Cogswell College’s Project X started back in 2009 with a dedicated department producing animated shorts films. The first short, called The Offering, was the test to see how well this ‘academic studio’ would work. It was the brainchild of Michael Huber, the Assistant Professor at Cogswell College. The Offering won many awards and was accepted into many film festivals and now a new production, the nine minute short Worlds Apart is being produced, with plans for a third film.
“The story line is really a mash up of several genres,” says Huber. “How do you smoothly put together a science fiction/cautionary fairy tale? I think we did a fair job of that. It was by no means easy to maintain the suspension of disbelief, and create cohesion from scene to scene.The story came out of earnest concern for the environment that my wife and I were bringing our child into.” Worlds Apart is a story of a Teddy bear and his past and present friendships, and how those friendships are impacted by our disregard for the Earth. It’s not all gloom and doom however.”
Teaching at an arts college is a far departure from where Huber started. He began in the VFX field when he was twenty something, in the early nineties. VFX and CG were just coming onto the scene especially in the wake of Jurassic Park and Terminator 2. “I worked in Hollywood for many years and got to work on a lot of big films,” he explains. “After getting my foot in the door at Digital Domain things really took off. From there I got to work for Roland Emmerich and his studio (Centropolis.) As well I got to work for several other directors including Michael Bay, Luc Besson, Steven Spielberg, and Ridley Scott. I was not in the trenches with them day in and day out but it was close enough for me to learn a lot.” After Hollywood he spent a few years at EA in the games field. “It was really a death in the family that spun me into this court. So good things can arise from tragedy. I thought I would stop and smell the roses in academia and recoup from the loss. It turns out ‘college’ has been just as busy or even more so than the Hollywood tempo,” he adds.
Huber’s involvement in the film itself was writing and directing the piece; as well as playing the producer role. “Making an independent film whether it be live action or animation is all the same. You’re directing ten percent of the time but in-between filling in the million little blanks in order to make sure the production is moving forward. On top of that I was teaching classes here at Cogswell where I am in charge of the school’s animation department.” Huber put the Project X studio-class together for the students who show a lot of promise and those he thought could push themselves to studio level while continuing their undergrad work. “It’s amazing to see undergrads work at this level, they are really that good, at that point it’s just a matter of giving them the right push and guidance,” he said.
“Since the nature of the Cogswell class is very much a studio environment, it is very different to most units,” says Josh Hodges, an Art Director and Compositing Supervisor on Worlds Apart film. “You have to show a portfolio of your work to the director and if he thinks that you are able to keep up or has heard good things about you around the school, then you are in. Of course, if you can’t keep up with your end of the work, or not working with the team, you’re out.”
The major concept behind the creation of the Project X class was to create a real studio environment right on campus. The hours were long, teamwork is crucial, and finishing the job with excellence in mind is priority number one. “Our pipeline is based on exactly how the larger studios do a fully animated feature,” explains Huber. “We run Maya and RenderMan, and do a lot of custom tools for specific shots. There is a lot of cross training going on but that’s just because we don’t have the luxury of resources that a large-scale production would have. But that way the students get so much more out of it. For the most part however we work in designated teams on specific sequences.”
The Project X team was trying to hit a little more of a serious note for the underlying message of the film instead of having just fun stylized characters. “At the same time, we were trying to stay out of the ‘uncanny valley’ of hyper-realism,” he adds. Each of the characters had its own custom rig in Maya and also a low poly proxy mesh. Every character was a biped, while one of the alien characters floated and had four arms. “This was a bit different for the animators and the riggers to deal with since the character was controlling one set of robotic arms with the others through gestures with his fingers on a trackpad-like device. We also had some alien technology that was rigged and moved in interesting ways,” explains Hodges. “We had an amazingly talented tech department and a few industry friends of Michael’s who thought of creative solutions for everything. We were very lucky to have them around.”
The environments changed quite a bit throughout the film and the Project X crew was trying to keep the main differences in color. They used color as a way of separating our story beats, using bright and saturated colors for happy moments, lots of dark reds for the scary and sad moments. Every environment had its own color language as well, to help the texture artists and lighters with their job once that time came.
Meanwhile, the animators came up with a set of movements and body language for the alien race to give them more of an identity, and to breathe an extra bit of life into them. Their motion tests had to incorporate a balance of hyper-realism and stylized characters over exaggeration. “Specifically, what they were going for was to limit the cartoony movement, because so many films out there use so much of it, and we wanted to stand out, not only among student films but among professional films as well,” Hodges explains.
Cogswell College used Maya for just about everything. Modeling, Rigging, Animation, Lighting, Shaders were done in Maya. They also used Mudbox for lots of the texturing. Vue Infinite was used as a starting point for many of the environmental sets and then turned into matte paintings in Photoshop. “We were lucky enough to have quite a few licenses of RenderMan donated to the school so we rendered everything in that,” explains Hodges. “All the compositing was done in Digital Fusion and some of our effects were done in After Effects. It is also important to note that we used Google Groups and Documents to keep track of scheduling and deadlines as well as to communicate amongst the group so that everyone knew what they were doing and were on the same page,” he said.
The Worlds Apart short has been accepted by many film festivals and has won a few awards already. It was accepted by Cinequest, the Beverly Hills Film Festival, the LA Shorts Filmfest, New York City International Film Festival, Atlanta Shortsfest and more. “They have also won some awards like the Children’s Choice Award at Encounters, Best Short Animation at Philadelphia, Best Short Animation at Miami, Best Animation at Oregon and a few more. The full film will be available online in six months, as we want to let the film have its run in the festivals before we release it,” adds Michael Huber.