CGSociety recently posted an animated short that received an enormous amount of attention and praise. The film was The Present, a story about a young boy who would rather spend his time playing videogames indoors, that is until his mother decides to give him a gift. There is a heart-warming twist at the end, which will fill you with the feels!

The Present Breakdown. Courtesy of Markus Kranzler

The Present was a graduation short by Jacob Frey, made at the Institute of Animation, Visual Effects and Digital Postproduction at the Filmakademie Baden-Wuerttemberg in Ludwigsburg, Germany. It was based on a wonderful little comic strip by the very talented Fabio Coala. The film was screened at over 180 film festivals, and won more than 50 awards. As a result, Jacob has gone on to work on movies like Zootopia and Secret Life of Pets.

CGSociety sat down with Jacob to find out more about his project, inspirations and goals.



Let’s go way back. Where were you born and raised? Where are you now? What sparked your interest in animation?
I was born and raised in Hilden, Germany. It's a small-ish city on the outskirts of Düsseldorf. Right now I am living in Berlin, where I work as an animation supervisor at Magic Light Pictures (known for The Grufallo and Room on the Broom).

For me, there has always been an interest in animation, but at first it was just purely for my own entertainment. One of my all-time favorite animated films is Disney's Aladdin. But when Pixar and Finding Nemo came on the scene I realized that this is what I wanted to learn, understand and do for a living. 

Sketches by Max Lang

Unfortunately, during that time the online resources for learning animation were pretty limited and after digging through loads of websites and forums it left me with two possible options where I could study animation in Germany. Either a very expensive private school, which I couldn't really afford, or the Filmakademie Baden-Wuerttemberg. 

According to the stories I read in the online forums, it was nearly impossible to get one of the few spots at Filmakademie. Each year only 10-15 people get selected for the program and you usually need a lot of industry experience beforehand. For someone like me, who didn't really have any animation experience, the whole thing seemed pretty pointless to apply. My girlfriend at the time still kept pushing me, because she knew how badly I wanted to study there. So why not try, right?

Sketches by Max Lang

Within one weekend my dad helped me to create a stop-motion short film, which I used as an application short to send to Filmakademie. I also added some of my personal drawings to the letter and sent it to Ludwigsburg. I ended up getting a response and not because of my short film, but because of my drawings.

The Filmakademie's application process involves a 72 hour exercise. The exercises are handed out on a Friday and then you have to return it the next Tuesday. You get to choose between four different exercises, which usually try to cover the overall animation field. Some are more story driven and others more compositing or motion graphics heavy. I decided to do something that was more story driven and something where I could show my creativity. Since there were only 72 hours to do this task and I didn't really have time to learn a software or figure out how to animate properly, I did the most obvious thing and filmed my parents / friends and then rotoscoped the crap out of it. 

During that time, I didn't even have proper software to do this so I simply put my LCD screens flat on the table and put the piece of paper right on top of it. It seemed like the teachers really liked the result of my work and by some sort of miracle I got in. From that day on, I was part of the film business and I didn't really realize it.

Drawing by Max Lang

What are some of the projects you have worked on / clients or studios you’ve worked with?
During my studies at Filmakademie I interned as an animator at Black Rock Studios (Disney Interactive) in Brighton, England and at Psyop in Los Angeles. Which was a really cool experience, because I became a part of the animation team right away and wasn't treated as an intern at all. Coming back from the US I had the great pleasure to work as an animator on the lovely Oscar-nominated short film Room on the Broom at Studio Soi. I also worked a lot with the super talented guys from the Germany based animation studio Polynoid / Woodblock together. 

After graduating from Filmakademie I worked in Paris as an animator at Illumination Mac Guff on The Secret Life of Pets and then left to the US to take part in the Talent Development Program at Walt Disney Animation Studios in Burbank, CA. There I had the great honor to work as an animator on the upcoming feature animated film Zootopia. The Talent Development Program just ended a few months ago and now I am back in Germany, working as an animation supervisor on the Roald Dahl's adaption of Revolting Rhymes at Magic Light Pictures.

How did you come up with the concept for The Present? 
The story is based on a comic strip by the Brazilian comic artist Fabio "Coala" Cavalcanti and I stumbled upon his work one night when I was browsing 9gag.com. His artwork is usually only in Portuguese, but one of his followers translated his comic into English and posted it on 9gag. I was completely in awe when I read it. I immediately knew that I had to make a short film out of it. 


The story was shocking and heart-warming at the same time and the production value felt perfect for a short film with a very small team. It had two main characters, one side character, and it felt like the story could be squeezed into less than five minutes. 

Getting permission to turn this comic strip into a short film, wasn't easy though. Right away after reading it, I went on Fabios website (www.mentirinhas.com.br) and tried contacting him. Unfortunately my English written email, never received a response. Luckily, Natalia Alencar, a Brazilian student who came to Filmakademie a year earlier, and who later also worked on the short film as a texture artist, noticed that a bunch of her friends were directly connected to Fabio on Facebook. She then helped me by writing him a message in Portuguese and we contacted Fabio directly through Facebook. We then got an immediate response and he seemed fine with us turning his comic into a short film.

However, he didn't realize how much work we were willing to put into it until he saw the final result one year afterwards.

Please talk about your process in making the short.
Our team was very, very small. Most of the time it was just a handful of people working on it. Being the director, it was up to me whether or not the film was to get done in time. So I took care of pretty much everything if I couldn't find someone to help. 

My main focus / interest was the directing and animation part, but I spend a lot of time doing anything else but that. Before production I made sure that all assets were prepared for anyone who was helping, so that there weren't any unnecessary distractions once people started working. 

Drawing by Bin-Han To

Bin-Han To did a lot of visual development for the set and also created a whole bunch of lighting moods. Based on his drawings I started modeling the entire set, prepared all the UVs and already attached dummy textures, which were properly linked with the right resolution. Natalia Alencar, who did a lot of the texturing, didn't have to worry about setting up proper resolutions anymore and simply concentrate on her work.

Meanwhile Anja Wacker started modelling the characters in Maya. Max Lang (director Room on the Broom / The Gruffalo) was our character designer and helped us during this process to transform his drawings into 3d models. He gave us great input, by drawing over the work in progress models. 

Pascal Floerks, who was working on his own short film Bär (http://www.floerks.de) during that time, helped us to setup a Yeti Fur pipeline and also did the facial rigs for both main characters. Polina Bambi Bokhan, worked on the body rigs and Hanna Binswanger on the facial rig for the mother.

Once the set was done, Markus Kranzler was able to do first render tests. He was responsible for the entire rendering pipeline and did the entire lighting / shading / rendering on the short film. Him and I spent most of the time on the project and I couldn't have done it without his help!

For me it was really important to not waste any extra time in animation, by animating something and then kicking it out again. So I spent quite a while in layout, figuring out the storytelling and really being sure that once I jumped into animation everything worked. When you spend more time thinking about things earlier you can then simply work them off and don't have to answer any questions anymore.

The main character in Fabio's comic is extremely bipolar, which of course is part of the concept and it works great in it. But once you put things into a short film perspective, he started to feel not like a believable character anymore. I kept playing around with the amount of emotions a lot in layout and ended up showing his emotional change through subtle reactions. Also most of the comic’s dialogue was unnecessary and could be told in images instead. 



Another one of my goals was to make this short film as condensed as possible. My earlier short film BOB got screened at a lot of film festivals before and during that time I got to visit a lot of film festivals. And something that I always noticed, when watching other short films was that a great amount of them felt too long. And that bothered me so much, that I really tried to make The Present as short as possible. My first edit was 5 minutes and 30 seconds without credits and I constantly kept reediting until the final version, which is 3 minutes and 23 seconds without credits. This also helped me a lot to get the film animated in time. 

While I started animating in a chronological order, Markus kept setting up the Renderman pipeline. That gave me a good head start with animation, so that when the rendering pipeline was ready to go he had already enough animated shots ready to start working on the first renderings.

During animation I tried keeping everything on one level of detail. I didn't really spend too much time in polish, in case the film didn't get finished in time. After having animated every shot once and still having extra time left, I then went back and polished the shots, which needed extra attention.

Falko Paeper developed the final look for the film and created a setup in Nuke that he and Matthias used for the Compositing. 

Marco Manzo was responsible for the sound design and he has been working on almost every one of my short films. His work colleague Tobias Bürger offered to do the music for the film and we got to record the voice actors Quinn and Samantha through their studio (www.studiofunk.de). Which was super cool. Tobias totally surprised me with the end song. He wrote and composed the entire thing and Sarah Kämmerer, who is a trainee at the studio, sang the lyrics. They even made a full version out of it and can be found on iTunes and Amazon. (Zealand - The Present)

The overall wrangling of rendered / composited sequences was done through The Foundry's Hiero. That tool was unbelievably comfortable to use and with its Nuke support it was perfect for setting up batch renders through the Filmakademie's Royal Render pipeline. (www.royalrender.de)

Last but not least, Anna Matacz, who is the producer on most of my short films, did a tremendous job by submitting the short film to all the film festivals and dealing with any kind of paperwork.


How long did the project take?
The entire project took roughly one year and three months from the first contact with Fabio to the final image. We've worked on this short film seven days a week and spent a lot of time in that room at Filmakademie. But we always kept a good balance between working and playing a couple of hours of Quake 3.

What did you learn from this project? 
On this project, with the small team and time constraints, it's all about making smart compromises. It doesn't help to put too much work into a character when he only appears for a small chunk of the film. You want things to be perfect, but is it worth it? Instead really focus on the main areas. You can always plus things in afterwards if there's extra time left.



Anything else you'd like to talk about?
I simply would like to thank anyone who helped making this short film, I am very thankful for any help I've gotten during this project. Big hugs to my friends and family, who keep supporting me and deal with my countless hours in front of the computer.

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