A short animation movie for a campaign on photovoltaics

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From nano-science to astrophysics, energy is the main preoccupation of every physicist. It is also the main preoccupation of today society. Energy is a wide term that takes many forms: it can be mechanical, thermal, chemical… One of its particularity is that it can be transformed but not created nor destroyed. Currently, one of the main challenges of our society is to transform the energy that can be extracted from a given source into electricity in a cheap and non-polluting way. The whole world is spinning around this problematic which unifies but also tears populations down all over our little planet. That is why I have decided to associate with friends from different fields and different countries in order to make a short animation movie about this topic. This project is an opportunity to unify scientists and artists around a current societal issue and deal with the subject in a didactic and pleasant way. However, being a scientist who did not have any clue about making an animation movie, this project has been the opportunity for me to learn the basics about the topic. In this blog you will be able to follow the progress of our movie step by step and I will share with you the knowledge that I acquire during the production process. And of course, if you want to make a donation for our project, you’re very welcome to go on our crowdfunding page.

First step: the script.

When I first contacted Alex in October, the first thing he asked me was to write a script. I had basically no idea how to write such thing. As a researcher I write publications which must respect a rigorous structure, which roughly is: i) introduction where you introduce the problem you are dealing with, ii) the main body of the manuscript where you present how you solve the problem, what is the solution to it and what are the consequences of your findings for science and iii) conclusions of your demonstration and outlooks. I imagined that writing a script was something more poetic, a story that you write and divide into different scenes. After spending a whole night on my script, I thought it looked nice. When Alex read it, he told me: “hum…I can tell you’re not a script writer”. Then he explained to me how to create a script for my movie. First of all, you need to have a clear message that you want to transmit to your audience. This part was the easiest one for me since I knew exactly what I wanted to tell people. First, I wanted to say how primitive and damaging are our energy production methods. Second, I wanted to show that there could be some alternative way of producing energy that would solve many problems. The real issue was how could I show all this in an animation movie? This is not an easy question since it does not only depend on your creativity but also on your budget. The budget is the second point to take into account when you write a script. The script must reflect the budget you have for your movie. The cost of an animation movie strongly depends on the techniques which are used. For example making a very good quality 3D movie is generally much more expensive than a 2D movie. The number and variety of scenery will also greatly influence the cost of the movie. In particular, the transitions between each scenery and the presence of characters are crucial since they may require advanced techniques. It is more difficult to fix the scenery and have a character moving than the contrary. This is why motion design is so popular nowadays, since it allows animating the background. In addition, having a character speaking is very complicated since it requires an advanced technique called “lipsing”, which allows synchronizing the lips movement of the character with the voice. The time spent on the production will also determine the budget and the script. This is why great quality animation movies such as Wall-E (Pixar) cost 180 million dollars with a production time of several years. If you have a very small budget and just a few month time then you have to impose strict conditions. This is why we have chosen to make a 2 minute movie in 2D with some 3D components and adopted a motion design animation style, without any characters and voice. Even though these criteria look a bit restrictive, you still have a lot to play with in terms of style in order to get an impressive result. The last point is the story. This is when creativity comes into play. You need to find a story that will respect the message you want to transmit and fit into the constraints imposed by your budget. On top of this you need to find a story that is punchy so that you can grasp the interest of anyone watching the movie. Once you’ve made up the story, you need to think about its dynamic: how will images be animated. In this part you also need to think about what should be shown with images and what should be said with words. In summary, a script is definitely not something that you write like a story you make up and tell to a child before he goes sleeping. A script is the basement of the building. It has to be solid and very rigorous, just like a scientific publication. Eventually, after three months of intense brain storming, with the help of Alex we obtained a script that fitted all the constraints I have mentioned here. But if you want to know our story, you’ll have to wait untill it is finished. And if you want to support our project, don’t forget to make a donation on our crowdfunding page.

Second step: the storyboard.

The creation of the story board is a decisive step in the production of a movie. This is when the script becomes visual and words get to have a shape. The story board is a contract between the producer and the director. What is on the story board will be the movie, except that it will be animated in the movie. You can obviously revise the movie once it is over, that is called a “retake”. However, for the budget of this movie, no retake is allowed and the story board is certainly the most important step for the director of the movie. A story board is divided into sequences. Each sequence is divided into scenes and each scene is divided into shots, as shown below. For our animation movie we have dozens of shots, however for big production movies, there are thousands of these.Story board1To each scene is attributed the total duration time, while each shot contains the following information: i) the camera position and movement, ii) the special effects (fx), iii) the moving elements (“Action”) and, iv) the sound/music associated to the shot. In our case we have no voice but a sound produced by our musician Martin. However you can imagine much bigger story boards for movies where characters are talking… Usually, in a big production movie, the story artist is a person who is dedicated to create story boards only. It’s a huge job ! But in our case, the story artist is also the producer and his time is very limited. That is why the story board is not as perfect as expected in a big production movie. However, even though the drawing is a bit rough, all the necessary information is present.

Third step: the animatic.

The animatic is usually a rough animated version of the story board. The images of the story board are put all together and animated in order to get a broader vision of the dynamics of the scenary. In addition, dialogues and sound can be added. This is a very important preliminary step prior to the production of the movie. Thanks to the animatic, the directors and producers can decide whether they want to modify, add, eliminate or keep scenery. In this way the storyboard can be modified untill reaching its final form. In long feature-length movies, the animatic is very important to see the dynamics of the movie and see if every single piece of this huge puzzle fits together to obtain a globally attractive result. In our case, we could not afford, given the length of the movie, the available time and budget, to make a real animatic. For our animation movie, the producers are directly looking each piece of the puzzle and make tests during the production step to see if everything works. However, we’re not that nasty, we won’t let you finish reading this post without giving you a glimpse of what could resemble a nice animatic of our movie. The computer graphics designers have worked hard for two months after we elaborated the script and the storyboard and here we give you a short taste of what they have been doing so far. But beware, keep in mind that this 12 second clip is not part of the final version of the movie. Some of the pictures are entirely finished and some not. In addition transitions between the images are not finished, the sound is just a beat that will be improved and complemented with a melody. This is why we put this version in the animatic section. Soon, you will be able to see final 2D pictures and 3D elements of our movie. For now, enjoy this 12 second clip. And if you want to know what happens next, support this project by making a donation on our crowdfunding webpage and diffuse it as much as you can.

Fourth step (part 1): Creation of 3D objects

It is now time to enter into the details of the production of our animation movie. Our three computer graphics designers have been working hard for 10 weeks now on the production process. Loic is working on the creation of the 3D elements, while Alex is focusing on the 2D part and Jeremy on the 2D special effects (Fx2D). Today I would like to briefly explain to you what Loic does. Loic has a great expertise in the creation of 3D animation movies and usually the four steps he follows to create 3D elements are (we exclude the animation part here):

1) Modelling: this is the creation of the rough object. In this step the object structure is defined with lines only, without any colour.
2) Shading: in this phase, the 3D structure becomes a virtual material object with a colour. However, there is still no texture at this point.
3) Texturing: here the texture, which is designed in 2D, is “injected” onto the 3D object. This is when 2D and 3D intimately collaborate to obtain a more real perception of the 3D object.
4) Rendering: This final step corresponds to the calculations of the final image thanks to a 3D software in order to obtain the real aspect of the 3D image.

In our movie, the 3D objects are used to change the camera position and see the scenary under different angles. However the final image is in 2D. In other words, for a given point of view the 3D object is visualised in 2D and the texturing and rendering phases are performed in 2D. For this reason Loic works on the 3D phases 1 and 2, while Alex works on the 2D phases 3 and 4. For now, have a look at an example of a 3D object that Loic has made. And if you want to see the final object finished by Alex, you’ll have to wait a few days. If you wish to know more about this project and make a contribution, don’t forget to visit our crowdfunding webpage, which is now available in English, French and Spanish.

Fourth step (part 2): Creation of 2D objects

As mentioned last week, Alex is in charge of the 2D texturing and rendering. First of all, he creates several layers where he draws the lansdcapes, 2D objects and implement the 2D projections of Loic’s 3D objects. This last bit gives more deepness and perspective to the final picture. In addition, Alex gives texture to the objects, in line with the Sheppard Fairey style that is at the heart of this short film design. Do you remember the short video of Loic’s 3D thank from last week? Well now look at the evolution of his tank after Alex took a projection of this object, textured it and rendered it.

tank_01 tank_02

Recently Alex has bought a new tablet where he can perform his art not only in the office but also at home.

                             Alex1         Alex2

Yes, these guys work almost 24/7 for this project and I am sure they would quite appreciate that you support their work on our crowdfunding webpage, if you haven’t done so yet.

Fifth step: Fx2D

We have now come to the penultimate part of the production of our animation movie: the animation of the 2D images. This step is performed by Jérémy. Jérémy has freshly graduated and has a great experience in working with 2D special effects (Fx2D). Basially his job consists in creating the illusion of movment by superposing a succession of 24 motionless pictures in 1 second. In our movie these types of effects are very important. For instance, smokes, explosions, wiggles, blurs are very present in our two minute movie and this guy has been kept very busy. Here is a very short example of what he’s done.

And here are some pictures of Jeremy making his piece of art.

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