Ara's Tale

Tue 28th Aug 2012, by Paul Hellard | Production

CGSociety :: Production Focus

28 August 2012

There’s nothing more inspiring than a collective of creative people coming together to make something special. Back in the summer of 2009, Martin Lubich decided to start production on a short animated film named Ara’s Tale.

This CG animated story follows the journey of Ara, a mysterious young woman, as she travels deep into a gigantic network of caves in search of the last remaining living dragon. The tale is supported by a beautiful original orchestral score by Philippe Rey that really brings to life the visual spectacle.

The initial idea of the project was to create a one and half minute short mainly for educational purposes. The project was entirely non-commercial with each team member dedicating his or her own free time to make the short a reality. As time went on, the idea grew in scale resulting in a final film that’s over eight minutes long.


This project represented a unique opportunity for Martin to explore new tools and methods of working. Martin explains: “The production of Ara's Tale was more or less an accident, it was not planned in the beginning. For some time I had this image in mind of a young brightly lit girl standing on the brink of an abyss, from where a huge dark dragon emerges. It worked as an image, but to portray my inner feeling of the scene I started to develop a background story to support my idea. Developing the story evoked a multitude of new images and visions and thus the first inner draft of the movie was born. It underwent countless modifications afterwards, but the basic theme always stayed.”

Interestingly Martin doesn’t work in the creative industry so the outputs of this project are a real testament to his talent. “My background is, from a professional standpoint, purely technical,” he explains. “I have been working as a software developer since 1987, currently in network security, but from early on in my childhood I was very fond of drawing, photography and film.”

His involvement in the computer industry alongside a passive interest in film sparked his decision to focus in on computer generated imagery. Martin invested a lot of time watching ‘making of’ documentaries on projects such as the Lord of The Ring’s trilogy. “Watching them really triggered something deep in me and I started to invest a lot of time in soaking up everything there was to learn about filmmaking in general, with a real focus on CG animation.”

MARI, The Foundry’s 3D painting and texturing package, ended up playing a huge role in the creation of the film. When Martin began looking at creative tools, the buzz around MARI and its use at Weta Digital put the software firmly on his radar. He put some time aside to read through the specs, watched the demo video and was ultimately extremely impressed with its capabilities and what it could bring to Ara’s Tale.

He explains: “The workflow shown there was exactly what I needed. I could just import the mesh and start painting on it like it was a canvas, plus take advantage of all the additional tools on top.”


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Getting really creative

When Martin first started to get his teeth into MARI, he discovered a method of texturing that was entirely distinctive to anything he had been used to before. “It was just a different world of texturing,” he affirms. “Straight away it was incredibly fun to work with. I remember just doodling around on one of my environment pieces and producing results far superior to anything I’d ever done before. I was also achieving this in what was a relatively really short amount of time.”

MARI is an incredibly powerful piece of software. Its technical specifications give users the ability to really push the boundaries with texture sizes and complexity. Beyond that MARI’s main purpose is to act as a virtual art studio. Martin continues: “When I am drawing on a digital platform I really don’t want to feel like I notice the tool I am using on a conscious level. Like a pen or pencil; it’s just there and doesn't stand in the way of me being creative. This was exactly my feeling when I started using MARI for the first time.”


Nothing else compares

Martin was working with typical texture sizes of between 4K and 8K on Ara’s Tale. In the early stages of using MARI, when he had been looking at what else might meet his needs, he tried test versions of ZBrush and 3dcoat. He notes: “I was always confronted with something which just didn't feel right for me. The ease of use just wasn’t there with these tools.”

Decision made on the best package for him, he started to really delve into the possibilities of integrating MARI into his workflow. He comments: “I started looking at how I should use it in my workflow especially in the pipeline with Blender. As it turned out the only real effort was to devise a new workflow for laying out the UVs. The patch concept used in MARI immediately convinced me. It let me have a very fine control over the level of detail of the various aspects of an asset.”

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When considering the best way to deal with texture channels in MARI, it took Martin a while to get used to the channel concept in MARI. “The importing of the meshes in OBJ format was flawless, as was the setup of all the texture channels. Once I got my head around it, I found MARI to be such a powerful and versatile tool. To be able to use the same channel in different shaders is a principle similar to object oriented programming, which I, with my background as software developer, really liked.”

Like many artists working on important projects, be it a model, sculpt or a texture, a key aspect for Martin was setting up a workflow that enabled him to use multiple approaches at the same time; without the fear of losing work already done, or having to do work twice. MARI’s non-destructive workflow proved a real help in this area. He comments: “With texturing the environment and then especially the dragon, the tools available in MARI made it perfect to be used in a non-destructive way. It needs a bit of thinking ahead in the planning, but the flexibility of this workflow makes everything worth it. To use this workflow you have a lot of channels and textures floating around and at first I feared that this could overload MARI. As it turned out, MARI handled all these channels extremely well, and all on my relatively modestly spec’d machine.”


An epic environment

Once he had all the tools and workflows he needed at hand, he then started to create. “For the environment, before I had MARI, I previously had only done work using a very tedious Blender/Gimp workflow. Using those tools, I had become accustomed to creating something that was just acceptable. It didn't offer me the freedom I needed. With MARI, there must have been half a dozen different approaches I used to paint the cliff textures. No single channel was wasted and could then be combined in shaders to produce completely new effects. I know that this is not usually how things are done in a big project, but as a one-man show, this ability to experiment gives you incredible freedom. Ultimately I used a mixture of concept art, look development and texturing, and doing the work was just so fun!“

With the environment, Martin made heavy use of the paint through tool for projection painting using real world rock textures as source images. He notes: “The ease with which those source images can be handled was a blessing, especially compared to my previous experiences in this field.”

A dragon is born

Having worked extensively on the environments in MARI, Martin had learnt a lot about MARI’s functionality. “It taught me how I could use the power of the brush engine with its myriad of settings,” says Martin. “For the dragon, which is such a key part of the story, I used a painting only approach. This was a bit intimidating at first, but the presets in MARI gave me a very good start. The dragon is entirely painted. In hindsight that might not have been the best approach, but looking back it’s taught me other ways I can work better next time.”

Martin feels strongly that without MARI the main environment and the dragon in Ara's Tale just wouldn't be what they are now. “They would be far inferior renditions. When you have to do everything yourself, the tools you use are essential. If you start to spend too much time on one aspect, frustration comes into play. With frustration though also comes the loss of motivation. This can easily be the downfall and failure of the whole undertaking. There were of course those times during the production of Ara's Tale as well, but never with MARI. When I would get stressed out, I’d even go back into MARI to doodle and let the anger vent and relax.”

Thoughts on The Foundry

Martin admits that for a small player, the customer reference list on The Foundry products can be a little intimidating: “This was my first impression but when I got in touch with various people working at The Foundry I actually found a very open minded and helpful environment,” he says. “I was treated as an artist and not purely as a paying customer. This is something you typically get from young companies, but The Foundry has really kept this up through the years. I hope this mind set is here to stay.”

Speaking specifically about MARI, Martin continues: “It was in no way overkill for my small project. Of course you are able to handle huge amounts of textures in mind boggling resolutions, but you don't have to. Having a tool like MARI in your toolset will definitely increase the productivity while not limiting your creativity. And this is true regardless if you are a big player or a one-man studio.”

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