CGSociety :: Production Focus
12 September 2013, by Paul Hellard
So much of the work coming out of the HKU 'Utrecht School of the Arts' has been impressive, CGSociety has decided to show off another standout animated short, 'Gracht', created by another four students from the HKU. "We made the film to graduate for our Bachelor degree," explains Nick Groeneveld, the Art Director. Each student had specialities during the creation of the film. Joost de Jong was Lead Animator, Jeroen Hoolmans was the Pipeline Technical Director, while Michael Koning was Technical Director and Nick Groeneveld was Art Director. He takes up the story.
"We wanted to show our film as wide as we could, winning the "Vimeo StaffPick Award", and being selected for "click! Amsterdam animation festival" and the "Dutch Film Festival" so far. Our main influences for the short film stylistically were from the Dutch TV series ‘Newkids’, a dutch comic called Joop Klepzeiker, and of course Amsterdam. We saw the ‘meindbender’ Cartoon Network commercial called The Pirate, and we loved the idea of a CG world, built as a miniature. We wanted to explore this further so we went to an amusement park in The Netherlands called Madurodam, which has a bunch of miniatures of important cities and structures from around the country. This provided a lot of insight on how to handle the miniature of a canal in Amsterdam. Story-wise, Joost de Jong came up with a situation of two guys sitting in a car, not knowing they were being robbed. The plan was that they were to be builders. Initially we had a bank-robbing old lady in there to. But we loved the Sjonnie character (the guy raving in his car based on ‘Newkids’ characters) so much that we decided to give him more screen time."
The HKU crew began by roughly sculpting all the characters in ZBrush and then sent them across to Blender for retopology. After the retopology was done, the geometry was sent back to ZBrush for finer detail such as scratches on the surface. The final model and displacement maps were sent to Maya.
"We used Maya to create our props, then we used Photoshop to paint textures," adds Nick. We also imported our geometry into MARI for getting a more hand painted feel. MARI was a great choice because It allowed us to actually make tiny mistakes you’d get if we had created it in the real world."
Eventually the crew rendered with Maxwell because they wanted the ease of the material editor and the realism of the render engine. To make it look like stop-motion they even animated the entire film by skipping every other frame and sometimes even chose to animate it on threes or fours to get a choppy/dynamic feel to it. "We used the same animation technique on our cameras," Nick explains. "It took us (Joost de Jong, Michaël Koning, Jeroen Hoolmans and me) six months to create the whole film."
The most useful piece of 3D software was a combination of two programs: MARI and ZBrush. They wanted to get a realistic/hand-made feel to both characters and objects so they tried to do everything by hand. "MARI allowed us to paint on top of our characters and objects as if we used a brush to paint miniature figures. This gave us the distinct look we were looking for. We created the scratchy damaged surface of the characters by literally scratching the characters in ZBrush with a very small brush. The process of sculpting our characters and painting them with this workflow was easy and felt very intuitive to us. The combination of the two programs gave life to our miniature characters because of the tiny details we put into them."
Maxwell was very important for this HKU project as well. This was the crew's first time working with Next Limit engine, so that gives an idea of how easy it is to use. "It was incredibly useful to be able to render out the shots in a few samples, then immediately see how it is going to turn out," says Nick. "When we were satisfied we let Maxwell render the next sampling levels to achieve the final render. The material editor is so easy to use and the results very satisfying."
"Our most technical aspect was reducing time spent on production. Jeroen wrote our production pipeline which consisted of some scripts which automated a lot of our tasks," Nick continues. "You could quickly set up a scene, then run some scripts that would clean up the rough edges. This allowed us to focus on what's most important, the creative process. He wrote tons of helpful scripts to help organise our project. Some of which helped us prepare our animations for rendering, resulting in less disk space used. One process was to prepare a renderable Maya scene that could quickly export our Maxwell scenes. Our sets were rather large, containing displacement in every shot. In order to keep things renderable we had to optimise our sets before rendering. We could only use up to about 10Gb of RAM during renders, which was a problem for some scenes, especially close-ups. Knowing the distance from our objects and camera, we were able to turn displacements on or off by switching shaders before export. This turned into different files linked together: environment, camera, lights, linked materials and animated geometry. Every frame rendered for export only contained animated data and linked everything that was static. For a student project, this was our most notable technique.