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    CGSociety :: CGFilm
    30 October 2007, by Paul Hellard

    “We had to create fluids, fire, freezing and melting ice, energy fields and a growing plant.”

    Mayec Rancel & José Angel Soto met at the CICE 3D Animation and Digital Post Production class in Madrid.  Two young animators with a story to tell, they were fitted into a project together outside of this school at the end of the September 2005.  This project became ‘Substantia.’

    “‘Substantia’ is a metaphor. It describes a strange universe somewhat like our outer space, inhabited by heart-shaped planets that are constantly exposed to fire meteors speeding around them. There are also mysterious tear-drops that fall through this space. They are rare and few, but once in a while, a planet's path coincides with a tear's, and from the encounter springs life. Thus begins an eternal cycle of life and death, plenitude and suffering, and seemingly random events take shape into a larger scheme.”

    “With ‘Substantia’ we were trying to tell a universal story,” says Mayec. “One that would give a sense of meaning to all the seemingly random events in life that make us suffer or thrive, grow or wither. That includes many different ideas like friendship, love, learning, death, suffering, fear and loss.”

     Compositing explosion effect. 



    Concept design
    The overall goal of the concept design of ‘Substantia’ was to express the emotion with just basic elements of visual symbols: colors, shapes, strong contrasts and textures. The team needed to tell a lot with very little, so that it could be felt in a quick glance.

    The planets had to be clearly identified with the shape of a heart. But moving away from the usual cheesy symbol of a heart, without reducing its readability.  The mountain range elements, an echo of the large veins in a human heart would also give some sense of scale. The ‘living’ variation of the planet, after the plant grows on it, had to look more alive, which was conveyed with the smaller pulsating veins in the texture, and of course the yellowish colour of aridity became a red lively colour.
    The plant had to convey a sense of rare beauty and elegance, and a monumental size, but also of extreme fragility. Many references of real plants were studied, and using some of them as inspiration, the team created a more fantastic and alien plant that would convey the feelings needed through their form.

    The Plant.

    The frozen planet had to maintain the heart shape. Colour, texture and shaders had to suggest cold ice. It had to convey isolation and self-defense, without looking fragile. The faceted design suggests the hardness of a diamond. The sharp edges and straight lines were also a good contrast from the more-rounded shapes of the living heart/planet, a reminder that this planet was now in a state of numbness and sour lack of sensitivity, almost like a living dead.

    The energy field that appears at the end of the movie, in the encounter of the two planets, was by far the most complex element to conceptualize. It had to appear as pure and intense heat and energy, but in its final form it also had to be recognizable as an eye-shape from which the tear would fall. The concept exploration on this started with traditional colour media and digital painting. But this shot was as much about colour, texture and shape as it was about timing. Image and music had to converge in one single second to create the sense that the whole universe stopped to see the birth of this new tear-drop, which would close the full cycle. This exact moment was the climax of the film, and only then could the eye shape be noticed. This is why the conceptual work, through 3D proxy animations, compositing with test render passes, etc. went all the way through the project until the final stages of compositing. It was the last shot to be finalized.

     The Energy/Eye.

    Next page

  • Technical
    Most of the work was done in 3ds Max. Mayec chose V-Ray for many render passes, mainly because of the great control and power of V-Ray materials, a very useful tool to create ice, or the plant, whose flower petals have Sub-Surface-Scattering and the yellow-sphere glowing fruits needed caustics calculation.

    “For the lighting I used V-Ray lights,” explains Mayec. “In the middle of the film, we had to convey long stretches of time passing. Since the environment itself could not change too noticeably, I tried to convey it through lighting, so that the frozen heart would look as if it was in a completely different part of the universe, with light-sources positioned very differently from the previous and following scenes. Being an important aspect that defined the look of crucial elements like the tear-drop, I created abstract high-contrast HDRIs to make for more interesting reflections/refractions. Creating strong symbolism was always a priority over realism.”

    The most important and demanding aspect of making the film was FX animation, even though there was no character animation at all. “We had to create fluids, fire, freezing and melting ice, energy fields and a growing plant,” says Mayec. “These effects were not just accessory to the storytelling elements: we could not tell the story without them.”

    The team had not done any of these special areas before so they locked themselves away and watched a heap of VFX films with environments and massive explosions. Then gave themselves under a week to do further R&D.

    “Later, when I started creating the effects themselves,” says Mayec, “I added a lot of complexity and elements to the initial techniques we found in the R&D stage, but at least I had a firm ground to stand on.

    All these very different effects were created using whatever tools we needed: 3D mesh morphing, combined modifiers, shaders, lighting, particles, fluid simulations (RealFlow). The eye-energy relied very heavily on compositing.


    “I used RealFlow for the fluids in all the tear-drop shots,” continues Mayec.

    “Luckily, in the middle of production, RealFlow 4.0 came out, and its new Python scripting capability was essential to create the melting frozen heart effect. The support desk at Next Limit gave me great help not just with this: I had issues to get correct V-Ray Motion Blur with the imported RealFlow Meshes. The people at Next Limit were really friendly and went a long way to help me find solutions to integrate their software into our workflow.”



    The core team was just Mayec and José. But Begoña Gonzalez produced many of the concept drawings and paintings. She also modeled and textured the secondary plant that appears on the planet/heart at the end of the film. Everything else was done by either or both of us two. There was constant support and help of some of our classmates, teachers and friends, whose precious help came in many ways, mostly through feedback and advice.

    It took them about one and a half years to complete the film. At first the goal was three months, but when they decided to make it a film/HD short instead of SD, they had to give it all more time. “We had to keep working on it while we had class assignments and other freelance work,” adds Mayec.


    Rendering hurdles
    The biggest challenge was a non-technical one: to tell our story in such an unconventional way compared to the usual 3D productions, creating a visually simple piece with strong emotion. In the technical side, the greatest challenges were creating the FX, which included both 3d and compositing aspects.

    Mayec relied heavily on the Combustion compositing side to define the final look of the film. He rendered each element in many passes, and then dialled everything in comp., adding things like motion blur, blooming highlights, lens flares, automatic exposition to sudden intense lights like meteor impact and meteor fly-bys.

    The "eye of energy" shot had interactive fluid simulations, shaders/lighting work, and particles, and the final look relied heavily on the compositing side, where all the elements came together (as numerous render passes) as one coherent shot. “The composite for this shot was pretty complex,” adds Mayec. “I used a little more than 100 passes: the energy itself was composed of 13 different elements, so for the fluids and frozen heart I had 13 more passes each for the reflections of those energy elements, adding to the passes for environment reflections/refractions, lighting passes on both hearts/planets, all the diffuse and beauty passes, and those for background elements.”


    The HD decision was a big one, since it caused much longer render times (with great optimization, the most-demanding render passes took one hour per frame to render) and slower compositing work. They rendered everything with their home computers (a Dell Precision 370 Workstation, an older 2GHz computer, and one prehistoric 1GHz comp. which only did the simpler scanline passes, to leave the hard work to the "big boys.”

    “Since the same person did both the lighting/fx/render and the compositing, I had to organize work so that it didn't slow me down: I finalized the 3D work on shot one, sent it to render, and while computers were baking renders, I did the lighting and finalizing of the FX of shot two, then sent that to render, and so on,” describes Mayec. “This way, when I sent the last shot to render, I could already start the compositing work on shot one, with all its renders finished. It was pretty tight but worked well. I only wasted two days waiting for the renders before I could finish the last shot (I added two more computers to the farm during that last week of rendering to speed things up). It took about 2.5 months of non-stop rendering.”


    Recently, ‘Substantia’ won the Overall Grand Prize of the Autodesk ‘Ahead of the Curve’ competition. It is a worldwide competition, held in Toronto, Canada, for student works created with Autodesk software. Since the ‘Substantia’ crew prominently used Combustion and 3ds Max, they could take part. The Overall Grand Prize recognizes the best work in all categories, both in technical and creative aspects. “Being a worldwide competition, it was a very exciting surprise to be granted this main award by such an important and knowledgeable company as Autodesk”, says Mayec. “Since Autodesk promotes not just the tools they develop and sell, but also the creative results that artists can achieve with them, we expect this award to bring a lot of projection and attention to our film and the work involved in making it.  And lets face it: we create films to communicate and for people to see them, so the more it is showcased, the more we fulfill our goal.”

    About the artists
    Mayec is now looking for a job in one of the main animation/VFX/Games companies. “I am looking for a creative and demanding context where I can work with passionate and talented people, to keep growing as an artist,” he says. “Meanwhile I do freelance animation/CG works and occasionally give compositing classes.” He is also looking to produce his next short film, "The House of A.”

    José has dedicated six months to the distribution of ‘Substantia’ at festivals around the world. “To this day, I have sent it to more than 80 festivals, for which only half have already announced their selections,” José says. “We are happy that the short was selected in 10 festivals, of which two have granted us a first prize award.”

    Related links:
    Autodesk's Ahead of the Curve Student Competition
    Mayec Rancel CGPortfolio
    José Angel Soto CGPortfolio
    Mayec’s site
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