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Powered by Unity: How a Global Team of Artists Brought ‘Sonder’ To Life

Making its online debut as a Vimeo Staff Pick, Oscar-qualified short film ‘Sonder’ uses the power of real-time graphics inside the Unity game engine to achieve a distinctive 2D ‘toon-shaded visual style.

Written and directed by Neth Nom and produced by Sara K. Sampson, ‘Sonder’ harnesses the power of the Unity game engine to render cinema-quality graphics in real time. © 2018 Soba Productions.

Making its online debut today as a Vimeo Staff Pick, Sonder is a groundbreaking animated short film about a young man’s struggle to overcome a broken heart. Written and directed by Neth Nom and produced by Sara K. Sampson under the Soba Productions banner, the short has won several awards, screening at major festivals including Bucheon, Edinburgh, SPARK and SIGGRAPH Asia, among others, and recently qualified for Oscar consideration with a seven-day theatrical run in Los Angeles this past September.

The film follows Finn, who, in the wake of a broken heart, struggles alone in the woods to keep a small flower alive and undertakes a perilous journey to bring the fading bloom to safety. For years, Finn and Natalie walked the same path. But when their time together comes to an end, Finn is at risk of losing himself, finding himself paralyzed by the fear of moving on. Sonder charts Finn’s process of self-discovery as he gathers the strength to forge a new path.

“The movie really revolves around depression, which has such a stigma in our culture,” Nom says of the film’s message. “We wanted to tell a story that was impactful and would also help people, give them inspiration and courage. To tell them that, if you are going through a difficult time in your life, you can overcome those hardships. We hope that after watching the movie you’ll be inspired.”

Sonder was brought to life by a diverse team of animators and other contributors from top studios like Pixar, Disney and DreamWorks. Created with the Unity game engine, the nearly 15-minute short film has a distinct visual style with a simplified, 2D ‘toon-shaded look achieved using 3D animation techniques.

Production began in May 2015, and from the start the filmmakers knew they wanted to employ the Unity game engine for real-time rendering. Nom, who had worked in feature animation for more than a decade before diving into virtual reality with companies like Chromosphere and Oculus, felt more than ready for the challenges of building the pipeline for Sonder around a new technology. “We asked ourselves, ‘If we’re going to take the time, the effort, to work with new people and new tools, why go the traditional route? Let’s do something really different that nobody has done before,’” he explains.

“The reason we chose Unity is that, the way our team is set up, we’re spread across the world, we’re working nine different jobs in nine different time zones, and we have a limited amount of budget,” Nom continues. “Everyone’s working in their bedrooms and their living rooms; we don’t even have a studio. Unity allows us to work remotely and really be cost-effective. We don’t need a render farm. That’s the whole point of real-time.”

While increasingly more filmmakers are harnessing the power of real-time graphics to achieve cinematic quality animation, it took time to develop Sonder’s distinctive look. “It was definitely a long process,” Sampson acknowledges. “It was a lot of trial and error. That’s part of the reason why we decided to release a teaser in 2016. We had to prove to ourselves that we could actually achieve a stylized look with a game engine.”

Sampson credits shading and lighting tools lead Jean Moreno, CG supervisor & lighting DP Farhez Rayani, and technical supervisor Andrea Goh as key to developing the pipeline for Sonder and achieving the stylized look the filmmakers sought for the film. “Jean in particular had developed custom shaders available through Unity asset store, which is actually how we found him,” she recounts. “He was already experimenting with this 2D stylized look and we knew that we had to get him on the team. So we made a pitch and he ended up joining us for the long haul.”

Designing the backgrounds -- comprising 11 separate environments -- was achieved with the help of art supervisors Sunny Tien, Jaslynn Tham and Marius Millar. “They worked closely with the Unity department as well,” Nom says of the process. “There was a lot of back-and-forth because when we started designing the trees or the forest, it might look good in [Autodesk] Maya or might look good on paper, but once we got it into Unity it was, it always felt like something was missing.”

“It was a big hurdle, and we had to figure out this issue fast,” Sampson recalls. “For anyone that does a project like this, especially with a hybrid pipeline, I highly recommend that you get your assets into Unity as soon as possible, because only then can you see what the final look is going to be,” she continues. “We tried to refrain from giving too many notes for assets that were just in Maya and really focus on the assets once we saw them lit in Unity.”

To match the stylized backgrounds and environments created for the film, Nom collaborated closely with character designer Harim Oh and lead character modeler Tanja Krampfert to develop the character designs. “We had to make sure not to go super-realistic with the characters so they could conform to the environments,” Sampson notes. “You think giving them a stylized look would be simple, but it’s actually way more complicated than trying to go for a hyper-realistic look.”

“At first, when we were designing the characters, our artists were designing Finn and Natalie like models,” Nom interjects. “Like, Natalie would have a princess body, or Finn would have this muscular tone, but we said ‘no, no, no, they have to be a wholesome, next-door neighbor type,’ because if these people are going to be sad and depressed, you want to make it feel like they’re relatable,” he says.

For Nom, one of the most exciting parts of bringing Sonder to life was solving the technical challenges that real-time graphics present. “Real-time is the future,” he says. “Nobody else was doing it. Everyone else was using real-time for VR or for mobile, not for film. And we were like, ‘Let’s take advantage of this.’ When we started, in 2015, there wasn’t a lot of information or documentation out there so we had to be really nimble and experimental,” Nom notes. “Fast forward to now, we’re seeing a lot more studios and companies trying real-time. It’s great that our film is at the forefront.”

Jennifer Wolfe's picture

Formerly Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network, Jennifer Wolfe has worked in the Media & Entertainment industry as a writer and PR professional since 2003.

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