Some short films build around a story arc—a beginning, middle, and end. For others, an interesting character, or perhaps a conflict, drives the concept. Teddy Newton’s stunningly original short “Day&Night,” on the other hand, began as a doodle and grew into a metaphor.
“I was drawing a keyhole,” Newton says. “I added a couple eyeballs, and it kind of looked like a guy. I wasn’t creating an animated film. It was just a gag.”
A gag until Pixar producer Kevin Reher (“Partly Cloudy,” A Bug’s Life) suggested that Newton pitch a short film. Newton had been a character designer for Pixar’s Oscar-nominated short film “Presto,” Ratatouille, and The Incredibles, a development artist for Up, and had help write the short “Jack-Jack Attack.” Before joining Pixar, he was a development artist for Osmosis Jones and The Iron Giant, and co-wrote and co-produced the mock-1950s public education film The Trouble with Lou. But, he hadn’t yet directed a film. With that opportunity now staring him in the face, Newton remembered the keyhole drawings and thought he might be able to do something with them.
“I didn’t have a story,” Newton says. “But, I knew we were interested in [stereo] 3D movies. And the idea of looking through a keyhole seemed like a practical idea to pitch in 3D because you’d be looking into a world.” So, the keyhole doodle became a theme. Then, Newton imagined having two keyholes. “Like looking through binoculars,” he says, “but, with one eye nighttime and the other eye daytime.”
When Newton imagined putting two “keyhole” characters side by side, and using them to reveal the different times of day, the theme began to grow into a story. He wasn’t convinced, however, that the characters could do more than provide a window into 3D worlds. “If I set them in motion, there would be so many things to look at, I’d have to be careful where the [audiences’] eyes go,” he says.
So, Newton created walk cycles for the hand-drawn characters, put photographs inside the “keyholes,” that is, the inside of the characters’ line drawings, and looked at the result through stereo 3D glasses. “It convinced me,” he says. “I thought the characters could walk along and reveal what they were walking against. I had an idea that they would meet, and I wanted them to change in a sunset moment in the end.” He turned a few of his ideas into a presentation—Day waking up, Day and Night fighting, and the characters going into the sunset at the end—and pitched his idea.
“I showed it to John [Lasseter], and it was the fastest green light to a film at Pixar,” Newton says. “I didn’t even make it through the whole presentation. John said, ‘Well, I guess this is the one we’re going to put on top of Toy Story.’ ”
Newton then began coming up with scenes he could use within Day and Night. “Fireworks, a girl on the beach, whatever,” he says. “We wanted them to be qualities of the character’s inner world. Once I had a couple dozen, I filtered out the best ones, the ones I would showcase and that would catch the other character’s attention.”
Normally a short has two sets, not many more. Newton ended up with 18 different CG sets, that is, 18 little CG movies stitched together into backgrounds. “That was unprecedented for a Pixar short,” he says.
The film begins with Day, waking up. He is a 2D line drawing on a black background. Inside, he has a strip of green on the bottom and blue above—grass and sky. Birds chirp. He stretches, and animated clouds move into the blue sky. He scratches, and we hear a cow moo; he bends over, and we hear thunder. He ambles sleepily toward
the right, then more hurriedly. And then quickly sits. We hear running water and see water spilling from a waterfall into a stream below. When he stands up and stretches, a horse neighs. Now fully awake, he strides jauntily, arms swinging, toward the right of the screen. Birds fly through the sky. When joggers run across the grassy field, he looks down and smiles.
And then he walks past a sleeping character, a hand-drawn character identical to him, but filled with darker blue and darker green. Inside this character, sheep are jumping over a fence. Day pokes him, and Night wakes up. The two characters circle each other warily. When they stop, Night on the left and Day on the right, we hear frogs croak and an owl call. A songbird chirps, and Day pokes Night in the belly. Night wakes up and pushes Day. Day pushes back. They don’t like each other; they don’t accept their differences. They wrestle.
This scene, with Night’s wolf howling at Day’s bathing beauties, required artful modeling and composition to have the wolf look down on a round, rather than elliptical, CG pool.
Through the film, the three-dimensional, animated world inside each character reflects their emotions. Day has a sun, Night has a moon. When Night sees a butterfly fluttering inside Day, he shows Day fireflies. Day counters with a rainbow. Night shoots fireworks. They continue one-upping each other. And then, Day shows Las Vegas in the daytime, and Night turns on the neon. Night joyfully grabs Day. They dance, and the characters become a metaphor.
“A lot of times people see someone, or not even a person, that’s extremely different,” Newton says. “It challenges their world a bit. You feel protective of your routines and what you do, and you don’t want to be influenced too much by another person’s way. But if you learn a little more about the person or custom, you might get excited about the unknown.”
Creating the Characters
A team that fluctuated from 25 to 50 worked on the film, with six animators creating the hand-drawn characters. Newton, who had drawn the 2D titles for Ratatouille, penciled many of the drawings on paper, with supervising animator Tom Gately providing most of the key poses.
“It wasn’t so much like drawing a character and sending it into the world, like in Roger Rabbit,” Newton says. “It was framing a background with a character’s body. We had to be real specific about where we placed the character so we could frame the background without having trees poking through the eyeballs.”
(Above) Night, a line drawing scanned and applied to a 2D plane, sleeps in the foreground. Day, another line drawing similarly added to the scene, shows dismay at seeing a darker version of himself. The CG sheep jumping over a fence in the background appear inside Night in the film. (Top, right) Night’s and Day’s internal scenes grow deeper in stereo 3D.
While the characters moved, the elements in the 3D background inside the character moved as well—wind blew, water poured, characters ran through the scene. Sometimes, though, the characters would hold a pose while the background animation carried on. If the animators worried that the characters were sedentary too long, Newton would remind them that there was another movie inside the character. “Usually you have the main characters do all the work,” Newton says, “so this was an unusual idea.”
Often, the animators would do what Newton calls a “moving hold.” “We would have them strike a pose, and give the characters a subtle bit of motion,” he says. For example, when Day frames a radio tower during a Night and Day swing dance toward the end, the animators stretch the character’s arm into a single pose. “We get subtle expansion by how far he’s stretching,” Newton says. “He’s not moving his hands and legs; it’s more like a rubber band that’s reached its limit. That’s the way we’d use moving holds. You look at the internals and then we trade back to the foreground world to keep life in the characters. It’s like having two films running side by side.”
Mike Fu, supervising technical director, might beg to differ. “What we have is three films in one,” he explains, “a short film made of CG
backgrounds for Day, a short film made of CG backgrounds for Night, and the 2D characters. We ended up with three compositions: a composition for Night, a composition for Day, and a composition for all three.”
To help the animators, the CG team would start with Newton’s storyboards to see his timing, mock up the sets, and stitch them together. Then, they printed out every frame and gave them to the animators to use as backgrounds on their light tables.
“In the end, you’d never know if a shot worked until we put it all together,” Fu says. Fu uses the scene in the opening, with joggers running inside Day while he’s walking, as an example. “The challenge was in getting everything to hit right,” he says. “The camera path, the length of the set, how fast the joggers ran, how fast the 2D character moved. If the joggers were too close, we’d move them back, and then they were too small. There were a lot of things Teddy could do in 2D and get away with that we couldn’t do in 3D.”
Another example: “On Teddy’s boards, when Day first meets Night, Night is sleeping on the ground. Day walks in front of him, and we follow Day. It looks great in 2D, but in 3D things on the horizon don’t move as far in screen space as Teddy had drawn. So, we had to solve that. We introduced a pan, but we didn’t want it to feel like a pan. So we cheated the set and had it move in opposition to the camera.”
Similarly, the CG artists would often cheat scale to have the images inside the characters read properly. Trees in one scene might be as small as people, and in another, as big as buildings.
Fu joined the production early in the process, when Newton knew he wanted 2D foregrounds but still wasn’t sure how to do the internal images. “He thought about doing stop motion or live action, but we decided on CG because I knew I could have the control Teddy wanted,” Fu says.
Because the animators drew the characters in pencil on paper, Fu’s team scanned the drawings and then used Vector Magic’s software and proprietary code to convert the bit-mapped images to vector art. “With any vectorizing software, there are still some bits that aren’t exactly what the artist drew,” Fu says. “The software has to guess at some point. So, we’d pre-process the images to give the vectorizer better information and help it as much as we could.” For example, the pre-processing technique might enlarge some areas and sharpen others.
The crew also used Toon Boom’s Animo to help with digital inking and painting. “We had to build a whole 2D pipeline,” Fu says. “That in itself was a big challenge.”
The larger challenge, however, was inserting the 3D scenes into the 2D characters. “We built a kludged pipeline,” Fu says. “We rendered out planes and brought them into our proprietary 3D system. Depending on what we needed in the scene, we’d attach them to the environment or the camera. It would have been faster to do this in compositing, but we would have lost the interaction between other departments, such as the lighters and the animators. And, we wanted the ability to render the film in stereo.” (See “Stereo Duality,” pg. 36).
Director Teddy Newton designed “Day&Night” as a stereo 3D film from the beginning. When projected in stereo, the airplanes appear to fly toward the audience in this shot.
With the characters rendered as 2D cards, the animators could adjust the timing within the 3D system. “The first version the animators saw had floating lines in a 3D world. But as we refined the process, we’d scan the images and cut out the character holes. They could work with an animated texture card in the 3D system that was attached to the camera or the 3D set, depending on what they needed.”
Even so, it took a lot of back and forth to get the timing right. “It was like a Rubik’s Cube,” Fu says. “We’d solve one problem in Day that would mess up Night. We’d fix something in CG to fix the 2D, and then something else would break.”
Lighting also became a “night-and-day” problem, one that production designer Don Shank and lighting supervisor Andrew Pienaar addressed early in the production. “They knew it would be a challenge to get both characters to read at the same time, because the black background is such a predominant part of the overall image,” Fu says. “We had to light [the CG scenes] for Day and then light again for Night, and still have both characters read well.”
Stereo Duality Director Teddy Newton envisioned “Day&Night” as a stereo 3D film from the start. In fact, he pitched the film as a stereo 3D film.
“We designed everything to be in [stereo] 3D,” Newton says. “In the beginning of the film, we wanted the 3D to be played out quite shallow and symbolic of the characters, who look only at surfaces. When they become interested in each other, we play with depth. The sets not only become deeper, but the fireflies peek out beyond the perimeter of the character and the jets come through the body. It gets more elaborate so that by the time the sunset scene comes, we have a glow of light breach beyond the edges of the character as the sun unifies them.”
Although stereo added depth to the story, it deepened the challenges on the production side. “Teddy [Newton] had certain rules of the world that he had invented,” says Mike Fu, supervising technical director. “Even though Day and Night are cutouts, when Day walks in front of Night, he occludes him. We had to follow that, even in stereo. When the audience sees the film in a traditional theater, they see Day move in front of Night and block him. In stereo, they see that, but they also see Day move closer in stereo space. They see the characters actually circling each other in 3D space.”
Also, stereo meant that the team needed to compose the shots in 3D. They couldn’t simply layer the 2D characters over the internal 3D scenes in compositing. “Stereo removed the cheats we could have done,” Fu says. “But, it added a lot to the stereo version of the movie.”
Thus, to keep the pipeline consistent, the crew rendered everything, including the 2D characters in Pixar’s RenderMan. For most stereo 3D films, the crew renders the shots from one eye and then, to add stereo, renders a second eye. This film required three renders. “For the 2D format, we split the difference between the two eyes,” Fu says. “Then we offset the eyes left and right.”
“Fortunately,” Fu adds, “because much of the image is black, we could afford to do it in terms of rendering resources. We could use the 2D to mask out the 3D and render only what we needed. It was an extra process, but when you look at this stuff a lot, you see the difference. Composition is such a key point for this film.” –Barbara Robertson
Only one scene in the film has “dialog,” but even then, it is a voice-over. The characters never talk. Otherwise, the sound, designed by Barney Jones with Gary Rydstrom consulting, sometimes accents the action, sometimes doesn’t.
“We often hear sounds in the distance,” Newton says, “frogs, trains. They didn’t require internal visual action; we hear things in daily life that we don’t see.” In the theater, moviegoers hear night sounds on the left and day sounds on the right until they trade places. “I think it’s the first time I’ve ever heard two sets of ambient sounds simultaneously—the nighttime ambience and the daytime ambience happening together,” he adds.
The music, too, composed by Michael
Giacchino, comes from the world: from passing radios, for example. “We only breached that maybe once when the sunset happens,” Newton says.
The voice-over happens toward the end, during the swing dance, when the characters come together. We see a radio tower appear inside Day and hear an excerpt from a speech by Dr. Wayne Dyer: “Fear of the unknown. They are afraid of new ideas. They are loaded with prejudices, not based upon anything in reality, but based on … if something is new, I reject it immediately because it’s frightening to me. What they do instead is just stay with the familiar. You know, to me, the most beautiful things in all the universe are the most mysterious.”
The newest idea in this film, was, for arguably the first time in a short film, placing CG animation inside animated 2D characters. But, the metaphor elevates the film from a cartoon into a significant work of art.
“One thing my crew said was that they really enjoyed the message,” Fu says, “seeing people’s differences and appreciating them. It was fun to work on a meaningful project.”
For his part, Newton is a bit shy about the response people have to the film. “I’m glad that the people who love this film love it quite a bit,” he says. “It’s hard to know when you do a film. I’ve never seen this kind of story in an animated film before. It’s about people growing and coming together, yeah, but the sunset is more or less about them being able not only to unify, but trade off. One can see the world through the other’s eyes a little.”
Like peeking through a keyhole into another person’s mind.
Barbara Robertson is an award-winning writer and a contributing editor for Computer Graphics World. She can be reached at BarbaraRR@comcast.net.