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'Inspired 3D Short Film Production': Art Direction — Part 3

In the third part of a four part series from the Inspired 3D Short Film Production book, Jeremy Cantor and Pepe Valencia continue their look at art direction with a look at props, weather and lighting.

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.

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 third of four installments on art direction. Read Art Direction Part 1 and Part 2.

Props and Vehicles

You can use appropriate and identifiable props as shortcuts to identify era and locale as well as the profession, nationality, religion, heritage, back-story or favorite hobby of your protagonist (see Figure 25). If you fill his bookshelves with trophies and litter his floor with sweatpants, muscle magazines and dumbbells, he is probably a personal trainer or an athlete of some kind. If his furniture, carpets, books, wall hangings and bed sheets are all emblazoned with spiritual icons, he probably has a significant amount of faith. A room filled with voodoo masks, witchcraft books, black candles, tarot cards, pentagram carpets and Ozzy Osbourne posters, on the other hand, will certainly send a significantly different message.

Vehicles are also great indicators of era, geography, wealth and character profession. Horse-drawn carriages, rickshaws and personal nuclear-powered jetpacks will tell very different stories about their operators. A large white van with a picture of an oven on the side probably belongs to an electrician or a caterer. A black pickup truck with oversized tires, machine-gun turrets and a human skull hood ornament will certainly suggest a few things about its owner and the world he occupies.


[Figure 25] Style and attention to detail in props and vehicles will help indicate era and locale as well as biographical information about your characters.


[Figure 26] The condition of your background elements will add a feeling of history to your settings. Rust, broken tiles and cracked windows suggest that these places are either desolate or neglected.


In addition to style and design, the condition of background elements will help imply the personality of your characters, their locale and the tone of your story (see Figure 26). Broken furniture, dirty carpets and torn curtains might reveal that your protagonist held a raging party last night (or maybe his house always looks like that). An immaculate bathroom might suggest a hospital or the inside of a movie set. Rusty cars with missing fenders, abandoned and condemned buildings, graffiti, bent street signs and trash filling the streets might indicate poverty or post-war damage. Any of these scenarios might inspire laughter, discomfort, anticipation or disgust from your audience, depending on the story beats and character behaviors associated with these locales.

Living Backgrounds

Also consider whether your background elements will move or perhaps even have personalities. Rocks and buildings tend to remain static, but not always (Das Rad). Most trees will simply sway with the wind, but some will actually talk and throw apples (The Wizard of Oz). Suns and moons often have suggested or even definitive facial features. Living background elements can not only contribute to the look, feel, locale and reality level of your story, but they can also contribute significantly to the flow of your plot and character development.


[Figure 27] Matte paintings or background photography can help indicate depth and locale.


[Figure 28] Effects such as smoke trails can contribute to the visual impact of a particular scene.


[Figure 29] Spot lighting in an otherwise black environment creates a feeling of ominous isolation in Puppet, while sharp, blue lighting and sculpted rendering helps with the tense mood of Silhouette.

Matte Paintings

Matte paintings or photographic background plates also make for strong cinematic indicators of depth, locale and mood (see Chapter 13). A few mountains or buildings with soft contrasts will create a sense of distance. Background images of the atmosphere above the clouds will certainly indicate that your characters are floating or flying (see Figure 27). A strangely colored sky with three suns and angular clouds will imply an alien world. A background panel with a single hue or perhaps a gentle fade will help make your space and locale less specific and perhaps more metaphorical (Values).

Weather and Other Effects

Rain; fire; snow; fog; lightning; smoke trails; fast-moving clouds; falling leaves; billowing hair and cloth; sparking high-tension wires; atmospheric haze; flying sawdust; a field of swaying grass; dust puffs when feet hit the ground; and random, underwater, floating particles are just some examples of vfx that can contribute to the indication of setting and mood in a CG short film (see Figure 28).

It can also be fun to create a surreal, alien or fantastical world by changing or reversing the normal look or behavior of such effects. If black snow falls or a waterfall flows upward, something or someplace out of the ordinary is definitely on display.

Lighting, Rendering and Post-Production Filters

Once youve assembled your textured characters, backgrounds and props on your virtual stage, the ways in which you light and render your scenes will be the ultimate expression of your intended visual style. For example, you might choose to create a suspenseful, film-noir look by using a single light source with opaque shadows. Amber Rudolph and Tonya Noerr effectively delivered this look in their film Silhouette, where the ominous mood is further intensified by dimensional rendering, sharp shadows and cold, blue lighting (see Figure 29).

Lighting Specifics

The number, placement and color of your lights will significantly affect the overall mood of a given shot. For instance:

  • A single overhead yellowish point or parallel light source will create a warm, outdoor, daytime feel.

  • A low, blue light will create a cold, eerie, ominous tone.

  • A single bright light source that creates strong white highlights and very dark shadows would be appropriate for an outer space locale.

  • An otherwise dark setting with a small, weak light source coming from a candle, a flashlight, a torch or a lantern will help create a feeling of isolation or suspense.

  • Lighting a character from behind will create at least a partial silhouette or an ethereal glow, which might be helpful in mysteries or spiritual allegories.

  • A multitude of different-colored lights, spinning and blinking, might imply that your action is taking place in a dance club or perhaps underneath a landing UFO.

See Chapter 18, Lighting and Rendering, for more lighting concepts and techniques.



Your final renders might be fully ray-traced like Bunny or flat-shaded like an episode of South Park. You might prefer a shallow depth of field to focus attention on your foreground elements or you might omit motion blur to simulate the genre of stop-motion. You could try turning off shadow generation to create depth ambivalence and abstraction.

Simulating Alternative Media

It can be visually compelling to simulate other media, such as traditional oil paintings or video games, through appropriate texturing, rendering and the application of post-process filters. Realistic photography seems to be the most popular choice, but many software packages can generate other looks such as toon shading, in which the characters and objects have edge lines and less sculpted rendering. Short films featuring this technique include Bert, Comics Trip, AP2000, Bunkie & Booboo and Respire (see Figure 30).

Other films, such as Bill Kroyers Technological Threat, look like traditional cartoons because the animators actually drew on top of rendered 3D frames using pencils and pens.

[Figure 31] With effective use of texture painting and rendering, the look of alternative art media, such as watercolor painting, metal sculpture and video games, can be achieved.

[Figure 31] With effective use of texture painting and rendering, the look of alternative art media, such as watercolor painting, metal sculpture and video games, can be achieved.

[Figure 32] Zbigniew Lenard achieved a particularly unique visual style by simulating the look of electron microscopy.

[Figure 32] Zbigniew Lenard achieved a particularly unique visual style by simulating the look of electron microscopy.

The characters and props in Supinfocoms Kami are modeled and textured like origami sculptures.

The films LAutre Temps, Au Petit Mort and Sarah achieve the look of bent metal sculpture, moving watercolor paintings, and fantastical role-playing video games with effective use of rendering dimensionality, appropriately painted textures and background panels (see Figure 31).

Pacific Data Images simulated a hand-painted feel in their shorts Gas Planet and Fishing with more sophisticated rendering algorithms. If you have the programming skills to do so, then by all means experiment with such technical processes. Otherwise, check your software manuals and search for plug-ins on the Internet that will provide you with such rendering solutions.

One especially captivating example of unique CG visuals simulating another medium is Zbigniew Lenards IT, in which the renders look as if you are viewing the story world through the lens of an electron microscope (see Figure 32).

[Figure 33] You can also use post-processing filters to simulate traditional art media, such as oil painting and scratchboard.

[Figure 33] You can also use post-processing filters to simulate traditional art media, such as oil painting and scratchboard.


[Figure 34] You might discover a unique and interesting art direction style by scanning a preliminary sketch, painting, reference image or test render into your computer and then experimenting with various Adobe Photoshop or Corel Painter post-process filters.

Processing your rendered frames through artistic filters in programs such as Adobe Photoshop or Corel Painter is also an excellent way of simulating the look of traditional (or perhaps not so traditional) visual media and techniques. You can see the continuing tradition of unique art direction from the students of Supinfocom in the utilization of this technique in films such as Le Deserteur and Le Processus (see Figure 33).

Exercise: Scan your preliminary drawings, paintings, reference photographs and test renders into your computer and then experiment with various post-process filters and settings to at least partially predetermine the final look of your film (see Figure 34).

Graphical Elements and Icons

An interesting method of mimicking certain alternative mediums is to incorporate graphical elements, such as comic book panels or perhaps video game iconography, into your scenes and compositions. This can be an interesting way to create unique and interesting crossmedia visual styles, as seen in films such as Comics Trip, Tom the Cat and Polygon Family (see Figure 35).

Creatively displaying or utilizing graphical imagery associated with traditional film production mechanics, such as microphones or frame edges, can assist in breaking the fourth wall, which should lead to some imaginative visuals. Tex Avery employed this technique in some of his more outlandish cartoons, in which characters would often run outside of a frame, passing over film sprocket holes. A more recent example is Eric Carneys CG short, Framed, in which the protagonist wrestles with the very borders of his screen image.


A Few Examples

Lets consider a few particularly mood-inspiring CG short film images and examine their specific art direction elements and the emotional responses they inspire.

[Figure 36] Tomek Baginskis Cathedral.

[Figure 36] Tomek Baginskis Cathedral.

Otherworldly color palettes, expansive settings, alien (yet strangely organic) architecture, torch lighting, planets looming dangerously close, red space clouds, strong white sunbeams, complex shadow patterns leaving intricately shaped negative spaces... These fantastical elements combine to form a desolate and ominous atmosphere that inspires curiosity, wonder and a bit of dread (see Figure 36).

[Figure 37] Respire from André Bessy, Jérôme Combe, and Stéphane Hamache.

[Figure 37] Respire from André Bessy, Jérôme Combe, and Stéphane Hamache.

A bright and clear blue sky with cool, green grass; gentle, pastel-colored clothing; a warm sunset; simple textures; partially dimensional rendering; open, uncluttered and inviting landscape; limited complexity and details. The result is a safe, happy, carefree place that generates feelings of warmth, comfort, joy and tranquility (see Figure 37).


[Figure 38] LEnfant de la Haute Mer from Laetitia Gabrielli, Pierre Marteel, Mathieu Renoux and Max Tourret.


[Figure 39] Grain.S from Cédric Nicolas and Vincent Meyer.

Textures painted to look like traditional watercolors, gentle earth tones with lots of tans and browns, over-saturation of outdoor lighting, a cute but simple and rather generic character wearing very basic clothing... This desolate world rendered in a uniquely dimensional watercolor style creates a captivating visual experience with a touch of loneliness and sadness (see Figure 38).

Singular hue, empty landscape, grainy filter, surreal machinery, wide camera angles, strong lighting with high contrast The result is a unique and fantastical scenario that creates feelings of desolation, confusion and wonder (see Figure 39).

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, Charlies 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