Bug's-eye View
Issue: Volume: 29 Issue: 3 (March 2006)

Bug's-eye View

Although Josh Staub fell into his career as a digital artist by chance, his animated short movie, The Mantis Parable, happened very much on purpose. And now, those efforts are paying off: His eight-minute short about a caterpillar and a praying mantis has earned numerous film-festival awards, and, though the movie didn’t get on this year’s Oscar shortlist, it did make the qualifying list.

Staub spent nearly two years creating the story, visuals, animation, sound effects, and musical score for The Mantis Parable himself, all for about $4500 through his newly formed Jubilee Studios. Before trying his hand in CG filmmaking, Staub honed his skills as the art director and visual design director for Cyan Worlds, developer of Myst, Riven, and Uru: Ages Beyond Myst. Staub founded Jubilee Studios, an army of one, to produce Mantis and work on any other freelance opportunities that might interest him. Nevertheless, the 30-year-old Staub never saw himself as a gamer, and still doesn’t consider himself an animator.

“I truly never expected to be doing what I’m doing,” says Staub. “I always liked to draw, but computers weren’t that interesting to me, although I had a knack for technology. I always saw the computer as a tool.” Staub was a high school student when he interned at Cyan, and after a stint in college, he returned there, and has been at the studio ever since. As Cyan grew, so did the artist’s role, a progression that provided him with the knowledge and experience to create The Mantis Parable.

Working two nights a week on the film in his home studio above his garage, Staub refined his concept for the film and then began the creative process. “Preproduction consisted of the basics-pencil and paper for concept sketching and loose storyboards,” he notes. “I also did a lot of insect research-reviewing various images, nature film clips, and such, primarily using the Internet.”

Staub says he also learned valuable lessons from fellow filmmakers, many of whom became stymied as their concepts got too complex. Therefore, he resolved to keep his story simple. “I’m not a big pyrotechnics guy,” he says. “I’m interested in linear storytelling. This was a way for me to explore that.”

The Mantis story tells the tale of two bugs trapped in an entomologist’s office, and offers the simple moral message that revenge is not as sweet as one may think. However, rendering eight minutes of 3D imagery was no easy task for a budding filmmaker with limited resources.

Staub works on a variety of powerful workstations at Cyan-Silicon Graphics and Dell PCs. At home, the majority of his work was done on a just one machine, a 3.0 ghz Dell similar to the one he has at Cyan, with 1.5 gb of RAM and a couple of 200 gb hard drives. Toward the end of the project, he purchased an additional Dell machine with the same specs for about $800, which helped him render the final scenes.

To artist/game designer Josh Staub, his first animated short film, The Mantis Parable, was an experiment-a foray into the world of linear storytelling.

The modeling for all the imagery in the film, including the characters and their environments, was done in Autodesk Media and Entertainment’s 3ds Max 4.2, using poly-subdivision techniques. “I like simple shapes and forms that ‘read’ well visually, so the modeling tends to be the least important aspect of the scene creation,” says Staub. To create personalities for the main characters-the caterpillar and the mantis-the filmmaker called upon two crucial critics: his young children. “I’m sitting there trying to get a caterpillar to express emotion,” he says, “and kids are very honest [with their opinions]; they have no preconceived notions.”

In fact, Staub says he intended for the film to appeal to every age group, and credits his work at Cyan for giving him the ability to achieve that. “Cyan has managed to reach a nongaming community because its games are nonviolent and nonthreatening, and are just an escape to other worlds. I wanted Mantis to achieve some of that.”

Making the world of the entomologist’s office believable depended largely on the textures and the lighting for the diverse objects in the scenes, including the Mason jars (filled with leaves and branches) that hold the “lead” bugs, the insect information lying on the entomologist’s desk, and the open window through which plants and the sky are visible.

According to the filmmaker, he created the model textures himself and applied them using 3ds Max rather than procedural or commercial textures. He accomplished this by hand-painting the images or beginning the process with raw materials, such as personal photographs, that he imported into Adobe’s Photoshop, where he would then blend, overlay paint, color-correct, stretch, and do whatever else it took to get the image right.

“The resulting texture usually bares little resemblance to the initial photograph, but the organic texture, or roughness, is generally maintained,” he explains.

Staub cites the work of Pixar, DreamWorks, and Fox’s Blue Sky Studios as influences, especially when it came to lighting a 3D scene. He especially admires filmmakers who make good use of radiosity-a computer rendering technique that imitates subtle properties of natural light-even though he did not use the technique in Mantis because he didn’t feel as if it gave him the control he wanted over the color and the light.

The Mantis models, including that of the praying mantis, were created and rigged within Autodesk’s 3ds Max software.

The Mantis Parable takes place in a variety of lighting scenarios, and Staub used standard 3ds Max lights, with colored spotlights, directional lights, and spots as bounce lights to enhance the scene’s natural appearance. All the images were raytraced using the Chaos Group’s free downloadable version of VRay, though no global illumination was applied. Rather, all the images were raytraced, allowing the filmmaker to produce realistic-looking objects such as the glass jar.

Meanwhile, the animation was done using bones that Staub set up inside 3ds Max. “I created a variety of character rigs to accommodate specific caterpillar and mantis motions, such as flying or falling,” says Staub. Eyelids-a physical characteristic that does not appear on the real insects but does so on the filmmaker’s virtual versions-were created as separate objects and animated with morph targets. “This was not meant to be A Bug’s Life, and it’s not a documentary,” he explains. “Like Riven, Mantis was about pushing for a fantastic but believable realm.” In that regard, the filmmaker used Max’s flex modifier for the secondary motion of the insects’ antennae. All the other animation was done by hand.

Staub rendered the images as .rla files, which contain Z buffer information, rather than use time-intensive depth-of-field rendering methods. He then applied a subtle amount of what he calls “faux” depth of field using an Adobe After Effects plug-in, called Lenscare, from Frischluft. “Rendering with true motion blur was too expensive,” Staub says. “So, I rendered all the images with a small amount of 3ds Max’s standard-image motion blur.”

The resulting images were rendered at 1280x693 resolution and compiled in After Effects. Staub exported the edited clips as uncompressed QuickTime movies, and then finished the final editing in Adobe’s Premiere Pro.

Once Staub had burned the film onto DVDs using Adobe Encore, he had another new world to conquer-the realm of the film festival. “You can’t go rent an eight-minute move at Blockbuster. “If you want anyone to see your film, you’ve got to get it into the international film festival circuit.”

Through research, Staub learned that to make a film eligible for an Academy Award, it has to win awards at one of a select group of 40 festivals. “I heard a horrifying statistic that says filmmakers are usually happy with a 10 percent acceptance rate,” he says, adding that he was somewhat prepared to be discouraged.

Nevertheless, Staub submitted his movie to five of those 40 festivals, and got into all of them. “It took a ton of research,” he says. Of most value to him was the Web site www.withoutabox.com, which helps indie filmmakers minimize the tedious and repetitive festival submission process.

The speed at which everything progressed was indeed unexpected. The Mantis Parable won its first award at the Seattle International Film Festival, and then went on to win eight other accolades.

To enhance the natural look of the film, the artist used a range of lights, and then he raytraced the imagery using VRay.

Today, Mantis continues to receive recognition. Currently, Staub is contemplating his next move, though he’s adamant that it won’t be tackling another film completely by himself. “It was a lot of work,” he admits. To keep him going through the difficult periods, Staub kept an online journal, which can still be read at www.themantisparable.com. “When I would feel discouraged, I would get an e-mail from someone asking about the film, and that kept me on track,” he says.

And just like the caterpillar star of The Mantis Parable, Staub’s career could metamorphose into something new and exciting as well.

Ingrid Spencer is the former managing editor of Computer Telephony and Architectural Record. She can be reached at Ingrid.spencer@gmail.com.