September 30, 2006

A Rare and Insightful Interview with The Makers of One Rat Short

Bryan Godwin of NYC-based Charlex offers insight into the commercial 3D, animation, and effects studio that takes advantage of eyeon’s Fusion to deliver innovative designs to its clientele.  


How and when was Charlex started?

Founded by award-winning director Alex Weil roughly 25 years ago, Charlex lays claim to pioneering work with multi-layered video effect, such as those in The Cars' "You Might Think" video (netting the young director MTV's first-ever Best Music Video Award); the Emmy award-winning opening for Saturday Night Live; the Grammy nominated “90125” long-form video for the band, Yes; and scores of advertising industry awards for more than 300 of the top Fortune 500 companies. Charlex has become synonymous with the aesthetics and language of digital communication.

What kind of work does Charlex do?

Charlex is a digital design atelier that designs and builds commercials, movie trailers, and everything in between. Charlex is now expanding into creating its own digital content, starting with a creative experiment resulting in its first film, "One Rat Short."

What is your typical client at Charlex?

The core business at Charlex is commercial production for advertising agencies; however, we cover a broad scope, including movie trailers and even video-game cinematics.

Why did you decide to do a project like “One Rat Short?”


"One Rat Short" is a work of love created by Charlex Films. It began as part of the effort to grow the company's commercial CG department, but eventually became much more than that. Originally, it was called "labratz" and, as the title might suggest, it mimicked the look and sensibility of work already pioneered by other studios. As it evolved, it took on a life of its own and became 'our film'. From the start, we decided not to use anthropomorphic animation. We decided it would take place in two worlds: one so gritty, grimy, and dark that the viewer needs to peer into the screen in order to make out the images, and the other a sterile white world so brightly lit that you feel the need to turn your head away from the screen. It was also important to keep the film looking as real as possible. One of the techniques we used was to give a lot of the camera work a hand-held feel and to keep it a little behind the action so that the scenes didn't seem staged.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced on this project and how did you overcome them? How did Fusion help in this regard?


The director of the film, Alex Weil, likes to work very interactively with the artists. Whether that's lighting, animation, or compositing, he was very hands-on and liked to experiment with many ideas before finalizing the shot. With Fusion, we were able to take a very interactive compositing approach to the lighting and color of the film. Fusion's interactivity and speed helped us zero in on the look and feel of scenes, working with the director right behind us.

Who were the artists working on the shot? What particular features were essential in getting their work done?


At the peak, we had around 15 artists full time on the project. The entire team put heart and soul into the job and I think it really shows in the final product. Fusion's ability to utilize EXR imagery and floating-point data allowed us to take a more filmic approach to the process. Having the range to adjust exposure in the package really let us push the brights and darks of the imagery without losing detail.

Why did you choose Fusion to accomplish the shot?

Fusion was the most sensible choice for our project. Again, the speed of color corrections, the ease of macro creation, and the ability to work directly in float space and to use extra channels were huge pluses. The 3D system was another big selling point.

What specific tools were used and why? How did Fusion fit into the overall production pipeline?

We ran the gamut of Fusion's toolset. Our look and feel was determined very much in the comp to keep things efficient and interactive. We used the 3D system for many of the atmospheric particle effects. The ability to import Maya camera data was a huge time saver. All of the sky domes and matte paintings were applied to Fusion image planes and tracked with the actual camera motion out of Maya. All of the motion-blur and depth of field was applied in Fusion as well.

How deadline driven was this project and how did Fusion comply and assist in meeting the deadlines?

Early in the project, we did not have a specific deadline; however, we started to send rough cuts out to various film festivals and, in spite of some scenes being unfinished, we began to be accepted. That put the project in high gear and the lighting/compositing deadlines became very tight. The scenes are heavy and complex, with fully raytraced fur and sometimes hundreds of rats running around. As the last step in our pipeline, Fusion kept things moving quickly during the finishing stage. We used the shader node extensively with normals passes to add rims and fills to the characters and backgrounds. By using many different passes and channels, we could add light where the director wanted, color shadow passes and background, all without having to go back to the render stage.

What can we expect from you in the future?


The unique and very filmic nature of "One Rat Short" is the springboard for Charlex Films, which is looking to parlay its interest in gritty and contemporary content into the development of an animated feature. The 110-person studio, with one of the largest computer animation facilities on the East Coast, is set to become an independent player within the realm of animated films.

What was the most rewarding effect in the film?

I don't think I could point to any one effect that stands out more than the rest. The most rewarding part of the process was delivering a project that has a very different aesthetic than most other computer animated projects. Not fearing the use of light and shadow, and taking a cinematic approach to the photography, is what makes "One Rat Short" stand out amongst the crowd.

What characteristics of Fusion did you enjoy using most?

The new 3D capabilities are great. We have been really getting into things like adding small objects, particle systems, and image planes. I also am a huge fan of the color corrector; you can accomplish anything in one node instead of having many nodes. As far as keeping things neat, Fusion's ability to enable more options per node makes management of the team's comps much easier.

What do you see in the future for compositing?


I see more and more convergence between compositing and 3D. We are already seeing things like using extra channels to isolate object mattes, add lighting via normals shading, and using camera data for backdrops and tracking. The technologies are going to get closer and closer, bridging the gap between 2D and 3D artists. I see the look and feel of the pipeline of the future to be unified.

All images courtesy of Charlex.