Dreaming ... and Dancing
Issue: Volume: 30 Issue: 9 (Sep. 2007)

Dreaming ... and Dancing

When Grzegorz Jonkajtys attended the premiere for the Polish film Quo Vadis? at Vatican City in August 2001, little did he know, a side trip deep into the catacombs beneath the Appian Way would be the start of a personal journey. At the time, Jonkajtys was working as an animator for Platige Image in Warsaw, which had created 30 visual effects shots for the film. As he walked mile after mile, alongside thousands of burial shelves carved into the soft walls of the dank tunnels, he imagined being inside a large ship.

“I thought of a huge oil tanker, with networks inside of what looks like graves that are platforms for people,” Jonkajtys says. From that vision, he developed a script for a short film about an ark carrying the only remaining survivors on Earth of an unknown virus.

Six years later, that film, “Ark” (“Arka” in Polish) was nominated for a Golden Palm for Best Short Film at the Cannes Film Festival, received a Prix Ars Electronica Award of Distinction, won Best of Show at SIGGRAPH over 905 submissions, and because of the SIGGRAPH win, is in the running for an Oscar nomination.

Along the way, Jonkajtys, who had created the short film “Mantis” while at Platige, moved to the States in 2003 and joined CafeFX. There, he was a digital artist on Hellboy, Blade: Trinity, and Sin City, and lead animator on Pan’s Labyrinth. In addition, he helped create with director Tomek Baginski and executive producer Marcin Kobylecki’s award-winning film “Fallen Art.”

“I did the first tests for ‘Ark’ in 2003 when I first started working for CafeFX,” Jonkajtys says. “No. Wait. I did something even before at Platige. But, I didn’t like the outcome in 2003. I was doing something realistic in CG like Final Fantasy. However, I needed a motion-capture stage, and it required so much facial animation work, I dropped it for a couple years.”

Dropped, but not forgotten. About two and a half years ago, after working on the animation for “Fallen Art,” Jonkajtys decided to commit to the project. “Marcin [Kobylecki] would have killed me if I hadn’t finished,” he says. “He had put a little of his money into it and had started recruiting people.”

Since then, Jonkajtys and friends who he and Kobylecki recruited from Platige and from CafeFX worked on the film in their spare time. During that period, Jonkajtys changed the script. In both scripts, the main character discovers that he has the virus. In the first version, the ship filled with the supposed survivors pulls into an island. The island’s configuration matches that of the virus as seen under the main character’s microscope—a metaphor for the ship infecting the last healthy cell.

A 3D ark floats within a digital matte painting at the beginning of Grzegorz Jonkajtys’s award-winning short animation, “Ark.”

“I thought that idea was too much science fiction and maybe too much of a cliché,” Jonkajtys says. “I wanted to make it less of a wide drama; to make it more of one person’s tragedy.” That change allowed him to turn the virus into a metaphor that gives the film an interesting twist at the end: The “virus” is life itself; the main character is in a retirement home.

For character design, Jonkajtys first turned to friends. “I hadn’t told them the new ending, so maybe they didn’t like the script,” he says. “I finally did the character designs on my own.” He sketched humans with animal characteristics.

“They’re on an ark,” Jonkajtys says. “I wanted to stylize them in a strong way. They became less obviously animals later, but they’re still twisted a little bit. Some people hate them; some people think they’re interesting. At least they look original.”

The filmmaker then sent those sketches to modelers, who worked in Softimage’s XSI, Luxology’s Modo, and NewTek’s LightWave, building polygonal models that were subdivided in rendering. “I can model, he says. “But I wanted to go to people who specialize in modeling.” Jonkajtys, however, animated the main character using XSI. Grzegorz Kukus, Lukasz Muszynski, and Tracy Irwin helped by animating the secondary characters. “I was working in XSI because it was the least-expensive good animation software I could buy for $500,” he says. “I was able to rig and animate in it.”

For the backgrounds, Jonkajtys decided to create miniatures. “I wanted the technique for the film to be original and not 100 percent computer work,” he explains. “I already work on the computer 10 hours a day. Plus, using miniatures made it more like a real film-set experience.”
Jonkajtys built a test set with pieces from tanks, helicopters, submarines, and so forth that he bought in a model shop. Then, he sent it to Kobylecki in Poland. “Marcin liked the idea of miniature backgrounds so much that he started building them himself,” Jonkajtys says. “He took nine months to build the cabin and corridor, working after-hours. A friend from art college built the interior and the hull.” The pipes are drinking straws. A wheel from a miniature tank turned a lunch box lid into the ship’s metal door.  To maintain a consistent scale, the model-makers used a Spider-Man toy as reference.

When the filmmaker flew back to Poland to renew his visa, he painted the miniatures white. “That way, I was able to see all the details in the shadows,” he says. “I knew I could grade it down in compositing.”

To film the miniatures, Jonkajtys attached a Nikon D70 digital still camera to the head of the motion-control rig at Platige. “I’d photograph one chunk of the miniature using a typical motion-control move, but I was shooting stills, not film,” he says. “Then, I’d put the miniature farther from the camera and photograph the stills again using the same camera motion.” By using this stop-motion technique, he ended up with 3k-resolution plates that he could layer together without having to scan film.

Jonkajtys designed the main character in “Ark” to have animalistic features. He used Softimage XSI to create a performance for the 3D character, and received help from friends at Platige Image in Warsaw, Poland, and CafeFX in Santa Maria, California, to make the film.

“Even though I repeated the same model into the distance, the miniatures are so complex you can’t tell,” Jonkajtys notes. “Also, I used various spotlights here and there to highlight different areas.”

The process taught Jonkajtys more about the film-set experience than he anticipated. “I knew the theory about mixing live-action CG miniatures shot on bluescreen from working at CafeFX for a couple years, but I totally failed when it came to lighting the bluescreen,” he says. “There was a blue wall in the motion-capture studio. I lit it so badly that removing the models from the bluescreen was terrible. But, now I know.”

Once Jonkajtys had plates with the backgrounds—the white miniatures he had shot—he began animating in XSI. The other animators created performances for the background characters using Autodesk’s 3ds Max, and a matte painter worked on painting the backgrounds.

“The first shot of the big ship is 3D,” says Jonkajtys. “I gave that to a matte painter who painted on top of it, added moving water and birds, and the sky,” he adds. Similarly, the painter worked in Adobe Photoshop to color the ship interiors.

“We projected the still photographs we took and painted on top, and then in 3D, the camera would fake the movement to get the parallax,” says Jonkajtys. ‘It’s funny, because you can’t tell which is camera motion shot on set and which is motion from the 3D camera in XSI.”

To import the animation, Jonkajtys used Point Oven for XSI, a commercial plug-in from Mark Wilson, senior TD at Framestore CFC. “I’ve been using it since Version 1,” he says, “and I knew it was getting better and better.” He also used Point Oven to transfer the animated scenes with cameras into LightWave so that he could use Worley Laboratories’ FPrime renderer.

“I was rendering most of the film on my laptop,” Jonkajtys says, “and FPrime is so blazing fast, it’s unbelievable. I used displacement, and subsurface scattering on my main character, and I could render 2k sequences in two to four minutes per frame.” The laptop was a Dell with dual-core Intel chips and 2g of RAM. He output beauty passes and sometimes light passes, rendering the whole film in high definition.

“Every surface has detailed textures and shaders,” says Computer Animation Festival chair Paul Debevec. “There’s a shaft of light streaming through a tiny porthole, and we could see droplets of dust floating in it. The camera doesn’t focus on it; it’s just there. He made good use of translucency in the materials and good use of indirect illumination. It adds up to a compelling experience. He created a whole world, unlike any other we’ve seen.” 

For compositing, Jonkajtys used Eyeon’s Digital Fusion to marry the backgrounds and the animation. “I wanted to make everything 16 bit, but I couldn’t handle that on my laptop,” he adds. “So everything is linear 8 bit.”

It turned out that the laptop had an unexpected advantage, though. “I was scared about how it would turn out on film; I was afraid of clamping—that I’d have flat darks,” Jonkajtys says. “But, on film, it looked softer and richer. It’s probably not a good thing to check colors on an LCD screen, but it showed me where the clamping would occur, and I could avoid it.”

The final shot in the five-minute film is Jonkajtys’s favorite. Other than the first shot, which is a 3D matte painting, it’s the only all-CG shot in the short. Because it’s an outdoor scene, he couldn’t use the miniatures. “I would have had to use hundreds of light bulbs to make the light look like it was outdoors, and I couldn’t afford that,” he says. “But this is the part I’m most proud of in terms of animation. I did the first scenes three years ago, but I couldn’t go back and re-animate them.”

Jonkajtys estimates that even with Platige providing the motion control, the film still cost $25,000 to make. We financed it from our own pockets,” says Jonkajtys. “Our friends really did like to help us, but it took so much time, we paid a couple guys a monthly rate. I was saving, saving, saving, and then everything went into this. But I think it’s worth it.”

Award-winning filmmaker Leszek Plichta modeled, animated, rendered, and composited the 14-minute animation “Dreammaker” while a student at the Filmakademie in Baden-Württemberg, Germany.

In fact, he believes it has already made a difference. “The film has been shown in places like Cannes and SIGGRAPH, and I’m able to meet a lot of people who I would never have dreamed of.” And, it’s only the beginning. “Ark” enters the Oscar race this fall, and Platige is busy entering the film in festivals all over the world.

“Mantis,” the first film Jonkajtys created in 2001, gave the art-college graduate the ticket out of graphic design and motion graphics, and passage into animation and visual effects. Now, his “Ark” will send him into a world of new possibilities as he follows his goal of someday directing his own feature film.


In addition to the Best of Show, SIG­GRAPH’s Computer Animation Festival jury singled out two student films that also received recognition. “Dreammaker,” from Leszek Plichta, who created the film while studying at the Institute of Animation, Visual Effects, and Digital Post Production at the Filmakademie in Baden-Württemberg, Germany, took Jury Honors. “En tus Brazos,” from students François-Xavier Goby, Edouard Jouret, and Matthieu Landour at Supinfocom in Valenciennes, France, received an Award of Excellence.

Plichta animated his 14-minute film “Dreammaker” entirely on his own, working in Autodesk’s 3ds Max. It took nearly four years. “Fourteen minutes, 21,000 frames, 200 shots, one to three days per shot, sometimes a week,” he recounts, “and that time doubled when I had both characters on screen. I animated it chronologically because I was the only animator. I learned along the way.”

Inspired by the words “…dream maker, you heart breaker, wherever you’re going I’m going your way,” from Henry Mancini’s song “Moon River,” Plichta first imagined a story of an old wizard who made people happy with magic greetings. “That was too boring,” he says, “so I made him an old, frustrated misanthrope. People came to him for dreams and signs, and he learned to manipulate them. But, his house became his prison. His world is a dream. So, he tries to manipulate himself.” And then....

To develop this fairy tale for adults, Plichta collaborated with a friend, Dominik Steffan. “I wanted to do a real-person story,” he notes. “I didn’t want to create slapstick animation. I wanted something more serious and adult-like.”

The filmmaker designed the Dream­maker’s house like a ship with bars on the windows, and built characters with big hands and limbs. “I started modeling in 3D,” he says, “but the characters were unsatisfactory. “Then, one of the students created a maquette, and I did one myself.” He used his maquettes as reference to build new 3D models.

Simulation—smoke and water—was most difficult. For water, Plichta used Next Limit’s RealFlow; for smoke, Aura from the Chaos Group. He painted skies in Adobe’s Photoshop and composited in Eyeon’s Digital Fusion.

“‘Dreammaker’ has great computer graphics,” Debevec says. “When the old fellow is creating dreams, we see bubbles inside potion, fluid effects, vapor effects. It’s a very nicely done film, and by a student.” Even without using shadows or reflectance passes, many of the shots had 25 layers. “This is the longest and biggest film I’ve finished,” Plichta says. “But even simulation, which was hard to do, was fun.”

“En Tus Brazos” (“In Your Arms”) opens with two dancers coming into focus, followed by the words “amazing!” and “fabulous” in lights on a marquee next to a poster of the tango dancers. Next we see the man’s face. He looks at pictures from his career; each photo comes alive. A hand slaps across one of the photos, and a woman’s voice says, “Stop Jorge.” When the camera pulls back, we see that the man is in a wheelchair.

His wife closes the book on his lap and walks to the window. She has an idea. She puts a record on the phonograph, and when the music starts, she pulls her partner up out of the chair. She moves his legs with hers, and they dance into a dream.

The film-noir style of lighting effects, depth of field, and precise touches of color combine to focus the viewer on the tango dancers in “En Tus Brazos.” The short film, set in the 1930s, was created by a trio of students.

The four-and-a-half-minute film, which is set in the 1930s, is shaded like a faded photograph, and each element in the film—the style of the tango shoes, the woman’s dress and hair, the wheelchair, even the mandolin—came from the time period. Soft colors deftly move the eye to a bow in the dancer’s hair, to the chair, to a rose. The filmmakers focused the viewer’s eye using depth of field and a film-noir style of lighting. Lighting effects also created an illusion: Rather than modeling, animating, and rendering cars for a dream sequence, the team simulated the nighttime traffic using streaking light. 

SIGGRAPH doesn’t always give an Award of Excellence, although the rules state that, at most, the committee can recognize three films. This year, it did. “This film stood out because it’s a compelling story, very compact and efficient,” says Debevec. “The characters have really interesting designs that work well for the tango dancers. The stylized animation was a great way to communicate on screen something more compelling than you could by filming someone doing the tango. They explore the relationship between the husband and wife team of once-great dancers. You can tell that they’re fiery folks who probably had a wide spectrum in their relationship. It is a successful piece of filmmaking.”

François-Xavier Goby came up with the idea while in South America. “I wanted to make a film about someone who had lost the use of his legs and couldn’t dance anymore,” he says.

To create this film, because it was their first animated project, Goby and fellow students Edouard Jouret and Matthieu Landour shared the production, each modeling, animating, shading, lighting, and composing some of the film. They worked in Autodesk’s 3ds Max, using Adobe’s Photoshop for painting and Adobe’s After Effects for compositing. Eventually, they danced toward specialties. “Edouard enjoyed animation the most,” says Goby. “For me, the best parts were directing and animation, and for Matthieu, directing, editing…and the coffee.”

If we look for similarities among the three winning films, two come into view: Filmmakers from countries other than the US created all three films (with an assist from California-based CafeFX), and all three films centered on characters who spent some time in dream worlds. But, the dissimilarities are more fascinating. Even though they used similar tools, the filmmakers created, animated, and rendered each film in completely different, equally successful styles. Clearly, these days, CG animation is about the artists, not the tools.

Barbara Robertson is an award-winning writer and a contributing editor for Computer Graphics World. She can be reached at BarbaraRR@comcast.net.