'Fallen', animated short by Will Gibbons

Phew, it's finally time for me to release this project into the wild. Like any piece of art, it's never finished, we just need to decide when it's time to abandon it. This is my first animated short narrative. The scope and duration of the piece, while somewhat limited by my hardware at the time, I feel sufficiently tells the story I wanted to.

Narrative

The animation opens up with some toys on a boy's shelf in his bedroom. We see the soldiers and their array is reminiscent of both soldiers ready for battle and the orderly rows of the white crosses that represent fallen soldiers. The jacks represent the Czech Hedgehogs used as barricades in war. The toy soldier on his side represents both literally and figuratively, the fallen solder, representing the cost of war. After the camera pans up to the next shelf, we see a wedding band and dog tags signifying the death of a solder related to this boy. We then see the fallen soldier's lighter, a Vietnam-era Zippo. The camera focuses on the fallen solder flag and photo, telling us this boy's father is the one who was lost at war. 

Stills

Here are some Key Frames pulled from the animation sequence. 

Origin

This project began as an idea back in March 2017, when I emailed my friend Andrew Bougie of Digitize Designs asking how much detail he could capture in a small toy soldier scan. He ended up scanning a pack of toy soldiers for me to use for this project.

Collaboration

The Toy Soldiers were scanned using an Artec 3D Space Spider, a $25,000 high-precision handheld scanner. While it may have taken an artist countless hours to model the toy soldiers by hand, Andrew made quick work of it and could scan each model in a matter of minutes. Anytime you need a high-fidelity 3D model of a detailed, physical object, scanning is the way to go!

Process

Andrew came through with the scanned models very quickly. Then my work schedule became hectic and I delayed the project. After a few months passed, I felt guilty and decided I owed him a better idea than just rendering out the scans on their own.

After brainstorming, I decided I wanted to create a narrative on a meaningful subject. I wanted to tie the toy soldiers to the true costs of war and decided to pay homage to Steven Spielberg's 1998 film, Saving Private Ryan. With Pixar's A Toy Story having such a huge impact on me as a child, I wanted to tap into what that film did and use inanimate objects to represent real-world situations and tell as story. This is how I ended up with a young boy's bedroom as a setting. I then broke the project into steps as outlined below.

  • Create storyboard & narrative
  • Choose 3D applications (Fusion 360, Blender, KeyShot, Premiere Pro)
  • Gather ample photo reference
  • Model everything (except the Toy Soldiers provided by Andrew)
  • Light the scene & animate the cameras in KeyShot
  • Render some Keys to check materials, lighting, samples etc.
  • Render low-res. animations to test camera motion & pacing
  • Test the low-res. image sequences in Premiere Pro and learn about post-production
  • Render full-res. sequences
  • Composite & post in Premiere Pro

This whole process took me about 4 months to complete. I needed to chip away at it bit by bit before and after work on evenings and on weekends, in airports and other countries as I traveled for work. 

Challenges

Every project comes with challenges. Here a couple I was presented with during this time.

  • The first challenge arose when I was modeling and compiling the scene in Fusion 360. It's become my defacto 3D application due to ease-of-use, cloud-based file management system and affordability. After adding more and more detail to my scene, Fusion 360 stopped exporting my scene as a .obj which was necessary for this project.

    After troubleshooting with Autodesk's support over the course of a few weeks, I learned that I eventually reached Fusion 360's .obj export limit. Read more about that here. I finally solved this by simply kitbashing and organizing my scene inside KeyShot, which has no issues with triangle count, thank goodness!
     
  • Rendering in KeyShot is generally very fast and creates some great results. I however, was rendering one of the worst-case-scenarios with this project. First off, it's an interior, something that always requires lots of indirect illumination to produce nice results. I also wanted everything to look life-like while utilizing depth of field and motion blur on the camera.

    On my old 6-core i7, my machine took from one to three hours to render. The entire animation has 1,032 frames. The final animation alone consumed about 1,500 hours, or about 62 days of non-stop rendering. I broke this into smaller segments and pieced the frames together in Premiere Pro to complete this project. 

Lessons

While this project was extremely rewarding, I learned some lessons that might help me on future projects of a similar scope. 

  • Planning - The more planning up-front, the more time you'll save in making revisions to your project. Have a true day-by-day game plan for how to execute. And plan as much on paper as possible before going digital.
  • Render Keys - Luckily, I did this and it saved me time and frustration. By creating a low-resolution animation first, to resolve the camera motion, then rendering out higher-quality stills thoughout the animation, I could match quality of both motion and image fidelity without trying to render it all out at once. This saved lots of time and resources. Do many drafts before committing to the final rendering.
  • Hardware - I need faster hardware, so I'm building a new computer. It's not cheap, but it'll pay for itself in time savings.

Inspiration

I previously mentioned that Saving Private Ryan was a huge inspiration for this project. Specifically, I looked at the introduction sequence for that film. Here are some stills below, which are property of the production companies of that film.

Thanks for taking the time to read up on this fairly extensive project. If you found it interesting or enjoyable, I'd like it if you please share it. If you have suggestions on how I could improve it, please comment below!