SHORT FILM: DINNER IS SAVED
The School of Visual Arts Computer Art Department requires all undergrad senior students to create a thesis piece of their own creative volition. Many students enter these degree programs looking to this senior film as the chance to finally create the passion project of their wildest ambitions. However, after taking the first steps into thesis development in Junior year, I quickly realized that completing such a piece would take a lot more than just hopes and and dreams.
My film, "DINNER IS SAVED" was created over the span of 7 months with weekly reviews and critiques conducted by Thesis Advisors Andy Rowan Robinson, Benjamin Jones, and Production Advisor Alex Cheparev. This post will give you an in-depth look at my thoughts and decision making process during those weeks of production.
My first big decision was choosing to go the thesis journey alone. As many of my fellow peers chose to work in teams of 2 or 3, as well as in many cases recruiting help with varying tasks on the side, it was not a thought absent from me. Ultimately, two solid points made me choose to work solo:
I wanted to have complete control of expressing my creative vision
I wanted to hold myself accountable when the going got tough. I wanted the power to pressure myself when things had to get done, which would free me from making excuses and complaining. If things didn't work out- I had myself to blame.
However, it is heavily emphasized that the creative industry is highly collaborative and I knew this truth very well. If I had been able to establish a creative, trusting, professional connection with a peer early on, I might have considered collaboration. But in the absence of such a rare bond, going it alone seemed like the smartest decision I could make at the time.
PREVISUALIZATION / DIRECTOR'S PITCH
During Junior year I constructed the fundamentals of my story, but it still felt vague and bare-bones at the end of spring semester. I had actually completed months worth of previs work on parts that I would come to eventually change, remove and/or completely let go of.
Having lacked clear direction entering summer vacation, I decided to spend the proceeding month modeling and look-deving my protagonist, MIKO based off what concept work I had at the time. I needed to see if I could manifest something close to the image I had in my head.
It was then that I quickly realized I did not feel good about where I was headed design-wise. Although my Thesis instructor at the time encouraged me, in retrospect I can see that my 2D leaning artistic eye was not transitioning well into 3D. I had never considered studying CG until my first semester in 2D animation at SVA, which was when I decided to change my major to Computer Arts. The lack of experience looking at "good" 3D things was showing in the way I could stare at something I made in 3D and spend hours questioning if it was working or not. It had been a while since I felt the push of a creative learning curve.
After hours of modeling, retopo, shading, texturing, lighting and finally rendering some shots, I tossed it all aside in the first week back during Fall semester. It was a definite "back to the drawing board" moment.
PREVISUALIZATION / DIRECTOR'S PITCH (round 2)
Here I will mention with great endearment, that my two thesis advisors:
Andy Rowan Robinson and Ben Jones gave me weekly incentives and goals like I never before experienced in my time as a creative. Reflecting on it now, I believe it was a combination of their high standards, straightforwardness, diverse background/expertise coupled with my need to deliver that pushed me to work at such high capacity on my piece. Every week was a roller coaster of,
"Should I take this advice? Let me try it. That didn't work. Okay. Let me do it over again 10 times but in different ways"
- My Inner Monologue
Shortly after beginning work under Ben and Andy, I picked up on their expectations and standards and moved on to revise my story, design and mentality over the course of a week. They lit a new flame of motivation within me. I had 7 months left, limited time/resources and the game plan changed. The name of the game was to keep it
and last but not least, to finish on time.
So, I scribbled a rough (and boy do I mean rough) storyboard
And began the process of re-conceptualizing characters and asset components with "simple" as my key word
Polished these concepts as quickly as I could,
and moved on to modeling and preparing the assets for the rigging process.
MODELING / RIGGING / LOOK DEV
Having been introduced to the CG world in 2017, I was pushing myself to learn and pick up many technical aspects required for the pipeline during thesis. Even with 3 years under my belt, I was/still am very much a novice. With some determination, I produced character models in Zbrush, retopologized and UV-ed them in Maya, hand painted basic textures in Zbrush/Substance and rigged them with the help of Advanced Skeleton.
ENVIRONMENT / SET DRESSING / LIGHTING
An invaluable piece of wisdom Andy imparted on me throughout this process was that my production schedule, which we were all assigned to create Junior year, had to be reconsidered/revisited. He pointed out that because I was working and doing all aspects alone, I would have to walk away from some parts of the pipeline when other parts of the project needed more attention, and had to stop "thinking linear".
In other words, he encouraged me to make sure all components were leveled equally in quality- and to let go of the idea that I would "complete" any branch of the pipeline before moving onto the next. If I had the CG pipeline set up with proper referencing, I could revisit everything and iron out kinks later.
Here are some render tests that show how maniacally I was changing my mind and trying out different solutions to see what did and didn't work.
As you can see, there was a lot that didn't work in my eyes.
ANIMATION / LIGHTING & RENDERING
There is a first time for everything. Although I animated basic things like a ball bounce and walk cycle before, I never really tried my hand at storytelling with 3D animation.
My rigs weren't technically robust and neither were my models. But if there was anything that helped me during the animation stage it was my eye for what makes things look cute.
"When all else fails, make it cute."
- My Inner Monologue
To my surprise, the animation stage which I thought I would have difficulty with, ended up being the most straightforward step of the process: sit down, focus and put in the hours.
It added the extra expression needed to deliver the purpose of each shot, and my story read clearer than before.
Render setup on the other hand, was new to me. Learning all the ins and outs of Arnold ended up being quite the undertaking. I hit the ground running with tutorials, linkedIn learning and any other resource I came across. Configuring all the aovs, light groups, settings and learning about what they all did as quickly as I could. I also kept in mind the goal of finishing on time. Once I knew enough and the render scenes looked passable, I moved on.
I cached out all animations, cameras and manually re-assigned shaders for all 37 shots. Placed them all on the render farm and iterated on the renders up to 4 times through.
When all the rendering was completed on my shots, I was prepared for the first critique back from spring break - but then COVID 19 hit New York and the whole city shut down.
UNEXPECTED TURN OF EVENTS
No one thought the corona virus would get this bad. Suddenly, thesis production and delivery had been thrown off course and we were urged to stay off campus. After 1 week of limited reservation-only lab days, it was announced we would be finishing up the school year remotely- and that everyone had to collect their things and leave.
Our department chair announced that our deadline would be pushed back two weeks.
Luckily enough, I had managed to make one last visit to the labs, gathered all 400+ GB of my rendered exr sequences, and with the help of the department's IT team- had my workstation at home prepared to make final changes to my thesis.
NUKE / CG COMPOSITING / FINAL TOUCHES
In the two weeks left before submission, I had spent a good deal of time learning exactly how to use of all the data within the rendered exr sequences. CG compositing was new to me. With one week watching Nuke tutorials plus added guidance over zoom from all 3 of my thesis instructors, I was able to get the hang of basic CG compositing. I made lighting corrections, used cryptomattes to cut certain things out, and polished each shot to satisfaction.
Though I still had the energy to chuckle at A over B nuke hiccups.
Having to work remotely, manage/update a Shotgun project page and communicate on progress/technical needs with the IT dept was a great learning experience. Challenging, but thrilling nonetheless.
Finally, after running every shot through Nuke, I revised the edit in After Effects, managed to complete sound design as best I could through Adobe Audition and completed my Thesis, "DINNER IS SAVED" with a weekend to spare.
First off, thank you for taking a look at my process! The school year is now coming to an end and I'm looking towards May 12th, 2020 for the premiere of all the graduating students' short films.
Similar to looking back on any project, of course there are things I would do differently given the chance- but I believe that these reflections are what makes anything a learning experience. One of the more important takeaways though, is how important of a step reference is in order to have clear creative direction. It's also needed to avoid getting sidetracked in experimenting with too many different ideas. Indecisiveness eats time for sure.
"More is lost by indecision than wrong decision. Indecision is the thief of opportunity. It will steal you blind."
- Marcus Tullius Cicero
To put a short and sweet end to this lengthy post, I'm happy to say that I am proud of myself and my peers who reached their goals and accomplished what they set out to do during the past 4 years. I am walking away from this project with a strong sense of accomplishment. While my thesis isn't the most impressive in its field, it has a special place in my heart along with all the obstacles, personal victories and experiences that came with it.
Thank you for caring! I hope to meet you with more of my work soon!