Studio Ghibli meets Finnish folklore in this year's best student animation

The making of Fox Fires, a British short film that's lit up Youtube.

The Aurora borealis, at this time of year, at this time of day, in this part of the country, localised entirely within a six minute graduate project?

That the Northern Lights play an important part of affecting student animation Fox Fires is true, along with influences ranging from Miyazaki to obscure Finnish legends. The short film instantly impresses with obvious care and talent involved in its making, along with a wide-eyed, emotional resonance that brings to mind the best of Student Ghibili.


Made by a group of University of Dundee students, Fox Fires is over a million Youtube views at time of writing, having hit viral fame within a week of its release back in August. Its staying power and technical prowess make it the perfect candidate for our best student animation of 2019, and we recently reached out to the film's director of animation Keilidh Bradley, a 24 year old Animation graduate of Dundee's Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design (DJACD).

"At DJCAD, we each develop an idea for a graduation film and pitch it to the class," Keilidh tells us by email. "The students then note down which films they'd like to work on, and the most popular ones are chosen to become the main projects that year. Everyone has to work on one of the main films and their own personal side project(s).

"I was very lucky to have so many people want to work on Fox Fires; we had the biggest dedicated team and some students from other main films made it one of their side projects."

Keilidh also wrote the short, inspired by Finnish folklore surrounding the origins of the Northern Lights, working with a whole host of young animators (namechecked below) to bring the piece to life.

"I have so many people to thank," the director explains. "With a core team of eight 4th years and even more assistants, they each brought endless talent and enthusiasm to the project. Lin Sharkie, our production manager who now works at Axis Studios, in particular worked tirelessly to ensure that the production targets were all met with room to breathe."

The team created the animation with Cintiq Pen Displays and regular graphics tablets, making hand-drawn animation in TVPaint, and modelling 3D Characters in ZBrush/Maya before animating in Maya.

Compositing was then done in Adobe AfterEffects with the final cut of the film edited in Adobe Premiere. 

"One of the biggest challenges was making sure the limits that we set for ourselves were our own," Keilidh tells me. "From the start, some people told us that the film was too ambitious and would never be finished. We just kept our heads down, worked diligently and got it done, but not without me fretting over whether or not those who doubted us were right to.

"Things did get a bit tight towards the end and I struggled to keep up with compositing on top of all my other roles. It was also a challenge to integrate the 2D and 3D animation at points, but one that the 3D specialists rose to."

Besides working on the animation, Keilidh somehow managed to get done a dissertation, writing on the filmography of - who else? - Hayao Miyazaki.

"I have a lot of respect for Hayao Miyazaki as a director, I admire the themes he chooses to explore in his work. Earlier in my studies meanwhile, I was greatly inspired by the skill, discipline and drive of Dana Terrace (creator of the upcoming Disney TVA series, Owl House).

""DJCAD definitely gave us the creative freedom to make Fox Fires look and feel the way I'd dreamed of," she adds. "I also wanted to capture that sense of wonder you get when you're young and play a video game for the first time.

"The mood board for Fox Fires included video game stills, illustrations, jewellery, wood carvings and even a board game. I find this helps me to avoid being repetitive, though Fox Fires did end up being a bit of a love letter to the classical Disney style."

While Keilidh is now a working animator free of university life, the Fox Fires project is far from over, with an equally ambitious book on the project due to follow soon.

"The Making of Fox Fires is a 100+ page, full-colour book that highlights important parts of the film's production," she reveals. "This includes research trips, concept art, designing the characters, settling on a style for the film and 3D modelling just to name a few aspects.

"The book is ready for print, I'm just trying to pin down the perfect supplier!"

'Fox Fires' was directed and written by Keilidh Bradley and produced by Lin Sharkie. Those involved in the film include Michael Birk, Dionne Burgess, Lauren Kirkwood, Lia Onesti, Melissa Stoakes, Tessa Bentley, Sophia Austin, Deborah Barker, Gonzalo Fraguas Bringas, Eamonn Grady, Molly-May Lockhart, Liz Massarou, Aaron Green, Fraser Robertson, Zoe Stewart, Philip Cooper, Dirk Kluesing and the composer Denny Schneidemesser.

Read next: Creative Graduates Guide 2019

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