The Making of Project Orb - Full Production Breakdown
My name is Arthur Tasquin and last year I made “Project Orb” with two classmates (Laurent Ravicini & Thomas Marcos). This is our graduate project at the HEAJ in Belgium. The three of us are taking separate path: Laurent is working at Benuts (VFX in Belgium), Thomas is taking a “Transmedia” master degree and I just finished my one year video game specialization.
Keywords: ENVIRONMENT DESIGN, MOOD, LIGHT
Although pre-production can be a very long process, we quickly establish what we wanted to do in the big picture. The three of us were very fond of environment design, we loved to see places that tell a story just by looking at it. We wanted to create visual attractive places with clues in every shot to let the spectator investigate about the background story.
The goal here was to create environments but not architecture visualization, we wanted to bring a special mood as far as we could. We decided that Project Orb would take place in an abandoned theatre subject to bad weather and ravages of time. The final question was: how to connect all these shots together? We chose to bring a drone called "Orb" in the theatre that would be the guideline of the story and bring the theatre back to life. It allowed us to play with interesting lighting as the environment is pretty dark.
We got our background. When? Today. Where? London, in an abandoned theater. What? A robot wakes up and scan the environment. We had to find the artistic direction and collect as many references as we could on theater and 80' retro props. So we did quite search a lot.
For the background story, we had to find a reason that drove the people to leave the theatre. We were very interested in Fukushima's environment ambience/mood. We wanted to reproduce this feeling in our short film. So we came up with this simple idea.
9th september 1985 - 8h52: one of the atomic reactor of Dungeness melted. This disaster led to the biggest english diaspora. For 30 years, UE built several smart robots to scan the radioactivity of London. Project Orb is a military mission build up to study the evolution of radioactivity in the British capital.
Since we wanted "Orb" to visit the theater, we had to cut the shortfilm in several places, 8 to be specific. Every place has its own purpose in the video. The store room is a kind of mysterious area where we put the attention on the drone and its module. It shows immediately the ravage of time on an old theater. The entry hall is used to show us the functions of the robot. The third environment is a hallway in which you can find a newspaper that reveal the reason why the theater is empty.
The toilet shot is a transition shot that helps understand the background story too. The restaurants shots are made to bring back to life a living space, to get back in the past. The dressing room shows us that the robot we follow is not the only one sended. The scene is where the purpose of Orb is revealed. Unlike all the others shots, the stage is spacious, liberating. It leads to the final shot, the city of London. We can see that Orb is not the only drone sent in the city.
We only had 3 months of production to create a 3 min short film and we were 3 to do it. To accomplish that task, we had to create some rules and stick as much as we could to our planning. That's why we chose to live together during the production. We set up a local server with strong naming system so that every files sending was quick and efficient. We studied the best pipeline possible to fit our needs and preferences. GPU rendering allowed us to render several time all the shots, that way we could iterate a lot. We tried to render as soon as possible. Instead of doing modeling, texturing, lighting and integration separately, we did it all together. While Lorenzo was modeling, I was texturing procedural walls and floors and Thomas was testing lighting set up with block out scenes. We worked by area and began rendering every night after 2 weeks of production.
Instead of doing modeling, texturing, lighting and integration separately, we did it all together. We worked by area and began rendering every night after 2 weeks of production.
We first chose to use Octane as the center pillar of our pipeline. As we had great GPU hardware (1080 ti, 1070 & 970), this was the only way to go. We were around 10 min per frame with the 1080 ti, 20 min with the 1070 and 40 min with the 970. We had the C4d Octane version so we used it for modeling and rendering. For the texturing, we decided to use the Substance Suite. Firstly because I was very used to it and secondly because it is a very versatile tool. To composite our passes and for all the post production we used Adobe After Effect coupled with Adobe Premiere for color grading. The sound design was made with Sony Vegas and the music with Cubase.
Between the retro props and debris of walls, we had a lot to model so we used free 3d librairies like 3dsky.org for the background props. Instances and cloners were used as often as we could to optimize it all.
The walls of bricks in the dressing room shots were quite difficult to model so we tried to mix it with several layers of displacement and opacity mask. For the last shot, we had to model a city entirely but we had not that much time to do it. As the houses would be seen from far away, we combined very simple modeling with projection mapping to quickly create a set that could be scattered along splines (extract from a London map).
3D Painting was absolutely essential to speed up the process of texturing. We mainly used Substance Painter to paint every props separately. Gradually, we built a library of smart materials that we could apply on every other asset. The big benefit of using Painter was the generator system as we could very quickly add moss, dirt, dust and all these aging layers. We could also use all the basic content of Painter like alphas, brushes, smart materials or smart mask to save time.
One really long process that we couldn't avoid was UV unwrapping as it is a requirement if you want to use Painter. This was pretty annoying when we wanted to increase the quality of a freebie downloaded on 3dsky. We had to polish the mesh and re-do the uvs almost every time.
The big benefit of using Painter was the generator system as we could very quickly add moss, dirt, dust and all these aging layers.
The biggest problem that we've been facing during production was the lack of PBR shader in Octane. Every texture had to be adjusted to suit in the render. It was a blind work of back and forth. We learned that three months after our jury, a new version of Octane was released with PBR compatibility. *Grrr*
Substance Designer was used as much as possible for procedural and tileables materials like walls, roofs, floors, wood panels, etc... For the toilet shot, the tiles were made in Designer with some customizable parameters that we could play with in Painter.
Like I said it before, the mood of the old theater was very important to us. During early stages, we ran into the E3 gameplay reveal video of Destiny and loved the idea of a drone emitting light in a dark environment. We wanted "Orb" to bring back to life the place, so we decided that it would affect the magnetic field and flick the lights close to it (you can see that effect in the hallway shot).
The use of GPU rendering sped up the lighting process as we could see in real time the preview. Almost every shot has a natural lighting coming from outside the theater combined with Orb's illumination.
In the first two shots, the lighting emphasizes the importance of the dropping device. The shadows imply that it was linked to a parachute. In the bar, the image is split in two. You can see the bright living left side facing the dark empty right side. It is a metaphor that we tried to pass through several shots. Past and present, bright and dark, life and death, light and shadows : these contrasts represent what we wanted to deliver in our short film.
VFX & Color Grading
Every shot was composed in After effect with all the pass needed. All the volumetric lights were calculated separately while heat effect was done directly inside After Effect. We used Video Copilot's plugin "Saber" to make the ending laser because it was easier and convincing. Our biggest issue was the look of depth of field with Z Depth passes (especially the foreground blur). To solve the problem, we rendered the foreground and background of every shot one at a time. It was then easy to blur the whole foreground.
After the compositing, we wanted to bring cohesion between all the shots, the color grading had to be consistent. We did some tests on Adobe Premiere and came up with theses settings. Lens Flares and a layer of Renoise were added to get closer to a filmic look.
To solve the problem, we rendered the foreground and background of every shot one at a time. It was then easy to blur the whole foreground.
Music & Sound design
We had the chance to work closely with a composer (Philippe Tasquin) that made us the original soundtrack of our short film. We sended him our guidelines and animatics and with a lot of back and forth, we got the music. They are two musics in the video: the main theme and the intradiegetic one that comes from the vinyl player. The goal was to accentuate again that nostalgic feeling during the bar shots, to get back in the past as if we could hear the people having a good time after a play. We played with reverb to give the viewer clues on the size of places. We wanted the main theme to be gliding and smooth to represent the calm of abandoned places until the very last shots where it had to escalate quickly.
The sound design was made in Sony Vegas with free libraries of sound within a week. The difficult part was to integrate it to the music, to merge it all.
The idea behind the opening titles was to step back from 3D and explain how "Orb" got in the theater. We tried to apply a retro look to the footages. Our main inspiration was Narcos with the use of real archive footage of Pablo Escobar. We liked the kind of military planning with colored line on black and white photograph like in “Rubicon” .
In this opening you can see: the video made by the scout drones, a confidential letter, a nuclear power station, the construction of Orbs, the device dropping and an engine room.
All of this was made inside Adobe After Effect with free footages and original stuff.
We decided to go further and create a logo, a sweater and a poster. After several iterations, we chose the logo that plays with circularity and reminded us the spherical robot. You can see too that the “O” refers to the nuclear sign. The poster was pretty straightforward because the second shot was our visual identity and we used it every time we had to show publicly our work. The sweater was kind of really optional but it mattered to us because we were proud of what we made.
We also did a breakdown of Project Orb that shows a lot of compositing and behind the scenes.
A great thanks to The Rookies for making this possible!