Next Limit Technology Focus, 16 February 2010
For just a bit of fun, we revisit Meinbender Studio's astonishing work recreating digital Plasticine for some Cartoon Network station IDs. Using Next Technologies' Maxwell Render, the Swedish VFX studio staff brings comic genius together with wholly impossible faux-Plasticine stop motion.
CGSociety :: Production Focus
16 February 2010, by Paul Hellard
Michael Bengtsson runs the Meindbender animation studio in Sweden. Some time ago, a bunch of workers from the studio were testing a natural clay look using Maxwell Render.
The final results from emulating Plasticine were astoundingly accurate as were the attempts to recreate that experimental stop-motion look.
"Then we got our big break by posting our work on CGSociety's forum," explains Bengtsson. "It was a 30-second test called 'Football v Rabbit' done to emulate that same natural clay look. Just days
after, this led to that the Cartoon Network people contacting us requesting work, and from there things just have been going upwards. After doing some work for Cartoon Network, we were nominated in six
categories at Promax BDA World Awards and won Gold for 'Best Use of Humor in Production' along with a Silver in the 'Best Seasonal Spot' Award. We were absolutely thrilled of course."
'Football v Rabbit' credit: Meindbender
Bengtsson was once completely obsessed with building complex shader trees. "It's kind of sad for me," he jokes, "as I can now basically throw all that hard-earned knowledge out the door, as the setup
in Maxwell Render is extremely easy and straight forward."
Rendering using an unbiased software takes longer to calculate of course, but Meindbender gained back that time in setup.
'It's Magic' - credit: Cartoon Network
Using the software's Multi-Light function, it allowed the crew to render out
the lights separately and do all the fine tuning in comp, which was a big time saver.
"We had about six hours per frame using Maxwell render 1.7. The new and way faster version (2.0) sadly wasn't ready at the time so this was a bit too much for our own renderfarm to handle, so we used Rendernet to render all the footage out. Maxwell allowed
us to first render out all the footage really fast on a low sample level, just using a few computers locally.
"Though still a bit grainy it was easy to check that once they'd finalize, they'd look like we wanted them to. Then we sent the partly rendered files to the Rendernet service to continue the render up
to a sufficient sample level.
"At the same time, we took the partly rendered files into comp as proxies and did all the post work there before we actually got the finished frames back. In the end, we just replaced the proxies with
the final images, made the master and delivered."
The station IDs for the Cartoon Network were a large set of jobs, heavy on concept and the Meindbender team evidently returned the request with lots of funny spots.
"Our creative director Olov Burman created a lot of ideas at first and basically bombed Raf Gasak at Cartoon Network with them," explained Bengtsson. "Once cleared we pretty much had free hands on the 'shorties', as we call them.
They were great to work with and it felt really good that they trusted us with the project."
'Push the Button' - credit: Cartoon Network
When turning pixels into Plasticine, there's no secret formula except for the added advantage of what a physically correct renderer gives you. "In the end though, it all came down to studying the real thing," says Bengtsson.. "Learn how materials reflect and
absorb light in different scenarios.
"Furthermore, as we worked in Maxwell where it's important to work in real world units, we used Maya to build them in the size we wanted. [About 12cm if I remember correctly.] In the 'Evolution' short
film, we also created real props by drawing on some old cardboard, cut them out and then image projected them onto planes later on."
'Evolution' - credit: Cartoon Network
"Maxwell is awesome," says Michael, "but it's kind of sad for me as I once was completely obsessed with building complex shader trees. I can now basically throw that hard-earned knowledge out the door, as the setup in Maxwell Render is extremely easy and straight forward.
"Rendering using an unbiased software takes longer to calculate of course, but I could honestly say that we gained back that time in setup. Using the software's multilight function, it allowed us to
render out the lights separately and do all the fine tuning in comp, which was another big time saver.
"How materials reflects and absorbs light in different scenarios. There is no way around that even if Maxwell makes the process faster. The main clay setup was quite simple using a Maxwell material
node inside Maya.
"The shader (created using MW1.7) was built up with a base layer with a very high roughness. A second layer was then added in additive mode to take care of the reflections which where
set quite low both in roughness and weight/influence on the overall material."
"Finally we added some SSS to finalize," says Bengtsson. "Even though it was the first time we used it in production the learning process was extremely fast. Maxwell comes with lots of physically
correct presets for SSS settings so it was really easy to get the hang of the controls, what they did and why, by looking at those. However,
it didn't have any preset for plasticine but we were impressed with how little time it took to get what
A camera in Maxwell Render behaves like a real world counterpart, so to get the smaller size look, they were just built in the scale required, using real world units.
"As an old photographer," says Bengtsson, "it was nice to be able to put all the focus on the actual photography, but you can of course bend the rules if you want to. If a wider depth of field is
required, just set the F-stop to a high number that goes beyond what real cameras can achieve. By doing that, you get the best of both worlds. A camera that works like a real world replica but hasn't
got the restraints of the real world."
The 'Duplicator' model and blend-shapes where sculpted by Marcus Ottosson, and they were rigged by Tony ?sterlund.
The base of the rig was just set up in Set-Up Machine. Then they added a lot of extra clusters, lattices and blend-shapes. There were also more than one mesh connected to the rig.
For example when the character's mouth disappears, the visibility of the original mesh is switched off and a geometry with no mouth becomes visible. Even though there was a very flexible rig, many of
the extreme poses had to be corrected by sculpting the vertexes.
For most of the 3D work, modeling and animation the crew at Meindbender use Maya. For post it varies but I'm actually an old After Effects fan as we go way back. Especially the later versions. Adobe
has really stepped up and in my opinion have become a serious contender when it comes to post.
Other programs are Photoshop, Mudbox, ZBrush, Nuke and many others.
The industry seems to be also completely obsessed with Cintiqs from Wacom over here too.
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