Soar: A Student's Journey
August 7, 2015

Soar: A Student's Journey

“Soar” is a short animated film by Academy of Art University (AAU) student Alyce Tzue. Here she details the amazing journey of the character in the film as well as her own when creating the project.

This project at some point was created under the Academy of Art’s Project X. Tell me a little about that. 

The purpose of AAU's Studio X program – which kicked off a little more than a year ago – is to allow students to gain actual production experience. Each Studio X class usually works on about one to two films at once. These classes cover all parts of the film pipeline, including modeling, animation, lighting, and compositing, just to name a few. And since recruitment can be the biggest difficulty as a student filmmaker, Studio X mostly takes on student theses as their projects. However, your project proposal must first pass Executive Review, which deems your project worthy – and, like being able to pick up Thor's hammer, it's not easy! Once you pass, your film has an entire class dedicated to one or more aspects of your production. If everything goes smoothly, you'll see the film completed, tour the festival circuit, get released online – and even win awards or get you a job if you're lucky!

Did “Soar” benefit from Studio X?

Actually, Studio X didn't officially get started until ‘Soar’ was in its final semester of production. So for preproduction and the first half of production, our producer, Anson Yu, and I had to get the team together ourselves: find the right talent, set up a schedule, find replacements when students got busy unexpectedly – lots of things a class would normally take care of. 

But, with just about anything, there are upsides and downsides to putting your film through Studio X! The clearest benefit is that, with AAU's help, you can more easily get the numbers you need, and you get some structure. The downside would be the lack of selectivity. You're not handpicking your team, since students with variable skill levels are able to sign up. So the filmmaker sacrifices a bit of control in that respect. I still think it's a great program. Those are just some observations from someone who's experienced both the Studio X and the independent track.


Concept art

How does the school approach teaching animation? 

No matter if you are an undergraduate or graduate student, the Academy starts you off with the basics and builds up from there. As someone pursuing their MFA in 3D Animation, I learned first how to navigate Maya, the main program that we use to create any sort of visual effects. I designed my own character, who I nicknamed ‘Squirrel Girl’ – for real, she sported a giant squirrel tail. Looking back on it now, she looks monstrous. I modeled her, rigged and textured her, then animated a walk cycle and lit and rendered out the scene. 

Afterward, I started on animation basics, like how to make a bouncing ball look physical and how to work in the dreaded graph editor. You work in that graph editor until you are no longer afraid of it; honestly, that alone took me years. After that, you begin working with human characters – what with their limbs and many facial controls, they're considerably more complicated than a bouncy ball. First you do a walk cycle, then a pantomime. Then the beginnings of dialog and lip sync. You gradually move onto a two-person dialog shot, and, if you are proficient, a longer sequence with multiple scenes and multiple characters. It's important to take things slow when it comes to animation. Really master the basics first. Bad habits are  incredibly  easy to develop, so I support learning through a school over learning purely on your own. Unless you are really,  really  good at doing your research.

What is “Soar” about? 

‘Soar’ is about a precocious young girl Mara who dreams of one day building airplanes. She builds these model planes in the countryside, trying again and again to make them fly – but fails every time. That is, until a miniature 6-inch-tall pilot drops out of the sky. The boy's fantastic flying contraption is broken, and Mara is the only one who can return him to the sky before it's too late.


How many others were involved in the film? 

There were many: over 100, actually. I hadn't expected that at all at the start. I'd thought either  I'd be sitting alone in the computer lab for three years straight, working on this by myself, or it would be a small, intimate team that would carry this project from start to end. It wasn't the case. By the time I had proposed my thesis at Midpoint Review, halfway through my career, it had grown to be quite an ambitious project. And it needed an ambitious team. Up to that point, I had handled the writing, storyboarding, and directing, but we needed help with everything else, including visual development, modeling, rigging, animation, surfacing, lighting, compositing, branding, graphics, music, sound... The list went on and on. 

And normally, in a real studio, one two two people would probably be able to handle each of those aspects. Like Pixar could probably produce a short film in a year with a team of 10 to 20 full-time employees. But in school, students have multiple commitments, not least of which was class. So it ended up that one student would be able to commit an average of about two months: maybe designing a character or modeling a major prop. We had a few all-stars that were committed to the project for much longer than that. And for them – and everyone else – I'm incredibly grateful. This film happened because close to 100 people contributed their time. For free. So I hope the result is something they're proud of! It is the best way to say thank you, after all.

How did you determine roles?

When I was starting out, I knew I would write, direct, and animate. But I had little idea of anything else. I remember walking through a hallway at AAU, absolutely stumped about how to get a team together, when suddenly I turned to face the wall. On the wall was a huge poster depicting this model of a large Hun-like man (Yes, like in Mulan). He looked friendly yet imposing. And he was modeled very well. My eyes wandered to the lower right-hand corner of the poster, and I saw a name: Shawn Yang, followed by his website. Then it clicked! Though I knew basically nobody in this school, I would go around to all the posters in this joint, find the best work, jot down the artist names, and email them imploring them to join my project. I did have some pieces of concept art, and I had an early animatic that told the story, which I attached to my introduction email. It worked startlingly well. And that is how my preproduction team of visual development artists and modelers came together.

Some other major roles included producer, composer, and VFX supervisor. My producer, Anson, and I found each other in our preproduction class. He was looking for a project, I was looking for a producer, we were both incredibly green. It was serendipitous! From the very first months of the project, we decided to take on ‘Soar’ as both of our master's theses. And we've been collaborating ever since.

My composer, Jack Gravina, and I had actually grown up together since middle school. We took band together, and went our separate ways: he to music school and I to animation school. One day, I posted a piece of art I'd been working on to Facebook. Jack liked the post. Then, our middle school band teacher commented something that changed both our futures. She said something like, wouldn't it be amazing if you two worked on a project together? And Jack immediately responded, saying that was an incredible idea and that I should send some animation his way for him to score. He scored the animatic, and then the film. Absolutely beautiful music. And the rest is history.

Finally, my VFX supervisor, Derek Flood, is the director of VFX at AAU and formerly worked at PDI/Dreamworks. I wouldn't have dreamed of working with someone so experienced. But I saw that even early on, he'd held classes similar to Studio X, where students would work in a production atmosphere. I knew ‘Soar’ would flourish under his wing, and so I approached him to oversee our surfacing, lighting, and compositing. To my happy surprise, he accepted! I gained a mentor, as well as 20 to 30 students who were dedicated to the film for four full semesters. They ultimately did the technical R&D, surfacing, lighting, comp'ing, and rendering for the short. I definitely got the good end of the deal.

What was your role?

I wrote, directed, storyboarded, and animated for the short. As a student director, you end up putting on a lot of hats, so I also contributed at points to visual development and compositing, and took on some production assistant tasks as well.


Was the majority of work done outside of class or in a specific class?

For the first year, from February 2012 to May 2013, most of the work was done outside of class. This included preproduction (story and vis dev) to early steps of production (modeling and rigging). Animation was done remotely as well. Although all animators were students at AAU, we were never in one class altogether. For remote work, Dropbox and Google Hangout were our saviors. We had meetings online, shared files online. We had several team members who'd begun to work professionally already. We even had team members from the opposite side of the world! One of our sound engineers as well as a rigger both lived in Asia. It was sometimes difficult coordinating, but really, anyone who produced quality work and committed to the project were welcome to join. 

Starting from the summer of 2013 until the end of production in summer of 2014, most of the work took place in Derek Flood's classes, which were not yet officially called Studio X. 

When did the work start/finish?

Work began in my storyboarding class, taught by Robert Steele, in Spring 2012. At that point, it was only me, just a new student bursting with stories to tell. We were allowed to pitch three stories as thesis ideas to the class. I excitedly pitched my three, very proud of each and every one of them. To my disappointment, Bob, who I have a ton of respect for, didn't respond particularly well to any of them. There just wasn't a clear winner. A week later, I submitted a fourth one. I said, ‘I know I know I'm not following instructions’ – and he is very strict about students following instructions – ‘but really. You'll like this one, Bob. Pleeeeeease.’ He read it. And he  liked  it. At least that's what I assumed from his succinct ‘Good.’ And, well, that story became ‘Soar.’

The film was completed at the end of Summer 2014. It's funny that the film ended very much like how it had begun: with just me. Derek's class had ended a few weeks prior; students had gone on vacation. There were still some final tweaks to be made on the short – as there always  is I suppose. But we were very nearly foiled; the school had a very strict policy of no students allowed in the building's computer labs during break, and our entire, extremely large project was sitting in the school's network, inaccessible from the outside. To finish the short, I ended up meeting with Derek in his own office every day for a few weeks to finish ‘Soar.’ It was mostly compositing, one final pass to make things cohesive. The  final  day involved me in Derek's office, clicking frantically to finish writing out this one last shot, with Derek beside me, tapping his foot. ‘Alyce, it's 5:33pm and I have to go. I can't leave you here alone. So you have  one minute.’ Heart pumping, I transferred my final shot to my hard drive and counted down the seconds to completion. Ding. Done. We smiled at each other. I know a lot of films undergo many, many tweaks even after their festival submission, but – largely due to Anson's advice – we barely touched it after that day. It has to be done sometime. And that was a  good  last day.


How did you settle on the style?

Visually, I had one idea starting out, and, after trying a few things, ended up going with another style midway through. I had wanted to go with a visual style that was a bit flatter and inspired by illustration. Even though it hadn't come out yet, the style I had in mind was similar in sensibility to the animated film Song of the Sea,  with illustrations and layers within every texture. Some of our concept art revealed this. However, with CG film, I always feel like the end result deviates quite a bit from the feel of the concept art, even at large studios. Maybe this is intentional, or maybe it's because 3D animation is still relatively young. We have much yet to discover. But somewhere along the way, while the overall look was still stylized, particularly the characters – like a cross between Pixar and Studio Ghibli – the film still took on more realism than I would have initially liked. I figured though, that this is my first film. I wanted to focus on story. My second film I would want to be more experimental, visually.

How did you come up with the story? 

I feel like I've always retained a childlike wonder at the world. And I remember that it was a conscious choice. I remember being around age 8 and looking around at the adults, and being afraid that I'd lose clarity of imagination. In other words, that I'd grow up to just take facts as they were, instead of questioning why. Now, I try to think like a child again sometimes. Perhaps because they have less experience of how things ‘just are,’ they're able to see things from a dramatically different perspective – whether that's a different scale (like the living room carpet stretching to be as wide and barren as the Sahara) or a different explanation for everyday things (the clouds are white because they lost the ink that made the sky blue). With ‘Soar,’ I asked myself to come up for a different explanation for why things are. That was the inspiration for the story arc of ‘Soar.’

What was your inspiration for the film? 

Explaining a natural phenomenon in a novel way gave me the overall premise of the film, but not the meat of the story: the characters, their relationship, and how they develop. Basically, I knew the ending but not yet the beginning or middle. I was having a tough time of it when I thought, It's okay, this will take time. Ideas don't just drop out of the sky. Then I thought, actually, something dropping out of the sky would be incredibly  attention grabbing.... So I ran with it. The short kicks off with a young girl going about her everyday life, when a miniature satchel quite literally drops out of the sky, conking her in the head. A good representation of how I actually got the idea myself!

What is so appealing about the film?

I wanted to dig up emotions that we felt as children, and try to convey that through the film: the yearning to fly, to achieve more than people expect little bodies to achieve. In many ways, children are underdogs – they're smaller, weaker, have less experience, less control over their surroundings. This is a tale of triumph beyond imagination for anyone who's ever felt like they're disadvantaged in some way. 


Were there any special challenges using this style?

The style is somewhere between realistic and caricatured – not quite as realistic as, say, The Last Of Us but also not as cartoony as the upcoming 3D Peanuts film. So, for example, a large tree in our short needed to have a simplified, stylized shape, but it couldn't be so simplistic as to  not have certain details, like individual leaves. We ended up having two versions of the tree: one used in wide shots and one in close-ups. The tree model that's seen from afar is more streamlined – we didn't even have separate branches in that one because a simplified shape was more appealing for wide compositions, and it cut down on the render time. The close-up tree model consisted of just a trunk and about four leafy branches. We would arrange those branches to create the most pleasant compositions for each close up shot!

What is the length of the film?

Just over 6 minutes.

What was the biggest technical challenge and how did you overcome it?

The biggest technical challenge was to make our characters and set look attractive in five different times of day. The short takes place from late afternoon to night, and this translated into five phases that we named Afternoon, Golden Hour, Sunset, Twilight, and Night. Each phase had a distinct color palette, and needed to convey a mood unique to that stage in the story. Usually, this might involve a lot of different lighting setups, and a lot of re-rendering to test out each shot. To get around this, our VFX supervisor, Derek, and our compositing lead, Jainisha Patel, built an extremely complex comp. It allowed us to manipulate the lighting and color post render, which minimized render times. As for the more distant set – like the sky and the horizon – we filled that in with large-scale matte paintings. The result was that we were able to transition from a bright golden hour shot to a hazy purple twilight shot, without changing the lighting setup much at all!


What was the biggest aesthetic or general challenge and how did you overcome it?

The biggest aesthetic challenge was really to make the art of a 100-person team look cohesive. Even making the art of two people look like it was done by one person is challenging. So you can imagine the difficulty for the ‘Soar’ team. Everything from visual development to animation to lighting each had multiple artists working on a single shot. Everyone has unique styles and preferences. And in school, most students haven't had the experience of imitating a specific style yet, as for example, a Disney animator would have to do. To overcome it, I tried to project as clear a vision as I could. I would clearly envision it in my mind's eye – whether it's a character, acting choice, or painting style – before opening my mouth to give any sort of direction. Oftentimes – and the entire crew knows this – I would happily jump into Photoshop and sketch something, or color correct a render. Goodness, the stock of color corrected images I have. They overflow my hard drive. I am the biggest color geek.

Though even after the film has wrapped, I realize I still have a ton to learn about how to tie a team's work together, visually. On my next project, I'd like to be less hands-on with the art. On ‘Soar,’ I remember the matte paintings of the skies weren't looking cohesive for a long time. Though our artists were talented, perhaps due to my direction or for some other reason, the five different skies we had for Afternoon, Golden Hour, Sunset, Twilight, and Night looked clearly like they'd been painted by different artists. I didn't know how to resolve this, so I ended up repainting four of those skies myself over the summer, to prove it can be done. We ended up using my skies for the short. Though the team is happy with the paintings, I do feel like I overstepped my bounds. When the team is this big, I don't feel like I should be stepping in and taking over the art. Or any other aspect of production besides directing! So I have learning left to do.

Which character was the most difficult to create?

I would say that the most difficult character to model was Lucas, the miniature Pilot. He's about 12 years old and has a baby face. And the worst thing was, his model would constantly look very androgynous. People would look at the model and say, ‘Such a cute girl! In a pilot hat, to boot!’ Maybe I just prefer daintier features, but it was tough for me to push his look to appear more boyish. The hair certainly didn't help; at first, he was supposed to have longish ginger locks poking out from underneath his aviator hat. We ended up making his hair quite short to kill two birds with ome stone. One, his gravity-defying longish locks were a technical nightmare, and two, he looks a lot more like his gender with the super short do!

Rigging always seems to be an incredibly difficult stage for student-made animated films. At least at AAU, there seems to be a huge demand for riggers all the time, and never quite enough of them! I think the difficult thing about rigging is that there is such a long testing phase. It's not just about creating your product; it's about working with animators to create, revise, and revise again a product that works best, long after you first put in the skeleton. There's  so much fine-tuning that it can be a huge time commitment. Our biggest challenge with rigging was definitely the facial performance of the characters. It was incredibly important to have characters capable of expressing naturally and convincingly on screen – especially because we didn't have any dialog. The facial rig on each character, both Mara and Lucas, required many iterations. Each time the rigger delivered an update, I drew over the face for better lines and simpler shapes. In the end, we created both a joint system and blendshapes for each character rig, and that gave animators a lot of freedom. Now, after screening the film a few times at festivals, I always hear praise about the character's expressions. ‘You can tell exactly how they're feeling by looking at their face.’ That is very much thanks to the hard work of our riggers.

The challenges of animation were similar to our overall aesthetic challenge. Our eight animators are all artists, and they all have different animation styles! To make our animation look cohesive, we looked at a lot of professional references. Also, after a few shots were animated, we would hold that up as a standard for style, and all try to emulate them. Overall, I was trying for more realistic, subtle acting – which is why the facial performance was so important – so most often, I had to ask animators who preferred a more cartoony style to tone things down. Another unexpected challenge was wind. Wind plays an important role in the film, and as a result, there needed to be plenty of secondary flappy  action: hair flapping, paper flapping, hat flaps flapping. I'd never really animated that before, so I had to learn as I went. We had one animator though – Sophie Evans–- who seemed to be a complete natural at making paper flutter and flip and blow about in the wind like nobody's business. It's like she was born with this ability. It was amazing.

Looking back, animation ended up feeling really chill relative to everything else. Maybe because I'm an animator, I felt like things were a little more in control. Plus animators are really a fun group to be around!


What was the overall goal for this particular film?

To be honest, I just wanted to make a good movie! Hopefully one that would stay in people's memories for some time. I think as production went on, there were various other goals that came to light. For example, we wanted the film to perform well in the festival circuit. We wanted to create good enough material to help jumpstart the careers of everyone on our crew – since I think that is the best thank you we could provide. And actually, we did. ‘Soar’ helped several crew members land jobs. I got several great shots from ‘Soar’ on my reel that helped me get a job at Oculus. Once there, I began referring some of our best crew members on ‘Soar,’ and a good number of them were hired, all AAU students and grads. They actually saw many reels come through that had material from ‘Soar,’ so many that someone said to me, ‘So when are we going to see this movie of yours? We've seen enough snippets from portfolios already.’ People had Pixar told me they had seen ‘Soar’ on reels as well. I'm so proud that we were able to create material that our team is showing on their professional reels right out of school.

Any “memorable” moments during the production?

One very memorable moment was our IndieGogo Campaign  launch. The best advice I can give about crowdfunding is to build a lot of hype for it before its start date, and then hold a launch party where your entire team blasts social media with your crowdfunding link. Someone gave me this advice prior to our campaign, and it worked extremely well. My producer Anson and I borrowed a room at AAU (with computers), brought a lot of food (mmm Krispy Kreme!), and invited the entire team to join us the day of our launch. It was memorable for me because it was a rare moment where the team all got to gather in one place. Usually, people working on different parts of the pipeline never got to meet: for example, the texturers took a class at AAU while the animators worked remotely. And here we were, all eating and having fun. We counted down to the very moment of the launch, and just blasted  the heck out of Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Insta, anywhere we could think of. Our family and friends did the same remotely. We ended up surpassing our goal of $14,000, raising a total of $16,315. Before the film even wrapped, we saw positive, concrete results of our teamwork, and I think that was very heartening.

Another series of moments that I really loved was working with our composer Jack Gravina on the score. He lives and works in LA and I live in the Bay Area, so we had to do these Google Hangouts that sometimes ran late into the night. He would play some melodies on the piano, and I would listen and hum something back to him. In that way, we figured out the themes for both characters, what instruments we preferred to hear when, and the specific mood for each part of the film. He and I share a pretty extensive background in music: He studied and works as a professional musician, composer, and editor, while I played three instruments growing up and played in different orchestras and ensembles. Not to mention we were bandmates in school! So this was all something that was very much in our element. During those sessions, I remember moments when he played a melody we had just come up with, alongside this rough version of the film playing in Quicktime. Everything was so rough. But it would sound  just right. Just the right amount of sadness that causes a little sinking in the heart, at the   right moment in the film. When you hear it, you know it, and we would both just say, ‘YES!’ 

What was the biggest takeaway from this particular project for you?

My biggest takeaway is that to make almost anything work, you've got to work with the people. Even for something as tech-y as a CG short, the machines are just tools. It's the people behind those tools that make a film what it is, and what it isn't. I think through this process, I learned truly how difficult – and also how crucial – it is to handle a team well. You need to motivate them with a vision, have a vision but leave room for their creative input, let them be creative but maintain discipline, be disciplined but allow for mistakes, leave a margin for error but jump in when you need to, be hands on yet not so much as to be overbearing. It is insanely difficult keeping that balance. But it is honestly one of my favorite parts of being a filmmaker. Working with the people is what you remember. It's the bulk of the job. The climb before you reach the peak. And if it were something I disliked, I wouldn't even be in the business.

What did you like most about working on the film?

I will always remember what Brad Bird has currently in his Twitter profile: ‘I love all the arts, but I love movies most because they combine so many of them.’ This is exactly why I love film, and why I loved working on ‘Soar.’ I am an artist and always have been. Growing up, everyone thought I'd be a painter because I drew all the time; I played music avidly, and danced; I worked as a photographer and architect, graphic designer and video producer. But now I've found my calling. There is only one medium I've found that is truly satisfying, and that is film – because it combines  so many of the arts I love.

What are you up to now?

I work as a 3D animator at Oculus, and we're currently finishing up a short film called   Henry . ‘Soar’ is meeting with success on the festival circuit. So far, we've won Best Student Animated Film and Runner-Up to the Audience Award for Best Animation Short at the Palm Springs International ShortFest, Best Animated Short at the USA Film Festival, and Official Selection at the Cleveland International Film Festival. We've also been nominated for a BAFTA Student Award. 

Anything else that you want to say about the project?

I wanted to mention how important music was to the process. I think in a way ‘Soar’ stands out in this regard, in that we did not need to prioritize music because the film isn't explicitly  about music, like Fantasia or The Red Violin for example. We made a conscious decision to prioritize it because we know how much it elevates a film. It guides your emotions throughout the story; if the film were Route 01, the music is the beautiful coastal view out the passenger window. You are not solely focused on it while driving, but it is in indispensable part of the experience.

Unlike most shorts that bring in music near the end of production, we began music composition during the animatic phase – that was during preproduction in 2012. This preliminary score continually underwent revisions for a year before we locked the final version. For the final score, we used some of our IndieGogo funds to hire professional musicians. They played solos, as well as provided material for us to combine and create a fuller orchestral sound. The final result is something we're incredibly proud of. ‘Soar’ could not be the movie it is without the music, and we're proud we put in the work to make it what it is.