Issue: Volume 34 Issue 8: (Oct/Nov 2011)

Scared Silly

By: Karen Moltenbrey
Not long ago, CG animated short fi lms were as rare as a vintage comic book. Today, though, they are a favorite medium for students, novices, and professional animators. At most animation schools, students complete a short for their final project and grade. At the other end of the spectrum, studios, such as Pixar, DreamWorks, and Blue Sky, often test a technique or technology
in the production environment of an animated short before jumping headfirst into a feature-length film.

So, if you want to create a CG animated short today using intellectual property, how do you distinguish it from all the others out there on the Internet, at various fi lm festivals, and elsewhere? That was the question haunting animator/producer/artist William “Proton” Vaughan not long ago.

The former DAVE School instructor and NewTek LightWave evangelist had spent years creating CG characters and other content for just about every type of medium—books, television, fi lms, games, toys. A self-professed zombie fan, Vaughan had an idea for a unique character: a friendly zombie named Tofu, who has a taste for vegetables and grains rather than human fl esh. “I’ve always been a massive fan of zombies,” says Vaughan. “When I was a kid, I’d watch anything that even mentioned the word ‘zombie’ in the title or description.”

It was Vaughan’s dream to bring the character to life. But aside from hard work and a great idea, sometimes it takes a bit of luck to turn a dream into a reality. Sometimes it takes tenacity. And sometimes, the stars need to align perfectly. In the case of Tofu, it was all
of these factors.


The Tofu animated short film was created mainly in NewTek’s LightWave and composited using
Eyeon’s Digital Fusion.


The Stars Align

The fi rst star occurred while Vaughan began to fl esh out his Tofu concept with a backstory and some digital models of the would-be cast, and stumbled upon what is now a popular trend: 3D printing. Once the domain of industrial design and manufacturing, rapid prototyping is used to generate physical parts or objects from CAD files. More recently, lower-cost 3D printers have emerged from this technology, enabling users like Vaughan to turn CG imagery into “real” objects. One of the early service providers off ering this technology was 3D Art to Part, which printed some of Vaughan’s 3D models.

“I have a massive toy collection—I don’t know of a single animator who doesn’t,” says Vaughan. “So I thought I would get some of my digital models printed. Once you do it, it becomes a bit of an addiction. After I did my fi rst one, I immediately did three more. Then I did some as gifts. And then I did some more. I just loved the idea of being able to hold my models in my hand.”

Soon after, Vaughan began to make custom awards for the NewTek development teams using 3D printing. “I was totally hooked. I knew I just had to make a toy,” he adds. “That’s what I was doing basically. 3D printing is just one step down from making a toy.” Well, at least in theory.

Finding even basic information about the toy manufacturing process proved diffi cult. “There are diff erences between prototype and production. You can 3D print almost anything, but most of the time you cannot manufacture it,” explains Vaughan. “I now have a whole new appreciation for the toys in my collection. Creating a toy is a long and expensive process. You have to really want to do this. Once the toy is designed and built in 3D, you are 1 percent there.”

Vaughan’s plan of attack was to create a toy based on a character he had created, Tofu, and release the toy prior to releasing an animation starring the vegan zombie and some of his off -kilter friends.

“My plan for Tofu was to build a property, a brand, and not just a toy and animation,” says Vaughan. “I wondered, how do I get attention for this property, which I think has legs, when everyone has an animated short? So I decided to make the toy fi rst, and then from the toy, discuss a comic book and animation, and even a TV show. I thought, how cool would it be to walk into a pitch meeting and set a physical toy down in front of everyone? It would carry more weight to show the physical property along with a script for the fi rst episode.”

The second star emerged thanks to the cute and colorful Care Bears. About the same time Vaughan was navigating the toy creation process, he was working on a Care Bear commercial and having a
rough go of it with the client. To maintain focus on the project, he temporarily turned the characters into scary bears while he worked out the technical details. The third star appeared when he went to a comic/toy show in Florida and saw his scare bear concept at someone else’s table.

“They actually did a great job with it. I was impressed,” says Vaughan. “I talked to the creator
and jokingly told him that he had stolen my idea.” Now that concept materialized before him as zombie teddy bears, called Teddy Scares, created by Joe DiDomenico and Phil Nannay of Applehead Factory in Philadelphia. “We hit it off immediately, and they were completely open with every little detail and information about how to make a toy,” he continues.

As Vaughan began working with the duo on a Tofu toy, he came to a conclusion: He had to make an investment in his beloved zombie and the company. So he bought into Applehead and become a partner. “It’s the best decision I ever made,” he adds, as it eventually led to several Tofu toys and other merchandise, as well as a continuation of the Teddy Scares brand.

The fourth star ascended at The DAVE School, where Vaughan was teaching. Earlier, New Line Cinema had optioned the Teddy Scares property, but the deal had fallen through. So Vaughan suggested that DiDomenico and Nannay let the students at the school create an animated short starring their Teddy Scare characters. “It was a good opportunity for them, and a good opportunity for the school, since it was such a fantastic property to work with,” he says. (Every year, the class is divided into groups, with each tasked to complete an animation project prior to graduation.) So, under Vaughan’s instruction, a class at the DAVE School created an animated short centered on the Teddy Scares, using LightWave along with Adobe’s After Effects for compositing.


In addition to generating an animated short, William Vaughan had his creation printed as a
3D model and then produced as a toy.


The Long (and Short) of It

Eventually, Tofu and his zombie cast became fodder for a class as well. “Tofu is very special to me, and I didn’t plan on it being done at the DAVE School. The students do really good work, but I had decided that I would rather not have them make the short unless it was exactly what I wanted. But, I had this one class and knew that if anyone could do it, they would be the ones to pull it off ,” Vaughan says. “And they did. I was blown away by their work.” Thus the students became the fi fth star in the Tofu constellation.

The Tofu animated short, called “Tofu the Vegan Zombie: Zombie Dearest,” is an all-student production. At more than eight minutes in length, the animated short is essentially a pilot, and Vaughan has a portfolio that includes concepts for 13 episodes, as well as an online Tofu game (www.tofutheveganzombie.com/game) and a growing cache of products based on the property.

When the students set out to make the short, they were starting with a character that had already been created—and was in the process of being manufactured. “Tofu has a distinct look, so they had to be sure that the other characters, especially the two humans in the script, were attractive and fi t into the same world as the zombies. Also, they had to design the rest of the characters so they could potentially be made into toys later down the road,” notes Vaughan.

Interestingly, the original Tofu—which was what the students had used for the short—had to be redesigned slightly for the toy.  e character was modeled in LightWave using subdivision surfaces, then exported as an STL file for 3D printing to a Z Corp. machine.

“He had a very skinny neck, ankles, and wrists, with thin fi ngers,” describes Vaughan. “I had to make slight changes to be sure the mold worked and for the articulation. You can model anything in 3D (software), but you can run into a problem during production. I now have a checklist for any toy that I am prototyping: making sure there are no holes in the mesh, that it is a complete solid mesh, that the limbs are not too thin, and that the pose is optimal.” Even Tofu’s tattered clothes had to be redesigned because they had been too thin for the toy production.

Using LightWave, along with Eyeon’s Digital Fusion for compositing, the students (under Vaughan’s direction and supervision) brought Tofu, along with four other characters plus the
two humans, to animated life. The animation was done all by hand—Tofu’s animation rig was a basic setup that involved IK for the legs and FK for everything else.  e facial setup used 100 percent morph targets, done using Endomorphs in LightWave. Texturing was a mix of LightWave’s built-in procedurals as well as image maps painted in Adobe’s Photoshop. All the lighting was achieved with NewTek’s built-in lights.

The characters are extremely detailed, as are the environments, in which every object is made of geometry. “All the backgrounds are modeled; there are no matte paintings,” Vaughan points out. “ e environments are out of control polygonal-wise in their detail— each shot contained millions of polys.”

The sheer number of assets in the short is astounding—the fully furnished rooms in the house, the fully stocked lab, the book-fi lled library, the food-laden dining room. Throughout, there are statues, paintings, ornate mirrors, and more; if you look closely, you can even see a replica of Vaughan’s head in a jar on a shelf and a few Teddy Scares here and there. Perhaps even more astounding is that the students were able to complete the work in just two and a half months. “ e deadline was crazy, but I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity so that if we got picked up for a TV show or movie, we would have a lot of the assets to work with,” says Vaughan.

According to Vaughan, the students did not cut any corners in the production. “You are handed a team—one that never made a movie before—and you are at their mercy in terms of the quality [of animation] they produce,” says Vaughan. However, while Vaughan and another instructor, Lee Stringer, were devising the script, they didn’t steer clear of any concept, model, or scene. “ ere was not a single thing that we said, ‘No, we can’t do that because the students wouldn’t be able to handle it.’ In fact, it was just the opposite. We said, ‘We are going to make them handle this.’ ” Vaughan recalls.

For example, the script called for Tofu and Lab Monkey #5 to board a Big Wheel while one of them held a Slinky-like gun. “There In addition to generating an animated short, William Vaughan had his creation printed as a 3D model and then produced as a toy.were a lot of technical things that had to be worked out for them to do that scene,” says Vaughan, noting that the students had to contend with a variety of CG elements in that as well as other shots, including subsurface
scattering, hard- and soft-body dynamics, hyphervoxels, global illumination, volumetric lighting, and more. “They weren’t given a watered-down project, but rather a real project, and they had to sink or swim.” Luckily for Vaughan, the students did the latter—which is not always the case at this school or any other.

“Lee and I pushed them hard. We told them this was their job. We were preparing them for production,” says Vaughan. “What you see in the short is 100 percent of what they did in those two and a half months. We didn’t make any changes [to the finished animation.]” Approximately
20 students worked on the short.

The eight-minute short was rendered on a network of approximately 60 workstations and the school’s renderfarm. To lighten the load, the team tried to keep times down to five minutes per frame, although some shots went well over that limit.

One of the bigger technical challenges came at the very end of the movie, when the camera pulls back from the scene in the dining room, out to the adjacent library, to the outside of the house. Because of the sheer number of polygons in the scenes, it could not be rendered on the school’s renderfarm; instead, Vaughan had to do it on his then brand-new Boxx computer.


Students at The DAVE School turned Vaughan’s vision into an animation, which contains a
plethora of geometry—no matte paintings were used.


Second Life

Some time has passed since Tofu and Teddy Scares were made into animated shorts, and the  properties have been growing in popularity ever since. Both are now the subjects of graphic novels—Teddy Scares already has five in print, with another five ready to be released, and Tofu soon will begin its journey to print.

“Yes, I am handing the baby over again,” Vaughan says of his IP, noting that like Applehead did with Teddy Scares, Tofu will be turned over to a graphic artist well versed in the 2D medium.

In addition, Vaughan is continuing to pursue the broadcast market, hoping for a Tofu TV show. Meanwhile, Teddy Scares and Tofu made quite an impression at this summer’s Comic-Con, where Vaughan signed the deal for the Tofu graphic novels and where he sold out of everything Tofu related, from plushies to T-shirts to figurines. “Usually Teddy Scares dominate the show, but this year people wanted Tofu,” says Vaughan. Why this sudden surge of interest in the character? One possible factor could be the current popularity of zombies in the hit primetime TV show “The Walking Dead.”

Whatever the reason, Vaughan, that brilliantly “mad” animation professor and  computer scientist, continues to breathe new life into the character he created in his virtual
laboratory.

 3D Toy Factory

Applehead Factory Design Studio is known for its so-called twisted teddy bear toys and now zombies. However, it also offers a full range of CG services, from 3D animation and rendering, to concept art and storyboarding. And for several years now, the company has been playing in the novelty game space and toy business.
 
On the outside, these novelty games look like typical games in a box—plastic bits, paper bits, cardboard bits. But as creative director William Vaughan points out, on the inside they were created using 3D computer graphics. “There are cards and plastic tray pieces that we prototyped and printed in 3D for game testing,” he says.
 
In fact, Applehead produces a number of novelty products, all created using NewTek’s LightWave and then 3D printed. Each year, Applehead produces a unique Teddy Scare bear for the top-rated haunted attraction Terror Behind the Walls at the now closed Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia.

“This is so different from working on a TV show or movie,” says Vaughan, who not long ago worked on the Disney/Pixar short film “Partly Cloudy.” “There are more technical considerations from the manufacturing standpoint to consider, but you are still using the same tools and skill sets. ”

Vaughan notes that, for the most part, people think of TV or film when they hear the word “CGI” or “animation.” But a 3D artist can use his or her skills with 3D software in markets they might not even be aware of—games, print, product visualization. With a 3D printer, they can even start their own toy company.

“We do toys because we love them and have a passion for them. We are not rolling in cash, but we hope to be one day,” Vaughan says. “The value is not in the plastic or plush, however; it’s in the IP. And having a product helps build the IP faster than just having a short. At least that’s my plan, and I will tell you if it worked out once I have a TV show or movie deal.” —KM

Karen Moltenbrey is the chiefeditor of Computer Graphics World.
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