The Canadian film Eternal Spring
is the country’s official Oscar submission for Best International Feature and explores a dramatic heist of China’s state TV airwaves by a group of repressed Falun Gong adherents. The documentary is presented via animation and is told from the point of view of accomplished comic artist Daxiong, whose life was turned upside down by these events.
In addition to telling the story of the heist, the doc also reveals the artistic process behind the film’s animation, which is woven into the film’s narrative. The illustrator sets out to understand an event that deeply impacted his life. He carries the trauma of torture and the longing for a lost home. All of this is processed and communicated through his pen.
Eternal Spring is the work of director Jason Loftus (Ask No Questions), animation director David St-Amant (
Arrival), and producer Yvan Pinard (
La Face cachée de la Lune). The goal was to bring Daxiong’s drawings off the static page and to give the audience a sense of place, but also to keep the authenticity of his work intact. The challenge was to bring these 2D assets into a 3D space.
Early on, the team determined the best way to maintain the authenticity of Daxiong’s aesthetic was to simply use his actual art. They created a ‘universal character’ that could take the shape of anything anthropomorphic. This character would become a projection support for Daxiong’s drawings.
Early in the collaboration, Daxiong began to sketch out dark images that conjured the terror he recalled in having endured persecution and witnessing those around him disappear. By matching the silhouette of the artwork, they could project it on geometry that could be animated. Once the animation was complete, they purposefully delayed random points on the mesh to create a noisy smearing effect that matched the style of the brush strokes. This technique was applied to multiple art pieces that were laid out in 3D and became a sequence that played past the midpoint of the film as Daxiong faces his traumatic past.
The style of this sequence, being black and white, gave the filmmakers freedom to later add ink strokes chasing Daxiong’s character through the scene. These strokes were Daxiong’s own real-life brush strokes. They then shrink-wrapped the strokes to the ground, which revealed the ground’s shape and volume.
Relying on 2D artwork was the most efficient way for the team to model, texture and shade environments in a way that was uniform and fit the artistic goals of the film. Using rough drawings and storyboards, they defined the general volumes of a scene with simple geometry. They created a first pass blocking animation as the rough environments were modeled in order to obtain a camera lock.
Locking the camera in the layout stage was key to the success of this workflow. Nodal pans were used as much as possible to reduce parallax and help the projection process. From there, all departments could work on the shots simultaneously. Animators had the interaction planes they needed, and they printed renders of the rough layout for the 2D artists (mainly Daxiong himself) to ink onto. In the end, they obtained a level of detail and authenticity that wouldn’t have been achievable otherwise.
This approach was heavily relied on for the opening sequence – a five-minute-long shot in which the camera traverses the city of Changchun and the viewer is immediately immersed in the widespread security crackdown. This method also allowed the team to convey the sense described by the artist and film subject: danger at every turn.
All characters were animated ’on twos’ — the equivalent to animating half the frames. This allowed the team to animate faster and also blend with the 2D animated style. All camera motions were animated on ’ones,’ which allowed for the addition of more texture to the animation in general. A handheld camera technique was used in animated scenes to make it feel more grounded and connected to the live-action footage.
Combining different frame rates between the camera and characters created technical hurdles. For example, a character walking with a moving camera tracking him would result in a strobing character. The solution was to have the global motion of the character on ’ones’ and the rest of his motion on ’twos.’ There are a handful of scenarios where visual issues like that can happen and the team made sure the animators understood the issues when converting their scenes back to 24fps. Animation work for Eternal Spring dates back to as far as 2017.
Visually, realistic visual effects would not blend with the film’s 2D style. The team experimented with Blender’s grease pencil feature, despite not having experience with the program. The results spoke for themselves. Ultimately, they were glad they took this approach, as it sped up the workflow and integrated into the 3D work seamlessly.
Only four animators (including animation director David St-Amant) animated the entire feature, while one person was responsible for all lighting and rendering. The flexibility of the pipeline at Lofty Sky proved extremely valuable, allowing the team to use a combination of Zbrush, Maya 2018, and Softimage. Texturing was accomplished using Photoshop and Mari, while rigging was achieved using Maya 2018 and mGear. Maya and Animbot were used for animation. Rendering was performed using Arnold and Redshift. Both Fusion 9 and After Effects were used for compositing, and the edit took place in Adobe Premiere.