Former visual effects student Noah Catan spent over a year working to improve upon the 2D ‘Klaus’ innovative 3D-styled lighting and shading in his development of Pantheon: Volumetric Lighting for 2D Animation software, created specifically for the production of SCAD Animation Studios’ CTA Emmy nominated animated short.
Whether it’s a singing CG bear, a steam-punk broom race in a neon city, or a demon-possessed dog rampaging through the Vatican, all SCAD Animation Studios projects have one thing in common… they attempt to “achieve the unachievable,” in the words of Chris Gallagher, Chair of Animation at Savannah College of Art and Design and founder of SCAD Animation Studios.
“I tend to want to elevate what we do on a project right out of the gate,” notes Gallagher, a former Walt Disney Studios and Sony Pictures animator known for his work on Surf’s Up and Zootopia. “With our first short Bearly, the students decided to do a quadruped animation that's singing. That's challenging stuff. And, on top of that, I'm like, ‘We're going to use Katana for rendering.’ And they're like, ‘We don't even have that installed yet.’ And I'm like, ‘Great. Let's figure it out.’ The second film, Hex Limit, had crowds of 60 or 80 goblins, with three hero characters instead of one. Each of our projects has had a technical challenge.”
Of course, these are hurdles many large studios have already conquered. But the SCAD Animation Studios’ fourth film, The Pope’s Dog, posed the biggest challenge yet: creating a 3D look on top of 2D animation using custom-designed software for lighting and shading. It was a goal not only ambitious for student animators, but industry veterans as well.
“We knew we wanted it to be 2D, because our first two projects were 3D, but we wanted to push the envelope,” says Gallagher. “2D animation tends to be flat. And John Webber, who is my associate chair, was like, ‘Let's try to do something we’ve never seen before.’ So as films like Netflix’s Klaus came out, we're like, ‘That's gorgeous. But I think we can do it better.’”
Check out the trailer:
The Pope’s Dog follows the Pope as he tries to wrangle his curious and mischievous new pet dog at Vatican City in St. Peter’s Basilica after the animal accidentally interferes in an exorcism and becomes possessed. The short film, which has been nominated for a College Television Awards (CTA) Student Emmy – a ceremony to announce the winners will be held on Saturday, April 1, at the Television Academy's North Hollywood campus – utilizes a software toolset called Pantheon, created by SCAD visual effects student Noah Catan, to reflect and improve upon Klaus’ use of volumetric lighting.
“John [Webber] approached me back in fall of 2020 and asked if this would even be possible,” recalls Catan, who graduated in 2022 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) in Visual Effects and now works at Framestore in NYC as a compositor. “I sent him a test a couple days later of a character spinning 360 degrees that was designed in 2D, but with that 3D look from Klaus, and he was like, ‘Oh, wait, we can actually do this.’ And then he greenlit the film and started to build the team.’”
Established in 2019, SCAD Animation Studios is one of two studio systems at SCAD. The first is the Animation Department’s one-year-long “capstone film” program, centered around seniors creating a film in a group setting with other seniors.
“At the end of the year, we have an incredible screening event with over a thousand attendees, a red carpet, a photo booth, and then everyone gets to see all their films on the big screen for a juried showcase,” says Gallagher. “It’s always a big success and is gratifying to see.”
But, as much as the capstone tries to parallel the process of a professional studio – from pitch to post – in the real world, there is one glitch.
“It’s just seniors working with seniors,” says Gallagher. “Working at Disney, you have 40-year veterans working on films with first-year people. That's why I built SCAD Animation Studios, which is open to all students, regardless of grade, major, or skill level. It’s meant to be a great mixing cauldron of ideas.”
SCAD Animation Studios operates inside the school’s Animation Department and it's the first animation studio that is housed at a university. It functions like a regular class, but it's not part of the standard curriculum, so it’s often taken by students as an elective. Students can sign up for the studio up to three times (or for three quarters).
“A first-quarter freshman could apply and get a position as a PA or, if they have great modeling skills or drawing skills, they can move up, and same with a final quarter graduate student,” says Gallagher. “
Some students who sign up for this elective want to learn animation in order to get a better grasp on what their studying in their core curriculum classes. But, other times, students come to the studio because they want to do more and go above and beyond their classes.
Catan was one such student.
“Klaus was one of the first times we’ve seen 2D animation be utilized like that and, for students to master this method, which previously had only been done by a big studio, was a really amazing opportunity,” says Catan. “Before I started doing this, I didn't know how to code, or use Python, or any of the really technical stuff. So I had to learn that as I built this toolset.”
He continues, “I think there were about 80 artists that touched The Pope's Dog, and then almost 30 of them were part of my team. It’s the biggest team I've ever managed. Being responsible for not only supervising the lighting process, but to also be the tech guy, where whenever something breaks or an issue comes up, I have to be the one to fix it, where I’m the bottleneck of all this, that was quite stressful at certain times. But, overall, it was a great learning experience and training ground.”
Typically, film projects at SCAD Studios take about a year and a half to complete. The Pope’s Dog, however, took almost twice as long, as it took Catan over a year to develop the software that became “Pantheon: Volumetric Lighting for 2D Animation.”
“In 3D animation, you have several different light sources that emit light toward a character or a surface, and we, as 2D artists, have to do the same thing by hand,” notes Catan. “So, if there's sunlight coming down from the sky, we have to paint it in and shade it as if there was actual sunlight, as well as paint in all the light that results from that initial beam. Basically, different light sources, we all have to create by hand, and then add them all together, and then it creates that volumetric look.”
He continues, “The way I approached it was using Nuke, which is a compositing software. And I used roto shapes – which is like the pen tool in Photoshop – to draw in these light shapes. We have a million of those drawn and animated on the character for the different layers of light sources. The first time I did it in the test, it was really slow and cumbersome. So, my job, once production started, was to make a toolset for Nuke that allowed the lighting artists on our team to work as efficiently as possible.”
This meant that Catan had to tap into a lot of coding to make custom tools and package different tools together all in an effort to have a very neat pipeline.
“For example, my team and I made a tool that can select specific parts of the character for if you want to shade an area of the face, but not shade the eyes and the nose at the same time,” explains Catan. “So you apply your roto shape drawing to the part you want to shade, or light, and it will do it automatically. And, since you have to also animate these roto shapes, frame by frame, we also made a tool that allows you to track a roto shape onto a part of the character that you select.”
And the whole time, Catan says he worked closely with The Pope’s Dog lighting director Molly Cooper, Clean up & Inbetween Supervisor Louise Wong, as well as the production’s background painters. It was a team effort.
“It’s why it looks as good as it does,” says Catan. “We found out, with the lighting system, if we don't start with a background painting, we can't light it right. We have to start with the background painting so we know where the light’s coming from and where to cast the light, where to put the shadow, all that. And my friend Louis color-coded each part of each character, which would feed information to Pantheon and make it easier to select different parts of the character for shading and lighting.”
Catan has plans to make the software – basically a one-stop-shop compilation of lighting, shading and tracking tools within Nuke – available to the public in the Spring of 2023.
“The software we used for production, it worked, but it's still pretty janky,” admits Catan. “We got around a lot of the issues with it. But, before the public release, I want to iron some things out. That’s my main goal this year.”
Catan is optimistic as he and the team of 30 artists he was working with have already done most of the heavy lifting with the software during production on The Pope’s Dog. In fact, Catan is attempting to get his software approved to present at SIGGRAPH this year. He also hopes to train the other professors at SCAD on how to use Pantheon to more easily incorporate the software into other SCAD student films.
“I'd love to see it used for other projects, like for something really dark and gritty, like a sci-fi horror,” says Catan. “I mean, imagine if the people at Blur Studio start using Pantheon. That would be insane. I think so much cool stuff will come out of it. At least, I hope.”
Gallagher adds, “One of the things I love about working here at SCAD is that we want to share our incredible experiences with the world. We don't want to keep it to ourselves. You don’t create things just to put it on a bookshelf. You want the world to see it and be inspired by it.”