Tele-Monkey: interview with creator Martin Bonniċi

March will see Tele-Monkey, a locally produced short movie in Stereoscopic 3D animation, hit our cinema screens. As the trailer is making waves across social media networks, I met up with film-maker Martin Bonniċi, the brains behind the whole project.

Meet Joe. His obsession is to understand the meaning behind the advertising and TV-shopping that dominates the world he lives in. His every waking moment is consumed by sales and advertising; understanding the truth is his holy grail. Did I mention that Joe is a monkey and that he is the star of film-maker Martin Bonniċi’s animation offering in 3D.

Animated short movies in 3D remain a relatively new territory in the local industry. When Martin first came up with the concept, the whole concept of 3D had just made it to Malta. It was the perfect time to turn the idea into reality, an idea that after months of work will soon see fruition at one of our cinema theatres.

Film-maker Martin Bonniċi, the brains behind Tele-Monkey

“Tele-Monkey was the first animate short movie to be given a grant by the Malta Film Fund. In fact I believe that locally we are the first to create a 3D animated offering on this scale. I only took the decision to kick off work after I managed to get together a team of the best people in the industry. We are all freelancers who have a passion for our particular niche. Ivan Saliba, for instance, who is the project’s lead 3D artist, has eleven years’ experience in the field. However, the project broke the boundaries of each of our respective fields,” Martin explained.

The whole process kicked off as soon as Martin finalised the plot and the Malta Film Fund application was approved. Ensuring a tight and believable plot was a bigger challenge than lay person would imagine: the shorter the movie, the tougher it is creating the story. In fact working on a short movie is considered the ultimate test for any film-maker.

“If you can pull off something believable in less than ten minutes then chances are that you can do a feature film. I wrote the script for Tele Monkey some two years ago. Since then I have done a lot more work and looking back, there are some things I’d change. But this is always the case. The more you learn, the more you hate your previous work.”

Spooky Monkey, the composers

Despite this last comment, Tele-Monkey is receiving an enthusiastic reception across international film fora. The general reaction, Martin tells me, is on the lines of “we didn’t think Malta could come up with something like that”. Rather insulting, I point out. But Martin is well-known for speaking his mind bluntly; he nods and tells me that the remark is justified.

“We are a bit of a joke with the international film community, you know. We suffer from the unprofessional approach syndrome. There is still the feeling that low standards are good enough for Malta. A number of locally produced movies make it to our cinemas just because they’re ‘made in Malta’. This needs to stop if we are to be taken seriously. We’re doing ourselves a disservice.”

Harsh words, perhaps. But it is evident that they are sincere and coming from someone who is truly passionate about the industry. The other perennial obstacle that keeps the industry from developing is – no surprise there – lack of budget.

“This is true even when we’re doing commercial work. You get people asking for the world, presenting some complicated script that needs an incredible amount of man hours for it to work. And then they will come up with a ridiculous budget. Professional work of a high standard requires a professional budget.”

To put things into perspective, a production like Tele-Monkey required over 10K in investment that ranged from equipment to licensing of software, and many multiples of that worth in human resources and so forth. Martin is adamant that they do things “the way they should be done”.

Matthew Grima Connell, production designer

“When I say that we need a professional approach, I mean it across the board. For instance, we don’t believe in cheating or cutting corners – such as paying software license for one user only when the whole team is using it. We believe in contracts and we believe in honouring contracts. That’s the only way to do things if you want to be taken seriously within the international playing field. To give one example, there have been cases when certain productions skimped on the release forms and this cost them the buyers at an international festival. Even if you don’t have the necessary permit for just one location, your chances are shot. No professional buyers will risk touching your production because one missing permit means that someone will be able to hold them to ransom in the future, yet a lot of local productions have no such permits.”

Martin concedes that the red tape and bureaucracy involved in getting a project like this off the ground are a real pain. However, he adds that government schemes like the Malta Film Fund, the Arts Fund and Kreattiv are doing a world of good to the creative sector.

“The authorities have geared up to help creatives and not just with funds but also with something that’s equally important: guidance regarding certain procedures. Finally we are nearing the end of the whole process: we have finalised the edits and are now putting the last touches. The world we created will have quite a Maltese feel to it with Maltese style architecture juxtaposed against a more cosmopolitan setting that is a cross between Times Square and the Chinese never-ending housing estates. The buses sport the old Gozo colours, in grey and red. Even the typically Maltese balustrades make an appearance and we also use textures that have been lifted from old buildings in Valletta, with the spotted tiles and even a Griglioso hidden in the background.”

All this, of course, had to be recreated from scratch. The whole process when you’re animating 3D is extremely laborious. First you create the models, then you  light them up, refine them, fix camera angles, choose lenses, lights, colours and shadowing…it’s all very painstaking.”

Seeing the puzzled look on my face Martin explains further: when an image is fully rendered, he tells me, it means that it’s almost ready. All the necessary calculations have been done, after which the layers have been manually brought together. A low quality copy has been released for the sound designers to work on – one needs to bear in mind that every single sound needs to be recreated from scratch, unlike with a “normal” movie. It all sounds very time-consuming to me and Martin assures me that it is, which is why the end result will not work unless the team is serious and professional about the whole thing.

Ivan Saliba, Lead 3D Artist

Even with the best team working on it, the process can never be totally free of setbacks. Some issues crop up at the rendering stage, when you think that you’re nearing the end. This usually means that you have to start from scratch. Once example Martin mentions is when the monkey’s hair “refused to stick”. Meaning?

“The first scene we animated, we had to do it about five or six times. You’re building it all, from the colour of the hair to the movement to the personality quirks. And when you’re building it all from nothing, bugs will happen. It’s the nature of things. You go back to the drawing board and try to find out what went wrong. The problem is that this creates havoc on your timings, of course. But it all becomes worth it when you finally see the whole thing work. I can’t wait for February so I can see it the way it should be seen, as a whole, as opposed to bits and pieces of animation.”

So what sort of timings does the whole thing translate to?

“Well, the script took me about one month to re-write, after the skeleton was done. Once I was happy with the final result, I needed to get the team together. This is not as easy as it sounds. I wanted just the right people, otherwise the project would not have turned out the way I envisioned. Luckily I talked them into it. About seven people worked on the movie: besides myself and Ivan, there’s production designer Matthew Grima Connell, lead animator Benji Borg, sound designer Aleksander Bundalo, storyboard artist Nel Pace and our 3D trainee Roderick Galea. Spooky Monkey took care of the music and we also had the support of companies like Beagle Works, Studio 7, Empire Cinemas and ITV Shopping.”

The movie will be released at the Empire Cinemas in Bugibba next month and will be shown as a pre-movie teaser for about a month. After it’s removed from the cinema, Martin plans to submit it to a number of festivals and fairs.

“It’s not about making money, but about making a statement that yes, we can do it. We’d also like to pave the way for students; unfortunately, the educational facilities in Malta aren’t yet what they should be. We do not have specialised courses and specialisation is a must in this industry. In Malta there is the attitude that a person will do everything himself but this is a major no-no on an international level. You just can’t be taken seriously if you don’t have your own area of specialisation. You can’t be a jack of all trades…”

To be fair, Martin adds, this is a relatively new sector that we are talking about. He believes that the education system is in dire need of visiting part-time professors.

“Students need to be taught by someone who is ‘out there’ and who knows the workings of the industry. If the teachers themselves have never been part of this industry and have no clue how it works, how can they help the new generation become part of it?”

For more information about the movie or to donate, click here. This interview was published on The TV Guide (Times of Malta).