Search form

'Inspired 3D Short Film Production': Case Study 1: 'Virgil and Maurice' — Part 2

In the second of a two-part series from the Inspired 3D Short Film Production book, filmmaker Morgan Kelly continues to explain how he made the short film The Terrible Tragedy of Virgil and Maurice.

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.

Be sure to check out the first part of the case study of Morgan Kellys The Terrible Tragedy of Virgil and Maurice.

Story Reel

I was concurrently creating storyboards from the vignettes and writing the script in Final Draft based on notes I had in my sketchbook (see Figure 8). The two simultaneously evolved, helping me to solidify my storyline and keep all the content organized. When I had a sequence of storyboards together, Id scan them into Premiere for the story reel. As the story reel grew, Id add some necessary sound effects and music for the mood. The character thumbnail drawings from my sketchbook grew into detailed illustrations. From those I made a schematic front and profile drawing of Virgil and Maurice to be scanned into Maya for the basis of the modeling. As I was modeling/rigging the characters, I was also finishing up the rough story reel. I recorded scratch dialogue of myself and a friend from the script. This was added to the story reel as I further edited the timing. For the final voice actors, I used two talented, artistic, and comedic friends of mine, Eric Malamud and Ron Yavnielli. We did some test readings of the script to get the characters voices worked out. The recording was done digitally in a sound studio at CalArts, then burned to a CD. I edited the new audio and added it to the story reel, replacing the scratch dialogue. Around this time I had also finished up my rough modeling/rigging. Now I could finally animate!


The most daunting obstacle I feared was overcoming the technical aspects involved in creating a short film with computer graphics. I dont consider myself a technical Mafioso. I cant absorb a program easily by just taking a class and watching demonstrations. I have to jump into it with a problem that needs to be solved and mill around to become familiar with the program. Classes were integral for me when Id hit a wall and then need direction with a specific problem.

[Figure 8] A few storyboard panels.

[Figure 8] A few storyboard panels.

Modeling, rigging, texturing and lighting can be quite complex. But the cliché about a complicated use of the basics was the foundation for my CG experience. I didnt feel that I had to have an experts touch in digital modeling, so when I modeled the character, I used whatever means were necessary to stay true to what made the traditional design appealing to me.

After the schematic drawing was imported to Maya as an image plane, polygons were used to model the head and limbs of Virgil. Its an intuitive method because of the close comparison to clay modeling. I felt comfortable that I could push and pull the CVs around to find nice shapes for the character. Then I sculpted the upper body from a NURBS sphere because it gave a smoother curve when it was deforming. It looked better when Id bend Virgils spine and then straighten him out quickly to reverse the curves during animation. Lastly, subdivision surfacing seemed best for Maurices texture and extreme manipulation for posing. I worked very hard at the shapes and silhouettes of each body part individually, and how they came to form the body shape as a whole. It was important to have smooth lines and arcs to streamline the body of the snake, and to contrast it with some harder edges on Virgil. Even on Virgil, I wanted each body part to cascade nicely into the next limb. At this point I had the rough model made up of the head, torso/neck, arm, hand, pelvis, two legs and a cylinder for Maurice. The model was made with the arm and snake stretched outward, but the body, head and legs were laid out in a natural standing pose for Virgil.


[Figure 9] The pre-built SimpleGuy rig was re-proportioned and then used as the basis for Virgils internal digital structure.


[Figure 10] Maurices normally black eyes were turned yellow and red for this intense scene.


[Figure 11 The backgrounds were drawn using traditional materials.


Its easy to get stuck noodling your character models and textures while procrastinating and postponing animation. But storytelling is projected through animation. The last thing I wanted to have was a demo reel with just a fancy character model rotating in space. It felt to me that every day that passed was a day of animation lost! I knew that I was going to use Jeremy Cantors SimpleGuy skeleton to speed up the rigging process (see Figure 9). I re-proportioned it to the scale of Virgil and began to apply the rough pieces of the model to the skeleton. After many tests using an IK chain and clusters for Maurice, I parented him to the skeleton body. Now the animation could be blocked out even though the model had not been completely refined. I began the animation knowing that as long as the model had the correct proportions and size, I could tweak and texture it later, as well as waiting to add details such as the eyes and facial controls. I believe that it made the entire experience much more enjoyable. If I was frustrated with the animation I could parlay my efforts toward refining the face or add some more textures.

Both Virgil and Maurice had very simple facial controls. I didnt bother with any blend shapes. Virgil was set up with eyes, eyelids, eyebrows and a jaw to get his expressions. Maurice had just lids and a large jaw. He initially had pupils like Virgil, but I ended up liking how he looked with all-black eyes. That also sped up the animation process since I didnt have to make his eyes focus on anything. However, there is one shot where Maurice rises up to strike at a small blue bird. I wanted him to seem much more menacing for that moment, so I positioned the camera to look up at him made the gray clouds point in toward him, curved him upward and changed his eyes to be yellow with red irises (see Figure 10). That inconsistency on the eyes didnt bother me because of the more intense effect it had on the shot. The eyebrows on Virgil were free-floating objects parented to his head with clusters to shape his expression. For their mouths, I ran three joints down their jaws from the head bone. All the lip-synchs were done by rotating the joints to roughly get the phonetic shapes. The multiple joints in the jaws also allowed for overlap in the animation. This facial setup satisfied me, especially considering the fact that Kermit the Frog could act out a gamut of emotions with no facial movement except for a hinged jaw!


All of the character textures were rendered traditionally. I sketched them out, then rendered them with AD markers or Trias for the base, ink for detail, then opaque soft oil pastels and a white paint pen on top for highlight. This way the backgrounds (also traditionally rendered) and the characters would have a consistent quality (see Figure 11).

Animation, Rendering and Editing

The finished rig and model were pretty light and had fast playback. It helped that my scene environments were very light also. But to minimize some frustrating animation drag, I did create a lower-poly model, which I parented to the skeleton for the animation. Id just hide the low-poly and then make the high-poly visible for the render. I began to animate the bodies of the characters according to the story reel and dialogue. As a scene was completed, Id create a quick test render of it and then replace the scene in the story reel with it. I also began to render out some test shots with textures and lighting.


The lighting was entirely global illumination with white lights, then colored spotlights for light sources for the shadows (see Figure 12).

Whenever a shot had everything roughly together, Id render it out for After Effects. Shots were rendered separately in layers of foreground planes, characters, ground plane, props and background planes. The sky was always added in After Effects. Not many students at CalArts were making CG films, so at night I usually had access to all 14 computers for rendering and working. All of the computers in the CalArts Maya lab were networked together, where each student had been given eight gigabytes for their work. As my rendered scenes and movies began to grow, I had to request more space for my film. I eventually had 30 gigs of hard-drive space. As the deadline neared, I used multiple computers so I would not have any downtime while waiting for renders. As my Maya-rendered frames would finish (generally rendered from six to eight computers), Id make uncompressed movies of them in QuickTime. When those were done, Id import them into my After Effects computer into their appropriate layers. When all the layers were in place, Id make an uncompressed QuickTime of the compiled layers, which would be dropped into the Premiere story reel on a separate computer. The story reel would be constantly updated with the new renders to view the overall films progress. If there were no renders finished from Maya, QuickTime, After Effects or Premiere, I would work more on the animation computer. After the body animation was done for the entire piece, I finished the facial setup and did that animation. This really snapped up the overall emotion of the animation since the previous work was relying on just the body. The story reel became the final film after constantly being updated with newer work. I was continually showing the evolving story reel to friends and professors to get feedback on the clarity of the story and the pacing of the overall film.

End Result

Partially based on my short films presence in my demo reel, the summer after graduation I landed a job at Electronic Arts-Maxis as a Maya character animator on The Sims 2. Then, in the fall, I started working as an assistant character animator at DreamWorks Feature Animation on Shrek 2. Im currently trying to sneak my way into a visual development position.


I recently attended a panel discussion at the Animation Union in Burbank, California. The evenings topic was about the current overall transition in the animation industry from 2D to 3D. Many of the speakers were involved in a small debate over the pros and cons of creating a short film, and how it related to advancing an artists skill and aiding their demo reel. A students 3D animation demo reel was shown to the audience as a successful example of someone recently hired at a feature animation studio. The reel had about five animation sequences, each with a different character. It showed a range of acting and style and portrayed by example that its not necessary to have an entire short film on your reel to get work. Some argued that when you create a short film, there will inherently be shots that are weaker than others. Some felt that it was better to put your efforts into a couple of scenes to have greater quality. I think if youre in a rush to get work at a studio, then perhaps this route is true. But making a short film is an invaluable microcosm of experience that forces you to become involved in many aspects of filmmaking. At CalArts, many students will begin their demo tapes with a best of reel, featuring the strongest shots from their films mixed in with different animation assignments. This shows off their strengths and is followed by their short films in their entirety, displaying their pacing, story, mood and rhythm on a shot-to-shot basis. Making The Terrible Tragedy of Virgil and Maurice broadened my filmmaking perspective and opened up avenues by being showcased in festivals, which pushed it out to a larger audience than the recruiters who merely fast-forward through demo reels. With all that I learned while making this CG short film, I cant wait to begin my next one!

The Terrible Tragedy of Virgil and Maurice is included in the short film collection on the DVD that came with this book.

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.

Authors Jeremy Cantor (left) and Pepe Valencia.

Authors Jeremy Cantor (left) and Pepe Valencia.

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