape creation software, Bryce. Blown away by Bryce, and with a magazine’s free copy of the human-centric modelling software Poser in hand, he was hooked and ready to set off on the winding road toward becoming a professional animator.

At the time, an American friend of Dan’s who’d just finished working on Titanic (1998) warned him that CG is pretty expensive and has a long learning curve (they weren’t kidding!), so advised him to pick a program and learn it as best he could. With this in mind, he chose a fledgling piece of software known as Alias | Wavefront Maya (1998), prior to the company’s $182M acquisition by Autodesk back in 2005. Full of ambition, Dan had no intention of starting simple.

The Musings of Mr. Masterton

There was never a moment when I thought, “today I’m going to make a movie”. It’s just always been there.

Things really began to kick off in 2001 with the production of The Learnings of Dr. Lune. Creating this required a lot of experimentation and, of course, trial and error. In fact, you can find out a whole lot more about Dr Lune’s development pipeline over at Dan’s blog. As to why Dan decided to jump in at the deep end so soon, he gives one simple reason: what better way to learn to make animated movies, than to make one!

Sadly the intense soul searching necessary to write and produce his first two animations left him feeling run down, so he decided to do something at the complete other end of the spectrum rather than venture into the darkness for a third time, as he’d originally planned. And it was with this new mindset that the infinitely charismatic Ewebibtikus Klaw was born.

Part III: Ewebibtikus Klaw’s Adventures Galore

The adventure begins

Made to be accessible to children of all ages, and in such a way that a parent watching it with their kids won’t get bored, at its heart Adventures Galore is about a man who is always happy. A man with a genuine growth mindset, who woke up one day and decided to go on a journey to see what’s to see. Ewebibtikus doesn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, he ignores the tunnel. To balance out this overwhelming positivity, Dan decided to incorporate a sidekick character by the name of Nothing Man. Make no mistake, Nothing Man is not the world’s most useless superhero, but instead an endless worrywort with an appearance akin to that of a cuteish grey alien chibi.

Coming soon to an internet near you

After episode one’s release back in late 2012, Dan had initially planned to make an episode per year, but it soon became clear that this would be pretty much impossible to achieve with children and a full time job. But have no fear, for ‘only’ five years later episode two is finally complete, and has since been submitted for hopeful acceptance into a variety of this year’s festivals, with which we wish him the very best of luck! While we can’t show you the full animation just yet, we can drop you a hint. This time a learning angle has been introduced, which is set up in such a way that it’s not blatantly Sesame Street-style learning, but instead enough to spark the child’s imagination.

The Rrrrrrrr! Pirates
I set the bar too high to force myself to improve, technically and artistically. I wanted the story to be better, the character design and storyboards to be better, the animation to be better, the rendering to be better, I’ve thrown everything at this episode and loved every minute of learning.

Hopes for the future

With multiple episodes already written it’s long been planned to make Adventures Galore a proper series. In order to more easily achieve this goal, Dan hopes to secure some investment after episode two’s release; where his years of corporate experience will no doubt come in handy. While he does love his job, he dreams of making episodes of Adventures Galore for a living, and it is this very goal that is a big part of what keeps him going. Dan put it best when he said Ewebibtikus has some amazing adventures to go on, and I want to tell them all. This, and his promise that episode two is miles ahead of its predecessor, makes the short’s eventual public release all the more anticipated. After all I think many of us can relate to Nothing Man in one way or another, not to mention Ewebibtikus Klaw’s charisma is positively infectious.

Graham Vick lends his vocal talents to Ewebibtikus and Nothing Man

Dan Masterton VS life

It will be of no surprise to any fellow sit-down creative types that, even with the love and support of Caroline, the late nights and endless sitting can be physically and mentally straining for Dan. Not only this, but when a problem is encountered late at night, he often has no choice but to get to sleep and let it linger until the following evening. Having to wait so long to fix what could be a simple problem only exacerbates the issue, leading to him having to go back to stage one time and time again. What could normally be sorted in a day or two will often take two weeks, with only a few spare hours here and there to dedicate to it. Unsurprisingly, he finds this experience painfully slow and frustrating. As he puts it, to knowingly put yourself through that kind of torment, you have to be dedicated. Or mad. Gosh, and there was me thinking uni was difficult…


No pain, no gain

Pretty much everything about Ewebibtikus Klaw’s second outing has been a challenge for Dan, in one shape or form. Physically he’s suffered through back aches from sitting too long, as well as wrist strain from not supporting his wrist properly on the Wacom. Mentally he’s dealt with painfully slow progress, long late nights, and the very relatable experience of trying his best to stay creative when it felt like the mountain just kept growing.

On the technical side of things, he’s had to deal with the all too familiar software crashes, as well as switching from Mental Ray to V-Ray ($80/£60 month), so having to learn the renderer from scratch. Meanwhile he also switched from using an Asus laptop to Wacom’s Cintiq Companion 2, which is unfortunately pretty noisy during rendering, but more than made up for by the freedom it provides. This time he used Allegorithmic’s extremely impressive-looking Substance Designer (indie license = $20/£15 month) for the textures.

Unfortunately SD’s setup time was long and painful due to the having to plug in texture after texture, although he does feel the results are truly worth it. He’s also created a heck of a lot more characters, all with incredibly difficult rigs, as well as a whole bunch of sets, and the dreaded cloth and hair simulations. Even through all this, there was one thought on his mind, he just couldn’t wait to see it complete.

Part IV: Rendering with GarageFarm.NET

Head in the cloud

Those hair simulations are the main reason Dan decided to switch to rendering with GarageFarm.NET in the first place. He’d spent literally months trying to find a solution for rendering XGen hair, however when he finally found one he was unable to recreate it. In flew GarageFarm.NET support to save the day, who then ran the XGen patches for him and voilà, problem solved. He was so chuffed he could’ve kissed the whole team! Dan came for the XGen and he stayed for the service.

I was using another popular renderfarm up until recently. The main problem came about using XGen files. XGen patches don’t seem to like render farms, but fortunately, GarageFarm are absolute heroes, and helped run the patches on their side. Their response, friendly service, cost, ease of use is absolutely incredible. I have completely switched all my render needs to these folks!

The game changer

Rendering with GarageFarm.NET allowed Dan to make the film he wanted, where it would have otherwise been impossible. Juggling family, a fulltime job, making an animated short and having to leave the computer running night after night simply would not be feasible, and you can bet Caroline would not be too happy about the sky high electricity bill. Not only this but the level of effects and CG quality displayed in a well made animation requires real power to render, power requirements that most home computers simply can’t handle well enough.

Rendering without GarageFarm.NET (source: Tumblr)

With HD 1080p quality, XGen and a high V-Ray sample rate, one frame of Ewebibtikus Klaw’s latest adventure would have taken 14 hours to render on his Companion 2. Considering at four and a half minutes long episode two has around 7000 frames, it’s no surprise he decided to use a render farm instead, rather than spend the next 11 years rendering! Bloomin ‘eck, render farms really are the ultimate time-saver. Surprisingly he even wanted to take things to the next level and render in 4K, but decided against it when the test renders took too long. At first rendering a homemade animated short in 4K sounded a bit extreme and unnecessarily costly to me, even with the impressively cheap render farm price GarageFarm.NET provides, however on enlightenment, I can easily see why Dan would want to make that financial sacrifice to Matilda, the cow goddess of cloud rendering.

Tactical techniques

Dan doesn’t create his animations and just throw them at the render farm, but rather plans ahead in order to maximise rendering efficiency; beyond just the near vital use of render layers, of course. Following the mantra of if it’s not nailed down, render it – otherwise ignore it til post, he dedicates a lot of time to ensuring he only renders the things that move. Rather than pointlessly render several frames of any stationary scenery, he’ll render a single frame and composite it during post-production. A very effective solution, I have to admit. And this is not the only bit of wisdom he has up his sleeve:

Advice to aspiring filmmakers

  • Filmmaking on the go
  • There’s no better time than the present to get into filmmaking, as there’s even pretty decent filmmaking-worthy tech built into our smartphones. All it takes is a phone camera and a basic knowledge of editing and you’re on your way! Plus there are various affordable apps available too, not for
  • getting those free ones built directly into your phone, of course. Speaking of affordability, using a render farm means you can buy a much more reasonably priced computer than you otherwise would have, and still have the ability to make a high quality movie—no wonder Dan loves cloud rendering.
(source: James Drake Films)
  • Finding story
  • As any widely panned Hollywood blockbuster with quality CGI will demonstrate—à la The Emoji Movie (*shivers*), Justice League, and even the critically loved yet incredibly divisive Star Wars: The Last Jedi—it’s finding the story that’s hard. After all, any filmmaker worth their salt knows that story can make or break a film. Even so, have no fear for Dan also reassures us there are stories everywhere you look. He’s absolutely right, heck you can even find story in the building blocks of the universe and their properties, as I did with Elements Academy. He often begins by listening to various music sites in search of story, such as Extreme Music, or Musicbed; sticking them on random play and seeing if a song inspires a scenario.
  • Out of order
  • With regards to actually making a CGI film, Dan recommends just going for it. Making an animation in your free time means you don’t need to be too linear either. Tuckered out from too much texturing? Jump to animation. Angry with animating? Model something new, you don’t have to do anything in any order.
(created by Mercedes Leon | source: WordPress)
  • Don’t give up
  • For those seemingly inevitable moments of feeling down and out, ready to throw in the towel at a moment’s notice, Dan wisely advises that you should at least do something; don’t just stop. No matter how small. This could be as simple as texturing a simple background object that only takes a few minutes, such as a simple pot. After all, you’re going to have to do it at some point anyway, so may as well get the easy stuff out of the way first until you’re ready to return to the big stuff.
(created by Radiocat | source: Amazon)

Getting in contact

You can find Dan in various places across the web, although because he’s mind bogglingly busy he’s personally not very active on social media so recommends dropping him an email through instead, or via The Mighty Pie’s contact page.

Dan Masterton and Simon Cryer
Dan and Simon Cryer, owner of Damn Good Voices

If you’d like to find out more about Dan’s corporate experience, specific skills and multiple endorsements, you can of course find him on LinkedIn. And on that we leave you with a final bit of advice from the man himself…

Try. Fail. Try again. Fail again. The point is to keep moving forward! Have fun making movies, cartoons, songs. Just keep trying, and keep moving forward!

_ _ _ _

Adapted and enhanced from GarageFarm.NET’s interview with The Mighty Pie’s Dan Masterton
Danny Rollings @drollingscaa

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