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Timing is Everything: The Straight-Faced Humor of ‘Ascension’

Five Supinfocom students teach us a lesson about animated gags using stylized photo-real characters who don’t speak or change expressions.

For the first time since it began a successful festival run in 2013, the animated short Ascension is now available to watch on Vimeo. Seven plus minutes of stylized photo-real CG deftly used to setup an excellent stream of gags, Ascension is first and foremost, a lesson in comedic timing, storytelling patience and how technical prowess is ultimately best demonstrated in support of a well-conceived idea, not as its substitute.

Ascension is inspired by an Alpine tradition where a statue, such as the Madonna of Grépon, is placed on a mountain top to bless the climbers. The film follows the humorous Alpine travails of two such mountain climbers as they ascend a snow-covered peak with a rather burdensome object in tow.

Made in 2013 by five now former Supinfocom Arles students, Thomas Bourdis, Martin de Coudenhove, Caroline Domergue, Colin Laubry and Florian Vecchione, the film took 14 sleep-deprived months to produce.

Working from Laubry’s initial graduation film pitch, the five filmmakers spent two months together writing the script prior to the beginning of their final year in school. The key to the film’s humor is a stylized photo-real look coupled with expert timing of running gags, two areas that posed the production’s main challenges. As Bourdis explained, they encountered numerous artistic and technical difficulties achieving the look they were after. “Even though everything needed to look believable and realistic, we wanted a stylized look as well in the design of the characters and in the colors used in the lighting and textures. We studied a lot of mountain pictures, trying to find the perfect color palette for every step of the characters’ journey. A part of why our characters don't have visible eyes is because CG eyes are very difficult to do in a realistic way, and creepy eyes would have ruined the realistic feeling of the picture.”

An even greater challenge, according to Bourdis, was writing a workable story. “It is very difficult to create a comic situation when your character doesn't talk, shows no weird or funny facial expressions, and makes no exaggerated or crazy movements. We had to be very accurate in timing our gags, on what action to show, what not to show, and how to show it. That's why, for example, the first encounter with the vulture was so difficult to write – for quite some time, we had the climber fighting with the bird. But it just didn’t quite work.”

An extensive pre-production period started in May 2012 and wasn’t completed until the following October. The production itself finished the end of February, 2013. Thanks to an eight month R&D phase that finished in December, the actual production only took two months. However, that was only possible because of the extensive preparation and coordinated teamwork of the filmmakers. As described by Bourdis, “The long research period helped us make sure our film was doable, that we knew before-hand how to deal with the technical difficulties we expected to encounter. And thanks to very clear role and task assignments, we were able to overlap much of the production and post-production. Every time a shot was validated in animation, it went right to lighting for rendering and then fed the comp, the editing and the sound design. So once the first shot was animated, we could all work at the same time on different stages of the production.”

The team used VRay on 3ds Max and ZBrush for modeling, lookdev, FX, lighting, and rendering, Maya for animation and cloth, Vue xStream for all the backgrounds, Nuke for compositing and Adobe Premiere for editing. For the sound design, they went to the Alps for two days during winter to record everything they needed.

All told, the five filmmakers put in 19,000 hours, many probably spent belly laughing, to create the film’s 11,000 finished frames. And after looking at the studio jobs most of the filmmakers have since landed, Ascension should serve as a shining example for all animation students that technical chops alone are not enough in today’s competitive studio reality – good writing, acting, visual development and editing skills, along with a keen sense of humor, timing and storytelling sensibility, they all help differentiate an artist from the crowded marketplace of young and eager professionals they’re competing with for a successful industry career.

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Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.

Dan Sarto's picture

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.

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