Small Surprises
Issue: Volume: 27 Issue: 11 (November 2004)

Small Surprises

"El Desvan," "Rock the World," and "Annie & Boo" are all computer-animated shorts from different parts of the world. And in some ways, these short CG films couldn't be more different. "El Desvan," by José Corral, is a moody tale of love, revenge, and redemption among forgotten toys. "Rock the World" from student animator Sukwon Shin is a satiric, cartoon-style music video that stars a couple of familiar-looking world leaders. And the main characters of Johannes Weiland's "Annie & Boo," one human and one not-so human, enact a gentle romantic drama on a train platform. Corral's modeling and animation features dark colors, realistic textures, and objects from years gone by. Shin's "music video" looks a little like a computer game, and also a bit like claymation. And Weiland's one-act drama has a gentle, painterly quality and at least one character verging on the realistic.

Similarities among the films include the relative youth of their creators—"Annie & Boo" and "Rock the World" were both made as student projects, and Corral began work on "El Desvan" shortly after leaving school—and their memorable characters. They have all won awards, including a place in the 2004 SIGGRAPH Electronic Theater. But most important, each of these shorts has the ability to delight—and surprise—an audience.

A major romantic disappointment led animator José Corral to make "El Desvan" (The Roof), a 19-minute film about a love triangle between a jack-in-the-box and two dolls. The CG short's action takes place in an attic papered with tattered posters and littered with odds and ends, including old toys.

The film's protagonist, Sapo, is a jack-in-the-box clown with a visibly glowing heart. He is determined to find love amid the antiques and collectibles. But the object of his affection, Barbara, a statuesque beauty with a perpetual curl to her lip, is cruelly indifferent to his overtures. When the inanimate yet charming baby doll Mariquita enters the picture, emotions in the attic begin to run high.

Corral loosely based the Barbara character on vintage Barbies, but made her "much more aggressive," he says. The baby is a replica of Mariquita Pérez, a real doll that was extremely popular in Spain in the 1940s and 1950s. "The one that's in the film is exactly like the one my mother played with when she was young. She kept it for many years in a garage at my family's house in Segovia," says Corral. Sapo, the jack-in-the-box clown, however, is a product entirely of Corral's imagination.

Though Corral studied drawing in school, he created the character models for "El Desvan" directly on the computer in Alias's Maya, rather than sketching them first. He also created the other toys and objects in the attic on the computer, using pictures of antique toys found on the Internet as references. The attic is full of detailed and contrasting textures—faded posters, Sapo's weathered wooden box with peeling paint, a shiny green metal frog. Corral created the textures by combining photographs and paintings in Adobe's Photoshop, then applied a kind of translucent version of them to objects using Maya. When necessary—for skin textures, for example—he converted the textures to solid formats.

Corral used keyframing to move the models in their different ways. Sapo lurches across the floor, dragging with great effort the box to which he is attached. Barbara moves in purposeful, quasi military style on legs jointed at the hips. To color-correct the film, and to effect the camera flyaround used in its beginning, Corral used Jaleo's digital postproduction system.
A richly textured Spanish attic is the setting for a love triangle involving baby doll Mariquita (top left), jack-in-the-box Sapo (right), and grown-up doll Barbara (lower left) in José Corral's CG film "El Desvan."

Though Corral says some people have compared his dark visual style to that of director Tim Burton, he claims not to have been inspired by any one source, but rather by a number of different works of art, and especially by comic books. "I started with Spanish comics such as Mostadelo y Filemon and SuperLopéz," he says, "then continued with American superheroes like X-Men and Spider-Man, and then went on to independent comics from Europe and the US."

Audience reaction to the quirky, disturbing, but curiously touching world of "El Desvan" has been erratic, says Corral. "Every time the film is shown at a festival, people react differently. Sometimes they laugh at sequences that I didn't make with that [humor] in mind, and then they don't laugh at the funny parts." That doesn't bother Corral though. He's more concerned about his next project, whatever that may be, because "El Desvan," his first film, has won 16 prizes in Spain, and he's afraid that it may be a tough act to follow.

In the meantime, he's enjoying all the attention and human contact the film has garnered him. "This was a work of loneliness," he says. "After a year and a half working alone in front of the computer, the most satisfaction I've got with the film is when people tell me they've enjoyed it." He continues, "When I wrote the story I was in the middle of a deep de-pression, but I never wanted to make

a sad story. Our character [Sapo] is de-pressed, but he fights to feel better and to have a partner in this place where objects are condemned to loneliness. The message of this film is that when one story finishes, another begins."

Powerful politicians and pompous rock stars share a dubious double bill as the satiric targets of animator Sukwon Shin's short film "Rock the World." Caricature versions of George W. Bush and Colin Powell, each resembling nothing so much as a bobble head doll on a mission, rock out in a very funny send-up that manages to poke fun at the political powers that be, rock musicians of a certain ilk, and the music video genre itself.

Shin, who is from Korea and now lives in New Jersey, says that political issues inspire him to do his best work. In the case of "Rock the World," the war in Iraq was commencing at the same time that he was developing a satiric political theme for his thesis project—hence the two main characters. Shin says he is also stimulated by the work of Korean political cartoon artist Park Jae-Dong, who began publishing in the late 1980s. "I think he's the first to risk making fun of the strict Korean society and government. His work is hilarious, but also makes people understand current issues in different perspectives," says Shin. A final bit of inspiration came from hours logged watching "cheesy rock music performances" on TV. "I am a big fan of rock music," he explains.

In Seoul, Shin studied sculpture at Hong-Ik University. But he felt limited by this discipline because he wanted to create narrative works of art. Eventually, he turned to CG animation and moved to the US, earning a degree in Computer Art from the School of Visual Arts in New York, where he made "Rock the World."

His fine arts background served him well while sketching the characters for "Rock the World," drawing Bush and Powell from the front, left, right, and various other angles until he was satisfied with their appearance. Then he set about creating their models in Alias's Maya. He scanned textures painted in Adobe's Photoshop onto the models, then used keyframing to animate the characters. Shin incorporated effects and other elements using Adobe's After Effects, and edited the film in Apple's Final Cut Pro. For audio, he employed DigiDesign's ProTools, a software and hardware system for audio and MIDI recording.
Connoisseurs of rock music videos will recognize common devices, such as the stark background and the musicians' dramatic stances, used to comic effect in "Rock the World."

The audio aspect of the project posed its major snag: Shin had carefully lip-synched and choreographed "Rock the World" to "Separate Ways" by Journey, but in the end was unable to obtain copyrights to the song. Instead of choosing a different tune and reanimating the piece to it—"that would have caused a lot of trouble," says Shin—he had a song custom-composed by Splash Studios' Tim Anderson and Peter Levin. The new tune is similar in tempo to the original, and the words are close enough for lipsynching. Where the characters sang, "Two" in the original version, for example, they now sing "True."

In the end, the song switch proved less disheartening to Shin than the brevity of his approximately three-minute film. Render-ing all the layers he'd made took longer than he'd expected, and he didn't have the time or money to finish the piece the way he'd envisioned—"I had to stop before I reached the climax of the [original] song," he says.

But Shin is more than happy with the outcome of Bush and Powell as rockers. "They are the last people you would expect to play rock music," he says. "I had a strong feeling beforehand that this would be very funny." And he's pleased with the facial expressions and moves of his characters, which he thinks mirror the attitudes of rock musicians who affect heroic or god-like presences.

"Animating characters," says Shin, "is like acting. I had to figure out what it was like to be each man in the story, and I had to blend myself into the scenes. That was the biggest challenge, and the most interesting thing about my work."

If a coincidence were a living being instead of an abstract occurrence, what would it look like? Answering this question was a major concern for director Johannes Weiland while in the planning stages for the CG short "Annie & Boo." For this film, a coincidence would be an interactive character—that much was certain. Coincidences, according to Weiland, "are living with us." They are hard at work creating all sorts of little occurrences that we call coincidences. "But they hide themselves very well," he says, "and we don't know anything about them."

Whether these beings should be animal, human, or something in between was a puzzle for filmmaker Weiland and fellow students at Filmakademie Baden-Württemberg in Germany, where Weiland created "Annie & Boo" as his final student project.

"We had all sorts of different ideas," says Weiland, "but nothing we could start from." They experimented with a variety of creatures (designed to look "coincidentally" fit together, but these were all too weird-looking to convey the emotions necessary for a character in a leading role, he says. After nearly a year of tinkering, they hit on the design for Boo—lantern-jawed, beetle-browed, and sporting a pair of rabbit-like ears (or antennae), but still basically humanoid.

As a coincidence whose job it is to swap suitcases and make lightbulbs go out at a train station, Boo is a bit of a failure—he keeps allowing himself to be seen by humans. Then he is smitten by Annie, a teenage girl he meets on the train platform, and the boundaries between human and coincidence really begin to break down.

The relationship between Annie and Boo—"a story about emotion, two characters, and how they start to like each other," says Weiland—was the main inspiration behind the 15-minute film, which took two and a half years to complete. He had some help along the way: Fellow student and character designer Jakob Schuh helped create the look for Boo and Annie, and other students assisted with screenwriting and music. Besides directing the film, Weiland did the modeling and animation, using Alias's Maya for everything from modeling to texturing, animation, lighting, and rendering. For compositing and color grading, he employed Eyeon Software's Digital Fusion.

After modeling the characters in Maya, Weiland used keyframing to animate them. Annie, who had been much easier to design than Boo, proved harder to animate. "Annie is very realistic—simplified, not photorealistic, but real in a way—so I was a little scared about animating her in the beginning," says Weiland. He didn't want to use motion capture, he explains, because it results in realistic movements that would have jarred with the semi-realistic look of her model. And he was concerned that her facial expressions accurately convey the mental processes going on within. Creating the proper facial shapes for her winsome smile, for example, entailed a lot of trial and error. "The audience has to clearly understand that she's smiling, and what she's thinking."
One of director Johannes Weiland's goals for the short film "Annie & Boo" was to convey the characters' emotions through body language and facial expressions.

Lighting the station was a challenge as well. Weiland planned to use the harsh, bright lights of an actual train station, but decided to use blue moonlight for the glass and metal station, and warm orange lighting for the platform. The idea was to illuminate the platform as though it were a stage, making the characters on it stand out like actors in a theater. For the background, Weiland used watercolor paintings, and, to give the scenes a "special look," incorporated lights and shadows right into them.

Even though the film's action takes place in a distinctly German-looking train station, in the first of two versions of "Annie & Boo," the characters speak American-accented English. "Annie & Boo," made in Germany by Germans, was then dubbed into German. Weiland explains that his earlier CG film, "Hessi James" (which appeared in the SIGGRAPH Electronic Theater in 2001), met with some confusion on the international circuit due to the fast-paced German spoken by its gun-slinging insect stars. Producing the dialog-heavy "Annie & Boo" in English would make it more accessible to an international audience, he says. And the English version came first because most American and English films shown in Germany are dubbed into German, and the country is rife with vocal talents adept at synchronizing English-language mouth movements to German words. It wasn't hard to find someone to put German words in Annie's and Boo's mouths, but it would have been difficult to find people in Germany to sync English dialog with German-speaking characters.

In any case, Weiland's favorite scene doesn't involve much talking. It happens toward the end, when Boo is standing under an umbrella in the rain, and Annie walks back to him. We can see that she's not angry with him anymore; she's about to give him a second chance. Boo is a little smug because a boast he made earlier has just proven true, but he's still not sure where he stands with Annie. "There's very little animation, except for facial animation, and yet you understand what they are thinking," says Weiland. "I always had that emotional scene in mind, and I wanted to get the audience to be with those characters at the end."

Jenny Donelan, a contributing editor of Computer Graphics World, is a freelance writer and editor. She can be reached at