Taking the Plunge
August 25, 2016

Taking the Plunge

Sometimes things just do not go as planned. Consider the animated short film “Taking the Plunge” from Thaddaeus Andreades, Marie Raoult, Nicholas Manfredi, and Elizabeth Ku-Herrero, students at the School of Visual Arts, about a perfect marriage proposal that goes sideways when the engagement ring about to be presented slips into shark-infested waters .  Not all is lost, however. During the soon-to-be-groom’s journey to retrieve the ring, he learns that the value of the people in his life far outweigh those of material objects.

Similarly, the four students, all co-directors on the project, learned the value of hard work and dedication on their own journey, and were rewarded with a 2015 Student Academy Award (third place) and, just recently, a 2016 Student Emmy for Animation (first place), for their efforts .

The students began brainstorming and decided on the story by the end of June 2014, and began production a month later with storyboards, previs, and character development. Work on the actual film occurred from September 2014 through March 2015. While some of the work was done in class, the majority was completed in the students’ “free time.” 

“We worked every day, seven days a week, from 9 or so in the morning until 10 or 11 at night,” says Manfredi, who was also cinematographer, animator, and story developer. 

Joe Burrascano, the group’s thesis professor, oversaw the entire production, helped solidify the story, and set challenging deadlines to ensure that the film was completed on time. Eric Cunha, their academic advisor, assisted with the technical side of things, helping them establish a sturdy pipeline for the film and providing guidance regarding specific production skills such as modeling, shading, rigging, and so forth. 

The rest of the core team assumed the following roles: Andreades, lead animator, lighter, compositor; Raoult, character TD, rigger, and modeler; and Ku-Herrero, creative director, story developer, designer, modeler, shading artist, lighter, and compositor. A handful of other students contributed to the film as well, doing animation, modeling, compositing, matte painting, sound design, and composing. 

Fluid Storytelling

According to Manfredi, the students had all spoken about what type of environment they wanted the film to take place in, since they were going to be “living in it” for a year. “So we decided on a seaside town, and thought it would be fun to explore under the water, as well,” he says. “That's when Elizabeth had the idea of a marriage proposal that goes wrong. She then told us how the ring would fall into the ocean and land on a ‘Shark King.’”

Nevertheless, the story was fluid. “It was an organic, ever changing process of discovery. We each had different aspects that we wanted to get in there,” says Andreades. “One of us wanted some comedy. Another wanted more drama and an emotional core. Some one else wanted more unconventional storytelling. I think having to juggle all of these helped us create something unique.”

Manfredi believes “Taking the Plunge” is a story that a lot of people can relate to – not necessarily the act of proposing, but the idea of planning something and having it go very wrong, or a way that wasn’t anticipated. Yet for Andreades, the story was a bit more personal, having taken the plunge himself during the middle of making the film. “It really helped me get inside our main character’s head, especially during animation,” he says. 

Attractive Aesthetic

The young artists looked to personal CG heroes like Pedro Conti and Victor Hugo, along with films like Tangled and How to Train Your Dragon, when settling on the movie’s aesthetic. “We tried to push for hyper-real materials and cartoony proportions so that the design would be welcoming to any audience,” says Ku-Herrero. “The most difficult part of creating a student film is achieving an acceptable ‘look’ that won’t give [the project] away as a student film. And what we were able to achieve surprised even us!”

According to Andreades, the young filmmakers believe that one of the strengths of animation is having full control over every aspect to help tell a person’s story. “We really tried to base our aesthetic decisions around the narrative. For example, we slowly introduced green into the color palette of the film as we approach the shark,” he explains. “It helps introduce him as a villain and give him a sickly presence.” 

To create the imagery, the artists used Autodesk’s Maya and Mudbox, along with Pixologic’s ZBrush, for modeling; Maya and Adobe’s After Effects for animation; Adobe’s Photoshop, The Foundry’s Mari, and Mudbox for texturing; Maya and The Foundry’s Nuke for lighting; and Nuke and After Effects for compositing. Rendering was accomplished in Maya, while simulations were done in Maya and Nuke. Meanwhile, effects were added Nuke. On the hardware side, the process was mainly PC-based, though Macs were used for some compositing and color correction.

One of the biggest technical hurdles resulted from the introduction of bubbles to the main character as he is breathing underwater with his SCUBA gear. “For a long time we were debating whether we should add them or not,” says Raoult. “That element revealed itself much more difficult to accomplish than we had anticipated, seeing as none of us were proficient when it came to creating dynamic elements.”

The number of shots also proved to be a challenge. In many cases, the team only had enough time to render each shot two or three times, “so we had to be very precise about our fixes,” says Andreades. Keeping on point with the deadlines was also difficult. “We had to move from shot to shot very quickly, whether it was animation, lighting, or compositing,” he adds.

Yet, seeing the characters come to life was well worth the effort. “I remember the first times Squiddy (a friendly squid) and the shark were animated. As a rigger and character modeler, there is no greater reward than to finally see your characters move and come to life,” Raoult says.

Valuable Lessons

According to Ku-Herrero, because the artists were given the opportunity to work on a bigger and longer film (it’s 6 minutes and 43 seconds), they were met with some very interesting challenges along the way. “It was an extremely exhilarating experience to have been challenged so much technically and learn how much we are capable of pushing ourselves,” she says.

Indeed, working on the film resulted in many lessons, and not all of them technical. “I learned about the importance of communication and proper structure within a production. Organization is incredibly important the bigger the project is,” Ku-Herrero adds. “And without a proper pipeline, the film just wouldn't have been feasible to create in the allotted time.”

Armed with this experience, these award-winning filmmakers are now looking to make their mark in the professional world. Raoult has found employment at Laika, while the other three are working as freelance artists. Meanwhile, they have some shiny hardware to show for their early efforts.