"In the city of Bet She'an, where mankind is progressively morphing into crows, a sculptor decides to leave a trace of this dwindling humanity"
Bet She'an is an 8 minute animated short film focused on a sculptor creating a monument to mankind as his time runs short before he too, turns into a crow. It was created by 5-6 French animators for their graduation piece at animation school Supinfocom Arles, and has dazzled audiences for its use of 2D and 3D animation. It was released in 2012, and is now available for the public. We spoke to David Calvet about the production of the film, including what technical aspects were undertaken to create the unique look of the final product.
My Name is David Calvet, and I was mainly in charge of all technical aspects of the film (except Hair farm and cloth.)
Julien Soler was the original brainchild of the project. He created the unique visual style of the movie, and jumped right into directing the visual parts of the film, from character design to enviroment, colour, the overall look of the finished product.
Bastien Letoile joined Julien, and worked with him on concepts for the enviroment and landscape. He moved quickly into putting all the concept art into a storyboard, writing extensively on the plot of the film. He then moved into leading the animation team, while also taking care of the first itierations of the film in the animatic.
I started out in pre-production working with Bastien and Julien on the scenario. When this had been established, I began to work closely with Julien to picture the visual style of the movie. During production I was working on lighting and all the rendering, until the final renders were ready for compositing (Guillaume Raynaut). As well as this I was managing the production pipeline and the different production deadlines.
Guillaume Raynaut held interest in creating a complete rig of a bird, including all its anatomy and details on how itl should move. He finished a complete rig of a crow, along with half the modeled enviroments and other characters. Finally, he took care of the compositing of the film.
Jérémy Charbonel worked on the production design intially, before trying his hand at modelling characters and enviroments. He then took responsibility for all the dynamics of areas such as bird feathers and cloth.
Gowgjin Wang worked extensively off the modelsheet taken from Julien's original design to give an accurate plan for the modellers to use. He then worked on most of the skies of the production, along with other details like dust.
Julien Soler Bastien Letoile Guillaume Raynaut
Jérémy Charbonel Gongjin Wang David Calvet
The last year we had at Supinfocom revolved entirely around the project. We had to work as a team of 5 to 6 people to create a short film, with no particular subject or guidline. We started out with a bunch of drawings and a basic plot from Julien about a king being sculpted while his people were turning into crows.
We developed the drawings and ideas about the main characters. We felt creating their home was going to be a challenge, as the story is about a dwindling civilisation, and not a usual city enviroment. We put great care into choosing every aspect of the enviroment, drawing inspiration from different landscapes. We eventually settled for our own style of architechture, which was a mixture of Yemen and middle-east Arabric, as it seemed to reflect the past lives of its inhabitants and tiny details of the life that was still remaining within the city.
We drew for months to get every aspect of the city correct, drawing areas such as the streets, balconies, a selection of relics, and everyday objects and tools that this civilisation used. Finally we had to mix all the past life of the enviroment into the new, dwindling life, which we found challenging.
A creative challenge was creating the hybrid characters. We had to find a way to express an interesting morph of crows and humans, but didn't want to design them in a way that might look ridiculous or pathetic. We drew up different options, before ploughing through the sketches eliminating those that were simply too extensive or too strange. Eventually we found the right design.
It took us three more months to get proper 3D animation, and we produced even more drawings and designs for every aspect of the short while all the modelling and rigs for the characters were being finalized. We also developed our own 'painterly' rending pipeline. The following three months were dedicated to animation, modelling, lighting the shots, sculpting the statue, and creating the clouds. All other time was used to render and composit every shot while the matte painting and the 2D FX were being finished.
At our five month mark, we had developed the overarching plot for the film and determined the deeper message we wanted to plant within it. We also worked on the general graphic style of the film, including all of the design orientation. We developed the idea of morphing as a metaphor for death symbolized by a crow. The crow, to us, felt like a strong image of death, yet also a majestic living bird. Using that imagery, we wanted the audience to think about what lies within the after life.
We decided to implement that theme into the civilisation sets too, so we had to imagine a world in mutation reaching back to the stoneage with the last of mankind living in an ancient citadel, high up in the sky. The city is in ruins, and men gradually forget what they are and wait to fly away as crows. We delebretley wanted the metamorphasis process to be slow, so we could explore the hybrid of the man and crow. We discussed the changes in their body, behaviour, and the world around, leading to the question. When humankind leaves this earth what will we leave behind?
In the Bet She'an world, the answer to that question lies in the hands of a sculptor who spends his final days as a man building a giant statue, a sort of memorial to the human race. We wanted the statue to reflect our own society, with its qualities and faults. The posture and outfit of the walking man suggests a will of evolution, but reminds us of some dark history.
We completed the film on the 20th of June 2012, after 13 months. It seems almost unreal looking back, that it only took that amount of time from the first drawing to the final export.
During the whole production, the team chose not to eat sandwiches and fast food at their desks (like many teams facing a deadline would) so I cooked for the whole team serving dishes such as roasts, fish, lasagna, salads and tarts. We discovered that it was important for the team to have off-computer time in the rush to get the film finished, and it was a relief to have free time to discuss our hopes for the production. Some people got a bit jealous of our good food and conversation so we often had guests at the table!
We only used keyframe animation for Bet She'an. Bastien was our only animator, and he had a very short time in animation due to our schedule for rendering and FX. He did all of the animation in two and a half months. It was an extremely rushed and complicated job for him, as the main character was sculpting as well as evolving into his bird form in half the shots. The changes from a human being into the bird-like creature required his movements to change in line with his evolution.
Bastien's biggest challenge was to find the right actions for the hybrids. At first their wings were blocking their arms, which limited the movement. It took a long time to find the best movement for the creatures we knew it had to be something unlike a human. We got close to a dinosaur at one point, having the hybrids move like a velocriraptior.
We started using the Hair Farm plug-in for the feathers and the beard of the sculptor, but quickly discovered that we needed Hair Farm render node installed on every computer to be able to render the frames. This was problematic as we wanted to be flexible in our limited timeframe so we decided to explore other options.
We figured this out by starting the early cloth test for the clothing of the main character. We grew the feathers with Hair Farm, and then did snapshots of the feather in a T-pose to get an editable polygon object. Then we were able to drive the feathers with a simulated cloth proxy. This work-around gave us a very flexable pipeline for dynamic hair, and the end result was very smooth and easy to tweak so we could play around until we got the look we wanted.
From the very beginning of the project, we wanted to make sure the film would show the personal style of our art director Julien Solder, so the rendering for the film was an extremely important challenge. Julien’s work was in the style of Moebius or Sergio Toppi, and we had to find a way to get the same result. Julien was very particular about the look he wanted, stressing the importance of the 2D abstraction which presented challenges when the subject was seen in different light and at different angles.
We decided to put Julien in charge of hand-drawing the hatching pass of the film. It was hard work, as he had to hatch all the characters and the enviroment. He wanted lots of 2D abstraction when the characters were seen at distance so we decided to create several sets of textures for each character which would be chosen for each shot depending on the distance of the character from the camera. We had many challenges getting a good mix between the hand drawn lines and the final render size. We did lots of tests to determine the best UV print size however, and finally found some good parameters. Julien finally finished over 250 A3 sheets, in just over 4 months using a light table.
In addition to the hatching system, we also had to figure out what we could use to get a smooth watercolour render. I did lot of research into rendering techniques from scripts, 2D effects, and with different rendering engines. I thought we should use an automated process to avoid having to paint every shot and object.
Julien was clear about the look of the painterly effect, he wanted a colored, soft watercolour look.
To extract flat colored areas out of the full 3d environnent, I had to try get it procedurally. I decided to use V-Ray engine using a range of parameters of Global illumination that usually we try to avoid (blotchy and flickering Global Illumination.) I tweaked the Light Cache of the GI calculation, by making the parameters low and using large samples.
This render was very flickery, but we had a good start on a single frame, a flat, colored render with geometrical shapes following the logic of lighting, shader and volume. We got rid of the geometric pattern by improving the parameters and splitting the samples where the volume was more complex and smoothed the pattern on the flat 3D/2D surfaces. Then with 2D filters we cleaned and smoothed the result to a final frame.
Rendering was the most challenging technical aspect of the project, We started with the idea of a 2D very illustrative picture (Sergio Toppi, Moebius). The watercolor stylisation was a real challenge, there is no clear way to achieve such nice and textured effect easiely in 3D. With our Art director was working on hatching the shots and the characters and our Painter was working on skies and 2d effects such as smokes and wind I decided to work with our 3D models and find a procedural way to achieve 2D watercolor effects, with a very low amount of retakes.
I started research on two sides, one branch was to get an expressive non realistic render in 3d , and the second branch was to get 2D watercolor texture effects and 2D aspect through 2D filters.
Some shaders used in th film
For the first pass I used V-Ray for its very interesting global illumination approximation solutions which are close to the human appreciation of light. In V-Ray there are plenty of GI systems to calculate global illumination: Brute force, Irradiance map, Light cache and more . I tried a lot of tweaks in each solution and combination of solutions, and I finally chose the Light cache solution. This Global illumination approximation works with light rays running from the camera to the scene objects to reveal a colored dot of the ray which bounces to the next object and revealing another colored dot. You can see this in the pre-calculation of the global illumination in V-Ray
After the first pass V-Ray interpret the results, giving object's surface to the dot (in world space or in screen space). There are two other options to pre-blur the surfaced picture (to smooth the results) and the second one tries to smooth from one result to another, according to their color difference and distance.
Finally tweaking the parameters:
And the final render :
Watercolor pass: The second pass is simple but a little tricky, our goal was to proceduraly generate a watercolor texture matching our V-Ray impressionnist GI. The basis of the pass starts with the gradient map function in Photoshop and After Effects. This tool simply takes the greyscale of the picture and applies a different gradient color map. It is a very effective tool for color management but we couldn't add any texture through it.
Photoshop gradient map
I started to search a software with procedural texture generation and a gradient map effect. Very quickly I came back to 3ds Max as it had already all the functions we needed. We had to use 3ds Max in a 2D process mode so we plugged it into the environnement a map in screen projection mode and changeed the render picture ratio to match the ratio of our bitmap.
Simple mapped Gradient
1-Coordinate system in screen projection, to process the picture in 2D.
2-Gradient ramp in mapped mode, to give the same effect than photoshop on the original picture
While recreating the gradient map photoshop effect in 3ds Max, I plugged noise inside a different color flag of the gradient ramp (in screen projection mode with our rendered picture as input). We also used the distortion noise inside the gradient ramp so the hard edges calculated from 3D were vanishing through noises.
There is however a problem around this technique as 3ds Max only produces a square noise 2D map. To get a wide 1:85 ratio picture we had to zoom a bit in the noise to avoid the tile effect on the side. Zooming in the noise works but the quality of the noise is not sufficient to get the best, clean and sharp watercolor effect.
The Bercon maps plugin for 3ds Max (free plugin made by Jerry Ylilammi) give better noises with more accuracy and levels and also more variety. The Bercon maps plugin also has a modified version of the gradient ramp. In this version the plugin allowed us to plug a map in giving us more flexibility.
Picture conversion schema
1-Recontrast and tweak of the original picture to change the preset easely for each shot, if necessary
2-A basic and uniform paper texture that we composite with the original picture
3-Different noises, their colors match to the flat-colored gradient ramp.
Gradient ramp parameters
1-The Gradient ramp is tweaked to reproduce a watercolor effect, the two dark spikes are creating the sides of the painting zone ( where the pigment is the more dense), while the slow gradient zone describe the water dilution and drying.
2-Gradient are basicly in 3D mode (normal, lighting, close/far,...), the mapped switch to 2D process with a picture as source.
3-The Bercon gradient gives you a distorsion map and a strengh to slightly reduce the hardness of our 3d objects shapes.
I took as example a simple shot, in the case of 3D camera movement I was baking the V-Ray impressionnist GI on the scene objects, then place cameras to camera map the shot. To finally work the camera map textures in 2D before to plug it back in 3Ds Max. I had to get 3 set of textures in the end V-Ray impressionnist GI set, Watercolor set and Hatching set.
The final rendering pipeline was made of 12 passes, the master passes were the V-Ray impressionnist GI pass and the Watercolor pass. After we had V-Ray classic passes such as Lighting, Global illumination, Shadow, Occlusion, Specular, Falloff and finally Toon pass. In addition we had handmade hatching pass, ID and masking passes.
The hybrid rendering had to match all the lighting of the scene which introduced new problems with the charater rendering as we had to match the color and light on every shot to truly have a uniform 2D look. We designed all the lighting for the film in a six light set, so we had six textures for each character which ended up with 32 sets total. This way we were sure to have a unity in every shot with no color difference making the characters appear to be entiely inside the shot and not looking pasted in.
The moving shots were very time consuming, so we had to reduce the amount to fit the deadline. For each shot we had to prepare three sets of textures as the flat colored pass was flicking, the watercolor noisy pass was not manageable in movement, and finally the hatching pass was hand made so not working on the moving shot either, so we used camera mapping. However it had to be done precisely due to the quality required by the fine hatching.
For the night sequence we agreed we needed something with a strong atmosphere and contrast. I mixed our prepared render passes with the dynamic light we wanted, and exported a specific light pass to improve the power of the lighting and on the night shots.
We were recently invited by the Chaos group to FMX 2014 to showcase our work on Bet She'an at the conference. It was been a pleasure to meet the people behind the tools we use daily and they were stunned by way we used V-Ray as they had never seen anything like it before.
Bet She'an has recently won the CutOutFest award for Best International Student Film. The director and animator Bastien Letoile, the art director and concept artist Julien Soler and I are working together with a former classmate Thomas Bertrand-Batlle on a new short movie project that we are trying to fund at the moment.
Building on the succes of the Bet She'an project we also recently created the BANDITS collective. It's still early but we would like to keep working together on commissionned projects and more personal in-house projects. Currently we are working in advertising in London and Paris and on some internal projects.
Bastien Letoile - Director - Animation - Environment Design
David Calvet - Technical Director - Render - Lighting - Preproduction
Jérémy Charbonel - Environment and Character Modelling - Hair and Cloth Simulation - Sound
Guillaume Raynaut - Rigging - Skinning - Character Modeling - Compositing
Julien Soler - Art Director - Environment Design and Modeling - Character Design
Gongjin Wang - Skies and smoke - Modelsheet and Concept
Music by Seraphin Quittau