Cover Story: Character Studies
Issue: Volume: 26 Issue: 8 (August 2003)

Cover Story: Character Studies

By Jenny Donelan

3 animated short films shown at SIGGRAPH's Electronic Theater last month advance the state of the art not in terms of "Is it real or is it CG?" realism, but in creating characters who, with their movements and expressions, engage audiences in some of the same ways a human actor might. "Eternal Gaze," "Chainsmoker," and "Plumber" each feature a lone protagonist who engages audiences not with beauty, charm, or flowing photorealistic hair, but with the earnestness with which he or she tackles a problem. Their difficulties range from the mystical (the artist in Sam Chen's "Eternal Gaze" grapples with madness, mortality, and the creative process, all in the space of 16 minutes) to the mundane (Ulf Lundgren's nursing home patient goes to great lengths to enjoy a forbidden cigar in "Chainsmoker"), while the hero of Andy Knight and Richard Rosenman's "Plumber" does battle with a surreally malfunctioning faucet. Though each of these animated humans has different problems, they each pull us into their world in a similar way—with their efforts and their expressive faces.

Eternal Gaze


Their moods range from deep and portentous (top) to wryly humorous (middle) to slapstick (below), but each short animated film featured here has a character with whom audiences can readily identify.

Director Sam Chen sees many similarities between himself and the subject of his film "Eternal Gaze." Chen spent two and a half years in relative isolation while making his computer-animated short about the twentieth-century artist Alberto Giacometti, whereas the Giacometti of his film labors alone in his studio. Both men worked without assistants, Giacometti preparing his own clay and stretching his own canvases, and Chen doing his own research, modeling, animation, and post-production. Most of all, says Chen, both he and the late artist share an extraordinary single-mindedness about the creative process.

For Chen, this particular all-consuming project began with research into the life and art of Giacometti, whom he describes as "one of the greatest but least recognized artists of our time." Chen had never heard of Giacometti until he read about him in an assigned text in a college course, but he felt immediately drawn to the man, who was known for his moodiness, his melancholy humor, and his exacting standards.

Director Sam Chen modeled artist Alberto Giacometti (top) in a nonrealistic, caricature style. Giacometti's sculptures (right), on the other hand, were created to resemble their real-life counterparts as closely as possible. Much of the action in the

Chen also studied Giacometti's sculptures so that he could digitally reproduce their distorted and agitated surfaces in his film, and the animator took a sculpting class as well. "As everyone knows," Chen says, "animators are actually frustrated actors. I took the sculpting class in order to get into Giacometti's head."

Chen wrote two scripts, scrapping the first five months of work to re-orient the story around the artist rather than the sculptures as originally planned. Early thumbnail sketches became a 10-minute animatic that evolved into a CG layout that grew into a 16-minute film containing 220 shots. Altogether, Chen modeled 18 different sculptures for the film, using photographs as his main reference. Giacometti himself is represented by three different models, in part because he ages nine years during the three-act movie.

The end result, a black-and-white CG short with no dialog and one human character in a single setting, has won numerous awards, including best animation for the SIGGRAPH 2003 Electronic Theater. The film contains no astonishing special effects or feats of CG realism. Instead, the overall vision—the shadowy studio, the original musical score by Jamey Scott, the hope and agony on the face of the character as he struggles with guilt, fear, a leaky roof, and a chronic cough—combine to create a compelling story about the redemptive power of art.

Chen's chief inspirations for "Eternal Gaze" were movies: Blade Runner most of all—"for its film noire look, its pacing, and its melancholy" and Citizen Kane, for its use of black and white—"I watched it once a month while I was making my film," he says. He also was influenced by Pixar's short films and Steven Spielberg's movies—"for their heart and emotion." In fact, by design, says Chen, the camera moves in "Eternal Gaze" resemble those from traditional movies more than they do camera moves in most CG films.

When he began making "Eternal Gaze," Chen had already directed several movies, including film documentaries and computer animations. He had extensive CG experience, but still found the challenge of realizing his vision rather formidable. First off, "A mantra for the film was historical accuracy," he says. It was important to get the right look and feel for Giacometti's studio in Paris in the 1950s and '60s, and also to represent the artist in spirit if not exactitude. Chen decided that rather than try and fail to represent him photorealistically, he would exaggerate Giacometti's facial features, and make his overall proportions nonrealistic. Nevertheless, he was careful to make the character human enough that viewers would identify with him rather than dismiss him as a cartoon. "I wanted to capture the essence of Giacometti, and show his torment... and ultimately, to have the audience empathize with him," says Chen.

"Eternal Gaze" begins in color inside a museum, then morphs to black and white as we see in the exterior of Giacometti's Paris studio in the 1950s.

To create Giacometti, Chen used a combination of NURBS, polygons, and subdivision surfaces in Alias|Wavefront's Maya. Most of the sculptures were modeled in NURBS, and the studio and other objects within it are in large part polygonal. Throughout the film, Chen employed keyframe animation for better control in achieving the looks and movements he wanted.

The most challenging part of rigging, notes Chen, involved Giacometti's expressive face, which is the focal point of the film. Chen used a bone and muscle system rather than morph targets, which he thought would create a "canned" or artificial look. He consulted medical books to find out which facial muscles deploy for different human emotions, then rigged bones to simulate the muscle contractions and expansions.

The textures and shaders used in the film are a mixture of procedurally generated textures and scans, including some taken from photographs of Giacometti's face. Chen added effects such as the curls of smoke from Giacometti's cigarette in post production using Adobe Systems' After Effects.

Chen's virtual Giacometti, which he created using photos and film clips as references, is an exaggerated version of the late sculptor.

While Chen says he doesn't regret having to make "Eternal Gaze" on his own—in fact, the self-described Jack-of-all-trades says he wouldn't have been able to make the same film if he had not been able to control all its aspects—he did have to compromise here and there because of time constraints and the lack of help. Given the opportunity, he would have added "just a few more effects." For example, when items in the finished film are destroyed, there isn't any dust or smoke rising from the debris as there should be. A related challenge was asset management. "There were so many formats, so many files, so many shots," he notes. "I started having file-naming convention problems. I had to write my own scripts [here his computer science background came in handy]. And render wrangling was a nightmare."

Overall, though, Chen is more than pleased with his creation. "I made the film that I wanted to make," he says, adding that this would not have been possible just a few years ago, when an animated film this ambitious would have had to be made at a big studio. "That's one of the things about where the industry is going—the tools are all available now, and it's very empowering and encouraging for the individual artist today." Besides, he adds, "When I watch the movie I forget about the technical difficulties."

Although animator Ulf Lundgren has created special effects for fantasy-based and futuristic productions such as the Harry Potter movies and the James Bond film Die Another Day, he is more fascinated by the little moments of everyday human existence. Lundgren is a people watcher. So when he set about creating his first independent project, he decided to concentrate more on character than on plot.

Lundgren modeled his nursing home patient in Softimage, paying particular attention to her wrinkles (top). The bandages (bottom) appear after one of her smoking-related mishaps.

The film's story is simple: An old woman in a nursing home keeps trying to sneak a cigar, and keeps getting caught. What's complex about "Chainsmoker" is the range of emotions that crosses the woman's wrinkled face: She's sly, anticipatory, frightened, contrite, and, ultimately, satisfied. As the day goes by, shadows lengthen, and a radio plays 1940s big band music in the background while she tries again and again to enjoy the cigar she so obviously craves. But each time she's about to inhale, we hear authoritative footsteps echoing in the hall, coming closer and closer. Whether you smoke or not, you find yourself rooting for this spunky nursing home resident denied of her simple pleasure. (Lest you forget the perils of smoking, however, a series of lung X-rays at the movie's beginning sets the appropriately morbid tone.)

"Giving the woman a personality and attitude was a blast," says Lundgren. "After having spent years of studying faces and facial expressions for other projects, making a film in which the story centers around reactions and expressions was extremely exciting."

Different lighting schemes were used to indicate that time was passing inside the patient's room.
Images courtesy Ulf Lundgren.

Lundgren's nursing home resident is the most realistic-looking of the three CG characters examined here. The artist created her entirely in Softimage, having first filmed his cousin acting out the different episodes and then retiming the performance in Adobe After Effects to give it more of an animated feel, using the film for a reference. He wanted the character's expressions and reactions to be humorous and a bit slapstick in nature, but not completely over the top.

Another notable feature is the warm, diffused light that changes to represent the different times of day in which the action takes place (the film itself is just under four minutes long). "I've always been a sucker for light," says Lundgren. "This was a chance to play around with different solutions and light treatments—but at the same time it turned out to be a lot harder than it seemed and took a lot more time than I had expected." Lundgren was slowed down partly because he ended up building his own light rig that incorporated approximately 30 different raytraced lights. Time-consuming though this was, his hand-built rig allowed him to blend various colors so that he could set them playing in the old woman's wrinkles and in the shadows, all of which give the film a richer, softer look.

Altogether, it took Lundgren more than six months to create "Chainsmoker" while working at day jobs such as creating effects for the Bond and Harry Potter movies. He also was hampered by having to render the entire project on his laptop. Though he's satisfied with the film—"If there were anything I was really unhappy with I wouldn't have released it"—he hopes to spend more time planning and trying out different visual styles for his next project.

Did chainsmoking help get him through the long nights of modeling, animating, rendering, and compositing? "No," Lundgren replies. "I was too uncool in school to smoke, and too smart nowadays."

The principals of Red Rover Studios, with a track record of making television commercials for Toyota and the like, wanted to get involved in short film production. To show what they could do—not to mention learn what they could do—they decided to make their own computer-animated short. The end result, "Plumber," features Mario, one very determined fixer-upper who meets his match in a bathroom faucet that refuses to stop dripping.

Mario goes to extraordinary lengths to stop the leak, and the tap meets him every step of the way. In the battle that ensues, there are explosions, a collapsed ceiling, and a flood so great that Mario is forced to swim through the inside of his house to attack the plumbing. The film is a showcase for special effects such as these, but the real star is the bald and sinewy Mario, who is annoyed, then angered by the recalcitrant tap, but seemingly unaware that anything out of the ordinary is going on.

When they embarked on the project, the Red Rover artists applied the same scheduling methods they use to create a television commercial, only expanding the timeline from several weeks to five months. They used an animatic throughout the project, notes producer Randi Yaffa, which was updated weekly for internal review. "The animatic allowed us to follow the film's progress, make editing and timing changes, and see potential mistakes that might not have been as evident on a scene-by-scene basis."

The animators experimented with a variety of looks and facial expressions for Mario (top). The brightly colored world he inhabits straddles a line between realistic and cartoon-like (bottom).

All the action takes place in a colorful, semi-realistic, semi-cartoon-like setting that the film's creators—directors Richard Rosenman and Andy Knight and producer Randi Yaffa—describe as "hyper-real." The bold use of stylized color, notes Rosenman, in conjunction with global illumination rendering, helped make the film especially attention-grabbing. But global rendering turned out to be an especially difficult part of the project. The action takes place inside Mario's house, and "interior global rendering is much more complex than exterior global rendering because the light sources are more varied," says Rosenman. The team ended up developing numerous techniques to reduce rendering time.

The most eye-catching scene in Red Rover's "Plumber" is one in which the lead character swims underwater through his flooded house.
Images courtesy Red Rover Studios.

All the animation in "Plumber" is keyframed. "Mocap has its applications," says Rosenman, "but 'Plumber' was not suitable for it." Even before he was animated, the Mario character, modeled in Discreet's 3ds max, presented challenges. He underwent "hundreds of mutations," says Rosenman, before the creators were satisfied. Similarly, the morph targets for Mario's expressions went through many iterations before he gained his determined visage.

Mario's clothing also was problematic for a while. Until the team worked out the details of the cloth simulation, the character's bold, frantic motions were too abrupt for the cloth calculations, which resulted in his shirt getting stuck in his arms and other areas. For the underwater scene, the most eye-catching in the film, the team used fluid dynamics simulation. Notes Rosenman, "We tested for months before we were able to reach a compromise between realistic-looking water and production-friendly simulations."

In the end, the Red Rover team was able to imbue its first short CG film with plenty of humor and visual appeal. As for the earnest Mario and his battle with the faucet—let's just say he makes a better star of a CG film than a plumber.

Jenny Donelan is a contributing editor for Computer Graphics World.

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