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'Inspired 3D Short Film Production': Art Direction — Part 4

In the last of a four part series from the Inspired 3D Short Film Production book, Jeremy Cantor and Pepe Valencia finish up art direction with a look at progression and character and background connections.

All images from Inspired 3D Short Film Production by Jeremy Cantor and Pepe Valencia, series edited by Kyle Clark and Michael Ford. Reprinted with permission.

All images from Inspired 3D Short Film Production by Jeremy Cantor and Pepe Valencia, series edited by Kyle Clark and Michael Ford. Reprinted with permission.

This is the last of four installments on art direction. Read Art Direction Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

Art Direction Progression

If the mood, climate, and intensity level of your story progresses and evolves over time either gradually or abruptly, it is usually appropriate for the details of your visual elements to change as well.

You can modify art direction from scene to scene to help indicate a change in locale, mood, climate, activity, or perhaps danger level. Your violent fight scene might have crazy camera angles, diagonal and jagged design elements, flying sparks, angular lightning bolts, and bold colors with lots of contrast. The subsequent aftermath might have more traditional camera angles, horizontal design components and arrangements, wispy smoke trails with gentle curves, and more subtle grays or pastel colors.

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[Figure 40] Your plot progression may require modifications to the look of subsequent scenes to match the current mood or locale of your story. However, it is generally good practice to only change details such as color and lighting, while keeping overall style and design consistent.

Keeping design elements consistent but adjusting color and lighting can help indicate a change in season, locale, time of day, or mood. When night falls in Supinfocoms Kami, everything becomes different shades of blue. At the end of Mathias Schrecks Insight, the scenario dramatically changes from dark shades of gray and brown to bright blues and greens, which not only reveals a new setting, but also creates an entirely different mood. Thelvin Cabezas Poor Bogo changes mood, locale, and temperature to match the progress of the story narration by way of rather extreme but appealing modifications in color and lighting (see Figure 40). Despite the significant visual modifications, all of these film examples maintain world consistency because only colors and lights change, while overall style and design remain the same.

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Of course, design schemes can change significantly between homes, nations, eras, and dorm rooms. However, if you hope to indicate that your story has moved to a new location or time but stayed within the same world, it is usually a good idea to keep some visual elements unchanged, such as color palettes, overall level of realism, or rendering styles.

Character and Background Connections

Another effective method of determining an appropriate visual style for your short is by thinking about your characters and then deciding where they might live, work, or play. For example:

[Figure 42] Make sure your characters do not get lost in their backgrounds if you use the exact same color palettes and texture complexity (unless camouflage is your intention).

[Figure 42] Make sure your characters do not get lost in their backgrounds if you use the exact same color palettes and texture complexity (unless camouflage is your intention).

  • A monster with webbed feet might live in a cold, dark swamp with lots of dead trees.

  • A small and paranoid businessman might work in a crowded office area where the ceiling is very low and the gray cubicle walls have skewed angles and sharp edges.

  • Flying creatures probably live in a world where doorways do not need to be on ground level.

  • A cute little bunny might live in a pastoral green meadow where the sun always shines.

  • Alternatively, he could be a stuffed animal who belongs to a little girl who never cleans her room, or he might be caged in a clean yet ominous cosmetics laboratory where everything is white and uncomfortably sterile.

Also consider how closely you want the design and color schemes of your characters to match your backgrounds and props (see Figure 41). In most cases your characters should look like they belong in their environments; however, be wary of making their palettes and textures too similar. Unless camouflage or intentional visual obscurity is your plan, it is important that your characters do not get lost in your backgrounds (see Figure 42). Of course, when they are in motion, they will often reveal themselves quite effectively.

[Figure 43] There are a number of ways of making your characters stand out from their environments, including focus, color, and outline variation.

[Figure 43] There are a number of ways of making your characters stand out from their environments, including focus, color, and outline variation.

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[Figure 44] Mixing realistic styles between characters and backgrounds is usually only a good idea if those elements are from different worlds.

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[Figure 45] Mixing styles and techniques between characters will result in something of a collage effect, which can be appealing with the right visual style and story tone.

For the sake of making your characters stand out from their backgrounds, consider giving them alternative palettes, more extreme color and value contrasts, sharper focus, or different textures. You might even try making the art direction of your characters significantly different than that of your environments. Such disparity between character and background art direction can succeed as a visually cohesive whole as long as some details remain consistent. For instance, the colorful characters and main props in Keith Langos Lunch are especially easy to differentiate from his otherwise black-and-white story world, and the combination works well because the basic design scheme is consistent throughout the short. Other ways of making your characters stand out from their backgrounds include focus and contrast disparity, mild or extreme color variation, dimensionality contrasts, and restricting the use of toonshaded outlines to characters and foreground elements (see Figure 43).

A particularly eclectic mix between the styles of characters and background elements without some consistency in at least one specific art direction detail can often look distracting rather than imaginative. An exception would be when these disparate elements are supposed to be from different worlds, as in Who Framed Roger Rabbit or the animated short Grinning Evil Death, which features two-dimensional, cartoony protagonists battling a giant, shiny, metallic CG space insect (see Figure 44). If one character is in color and another is black and white, try to keep their overall designs consistent. If a 2D character is supposed to occupy the same world as a 3D character, make sure some consistency remains in their color palettes or design motifs (see Figure 45).

Also consider the story significance of your background elements versus that of your characters. In a typical film, the characters are the driving force of the story so it is usually not a good idea for the environments and props to be so complex and stylish that they steal the audiences attention. In some films, however, this is precisely what the director wants to happen, so it is indeed acceptable to make the visual style of the backgrounds more compelling than that of the characters. In Tomek Baginskis Cathedral, for instance, the backgrounds literally overpower the protagonist so it is especially appropriate, if not crucial, for the environments to be significantly more visually stimulating than the main character (refer back to Figure 36).

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Typically, variations on the details of an otherwise consistent visual theme is the preferred method of separating characters from environments. Balance is the key. You want to make your characters look like they belong in their settings, but some of their art direction details should be at least slightly different so they read effectively.

Originality

If you have an especially original story, punch line, or character, it is perfectly acceptable for the visual style of your film to be rather ordinary or typical. Remember, it is not necessary for every element of your film to push the limits of cinematic creativity. However, if your story and characters are familiar or generic, it is absolutely critical for your art direction to be interesting and unique otherwise, there will be nothing original about your film and therefore there will be no reason for anyone to watch or remember it.

If your storyline calls for a highly realistic look, you will have less artistic license when it comes to creating a new visual style. Select unique architecture and design styles and textures and then arrange or rearrange them in new and interesting ways. Or utilize weather effects and creative lighting to add interest and mood to an otherwise typical setting.

When it comes to creating a unique science fiction, fantasy, or cartoony world, the trick is to create a place that does not exist and then make it believable. This is achieved by effectively balancing familiarity with imagination (see Figure 46). Start with a familiar setting and then stylize, exaggerate, juxtapose, modernize, or antiquate overall design schemes, color palettes, or individual elements just enough so that a unique visual experience results, but not so far that your imagery loses all connection with reality and you end up with inaccessible abstraction. Make the grass blue, the sky green, and each of the three suns a different shade of red. Use angled clouds and rounded buildings. Create architecture that defies all laws of physics and gravity, with doors in odd places and stairways that lead nowhere. Place a gloomy and ominous medieval castle in the middle of a typical suburban neighborhood.

[Figure 47] Perhaps honor your favorite sculptors or painters by simulating their styles and imagery in the art direction of your short.

[Figure 47] Perhaps honor your favorite sculptors or painters by simulating their styles and imagery in the art direction of your short.

Of course, if you are creating a completely abstract fine art piece that will not require any story or character relatability, feel free to bend and stretch reality to your hearts content. One idea for visual style originality would be to try to think of a traditional art medium or technique that has not yet been simulated in a CG animated short, such as mosaic sculpture. Similarly, you might try to simulate the style of a particularly unique sculptor or painter, such as Auguste Rodin, Henry Moore, Alexander Calder, or Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Marcelo Ricardo Ortiz combined Picassos abstraction, Dalis surrealism, and Eschers geometric illusions into an interesting visual style combination for his student film, Guernica (see Figure 47).

[Figure 48] A complex setting like this one will be difficult and time consuming to build, texture, light, and render. Make sure the scope of your preliminary creative vision fits within the limits of your available time, budget, and skills.

[Figure 48] A complex setting like this one will be difficult and time consuming to build, texture, light, and render. Make sure the scope of your preliminary creative vision fits within the limits of your available time, budget, and skills.

Look around the real world for an odd and interesting architectural style (Gaudi, perhaps) or a rarely-seen example of Mother Natures wondrous design sense, such as the inside of a beehive.

You could also combine a couple of radically different design themes between two opposing characters. One could be made of blown glass while the other is made of tiled bricks. Their relationship would likely be rather precarious.

You might choose an alternative setting and color scheme from what is generally considered appropriate for the genre and style of your story perhaps a sweet love story set in a creepy, medieval torture chamber.

Think Ahead

Think about how your art direction plans will ultimately affect your production pipeline.

  • Have you designed an extremely rich and complex background scenario that will be difficult and time consuming to build and texture (see Figure 48)?

  • Can you use matte paintings instead of models for background imagery and objects that will be seen only from a distance?

  • Consider that realistic models and texture maps take a lot of time to create. You can purchase realistic CG models, but they can be prohibitively expensive. You might also think about using scanned and manipulated photographs for your textures, but doing so will require additional hardware and will often require a bit of work to make your scans map and tile properly.

  • If you hope to simulate a traditional art medium, such as watercolor paintings, experiment a bit with rendering and post-production 2D image filters to see which method will most effectively and economically generate your desired look.

  • If you want to create toon-rendered imagery, make sure your software package has this capability and that it works as promised. Often such renders will not be exactly what you expect, and you will have to spend some time adding, erasing, or cleaning up edge lines.

  • If you plan to intensify the mood of your piece with rain, snow, or fog, consider that procedurally generating such weather effects with a CG program is often quite time consuming and CPU intensive. Consider the idea of adding these elements as 2D post-rendering layers at the compositing stage instead.

Dont force the art director in you to compromise your creative vision because certain imagery might be difficult or time consuming to produce, but do consider how your cinematic, visual ideas will impact your production schedule and budget.

Summary

Effective art direction will create a unique visual experience, indicate setting specifics, and generate a particular tone and mood for your story. Use subtlety to encourage your audience to feel a certain way, rather than trying to tell them how to feel with obvious and clichéd visual cues. Decide on the mood you want to inspire and then reference existing books, films, and real-world locales that conjure up the same types of feelings you want your audience to experience. Strive to be original with your art direction, especially if your plot and characters are familiar or generic. In Chapter 5, we will discuss storyboarding, where you will begin working out the cinematic flow of your story or non-narrative fine arts idea.

To get a copy of the book, check out Inspired 3D Short Film Production by Jeremy Cantor and Pepe Valencia; series edited by Kyle Clark and Michael Ford: Premier Press, 2004. 470 pages with illustrations. ISBN 1-59200-117-3 ($59.99).

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