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'Inspired 3D Short Film Production': Art Direction -- Part 1

In the first of four installments on art direction for their book Inspired 3D Short Film Production, Jeremy Cantor and Pepe Valencia delve into connect style with story.

All images from Inspired 3D Short Film Production by Jeremy Cantor and Pepe Valencia, series edited by Kyle Clark and Michael Ford. Reprinted with permission.

This is the first of four installments on art direction.

The visual style of your film will undoubtedly evolve and solidify over the course of your production, especially when it comes time to model, texture, light and render your characters and background elements (see Figure 1). However, it is highly recommended that you spend some pre-production time assuming the role of an art director, collecting reference images and videos and creating drawings, paintings and perhaps sculptures to establish a preliminary standard for style and quality (see Figure 2). Will you aim for a simple and fairly abstract, bright, futuristic look or perhaps a dark, claustrophobic, dirty, ominous, realistic, medieval scenario? Ornate and colorful Victorian architecture or a gray and smoggy cityscape made of simple geometric shapes? As you collect and create inspirational material, it is a good idea to hang or place these pictures and objects on the walls or surfaces of your studio and periodically reference them during your production to maintain consistency and motivation, especially if you are working with a team (see Figure 3).

Can you paint with all the colors of the wind?

Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz

The overall art direction of your film will hopefully provide your audience with a unique visual experience and will also assist you in indicating setting specifics, such as geography, era, size, depth, climate, season, time of day and perhaps genre.

But most importantly, the look of your film will help to create a mood (see Figure 4). A dark and rainy atmosphere with lots of grays and blues might make your audience feel cold, as in the opening shot of Reds Dream from Pixar. A bright, sunny landscape with plenty of soft yellows, light greens and other earth tones will probably make your audience feel warm and comfortable. A bright red and orange sky, cracked surface texture, atmospheric haze and perhaps one or two cacti should bring out a few portable fans. Clear blue skies, a snow-covered tundra and a resident penguin will create the opposite effect (see Figure 5).

[Figure 1] Many CG short-film directors stick very closely to their original art direction plans when creating their final imagery. Your results may vary.

[Figure 2] Preliminary design sketches and paintings will help determine the overall look and feel of your film.

[Figure 3] Collect plenty of educational and inspirational reference materials and keep them handy.

Connecting Style with Story

Probably the most important issue to consider regarding art direction is the typical necessity of making the visual style of your piece match the intended mood and genre of your story. For instance, wacky comedies tend to work well with colorful, exaggerated, or cartoony characters and settings. Moody or poignant dramas usually feature realistic or semi-realistic characters and dull colors or mere shades of gray (see Figure 6). Light parables are usually bright and caricatured. Serious science fiction and monster movies often call for gritty, detailed realism (see Figure 7). Mystery, suspense and horror films work well with dark and dull colors, high contrast, long and dark shadows, mood lighting, fairly realistic characters and perhaps a bit of inclement weather (see Figure 8). Fantasy stories often exhibit unnaturally bold colors with odd, unique and perhaps rather geometric design elements (see Figure 9).

Of course, matching visual style with story genre is not a hard and fast rule. If you want to be especially ironic or catch your audience off guard with a surprise ending or an unexpected punch line, then by all means use a bright, cartoony style for your poignant and tragic murder mystery. Just keep in mind that it is usually not a good idea for your story elements to compete against your visuals for indications of genre and mood.

Mood Should be Suggested Rather than Forced

It is perfectly appropriate to encourage your audience to feel a certain way with influential visuals; however, it is generally not a good idea to completely dictate their emotional response to your story by using too many obvious and overused design clichés. Making teardrop-shaped icicles, frowning snowmen, a crying moon and processing all of your frames through a blue filter might be overdoing the idea of indicating coldness and sadness. In a cartoon-style comedy, it might be acceptable to exaggerate your mood indicators thusly, but in most films subtlety is more effective and appropriate.

[Figure 4] Effective art direction will create a mood.

Exercise: Make a list of a few short and feature films that conjure up specific feelings when you think about them. Then watch these films again and try to identify the art direction elements that contribute to the emotional reactions they inspire.

Coming up with a Visual Style

One of the best way to figure out the overall art direction of your film is to consider the genre of your story, decide on the mood you want to inspire and then analyze the style and visual elements of existing films that made you feel the way you want your audience to feel. If you plan to create a dark and tragic science fiction tale, study the style and design specifics of films such as Blade Runner, Alien, f8, Horses on Mars and Dronez. If you want to warmly deliver a lesson on manners to schoolchildren, consider mimicking the lighting, rendering styles and caricatured or simplistic character design ideas from films such as Bert, Kami, Poor Bogo, For the Birds, One by Two, Lunch, Early Bloomer or Geris Game. If you want to create a wacky or perhaps fantastical comedy, learn from the artistic choices made in films such as Ice Age, Polygon Family, AP2000, Baby Changing Station, Alien Song, Fat Cat on a Diet, Fishman, Gas Planet, Pings, Moosin Around or Run, Dragon, Run!!! If delivering a poignant metaphor is your goal, review more abstract pieces, such as Values, Fifty Percent Grey, Le Processus or the stop-motion classic Balance. If horror, mystery, or dark fantasy is your pleasure, study the mood-setting visual elements of feature films such as Seven and The Third Man, as well as shorts like Puppet, Le Puits, Sally Burton, The House on Dame Street and Silhouette. If you want to captivate your audience with a unique and fantastical visual experience, take inspiration from the art direction elements of films such as The Cathedral, El Arquero, Poor Bogo, Sarah, Guernica, Sprout, Occasio, Within an Endless Sky and Garden of the Metal.

[Figure 5] Art direction can also inspire feelings of temperature extremes.

If you cant find the mood youre searching for by watching short films and features, try browsing through childrens books, reading comics, playing video games and perusing texts and film documentaries on architecture, human and natural history, oceanography, outer space, geology and world travel.

Direct observation of the real world is also an excellent method of inspiring art direction for your film. Ideas can come from the creepy forest across from your friends house, the new and modern subway station by the courthouse, the downtown area with all the skyscrapers, the mall, the park, the manmade canals, the filthy bathroom at the train station, the lobby of the citys oldest hotel, or your favorite beach when the sun is setting. On your next vacation, bring a memo pad, a camera (preferably digital) and a sketchbook to record notes and images of the architecture, color schemes, conditions and design motifs of these places. If visiting such locations is not feasible, flip through travel guides or borrow photos from some of your more worldly friends and relatives (see Figure 10).

[Figure 6] Colorful, cartoony imagery goes well with wacky comedies, while shades of gray and semi-realistic imagery will complement a moody drama or a tragedy.

Also think about how elements such as rain, snow, wind, or heat and humidity make you feel. Do falling leaves or lightning bolts conjure up any particular emotions? If appropriate for the intended mood of your piece, consider featuring direct or implied indications of these elements.

Create a variety of pre-production sketches and paintings to work out design ideas and color themes. Digital paint programs, such as Adobe Photoshop or Corel Painter, are especially effective in this experimental stage because you can easily try out alternative color palettes, textures, brush strokes and artistic filters.

[Figures 7 & 8] Light parables often feature bright colors and caricatured characters (left), while more serious science fiction stories often call for gritty, detailed realism. Dull colors and a bit of rain (right) will help intensify the moo

Mood-Inspiring Art Direction Elements

There are four main cinematic tools an art director can use to contribute to the look and feel of an animated film.

Overall style

Quantity, style, design, color and texture details of environments and props

Weather and other fx

Lighting, rendering and post-processing filters

Overall Style

The overall style of your film will be dictated by factors such as realism level, color palettes, texture details and composition.

Realism Level

The first thing to consider with regard to the overall style of your film is the level of realism you want to deliver (see Figure 11). This will be indicated by dimension, lighting, texturing, modeling and exaggeration (or the lack thereof).

[Figure 9] Strange and interesting design elements help create a fantasy world.

Highly Realistic

Absolute, true-to-life imagery will immediately connect an audience if it is pulled off successfully and is especially appropriate for more serious plots and genres, such as mystery, horror, suspense, science fiction and drama. CG short examples include The Cathedral, f8 and Alma. Keep in mind, however, that a high level of realism is especially difficult to produce and the indication of mood needs to be created with an appropriate level of subtlety. Radically and inappropriately exaggerating or abstracting the imagery of an otherwise realistic film can easily break its immersive quality.

[Figure 10] Find interesting visual styles in the real world.

Semi-Realistic A nearly real style will give you more room to play with color, texture and design variations to create your desired mood. Also, a bit more imagination and exaggeration in the design of your characters and backgrounds will feel more appropriate if you stray from absolute realism by a certain degree. Less dimensional and perhaps painterly styles can fall under this category as well, provided the shapes and proportions of your objects and characters remain fairly close to real life. Genres such as fantasy, satire, black comedies and less serious science fiction are especially appropriate in a semi-real style. Examples include Respire, Eternal Gaze, Fifty Percent Grey, Insight, Passing Moments, Geris Game, Rustboy and LAutre Temps.


A cartoon look is certainly a very popular way to go. This will give you plenty of artistic license when creating caricatured, exaggerated, or fantastical characters and environments. Cartoony style is generally best suited for comedies and light morality tales. Keep in mind that cartoony doesnt necessarily mean flat. Many cartoon-style films have tremendous depth and even extremely realistic lighting; however, they belong in this category because their characters and backgrounds are significantly caricatured (Egg Cola), exaggerated (Fat Cat on a Diet), anthropomorphized (Coffee Love), or just plain goofy (The Adventures of Andre & Wally B).

[Figure 11] How realistic should the visual style of your piece be? Almost true to life, cartoony, or abstract?

Abstract or Symbolic

This style of imagery has infinite potential for style variation and is usually most appropriate for fine arts pieces or poignant metaphors. The use of more geometric rather than natural and organic shapes in object design or overall style can help you create fantasy, abstraction, or symbolism. Films with particularly abstracted characters or backgrounds include Values, Framed, One by Two, Kami and The Dog Who Was a Cat Inside.

To get a copy of the book, check out Inspired 3D Short Film Production by Jeremy Cantor and Pepe Valencia; series edited by Kyle Clark and Michael Ford: Premier Press, 2004. 470 pages with illustrations. ISBN 1-59200-117-3 ($59.99). Read more about the Inspired series and check back to VFXWorld frequently to read new excerpts.

Jeremy Cantor, animation supervisor at Sony Pictures Imageworks, has been working far too many hours a week as a character/creature animator and supervisor in the feature film industry for the past decade or so at both Imageworks and Tippett Studio in Berkeley, California. His film credits include

Harry Potter, Evolution, Hollow Man, My Favorite Martian and Starship Troopers. For more information, go to

Pepe Valencia has been at Sony Pictures Imageworks since 1996. In addition to working as an animation supervisor on the feature film Peter Pan, his credits include Early Bloomer, Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle, Stuart Little 2, Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone, Stuart Little, Hollow Man, Godzilla and Starship Troopers. For more information, go to his Webpage at