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'Inspired 3D Short Film Production': Case Study 1: 'Virgil and Maurice' — Part 1

In the first of a two-part series from the Inspired 3D Short Film Production book, Jeremy Cantor and Pepe Valencia ask student filmmaker Morgan Kelly to explain step-by-step how he made a short film at CalArts.

Our first case study focuses on a CG short with especially unique character designs and art direction. Well let the student director, Morgan Kelly, describe the production process of his individual cinematic vision

VITAL STATISTICSTitle: The Terrible Tragedy of Virgil and MauriceDirector: Morgan KellyTeam Size: OneTotal Running Time: 4 minutes, 4 secondsProduction Cycle: About eight months, full-timeDate of Completion: April 2003Software: Maya, Adobe Premiere, Adobe After Effects, Photoshop, QuickTime 5, Final DraftTotal Production Cost: Two years tuition at the California Institute of the Arts, minus scholarships, plus traditional art supplies and equipment for backups

The Beginning

As a student at the California Institute of the Arts, I studied character design, 2D and 3D character animation, story and film theory. The curriculum there stresses the fundamentals of these disciplines while simultaneously encouraging individual style and growth. The character animation program requires all students to complete a short animated film each year. The year-end goal at CalArts is for each student to personally develop and implement each aspect of production on the film, from story to design to animation to final editing. After two years of studying traditional animation, I began my first CG short film, The Terrible Tragedy of Virgil and Maurice, during the spring semester of my third year (see Figure 1). I then returned to it at the end of my fourth year and expanded on the story and animation to complete the four-minute short film in April of 2003.

[Figure 1] Morgan Kellys third-and fourth-year film project at CalArts. 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

Story and Design

The story for The Terrible Tragedy of Virgil and Maurice involves two characters who are physically conjoined but have entirely different personalities. Virgil is a dramatic, vaudevillian performer and Maurice is a vulgar, narcoleptic serpent, who is in place of Virgils right arm (although I ultimately switched it to the left). And then there is Houdini III, a small bird beloved by Virgil, who is tragically swallowed by the serpent. The entire short film was created, from early concepts and ideas to the final rendering, compositing and output, in eight months.

[Figures 2 & 3] Story is integral, but I love to draw and design (left)! An early idea for the main character(s).

When it comes to short film production, I believe that story is the most integral, but design is definitely the most fun. I love to draw and I love to design (see Figure 2). I wanted to bring the texture, design and style I could create in a 2D character environment into a 3D film. While preparing to design the short, I took into consideration the strengths and weaknesses of CG, my limitations as a beginning CG artist and the impending April 26 deadline. An example of my compromise with these issues began on the concept and design of the main characters. It was important to me to put all my energy into the design, modeling and animation of only one character. With the limited time, I felt that having to model and rig two separate characters would leave me with two characters only half as good as one. So I conceptualized hybrids of two characters with two personalities. In my sketchbook, I just played around with ideas of conjoined Siamese twins, conjoined twins with different features and proportions and identical twins. Another idea was a character with interchangeable heads. The thought was that he could juggle three or four heads and randomly replace one of those with his own each new head containing a new personality for him to react with (see Figure 3). But the simplest idea, designwise, was a character with split personalities who would argue with himself. The two characters would be given opposite emotional personalities, which would hopefully set up an interesting scenario where they could argue and disagree, but be unable to distance themselves physically from each other. That situation sounded like hell to me, but would be a lot of fun to animate.

[Figures 4 & 5] More early design sketches created while I was vacationing in Mexico (left); Final character design.

Character Design

My general working method has been to use designs to creatively explore and discover story concepts, as opposed to writing the script and then designing the characters to match the story. The initial design, which gave me the concept for the film, was sketched during a trip to Mexico. Locals would walk along the beach selling fish. I made a sketch of a character with lots of beaded garb and a fish for a hand (see Figure 4). I liked the idea of the guy talking to a creature that replaces his hand. But would the man control his arm or would the creature have control over it? There was definitely more entertainment value in putting the creature in control of the limb. Then I did some sketches where the creature occupied the entire limb but still retained the joints and manipulation of a human arm. The problem was that the creature looked like a puppet and not a separate character. This illustrates how the initial designs and asking these questions contributed to forming the story.

After a few drawings, the fish became a snake. I also decided to use the anatomical movement of the snake instead the human arm. Some of the initial designs had Maurice the size of an average snake, but I enjoy more asymmetry in design. I made Maurice larger so he would offset the balance of Virgil and become more of an obvious burden to him (see Figure 5). Since Virgils persona was the polar opposite of Maurices, his design had to also reflect that. I made Virgils face soft and appealing, with large eyes and a fragile physique. Since he only had one normal hand, I made it larger than usual for more communicative gesturing.

[Figure 6] The concept sketch that inspired my storyline.

Inspiration

To keep motivated and inspired while moving around, I had a small, plastic-sleeved folder full of paintings, drawings and illustrations of different artists and some of my films characters and storyboards. Id fill it with art that had mood and great color. The folder contained illustrations by such artists as Joe Sorren, Enki Bilal, Eric Pigors, Shaun Tan, Mark Ryden, Laurel Huggins and Mike Mignola and doodles by Jeremy Bernstein. My most obvious design influence is Tim Burtons The Nightmare Before Christmas. I referenced that film to see how the stop-motion modelers sculpted their shapes from 2D designs. I also enjoyed the subtle imperfections and textures in the topology of their characters. And after a tour of the Oddworld Inhabitants game studio, I was hooked on their character designs as well, including their application of illustrative textures on non-photoreal character models.

Pre-Production

My production pipeline was very rough and incongruous. It began simply with sketches and notes. I had a sketchbook with me everywhere I went to keep all my ideas intact. Any time an idea popped up that might work for the short, Id sketch or write it down for instance, pieces of conversation Id hear in public. I liked that those would come from random sources, which were honest and genuine. I would often make small vignettes with the characters to figure out who they were and write down lines of dialogue to discover how theyd act toward each other. I felt that before I could begin, the two characters had to seem real to me. Then I could drop them into any situation and let the story naturally evolve from how they would react to a problem. Figure 6 is an example from my sketchbook showing Virgil, depressed, sitting outside of the vaudevillian theater and talking to a small bird perched on his fingertip. Meanwhile, Maurice is slithering below, eyeing the bird hungrily. This concept was another jumping off point for me a boy with a snake for an arm. The boy loves his pet bird; the snake wants to eat the bird. That twisted situation still makes me laugh.

[Figure 7] Early sketches for Virgil and Maurice.

To help me solidify the characters personalities, I wrote character descriptions and back stories for them. Heres a piece that I wrote for the character development of Virgil and Maurice:

Virgil Pettycoat is a 23-year-old, pale, thin, lanky, blue-eyed, male human with a unique condition. Hes often quiet, which at times leads others to believe he is dimwitted. But he is of average intelligence, perceptive and sensitive to the situations of others. When he does speak, his voice ranges from dramatic to melancholy. Our timid Virgil also has a dark side to his person. It is literally attached to him; Maurice a large, vulgar, antithetical snake is in place of Virgils right arm (see Figure 7). Maurice loves a stiff Sapphire and tonic, small rodents, back massages and oil rubdowns.

He hates when people joke about him being Virgils right-hand man and when he is pet against the grain of his scales. Their symbiotic relationship is not without friction. Maurice feels limited by his physical connection to Virgil, and therefore despises him for it. As a result, he constantly criticizes Virgil, curses at him and belittles him in front of others. Virgil feels constantly on his toes around Maurice. The only time he can be alone is when Maurice passes out. Because Maurice the snake is a narcoleptic, he will suddenly drop limp along Virgils side in a deep sleep, accompanied by a horrendous snore. Its during these times that Virgil feels the most like himself. He is at ease and enjoys the silence mostly. Virgil is a dreamer while Maurice is a pessimistic realist. Maurice sees Virgils dreams as naïve, simple and worthless.

The Terrible Tragedy of Virgil and Maurice is included in the short film collection on the DVD that comes with 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). Read more about the Inspired series and check back to VFXWorld frequently to read new excerpts.

Authors Jeremy Cantor (left) and Pepe Valencia.

Jeremy Cantor, animation supervisor at Sony Pictures Imageworks, has been working far too many hours a week as a character/creature animator and supervisor in the feature film industry for the past decade or so at both Imageworks and Tippett Studio in Berkeley, California. His film credits include Harry Potter, Evolution, Hollow Man, My Favorite Martian and Starship Troopers. For more information, go to www.zayatz.com.

Pepe Valencia has been at Sony Pictures Imageworks since 1996. In addition to working as an animation supervisor on the feature film Peter Pan, his credits include Early Bloomer, Charlies Angels: Full Throttle, Stuart Little 2, Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone, Stuart Little, Hollow Man, Godzilla and Starship Troopers. For more information, go to his Webpage at www.pepe3d.com.

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