Issue: Volume: 26 Issue: 6 (June 2003)

Creepy Crawlers


By Jenny Donelan

The second article in our three-part series about short films on the Web features "yeah! the movie." While the animation is still a work in progress, its creator is using the Internet for feedback and publicity prior to the property's release.

This Boss may be ugly and uncouth, but he surely is popular. The lantern-jawed, loin-clothed digital lout from Spellcraft Studio has been showing up at trade shows, on Web sites, and even on the cover of a CG industry magazine—pretty good exposure for a character in a film that hasn't even been made yet. Spellcraft's animated short, "yeah! the movie," will probably be finished near the end of this year. What exists of it publicly is a Web site with an overview of the plot and several downloadable animations of the Boss and his minions, the Creeps.

The Boss, who has a habit of eating his helpers, is the popular villain of the upcoming short "yeah! the movie." All images courtesy Spellcraft Studio.




The animations, posted as teasers for the project, have been so well received (thousands of downloads and counting) that they are actually impeding the progress of the movie. Not that its creator, Vadim Pietrzynski, minds, though he has had to post an FAQ area on the Web site to field all the inquiries about "yeah!," and he's occasionally had to suspend work on the project to create magazine covers and the like. On the plus side, "There are lots of short movies that get some attention for a few weeks and then are quickly forgotten," he says. "I think it helps to show a little more than just the movie itself—it's one way to create longer interest in a short movie project, and a longer life span means the chance to reach a broader audience."

In fact, aside from the usual digital content creation Web sites, Pietrzynski has found "yeah!" animations posted in forums for gamers, martial arts, and even in one for farmers. When asked why all the to-do over an unfinished project, he replies, "the Internet, a bit of luck, and a cool rendering engine." Of course, there's a bit more to it than that.

The Boss and his crew possess that mixture of cuteness and hideousness for which 3D animation is an ideal medium. They are humanoid, but not so much so that they are meant to look real. They are humorous, but also horrible. In the most popular of the animations, the pot-bellied Boss dances to a boogie-woogie version of "See You Later Alligator" while he artfully dispatches and swallows the Creeps in time to the music.

Spellcraft Studio used keyframe animation to produce all the movements for the characters.




Like the Boss, the Creeps have attitudes. One of the animations, called "Boxing," features a Creep who tries to frighten us, the viewers, with his martial arts skills—kick boxing, flips, and right- and left-hooks. When he realizes we are still there, he waves dismissively at us, gives us a raspberry, and leaves the scene.

Other characters, including a beautiful Amazon and a hero, will soon join these disagreeable types in the animated short, the plot of which is simple and classic, though not entirely politically correct. The Amazon is captured by the Boss and his helpers and is then rescued by the hero.

Pietrzynski, whose Berlin-based Spellcraft Studio has created cinematics for the German computer games Yager, TechnoMage, and Anno 1503, lists many inspirations for the short film. "I watch all kinds of movies," he says. "I also like watching people on the street—how they look and move and talk." He cites the work of fantasy artists Simon Bisley, Brom, and Frank Frazetta as inspirations, and is also stimulated by music. "When I hear a cool song, I get ideas for animations like the Boss dancing, or for speedy action and fight scenes, as well as slow, emotional scenes."

The "yeah!" characters didn't begin life as movie actors. The Creeps, for instance, were test animations that Spellcraft posted on the Web to obtain criticism and technical advice from the graphics community. "I was trying to achieve convincing results for hair and cloth simulation, and looking for a way to create facial animations with bones instead of morph targets," explains Pietrzynski. Positive feedback encouraged him to begin thinking about a short movie, and responses to the Boss character were "overwhelming and showed I was on the right path."

Pietrzynski uses Discreet's 3ds max for modeling and texturing, and the company's Character Studio for animating, which is all done with keyframes. For motion reference, he studies movies and documentaries. "A lot of people ask me why I don't use motion capture for "yeah!" since it would save me so much time," he says. "But I really don't understand this question. It's like asking a painter why he doesn't use a camera instead of a brush. They are different art forms. I like to animate by hand, and I like the look of keyframed animations."

The Boss's dance moves have helped "yeah" gain fans.




Plug-ins like Shag:Hair and Stitch, both from Digimation, help with hair and clothing, respectively. Before beginning work on "yeah!," the artist had experimented more or less unsuccessfully with global illumination. Last year, however, he tried a copy of Splutterfish's Brazil rendering software and "fell in love with it." As a result, the test animations and indeed all of "yeah!" will be rendered with global illumination.

Although money has at times been tight, Pietrzynski says he has been fortunate in attracting sponsors and supporters such as Splutterfish, Digimation, and Nvidia. He uses an Nvidia Quadro4 900XGL graphics accelerator in his work, and Nvidia has used the Boss dancing demo as part of its GeForce FX campaign for showcasing real-time rendering. The demo is on the Nvidia Web site and has been seen by visitors to the company's booth at various technology trade shows.

A Creep perched on the Boss's shoulder demonstrates the odd relationships between the film's characters.




More difficult than solving the technical and financial problems, maintains Pietrzynski, is developing the story and the design of the characters. In the case of the latter, he has strived first of all for a unique style—something between cartoon and photorealistic—that will catch viewers' attention and win their acceptance. This is an especially difficult task, he admits, for the more human-like characters of "yeah!"—the as-yet-unveiled Amazon and the hero.

There's also the whole idea of using the Web to show the movie as a work in progress. "I have to admit, sometimes I think it might have been better to wait until it's finished," Pietrzynski says. "That way I would have more time to concentrate on the actual production." But so far, the good outweighs the bad.

"I think the Internet is a great way for independent productions to show their work without a big budget, without a distributor, and without the necessary contacts," says Pietrzynski. He also hopes that the film's tenure on the Web will gain it audience share (such as among farmers!) outside the usual special interest group. "Of course this special interest group is important too," he hastens to say. "But even though more and more people go to short movie festivals these days, they're still not the mainstream audience—at least not here in Germany."

The biggest benefit of the Web so far, he says, has been all the positive comments about the movie, which keeps Pietrzynski motivated. "And I hope my work is encouraging other artists to start their own short movie projects too," he adds.

"Yeah! the movie" will most likely be finished by year-end, and Pietrzynski says he plans to make it a free download over the Web. He also expects to show it at film festivals around the world. In the meantime, the antics of the Boss and his Creeps can be viewed at www.yeahthemovie.de.

Jenny Donelan, a contributing editor for Computer Graphics World, can be reached at jdonelan@aldelphia.net

Digimation www.digimation.com
Discreet www.discreet.com
Nvidia www.nvidia.com
Splutterfish www.splutterfish.com
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