Issue: Volume: 25 Issue: 10 (October 2002)

Heightened Emotions

When Don Phillips sat down to conceptualize and develop his senior thesis project at Ringling School of Art and Design, his goal was to create an animation that was good enough to show at animation festivals.

With "Passing Moments" he achieved that goal, and then some. Not only was his project featured in the 2002 Siggraph Electronic Theater, it also received top honors in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' twenty-ninth annual Student Academy Awards competition held in June. What's more, his animation will be eligible for nomination for an Oscar in next year's Academy Awards.

To what does Phillips credit the success of "Passing Moments"? According to the 22-year-old, who hails from Spartanburg, South Carolina, partial credit goes to his traditional art skills and his level of expertise with the off-the-shelf 2D and 3D tools he learned to use at Ringling School. But most of the credit goes to his ability to use those tools to tell a story.

A 2-minute 3D animation, "Passing Moments" tells the story of Joe, a construction worker, and Kate, a socialite, who meet while riding an elevated train through New York City. Designed in an art deco style and set in the 1930s, the animation begins when the train pulls into the station. Kate enters the car and sits next to Joe, but not before wiping her seat so as not to soil her dress. Joe, who is sweaty and dirty after a long day at work, makes an attempt to talk with Kate but shies away because he fears Kate will shun him. As the train begins to move, it suddenly lurches and Kate ends up in Joe's arms. After the two exchange awkward smiles, Kate takes her seat once again.

At this point, Joe closes his eyes and begins to daydream. He fantasizes that he has brought Kate high above the city on a girder at a building site, so the two of them can watch the sun set. But as they're about to kiss, the train lurches again, jolting Joe out of his daydream just in time to see Kate leaving the train. Joe watches her leave, then turns away—a split second before she finally turns back to look at him. Seeing that he's not looking at her, Kate, with a wistful look on her face, walks away. Joe turns once more, and sees that it's too late. Dejected, he pulls his cap over his eyes, and slumps down in his seat as the train rolls out of the station.

Phillips created "Passing Moments" primarily in Alias|Wavefront's Maya running on an NT-based Hewlett-Packard Visual Workstation. He also used Right Hemisphere's Deep Paint and Adobe Systems' Photoshop for texturing and painting, and Apple's Shake for compositing. Phillips is the first person to admit that the animation doesn't stand out for its use of bleeding-edge software features and functionality. And that, he says, is part of its appeal.

In the fantasy sunset sequence, the dominant colors have changed from the bright blues and yellows of the afternoon to shades of orange and red. The hotter colors help depict the passion the characters feel for one another.

As with all animation projects, Phillips' story for "Passing Moments" was ironed out during the pre-production stage—specifically, during his junior year as part of a second-semester class called "Thesis Pre-production." During that time, he had to finalize the idea for his animation and then complete the storyboards, animatic, and character design to support it. "The assignment was to get across an idea that had a sufficient amount of animation. It could be character-based or abstract, but it had to tell a story," he says. Another criterion was that the animation couldn't run more than 45 seconds. "Passing Moments" is 2 minutes long. "They did set this time limit but I didn't follow it," he chuckles. "I knew what I wanted to do and I just did it."

Although speaking characters were allowed, Phillips chose not to have his characters speak. "I wanted the distinguishing characteristics of my piece to be the subtlety of the animation and the characters," he says. "And I thought that if the characters spoke it would take away from that." Thus, Phillips had to tell the story through the characters' facial expressions and body movements. He says that basing the animation on a similar experience of his own facilitated this process. "By doing this I could put a lot more passion and art into the piece. I knew what the characters were feeling and how they should show those feelings," he says.

Once he had chosen his idea, Phillips went to work on the storyboards, which he hand-sketched on paper. In the storyboards, Kate's and Joe's eyes meet at the end of the animation, and the fantasy sunset sequence is absent.

Although Phillips used this storyboard to produce his animatic—which comprised drawings he scanned into his workstation and animated in Adobe Premiere—during the animatic stage he altered the ending because he felt the audience's emotional reaction would be heightened if the characters missed their chance to connect.

He decided to add the fantasy sunset sequence, meanwhile, to justify developing the piece as an animation rather than as a live-action project. "One of the big questions the faculty asked me as I was working on this was why it should be animated when it could have been done in live action. So I had to figure out what animation qualities I could use to help develop the story so that it would work better as an animation than a live-action piece," he explains. "By adding this fantasy sunset sequence, which has a heavy art deco style, I used computer animation to delve into Joe's mind, tell more about the characters, and push the story along." When complete, the animatic ran about 70 seconds.

With the animatic finished, it was time for the character design stage. During this process, which Phillips completed by hand, he determined that he wanted the characters' backgrounds to contrast sharply. Accomplishing this goal required thinking about their personalities and how they would act toward each other. It also involved researching hair and clothing styles from that period. "I based Kate's look on movie stars and models from clothing catalogs from the 1930s," he explains. "For Joe's look, I used as reference a book about the construction of the Empire State Building. The book had great pictures showing construction workers from that time."

Although class time spent on character design comprised approximately two weeks, Phillips says the characters evolved throughout the summer months and into his senior year, which is when he began the production process. During that time, Phillips also researched elevated trains in New York during the '30s so that the 3D environment in which the animation takes place would be as authentic as possible. He wasn't as specific about the cityscape seen through the train's windows or about the skyline in the fantasy sequence, however. "I felt the buildings in the background were just information to support the foreground, so I wanted to make them as generic as possible," he explains. "That way, your eye isn't distracted by recognizable buildings or by something more exciting out the window."

Phillips built Kate using NURBS, but when he saw the quality his fellow students were achieving with subdivision surfaces, he used the technique to create Joe, and then converted the model to polygons.

Once Phillips finalized the look of the piece, he began modeling. The train and the station are a combination of polygons and NURBS models created in Maya and textured in Right Hemisphere's Deep Paint. The buildings seen in the sunset sequence are Maya NURBS models that he shaded using a flat shader for aesthetic reasons. "I designed these 3D buildings with flat layers in Maya because I wanted them to look like props you'd find on a stage set rather than something that has volume," he explains.

Rather than build 3D models to represent the buildings seen in the background through the train's windows, Phillips painted them in Photoshop. Then, using Apple/Nothing Real's Shake, he composited them into the animation in three layers, with a fourth background layer for the sky. "Using Photoshop and the color design skills I learned in traditional art classes, I gave each layer of buildings a different saturation and focal distance and then stacked the buildings on top of each other to fake the illusion of depth," he explains. "Originally I was going to build them in 3D, but it was 10 times quicker and easier to composite them as 2D images. And I thought it would help tie in some of the style of the fantasy sequence since so much of the train ride is 3D. It needed a 2D element to tie both scenes together."

While the buildings are a combination of polygons and NURBS models, the characters are a combination of NURBS models, and subdivision surfaces converted to polygons. Explains Phillips, "I modeled Kate's face, body, and clothing in NURBS because that's what I'm most comfortable with. But after I finished, I saw the quality my friends got using subdivision surfaces. So I built Joe using subdivision surfaces, and then converted them to polygons so that the model wouldn't be too heavy."

Creating Kate's clothes proved to be somewhat challenging. Although Joe's clothes are rather form-fitting, Kate wears a dress with a swinging skirt. "I planned to use Maya Cloth for her dress but had some problems getting the software to work," Phillips recalls. "I didn't have time to explore the package in-depth, so I created a basic cloth in Maya and bound it to Kate's skeleton."

According to Phillips, he created the characters' hair with NURBS because he wanted a solid, flat-surfaced look that wouldn't detract from the animation. This, he says, lets people pay more attention to the emotions on the faces and to the body language. "They're not being distracted by realistic hair. When you start trying to make something look real, it's distracting unless you get it perfect. People know people, and they're going to notice anything that seems out of place."

The most challenging part of this project occurred next, during character setup. "I had to do a lot of MEL scripting to make sure I correctly weighted different parts of the bodies to the skeletons, and that everything connected properly and moved the way I wanted," Phillips says. "I'm more artistic than technical, so character setup was a big thing to overcome."

Before animating the characters in Maya, Phillips shot video reference of himself and his friends acting out the scenes in the animation. He also kept a mirror at his side so that he could study the subtle movements of his face as he made certain expressions. "I wanted all the emotion to be subtle, and I wanted a lot of the story to be told through facial expressions," he notes. "It was important that the characters not appear to be overacting."

Phillips researched elevated trains used in New York during the 1930s to create an authentic 3D environment for the animation.

While the authenticity of the models and the subtlety of the animation played an important role in telling the story in this animation, the lighting was crucial. Also accomplished in Maya, the lighting in "Passing Moments" is used to reveal two things to viewers: the passage of time and the characters' changing emotions.

For instance, when the animation begins you can tell by the lighting's intensity and its color—bright yellows and blues—that it's late afternoon. Light and shadows pass over the faces of the characters as the train moves through the streets, giving viewers a glimpse of the action—and allowing Joe and Kate to hide in the shadows, as they attempt to hide their feelings from each other.

The fantasy sequence takes place at sunset. The intensity of the lighting in this sequence is much stronger, and the colors have changed to shades of orange and red. The hotter colors coincide with the characters' heightened emotions and feelings toward each other.

When the fantasy sequence ends and we see Joe again, the darker colors—muted, cool blues and shades of purple—tell viewers it's now evening. They also tell viewers that the characters' emotions are subsiding, as they realize that what could have been wasn't meant to be. "Although nothing was technically difficult about the lighting in this piece, it was still very important," Phillips says. "It evolves with the story, and it helps viewers understand what they're seeing and what the characters are feeling. Again, it comes back to the story."

And the story, he reiterates, is what he believes makes "Passing Moments" a winning animation. "You can use the most complicated tools and create photorealistic characters and environments," concludes Phillips, who, at press time, had just accepted a job as an animator at Electronic Arts/Maxis. "But all of that won't matter if people aren't interested in the story you have to tell." To view "Passing Moments," visit ..

The artist uses a separate panel to reflect Joe's inner fantasy of taking Kate to view the sunset from a girder high above the city.

Contributing editor Audrey Doyleis a freelance writer and editor based in the Boston area.

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