Stina’s skin shaders and finishing the short

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:


23TODO - Self-Portrait, Age 23 1629 Rembrandt, Dutch, 1606-1669 Oil on wood, 89.7 x 73.5 cm (ISABELLA STEWART GARDNER MUSEUM)

23TODO – Self-Portrait, Age 23
Rembrandt, Dutch, 1606-1669
Oil on wood, 89.7 x 73.5 cm (ISABELLA STEWART GARDNER MUSEUM)


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:

stina_epidermal_v5b stina_subdermalbk3

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):

teeth ycsn7


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!



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Kickstarter, Podcasts and the Future

Kick Starter

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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.


Martin Daniels who plays the “Pipe Catcher” presenting our campaign.

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!)


The Future

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):

vid 4 vid 3





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..


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First Assemble of Film

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.


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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:





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:




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:



At the VICON stand


At the FACEWARE stand


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:


6 7


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!)




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..



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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.
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.


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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.



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

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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.


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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 dark feminist myths of childhood transformations into adulthood.

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 devil she meets in the underworld is a flute and the village and it’s traditions are represented by a guitarviol (a crossbreed between a guitar and a viol that sounds a lot like a medieval viola-da-gamba):



Stina & the Wolf  (The original story and music)


1 – The Village

Stina lives in a 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 seem to 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 peaks, disappearing into a cloud and leading her into a daydream of a better life. (A harp  replaces the regemented guitarviols of the village, as her imaginative life awakens.)

She’s brought back to earth as her aunt scolds her.  

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: a cunning plan to escape her chores. It suddenly begins to  snow. She has never seen snow before. It’s a new and exhilarating sensation. She runs into the blizzard, but is soon lost, although she doesn’t know it yet.

3 – The Caravan

Finding her way back to the village, she follows a strange caravan of brightly coloured wagons led by a charming devil. He is flanked by wild dancers in scary forest animal masks.


4 – The Baiting

The caravan sets up in the village square and erects a high-walled arena offering a test of manhood to boys on the threshold of adulthood. It soon draws a crowd of teenagers. Once entering, the boys begin to enthusiastically fight frightened-looking wolves, but are tricked into awaiting cages. The caravan leaves with the boys locked inside.
Stina follows.


5 – Transformation

Losing the caravan deep in the forest, she stops to rest by an icy lake.  Lost and alone, she imagines the comfort and safety of her village, (The guitarviol melody is now reprised by the softer harp as she yearns for home.)  Suddenly the moon appears. She fails to notice as it slowly turns blood red. She sees her reflection in the ice. She is transforming. On the far side of the lake a creature howls. She is surrounded by a pack of hungry winter wolves. As the light of the blood moon engulfs her, she becomes a wolf. She is hungry and joyful. She dives into the forest to feed with the pack. She follows as they tear through the trees, finally diving into the ground, sated, to rest under a giant tree.

6 – The Underworld

Stina wakes. She is underground. She is trapped. She makes her way down into the earth and into the underworld. She comes to a giant ocean. A lone wolf stands guard on a rock and calls to her (muted trumpet), saying she cannot enter. She answers (oboe). She persuades him to let her 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 to the lair of the charming devil. She arrives through a giant wall of water (gong).

The lair is dark and empty. Suddenly the devil emerges. He sarcastically reprises Stina’s melody (flute). She replies softly (oboe) and they dance. Their melodies intertwine. He resists at first, but she soon teaches him to dance like her, and they move in harmony. Softened by the dance, he releases the boys and they escape into the wall of water. The horde carries them all back to the surface, traveling through all the levels of the underworld. Finally they burst into the brilliant mountain sunlight next to the village.

7 – Home

The village is full of snow and the villagers are gone. In their place are wolves (the original village guitarviol melodies are now played by trumpets) They are eating viscera and staining the white snow red. With her new found skills from the underworld, Stina casts a spell and returns the villagers to their human form and the boys reunite with their families (harp). She calls out to them, but her voice is now that of a wolf, and they throw stones. She watches the villagers going about their lives, only able to look in from the outside. She knows she can never go back. She has changed into something new. Her wolf form (trumpet) is now joined to her human form (oboe). She turns from the village, and runs into the mountains.

A new life awaits with the beasts of the forest.

~ The End ~

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