It’s been an action packed summer for the Stina project. I’ve been holding off on writing a blog about it, as I wanted to get to a point where we could take a breath and reflect on all that has happened, what it all means and where we are now in the project. There have been high points and low points and a lot learned. This will be a longer piece than usual, as there is so much to cover and I’ll break it up into roughly chronological sections.
Cannes Film Festival
Site of our first meeting – “English Pavilion” behind the “Palais des Festivals” Screening Area.
When we first got accepted to the “Court Metrage” at the “Festival de Cannes” we were very excited. This is the biggest art house film festival in the world, and many of my favorite films, and ones that have been a big influence on our production such as “The Conversation”, “Paris Texas”,”Mulholland Drive”, “Picnic at Hanging Rock” have won big prizes here. We are very proud of our short film “Uncle Griot”, which although not able to compete against fully formed 15 minute short films, (ours is only 5 minutes long, and assembled from a single scene in the feature) works well as an atmospheric slice of our feature production, with enough ideas and emotion to at the very least leave the audience with a lot of questions, if not all of the answers. So when it appeared in the official Cannes catalogue alongside works from well known directors it was a real buzz. Our intention was always to use it as a tool to open doors to help the feature development and hopefully interest a producer enough to come onboard and help with our next stage of funding. It became clear though, after collating assorted and often contradictory views on the festival, that acceptance to “Court Metrage”, although framed as an opportunity only open to those who have a project that is quantifiably “art house”, it is in fact simply a pay-to-attend market place, where thousands of short film makers try and forge a career or, as in our case, battle to get funding for their feature development. It isn’t, as it initially appeared, any kind of stamp of approval on the quality of your film. We were to be an incredibly small fish in a very large ocean of highly seasoned, and extremely busy producers, sales agents and distributors, and lots of other very talented filmmakers, (who are all trying to compete for the same limited funding and opportunities.) As a result of realizing this we did as much research as we could before we left, to try and make the best use of our time. One thing that became clear was that there is no point going to Cannes unless you do the leg work to arrange meetings before you go, as most producers have filled their schedules before their planes even touch down. This was a very new world to me. My experience in the film industry has always been on the filmmaking side and never on the film producing or funding side, so it was an intimidating first step.
“Uncle Griot” Cannes Catalog Entry.
The first stage was to “reach out” (a phrase I used a lot for the next 3 months), to as many people as I could to help us. A thing we learnt quickly was the importance of knowing exactly what you are asking for and what, specifically, you are offering. Film producers, sales agents and distributors deal with hundreds of cold callers and have neither the time nor the inclination to humor unprepared newcomers. So to this end I embarked on as thorough a research and costing of our entire feature production as I could. Amongst my most useful meetings was a chat with the head of feature animation development at Double Negative, who as well as generously giving me a lot of his time, gave me a lot of good advice on the language a producer expects to hear in regard to animated film costing (The currency is seconds per week; 3 for feature quality, 6 for TV, and so on). I also approached the company REALTIMEUK to help us cost a version of the production done with the UNREAL game engine (more on this later) as using a game engine had the potential to bring the costs down to a manageable level.
So, what is a manageable level? This is the million dollar question (probably more). Up until this point our production had existed in a safe university bubble. We had been developing at our our own very slow, but comfortable pace, but the reality of finishing a production as complex as this without it taking 50 years, is that at some point you need a big injection of cash. There is no real way around that, down simply to the volume of work required to service a 2 hour film. My research on this led me to a number of areas that need to be fleshed out. The first area was the basic marketing one. In selling a film to a producer, distributor or sales agent, by far the most important thing is to know is where the market for the film is, and whether it can realistically provide enough budget for your production. The second concern is: why should the producer trust your skills? And why should they believe your specific film will make the investors any more return than any other projects on their desk? These two areas can be summed up in two words: “Reputation” and “Return”. Almost every producer we spoke to before and during Cannes, at some point, uttered these two words.
To tackle the cost of our production we looked at recent similar film projects. There is a precedent for cost-saving productions using the Unreal game engine. One such film is the recent “Allahyar and the Legend of Markhor “. The production company have been very coy about their actual production costs for this film, but it is well known that it was substantially cheaper than similar traditionally made CGI feature projects. We initially worked with UNREALUK to help us cost this, but unfortunately they couldn’t provide us with a quote in time as they were in the middle of multiple big productions, so we looked for other assorted reference sources and came up with an initial budget for the whole feature. This figure assumed we would be using Unreal and was based on a breakdown of animation, modelling, rigging, VFX, tools, production, foley, mixing and grading guided by our assemble of the film (a 110 minute long cut constructed from on-set reference footage, storyboards and concept art) It came to $2.5 million. This would pay for a small professional animation studio, staffed with junior- to mid-level artists and a few seniors working for two years. It would also allow us to formalise the student contribution, by running year-long paid placements as part of the degree program. This budget sits well in the indie horror market, which is a realistic genre to pitch to, given our content . “The Company of Wolves”, a film that shares some thematic similarities with our film was also marketed as a horror film, even though it’s predominantly an Art House experiment. So this approach can work and stay true to both the marketplace and the work.
Our poster and part of our “Pitch Deck” for the “Stina & the Wolf” horror pitch.
The indie horror market in particular can accommodate films budgeted between $500K and $3 million, which can generate at least $10 million in Producer’s Net Profit with Income Streams: 28% from theatrical, 60% from home video and 11% from TV and other ancillary income. This could also provide an indication of our distribution approach. Lessons from research into these lower budget films also told us we should look for “good actors, not big stars, and do the same with all of the technical crew on a film”. This, fortunately, is a fairly accurate description of our project: great performances and visuals,but absolutely no-one famous involved!
So, with all this information, a “pitch deck” on our Ipad and a single meeting I’d managed to setup with a producer I’d managed to wrangle from existing contacts I have in the film industry from my VFX days (after countless fruitless other attempts by email and phone to assorted production companies) Alex and I headed off to Cannes, feeling a bit like 2 Mr Benns having taken the producers outfit off the rack, slipped through the shop doorway and disappeared into a new and very surreal world.
Paul and Alex pretend to be in the film industry.
On arriving at Cannes our meeting was immediately postponed to the following day due to what sounded like a stressed and overworked producer juggling a production disaster unfolding in real-time on her main Cannes film project. We had definitely arrived at the chaos-center of the film industry. Her film was to be a big highlight of the festival, and last minute hitches in its world wide release were apparently causing release-busting problems. The next day we got our meeting, albeit with a few breaks for emergency fire-fighting calls to various parts of the globe. It was useful, and she was very direct. She made it clear the kind of film we were trying to fund had no chance of US funding, no chance of a traditional animation feature blockbuster funding (no stars/No award winning director/writer) but sounded like a good potential fit for the “Asian market”. For the following days we attended as many assorted networking events as we could and learned about the feature production world, and how its various parts fit together (or don’t!). Again and again we were told our film fitted into the “Asian market”. After a week of this we came away somewhat shell shocked. The experience of coming in as newcomers to a such a complex and established market place was a little overwhelming, and for the most part we were out of our comfort zone, and out of our depth. Also the festival as a whole (some great films aside) felt somewhat flat and even a little paranoid, as it was trying to reinvent itself and re-commodify its “glamour” in the light of the Harvey Weinstein affair (one taxi driver told us that it was the Weinstein entourage that pretty much made the festival every year, and as a result many of the usual crowds of American tourists were absent) The festival is trying to find its way in response to the “#meto” movement. And rightly so.
Queuing starts outside the “Palais des Festivals”
All in all the film industry circus in Cannes is not a place for the faint hearted, or the inexperienced. It’s a place where established film producers and distributors negotiate deals with established award winning film makers. (A lot of whom do all of their deals and leave the week before Court Metrage even begins, as they aren’t interested in sifting through the hundreds of short film makers) We didn’t find a producer in the end. This was a baptism of fire, but also an extremely valuable learning experience and one that will definitely inform the rest of our production. We are now equipt to talk to producers in a language they understand, and are now actively investigating the much lauded “Asian market” to see if this is indeed where our future lies.
Siggraph 2018, Vancouver
Alex chats to another speaker as the room starts to fill up ahead of our talk. (It filled up, honest!)
As well as dipping its toe into the hectic world of film funding, the project has also been delivering on its academic and research objectives. This was our third trip to Siggraph, but this time we actually had a paper to present. We were very surprised and pleased to have our submission accepted in the “Arts Paper” section. (The competition is pretty fierce at Siggraph, as its the leading international conference for Computer Graphics, Animation and Visual Effects) . The paper dealt with some of our funding challenges, as well as getting into the thematic and narrative ideas at the heart of the film. On a personal level, it was great to get back to some of the ideas in the actual story, as opposed to the funding and contractual aspects we’d been obsessing about all summer. (Definitely not my natural skill-set!)
Our paper as it appeared in the M.I.T. LEONARDO journal, and 2 nervous presenters.
The conference was excellent, and we were very much back in our comfort zone. (Alex was flogging another project here also: a VR theatre experience called “Fatherland” and there was a lot of exciting VR technology around) Our paper seemed to be well received and it was great to feel part of the arts community there. The talk was well organised and we were made to feel very welcome. The conference stalls, exhibitions and presentations gave us loads to think about regarding game engine usage for animated feature development. It made us realise the real-time aspect of using a game engine in “Virtual production” would definitely allow us to use much more reactive and traditional filmmaking techniques, much more akin to being on-set, as well as helping to bring the production costs down. There was also a lot of AI and deep learning software on show; it was clear how fast the technology is progressing in animation and rendering tech. Hopefully the near future is going to bring a lot more speed and automation to a lot of tasks which are, at present, very expensive and very time consuming.
Rewrites & Table Reads
One of the main goals of pitching to a producer is to get them to read your script. (or get one of their script-readers to read your script) The script is the blueprint for a film, without it, traditionally, there is no film. We are in a weird position in our production, in that we have effectively completed our “principal photography” on our mocap stage. We also have a rough cut of all of this with music and some foley and effects. As it stands however this cut still requires a lot of imagination to make sense of, as some parts are storyboarded better than others and some parts give limited context to the action, as they’re edited from raw, fixed, reference camera footage from the shoot. As a film, it only works in the context of having read the script. It was a tricky decision whether to use the drama cut or the script to pitch our project, as they both have their own merits, but in the end we went for the script, as certainly in the world of Cannes, this is the expected format.
The Pipe Catcher spins a tale to Stina & her friends at the Night Fair.. (Played by the amazing Martin Daniels; audio from our 2 hour “Drama Cut” )
Our first job was to rewrite the script to add in new sections. An old cliche in filmmaking is that you make a film 3 times: once when you write it, once when you direct it and once when you edit it. We had made all sorts of script changes during the shoot and again in editing the drama cut. The first task was to get all of these changes back into the screenplay, so it more closely represented our vision for the film.
The second job was a more difficult one. Our film, by its very nature is challenging. Its influences: films like “Mulholland Drive” , “Picnic at Hanging Rock”. “Don’t Look Now” , “The Company of Wolves” are not traditionally commercial products, or certainly not in today’s film market place, and they rely as much on visual atmosphere and symbolism as they do on the more traditional elements of dialogue, exposition and traditional narrative form. I shall use another blog post to go into our approaches regarding narrative and symbolism, but it was always a worry that we needed to find a willing producer to give us feedback on where our film sat in the gradient between commercial and art house
We want our film to work as a horror film, but also as much, much more. I wanted to get some external views on our screenplay, as we needed a dry-run of what an average producer might think on a first read-through. As I discovered fairly quickly, nobody is going to read your screenplay as a favour. As with all things in the film industry, you need to pay for it. It wasn’t cheap, but I got a “Hollywood” read-though and paid the extra for written feedback. The feedback made it very clear this film was never going to be a mainstream box office smash. The reader didn’t understand a lot of what we were doing and our task (as difficult as this was) was to try and sift through all of his feedback and decode what was, and what wasn’t relevant to what we want to do. (Feedback should always be approached with honest reflection, but also caution. It can totally destroy a project as well as save it if it’s just taken verbatim. To quote a screenwriting lecture I once attended: “Opinions are like arsehols, everyones got one”) What was very useful was that it highlighted a few issues of clarity in our ideas and made it clear certain areas need strengthening and others needed to be readjusted to help the balance between narrative hand-holding and audience heavy-lifting. This is always a challenge for “art house” work, as at one end you have Hollywood characters screaming the plot at you every time they open their mouths, and at the other end you can end up with a vague pretentious mess of arty stuff that’s incomprehensible to everyone except the director. Our job, as i see it, is to try and give the target audience enough ingredients to make their own soup, but with enough guidance from our recipe that they could come up with their own tasty concoctions, and maybe even some that would never have occurred to us. (In my opinion this is what David Lynch miraculously achieved in “Mulholland Drive”, although this film requires a number a watchings to fully savour. But that’s another debate) This approach also reflects some of the thematic elements we are trying to explore, such as fugue states, symbolism as a creative act of perception by the protagonist and other pretentious sounding but well intentioned ideas I shall dive into in a future blog. That’s enough with the bad food metaphors I think.
So, the result was I did a rewrite and inevitably the process of doing so led me into discovering new ideas and new ways of crafting the story and the characters experiences that I hadn’t originally planned. It also took the screenplay from 65 pages to 110 pages (110 pages is the mean average of pages needed to get a film made, according to various sources. This assumes a minute a page, not an entirely reliable assumption for our film, as the original 65 page screenplay drama cut was 110 minutes long)
Table read of the new screenplay – Clockwise left to right: Paul, Becky, Freya, Fiona, Ken, Sheila, Evie, Adrian.
The result of this rewrite means we now need to shoot some additional mocap, as there are now additional scenes and some dialogue changes (although about 2/3 of the film remains unchanged) To this end I decided a table read would be useful, as hearing a screenplay acted out is an essential part of crafting a finished version. Words that sound great on the page don’t always work with the rhythm of a particular actor or actress, and there is no easier way to see if you’ve overwritten a scene, or have put a joke in that falls totally flat, than hearing it read out-loud in front of you. We had just enough time to organise our original Stina actress: Becky Waldron and our original Mahdid actress: Evie Payne, to take part, before we left for Vancouver. (Thanks also to Freya Spencer, Adrian Samuels, Ken and Sheila Charisse for agreeing to read and delivering some fantastic performances!). Due to clashing events, we had to do the reading 2 hours after I got off the plane from Vancouver, so it was a slightly surreal jet-lagged experience for me, but it has proved extremely useful in giving us a sense of the film’s overall shape, as well as dialogue bits that need tweaking. Although we now have more work to complete, its very exciting to see the way the story and characters have been enriched by this process. Also, any excuse to spend time on the story and take a rest from fundraising is always fine with me.
3d Production Pipeline
As i’ve written about in previous posts, the majority of our production, up until this point (and for all of “Uncle Griot”) was completed using Autodesk Softimage. As Autodesk decided to end Softimage, we have had to start the process of rebuilding our entire asset library of rigs and tools again in a new software package we hope will stay with us for a bit longer. The software is called Autodesk Maya. Our plan is to get our custom software tools and rigs up to the same level of usability we had in Softimage, and then begin the process of Previz with the students. To replicate many of the tools in Maya, we are having to learn the object oriented programming languages of Python and PyQt, as a way to implement features we had previously built in Softimage’s node based programming system called ICE.
Griot’s facial animation system being rebuilt in Maya using Python and PyQt.
Previz involves doing a rough 3d block out of every shot of the whole film, similar to an animated storyboard. This allows us to time-out and plan what is required in each shot in detail. This is essential for costing the film, as well auditing what skills are needed for the higher resolution work (such as animation, modelling, texturing, fluid simulation, compositing etc). It’s also very useful as a guide for scoring the music, and starting work on the foley and dialogue mixes as well as the edit. The previz will be informed by our drama cut, which we are also revising at the moment to reflect our latest script additions. We are also planning to start work on experimenting with the UNREAL game engine as our primary renderer and investigate some of the virtual production technology we saw at Siggraph that works in the UNREAL environment. This will begin once our base assets are completed within Maya. We will also be continuing to work with FACEWARE as our primary facial capture tool.
Film Festival Success
I’ve been tweeting and posting regularly on facebook about our assorted film festival selections and awards for “Uncle Griot”, but I thought I’d end this blog by collating them all into one place. I am planning to release the film online at the end of the month, as it’s final festival submissions are almost complete. We’ve had a good amount of success on the festival circuit (We even managed to get selected for the Oscar accredited “Holly Shorts” festival in the Chinese Theater in LA!) and had some really great communication from festivals around the world (particularly from the “Florida Animation Festival”. There’s an interview I did with them in the previous blog post) It’s an expensive business, as each entry can cost up to $65, so you have to pick your festivals wisely, but we are very happy with the international coverage we finally achieved. (Although it did far better in the USA and Europe than it did the UK for some reason!)
- Official Selection for the Oscar-Qualifying “14th HollyShorts Film Festival” at the Chinese Theatre, Hollywood, CA.
- Award for 1st Place in 3d Animation at the “Florida Animation Festival”
- Award for Best Animation at the “Top Shorts Online Film Festival”
- Official Selection for the “Festival de Cine de Madrid”
- Official Selection for the “The International Animation Film Festival (IAFF) Golden Kuker- Sofia”
- Award for Best Editing at the “Top Shorts Online Film Festival”
- Official Selection for the “Toronto FEEDBACK Film Festival”
- Award for Best Score at the “Top Shorts Online Film Festival”
- Award of Excellence at the ”One Reeler Short Film Festival”
- Official Selection at the “Fantasy. SciFi, Film and Screenplay Festival” in Toronto.
- Official Selection at the “Philip K. Dick Film Festival” in LA / New York
- Award for Best Cinematography at the “Fantasy. SciFi, Film and Screenplay Festival” in Toronto.
Here’s a behind the scenes video of some of the processes we used to make “Uncle Griot”. It’s accompanied below by an interview I did with the “Florida Animation Festival” about some of our techniques, inspirations and the big challenges we faced in getting it made at all!
FAF: What do you think are the benefits of working in CGI animation? The drawbacks?
PC: I’ve found one of the biggest benefits of working in CGI is also one of its biggest drawbacks. It gives you an almost limitless potential for telling your story in any environment you can possibly imagine (or are yet to imagine) with any characters you want, human or otherwise.
The big danger here is that this lack of creative boundaries can actually hinder rather than help the creative process–particularly if you don’t have a producer constantly reminding you of cost and timescale. They have a way of making you focus on specific choices! We found this problem especially true with the outdoor natural environments. For conventional filmmaking, there’s a certain amount of design in the environment at the pre-production stage and much of that you can get from location scouting. But the key difference here is that the final cinematographic process is also very reactive to the pre-existing design (i.e. the natural world). The director can react on set to light and form by just moving around. It’s a reactive as well as a prescriptive process. The problem with CGI landscape design is that it’s entirely design driven by concept art. Even if you start from photos or paintings, you have to build the landscape in a way that works from multiple angles, so it’s very easy to lose that important ability that I believe is essential to good art: reacting to things beyond your control, to mistakes as well as external agents and limitations. I’ve seen it with professional feature directors (and myself). You can end up with a “kid-in-the-candy-store” effect where too much choice means you ended up piling too many things in, or getting distracted by some other cool idea you suddenly realise is possible. In my opinion, this is one of the reasons a lot of CGI can sometimes look flat, contrived and uninspired. It’s over-designed. Our issue was how do we make the environment in a way that we can react to it as if we are on set? We never answered this problem completely in my opinion, although I’m mostly very happy with our landscape; but we had to do a lot of very time-consuming set dressing and landscape design per shot to camera. (Matte painting can be a savior in these instances if you have only a small amount of parallax or a static camera.) For our next project, the feature film that the short was developed from, we are planning to use as much real life scan data as we can as a starting point and also plan our shots using a game engine such as UNREAL. We are hoping this will give us the ability to throw ourselves into a world where we can react to colour, light, and form as well as design it.
In many respects we are using CGI to mimic a real film process, as that fits our narrative style of magical realism. It also gives us a fairly unique approach to our shot design. We captured all the performances on set in a similar way to a stage play. We had limited space so we concentrated on getting the best, most honest performance we could with only minimal blocking for camera. Our plan was always to try and react to the performances in post and frame and edit shots accordingly. This gave us a lot of freedom to build edits based on beats coming directly from the performance, and also overcome the restrictions of the performance space. This is, as far as I know, an untested approach, as the editing of a shoot, is normally restricted by the camera coverage, or by each shot being blocked specifically for a single camera. We had complete freedom to put the cameras anywhere we wanted after the shoot. It allowed us to have more improvised, as well as heavily scripted scenes which really helped us get the most out of our child actors, as the physical blocking for camera was less of an issue. You can see this particularly in our “Uncle Griot” short, where the interaction between the four-legged Griot (played as a reference for the animators by me crawling around on set) and Stina was largely improvised. This process allowed us to then rebuild the performances with basic previz rigs and apply our “egg head” models: projected facial performances from the actors head cams. We could then review the scenes and try and frame and edit shots sympathetically to the performances and our narrative intentions. This freedom also had its drawbacks though, as you need to be very clear on the intent of every shot, as the infinite potential can be completely overwhelming!
From a technical point of view, the biggest hurdle with this kind of high realism CGI is faces (in our case we were not going for photo real, but idealised). Doing it well gives you the chance to really communicate some subtle and nuanced performance beats, but it also requires a lot of work. As someone who has a lot of experience in the realistic facial animation process, (having worked professionally animating “Gollum” on “Lord of the Rings” as well as other characters) I knew how challenging it was and built a very detailed and realistic facial animation system before we even planned the shoot. We used blend shapes and other rigging tools and based it on the Facial Acting Coding system of Dr. Paul Ekman (this forms the basis of most film industry facial animation systems) This is essentially a sculpting task and requires good observation skills and a lot of patience. The next stage was translating the performances from the actors’ faces onto the rig. This required the best quality locked-off video we could get. (we got this by making our own face cams from a weightlifters neck rig and some webcams, all very Heath Robinson, but it did the job!) The next challenge was copying this data onto the rigs. We used FACEWARE software to do the first pass. And then did a pass of hand keying to finesse it. There is as yet no quick way to automate this process completely and it’s our biggest concern for the full feature development we are currently planning. (Even the big studios have admitted it always comes back to hand keying at some point. There is, as yet, no real substitute for the animator’s eye!)
FAF: Watching your behind the scenes video, I was awestruck by the use of light in your film. Can you talk a little about this?
PC: The world of our film exists in a place between reality and dreams. The mountains Stina inhabits are above the cloud layer, with nothing but the sun, a thin atmosphere, and stars above her. We wanted a dreamlike quality to the light. As well as being very influenced by the dreamlike, light-soaked cinematography of Terrence Malick, a big reference for us was sunlight as seen in space. We particularly wanted to get the prismatic effect of light breaking into its component parts. We used the “light leak” trick, often seen in film these days to try and get this effect. Some of it was done in post using Nuke and reacted procedurally to the light in the rendered frames, whereas other times we used stock footage of light leaks through real camera lenses composited over the renders. In each case, we processed the effect to try and amplify the prismatic separation. I also noticed that when you split out the prismatic colours of white light, even subtly, it really seems to give the colours in your image a lot more vibrancy, and I think this helped with the dream-like effect.
Our feature has a specific colour design journey that develops with the story, and as this short was taken from our feature project, we also used that to hold with the lighting design. At this stage in the film we wanted to get a real feeling of space, sky, and sun and the sense of infinite possibility this can give, as this reflects Stina’s point in her story arc. We tried to keep the horizon clear in most shots, allowing as much blue light from our sky (projected by an HDRI dome light) and have this contrasting vibrantly with a lemon-tinted sun. This also allowed us to make the most of reflections from our environment cloud map, which we moved slightly for composition every shot.
As we wanted a “filmic” look we also tried to mimic the onset film lighting process. Our render engine: Arnold, allowed us to use 3D modeled bounce boards. We physically placed them in the scene to add fill light bounced up from the sun. We also deliberately used the real-life limitations of keeping them out of shot and having to move them along with the actors. We also added ”beauty” lighting with spot and rims to amplify the staging for the close-ups and get that characteristic eye-lit effect you see in glossy Hollywood films. We set these lights up after getting the environment lighting how we wanted it, so again this allowed us to mimic the process of real on set lighting.
One of the advances we are really hoping to make for our next stage in the feature production is recreating as much of this lighting process as possible in a game engine. We are hoping this will give us a much clearer sense of the final look at a previz stage, which means less (costly) revisions when we do the final lighting. It would be amazing to set up a reactive environment that we could experiment in and it would also help us make the process as organic as possible.
Just a quick post to say our short film “Uncle Griot” has finally been finished. Here’s our first stab at a poster for it:
It’s been a slow and sometimes tortuous process as we choose a particularly difficult combination of elements to animate. Basically everything moved; the grass moved because of the storm, Stina’s hair flicked, the cloth moved, the faces moved; one of the stars of the short is totally covered in dense hair that had to react to his body and the wind, the trees rustled, the leaves flew around and the clouds moved. This sort of stuff is all par-for-the-course in feature production, where you have multiple departments all tied together with a coherent pipeline supported by tools programmers. But when you can count the number of VFX artists working on it on one hand, it can become tricky getting it all done efficiently and in a decent amount of time. The effort was all worth it in the end though and we’re very excited about the final result. It offers a brief but rich slice of life in Stina’s universe. We spent the whole summer rendering the assorted passes and composited them as we went, finishing the final edit a few days ago. The plan now is to have a screening for the cast and crew, then fire it off to the international short film circuit. This is a fairly daunting prospect, as it’s a new and complex world of “dos & dont’s” that i’m not familiar with, and can apparently get very expensive if you don’t navigate it with caution. I intend to get advice on this. Also the short is book-ended with some music that we needed to get clearance for, which will require a certain amount of funds we are yet to secure (more news on this soon hopefully) I’ll be making some behind the scenes videos about some of the assorted and complex processes we used to make the short. Look out for these over the next few months. Its been very hard work with a lot of late nights, but it’s been worth it 🙂
Today I thought I’d talk a bit about our Comic Con visit, the Comic we made for the show and the extended Stina universe this comes from.
The show ran for 3 days and myself and a Stina team member: Fiona Ware-Heine were representing Stina on the Friday, along with our trusty mannequin “Claus”, resplendent in his Militia uniform (as worn by “Gunter” in the trailer)
We also had 500 freshly printed Stina comics with us. They were produced in just 4 weeks by our super talented story board artist Chavdar Yordanov, who worked all hours to get the drawing finished on time (by all accounts not actually going to bed at all on the deadline day!)
On finishing the last drawings at about 4 o’clock in the morning on the last possible day to allow us print time, he sent them over (he lives and works in Bulgaria) and I added the remaining graphics, colour work and inlay art then sent them off for printing.
The final printing was all very last minute and went right down to the wire, but we got it all out, just!
Some comics stacked and ready to go to the Comic Con punters (with a free sweet – that clinched it):
Although the comic carries the “Stina & the Wolf” logo it doesn’t actually tell Stina’s story, we are leaving that for the film. It tells another story from what we are calling our “extended Stina universe”. As well as the screenplay for the Stina film, we have created a richly detailed and expansive universe of cultures, characters and histories; this has already spawned a number of short stories (one of which: “the Stover” was the one transformed into the comic) as well as a role-playing environment that has allowed some of the Stina team to explore the world of the film for themselves:
It’s been a great chance to explore the Stina universe as actual characters who have to live in it, and it’s added real depth to the world of the film and created brand new stories that go beyond Stina’s experiences (not to mention beyond her continent!) The players have been able to shape events and ideas that are only hinted at in the screenplay, and this has been feeding back into and shaping the world lore.
I shall be publishing the short stories in a collection when we have enough to fill a decent sized volume. (We have 3 at the moment) And I’ll also be publishing the “Stover” comic online sometime soon. We are thinking of adding an extra tab to this web page for the comics and short stories, so keep your eyes peeled!
Our thanks go to the Peta, Naomi and the University for allowing us the opportunity to make the Comic, as they paid for its production. Hopefully the “#1” on the front of the comic will soon be joined by a “#2” and there is already talk of a University presence at the next (and apparently bigger) Comic Con in May 2017.
Until then, as always, we are getting closer and closer to finishing our 5 minute short film and have now finished calculating all of the dynamic animation passes (hair, grass, trees, plants, cloth, rope) and are about to start preparing all the shots for final render.
Much more on this soon..
I haven’t blogged about Stina for some time. This was mainly because there are only so many ways you can say “we are still working on the short film” before it gets a bit dull, particularly as the most exciting parts about the new film we want to keep under wraps until it’s out 😉
However, we are now “animation final” for all the animation and are getting close to starting the final renders off and are are just giving the shaders a final “spruce up” before sending it all off . We are scheduled to have an in-uni dedicated render farm after Christmas, so will probably start rendering when that’s up and running.
Today i just wanted to chat a bit about shader development. For those unfamiliar with the complex world of CGI, a “shader” is a computer algorithm that allows a 3d model to have surface properties that dictate the way it reacts to light. This includes the base colour of the object, often a painted or photographic image, the intensity and colour of the reflections and, particularly in the context of skin, the translucency of the object and the way that light changes colour as it hits different levels of depth. (this is how that unique “skin tone” effect is created) Also any tiny sculptural details such as pores or scratches that are too small to model.
This image above is only partially rendered, you can see the areas that are still being calculated look noisey and incomplete. For shaders such as these, although a lot simpler than skin, there is still a lot more work needed than meets the eye to add a level of textural realism. The buckle for example is actually made up of 2 shaders blended together; One is made to look like rust, using a painted image of rust colours combined with a very rough , reflective surface. And the other is a shiny metallic surface that reflects everything around it. These two are blended together. A “mask” is used to tell the renderer which shader to use where on the surface. In this case an image of scratches was used as a mask:
The image was colour corrected, so the contrast made the scratches distinct from the background metal and it was used as a mask to simulate the chrome metal plating being scrapped off the buckle, causing the ferrous metal beneath to rust. To add even more realism an “ambient occlusion” map was created, and this was added in addition to the scratch mask. This allowed rust to be visible in the areas where the surface joins are, as liquid would be more likely to settle and corrode in these areas over time. An “ambient occlusion” map is a texture created that assigns a colour (normally black) for areas that are in creases and another colour (normaly white) for areas that are clear of any other surfaces. an example here:
You can see here that ambient occlusion creates dark areas in the creases, perfect for blending in a rusty material that has formed into the cracks and scratches. You can also see the effect used here in the door handle and bindings used in the opening shot of our short film:
If you look carefully you can also see the same effect was used in the wood shader. The wood is lighter and bleached in areas that would get a lot more sun, and darker with more color saturation; as if the wood has retained its original staining in areas that would get less harsh sunlight. Although this may seem like a lot of unnecessary trouble to go to, these elements all add up to create a feel and atmosphere that although not immediately noticed, are registered subconsciously and if absent can make the render look very “CG”.
So the hardest shader by far to make on a project like this is the “hero” skin shader. And particularly tricky for us is hitting the right mix of realism and stylization. This is something i suspect we will be tweaking right up until we press “render” on the final film (or should i say “composite”, as we will probably fiddle with things a lot after we’ve rendered them, but that’s for another day)
The main tool in our shader box of tricks for skin is “sub-surface-scattering” or SSS for short. This technique usually involves creating 3 different colour maps to represent cross sections of the skins colour at different depths. In the case of skin: epidermis, dermis and subcutaneous:
In a basic rendered ball example, using just simple coloured textures for each of these layers a CGI skin shader looks like this:
However, to simulate the appearance of real skin on a person requires a lot of observational skill. You have to pick out what colour goes at what depth and where. And what part of the colour is actually not the skin itself, but the result of the oily resdue produced by the pores that permanently coat the skins surface, as this creates a slightly pearlescent sheen. This isn’t a new battle, artist having been obsessively trying to capture the various qualities of skin in art for hundreds of years:
The way this is handled in the CGI world, where we have to try and build a representation of skin that aspires to work under any lighting condition, is the “skin shader”. The default one in Arnold is illustrated well in their documentation here:
They allow for 5 layers in total to build up the final look. Almost like layering translucent paints over each other to get a final colour. They have two reflection layers “sheen” and “specluar” that allow for the oliy sheen that covers the whole face, and another layer of shine for moist areas such as the mouth and eyes, as well 3 layers of colour at different skin depths. Here is an example of some of Stina’s early development colour maps unwrapped as single images. This first was used at the Dermis level, the second at the Subcutaneous level:
One key thing in developing shaders like this is consistency. We use a single lighting environment for all our shaders. It has a simple studio style 3 point lighting set up, and a High Dynamic Range map that simulates a realistic forest environment. This gives us a nice range of 2 extreme lighting conditions. It is very important that all the shaders are made under the same lighting situation, as if they aren’t its very easy to end up with shaders that react unexpectedly. We also use a neutral mid grey shader ball so we have a constant object for reference. Here are some test renders using our forest shader “Look Dev” scene:
And here’s one using our studio lighting setup (notice the SSS on the teeth. I’ve posted a real photo also so you can see how we reference for the shader development. Reference is key to all of our shader work):
I shan’t go into the whole development process of the skin shader, as that’s an article in itself, but i’ll post an example below showing where we are now with the look development of it. I’ve also included a picture from the film “Tin Tin”, as the film we are making is similar in nature, in that we are trying to find a middle ground between realism and sylisation, which is very tricky! Broadly speaking, we are trying to achieve “hyper realism”: exaggerating textural elements as a means to emphasis ideas in the story; making her skin slightly too perfect, too translucent, too opalescent, her eyes slightly too intense in the way they catch the light. It’s a slow and iterative process and experimentation is the key. We are now at the point where we are hovering at the door of photo realism, possibly even more than “Tin Tin”, and will use the short film to see how well this works with the animation, as a moving shader is quite a different experience to a cunningly framed still, particularly when its talking!
This was our first serious foray into external funding for the project and was a big learning experience for all of us. We worked very hard for 6 months on our Kickstarter campaign, with endless rewrites and redesigns of the Kickstarter content, promotional work on Facebook and Twitter, video interviews and promotional videos and produced a ton of graphics and banners. But unfortunately we didn’t hit our target of £50,000.
We did receive a lot of great support however and got a lot of useful exposure on social media (our thanks to LiasonPR for their work here) but at close of play we only managed to hit £4,332 towards our target.
It was always going to be a tough challenge raising that much money on Kickstarter and had we been funding a £4,000 short (which we are effectively making at present with no direct cash funding! Although with much appreciated continued support from our industry sponsors) we would have succeeded.
We are now looking at other funding ventures down more traditional film funding routes; more on this in the coming months.
Podcasts and Q&A
During and after our Kickstarter we started doing some podcasts and video sessions. As director I was finally forced to come out from behind the camera and perform along with some of best and brightest Stina crew members (thanks to student Oliver Hermann for doing a great job comparing these sessions; if CGI doesn’t work out for you there’s always the chat show circuit..) The results are available in audio or video format below:
These were the result of Q&A sessions posted on Facebook and Kickstarter (Particular thanks to James Devonshire here for all his excellent questions. They gave us a lot to talk about!)
We are now into our post-university-term “Stina crunch time” period, where we work full time like a professional studio and try and produce some finished work for the film. We had a very successful stand at the university end of year show last week, with 2 full size manikins scaring passes by in assorted costumes from the film, props from our shoot and lots of pics and videos to look at. (We won’t be posting pictures of this, as it has some reveals from our new short) We have a smaller crew than usual this year, but are luckily some way through the production process already, and are very excited about the results of the 4 minute film we’re working on. It contains a reveal of a new character and is looking like our best work to date! A few video render tests below (lots of thanks to Anatoliy Yudanov here for helping out with some tree animation):
Hopefully this piece will form the core of our next big fund raising push. More news on this in the coming months, but we are hoping to get it all wrapped up by September. (depending on team numbers etc.) More about this as it progresses..
It’s been a few months since the last blog but we’ve been very busy. Preparations for our kickstarter are well under way with the layout, background info and rewards now complete and we’re busy finalising our presentation video with the help of some talented film students (Directing myself wasn’t really working out, so we needed help). This was after a few abortive attempts at comedy, mostly involving me strapped into a harness and spinning from a tree in front of a make shift green screen with help from the most dedicated of students (plus some very bemused onlookers; for health and safety reasons we strung me up in a local park, well away from university property!)
We have also completed the first assemble of the whole film from on-set reference footage and audio, storyboards and music. It’s an old film cliche, but it really has been a case of making the film 3 times: once when you write it, once when you direct it and once when you edit it. There have been profound changes each time and each stage has seen a new creative challenge and added an extra layer of depth and clarity to the story telling. What we have now isn’t technically an “edit” yet, (it’s an assemble/first cut hybrid for those who know film jargon) as I’m just using the onset reference camera from the Mocap shoot, plus the hand held reference footage I shot on my iPhone whilst directing. This is all interspersed with storyboards and concept art. I’ve still been able to make a lot of editing decisions though, based on the rhythm of the performances and the wider story beats and dramatic arc. This will be refined into a much more polished edit once we add framed cameras in CG, but what we have now is a version of the film that’s watchable from start to finish, and has most of the character drama of the movie (if none of the visual flair, being mostly played out in a small room with leotards!)
The exciting thing is that it works, even at this stage. And it’s a very emotional ride. First reactions from those who have seen the assemble so far have been tears. I suspect this was provoked by the ending and Becky’s amazing ability to lose herself completely in the emotion of a scene. (whilst surrounded by a large busy crew, me barking orders, and supermarket style lighting; no mean feat!) Obviously no tears fell from my eyes, as I’m a bloke.
It’s going to take years yet to transform the 1 hour 50 cut into fully computer generated footage complete with character bodies and sets etc. and will require a lot more very talented artists to contribute to it, but it’s going to be a journey well worth the effort. From what we have already, I think the final product is going to be magical.