Issue: Volume: 26 Issue: 10 (Oct 2003)

Films From the Next Generation


By Jenny Donelan

College-based computer animation programs have proliferated in recent years, as have computer animation students and their films. Judging from this sampling of work from pupils at Ringling School of Art and Design and the Vancouver Film School, quality is keeping pace with quantity. The four student films highlighted here—"Mickey's Buddy" by Peter Paquette, "El Arquero" by Raphael Perkins, "After You" by Christopher Cordingley, and "Poor Bogo" by Thelvin Cabezas—all show originality and expertise.

Mickey's Buddy




"Creativity is timeless, but recent technology advances are helping students achieve their visions," says Darin Grant, manager of technical directors and software at Digital Domain. Grant also served as chair for the SIGGRAPH 2003 Computer Animation Festival, in which each of the films in this article appeared.

El Arquero




According to Grant, schools that require students to produce a complete animation as a thesis project, as is the case with each of these films, have been turning out especially strong work. "Students see what others have done before them, and they push themselves to be better," he says. And, the completed animation is "a real line in the sand for people doing CG animation." In other words, it separates the dabblers from the doers.

After You




In the process of creating these films, the students learned a great deal about the technical aspects of their craft and lot about the creative process as well. "My advice to students working on films is 'Experience life and a great story will come,'" says Paquette ("Mickey's Buddy"). "And when things get tough, remember your original premise and the beautiful visuals that ran through your head at the time. Use that as your motivation to take your work to the next level."

Poor Bogo




"Mickey's Buddy" by Peter Paquette features an old man and two—or possibly three—real and imaginary dogs. The story begins in a dim apartment, where it becomes clear that Mickey, the elderly star of the film, is having trouble coming to terms with the loss of his dog. As he takes a new "pet" for a walk through gray, urban streets, the film threatens to turn maudlin or mean-spirited, but never does. Instead, it ends on a note both humorous and sweet as Mickey and his "pet" unexpectedly rescue each other.

Paquette says he stumbled across the idea for the film while visiting his wife's family in New England over Christmas break. Her grandmother had passed away a few days earlier, leaving behind her husband, Mickey. "I remember watching him and his dog, realizing the dog was all he had left," says Paquette. "He had entire conversations with the dog as if they were engaged in some sort of deep discussion. And I decided to push this concept a bit."






The premise became the basis for Paquette's thesis animation for the Ringling School of Art and Design in Sarasota, Florida. To create the project, he used Alias Systems' Maya for modeling, setup, animation, lighting, and rendering. He used Adobe Systems' Photoshop and Right Hemispheres' Deep Paint for texturing, and Apple Computer's Shake and Adobe's Premiere for compositing and editing, respectively. Altogether, the film took a year to make, which turned out to be barely enough time. "What I brought away from this experience was a lesson in time management and an appreciation for my free time!" says Paquette.

A friend provided Mickey's voice, with its indeterminate, Southern accent. "I brought him into the sound booth and told him the story, and his knack for character took care of the rest," explains Paquette. "The voice he created was timeless and worked tremendously with the look of the character."

While noting that he might have made some shots in the film stronger, and that he faced some technical issues, "like the leash, which I would've played with more if I had more time," Paquette says he is proud of his film. He is most pleased with the characters. Knowing the real Mickey, he says, helped him create a sympathetic digital counterpart. "While animating, I was hoping that people would watch this film and think, 'he reminds me of my grandfather.' I've had quite a few people tell me those exact words. And for me, that's the biggest compliment."

"Mickey's Buddy" appeared in the 2003 SIGGRAPH Electronic Theater. It can be viewed online within Ringling's Computer Animation Portfolio section at www.rsad.edu.






p--"Mickey's Buddy" was created in black and white, which suits the quiet, bittersweet mood of the film. Mickey is a bit short on companionship. He takes his "pet" for a stroll and has a fateful meeting with a feisty trash can denizen.








Ever since he was a child, Raphael Perkins has been fascinated by the The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's sweet, haunting fable about a downed aviator and the little prince from Asteroid B612. When faced with the challenge of creating his final graduation project for the Vancouver Film School this year, Perkins turned to the The Little Prince for inspiration. The end result, the animated film "El Arquero" (The Archer), doesn't reproduce, but rather references, the fanciful, lonely, outer space world of Saint-Exupéry's classic.






There is no dialog in "El Arquero," but the expressive faces of the archer (top) and the bird (bottom) tell the story just as well as spoken words would have. Instrumental music underscores the action also.




Like the little prince, the archer lives on an impossibly small planet. He steps out of his home one day and takes aim at a small red bird perched on the moon. The arrow misses the bird by a mile, sailing through the sky until piercing a large star that turns out to belong to the constellation Leo. An angry lion materializes from the stars and charges after the hapless archer. Later, another ill-placed arrow brings the film to its close.

Perkins spent seven months creating "El Arquero." One of the biggest challenges of the project, he says, was preproduction. "I had to be sure that the story was going to transmit well visually," he says. "You can have an idea, and it can be very clear in your head, but when you put it on paper, you have to be open to changing anything that isn't working."

For the production phase, his main focus was animation—how his main character's expressions and movements consistently demonstrated the personality that Perkins envisioned for him. In order to do this, he studied movement and also acted out his scenes beforehand.

The tools he used to create "El Arquero" include Softimage|XSI for modeling and animation, and Adobe Systems' Photoshop for textures and paintings. Also, Perkins used After Effects for postproduction and Premier for editing, both from Adobe.

The end result is a dreamlike, candy-colored world in which almost everything looks soft and squishy, as if it were inflated. Although the archer ends up being chased by a giant, raging lion from the sky, the action is more humorous than frightening. Perkins attributes the film's gentle aspect to the "feeling" that the characters transmit—which is the element of the entire production that he is most pleased with.

"When I started the film, I knew what I wanted, but I wasn't sure if people would understand what I was trying to communicate," he says. "But after a while, the film started to live by itself. It has its own rules, and it's become something on its own."

"El Arquero" was recently awarded a silver medal in the Educational Institutions category at the Kalamazoo Animation Festival International. The film can be viewed at www.ifilm.com.




Christopher Cordingley's "After You" is an answer to all of us who have ever wondered if politeness actually pays. The simple plot of the short film involves two Gumby-esque characters, one respectful and persistent, the other mean-spirited and impatient. They stand before a door in a mostly white background, urging each other to go through first. There is no dialog in the film. A piano accompaniment and the expressions and body language of the protagonists let viewers know what's happening. Finally, when things have already turned ugly, one of the two characters puts an end to the impasse through an elegantly simple trick of physics.

The contrasting personalities in "After You" conflict over the simple matter of a doorway.




Cordingley, who created "After You" for his thesis at the Ringling School of Art and Design, said he knew he wanted his film to feature an interaction between two characters, and that he wanted their personalities to contrast and conflict. "And I needed one character to think he's more important than the other," he adds.

The prescribed film-creation process for his class, says Cordingley, was to take a concept statement or theme, develop the story and character designs, create storyboards and animatics, then move on to creating models and props for rough animations in Maya. After this stage, students finalize the models, lighting, textures, and motion. "My own process, however, did not go smoothly; I spent most of my time on my story and reworked almost everything," he explains. "Next time, I'll try harder to flesh out things early on so that I can actually see what is working and what isn't."

The animator used expressions and body language rather than dialog to tell his story.




"After You" definitely operates as a character-driven work. "I liked the idea of conveying emotions through subtleties in posture and facial expressions," notes Cordingley, who says he got ideas from Keith Johnstone's book Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre. "In the end, 'After You' is mainly about the virtue of patience and thoughtfulness, and the futility of acting out of frustration and anger."

"After You" appeared in the 2003 SIGGRAPH Electronic Theater. It can be viewed online within Ringling's Computer Animation Portfolio section at www.rsad.edu.

Jenny Donelan is a contributing editor for Computer Graphics World.




Student animator Thelvin Cabezas had originally intended to create an abstract 3D short film without a straightforward story line for his senior thesis at the Ringling School of Art and Design. But there was a lot of attention paid to the story—"this is one thing teachers really enforced," he says. "I do not agree that this should be the case, but that's the way it was." And, he confesses, "I'm not sure 'Poor Bogo' would have received the same amount of attention without the story."

"Poor Bogo" is visually arresting—full of rich colors and textures, and shapes that slide around and morph into each other. But, as it turns out, "Poor Bogo" is a charming, bittersweet story as well. There are two unseen narrators: an excitable child and a parent who wants the child to go to bed. As the child describes Bogo's wondrous adventures—finding candy in the sea, finding candy in the desert, being rained upon by candy—we see Bogo in action. But the parent's voice intrudes on each scene, explaining why it is silly, and little Bogo's happy worlds dissolve.

The "cute, ugly" Bogo character exists in various dreamscapes.




"I used basically happy, saturated colors for the child and dark, gloomy, unsaturated colors for the boring father," describes Cabezas. Researching colors for the film was fun, he adds, while coming up with the concept proved difficult. "I wanted something that would be original visually," he says. "But once I finally got the idea of depicting a child's imagination, it was only a matter of shaping the story, coming up with a conflict, a resolution, and so on."





The "cute and ugly" Bogo character was one of Cabezas' first sketches. Next, he sketched the backgrounds, and then painted them in Adobe Systems' Photoshop. After modeling, rigging, and texturing in Alias Systems' Maya, Cabezas faced the decision of whether to render the project in Maya or in Pixar Animation Studio's RenderMan. "The good thing about RenderMan," says Cabezas, "is that it would allow me to make my thesis prettier. The bad thing was that I had to learn how to use it." This he did, however.

Although Cabezas is pleased with his project, he does wish he had had more time. "There are missing frames, missing geometry—tons of things that most people won't notice," he says. "But I do!" His favorite part of the finished project is the Bogo character. "He became somebody close to me—weird, I know, but I got really attached to him."

"Poor Bogo" appeared in the 2003 SIGGRAPH Electronic Theater. It can be viewed online within Ringling's Computer Animation Portfolio section at www.rsad.edu.

TOOLBOX

Adobe Systems www.adobe.com

Alias Systems www.alias.com

Apple Computer www.apple.com

Pixar Animation Studio www.pixar.com

Right Hemisphere www.righthemisphere.com

Softimage www.softimage.com
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