Knowledge & Career - 3/08
Issue: Volume: 31 Issue: 3 (March 2008)

Knowledge & Career - 3/08

The following four student films from the SIGGRAPH 2007 Computer Animation Festival—“Burning Safari” from Gobelins l’ecole de l’image in Paris, “The Itch” out of Bournemouth University in the UK, and “Respire, Mon Ami: Breathe, My Friend” and “The Animator and the Seat” from the Ringling School of Art and Design—all explore relationships of a most unusual kind.

Three of the pieces, “Burning Safari,” “Respire, Mon Ami,” and “The Animator and the Seat,” involve interactions between animate and inanimate objects. In “Burning Safari,” technology meets nature head-on, and none of those involved will ever be the same. In “Respire, Mon Ami,” the film’s creator investigates a relationship between the living and the dead. And in “The Animator and the Seat,” a piece of furniture becomes a force to be reckoned with when it decides to interact with a human.

Friendship is a crucial element of these films, though in “Burning Safari,” the possibility of friendship between “species” lasts for only a split second before it goes up in smoke. “The Itch” and “Respire, Mon Ami” remind us that friendship has many definitions, and someone who is initially an annoyance—a little man who appears from nowhere to relentlessly tap the legs of the narrator—may grow over time to become someone we depend on. Loneliness might seem preferable to having a severed head as a friend, but the cheerfully determined child in “Respire, Mon Ami” shows us that matters could be otherwise. In “The Animator and the Seat,” a chair keeps its occupant focused on the task at hand through a combination of tough love and shoulder massages.

Each of these films uses the CG medium differently—and successfully—to explore unlikely relationships. Their directors have different areas of focus—from lighting to character animation. Yet all of them somehow managed to create films that investigate the meaning of friendship, life and death, and humanity. 
When nature and technology collide
“Two worlds not made to meet,” is how Maxime Maleo describes the award-winning short film he and his five co-directors created for a school project at Gobelins l’ecole de l’image in Paris. In the case of “Burning Safari,” the main characters are literally from two different worlds, but Maleo’s reference could easily apply to any situation in which visitors and those they’re visiting find themselves terribly out of sync.

In “Burning Safari,” a swarm of robotic little creatures with a penchant for photography land in a jungle—presumably on earth—and begin investigating everything they see. One of their numbers encounters a monkey—and the encounter turns ugly. A chase ensues, and then there is a narrow escape, and more.
For “Burning Safari,” the filmmakers followed their original style, using 3D software to improve the look and the animations, as opposed to giving the short film a whole new look and feel.

“Burning Safari” is an extremely fast-paced little film that seems shorter than its short length of a minute and a half. So much happens so quickly, and all the action is tightly choreographed. The team was motivated in part by movies like Ice Age, with its strong characters and elaborate visual gags, but also by 2001: A Space Odyssey.
“We’re all big fans of 2001,” says Maleo. The human/computer relationship in that movie inspired the idea of the relationship between nature and technology (the monkey and the robots) in “Burning Safari.”

The six student directors at Gobelins who produced “Burning Safari” (chosen to appear in the 2007 Electronic Theater at SIGGRAPH) were Vincent Aupetit, Florent de La Taille, Aurélien Predal, Jeanne Irzenski, and Claude-William Trebutien, and Maleo, who describes his role as a “kind of supervisor.” The main idea for the story came from Trebutien, says Maleo.

Having six co-directors did prove a challenge, he notes: “It made it very difficult to get approvals.” Nevertheless, the team managed to develop its visually complex film over a period of about seven months: two months for scripting and preproduction, and about five months of production.

“Our work process,” says Maleo, “was always guided by the drawing.” In other words, the team stuck to the look it had developed for the characters and the storyboard, and focused on using 3D to improve that look rather than to create new types of action. “We had in our minds that each frame should be like a small illustration,” he says.

After the storyboard was approved, the team used Adobe’s Flash to create an animatic. Flash is a useful animation tool with “great possibilities,” according to Maleo, who says it helped determine rough layouts, cycles of animation, and basic poses before the team proceeded to modeling, texturing, animation, and rendering in Autodesk’s Maya. Adobe’s Photoshop provided additional texturing in 2D, and Adobe’s After Effects was used for compositing.

It was painstaking work to create each highly detailed “illustration,” especially since Maleo was the only one who knew how to use Maya before the project started (although the other five directors were accomplished artists and animators). Due to time constraints, some scenes had to go by the wayside. For example, “We built a very beautiful jungle in CGI, but we couldn’t use much of it,” says Maleo. “Many shots are not in this movie. I would have loved to have seen it longer.” But there were only so many hours in a day. “From the beginning,” says Maleo, “people were telling us, ‘that’s a fresh movie,’ and we didn’t really believe it because we were so tired!”

His favorite scene in “Burning Safari” is when the monkey and one of the little mechanisms first meet. Here, audiences get very involved, he says, even calling out to the monkey to warn it not to touch the robot. He thinks that kind of enthusiasm comes from the attitude the team had the whole time they were making the movie. “We were always laughing, and I think people feel that fun in the movie.”
People can grow on you
A special kind of relationship is the subject of Joel Green’s movie “The Itch.” A short, bandy-legged little character approaches a tall, thin character and, for no apparent reason, commences tapping the taller fellow’s spindly legs with a walking stick. How long this tapping goes on, where it goes on, and what it leads to are all central to the theme of this understated but compelling minute-and-a-half-long film.
Green made “The Itch” as a final project for the Media School at Bournemouth University in the UK. It met with “generally positive and sometimes surprisingly positive” reactions, says Green, who seems not to have altogether expected that kind of a response. The film was eventually chosen for the 2007 SIGGRAPH Electronic Theater.
The movie’s two characters move through a surreal and stylized world that is colorful but stark. There is no dialog and no music, only the rather soothing voice of the narrator (Green himself) and sound effects such as doors closing, motors running, and the relentless tapping of the stick. Camera work is central to the film’s success, and the timing of certain shots relative to the narration creates much of the film’s charm and humor.
“I wanted it funny and quirky, but not slapstick,” says Green. He came up with the concept for the movie the summer before his final year when he was doing some visual effects work and had a long commute. It came to him in bits and pieces rather than in one fell swoop. “I had lots of little ideas that were mostly visual,” Green says. At the same time, he decided that a narrated piece would allow him to fit a more detailed story into a shorter space of time. The hardest part of developing the project, he explains, was trying to think of something that would keep him interested the whole year.

Pixar’s RenderMan gave the animated short “The Itch” a certain look, while the animation, done using Autodesk’s Maya, gave it a certain feel. Achieving both those styles proved challenging for the young filmmaker.
After Green finally settled on the idea of the two characters—the “lanky guy” and the “little guy”—and what would happen between them, he created sketches and a storyboard, then produced a rough block test in Maya to provide an idea of the requisite timing. “I used a quick recording of the dialog that I had made at home to ensure that the piece flowed well and that the editing worked,” says Green. “Because of the tight schedule, everything had to be planned meticulously in order not to waste any time producing extra or longer scenes than would be featured in the final animation.”
Next, Green modeled both characters and set them up for animating, making sure they were capable of performing the necessary moves, and then built and textured the sets. All 3D work was done in Autodesk’s Maya, while texturing was accomplished in Photoshop.
To achieve the desired appearance for the film, Green decided to use Pixar’s RenderMan, eventually coding all of the required shaders for surfaces and lights. Although he had never used the program before, and learning it on the fly turned out to be the biggest technical challenge of the project, the style and look of the animation was one of his main focuses.
Character animation was also a hurdle. “It’s passable, but character animation is not my strength,” he admits. If the situation allowed, for example, Green says he would have spent more time on the “lanky guy” character. “His face was slightly awkward to realize in 3D because of the way I’d designed him on paper. I liked the mouth to have a side profile similar to what you see in The Simpsons, but I didn’t like the look of the mouth from front on.” So he looked for a way to show the mouth from the side only while not restricting the movement of the character or the cameras.
“My eventual solution,” Green explains, “involved having the mouth section of the face separate from the top of the head so that it could be rotated to stay at profile, irrespective of what the rest of the head was doing.” This solution caused problems in rendering, however, where the join between the parts became obvious, so he wrote a MEL script to stitch the two halves of the head together, create the RIB file for rendering, then detach the two sections again—frame by frame.
Green also had trouble finding a proper narrator. He hadn’t planned on doing the narration himself, but after trying out a number of friends who didn’t produce the desired results, he took on the task.
It was a good thing he did, as the narration is a crucial part of the elements that work together so effectively in this movie. In Green’s favorite scene, the lanky guy is driving a moped, pursued by the relentless little man with the stick. The narrator says, “Initially, I did struggle to adjust to my new circumstances…”  as the camera closes in on the little man’s back, then circles in front of the moped, on which the two are now riding together, the little guy wearing a helmet. We hear “however, after we’d been together for a few years, I began to accept him as part of my everyday existence,” and thus understand that much time has passed and the two are companions now.
“It’s the turning point in the story,” says Green, “and the camera movement in that shot works quite well.” It also epitomizes the strange, offhand sweetness of the story, told with an economy of words and images.
You never know where you might meet a new companion
There’s nothing unusual about children having imaginary friends, or assigning anthropomorphic qualities to inanimate objects such as stuffed animals and dolls, but the youthful protagonist of “Respire, Mon Ami” takes things to extremes when she adopts a severed head she finds next to a guillotine. This lightheartedly macabre film from Chris Nabholz was his senior thesis at Ringling School of Art and Design, and was chosen to appear in the 2007 SIGGRAPH Animation Theaters.
The head, which looks as though it once belonged to a middle-aged noblewoman, goes on a picnic and for a bicycle ride with its new friend, who cheerfully maintains the conversation for the both of them. The child feeds its gruesome companion a snack, and forces its lips into a smile, all to the accompaniment of jaunty background music.
“I have had a couple people who were unsure of how to process it, but in general I get a lot of good feedback: gasps, laughs, and groans,” says Nabholz. “Most people respond by cracking up. I feel lucky that everyone who has seen it has had a positive reaction. No one has flat out said they disliked it or were offended.”

Utilizing his proficiency with lighting and compositing techniques, the artist who conceived “Respire, Mon Ami” crafted four unique environments for the film, each of which presented its own challenges.
The setting for the story—the French countryside a couple of hundred years ago—was inspired by a backpacking trip through Europe that Nabholz took before attending Ringling. “I loved the scenery and thought it would make a beautiful setting,” he says. His love of construction and architecture also shows in the details of the buildings the characters pass by. Even though Nabholz himself is a native English speaker (he grew up in Pennsylvania), the film’s dialog is in French, with English subtitles. “It worked much better with the setting than English would have, which helped pull the audience through the story,” he explains. Plus, Nabholz included some “bad-translation” gags—inaccurate translations of the kind he says “you might see in B movies.”
Another source of inspiration was the “very rural” location of his childhood: “I had lots of little adventures with both real and imaginary friends.” Add to that a self-acknowledged dark sense of humor, and you get a touching friendship between child and decapitated head.
“Respire, Mon Ami” is two minutes long and took close to seven months to make. Nabholz used Autodesk’s Maya for animating, modeling, and rigging, Pixar’s RenderMan (for Maya) for rendering, Apple’s Shake for compositing, and Adobe’s Photoshop for texturing. He also purchased a license for Luxology’s Modo and employed it, along with Maya and Photoshop, for texturing and UV’ing. “Modo’s painting tools helped me speed up the texturing process,” says Nabholz. The animation was keyframed, with dynamic animation used only on the child’s hair and ponytail.
Nabholz says his specialty is lighting and compositing. For the project, “I wanted to create four unique environments [the town, the picnic, a road scene, and a riverside scene] so that I could work on lighting each one separately. Each environment presented its own challenges.”
The results satisfied Nabholz for the most part, though he is quick to say, “I still have a lot to learn.” One source of frustration, he says, was the bike scene. “It got the least amount of work, and I think it shows. I had planned to change the way the head flew off the bike and the way the child catches it, but in the interest of time, I ended up leaving it and concentrating on lighting the final shots.”
For Nabholz, the most satisfying scene in the film is one in which leaves are blown around as air passes through the neck of the severed head while the child performs CPR on it. “It may not be the most beautiful or well-done scene,” he says, “but it tends to get a lot of reactions.”
Conscience as furniture
Anyone who has ever faced a deadline in the dark hours of the night—computer animators, in particular—will appreciate Eric Drobile’s short film “The Animator and the Seat,” which appeared in the Animation Theaters. The message is that the work can be hard, but giving up is not an option—even if you’ve decided to give up. Says Drobile, “I realized that computer artists all over the world are fighting the same battle against their computers every day. I wanted to speak to these people through a short film, as if to put my hand gently on their shoulder and say, ‘I know it’s hard. I feel your pain. Now make that deadline or you’re fired!’”
Chunk, the story’s protagonist, is a schlumpy computer animator working all alone in his cubicle late one night. He is clearly bogging down and has run out of coffee. As he gazes hopelessly at his computer screen, the chair he is sitting in decides to get involved—very involved. Chunk’s reaction is one of terror. A struggle commences. And we find out who’s boss.
Drobile completed the two-minute film over a period of about a year as his senior project at Ringling School of Art and Design. The story was based on an earlier animatic he had done involving a chair’s obsessive love for a computer user. The Chunk story evolved from there. “I knew I wasn’t going to have any trouble relating to a sad animator my senior year,” says Drobile. “It’s really important that you relate to your work, and at least put a little dab of your heart into it.”

Adobe’s Flash played a vital role in planning the story and creating the animatics for “The Animator and the Seat.” Later, the filmmaker used Autodesk’s Maya for the modeling.
Drobile already had experience with Adobe Flash and 2D animation when he began the project. Flash came in handy, because he ended up making approximately 10 different animatics with it that went through “several painful, full-faculty critiques” before he had a workable story. “I am a huge fan of Adobe Flash when it comes to planning animation and creating animatics,” he says. “It can save you a huge amount of time.”
Once the animatic was ready, Drobile began modeling in Autodesk’s Maya. “I generally use Maya’s standard polygon tools,” he says, “but I do a large amount of sketching along the way to help me understand more complicated surfaces. The key to having appealing models is to do several revisions and explore a lot of different design choices.” After the models were finished, he used Adobe’s Photoshop to create textures and Mental Images’ Mental Ray to bake occlusion onto the environments. He used Flash to plan as many shots as possible, which he believes gave the work more of a traditionally animated feel. The hardest part of making the film, says Drobile, was animating physical character interactions. For instance, “animating the chair slowly massaging Chunk (without having the arms intersect his geometry, and while making his shirt look like it’s being pushed and pulled) was extremely tedious.” The struggle between Chunk and the chair at the end of the film was also challenging to animate for similar reasons.
Drobile says he’s particularly proud of a scene at the very end of the film, when the chair is massaging Chunk for a second time. “It’s a different take on something the audience has already seen, but this time Chunk is crying and the chair is being quite forceful. The shot usually gets a pretty good laugh—a result of Chunk’s horrified expression and pathetic whimpering.” Drobile hopes that scenes such as these showcase his abilities as a character animator, and the importance of character animation. “The overall production is extremely important,” he says, “but it’s that last 10 percent of character detail that can really make a film awesome.” 
Jenny Donelan is a contributing editor for Computer Graphics World. She can be reached at .