Issue: Volume: 24 Issue: 12 (December 2001)

magnificent obsession

In order to create an identity in a world of sameness, the hero of "f8," a beautifully realized animated film, runs into a building and steals a face. Creating a visible identity in a world of sameness is something Jason Wen, the director of this film, will not have to worry about. His 13-minute animation has already garnered several awards: the Jury Honors Award at Siggraph 2001, Best Direction in Animation at the Hollywood Shorts Film Festival, and a Prix Ars Electronica Honorary Mention. And every inch of the film is his.

Starting with a script developed with his brother and concept art from fellow student Andy Jones, Wen created the entire film, adding an original score written by Casey Hess this summer. It took some four years-the last two and a half of them, full-time. He created it entirely on PCs with NewTek's LightWave, pmG's project:messiah, and Adobe Systems' PhotoShop and After Effects.

The idea for the film came to Wen in late 1997, while a junior at Ringling School of Art and Design in Sarasota, Florida. "Initially, I wanted to create a good two-minute piece I could use to pad my demo reel," he says. But then he presented the idea to his brother, a writer, who expanded the story into a 15-page script. "The basic idea is that there's this world where identity is not allowed," says Wen. "They try to breed it out. But one character breaks into an area to gain an identity and makes a run for it. It's not all that complicated as a story." But it had become far more than a two-minute animation.

"I knew I could not finish this thing for a number of years," Wen said. When he told his parents what he wanted to do, they agreed to let him live at home after he graduated. "I don't think they believed it would take so long to do one animation," he says. "Eventually they realized and they stopped asking me how well it was going. But it took them two years."

He began, working outside of class, by drawing storyboards and designing and building models. "In 1998, I did a couple hundred 3-by-5 hand-drawn cards, scanned them all into the computer and made an animatic," Wen says. "But my ideas changed so much, I threw that out and haven't looked at it since." Then, he created a full 13-minute previz CG animatic using LightWave. "But the idea changed from that, too, so I threw it out."

Originally, he'd planned to have the main character break into the face vault with guns blazing, escape with guns blazing, and eventually get shot to death. "I started getting tired of the glorification of weaponry," he says. "I think that it's really easy to use weaponry, to use guns as a means to show action. I decided I'd approach it from a different angle. You see those big robotic commando dudes pursuing the main character with guns in their hands. But you never see them shoot him."

This change in attitude changed the script-and also his approach to the film. "My intention was to give an impression of what was going on," he says. I didn't want something that was clear-cut. I wanted it to be something that someone would sit and stare at."

With this in mind, he stopped making animatics and began taking a more cinematic approach. First, he'd build the set for a sequence. Then, he'd begin working out shots by using the camera in LightWave. "I'd just play with the camera, move around the set, and find shots that I would never have been able to think of in my mind." With camera angles decided, he'd quickly sketch little drawings that he'd use later for animation.

Most of this work began after he graduated in 1999. "Between 1997 and 1999, I think I was only able to build about four models," he says. After graduation, armed with LightWave 5.6 and After Effects software that he'd bought using student discounts, Wen moved home and began working full-time on the film, taking a short break in November to earn money for equipment. He spent one year modeling sets, props, and characters, another year animating, rendering, and compositing, and then another four months adding sound.

The sets range from 500,000 to 3 million polygons. "I think the poly counts get so high because there's a lot of repetition, like railings, windows, gratings on the floor," he says. Similarly, the characters, which were built with metanurbs, contain complex geometric detail, with the main characters topping the 300,000- to 400,000-polygon range. "I even modeled the rivets on the characters," he says. This was necessary, in part, because Wen felt that it would have been difficult to keep textures from stretching in LightWave 5.6.

To create textures, he printed screen snapshots of models and painted over them in PhotoShop, or sometimes, he unwrapped the models for painting. The textures, which he describes as a mix between photographic and illustrative, were applied with planar, cubic, and cylindrical mapping.

For animation, Wen decided to use project:messiah, a LightWave plug-in. "I wanted it because the IK was better than in LightWave 5.6 and the speed was really great," he says. "When I got the package it ended up being more than I thought it would be. I didn't know it would have all these expressions." Working on a 550mhz Pentium III-based computer with low-poly characters, he began animating, and then lighting with shadowmaps, rendering and compositing. He devoted a second PIII to texturing and two 800mhz AMD-based units to rendering.

"I tried to keep ahead of the machines as they were rendering," he says. "I'd be animating sequences and feeding them to the machines, which were running 24/7. It took a whole year to do the rendering." The rendering was done in layers-from 12 to 40 per scene-which Wen composited in After Effects. "A lot of the look was obtained in After Effects, where I added glows and other effects," he says. "I may have overdone the glows, but overall I was pretty satisfied with it."

When Wen was in the eleventh grade, he decided he wanted to become a computer animator. In making this film, he extended that ambition to new areas: "I'm interested in how to stage things, figure out camera angles and lenses, in the best way to show a story," he says. By making the commitment to create this film, Wen became not only an animator, but a director as well.

Barbara Robertson is Senior Editor, West Coast for Computer Graphics World.