•  Blur sets the pace for Oscar season with a stylish, but funny, animated film.

    Each year for the past four years the crew at the small visual effects studio Blur has created one or more award-winning short films. This year, a film that in many ways represents the studio’s most ambitious work, is once again likely to make the short list for an Oscar nomination and could go all the way. It’s the first animation from Blur in which the characters have speaking parts; in which the dialog matters.

    Blur artists Francisco Valasco and Sean McNally, set “Gentleman’s Duel,” in the 19th century. To vie for the affections of a wealthy woman, a Frenchman named Dubois and an Englishman named Weatherby fight a duel with two peculiar weapons: steam-powered mechs. The seven-minute film won Blur’s annual short film idea contest.

    “We usually have two categories, scifi-fantasy and humor-drama.,” says founder Tim Miller of the in-house competition. “This film, luckily enough, won in both categories.”

    That was almost two years ago. The studio spent the first year working on the story, storyboards, and character design. Production started in March, with work on the layout using rough models in digital environments. Animators poured onto the show in July, and the crew wrapped by the end of the September, in the nick of time to qualify for the Oscars.

    “In the original idea, the gentleman part was just an overhead shot of a table at teatime,” says Miller. “The barest little touch of the lady’s hand was enough to spark the duel.”


    The idea was great, but it didn’t translate well to the screen. “I try to give the artists enough rope to tie a beautiful bow,” says Miller. “The giant robot fighting part worked out of the bag, but the humor part was difficult. It needed to be short and to the point and funny.

    “After two iterations, the film was getting longer and harder to do and more expensive,” he adds. “The guys were great with visuals and giving a sense of the story and the world, but they needed help with dialog and animation.”
    To give the directors help, Miller brought in Jeff Fowler who had directed “Gopher Broke,” a short animation that received an Oscar nomination in 2005.

    Meanwhile, the directors continued to concentrate on the visuals.

    “They went all out,” says Fowler. “There is detail in the film you might not see the first, second, or even third viewing. It was inspiring. I helped with the pipeline. The schedules are so short there isn’t a lot of time for a learning curve.”

    Fowler also helped set the stage for the duel.

    “We needed to have it be quickly clear that these two characters are competing over a woman,” he says. “So, we have them arrive at the same time to court this wealthy attractive woman. Two’s company, three’s a crowd.”

    The character designs reinforce the conflict; the duelists are complete opposites. In fact, when they’re face to face, their face shapes nearly fit together like two pieces of a puzzle. 

    Dubois, the Frenchman, is large, pompous, with a giant bloated chest and the air of being high society even though he might not be. Weatherby, the thin, high-strung Englishman, has bags under his eyes as if something troubling him has made him tired.
    The viewer has no idea what weapons they’ve chosen until they take their paces at the beginning of the duel. “Instead of turning to fire,” Fowler says, “they run off into the forest.” The ground shakes. Trees rustle. When they walk out of the forest, they’re inside 10-foot tall steam-powered mechs.

    “They’re look as if they were built with 19th century technology,” says Fowler. “They’re ornate – as if Rube Goldberg has designed them.”
    The mechs stop, the hatches pop open, and the gentlemen begin flinging insults. “Cheese pirate,” says Weatherby to Dubois. 

    Dubois, who carries a small French poodle in his mech, translates her barking as, “Fifi says she can smell the fear.” Pause for a beat while Fifi barks. “In your pants.”
    Then, the battle begins.

    Animators keyframed all the character animation in Softimage XSI; “Gentlemen’s Duel” is the first film for which Blur used XSI for rigging and animation.

    “The whole idea behind the contest is to uncover new filmmakers and to show Hollywood we can do more than service work,” says Miller, “but it's also for R&D.”

    “The switch to rigging and animation in XSI was a pretty big effort for us,” he adds. “This project [Gentlemen’s Duel] had a hard deadline, but a long deadline, so we could afford to f@k up.”

    The move to XSI meant porting all the studio’s rigging tools including a complicated, proprietary “autorigger.” Rig complexity drove the software switch. The human rigs in “Gentlemen’s Duel” have 1800 different parts, according to J. D. Fievet, character animation supervisor. Now, about half the studio’s projects use XSI.

    “The software has a very organized structure and we needed that,” he says. “Also it was a performance issue. The more complex you get, the heavier the model is to animate. We needed to have fully rigged characters in a viewport without being too slow to work interactively.”

    One reason for the complex rig was the nature of the film. “We had to allow for as much deformation as possible,” Fievet says. “We needed to stretch the rigs in every possible way.” A small team of artists and animators defined the character style, which landed on the cartoony side of realism.

    “We wanted something a little cartoony because it fits with the comedy side,” Fievet says. “But we have a touch of realism, especially for the robots. They’re huge characters, so you have to feel the weight. You can’t squash and stretch them like you can a furry animal.”

    During the battle, the duelists pull out all of the mechs’ secret weapons. Weatherby has an electric eel in a compartment that creates a shock effect. Dubois can shoot a fist out from his metal body. Each mech has handgrips with which the fighters control their upper bodies and pedals to control their legs.

    “This 19th century shell was the core foundation of the idea everyone thought was so cool,” Fowler says. “They have all these secret devices that create a whole bunch of opportunities for gags.”

    The lady being fought over watches the duel with her butler. “She’s almost like a prop,” Fowler says. “She’s the prize.” She doesn’t have a character arc – her role is to react to the mechs that, when the duel escalates, wreck everything in sight – the gardens, the house, and finally, each other.

    “We have a team of people who are really good at destroying objects,” says Fievet. “They start with a dynamic simulation that they use as a basis for keyframing the destruction. They were retouching and animating every little chunk of wood that flies off.”

    For effects, Blur used tools in 3ds Max, and they also used Max for modeling, lighting and rendering via Brazil. For compositing, the studio used Digital Fusion.

    “We kept pushing to make the film look painterly,” says Miller. “Rather than culling through a giant library of photo textures, we used hand-painted texture maps. We didn’t want photorealistic surfaces anywhere.” Even the metal mechs look hand painted, as do the clouds, which swirl in a style particular to this film.

    Miller is proud that all of Blur’s shorts look different. “Aunt Louisa,” directed by Paul Taylor, which was shortlisted in the 2003 Oscar race, “Rockfish,” directed by Miller, which was shortlisted in 2004, and Fowler’s “Gopher Broke”, which was nominated in 2005 have unique styles.

    “Aunt Louisa” looks stop motion, “Rockfish” is hyper real, and “Gopher Broke” is cartoony.

    “Making our shorts look different isn’t a conscious goal,” Miller says. “But they’re all really different. For this one, we created stylized humans in a painterly world, which we’ve never done, not even for a client, but it seemed the right choice.”

    This film incorporated several firsts for Blur – first painterly world, first film to use XSI, and first film to have characters with dialog – and it’s likely to once again raise Blur’s profile in the animation world, but this list isn’t what comes first to the crew’s mind when you ask what was most important.

    “A very good thing about the short is that once in a while we do a project just for ourselves, just to have fun without the constraints of a client telling you what to do,” says Fievet. “We do it to fulfill our passion.”

    As Miller puts it: “Blur is committed to continue to do short films because we love it.”

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