Wed 7th Sep 2011, by Paul Hellard | Production
The Mac’n’Cheese project was the last chance Tom Hankins, Gijs van Kooten and Roy Nieterau had to make the film they’d always wanted to create. Graduating from the Utrecht School of Arts, they didn’t have computers to map out the project until they were a month into production. “Each of us presented some ideas and then we split again to work at home, alone,” explains Roy Nieterau. “The first week we were able to work together we decided we needed some help. Guido Puijk, a third year student and friend of ours, joined the team. This was a good thing because we had some major ideas to realize, we needed all the manpower we could get!”
“Telling a story through animation, character, color, directing and editing, lighting and composition, supported by the right sound effects and scores,” says Tom. “Could we pull this off? By completely cutting out any narrative elements it was very tricky to motivate the decisions our heroes made. We would wonder constantly if the audience would get what happened on screen. We’d ask each other: 'What are we depicting with this scene or shot, does it say what we want to say?' We’d take a few steps back to analyze what we were doing. Our motto actually was 'Is it insane enough?!' At first we were cautious making decisions, but later on we tried avoiding anything that would make this a normal film. This actually turned out to be the hardest part in production."
The best ideas from the team were the craziest, just drawing or acting them out. "Feeling neither shame nor fear we’d be telling stupid stories and just thinking out loud. From this insane behavior came great ideas," says Roy.
Inspired by slapstick comedy and their childhood cartoons like Tom and Jerry and The Roadrunner, the Utrecht team aimed to create something fun to watch. Something to watch any time of the day, over and over. The style was reminiscent of Valve’s Team Fortress 2. “Their ‘cel shading’ technique has popped up all over the place ever since. The talented French students from Meet Buck and Salesman Pete made excellent use of a more elaborate adaptation of this style. Blown away by their results we were certain we wanted to create something alike, but also very much in our own way,” says Hankins.
The crew recognized they needed to concentrate and focus their story. “We yearned for a stable, powerful and reliant compositing package,” explains Nieterau. Tom Hankins had worked with Fusion a few months earlier so was able to pick it up quickly. He started testing different solutions to create a unique visual style with Maya and Fusion. The shading method he ended up developing was designed especially to be assembled in compositing.
The Utrecht crew started from scratch, with lots of different workflow scenarios to get their ideas onto the screen. The texturing was the most crucial part in creating a successful shader setup. “Everything else is just additional awesomeness to make everything in the shots work together,” says Hankins. “Blending all the shadow styles together in post gave our me a lot of control. We were able to fake a little SSS, adjust shadows on every part of a character in every single shot!”
Both of the characters have separate shaders on three different layers. The first layer, a simple color pass, would also output the motion vector pass. The second layer would contain all the shadowing information, lit by one light, rendering an RGB-A image sequence. The R channel would have soft shadows (controlled by a ramp and a surface luminance node). The G channel would have hard shadows and the B channel would contain the ambient occlusion. The third layer they would output was a fall-off pass, the R and G channels respectively containing a soft and hard fall-off, the B channel a mask, hand painted in Photoshop based on the color texture.
Fusion’s Erode/Dilate filter was used to create a painterly style. This filter is very powerful, in that it can also used as a ‘median’ to reduce some noise and artifacts or extend/subtract your edges. The Mac’n’Cheese team used it extensively throughout the entire compositing process, mainly for the backgrounds. Gijs would sculpt the environments in ZBrush. Once rendered and composited, the Dilate filter smudged all the triangle shapes together making it look like paint daubs.
“All of our renders went through a series of nodes before being composited together. You don’t want to create a new comp for all of these elements in all of the shots, as it was, we had over 50,” says Hankins. “Working with Fusion gave me the opportunity to easily clone all the previous setups, and make everything work with some minor adjustments. The instancing feature was amazing too, without going through the entire comp looking for all the corresponding nodes when we needed to change a value we could just change one, hooked up to the other, similar, nodes. A huge time saver!”
The Utrecht team chose Maya for their 3D work. All the modeling, rigging, animation, shading, lighting and rendering was done within this package, with the help of mentalray. Maya supports extensive customization and Roy, the TD, has been creating tools for use in Mac‘n’Cheese and future projects. Roy also created an autoRigger for the characters containing all the features needed, like volume maintaining, scalable limbs and bendable parts of the body while staying with a control scheme that was relatively easy to oversee. Afterwards, he began creating animation tools as part of his Master Thesis’ research.
This research and development, called “Pressure. Release. Animate”, [see link in the Related Links below], focused on finding the core needs for tools that help keep the flow while animating. Nieterau designed and developed beta tools to be used in the Mac ‘n’Cheese production that helped the animators to produce the animation in much shorter time. “We had tools for quick selection, retiming, a tweening system, quick viewing modes, curve cleaning or amplifying and more intuitive tools to use on our character animation,” says Tom Hankins. “With this we were able to plan out, test, animate and tweak much faster and this allowing us to focus more on the actual animator instead of technicalities of the 3D application. This was a very useful development for our production.”
These guys, by their own admission were all inexperienced animators, but Roy, Gijs and Guido did all the animation and learned a lot during this project. Taming all the crazy ideas into a story was tough, but once they were comfortable with animating, they were up to speed fast. The project was completed in good time, with some extra time able to use the last weeks to edit a trailer on other software. The bunch have since opened and started a small CG company, Colorbleed.
"We’re pretty much self-taught 3D artists at this point," adds Roy. "The school we went to merely served as a platform for a crowd with the same interests. We learned the most from the people we talked to and shared with every day. This is why we deeply care for the CG community out there! Most of what we know comes from the artists who share their ideas, experiences and knowledge. We want to pass this along and keep the community alive."
Pressure. Release. Animate.
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