Exploring Stylisation and Storytelling: The Making of a Unique Animated Film

Exploring Stylisation and Storytelling: The Making of a Unique Animated Film

Embark on a storytelling adventure as School of Visual Arts students, Ollie Yao and Heather Yun, reveal their artistic vision in crafting a one-of-a-kind 3D animated short film.

Twin Sparks by Ollie Yao and Heather Yun

Take a look at how  created a unique look for an upcoming 3D stylized short film.

In this article we take a closer look at how a team of School of Visual Arts students created a one-of-a-kind 3D animated short film. Ollie Yao and Heather Yun from the School of Visual Arts, unveil their artistic vision driven by a desire to incorporate breathtaking colour combinations, masterful animation, and a distinctive look for their FX. Come along on a storytelling adventure!

The story is about a child who struggles with a new power. They must reconcile with this fiery new part of themselves that’s difficult to accept, before their world is left in flames.

The story was originally drawn from co-director Ollie’s experience as a transgender man, and having to learn radical self acceptance. Discovering a new part about yourself that you may not like and working to understand and accept it is always hard. What we hope you take away from the film is that even if things feel out of control, it is never too late to decide to love yourself.

Creating the look!

From the beginning, we always wanted a hand painted look to the film, preserving as much of the concept art as possible. This was achieved across many steps of the pipeline, starting with the modeling and ending with the compositing. Each part of the pipeline needed to take the stylisation into account in order for it to function as one unified piece.

We had many clear inspirations, namely Studio Ghibli’s Princess Mononoke and Tyrus Wong’s background paintings in Bambi. We wanted the forest to feel lush and green and full, filled to the brim with plant and animal life.

For rendering, we chose to render in Blender’s Eevee renderer. Previous tests had shown that non-photoreal looks were much easier to achieve in Eevee versus other render engines, plus the real-time speed was a huge bonus.

It was a difficult balance at first trying to texture the environment just right, so that the shapes would mesh with each other. Early attempts at the environment utilised many different silhouettes for the plants, resulting in quite a bit more chaos.

Early environment render

For lighting, the shaders needed to be calibrated so that they would all play well with each other. The shaders had to be flexible enough to function under multiple lighting scenarios, especially against the set. For certain sequences with a specific lighting setup, we created slightly different versions of the character shaders in order to get nicer results.

Shader variants for lighting keys

Creating the environment

Since the team was made up of only two people, procedural environment creation options seemed like the ideal solution for creating many forest environments in a short amount of time. Utilising the Labs tree builder in Houdini, and then improvising on top to fit the style of the film, we created tools that could generate many copies of trees and bushes in a short period of time.

For set dressing the smaller plants on the ground, we used Blender’s Geometry Node feature to instance plants onto points, and randomise their colour and scale to be able to easily fill out environments and make them feel lush.

Bringing the film to life

When putting together a whole film into motion, there are a lot of aspects that can make the animation double, or even triple in size in terms of workload. That’s why during the early stages of the film, we made sure to make multiple versions and cuts to ensure a story that’s not only visually appealing but also doable. By limiting the amount of lip sync shots and focusing on only two main characters, there were a total of 78 shots that needed to be animated.

Since there were a lot of shots to keep track of it was essential to organise everything into a spreadsheet. This workflow made it easier for the animation team to see how much progress was being made and for artists in other parts of the pipeline to know which file versions to work off of. Communication played an important role in making Twin Sparks, so the animation team made sure to have weekly one-one-one critiques to ensure a consistent animation style across the whole film.

Adding some fire

The film is very FX heavy, with the majority of the shots featuring the Fire Child. The Fire Child was created in a mixture of Houdini and Blender. Starting with the base animation, particle and wire simulations were added on top of the mesh to add secondary motion and interest. Colour attributes and UVs were added onto the mesh using VEX to control shading values in Blender.

Texture maps were projected onto the UV'd geometry, creating the painted look of the fire. With the help of some VEX, all the meshes were oriented to the camera as well, furthering the painterly illusion.

Bringing it all together

For compositing, the last step in the pipeline, it was difficult at first creating a setup that would serve the unique look of our film. In almost every shot, small matte painting details were introduced to break up the background and cover up small clipping mistakes. However, for the last sequence of the film, almost the entire background is painted, immersing the characters in a liminal, dreamlike space.

Matte paintings were done in Photoshop and then brought into NukeX. Cryptomattes allowed for easy layer separation, making it remarkably simple to color correct specific parts of the frame. While we aimed to have as much of the stylization in render as possible, compositing allowed us to really fine tune and tweak every frame until it was perfect.

Creating this film was a true labor of love, and allowed us plenty of opportunities for discovery, leadership, and experimentation. We hope you enjoyed reading a bit about our process, and thank you so much for your support.

For more behind-the-scenes, take a look at our breakdown video!

Ollie Yao is a texture and lighting artist currently attending the School of Visual Arts for Computer Art and Animation. One of his passions is using his illustration skills to inform and support his 3D art.

Reach out to Ollie Yao via The Rookies | Instagram | LinkedIn.

Heather Yun is a student at the School of Visual Arts, pursuing a BFA in Computer Art, 3D Animation & Visual Effects. Her specialty is 3D animation.

Reach out to Heather Yun via The Rookies | Website | LinkedIn