Creature Pinup is so very unique! What or who was the inspiration for its creation?
It’s really hard to say what the inspiration was to make this kind of project. Primarily, we wanted to work on something that would challenge the skills we developed throughout the years of studying at the Animationsinstitut. Furthermore, we wanted to project to showcase what we are really good at and provide us with solid material that we can use in our showreels.
Nevertheless, it also had to be funny and entertaining as well. Not only for the team working on the project but also for the audience.
That’s how the idea for Creature Pinup was born. A pinup calendar customized for our industry.
How long did the project take from start to finish, and how big was your team?
Christian pitched the initial idea around January 2016. A few months later, after most of the concepts for both the teaser and the calendar assumed proper shape, the team formed, and by the end of July, the production started. We delivered the project in April 2017, a bit before the FMX. That was roughly 8 months in total.
The team consisted of about 12 members. At the beginning though, only few of us were involved, since only the calendar concepts existed by that time. However, right after we came up with the idea for the teaser and intended to promote the calendar and attract attention, our team grew from four to around twelve members. This included animators, reference actor, rigging and effects artists, sound designer, musical composers, just to name few of the additional positions required to properly execute the project.
What were the various softwares used? Can you call out one or two unique techniques found within a couple of these that you hadn't executed before?
Maya was our main software, where all aspects eventually came together. It was used for basically everything besides sculpting, texturing and effects. For that we relied heavily on Zbrush, in combination with Mari and 3d Coat for textures and retopology. Mudbox was also used for some additional texturing work. Whereas for FX, there was no way around Houdini.
From the destruction to procedural animation, drool and dust simulations, everything was done inside Houdini.
All that of course had to be shaded, lit and rendered at some point. That’s the part where Arnold was completely in charge. Not only in Maya but also in Houdini as well.
Furthermore, Yeti was used to create realistic hair and fur for our characters and some assets that required extra detail like rope and cloth fibers. At the end of the pipeline we submitted everything to our own render farm via Royal Render and then used Nuke to combine all the elements together.
David, our fx and compositing guy, always wanted to try bullet-based metal bending and destruction in Houdini. Also combining this with fracturing cloth was new and interesting for him. He had to build a custom 3D camera import setup for Nuke to get the parameter into the right node. But at the same time we wanted to keep it directable, which needed some python scripting as well.
Besides that, we had a lot of different simulation data, like wire, particles, cloth, fractured geometry and fluid which had to be exported from Houdini to Maya. Finding the best way for each took us a lot of research.
For the calendar, the creatures didn’t have to move at all, so it was easy to create the base model with the Zremesher in combination with the Zremesher-Guides in Zbrush. This saved Christian lot of time. Although it wasn’t the first time he was using it, it was still very helpful. That way, it was possible to get almost every creature sculpted within eight days, which was roughly the time period he had calculated for every character in order to get everything done in time..
Kiril and Marcel helped Christian even further on saving time texturing some of the creatures and assets by using various procedural shading and texturing techniques. That way, Chris could spend more time on a creature that required it. The Transformer, for example, was one of the creatures that got away without painting even one single texture in the end.
Every detail was built completely from scratch inside the shading tree.
Furthermore, it was not only the first time for Kiril to use Yeti in production but also the first contact with grooming in general.
There is quite a variation of texturing in here, from the fur to steel to scales. Of these, which presented the biggest difficulty to execute and what was your workaround?
I guess the trickiest was the guy from our trailer, the “Goblin King”. That was probably because he was also our first creature, we started working on. However, in terms of texturing, shading or look development in general it was a really tough time to get a result we all agreed on. I believe we went through almost 60 versions only to get the right skin tone.
There were maps painted for the pimples, roughness, specular, various subsurface layers, diffuse and also maps for the dirt and sweat.
Furthermore, there were some extra maps painted later on for even more control over some other parts like the lips and wounds.
Nevertheless, we still had eleven more creatures waiting on the line. So, in order to speed things up and save time, our workaround for that was the magic of procedural texturing and shading inside Maya or Houdini with Arnold. That way we could try many different looks without the need of doing back to Mari and paint textures again and again. Of course it didn’t always work properly, so for those cases, where the procedural approach was failing but the idea still looked promising, Chris would then go back to Mari and quickly reproduce the results.
On top of all that, he was also a very hairy guy. There were three main hair types that defined his appearance. The bristle hair, being those long thick fibers. The thin and very short hair, covering almost every part of him, we called the vellus hair and of course his awesome hairstyle, which had to be simulated at some point as well and although it wasn’t much hair to deal with it still happened to be a very tough challenge to overcome. The one main reason being that there were some very fast movements going on and Kiril struggled a lot to get some convincing results with Yeti’s build-in dynamic system.
So, our workaround for that was to use Maya’s own dynamic system instead to simulate the hair strands while still using Yeti to define the groom of course. The dynamic system in Maya was a bit more sophisticated and offered more control over many dynamic properties.
Doing so, however, required a lot of preparation and some scripting work to transfer the needed information from the Yeti curves to the nHair output curves in order to make sure that the look of the groom didn’t change during simulation.
Did everyone contribute to each creature? We'd be curious to know how the work was divided among the team.
Christian Leitner was the director and the artist behind the sculpting and texturing magic of the creatures. On his side, there was Kiana Naghshineh, the co-director/ lead animator along with the help of Meike Müller and Manolya Kuelkoeylue. Juliane Walther, our producer and team coordinator. Lisa Ecker was responsible for the rigging, cloth simulation and the muscle system that was required to make the character more believable. Various effects, like dust particles, procedural animation and destruction of the umbrella were done by David Bellenbaum. Besides that, he was also responsible for compositing all the shots.
It all would have been a mess if Marcel Ruegenberg didn’t prepare a solid pipeline for the project. Last but not least, Kiril was mainly responsible the shading, lighting, rendering and grooming along with the hair and fur simulation.
As mentioned before, the teaser required much more attention and a bigger team for all the extra work that needed to be done. So, most of the artists were mainly focused on that, whereas the calendar involved less people but at the same time forced some of us to work in parallel. That’s why Marcel was more than happy to help Kiril out with that by taking care of shading, lighting and rendering four of the creatures for the calendar, such as the “Alien” or “Groot”, which both involved a great amount of procedural texturing as well. A bit later in production, Anno Schachner joined the team to develop the look and light of the Werewolf.
We were in love with the trailer you produced.. can we expect that any of the other calendar creatures will have their own animated spot as well?
That’s nice, thank you. Well, maybe. You know, of course we would love to put more of the creatures in the studio and see what would happen. But at the moment, to be honest, there are no further plans. Doing another project like this requires some motivated and talented artists and also time to develop and execute. Now, since we are not students anymore, the time for personal work like this dramatically decreases, or at least your spare time becomes more valuable once you got a job. Still, if there is a chance for us in the future to produce another teaser or even a brand new calendar, we will be more than happy to do so.
Walk us through the process for that. The concept is so witty and definitely gave us a good laugh, we'd love to know more about it!
The idea is very easy to explain, you have to take two different elements, which in our case, are “pin-up” and “creatures”, mix them together and there you have it - the Creature Pinup.
As far as the calendar is concerned, Christian thought in the beginning that it would be nice to make our own creatures, so he came up with these concepts:
As you can see, there was also a little bit of background stories going on, but somehow it didn’t feel right.
Besides that, when we showed the sketches to our colleges, they laughed the most when they already knew them from their original movies. So we got rid of that idea and searched for some well-known creatures from movies which were iconic, characteristic, and different enough but still had a realistic chance of doing some of the typical pin-up poses. After we found them, we ran through several iterations to get the right poses. To push the feminine side effect a little bit more. We also changed the proportions a bit, like longer legs, smaller waist, boobs, longer hair etc. Basically we tried to create female versions of the originals without losing the core features. pic13
Then there was the important question of: “how will the calendar look like?”. The first idea was to put the characters in their actual surroundings.
Black and white and also in color.
As you can see, it looked more like a stickerbook for children, so we searched for other solutions. After creating some more style-frames, it was clear that we had to change course.
The calendar should be sexy, erotic, classy, but also funny. After a while we found some low-key photo references online, which pretty much nailed the look we were after. So Chris made some additional overpaints from the existing concepts and we were ready to go.
The idea for the teaser was fairly simple as well. Imagine a moment during that Photoshoot. How would it look like and what could happen? The best thought we had on that was an awkward situation between the model and the photographer. It was important to feel that there was someone else in the room who was interacting with our character without really exposing him directly into the scene. The solution for that was a pov perspective of the photographer, while looking through his camera.
Besides being funny, it also had to be realistic. Knowing that there is someone holding the camera all the time and talking to our character became a challenging task. It really had to feel that way, otherwise we would have lost the viewer’s attention very quickly. A combination of hand-animation and procedurally controlled camera shake parameters allowed us, after lots of iterations, to achieve a result that we were all happy with but most importantly a result that looked believable.
Furthermore, the studio had to be visible as well. It also had to be a contrast to our protagonist. Making it clean, new and modern really made the creature stand out a lot more and with that it made the whole situation even funnier.
To save time modeling the whole studio from scratch, which we planned at the beginning, we thought that it would be a good idea to purchase some of the main studio lamps, since our character needed way more attention as initially calculated. However, after we found a set of studio laps that looked promising, we quickly realized, after we bought it, that they weren’t even nearly production-ready as they appeared. Many days of work were spent on preparing the models to fit our pipeline requirements and on top of that we still had to model a lot of other studio assets.
That approach apparently didn’t really save a lot of time in the end but luckily we were able to regain that lost time in the look development process.
On top of that we also had a reference shoot dedicated for the lighting properties of the studio laps. It was very important to see how they reacted to lens. We learned a lot and it was a extremely crucial in the lighting and compositing process.
In parallel, our rigger was already working on the muscle system. Since the character wasn’t in his best body shape he also required some simulated fat parts with different properties to get more convincing results. By providing her a approximation model of the skeleton, Lisa was able to place the muscles much more precisely and that way get even better simulations results.
I could go on like this forever and we didn’t even come to the fx and simulation part yet, but we made a breakdown showing the effects work done for the project and also a couple of the things I mentioned earlier. Nevertheless, I hope you got an idea of how we approached the project.
Looking back on it, what were some ways you would have executed the pipeline differently if you were to do this again (perhaps a 2019 calendar?)
One thing to consider for sure will be a better and more precise calculation of the work that has to be done. We underestimated the animation part a lot.Therefore, we had to make some unexpected holds during the production, since most of the animators at the Animationsinstitut were really busy either with helping out somewhere else or doing their own projects. In our case, Kiana Naghshineh, our lead animator, who did an excellent job bringing the character to life, had to manage her own diploma project in parallel. The main problem was, that we pitched her the idea with an animation afford of ten seconds, but in the end we went on with near a minute of animation work.
Together with Christian, she figured out the acting and the blocking of the entire Clip and went on with animating the second half. Luckily, she was still able to supervise the animation process while Meike Müller and Manolya Külköylü took over to finish the animation.
At the end, three different animators worked on one shot, but it still went well.
One side note on the calendar, if we manage to do a new version in the future we should definitely clarify, already in the beginning, whether or not the calendar should be black ‘n white or in color. Because that discussion went back and forth forever during the production and cost us a little bit of time at the end.
We'd venture to guess that many in your team are fans of monster movies. How did you choose which creatures to use? And is there any reason why certain ones are placed on certain months?
There are so many good and also bad monster movies, but you have to love them all. Most of the time it’s the human race, which is going to get wiped out by these guys, but they are still adorable. For the selection, we chose figures which were iconic, characteristic and different enough. Besides these terms, they should also get humanlike proportions to make this kind of pinup poses.
During the production we thought slightly about certain placements of the creatures, but in the end we just went on with the most varied and also beautiful order we could think of.
Where do you envision this project going? Are there any further developments in the works?
At the beginning of the interview we mentioned that the calendar is a pin-up customized for the industry. So, of course we would be honored if there is physical copy of the calendar in every VFX house in the whole wide world.
Currently the Creature Pinup team is still in Ludwigsburg, but we are looking forward to upcoming projects in the industry and hopefully we will find us together working on a next feature “Monster-Movie.”
We want to thank the team for providing us with these thorough responses and awesome content. Make sure to stay updated on their work by visiting their website!