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Experienced Cinematographer returns to Passion Project thanks to Realtime tools

Matt Hickinbottom – Owner of Musical Music Pictures

Matt Hickinbottom

Matt started in film and television at the age of 12 as a child actor on children’s television. Being a musician, he soon landed a freelance job writing regular music and jingles for children’s television and Disney across Europe. Wanting to develop his skills further, he learned how to shoot and edit and has become a sought-after producer, director & director of photography. Up until recently, he shot regular promos for SONY pictures with some of his work winning Promax awards.

In his film work he has worked all over the world from Canada and the US, across Europe and as far east as Kazakhstan. He has also created numerous cinema adverts for companies such as Merlin Entertainments, across their LEGO Discovery Centres, Sea Life Centres and Warwick Castle attractions.

‘Emily, the little match girl’ started over 25 years ago when Matt started to write a stage musical based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, ‘The little match girl’. This current production is aiming for a Christmas 2021 release and stars the voices of Bafta, Laurence Olivier and Annie Award winner ‘David Bradley’ (best known for playing Argus Filtch in all the Harry Potter films & Walder Frey in Game of thrones) as well as Olivier Award nominated ‘Lesley Joseph’ and many more.

Matt started working with Reallusion’s iClone in 2020, as the pandemic made it one of his main tools for creating animated content, where he employed everything from iClone animations to Character Creator, and Perception Neuron motion capture.

“Reallusion’s tools have been the key to unlocking my imagination, allowing me to show everyone else what’s been inside my head for so long. With the lockdowns, it’s also been the one set of tools that’s allowed me to keep working and creating without limitations.”

Matt Hickinbottom – Owner of Musical Music Pictures

Q: Greetings Matt, and welcome to our feature stories! Kindly introduce yourself, your background and your experience working with Disney, Sony Pictures, AXN, and others.

Hi, I’m Matt Hickinbottom. I’m 43, married to an awesome lady called Gill and have two amazing boys, Elliot & Jacob and live in the West Midlands in the UK. I’m currently working full time as the ‘Head of studio’ for a business which offers marketing support and training for entrepreneurs.

My journey to this point started over 30 years ago – At the age of 13 I was very fortunate to be offered a place in the ‘Central Television Junior Workshop’ in Birmingham, ran by the ITV network.  This was mainly a select pool of young actors that were trained for film and TV work. At this age, I was also learning to play the guitar and had an interest in composing. 

One day, whilst sitting in the TV studio canteen, waiting for the session to start; I was working on some of my school music work when I was joined, by sheer chance, by the ‘Head of Creative’ for the children’s network, a guy called Tony Jopia. Over a conversation, Tony asked me if I’d be interested in having a go at composing some music for a short film they were making… of course, I jumped at the chance! Before I knew it, I was regularly composing jingles for the channel and also appearing as a performer as part of the adverts. Due to this, I managed to prove my broadcast experience and started to earn royalties from my music and my membership into the MCPS/PRS as a composer.

Matt and Tony

The channel won many awards for the adverts we produced and the Tony was soon head-hunted as the ‘Head of Creative’ for the Disney Channel in the UK and Italy. Working as we did so well together, I joined on a freelance basis to create original content for the promos as well as assisted on shoots in Oxfordshire and London.

By this point I was definitely hooked and knew this was what I wanted to do full time. I became freelance in 2003 and soon became an established producer/director and director of photography too. Whatever job needed doing on projects, I’d just say yes and learn how to do it as they went along. In recent years, I’ve helped shoot some of the most awarded promos for ITV, Disney and SONY Pictures throughout the UK with many of them being nominated and winning PROMAX awards. 

For many years after this I was lucky enough to travel the world and shoot many projects and feature films from Canada and the US. All across Europe and as far east as Kazakhstan. These ranged from horror films to undercover documentary making.

In a weird twist of fate, after doing this for many years, I had several corporate clients in a line who failed to pay. This caused a big panic, especially as my kids were little and I had a mortgage to pay. I decided to take a steady job for a while, designing, building and managing a TV studio for a corporate company. Not what I wanted to do full time but I had the skills and a regular income which solved an issue. Once it was set up and running, I had the opportunity to move to where I am now. 

The company I currently work for is a completely ‘alien world’ as to what I’d been used to, but is totally relevant to anyone who wants to build a business. I’ve learned more in the last two years about how to become successful than I have over that last 30. If only I’d have found these guys years ago!

Q: Could you share with how the idea started for your musical project – Emily The Little Match Girl?

In the summer of 1994, I was just leaving high school and heading into college. I had a strong interest in musical theatre and had appeared in many shows up and down the country due to my acting experience from the TV world. One day at college, a book fell from a shelf as I passed in the library, and as I picked it up, noticed an image on the cover which grabbed my attention… A young girl striking a match. The book was Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Little Match Girl’. For what ever reason, I didn’t just pop it back, I took it and read it. Being someone who loves the Christmas period, I fell in love with the alternative festive story and it simply stuck with me.

We always had a piano at home as a kid, so I began messing around with the idea of writing some songs based on the book and before you know it, I had an entire musical of songs and lyrics. Family and friends used to love listening to me play and sing them and on a few occasions, I managed to get some of the songs in front of a few producers who again, loved them, but nothing really happened. Over the years I’ve developed the script far beyond the simple Hans Christian Andersen story and continuously revised areas, creating new characters, changing the songs and structure here and there. 

The reality though, is that this project has sat undiscovered for years on a computer as a bunch of backing tapes and a script. It’s been a ‘I’ll get round to it one day’ thing… and when Covid arrived, that day came. My parents who are in their seventies ask every year at Christmas, ‘Are you ever going to make this film, or just play us the songs every year?’ On the street where my parents live, my oldest childhood friend ‘Steve’ lost his mum due to Covid. We’ve always been very close and he knows the script as well as I do. When he lost his mum, I couldn’t help but think that the, ‘I’ll get round to it one day’ mentality achieves nothing; so I threw myself into making the project. One way or another, It was getting made.

Q: What made you decide to use Reallusion tools, and what do you feel are the advantages of using real-time software.

On June 3rd 2013 I discovered Reallusion’ iClone and became a member. Being a visual creator, the thought of being able to make my own films and create worlds was mind blowing at the time… something reserved only for TV companies or large studios. The reality though, was it had some massive limitations with what I wanted to do with it. There were limited animations, no facial animation, you couldn’t easily change or design characters…That said, the user interface made it fun to play with and create pre visual stuff with for other projects. I was never one for drawing shot lists or story boards, so this bridged a weird gap that I loved playing with. On several occasions, I began testing ways of creating parts of the film idea with iClone, but the reality was, it just didn’t do (back then) what I needed it to do. 

For some reason though, I kept coming back to iClone… Version 5, version 6, now 7… Every update seem to add something new that had been missing and I loved playing and messing around with it. Eventually, when motion capture became an option with the perception neuron suit, I had to have it! Again it was another step closer but I needed to design my characters, have them be able to talk and interact. When character creator finally landed, another gap had been bridged and again, with every update, it just got better and better. I was away!

All of a sudden, the ideas that had been in my head for years, I could easily create them, show others how the project would look and feel. Add some of the music to those images and it really did start to build a thought process as to how I could make this film. 

So Christmas 2020 came around, we were all locked in our own homes not being able to see family. Just before Christmas dinner, we had a zoom call with my parents. The usual, ‘Can you hear us’ and ‘the cameras not working’ ensued but finally there we were. At that very moment, I heard my own words… ‘I’ll get round to it one day’ in my head as my mum asked if we’d listened to the songs from my musical yet this year. If this was the new way of life, I had to make this film as time was simply running out.

With live action costing millions to make a period piece (and production was simply halted), live action just wasn’t an option, so I turned to iClone again. The limitations it had back in 2003 were well and truly behind it so I committed there and then… I was making this film, what ever it takes and I’m using iClone!

To make sure I’d 100% committed, between Christmas and new year, I built the Facebook page, website, announced to the world I was making it and decided to contact some celebrities to make sure I was serious! If it was costing me money, It had to be made. Amazingly, using my past experience, I managed to get the script in front of David Bradley and Lesley Joseph and both agreed to commit with a genuine excitement as to being involved… There was suddenly ‘no turning back’ and iClone was the thing that was going to make it happen.

The fact that iClone was realtime helped secure the deal for me. I could apply animations and test timings and instantly be able to see if it was going to work. I didn’t have to create a whole sequence, spend days rendering it off to find it was nothing like what I wanted… So the advantage of being able to see the changes quickly and how they effected the overall piece, gives you so much more confidence and the ability to stay focused on the end result, rather than giving up after hours of rendering because it isn’t what you imagined.

Q: Please share with us your typical Character Creator process, along with how much time you saved versus using traditional modeling tools.

I struggled for years with the characters within iClone. They were clunky and no real ability to edit or change them much. I used to spend hours trawling the marketplace looking for things that would work or that I could edit or adjust. I used to export the ‘upper’ and ‘lower’ material into photo editing software to add colours or designs that didn’t match up when I put them back in. It was fun, but long winded and hard to use. Now Character Creator 3 (CC3) is here, there’s a whole new world of things that I can achieve, fully rigged, tested and ready to go in minutes!

For Emily the little match girl, I came across the toon characters pack and I was hooked. The look and feel was amazing compared to other tests I’d made and the fact that I could easily change them with sliders I already had, and clothing packs, made creating characters a breeze. It wasn’t just a matter of time saving, but being able to achieve exactly what I wanted with very little effort.

“Character Creator gives me the ability to create original, fully-rigged characters that are ready to go in minutes; a must have for anyone in the 3D, game or film industry! No one likes limits and with Character Creator, I’m yet to find any!”

Matt Hickinbottom – Owner of Musical Music Pictures

Q: Your animations were done with iClone 7, and even some Perception Neuron motion capture. What was the process like, and what suggestions can you give to other filmmakers who have considered creating their own animations.

I’ve spent years now trying to get the best, fastest workflow that works for me… and the way that works for me has been as follows: Once my character has been created, I’ll drop them across to iClone and add lots of standard animations in. I’ll then watch them from every angle to make sure none of the materials poke through so that I can drop them back across to CC3 and fix any issues. Once they’re tested, I save them within iClone and we’re ready to go.

The first thing I do next is add them to the scene. I’ll previously isolate each characters audio and apply this through Acculips before adding any other animation. The reason I do this, it’s easier to concentrate on editing lip movements when the character is set in one position. This allows me to fix any issues quickly and get a smooth look to the lip movements.

“Very few programs have offered me the creative freedom that iClone offers; or if others do, they can’t deliver anywhere near as well as iClone. Since I started using it I feel that we’ve grown together… iClone in it’s capabilities and my ability to make use of them.”

Matt Hickinbottom – Owner of Musical Music Pictures

At this point, I’ll pop my Perception Neuron suit on, calibrate it and test moving around the scene in real-time. This allows me to position things within the scene I need my character to interact with and allows me to have set positions in the real world to hit markers. The motion capture is then pretty quick to get into the machine, but I will then spend several hours fine tuning it. The last thing I’ll add then is any extra facial movements.

Using the iClone LIVE FACE plugin for iPhone, again I can add extra movement pretty quickly by masking off the mouth, (which is already sorted through Acculips).

I’ll then light and animate my cameras and export the scene, sometime individual shots, or entire switched scenes. It just depends on the final scene, if I need to cross fade between shots (which you can’t currently do in iClone).

Q: When is your ‘Emily The Little Match Girl’ musical set to release and where can audiences expect to see it?

There is still a huge amount of work to do before release and with cinemas only just re-opening in the UK, they have a bit of a back log of big films to get through. The film will also need to be BBFC certified before release here in the UK. We’ve had cinema and DVD distribution before so with the current situation, I’ve decided to be completely independent on this project, at least at this stage anyway. With it being a Christmas film, I have the advantage that I can sell it every year so I’m not limited to a ‘one hit release’.

With that in mind, the website has been designed to house a livestream cinema page where site members will be able to rent or purchase the film and add that to their account. As we grow, we’ll introduce more films and then hopefully have the option for traditional release further down the line.

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