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‘Bearly’ Charms as SCAD Animation Studio’s Debut Film

The delightful 2D/3D animated musical short, about a curious bear cub’s attempt to resist hibernation, marks the start of the program’s ambitious plan to produce two new shorts each year.

The wild, wooded, and wintery world of a curious bear cub is paving the way for the Savannah College of Art and Design’s budding animation studio, showcasing vibrant 2D and 3D animation to illustrate a child-like wonder of the unknown. Bearly is SCAD Animation Studio’s first film, a charming short created entirely by students who, according to producer Cameron Brown, can relate more than most to story’s message.

“Students, especially those in their senior year, can relate to the eagerness of leaving the familiar to venture off into new territory,” says Brown (B.F.A. Animation), a SCAD student in the collaborative class SDGM 560 (School of Digital Media), which was re-named SCAD Animation Studio last year. “Many times, reaching your goals can be challenging, even scary. But just like Bearly, it is important to not let doubt, and fear of the unknown prevent you from pursuing your aspirations. It’s a message that I feel will resonate with so many students, especially ones who feel their goals may be too ambitious.”

Born out of the musical imaginings of SCAD student Colin Rhoades (B.F.A. Dramatic Writing), Bearly’s writer and composer, the three-minute animated short follows the journey of a purple-hued cub named Bearly (voiced by Terrence Williams Jr.) who develops a plan to stay awake through the winter after fantasizing about the season. Throughout the course of the film, Bearly’s weariness gets the better of him as he begins to imagine winter as a strange, shadowy beast. But, snapping back into reality, Bearly realizes that he has come too far to let his unease of the unfamiliar prevent him from experiencing winter.

Bearly debuted at this year’s SCAD AnimationFest, which was hosted online this past December.

“I have always loved innovative and ambitious concepts,” says Brown. “Some of my favorite animated features, like Snow White, Fantasia, and Toy Story had always pushed the animation medium forward, as well as made their respective studios household names. When I heard that SCAD Animation Studio’s first picture was going to be a musical, a feat rarely tackled within the animation short circuit, I was immediately intrigued as I knew this premise had the potential of leaving a lasting impact on our industry.”

Rhoades’ lyrics for what would become the film’s eponymous song, “Bear it All,” kickstarted the concept of Bearly, and ultimately served throughout the production as the foundation and backbone to the story’s message and design, breaking ground in animation not only as a musical short, but also in its marriage of 2D and CG animation.

Most of Bearly’s world has been given smooth and spherical 3D life from art directors Nataliia Gaida (M.F.A. Animation) and Nicholas Pina (M.F.A. Animation), lighting and compositing lead Taylor Saunders (B.F.A. Animation), along with her team of animators, using Foundry’s Katana with Arnold for lighting, and Nuke for compositing, to truly show the beauty of Bearly’s forest and the wonder of winter. But the little bear’s imagination springs forth more energetic and geometric sketch-style characters and settings, culminating in a highly saturated, dynamic, and colorful world that could live inside the mind of a child or, in this case, a bear cub.

“When Colin wrote the story, he had an idea of Bearly making a ‘stick machine’ with sticks on the ground to keep his eyes open when nature calls,” recalls director Cherry Zhou (M.F.A. Animation). “In the first pass of storyboarding, Christy Thacker, who later became the 2D animation lead, came up with the idea of a 3D Bearly actually falling asleep and seeing 2D imaginary creatures and interacting with them. Colin loved the new idea, so we made the decision to include 2D, and because the story is about a cute, young, singing little bear, we thought the look of children’s books would be a good fit for the film.”

Since pre-production software was based on the artists’ own choices, the team used a variety from Procreate and Clip Studio Paint to Adobe Photoshop and Toon Boom Storyboard Pro to make concept art and storyboards, with ZBrush, Substance Painter and Photoshop used for modeling and texturing. But in production and post-production, to keep the look of Bearly fluid, the software had to be consistent. Autodesk Maya was used for 3D rigging and animation with TVPaint and Toon Boom Harmony for the 2D sequences.

Bearly is what we are calling a hybrid type film,” explains Chris Gallagher, Chair of Animation at SCAD. “One of the biggest rewards of the film was also one of the most challenging shots. [The dream sequence] is a beautiful blend of 2D and 3D, but the shot was falling flat and not living up to the expectations of what was envisioned. I met with the leadership team for the film and gave my notes to rework this section and make it more dynamic. I could tell that the students were taken aback. I think they were thinking to themselves ‘But the animation is already done,’ and yes it was but I wanted it to be better. I wanted the short to go from good to great to phenomenal and our students succeeded with that.

He adds, “I feel that it is one of the best shots that I have ever seen in a student animated film.”

Bearly’s production team was also thoughtful about their choice for reference videos. Though Brown says there were “quite a few bear videos passed around the studio,” mainly to get Bearly’s body mechanics similar to those of his real-world counterparts, Bearly’s 3D animation lead, Peter Kerkvilet (B.F.A. Animation) wanted the short’s main character to have a more familiar energy to push his sweet, storybook and child-like appeal. So, the team took an unconventional approach for Bearly’s actions when it came to catching autumn leaves or chasing snowflakes.

“To give Bearly the energy we wanted, our animators took reference videos of dogs and puppies at play,” says Brown.

“Which came from our teams’ own videos of their pets,” inserts Zhou.

Brown continues, “This direction really cemented Bearly’s more relatable personality as well as gave him a sort of cuteness that we all fell in love with. Many of our crew members are still asking for Bearly plushies to this day!”

On top of the film’s headway in animation and musical ambition, Bearly’s uniqueness and special nature also stems from, as Gallagher says, “the ultimate level of collaboration,” with students from numerous degree programs from dramatic writing to sound design working together to create a beautiful and innovative project.

Bearly taught me that collaboration is the key for animation production, or any production,” says Zhou. “Even with the pandemic hitting and the fact we had to go online in the last quarter, the collaboration still went smoothly.”

“The collaboration over the course of nine months created an unbreakable bond between the entire team,” adds Brown. “We were always pushing each other to become the best we could be, leading to unforgettable moments and lots of late-night pizza. I feel the collaborative nature of animation is something every beginning filmmaker should experience...Bearly’s story is the story of SCAD Animation Studio, and I hope that the film will inspire other artists to achieve their own goals and, of course, ‘bear’ all the challenges ahead.”

SCAD Animation Studio has two more films in the pipeline, per their plans to produce two projects every year. One of the upcoming animations is titled Hex Limit, about an underground broom race set in a futuristic steampunk world. The other film is an untitled 2D animation comedy, which kicks off next month. 2021 film festival participation for Bearly has yet to be announced.

Victoria Davis's picture

Victoria Davis is a full-time, freelance journalist and part-time Otaku with an affinity for all things anime. She's reported on numerous stories from activist news to entertainment. Find more about her work at victoriadavisdepiction.com.

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