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A New Journey – Endterm 300 Project by Jacob Döhner

A New Journey – Endterm 300 Project by Jacob Döhner

Jacob Döhner
by jacobdoehner on 27 May 2021 for Rookie Awards 2021

Welcome to my entry for this year's Rookies Awards! My name is Jacob, I am a 20-year-old student at the PIXL VISN media arts academy in Cologne, Germany. I am proud to present you my Endterm 300 project I created in one week this April after 9 months enrolled as a student at PIXL VISN.

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The Theme

At PIXL VISN, we receive the theme of our Mid- or Endterm projects the night before our Endterm week begins. This Endterm's theme was Explorer, and I already knew I wanted to focus on animation this time.

I started looking for stylized rigs that could match our theme. Then I remembered the rigs from Toy Story that were published not long ago on Agora Community. I thought these characters always had this "exploring" personality, so I decided to make Woody and Rex explore a dark spooky forest. 

Preparation I Pre-Production and Planning

Planning and Reference I started writing down my story and shot ideas for the animation, and really tried to create a plan for the week. This was one of the most important steps before starting with anything.

I wanted to match the style of animation from the original Toy Story movies, so I tried to collect as much reference as possible. Then, on Sunday, I watched Toy Story 3 and 4 and analyzed how the characters behave and move. Even though I realized, for example, that Rex is moving really stiffly in the movies, I decided to make his movements a little bit softer because of the whole mood in my story. 

Rigs On Sunday, I also prepared the textures/shaders for Arnold because they did not look good straight out of the box. I switched the shaders from Maya's native materials to aiStandardSurface shaders, applied a little bit of color correction to the base color, and added some subtle surface imperfections to break up to surface and give the characters a more worn and believable look.

Environment I planned using assets from the Quixel library and MASH in Maya to quickly create a nice looking and render a friendly environment. It was really important to show how small the characters actually are, so the plants had to be quite large in comparison. I looked for some close-up shots of forests, which helped me later in creating the environment. This was my first time working with MASH, so I was glad that one of my friends, Laura Ludwig, was giving me a quick introduction into the plugin.   

Lighting For lighting, my main goal was to achieve a spooky but not too scary look to emphasize the whole mood and emotions of the characters. I also wanted to create a foggy atmosphere and imitate leaves moving high above and therefore have subtle movement in the light rays, so I collected many mood references for lighting. I wanted to use Arnold for this project because it offers some features that I missed in Vray and really wanted to use for this project. 

Production and Delivery

Layout I started with a rough layout of my environment to plan where and when the characters would be. After that, I created the first cameras and planned out the first shots to make sure everything would work out. I then made a basic walk cycle for both characters, which was the base of all my animation. Rex's walk was relatively easy, and it did not take too much time to create. However, Woody's walk cycle took me a long time because I needed to get used to his foot setup and had not animated a biped walk cycle for a longer time.

Animation Once the walk cycles were done and baked on the spot, I started creating motion paths, letting the characters walk through my scene and checking how many frames I needed for each shot. 

On top of the walk cycle, I created one additive and one override animation layer for each character. Animation layers made it easy to build all of the other animations on top of the base without destroying it. I really like this workflow because it also helps me to keep everything organized and clean. 

I constantly switched from perspective view to my camera and made sure the animation would work and look good in both cameras. This allowed me to later make small changes to my camera if needed. In addition, I regularly playblasted each shot and made a rough edit with music in Davinci Resolve. This helped me decide how many frames I needed for each shot and to achieve my desired mood.

In one of the last shots Woody pushes down a leaf to reveal the lost toy story DVD. I created this deformation with two blendshapes: One blendshape deforms only the area directly where Woodys hand is grabbing the leaf and the other deforms the whole geometry.

Environment I worked on the animation from Monday to Saturday. On Saturday, I started working on the environment and collected the best fitting models in the Quixel library. I used the MASH plugin in Maya to quickly scatter the different plants all over my scene and create various sizes and shapes to not make it look too generic. Then, looking through the shot camera, I placed a few more plants to create some nice visual depth and help the overall composition. I also made sure that there were no unnecessary plants that would not be visible in the shot anyways to avoid longer render times. Once I was happy with the result, I baked the geometry and prepared the scene for the render farm.

Lighting In the next step, I created light setups for the environment and the characters. I started with the environment lights to create a basic setup for each of the 8 shots. It did not take me too long to create the environment lights and atmosphere, and I was happy with the result. To create the light rays from the trees and also subtle movement in those rays, I used a tree alpha and applied it to planes in my scene. I then animated the rotation of those planes randomly to achieve movement and variation in the light. Once the environment lights were done, I only needed to tweak some of the settings of each light to make it work for the other shots.

One smaller challenge was definitely the light setup for the characters because I have never really done any lighting for an animated sequence before. However, with a few tips and tricks from Laura, I created a solid working light setup for my characters, and I was pleased how it turned out in the end for the first time doing this. I created 3 lights: one key, one rim, and one fill, so the characters were always lit properly. To make sure the lights were only visible on the characters, I created an aiLightblocker and inversed it, so the lights were only visible inside the light blocker.

This way, I kept the environment lights and the character lights separate and only see those lights on my characters directly in the render view without having to subtract the lights in post. I grouped all my character lights for each character and parented the group to the main controls of each rig, so the lights would move with the characters. If my character lights were still visible on some environment models, I later subtracted them in Nuke with cryptomatte selection. I repeated these steps for each shot, and this light setup worked out great for every other shot.

Rendering I knew that I would have to render 800 frames in total and the render times were already between 25-35min so I decided to render in 720p and upscale in post otherwise I would not be able to render all of my frames in time. Before rendering I playblasted every shot and made sure everything would work in the end. I rendered 7 out of 8 shots on the Fox Renderfarm.

Compositing After rendering, I wanted to achieve an anamorphic film look for all shots to make it look like a small snipped from the actual movie. So first, I denoised my renders and upscaled them from 720p to 1080p. Unexpectedly, this worked very well, and the render quality did increase a lot. I then color graded my shots and tweaked some lights until I was happy with the result. After that, I added some post-effects like zDefocus with anamorphic bokeh shapes, anamorphic lens distortion, and film grain.

When creating depth of field, I encountered a problem I did not experience before: Most of the plants were just planes, therefore really thin geometry, so I had some artifacts when blurring with zDefocus (fringe on some geometry borders). The only solution to this was to work with render layers and separate them into multiple depth layers and blur each layer individually. Unfortunately, I had already rendered most of the shots and could not fix this problem anymore (except for the first shot) because there was no time left and the deadline was coming closer. I repeated these steps for every shot and I was able to achieve the film look I wanted to create in the first place.

In the last step, I cached all of my geometry, including my characters, imported the cache into NukeX, and created a 3D particle setup for my first shot. I only did this for my first shots because the render time was quite high (2 hours for 150 frames).

Once all of the shots were rendered in Nuke, I just needed to replace my playblasts in Davinci Resolve with my renders. As a final step, I created the breakdown of my animation and my lighting.


Personally, I always think it is hard to find a good idea in the first place. It was not any different this time, but I exchanged my ideas with my colleagues and friends and soon decided that this story would be an excellent idea for my Endterm 300. I know that this project is not perfect, and some things can be improved, but considering I created this project in only one week, I can definitely be proud of how everything turned out. As a 3D artist/student, you always have to remember that especially those project weeks are stressful and nothing ever goes perfect, and you will always have to do some troubleshooting. Even though things could have been done better, I learned a lot about planning and lighting an animated sequence this week. In class, we often only know how to create a walk cycle or only a specific action, but this time I had to plan the timing and movement of the characters to make sure everything would work out in the end. The workflow I used for this Endterm was beneficial, and I think I will continue to use it in the future. Lighting animated sequences were quite challenging initially, but soon I got the hang of it and enjoyed creating character light setups. It helped me plan out the shots, cameras, and story details in advance and start editing my playblast parallel to animating in Maya. That's why I think one whole day just for planning is crucial when approaching a project like this.

In the future, I will do a comp setup before rendering the final images to avoid problems, especially when using depth of field or motion blur. I learned that it is important to do a rough comp with your test renders with the effects you want to use and check what kind of problems could occur with the render. Other than that, I'm really happy and proud of how my Endterm project turned out!

I want to thank Laura Ludwig for her massive support during my Endterm and during my whole time at PIXL VISN.


Woody rig was created by: Roly - Rodrigo Lopez [rigging]

Rex rig was created by: Artem Dubinas [Rigging] 

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