After finishing Da New Guys: For The Winnings, I spent quite a bit of time going back and re-learning the basics, and building up my skills as an all-rounder Blenderhead. Since January this year, I’ve been working in my free time on a short comedy about an alien invasion that doesn’t quite go to plan:
Hope you enjoy it! It got shown at the end of the Suzanne Festival at BConf this year, and it was a real thrill for me to see it on the big screen. I’ve also written down a few production notes. It’s not exactly in-depth, but I hope it’s interesting to some:
Concept / Storyboarding
After seeing the Pixar short Lifted, I really wanted to make my own short comedy about aliens. Since Lifted covered abuduction, I made mine about invasion. The film’s opening gag - where the space-ship is crushed - was in my head from the beginning, and the rest of the film was just an excuse just to tell that one joke!
The story evolved constantly during production. As with Da New Guys, I worked with only a basic plot in my head: storyboarding and fine details got wortked out as I tackled each scene. This wasn’t the most professional or efficient way of making a film, but it kept the process creative and stopped work from becoming a slog. Storyboards were crude and very rough - often it was easier to try out ideas by making tiny animatics of 10-second sections to work out the best camera angle or timing.
Early on, the kid played a much smaller role - he was only going to appear amongst a whole series of dangers that the alien faced. I soon found that the movie didn’t have enough of a focus, and making the kid more prominent really helped with the flow.
I wanted the alien (nicknamed “Bob”) to have a classic “green martian” look, only with human-like white eyes so that he could convey expression easily to the audience. Because he never speaks, so all of his communication had to be done through his eyes. I studied Bassam Kurdali’s Mancandy rig a lot because that also featured stretchy, cartoon-like limbs. Facial deformations were performed using lattices, and I found that a separate lattice to squash and stretch his entire head was absolutely essential for some of the film’s more subtle animations.
Both Bob and “The Kid” were modelled using META balls, because both characters have silhouettes made up of primitive shapes. Although I’d drawn standard front and side-view images to work with, I found that META balls made it extremely quick and easy to flesh out the basic shape. I then converted the META balls to a single mesh, used the Poly Reducer script, and made final tweaks to the topology by hand. The faces in particular needed a lot of work at this stage. Looking back, the final topology of the characetrs is far from perfect, but the I’m happy with how quickly I was able to flesh out their overall shape without the need for sculpting or extruding.
While Bob was deformed using an armature and lattices, I used the Mesh Deform tool on the Kid because of his round shape. Taking a leaf from BBB’s chinchilla character, his torso was controlled by a single bone, the scale of which determined the curvature of his back.
The film’s set was adapted from a piece I’d been working on to improve my environment skills. After playing too much GTA 4 and living in London’s East End, I’d been trying my hand at creating an urban scene, but it was little more than a block of flats, a street, and a motorway. For research, I headed over to Cromwell road, and if you know the area, you can see the influence: the large building in the on the corner is Cromwell Hospital:
I had some problems with the sun/sky/atmosphere settings as I was still learning, and I’d set the Distance factor too low, causing distant objects to be cast under a much hasher light than they should have been. Unfortunately, render times and compositing issues (see below) meant I didn’t get round to correcting this.
Richard Williams’ book The Animator’s Survival Kit was an abosolute lifesaver. Very detailed and inspiring, it gave a lot of advice about the subtlety of motion between keyframes. I’m quite happy with how the animation turned out - I think it’s a lot better than my last effort - although none of it was particulary complex. A lot of the animation was was recorded working mainly from one view, and so the characters rarely move “out of plane” (see in particular Bob’s bounce along the pavement towards the end of the movie). As far as using Blender was concerned, the most complicated animation was Bob’s run as the kid chases him down the street. About half a dozen separate animations were were running simaultaneously in the NLA editor - his feet, arms, torso and head were all looped on separate strips so that I could insert one-off animations like him turning around or ducking on top of his run-cycle without the whole body being affected.
This was the killer. Because of my PC’s low spec, I wasn’t able to have the tiny alien and large cityscape running together. I ended up making the alien 5 times bigger than he appears to be, composited him in separately. The really tricky part was making the cameras in both the set and character plates match each other, despite the scaling factor. I managed this by parenting the camera in the character files to an empty at the origin, and then scaled this empty up to 5. Then, when I had finished animating the characters, I linked that file’s camera’s IPO curves into my set’s camera (which had no empty parenting) and, because of the scaling difference between the characters and the set, the camera movement matched. The set was then rendered separately - either as an animation, or as a single plate for still-camera shots - and composited behind the characters to create the final shot. To add in character shadows on top of the pre-rendered plate, I used a separate renderlayer that included a portion of the set geometry with a special material with OnlyShad turned on, and mixed this in with the characters and plates. Hope I explained that right!
Big thanks to Chris Moorson for another great soundtrack. I’ve started work on a third film, and I hope to be a lot less quiet about it’s production this time. With a bit of luck I’ll have something to show in the Works In Progess forum soon.