Best in Class
Issue: Volume: 31 Issue: 9 (Sept. 2008)

Best in Class

Francois-Xavier Bologna, Vincent Le Ster, Lyonel Charmette, Theophile Bondoux
Supinfocom (Arles, France)

The standard practice at Supinfocom, which always seems to have student films in competition at SIGGRAPH and other festivals, is to ask for short-film ideas from their students. The faculty members choose several of the ideas, and then the students coalesce in groups around the originators of those ideas. Francois-Xavier Bologna came up with the concept of two retired people racing wheelchairs in a retirement home. Vincent Le Ster, Lyonel Charmette, and Theophile Bondoux joined him to create a team of four.

“We all worked together on the final story,” Bondoux says. “We were already friends, and we still are.” And then, he adds with a laugh: “which is not always the case after a project like this.”

The decision to create this five-minute film in HD resolution—a first for Supinfocom—made this a particularly difficult project. “The modeling needed to be more precise, the textures needed to be bigger, and we multiplied the rendering time by six,” Bondoux says. “But it was interesting for us because it forced us to be well organized and to optimize all our scenes as much as possible.”

The students started on the film in September and spent until December on pre-production. “Pre-production was important,” Bondoux says. “We worked to clearly establish the structure of the movie. Fortunately, we were all open-minded. We would say, ‘I want to do that, but your idea is also great. Maybe we can find a way to combine.’”
At the end of December, the team had created a complete 3D animatic, which it followed closely through production during the rest of the school year. For tools, the students used Autodesk’s 3ds Max, Adobe’s After Effects and Photoshop, and Digi­design’s Pro Tools (for the sound).

During the early stages of production, each student worked on every aspect of the film; later, they began to drift into particular areas of interest. “We all wanted to try everything to see what we liked,” Bondoux says. Bondoux, who discovered a particular passion for animation and layout—camera and picture composition—is now working as a layout artist for DreamWorks Animation in Bangalore, India. The other three members of the team have joined the crew at the Herald Family for MK2 Production’s feature animation The True Story of Puss ‘n Boots.

The CG stars of "Bolides," a student film from Supinfocom, began their race in wheelchairs.

Carbon Footprint
Matt Lambert, director; Stefano Salvini, producer; Matt Chandler, VFX supervisor/3D artist; Fabio Zaveti, lead compositor
Jellyfish Pictures (London)
Bruce Meier, producer
The Discovery Channel EMEA

During one, seamless, 30-second camera shot, we watch the decomposition of an aluminum can over 50 years, as if documented with time-lapse photos during that half-century. The entire short film, which dramatizes the ecological impact of not recycling, was digital except for the first shot.

The film opens with a man walking toward the camera while drinking a soda. He tosses the can, it rolls into a gutter, and becomes digital. The shot ends with a few pieces of the rusty can still left.

Jellyfish Pictures created the illusion for the Discovery Channel using Autodesk’s 3ds Max, Pixologic’s Zbrush, Adobe’s Photoshop, Splutterfish’s Brazil, and Eyeon’s Digital Fusion. This was completed in approximately seven weeks, a tight schedule for the complicated effect. “It seemed strange to create a time-lapse sequence using CG, which is a time-consuming process,” says Matt Chandler, visual effects supervisor, who created the short with Fabio Zaveti, who handled compositing. “But it was quite interesting to work out all the detail rather than creating a character scene. It wasn’t just the drink can; it was the whole environment. We spent a lot of hours on CG that’s gone in an eye blink.”

In Jellyfish Pictures’ CG film, “Carbon Footprint,” we watch a cola can disintegrate as if subjected to the forces of nature for 50 years and filmed with time-lapse photography. 

Using time-lapse photography and images of street scenes as reference, Chandler created shaders that drove geometry, as in a scene during which ice coats the can, and animated geometry that drove particle effects, as in a snow scene.

Zaveti added rusty details to Chandler’s models of the can and the environment by sculpting in Zbrush. For texture maps, he painted photographs that he had taken of street litter. “I really wanted everything to look 3D,” he says. “So I made 3k maps from photographs, applied a displacement map, and then moved the maps around in 3D within Fusion. But, I hand-animated the hero pebbles.” 

To create the illusion that the film records the degradation of the can over many years, the artists wrote new shaders and added effects in compositing. “That was the main issue,” Chandler says. “We didn’t want the effects to be distracting or make the can look digital. We wanted the film to look like a sequence of images poorly assembled, as if it had been damaged in the process.”

“I used color correction and added grain and flickering, random light,” says Zaveti. “Matt [Chandler] lit every scene like a different moment of the day. And we added a little back and forward on the camera to make it look jittery between frames.” The photoreal result has garnered the studio awards from the Worldfest, Promax BDA, D&AD, and ESCape competitions, as well as the SIGGRAPH Best of Show nomination.

Students at Gobelins in Paris put unique CG characters in an unusual setting in “Oktapodi” to create the wild race through the narrow streets of a village in Greece.

Julien Bocabeille, Francois-Xavier Chanioux, Olivier Delabarre, Thierry Marchand, Quentin Marmier, Emud Mokhberi
Gobelins (Paris)

How did six fourth-year students at Gobelins create this award-winning, action-packed, two-minute animated film? With Autodesk’s Maya, Mental Images’ Mental Ray, Adobe’s After Effects, Photoshop, and Premiere, and many long hours.

“Normally in the US, we might do two or three weeks of all-nighters and then take a break,” says Emud Mokhberi, an American UCLA graduate in computer science and film, who took an intensive eight-week course in French before entering the Paris-based school. “This was six months of that kind of effort. We fell behind at the beginning because we spent a long time on the story, and we were trying to do something the school thought was already too much.”

When the students began brainstorming, all they knew was that they wanted to create a film with 3D graphics, and they wanted to do work with an animal or creature they hadn’t seen in traditional animation. Once they settled on octopus lovers, they brainstormed again to find an unusual location. “We decided on China, and then we learned about Kung Fu Panda,” Mokhberi says. Finally, they settled on Greece, and began working out the story. In the story, the octopus lovers, separated by a fisherman, desperately try to get back together even though one is on its way to market in a speeding truck driven by the fisherman through the narrow, winding streets.

Although everyone animated the characters, the students divided the rest of the work according to who could and wanted to do it. Mokhberi edited and programmed MEL scripts, for example, while Olivier Delabarre did character designs, art direction, and paintings; Quentin Marmier modeled; and Mokhberi and Thierry Marchand rigged the characters.

To control the tentacled cartoon creatures, special rigs allowed the octopuses to walk, climb walls, swim, and fly through the air. To create the world in which the chase takes place, the team modeled an entire village in 3D using 10 houses and such props as umbrellas, chairs, and plants, and built the backgrounds from camera view. To simulate the water, they used Next Limit’s RealFlow.

In addition to winning Best of Show and the Audience Prize at SIGGRAPH, “Oktapodi” has received an honorary mention at Prix Ars, Best Student Animated Short Film at Ficci Baf, Best Animation at Imagina, Gran Premio at ArtFutura, and Grand Prix at Courts Devant.

Gloria the hippo and Melman the giraffe unfasten their seat belts and remove their oxygen masks after a ’toonful crash-landing in DreamWorks’ CG feature Madagascar: The Crate Escape. The sequence was nominated for a Best of Show award.

Medagascar: The crate escape
Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath, directors
DreamWorks Animation (Glendale, California)

The penguins are flying the plane. The zoo­sters Alex the Lion, Marty the Zebra, Melman the Giraffe, and Gloria the Hippo, who have been stranded on Madagascar, are finally on their way home to New York.

“I have good news and bad news,” says a penguin pilot. The good news: the plane is landing. The bad news: crash-landing. In Africa.

The short flight and crash sequence, which also appears in a trailer, scored a Best of Show nomination. “It’s definitely one of our heavier effects sequences,” says Philippe Gluckman, visual effects supervisor.

The sequence introduces the zoosters to Africa and the effects crew to some of the film’s major challenges: clouds and grass. The clouds, which drift through the big sky over the wide African landscape, are sometimes painted and sometimes 3D in the film, but in this sequence, they’re all 3D.

“We thought that getting realistic light behavior through the clouds would be beneficial, but hard to paint,” Gluckman says.

To create the clouds, the crew used particles and volume rendering, but to light the fluffy whites, they developed an approximation that the lighters could use. “Getting that approximation was important so people had a reasonable turnaround,” Gluckman says. “We did the final volume render with more details on the farm.”

Grass provided the other effects challenge—more challenging even than the jungles of Madagascar. “There are a lot of plants in the jungle, of course,” Gluckman says. “But they obscure the view quickly. And for trees, the simplification was more obvious than for grass. Past a certain distance, we used trees on cards that are coarsely lightable because we baked the normal information into them. So, we didn’t have to render full geometry. But cards don’t work for the grass. Also, we had surprising problems. The lighting is very angle-dependant.”

In addition to clouds and grass, the effects crew wrangled the same types of problems they had in the original Madagascar—crowd shots, water, fire, smoke, and so forth—and they promise the crew brought the same wacky and wonderful cartoon style to those effects. The plane leaves a cookie-cutter shape in a cloud, for example, the effects crew used cartoon physics for the crash-landing, and a volcano spews cartoony lava. As for the characters? “We have surprises,” Gluckman says.

If the surprises are as superior as this sequence, the Best of Show nomination at SIGGRAPH this year could signal an Oscar nomination next year.

CG fish, in a live-action aquarium, rap in rhythm to the Chemical Brothers’ “Salmon Dance,” thanks to the effects artists at Framestore CFC.

The Salmon Dance
Dom & Nic, directors
Ben Cronin, VFX supervisor; Michael Mellor, animator; Simon French, lighting technical director
Framestore CFC (London)

This “hip-hop meets the age of aquariums” music video for The Chemical Brothers begins with a boy looking at his fish tank, where the piranha FatLip, the salmon Sammy, and the beatboxing porcupine-fish Puffer float inside. 

“Hello boys and girls,” mouths the piranha. “My name is FatLip, and this is my friend Sammy the Salmon. Today we’re going to teach you some fun facts about salmon and a brand new dance.” The beat begins, Puffer inflates and deflates in rhythm, and the salmon, a lionfish, sea horses, butterflyfish, and angelfish dance nearby. During the course of the tune, 320 other fish join the three hero fish—sometimes in Busby Berkeley chorus lines.

“Every fish, except the background fish, had individual rigs,” says Michael Mellor. “They had so many different features, there wasn’t much chance for economizing.”

Facial animation rigs set up in Autodesk Maya helped Mellor lip-sync the hero fish, and eye blinks helped add personality. “The fish can’t actually blink, but it doesn’t look wrong,” he says. Spikes rigged on the puffer fish followed the skin and stayed in place while the puffer puffed, and an animation cycle handled the repetitive beatboxing. Fins and tails on other fish, especially the lionfish, moved with dynamic scripts.

“The idea for FatLip was that he sort of moved in time to the music, like a cool rapper-type guy,” Mellor says.

For the chorus lines, Mellor leaned on Side Effects’ Houdini animators for help. “Certain applications, like flocking and procedural animation, are just quicker in Houdini,” he says. 

The water in the fish tank was real, but the artists added digital detritus, plankton, and so forth. To give the CG fish the proper lighting effects, they used materials within Maya and Mental Images’ Mental Ray. “We set refractive detail at 1.6, and that essentially did it,” says French. “But we had to pull tricks getting the alpha out of that because the refractive properties of the material don’t give you a nice image of the fish that can be cut out and placed over the top of the plate.”

After pre-compositing in Apple’s Shake to adjust all the lighting, Framestore CFC’s TDs did final composites in Autodesk’s Inferno, working interactively with the client.

“The biggest challenge was the time we had,” says Mellor. “We had six weeks to do 65 shots. But, we had more freedom and creative license than with commercials, so that was a benefit.”

They put that creative license to good use. In addition to the SIGGRAPH Best of Show nomination, “Salmon Dance” has won numerous other awards, including a Visual Effects Society award for Best Animated Character (FatLip) in a Live Action Broadcast Program. 

Two students at a film academy in Potsdam, Germany, take waiting for a bus to a hilarious extreme in the short CG film “Chump and Clump.”

Chump and Clump
Stephan Sacher, Michael Herm
HFF Konrad Wolf (Potsdam, Germany)
This short animated film about a boxy green dude named Chump and a globular guy named Clump waiting at a bus stop debuted at SIGGRAPH, where it received a nomination for a Jury Award. It started as a mid-term project, but the student directors stretched it into a final-year diploma project.

“The initial idea was a joke between us,” says Michael Herm. “We had a class called Story Development, and in the first session we were joking, ‘Why make a story? Let’s just put a cube and a sphere on the screen and call it a movie.’ And then we thought about it some more and decided maybe that wasn’t such a bad idea after all, so we started thinking about what they could do. And then one day, I was waiting for the bus and wondered, what if the bus only came once a week and I missed it?”

In the initial phase of the project, Stephan Sacher focused on art direction and Herm started modeling and character-rigging. Both students animated the characters, though, learning how to use Autodesk’s Maya on the job.

“Everything was hand-animated,” says Herm. “I tried some cloth simulation on the scarves, but it didn’t work out, so I decided to rig them with bones. For the beverages they drink, I used lattice deformations.”

The near backgrounds are 3D, but the duo painted the sky behind using Adobe’s Photoshop. For rendering, the team used Mental Images’ Mental Ray; for compositing, Apple’s Shake. “We had only a simple beauty pass and an ambient occlusion pass,” says Helm. “And, of course, for Clump’s hat, we had a fur pass that we created using [Joe Alter’s] Shave and a Haircut.”

When Sacher and Herm started their project together at the Film and Television Academy (Hochschule für Film und Fernsehen – HFF) Konrad Wolf, a traditional school that limits admission to approximately a dozen students, they were among a small number of animators working in 3D. “The main focus was on stop motion, puppets, hand-drawn animation, experimental animation, and 2D,” Helm says.

But within a short time, the school had four CG projects in the works, including a second Jury Award nominee, “Our Wonderful Nature.” “It was a huge problem at first,” Helm says. “They had to hurry to get people and workstations into the school to help us, but that went pretty well. Now, they have the latest software and technology, and more instructors.” 

In "Mauvais Role," students at ESRA free the CG star of a video game from his typecasting as a monster and help him find a new role in life.

Maruvais Role
Alan Barbier, Camille Campion, Dorian Fevrier, Frédéric Fourier, Frédéric LaFay, Min Ma, Jean-François Mace, Emanuel Reperant, Jérémie Rousseau, Olivier Sicot
ESRA (Ecole superieure de realisation audiovisuelle), Sup’Infograph (Bretagne, France)

The seven-minute animation begins with Marcel playing an evil monster in a video game, but in a climactic moment, he quits and goes home. He’s tired of playing the bad guy. We see him in a T-shirt rocking out in his apartment, checking the Web for a different kind role he can play in a game. Perhaps a racing simulation? Sports? He tries them all, and then...he finds his true calling.

The team of students started on the animation in October 2006, and had their story and character design in place by January. For software, they used Autodesk’s Maya, Mental Images’ Mental Ray, Next Limit’s RealFlow, Pixologic’s ZBrush, and Adobe’s After Effects, Photoshop, and Premiere. 

 “The character design was really important because we had one main character,” says Fourier. “So during the first few months, we had many changes in the face, the armor, and his scale.” For inspiration, they referenced hero fantasy games, short films from Blur Studio and Digic Pictures, and Disney/Pixar’s Monsters, Inc.

Each student worked on preferred sequences, tackling various environments, from 3D race cars to 2D backgrounds. “That kept everyone happy working on the project and very involved,” says Frédéric Fourier. “Most of us wanted to work on the first sequence, though.” Not surprisingly, that’s when Marcel plays the monster in the video game. “Initially, it was longer, but too long, so we had to cut things.”

In addition to it winning the Jury Award at SIGGRAPH, “Mauvais Rôle” also received a nomination for the Student Prize. 

Our Wonderful Nature
Tomer Eshed
HFF Konrad Wolf (Potsdam, Germany)

The film looks and sounds like a nature film in the beginning, a documentary on the mating habits of water shrews, and it continues to look like a nature film, although the shrews soon stop acting exactly like shrews in the wild. As the two male shrews battle for the attention of a female, they show skills Jet Li and the Matrix’s Neo would admire.

The question Tomer Eshed hears most often is, “How did you come up with this idea?” He has a thoughtful answer. “I wanted to do a project in 3D to see how it feels to go through all the stages, and I was thinking about what kinds of stories I could do in 3D that I couldn’t achieve with other animation techniques,” he explains. “My conclusion was that I could reach a natural look. That led me to think, ‘Aha! I can make a nature film.’”

That idea was so inventive that in addition to the Jury Award nomination, the SIGGRAPH jury devised a category, the Well Told Fable (WTF), to give this film a prize.

Eshed spent a school year working on the project alone, designing the characters, learning Autodesk Maya, creating 3D models for the first time, rigging for the first time. “It was a long and painful process,” he says. “When you are learning by doing, you cannot do anything except try to do your best and be happy with what comes out.” What came out after a year was a rough version of the film.

These two male water shrews in the CG short "Our Wonderful Nature" practice martial arts to vie for the attention of a female shrew.  The film won the Well Told Fable prize at SIGGRAPH.

“I decided I could go on like this and finish the film in 15 years,” Eshed says,  “or look for people who would join in.”

The second year, he had a team, notably Dennis Rettkowski, who became the technical director and compositor, and Jan Schneider, who designed the set. Working in Maya, Eshed and Rettkowski modeled the characters and the environment—plants, stones, a big tree, and so forth, adding moss with Joe Alter’s Shave and a Haircut, which they also used for the shrews’ fur. They rendered the scenes with Pixar’s RenderMan.

“Basically, we rendered a few plants built with geometry and then used the renderings to fill in the backgrounds because the background plants aren’t in focus,” Eshed explains. “RenderMan helped us save a lot of compositing work. We imagined we’d have to put the lighting, the fur, the figures, the backgrounds together in compositing, but we ended up managing most of those features in one shot.”

The group hand-animated the hero plants, those that came in contact with the animals, but created scripts to move wind through the rest of the vegetation. To create the effect of light traveling through leaves, they created texture maps by scanning real leaves with and without light shining through, and then picked the appropriate images for the direction of the light in the shots.

For the shrews, they used nature films as reference, particularly for the early scenes. Eshed didn’t storyboard the fight scenes. “I spontaneously animated the whole thing,” he says. “If I had one [character] throw a kick, I animated the other one ducking down. And, every time I encountered something I couldn’t do, I would go back to the rig and see how to change it.”

Eshed has two scripts already in mind for his next project, one continuing the “Wonderful Nature” theme, the other more of a narrative. This time, he plans to gather a team from the start. “The bigger, the better,” he says.

The tactile CG character Lundo, rendered in real time with Gelato, helped drive “The Plush Life” to a Jury Award nomination.

The Plush Life
Timothy Heath
Nvidia (Santa Clara, California)

Nvidia’s digital film group hired Timothy Heath as an artist-in-residence to help promote the company’s Gelato rendering program. Using Autodesk’s Maya and Joe Alter’s Shave and a Haircut, Heath created two characters to show off Gelato’s ability to handle plush surfaces in real time: Lundo is a furry, Muppet-like character; Flint is velveteen. The two buddies are on their way to work; Journey’s “Wheel in the Sky” is on the radio. The short film debuted at SIGGRAPH 2007 in Nvidia’s booth, and this year it received a nomination for a Jury Award.

“It wasn’t finished in time last year to submit it to SIGGRAPH,” Heath says, “so I thought, why not try this year? It isn’t technically ambitious; it’s just an animated film done by one person. Maybe it’s just me, but I think it has a neat look to it.”

Heath animated the characters in Maya using playblasts to see the fur before rendering in Gelato with deep shadows. Now, he’s started work on a second installment of Lundo and Flint’s amazing adventures, this time working with Mental Ray from Mental Images (which was recently acquired by Nvidia). “The premise for the films is that the two characters work together, but even in the next one, they don’t make it to the office,” he says. “They’re in a fast-food restaurant. I’m calling this installment ‘Pork Nuggets.’”

After the debut of “The Plush Life,” Heath heard from broadcast networks that might be interested in creating a series. “That was my original goal for the property,” Heath says, “so that would be cool. But if these don’t make it, maybe the next two or three I’ve got going will.”

Barbara Robertson is an award-winning writer and a contributing editor for Computer Graphics World. She can be reached at .