Super Shorts
Issue: Volume: 28 Issue: 2 (Feb 2005)

Super Shorts

What do a decimated animator, an adorable little boy, a sadistic soldier, a crude caveman, a devious gopher, and a blue cat dancing the tango with its own tail have in common? They’re short animated films selected for consideration by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences for an Oscar nomination this year. And the animators and artists who created all these films relied on 3D tools to tell their stories. Everything else, from the style to the software the artists used, is as different as the stories the six films tell.

One (Lorenzo) originated in a large studio, three (In the Rough, Gopher Broke, and Fallen Art) were made in small studios, one (Birthday Boy) came to life in a school and another (Ryan) in the hands of an independent filmmaker.

Ryan, Birthday Boy, and Lorenzo qualified for the Oscar race by winning film festival awards. In the Rough, Gopher Broke, and Fallen Art, completed scarcely in time to meet Oscar’s deadline, were shown to ticket-buying audiences at a small theater in Los Angeles.

Ryan, the stunning, multi-award-winning animation from Copper Heart Entertainment and the National Film Board of Canada, pushes the state of the art of animated films, short documentaries, and the emotional use of 3D graphics. And it allowed Oscar-nominated director Chris Landreth to further his exploration into the art of animation in new and unexpected ways (see “Psychorealism,” July 2004, pg. 14). Birthday Boy, was created by Sejong Park while working on his masters degree at the Australian Film, Television, and Radio School. The short animation, which won the top award at SIGGRAPH, charms audiences with poignant moments from a small boy’s life in war-torn Korea circa 1951 (see “Child’s Play,” September 2004, pg. 28).

Lorenzo, a stylish animation about a tail-challenged blue cat, danced out of Disney to become a last tango for the studio’s Paris facility, but not before winning the Grand Prix award at Annecy. In the Rough’s caveman and cave bear, and Gopher Broke’s gnarly rodent, which star in the two winning entries from an internal competition at Blur, gave that studio a chance to test new character rigs and support in-house talent. With Fallen Art, Platige Image encouraged its Oscar-nominated artist Tomek Baginsky to test his directorial skills.
Birthday Boy

Joe Grant, a legendary animator who, at age 97, is still on the job at Disney, created the initial concept art for Lorenzo. Grant, who had worked at Disney in the early days-on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Fantasia, among other films-left for many years, and then returned in the 1990s. His concept art resulted in the Carnival of the Animals sequence in Fantasia 2000. “Nothing about Joe is dated,” says Mike Gabriel, Lorenzo’s director.

Grant imagined a cat that worships his beautiful fluffy tail, using it as a sun umbrella, as a pillow, and so on, until a black cat crosses his path. Then, the tail begins tormenting the cat. “The idea of a cat that can’t get away from his tail was great,” says Gabriel, who took Grant’s idea and danced with it. “We coupled Lorenzo [the cat] with a tango and ended up with a cat that goes nuts and a tail that wants to tango.”

Gabriel created Lorenzo’s concept art using tempura paint on black construction paper. “We were finishing Destino at the time, but Mike’s art was so specific and interesting that we persuaded our leaders to make Lorenzo, too,” says Baker Bloodworth, the film’s producer. “We loved the look so much that we ended up developing a software program called Sable to reproduce it.”

Sable wasn’t the first choice, however. “We looked at several techniques, including painting every frame by hand,” says Dave Bossert, visual effects supervisor. “There were a number of reasons why we didn’t go down that road, including not having talent available who could paint frame by frame without making it jittery. Animating with a paintbrush while dealing with opaque color on an opaque background is a difficult task.”
Lorenzo’s graphic look was made possible with Sable, Disney’s custom software, which put scanned paintstroke textures on 3D curves in Maya before they were sent on to RenderMan.

The crew tried using Disney’s CAPS (computer aided production system) and traditional ink and paint. But flat paint inside inked lines couldn’t reproduce Gabriel’s dry brushstrokes along the characters’ silhouettes, nor could Disney’s Deep Canvas software.

“We passed curves from [Alias’s] Maya into Inka, our ink line renderer, and then into Deep Canvas to render brushstrokes, but the brush still wasn’t matching the look,” says Dan Teece, Sable software supervisor. “The edges were really important.”

When all else failed, Teece wrote the new software. “Sable takes curves animated in Maya and replaces them with a library of brushstrokes,” he says.

Here’s how it worked: Although Gabriel drew some character animation, most characters were animated at Disney’s Paris-based studio. These pencil animations were scanned, and, in Maya, curves were projected onto the pencil lines. Paintstrokes were mapped onto these curves.

To do this, Teece created a digital brushstroke palette by working with scans of Gabriel’s paintstrokes in Adobe’s Photoshop and Apple’s Shake, putting the scans into forms that would work with Sable. “Mike would sit in his office with big sheets of black cardboard and paint the strokes,” Teece says, “I’d turn them into a standard size and aspect ratio so they could be applied as textures.” Once applied, the strokes were compressed or stretched as the curves changed size, although not by much. “We didn’t have them do things Mike couldn’t do with a paintbrush,” he says.

Gabriel also painted reference frames for all the scenes, so the artists would know which digital brushstrokes to use. “They could see how Mike was dragging his brush,” Bossert says. “When they attached the digital brushstrokes-which were based on strokes he actually painted, some drier, some wetter, some in between-they created a moving painting.”

The paintstrokes were rendered in Pixar’s RenderMan and composited with backgrounds in Shake. For the backgrounds, the team composited a mixture of Sable brushstrokes and scanned artwork applied to 2D cards in 3D space within Maya. “We could use very simple 3D curves for a street scene, like bits of wire, really,” says Teece. “Imagine a lamppost modeled with a thin wire that gets rendered as brushstrokes on every frame.”

The flickery paint problem was solved because the brushstrokes were textures on animated 3D curve sets. “The curves were coherent from one frame to the next,” Teece says. “And the assignment of brushstrokes to the curves was consistent.”

In one scene, however, the cat jitters on purpose. “When the cat loses it at the end, he starts to vibrate at the camera,” says Gabriel. “I worked myself into a tizzy, flinging the paint as maniacally as I could to feel the angst, the anxiety. When I finished, I had between 30 and 40 paintings on the floor.” Rather than give the digital artists one painting as an example, Gabriel decided to use them, one painting per frame.

When it came time for Blur Studio’s internal competition, effects supervisor Paul Taylor pushed the odds in his favor by submitting four ideas. In the Rough, the story of a territorial cave bear and a caveman who leaves his hovel after a domestic squabble, came out on top. “People say it’s autobiographical, and I can kind of see that,” he says, “but it just popped into my head.”

With help from animation supervisor Leo Santos, Taylor created the storyboards, taking nearly a year to refine the story. Production, however, was compressed into four months.

The characters, designed by Chuck Wojkiewicv, were created in Discreet’s 3ds max, the software of choice for the studio. Rather than using Character Studio’s biped feature, though, as is their norm, the artists decided to create custom rigs. “We wanted more control,” says Taylor, “and to do the stretching and squashing that we can get more easily with custom tools.”

In addition to new custom rigs, the team also used a new point-caching system. “When the animators are finished animating the bones, they hit a ‘point cache’ button,” Taylor says. “And that bakes out the vertex information on the mesh. It doesn’t save the rigging or the heavy stuff; it just bakes the mesh. We used to pass around one file among people. Now, when the scene assembler puts the shot together in 3ds max and [Eyeon Software’s] Digital Fusion, that person can have the character in the scene as soon as the animator hits the point cache button, and multiple people can be working on the same shot.”

These techniques were developed and tested for the short film in part to help the studio prepare for work on a feature; indeed, the studio hopes that the short films will help them land a feature-film project. It isn’t an idle hope: Blur’s Rockfish, which has been nominated for an Annie award, has been optioned by Vin Diesel’s production company.
Paul Taylor’s In the Rough-one of two films to win Blur’s internal competition and make it onto the Oscar short list-features prehistoric characters that helped the studio test a new rigging system. Th

And last year, Blur’s production pipeline accomplished 40 minutes of animation for Disney. “We haven’t tackled all the pre-production for a feature, but we have done it on a smaller scale,” says founder Tim Miller. “And we do a ton of game cinematics.” In addition to 3ds max, Blur’s modeling pipeline includes Luxology’s Modo, Avid’s Softimage XSI, and Pixologic’s Z-brush. To create fur for In the Rough’s caveman and cave bear, and for Gopher Broke’s rodent, they used Dimension Design Animation Group’s Shag:Fur; to render the scenes, SplutterFish’s Brazil; to composite the films, Digital Fusion; and for editing, Adobe’s Premiere.

“We’re getting very close to doing a CGI feature,” says Miller. “It’s a long road; it seems like all I do is have meetings. Eventually, someone will let us do it. We hope that from the shorts, people will be as open to our ideas as doing their own ideas.”

The second film to win Blur’s internal competition is a four-minute short in what Miller calls “Pixar style,” written and directed by Jeff Fowler. “Because we try to keep the short films under five minutes in length, I tried to find a convention from the real world that we could present in a new way,” he says. “Everyone knows that gophers steal vegetables and harass farmers, so I used that and created a new situation.”

Rather than pulling vegetables by their roots into an underground burrow, Fowler’s inventive gopher devises a scheme to steal veggies from a pickup truck. But things go wrong. “All I needed to create the story was what I knew,” Fowler says. “It was enough to have fun with, without a lot of setup.”

Fowler drew storyboards for the short by hand, and then created a 3D animatic. “The storyboards show the emotion, the intent of the scene,” he says. “The 3D layout [the animatic] is more about what the camera is doing.” The team used the same tools as for Blur’s In the Rough.“I took everything I learned from the Disney project, where we had access to all those great animators and teachers, and applied it to this project,” Fowler says.
The goofy gopher in Jeff Fowler’s Gopher Broke, Blur’s second entry in the Oscar race, helps the studio showcase a different type of art direction and a more traditional, cartoony style of animation th

Tomek Baginsky, who won an Oscar nomination for his beautifully textured film The Cathedral (see “Larger Than Life,” July 2002, pg. 18), has created a new, disturbing, character-driven short. Fallen Art stars Private OA-7691, a born volunteer used as cannon fodder; Doctor Johann Friedrich, an amateur photographer who has learned to feel pleasure out of pain-his or someone else’s; and Sergeant Al, who loves his troops so much that he cries out with emotion after sending them to their death.

Baginsky’s team began with hand-drawn storyboards. “Most decisions were made during the storyboarding stage,” he says. “Only two or three shots were changed in production.” During production, the storyboards evolved into 2D animatics created in Adobe’s After Effects; animatic scenes were replaced as work progressed. “The last version, created a month before the sound studio began working, had the completed character animation and several finished shots,” Baginsky says.

As with The Cathedral, all the textures and backgrounds were hand painted. This time, though, Baginsky took a backseat to an artistic team under his direction who created the textures and designed the characters.

Most models were sculpted in NewTek’s LightWave, while others were made in Luxology’s Modo or 3ds max. A team led by Greg Jonkajitys rigged the characters using pmG’s Messiah:Studio and animated them with Messiah and 3ds max. For exchanging mesh deformations with 3ds max, the team used ef9’s Point Oven Pro software. With Brazil, the team rendered the characters and backgrounds separately.
Tomek Baginsky created the painterly quality for the darkly satirical short film Fallen Art by directing artists at Platige Image rather than by painting the textures himself, as he did for his previous Oscar-nomi

“Most lighting sets were quite simple,” says Baginsky, “just a few area lights plus a skylight. Many lights, atmospheric effects, and camera movements were created during composition [in After Effects]. Fewer than 10 shots used the real 3D camera. The rest of the movements are fake.”

According to Baginsky, the most important thing working on Fallen Art taught him was how to be a director. “For The Cathedral, I was the director and the only artist at the same time. For Fallen Art, I had a group of very talented people. Establishing the team took some time, and it was painful in some moments, but finally the team could understand each other and work very fast. And my knowledge of what directing is grew much deeper.”

Whether three films from this group of CG films become Academy Award nominations, and whether one director from the group steps onto the stage for an Oscar on February 27, these films have already, and deservedly, been honored by their peers.

Barbara Robertson is an award-winning journalist and a contributing editor for Computer Graphics World.