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Zhanna Bekmambetova Spreads Her Creative Wings With ‘Tweet-Tweet’

First animated film project for both director and Russian VFX house CGF Studio centers around a young girl and her fearless companion…a sparrow.

For director Zhanna Bekmambetova, daughter of noted Russian movie director Timur Bekmambetov, the world premiere of her CG-animated short, Tweet-Tweet, this past March at the Tokyo Anima Award Festival, represented two different “firsts:” the film is not only her debut directorial effort, but it’s CGF Studio’s first animated film project as well.

Founded in 2004, CGF Studios bills itself as the largest post-production and visual effects studio in Russia, with expertise in all areas of the VFX production pipeline, as well as previs, AR/VR and tech tool R&D. Tweet-Tweet marks their move into fully animated filmmaking, an 11:10 CG short the director first brought to their attention more than two years ago.

Bekmambetova’s project began with a simple vision. “The idea was born from one image,” she explains. “I remember how I first drew the final shot: grandma Lyuba stands on the edge of a rope. There was something very fragile about it, but at the same time very powerful and real. That’s when I had the idea that our whole life is like walking a tightrope. I felt that a story might be born from this, so I started writing. In the process of developing the plot I realized that when something happens to Lyuba, I need to show a reaction through someone else’s ‘eyes.’ This is how the other character was born: Sparrow. We see the whole story through his eyes.”

In the film, the cheerful Sparrow accompanies Lyuba throughout her whole life: he plays with her when she is small and protects her when she is grown up. However, for the director, Sparrow is not necessarily a symbol of everything that brings happiness and good to this life, that always watches out for us like a guardian angel.  “Everyone sees something different in the film,” she comments. “I am happy that there are many interpretations.”

With a team of 100 artists, CGF worked on the film from October 2016 through December 2017. Bekmambetova first brought the project to the studio after quickly realizing she had no chance to produce the film on her own. “At first I tried to create this story by myself,” she says. “I found freelancers, we tried different things, did some stuff, but time was passing, and the project was barely progressing. To be honest, I realized that I would need help, and then we decided to come to CGF.”

The studio, which won Golden Eagle awards for best visual effects for their work on both Flight Crew and The Age of Pioneers, has a reputation as the leader of Russia’s feature film VFX industry.  They’d worked with the director’s father (also one of Tweet-Tweet’s producers) on a number of his films, including Ben-Hur (2016), Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012) and Wanted (2008)   One of CGF’s most recent projects, the sports action-drama Move Up (Dvizhenie Vverh), about the Russian Olympic basketball team’s controversial 1972 victory over the U.S., grossed over $53 million worldwide, making it the highest grossing domestic Russian film production of all time.

Why take on an animated short? For Alexander Gorokhov, CGF’s chief producer and Tweet-Tweet’s VFX producer, the answer has to do with taking on a new creative challenge. “Animation is a completely different and absolutely extraordinary life, with its own possibilities and unbounded space for imagination,” he notes. “It always attracted me. I have really wanted to work in this field for a while now, so when we were asked to help Zhanna’s project, I gladly agreed. We are very confident in producing VFX for movies. But with animation – a new visual style -- how do we work with this? We decided to apply our many years of knowledge and experience gained working in film to the animation process: live camera, photorealistic rendering and intricately detailed textures. Of course, we were not looking to create photorealistic imagery. We created photorealistic textures and then exaggerated them. We ended up with an interesting and beautifully stylized look.”

At the outset, the production team set their goals quite high. The lighting scheme was created based on Pixar’s Piper. The studio’s own inhouse tool, ViewGA, helped achieve the effect of a non-synthesized, breathing camera. Vyacheslav Tyutyugin, CGF’s lead developer and creator of the ViewGA virtual and augmented reality hardware and software, says, “Our technology is what made the project pipeline unique. With a standard approach, animation is created to fit a camera that has been approved in advance. Work on Tweet-Tweet was organized in a different way. Animators blocked out the film with the simplest animation, then gave it to the camera department, where it was filmed with ViewGA within a virtual set. This helped us calibrate a more precise, nuanced viewer focus on whatever was happening on screen. Then the camera paths taken with ViewGA were given back to the animators so they could finish the shots.”

The ViewGA virtual camera mode creates a natural filming process similar to a real cinematographer using a real camera. While ViewGA significantly speeds up the production process, it also provides the director considerable creative freedom. For animator Anna Chuyeva, this innovative virtual technology was critical to her effectiveness. “I’m used to animating to a camera that has been created in previs and layout and approved in advance,” she describes. “The animation has only one perspective, and often it doesn’t look that good. But with the ViewGA virtual camera, the angle, the closeness of the shot, and even the camera movement can change, so I can make the animation as ‘true’ as possible from the very start – it can be physically correct and watchable from different angles.”

In the film, one of the most important symbols is the rope -- concept designers and artists spent an especially long time on its development, trying to convey its emotional depth. According to project designer Oxana Guseva, “We kept looking to capture the right emotion. We looked at many references. We filmed things ourselves. One time I brought in fall leaves just to see the shapes of the holes. I remember we even waited for just the right weather and lighting, then went outside and caked a rope with snow. We took photos to see what it looked like. We really wanted to see and to touch a real object, to understand how it behaved in specific conditions. If you don’t feel anything yourself, the audience won’t either. The viewers are very smart and sophisticated; they know right away where the real emotions are, and where they’re fake.”

In describing the film’s visual effects. FX TD Yevgeny Stefanov explains, “We really worked through many technical and the visual solutions. We ended up using Houdini for most of the effects in Tweet-Tweet. But it’s important to realize it’s not just the tool itself that plays an important role, but how you use it. This determines the endless multitude of possible approaches, and the importance of choosing the right one.”

One challenging task was conveying the main character’s feelings as she balances on the rope. “The main problem was that the rope is not a static object, unlike the surface of the ground or the floor,” says Anton Pashkanis, the film’s technical manager. “For example, it has its own dynamic qualities and behavior. Essentially, the way it is animated depends on the animation of the character walking on the rope. And, in turn, the animation of the character depends on the physical characteristics of the rope. We ran into the issue of needing to figure out which animation was primary, and which was secondary. We looked through a multitude of references; we went to a circus school and filmed real tightrope walkers using different cameras. In the end, we took the character animation as well as a pseudo-simulation of moving side to side, as if trying to balance, along with micro-movements of slight foot tremors that characterize how a foot is unstable on a tightrope, as well as the actual simulation of the tightrope itself.”

The ViewGA virtual camera was also used to animate the tightrope walking. “I will never forget the work we did with POV shots,” Tyutyugin shares. “In the virtual filming process, I sort of became the main character…I became a girl named Lyuba. I imagined what it would be like to be her -- I completely got into her character. It probably looked strange and a bit funny to an outsider: a man walking around with a camera in his hands, swaying and balancing, as if walking a tightrope.”

In the film the sky also imparts important symbolism, creating a mood that reflects the emotions of the characters. “Our task was to give the whole film personality and a specific mood,” adds Olga Konstantinova, a compositing artist. “In order to achieve this, a master script was created that gave each sequence a separate sky and mood. Even today, when I look at the sky, I think about Tweet-Tweet. I can’t event count how many photos I looked at of clouds at different times of day with different ranges of light distribution in order to achieve just the proper look of a celestial beauty.”

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