The Dead Flag Blues
‘The Dead Flag Blues’ is a passion project put together single-handedly by Brett McManus. Emerging as the combined result of inspiration, frustration, and self-education, this dark and poetic 3D animation is testimony to the unstoppable impulse of creativity.
Maintaining a balanced lifestyle is important for Brett, a Cape Town-based motion designer, editor and director. Part of this involves surfing as often as possible, but he also consistently makes time in-between the commercial ‘bread and butter’ work he does to knuckle down on personal creative projects; some time away from the warm, clammy sensation of a client breathing down his neck.
“The bigger the shoot the more people are involved, and the less creative control you have. If it’s just me working on something, maybe with a creative director and a couple of other people I know and trust, you can really fine tune your vision,” he says.
‘The Dead Flag Blues’ certainly took a lot of fine-tuning, evident in the extreme attention to detail. It took Brett nearly six months to complete, stealing hours and days between commercial gigs that he reckons would add up to about three months of solid work – with no real prospect of remuneration other than personal satisfaction. It was a journey of experimentation, grappling with new ideas, new software, and new techniques as he combined highly technical 3D rendering with more organic hand-painted textures.
“I had been learning all these new 3D plug-ins for a job, so this brought a lot of those new skills together. I also used this project to experiment with new style frames, creating gritty textures,” he explains. “I’ve never really been a big fan of 3D animation, so there was a lot I had to learn. But I was doing it the whole time, so it stuck with me and became ingrained.” The upside of course is that he now has a whole new arsenal of skills to deploy. “I think I figured out a fresh, interesting way of compositing – something that looks unique. There’s a cold, stark feeling, but it’s counterbalanced with human texture.” This new skill-set will hopefully result in more high-paying commercial work, which at the end of the day equates to more time in the water. Pretty damn smart, if you think about it.
The other learning curve that Brett went through was navigating the curious world of fan art. The dark, poetic voiceover is in fact an excerpt from a much longer track by French-Canadian post-rock collective Godspeed You! Black Emperor. He was familiar with the band thanks to an old roommate who was a big fan, and when he heard this particular recording more recently, his mind was instantly flooded with a visual counterpart.
Fan art is can be a really clever way for independent creatives to get their work noticed, assuming the band/artist/celebrity whose work has inspired you shares it with their legions of fans. I thought Godspeed You! Black Emperor would be thrilled to have a video of this calibre handed to them on a plate, but their response was surprisingly underwhelming.
“Ja, I sent them the finished project and got a weird response along the lines of: ‘Thanks for the film. I liked it. You can use our music, but not for any commercial purposes, even to advertise your animation chops.’ And that was it.”
This terse, three-line reply was a bit of a dampener after so much work. But then again, the adoration of an obscure Canadian cult-rock collective wasn’t the real reason Brett embarked on the project to begin with. It might be tempting to hitch a ride with the flavour of the month, but that kind of approach is flawed from the outset.
“First off you have to do it because you want to do it,” is Brett’s advice. “If it’s just for followers, you’re probably going to change your idea to fit with what somebody else wants. Unless you’re genuinely inspired by the artist, you’re basically just making an ad for them.”
Find more of Brett’s work at brettmcmanus.com