Siggraph 2014

So, the Stina project completes it’s second trip to Siggraph, the biggest and most prestigious Computer Graphics and VFX conference in the world (first held in 1974) This year it was held in Vancouver in the impressive conference center located on the water front:

 

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It was a great event and exciting for lots of different reasons (I may have had a few plays on the latest Occulus Rift). In attendance was myself, Alex and one of our students Oliver Herman, who was there as a Siggraph helper, but also undercover to help us promote the film.

Our first event was a presentation on how we’ve been using the film as a method of teaching our students. We were in-between two other presentations by other film projects being developed in the education sector. After some initial panic about absolutely nothing working with our powerpoint, we finally got it going and got ready for our biggest presentation to date:

 

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The talk went very well by all accounts, with some great questions at the end, although the turnout was rather smaller than we’d hoped for (Around 35ish, we were competing with some much higher profile presentations that day unfortunately) We were very excited to see that Jorge had come to see us however, a head of one of our main sponsors SOLID ANGLE. It was also very interesting to see what other universities had been up to and we got some useful insights into improvements we could make in scheduling our student milestones.

Before our next presentation we had some time to check out the conference exhibition hall where Stina was making a debut on few of our sponsor’s stands:

 

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At the VICON stand

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At the FACEWARE stand

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And playing out in the dallies reel over lunch.

We also had a chance to talk to the guys at FABRIC ENGINE who make a piece of software that may just save our bacon when we start transferring our entire film pipeline over to Maya (which, for those who don’t know we have had to do as the software we have made our film on up until now: Softimage, has now been canceled by the people that made it: Autodesk) This software will allow us to use the skills and methods we have developed in ICE, (a system of visual programming integrated into Softimage)  within Maya, as the new release of FABRIC ENGINE will effectively allow ICE within Maya. This really did make our day, as up until that point the assumption was that all the skills we and the students had developed using ICE were now effectively redundant. We are also planning to open up this software to all the students outside the Stina project, as FABRIC ENGINE is now being adopted by commercial studios and will soon become an invaluable programming tool in a graduate’s arsenal of skills.

For our final  presentation we were lucky enough to be sandwiched in-between some pretty high profile and exciting speakers, so our audience was guaranteed to be a lot larger:

 

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Alex and I had 90 seconds to deliver our double act as the trailer played out on the screen. Luckily it was a lot more packed as we’d hoped, and we got a fantastic reception. It seems that the trailer is provoking a lot of very positive feedback from people who get see a lot of professional feature level work, which is very encouraging indeed. Also the trailer is now playing over on CGBROS, where we’ve had over 1000 likes so far (plus a lot of heated debate about whether the trailer is too obscure or not.. which i’m personally very happy about!)

 

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The rest of the conference led to some great new discoveries for software solutions for the film: SPEEDTREE Looked ideal to help us solve our extensive foliage problem, allowing us to make dynamic forests and plants; and QUALOTH looked like it might be a very useful augmentation to our Marvelous Designer cloth pipeline, particularly as we now have to switch to Maya. (where it has an integrated plugin already developed.)

After a fairly modest amount of after show partying (thanks to VICON and FACEWARE here) and managing to catch up with our friends Lynette and George from 3d TOTAL , the conference came to an end. We were flattered by the praise and attention received by the trailer, which is testament to the hard work put in by all the students (now all listed under “The Team” tab above)  Hopefully this, along with our recent CGBROS publicity has raised our profile to the level that will allow us to do some serious fundraising to take the film to it’s next big milestone: completing the previz.  Watch this space..

Paul

 

Trailer finshed and success in FEST

Our trailer is finally completed. And we are very proud of the results. A year of hard work from Alex, myself and the other students is now up on show. We got it done just in time for our pitch in Portugal (apart from one shot of the crowd, which was finalized on our return. It turned out the people there liked seeing a work in progress shot, as it illustrated out process)

The pitching workshops were hard work. Great thanks go to Guillermo Garcia-Ramos who ran these sessions, which were fantastically useful and helped us really distill our film into a paragraph. (Not to mention that the sessions were very amusing, occasionally at our expense!) We ended up rewriting our pitch about 4 times. We also attended some very useful master classes and met a lot of fantastic people and were very inspired, if a little hung over by the end of the festival.
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The actual pitch on the following day went far better than Alex and I were expecting. (Pays to be a pessimist: you’re never disappointed) I went first with the synopsis, then we showed the trailer, then Alex outlined the production side. Out of the 17 producers about 5 gave us feedback. They loved the trailer and said we had a saleable product. They were generally very complementary about the general look and feel of the film. There were some questions about why we had chosen animation over live-action, and a few quibbles about our two stage budget for previz to full production (they said quite rightly why would someone just want to pay for previz) Nobody seemed to bat an eyelid at the 12 million projected cost, which was a surprise.

A big coup for us was that Gareth Willey, Woody Allen’s producer liked our work and wanted to follow up back in the UK, to see how he could help us. He made it clear that his books are full for producing himself, but would see what he could do. The exciting thing here is that even if it comes to nothing, we have been validated by industry producers, that say what we’re doing is saleable. We are now on the radar, so it should just be a matter of time before we find a full time producer.
The one thing we were told though, is that it’s now all about the script. The door is open for us, mostly thanks to the trailer. But now we have to prove ourselves with the screenplay. Gareth emailed yesterday asking us to send it. We shall be sending it later today. I’ve given it a quick reformat in a proper screen writing application (as it was in word) and amended a few things from our shoot and subsequent story boarding. But it’s basically the same. I’m very happy with it, as it tells the story I want to tell in the way I want to tell it. But time will tell if it’s everybody’s cup of tea.

So, to summarise, we are about to send our script to a producer who’s used to reading scripts from Woody Allen. No pressure then. More on this next month.

Paul

Stina gets Social

In preparation for Paul and Alex’s trip to FEST in Portugal, we have a shiny new twitter account @Stinathemovie which will be used to keep you all updated on the happenings at Stina HQ as well as on the website.

We also have the first episode of our podcast coming soon. Keep an eye on Twitter and Facebook to find out more.

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That ends this tiny update that is totally not a flimsy excuse to test some new site features…

New funding and future plans

We are fast approaching our deadline for completion of the trailer (our London show) and have one more shot left to render. As mentioned before it’s our most ambitious yet with 26 characters and it will be touch and go whether we get it all rendered in time. It’s pushed our render farm to the limit and we’ve found out it’s just too big to render on the farm machines, so are having to transfer it to our 2 individual super high spec machines. (Tech babble: the scene was using over 22 gig in ram per frame and we only have 16 on our farm machines. At least we think that why it’s crashing, more on this in future posts) Keep your fingers crossed for us. We have 3 weeks left, so hopefully that will be enough time to get all the frames out we need!

Some exciting funding news. We were short listed out of over 100 entrants to be one of 17 film projects pitching to a panel of industry producers at the Portuguese FEST film festival next week. This is fantastic for us, as it’s a chance to start the next phase of the project’s development. Just in time for the completion of our trailer. There are assorted prizes for the pitch, the most significant of which is the chance to get production mentorship to take our project to the “next level” in development. Even if we don’t win however, which is obviously a long shot, it’s going to be a fantastic opportunity to get feedback on what we’re doing, and hopefully a realistic insight into to the challenges we’ll have in raising full feature funding. One very useful effect it’s had is to force us to properly plan and budget for the next year and really distil the project down into tighter descriptions of our artistic and financial intentions. We also now have a “film pack” which contains the elements a potential investor could browse through to get a real feel for the project (storyboards, concept art, Previz, animatics, script, synopsis) We are hoping the fact that we were short listed must be an indication we are doing something right! More on this next month when Alex and I get back from Portugal.

A bit more detail regarding our production plans for the next year. Now the trailer is almost compete, we are focusing on our short 5 minute excerpt from the feature, which can stand alone as a short film and will be entered into festivals around the world. This is another traditional route to funding features, as producers sometimes pick up shorts looking to be developed further. It’s also a good way to raise our profile even more. Our other plan for next year, although this is contingent on us raising the necessary finance, (possibly helped by a kickstarter campaign, more on this after the trailer is finished and we’ve had our Portugal feedback) is to start a commercial animation studio to compete the Previz for the whole film.

Previz Example

We plan to do this using graduates with a few industry regulars. (If we can tempt our graduates back from the bright lights of soho, which is by no means guaranteed!) Our plan is to have a completed edit done in a year. The next stage would be to add the detailed environments, VFX and textures, which would happen after further fund raising for the following year. The advantage of this approach is that it allows us to really hone the edit and complete the structure of the film, right down to the length of individual shots, before we plan and cost the next stage. This will be the really expensive bit and will probably require working other vfx studios due to the volume of shots.

That’s all for now. The next blog should be a report on the first showing of our completed trailer and news from what transpired in Portugal. If you want to see our work in progress, which we posted up thanks to some great publicity from one of our sponsors Vicon see below.

If you fancy hearing us rambling on incoherently about what we’re up to, with occasional jumps for editing out Tom’s swearing, check out our twitter feed for our first podcast which is coming soon.

Paul

Original Story and Music

As we’re still finishing up the last few shots of the trailer, i thought i’d add a little bit from our composer Pasha Curseli about the musical background to the project and how it formed the original story to our film:

It was the track below that started things off 4 years ago. It was written during the winter of 2010, whilst looking out of my window as the snow settled and slowly transformed my home town of Tsetsveki into a world of brilliant white roads and soundless streets. I wanted to capture the feeling it conjured up, the way snow seems to transport you to another world.

The result still conjures up images of that particular Winter for me, even if it does sound a bit like a Zelda level from the early 90s:

I then decided to re-orchestrate it, to give it a more classical feel:

I’m glad i bothered to develop it (partly spurred on by some comments i got about how 80s the original orchestrations sounded!) as it formed the first piece in the original “Stina and the Wolf” story; I imagined Stina wandering off and getting lost in the snow as she’s bewitched by it, having never witnessed anything like it before. As a result I decided to attempt  a piece of “Peter and the Wolf” style narrative music, but taking the audience on a darker and more mythic journey. I wanted the main character to travel through different landscapes on a symbolic quest, in a similar way to characters in Angela Carter’s book of short stories: “The Bloody Chamber” in which she re-imagines popular fairy-tales into new, strange and often darkly modern myths.

The Original Story

The original tale comes from the first completed draft of the music and describes Stina’s story as she leaves her village and goes on a journey of transformation from human to wolf and from child to adult. A lot of it has changed since, as it’s evolved into a fully fledged screen play with fleshed out characters,  plot and motivations.  But many of the original ideas still pop up in the film in various forms. It’s unlikely that all of this music will remain in the final movie, as it will need to be scored specifically for the drama, but below is the story in its original form, with accompanying music.

Her signature melody and main instrument is an oboe and develops, intertwines is eventually replaced by the wolf’s instrument, a muted trumpet which develops through a series of hunting calls. Her imaginative life is represented by a harp, the beast she meets in the  underworld is a flute and the village and it’s traditions are represented by a gutiarviol (a crossbreed between a guitar and a viol that sounds a lot like a medieval viola-da-gamba):

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Stina and the Wolf  (original story and music)

 

1 -  The Village

Stina lives in small village high in the mountains. It is a place of tradition and ceremony. It’s stifling and oppressive. She is doing her chores.They never end. She looks out of the window, towards the distant snowy mountains. She watches an eagle as it soars in a giant arc above the highest peak, disappearing into a cloud. She dreams of a better life, but is brought back into reality. (but a harp has now joined the Guitarviols of the village and her imaginative life is awakened.)

2 – The Snow

The next morning she wakes to a glorious sunny day. She creeps out into the wild meadows accompanied by her trusty dog Griot. It’s a cunning plan to escape her never ending chores. Mid way through the piece all goes quiet and the first flakes of snow start to fall. She’s excited. She has never seen snow before. She runs to play but is soon lost, although she doesn’t yet realise it.

3-Transformation

Now Lost and alone in the wilds she imagines the village, (the guitarviol melody is now reprised by the softer harp as she yearns for home.)  Suddenly the moon appears, bathing all the forest in a soft blue light. She doesn’t notice as the moon slowly begins to turn blood red. She catches her reflection in an icy lake. She is transforming. On the far side of the lake a wolf calls. Suddenly scores of glowing yellow eyes blink out of the red soaked darkness. She is surrounded by a pack of hungry winter wolves. She is now a wolf herself. She dives into the forest to feed with the pack. She is hungry and joyfully. She follows the pack into the ground under a tree root and finally curls up, content, into sleep.

4-the Underworld

Stina wakes up underground and makes her way slowly down into the earth, towards the underworld. She finally comes to a giant underground ocean. A lone wolf stands guard on a rock and calls to her (muted trumpet), saying she cannot enter. She answers (oboe). Their conversations intertwine and he finally tells her she can pass. He summons up the horde from beneath the waves. All the strange and fantastical creatures of the forest emerge and process down into the depths. They carry her down towards the beast’s lair, until finally she arrives through a giant wall of water (gong).

On arrival the lair is dark and empty. Suddenly the beast emerges from the gloom. He sarcastically reprises Stina’s melody (fluttery flute). She replies softly and they dance. Their melodies intertwine. He resists at first, but she soon teaches him to dance like her and they join in harmony. She leaves him in his lair, still dancing and the horde return to take her back to the surface, through all the levels of the underworld. Finally she bursts out into the brilliant mountain sunlight next to the village.

5-Home

She returns to the village. It is full of snow. The villagers are gone but have been replaced by wolves (the original village guiatrviol melodies are now played by trumpets) They are eating viscera and staining the white snow crimson red. With her new found skills from the underworld, Stina casts a spell and returns the villagers to their human form (harp). She calls out to them, but her voice is now that of a wolf, and they throw stones at her. She watches the villagers going about their lives, now only able to look in. She knows she can never go back. She has changed into something new. Her wolf form (trumpet) is joined in duet with her human form (obe) in a final melody. She turns from the village and runs into the mountains to start her new life, now with the beasts of the forest.

-The End-

3 shots left and SIGGRAPH news

Here’s the latest from the Stina front line. Only 3 shots left and the trailer’s officially done. We’ve left the most challenging shots to last, of course. One has a mammoth 26 characters that all need cloth, hair, moustaches and face and hand animation. All the motion capture is now in and looks great (thanks go to recent graduate Krisztián Kinder for lining all this up); It’s now all lit with composite tests done and we’re very happy with what’s turning out to be our most ambitious shot to date. We’re also delighted to have got the rendering times down from 24 hours a frame to something slightly more manageable! Another equally ambitious shot involves us simulating an ocean wave colliding with Stina’s dress as it creates a plume of spray, all back-lit by a sunset. This shot is being helped a lot by the new open VDB toolkit (Fast and good quality volumetric rendering) available in Arnold, on to the soon to be retired (don’t get me started) Softimage XSI. It’s all new and relatively tricky stuff for us (tech babble: particularly tricky has been trying to get vector motion blur to work with our Open VDB renders), but we’re still on target to get it all done by the end of May for our London show.

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In other exciting news, we have been accepted to give a talk at Siggraph 2014 in Vancouver, and Alex and I will be heading out to perform our familiar double act. Please come along if you’re attending. We will be focusing mainly on the educational angles of the project, giving an insight into the students experience, but will also be premiering the new trailer and showing some new behind the scenes breakdowns, hopefully on a posh projector (a chance to justify our 2k resolution)

We are also continuing to progress with the short film sequence that will accompany the trailer. This won’t be ready until after the summer, but has now been storyboarded by our storyboard artists Chavdar Yordanov and most of the assets are built and ready to be assembled into the scene. This includes some cool new dynamic scatter ICE tools we’ve made for grass and trees (thanks to 3rd year programming wiz Scott Richards here), plus a fantastic new muscle system built by 3rd year student Tom Goodchild. We also have our second full time hire for FOAM Digital: Freya M Spencer, another talented 3rd year student who will be joining us as a character animator for 4 months to flesh out the new sequence. She’s already completed some very polished animation, but it will all be kept tightly under wraps until in the final edit. We are still debating whether to show the sequence publicly or not, or leave it for investors only, as it does contain some film spoilers. The sequence has also given us an excuse to use the wonderfully rich and characterful voice of Martin Daniels, who plays the “Pipe Catcher” character:

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The next report will be in June, when we’ve completed the trailer.

Paul

Trailer progress and Awards

Over the last few months we’ve been edging closer to our goal of a finished trailer. We are now well over half way to rendering and compositing all of the 52 shots and have finished the majority of the animation and cloth stages. It’s been slow going to keep our quality levels where we want them, but we are getting very excited about how it’s all finally turning out. We’re on target to get it finished by the summer, in time for our London show, a bit later than the February deadline we had originally planned for, but the loss of a few key staff to the bright lights of Soho (thanks to James Skilbeck for all his hard work on our cloth here) and the demands of our university day jobs (staff) and coursework (students) have slowed production a little. Just to make our life easier, we have also decided to run a separate project in parallel, featuring a key a scene from film that introduces one of the main characters, Griot. More details on this in later posts, but we hope to have this ready by the summer as well. It will form a key part of our “film pack” that will go out to potential investors, along with a book of storyboards and the 2k version of the trailer. We also hope to take this scene around the short film festival circuit, if all goes well.

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We also have production designer and storyboard artist Chavadar Yordinov back on staff as of this week, and he is working hard to complete our storyboards.

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His skills will allow us to develop a full set of artwork that can be developed into a graphic novel, in addition to helping us with the previz layout and final editing (He is also redrawing some of my earlier, and some what sketchier story boards!)

In other news, we were delighted to be awarded the Prize for Innovation in the 6th “Snow Wolf” Cup animation competition at the 4th Northeast Asian Culture and Art Week held in China for the test shot we did last year. We competed against over a thousand entrants from around the world and were very surprised to find out that we’d won! Next stop the Palme d’Or ;)

Paul

Stina

Softimage Creatives

We’ve been slowly ramping up for the new term over the last few weeks, reorganising a few things in the structure of Foam. We are attempting to make our shots run more efficiently by combining a few departments and dividing up the huge world into more focused CG sets that we can use at an earlier stage in the pipeline. Our plan is to get as much lighting and texture detail in as early as we can, so we have a clearer idea how to compose the final shots.The process of making the trailer has made it clear that we need a lot more colour, texture and lighting information early on to tackle the cinematography in a way that we can be confident it will look good at render time. For the trailer we have had to revise a lot of shots after render, due to compositions not quite working when all the lighting and texture information is assembled. This early design process we are calling “post viz” and will involve the motion capture being brought into a low resolution model with the facial performance projected onto the character heads. (we are calling these “egg head” rigs. You’ll see why in the attached video) We are combining these with a highly textured set, which we will light to a level that gives us a good representation of the final render. Hopefully this will allow us to put together early edits that will give us a much stronger sense of how the finished scenes will look.

In other news: We were kindly invited to present the project to a group of industry professionals at the annual Softimage Creatives meeting in London (Thanks Andy) . It was a great opportunity to get some industry feedback and was good to put our work in a broader context. We got a lot of useful tips, as well as providing a few of our own, which was a nice surprise. Our weakest link at the moment was clearly our compositing pipeline, which we are addressing at the moment. (with additional help from some ex students who are now experienced pros: thanks To Luke Armstrong here)

We also now have the first full time paid staff member of Foam Digital: James Skilbeck, a student who graduated last year and was running our Production and Cloth departments. Thanks also to a few other recent graduates who have been helping out on the trailer in their spare time: Tom Lee for Animation and Owyn Abram for VFX. I’ll leave you with a video of our London presentation with Myself, Alex and James giving a breakdown of our project so far and a sneak preview of our trailer work-in-progress.