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‘Retour à Hairy Hill’ Short Showcases Stop-Motion-Styled CG

Inspired by a ‘Frozen’ documentary, director Daniel Gies digitally created the film’s folded paper styled stop-motion-like animation with tools such as Maya, Houdini, and Unreal Engine; his animated short debuts later this year.

The animated short film Retour à Hairy Hill may appear as stop-motion, but E.D. Films founder and director Daniel Gies created the entire production in CG. The film features characters made of digitally folded paper, achieved through a mix of animation styles, with about two-thirds of the film rendered in the cloud and the remainder via real-time game engine. While technology was key to the project’s creation, the film’s crafting kept it invisible.

“I was really drawn to capture something that’s more handmade and create a feeling of moving through a watercolor painting,” explained Gies. “I love the feeling of paper and how working with pen and ink produces imperfect results. It’s easier to fix digital art, but that can also lead to a rigidness in the design and aesthetic.”

The film, envisioned as a tribute to family folklore, is a fantastical fable based on the true story of a young woman in the northern wilderness. Over 10 years, the film was created by a handful of artists, with one or two working on it at any given time. Gies and his team, including keyframe animators from Agora Studio, used various creative tools, including Autodesk Maya, SideFX’s Houdini, and Epic Games’ Unreal Engine, and rendered in the cloud using Redshift through Conductor. The character textures began as hand-drawn ink outlines. Then, various scene elements, like trees, were hand-painted, with others digitally painted, an approach that brought a physical essence to the production.

“If you’re trying to draw on a 3D object, it’s not that easy,” Gies commented regarding the film’s aesthetic, the result of his distaste for UV mapping in 3D. “One day, I built a paper puppet with an idea of what a UV-mapped face would look like. I started drawing it freehand, then I cut it out and played around with it. I was able to visualize what a paper maquette could do without having to measure and build it first–I could almost deconstruct it in my head. That turned into, ‘Wow, I could do this in the computer and actually animate it!’ I love stop-motion but knew that I’d never be able to animate it properly.”

After determining the creative path, animation and texture proved the most challenging. While digital tools excelled at cloth simulations, simulating realistic paper was more difficult due to the material’s inherent rigidity. The team used Vellum in Houdini to achieve the desired look and kept meshes low resolution, so the output behaved more closely like paper. They defined the paper look after experimenting with different paper varieties and examining how light passed through them. During their research, they noted how ink would show through paper when backlit and wanted to re-create that effect when rendering. Next, they tried various techniques to ensure the paper had the proper thickness, including displacement maps. Ultimately, they made a high-resolution paper character that Gies sculpted and wrapped onto the low-resolution cloth-simulated mesh.

“I couldn’t find any tutorials or anything on how to do this, then I watched a documentary on Frozen about the cloth, and there it was!” added Gies. “You basically link your character to the original animated mesh to make it work.”

Gies and team rendered nearly 70 percent of the film in Redshift on Conductor, including the interiors with a hand-painted feel, and the remaining 30 percent in Unreal, when the main character leaves the house. After downloading the Conductor plugin, they set up renders directly in Maya to submit to Redshift. Then, before running the full render, Conductor double-checked scenes to ensure all the necessary files were present and linked.

“With Conductor, it feels like the technology is speaking to artists who don’t really have the head space to tackle the complexity of render wrangling, and it’s a super straightforward interface,” added Gies. “It’s very easy to go online, check your account, and see the state of your shot. You can watch the frames being rendered and see if a shot failed. As you download your footage, it’s sent directly to your Maya folder, just as if you rendered it on your own computer. The user experience is impressive.”

Retour à Hairy Hill is scheduled for 2023 debut – meanwhile, check out the trailer:

Source: E.D. Films

Debbie Diamond Sarto's picture

Debbie Diamond Sarto is news editor at Animation World Network.