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Hi all -

Last night, for the first time in 3.5 weeks...I shut my computers down. The hum of the fans was not present at 1 AM when I went to sleep. Both of the computers (a dual proc desktop and a laptop) have been rendering constantly 24/ the few hours during the day to prepare more scenes. All to complete Pen vs Pencil.

It's a short film I've been working on for a while now. 19 months, actually...well, it was one of those spare time gigs and it probably took 6-8 months but spread out over 19. Sometimes I would have the time to work 16 hour days on it and sometimes I would go a while (up to 6 months) without touching it. I actually finished the animation back in July but between fixing up the new place and work, I couldn't even look at it until a month ago.

If you want to see it, click here. Otherwise read on and I'll tell you a little about it. It's a little long winded, so maybe you want to let it download in a new window while you read ;)

The Idea.

In July 2003, I was finishing up the Worm project and was thinking of something new to do. Then I went to Siggraph and was blown away by the Electronic and Animation Theater. It had the most inspiring collection of shorts I've ever seen...and was just what I needed. So I bought all the DVD's from the show and watched them when I got back. So when I asked myself what I thought made one short better than the other, I came up with 3 things. The first being quality (obviously), the second being funny (ironically, the REALLY good ones are serious) and the third being it's namesake: short. I found that no matter how good something looked, after 3 minutes, I started looking at my watch and wanted to move on. So, short and sweet was the least for this project.

So how about a commercial? At 30 - 60 sec, that would be I'm sitting there spinning my mechanical pencil and trying to think of an ordinary, everyday product...wait...a pencil! That's it. Somehow I thought of a story where the evil Sharpies have captured a No 2 pencil and decided to put it to death by sharpener. So then the mechanical pencil comes in and saves the day. Simple. Short. Sweet. So sweet in fact that I instantly thought of several ideas for this scenario so it can easily be a series. Originally, I thought it would be a great commercial for Sanford (makers of Sharpies and a host of writing implements), but nixed that idea very early because I realized that if I wanted to submit this to festivals, I couldn't use their name. Which brings us to the next point.

The Goal.

Simply put, this was going to be a festival piece. I wanted to take what I did in the Worm and take it to the next level. Technologically, this time around I wanted to use sound, lipsynch, textures and lighting. I wanted the characters to be bipedal, and have more distinct personalities. I wanted to submit this piece (and hopefully get in) to Siggraph.

Honestly though, festival aside, this was an excuse to learn and experiment. One of the reasons this took so long to make was because I purposely caused problems in many areas just so I can figure out workarounds. I tried anything and everything just to learn new ways of doing things.


After deciding which idea to focus on, I drew up a [rather crude] storyboard. At the time I had a rather general idea of camera angles and setups, so I drew them as best I thought out. Really the point at this stage was 2 fold - 1) write out the dialogue in reference to the action and 2) rough out the set ups so I can use them for the animatic (essentially a rough cut with storyboard panels.) Normally the former is written in script form before any panels are drawn, but it was all in my head, so I wanted to kill 2 birds with one stone. It was also at this stage where I designed the characters (as simple as they may be). So now we're up to 3 birds.


I scanned the panels in and recorded a scratch track for the audio. I knew since day one that I'd be doing the voices, so I just winged it at first just to have something to work with. Adding audio opened up a whole can of worms because I knew that without a good recording, I'm done...and my little laptop, as good as it is, wasn't going to cut it for high quality audio recording. In the end, I borrowed a portable DAT player and mic and recorded in my very own sound booth (closet).

The panels were but together in After Effects and held to get an idea of the pacing. This was good enough for me to use during layout. But I can't layout anything if there's nothing there.

Modeling and Rigging.

I spent a lot of time here. The characters were simply designed...pens with eyes and paperclip arms, hands and feet. So you would think the modeling was relatively easy...and it was for the most part. But there were a lot of them. The story asked for 11 characters (9 models). I modeled all the characters using NURBS because I thought it would be easier to model the detail. Plus I like using lofts. The cardboard castle was sometimes harder to model than the characters. Between the folds and the corrugation, I think I did an OK job. The castle is a mix of NURBS and polygons.

I really wanted a lot of control when it came to animating the characters...that means trying to anticipate what the character will do and put a control in for it. This is known as rigging. An animated character is only as good as the rig it was built on. It wont move that way if you don't let it. I tell you, I have a lot of respect for the riggers at Pixar. If you think they have good animators, the have amazing riggers. Each of my characters has over 120 controls...4 times the amount of any of the Worm characters. There were as many controls in one hand of the P vs P characters than the entire Worm. So for me, this was a significant increase. For the record, this is nothing compared to Pixars stuff. I believe there was something in the order of 150 controls for Woody's face alone.

To further help the cause, I designed the rig as reusable. So I applied the same rig to all the characters and adjusted accordingly. My effort paid off when I cranked through the animation stage because of a well designed rig.


Now that I had the virtual world and characters made, I could film it. The layout stage is taking the camera and blocking all the shots according to the storyboards. Now, since my boards weren't the most accurate (they really didn't need to be...I'm only communicating to myself) the shots REALLY changed here. I came up with new ideas based on what the camera showed. So now I had a new animatic made from the 3D geometry of in Maya. Just the characters in neutral position (arms out). Besides the look, now I had all the Maya scenes made with all the objects and characters needed in each scene. This made breaking up the animation work easier.


The fun stage. At this point it was the end of January last year and the Siggraph '04 deadline was March 5th and I wanted to try and make it (looking back, I don't know what I was thinking). The first thing I did was to just do the key poses for each scene. That way I can see how each scene worked before I spent the mad hours tweeking the keys and inbetweens. Not to mention it helped break the work down a little and soften the overwhelming amount of work I had ahead of me.

Remember I said there were 11 characters? I wanted each one to be completely different, otherwise, what's the point? The way I came up with each characters personalities was a simple 3 adjective description - X and Y with a hint of Z. Then a known character to think of. For example, the Mechanical Pencil is confident and brave with a hint of vanity...think of Robin Hood. It wasn't until I came up with the "with a hint of" part when the characters really came out.

Slowly but steadily, I was bringing it to life. In fact, it was coming out so well, by mid February I realized that I didn't want to rush things just to make the deadline so I decided to do finish the animation and not worry about time (an advantage of working on a personal project...I can make these decisions). So while I did finish by the end of the month, if I did want to make the deadline, it left me with no time for the remaining 2 stages. Good thing I decided not to...I didn't exactly finish. I was merely at a point where I can request a little feedback from some friends...and run in a much lower gear. Things were getting busy in the paying work front, plus I a wedding to plan.

The feedback required me to make a few minor...and a few major changes. I almost completely re-edited it, breaking up longer camera move scenes into smaller lock off shots. Some new animation was created at this point, but the majority of the fixes just required a repositioning of the camera. That's what's wonderful about 3D animation...I can move the camera after the animation is done. By the time I "officially" finished the animation was the end of July...just before I went to Siggraph.

Shading and Lighting.

OK. It's February and the Siggraph '05 deadline is the goal now: March 11th. It's this year or none. After putting together the web site, I'm ready to go. Technically, 95% of the textures and shading was done way back in the modeling stage, but it's that last bit that makes a difference. It's the checkbox that says, "raytrace reflections" that makes the arms look like shiny paper clips. Oh, but I wish it was that simple. Being that this is a learning and experimenting project, I tried all sorts of stuff...even how I should render. Maya basically has 2 ways to render this: software (of which I'm familiar) and Mental Ray (of which I never used). Let's just say that I would have loved to use Mental Ray (what I learned was to use it next time perhaps), but there were so many little things that needed to be set...I really had a deadline now and didn't have time (or the interest) to re-shade everything. So Maya Software it was...with raytraced shadows. But I need lights.

The lighting is just 3 point lighting. Hey, the system works. But I did read tip in a book a few weeks before about the color temperature of lights that I never thought of. I gave the key light (representing the sun) a slightly warm tone to it and had it cast cool shadows. The fill light had a slightly cool tone to it. What a difference. It really set the mood I wanted. The shadows...*sigh*...there are 3 types a shadows: depth mapped (soft, generally fast to render), raytraced (hard, slower to render), and soft raytraced (hard to soft, what real shadows look like...but VERY slow to render). I had to use raytraced. Because of the size of some of the objects and their proximity to each other, depth mapped shadows gave me errors. But I hate the look of sharp raytraced looks really CG to me. Soft raytraced it is...and it literally renders 10x slower. But there's that deadline. There's also chance. Siggraph allows the submission to be at least 80% done, so I decided to render sharp raytraced for the submission and if accepted, I can resubmit the finished product.

Render, Sound and Composite.

Once I decided how I wanted everything, I just hit go and hope for the best. To save time, I rendered as layers and composited it together in AE. The castle renders much slower than the characters, an most of the shots are lock off, so only one is needed. But there are complications with Maya. Apparently, when rendering 2D motion blur, it eats away and alias' all the images edges. When rendering 3D motion blur, it doesn't calculate the reflections properly. I tried every setting I could find...nothing. Perhaps Mental Ray wouldn't give me this problem. So what I did...and I would never do this in a time sensitive render both motion blurs and comp them. 3D blur for the edges and 2D blur for the center. The renders took anywhere from seconds (mouth levels) to up to 2 hours per frame (3D motion blur + Soft raytaced shadows = evil combination). The majority was between 10 and 20 minutes per frame (keep in mind that's one LEVEL, or render pass, not the entire comped frame).

What about sound? Back in August I met up with a neighbor of mine, David Musial (who has a sound studio in his place), about recording some foley effects. He agreed and after seeing a replay, ended up liking my film so much he wanted to put together a score and do a great job. How could I refuse. We finally got together last month and put it together. Since day one, I had an idea of what I wanted for the opening and credits, in fact it was in an early version of the scratch track. But I couldn't use Metallica for any festival, so I needed to write something. So I dusted off the old guitar and came up with a few cord progressions and David and I (mostly David, really), scored the main piece. We used the foley we recorded back in August, added some new stuff, layered it all together and we were done.

The character design required a minimal comp. Because they were all sticks, the mouths wouldn't have any depth. So I created another level of mesh for the mouths and rendered it separately with a green exterior...keyed off the green and comped it in. Since everything was in layers, it was easier to do little tweeks of color and blur. Adding focal depth or adjustments in the gamma to help separate the characters from the background was instrumental. Even a little glow to make it look dreamy. By the way, the sky could have easily been just a gradient, but it's not. It's a photograph I took several weeks ago of a crystal clear day while skiing at the top of Killington mountain.

So that's it. I made the March 11th deadline. On Wednesday last week I sent the DVD, and I sat for a few moments before getting back to work while the computer was still rendering. It did not have that luxury. It got it's chance this past Wednesday. Now, I have only to wait to see if I got in. No matter how you look at it, the goal was accomplished, and it came out better then I could have imagined. Hope you like it.


- Luciano

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