Our film delves into the journey of Synne, an anxious cloud-shepherd, who watches over a flock of cloud sheep. Amidst the tempest of the thunder-wolf's arrival, the youngest lamb flees and is chased towards Earth. In this heartfelt tale of courage and learning to let go, Synne must make the ultimate sacrifice.
We drew many iterations of our main character, Synne, before finally settling on his final design. Our aim was to create a character that appeared somewhat gender ambiguous and have soft features to support his timid, over-protective nature. We also wanted to push the boundaries of his design to show his kinship with his cloud flock- he has sheep ears, a tail, horns, a distinct sheep-like philtrum and a sheep-like nose. The cloud beings in our film have cloud elements to distinguish them from their earth forms, which lose the clouds and instead sprout flowers. Furthermore, the cloud forms have blue and white colour palettes whereas the earth beings have greener, earthier tones which make them harmonious with their respective environments. These elements helped to support the whimsical tone of our film.
Keeping it Local
Our team decided to pay homage to our country, South Africa, which is known for its rich biodiversity by referencing local flora. Inspiration was taken from the fynbos and the Succulent Karoo to create whimsical designs befitting of a fantasy film. As our film comes to a close, viewers familiar with the country might catch a glimpse of Table Mountain in the distance and mentions of "the cape" referring to Cape Town.
3D Modelling, Texturing & ShadingWe were inspired by the unique, painterly style of the animated series Arcane and wanted our film to have a similar visual appearance. Our 3D characters and environment assets were modelled in Autodesk Maya and sculpted in Zbrush, where we made use of distinct plane changes and a brushstroke texture.
Light generators were used to create a first pass of texturing in Adobe Substance Painter. From there, the assets were fully hand painted using the shadows and highlights created by the light generators as guidance. The images labelled "diffuse pass" below contain no lighting information- it is purely the textures that are being shown. The final image, labelled "shading pass", showcases the toon shader applied to the models that served to enhance the hand-painted look.
It was important for us to tell a story through the progression of colour and light within our film. The film begins at sunset, where the soft pastel colours evoke feelings of contentment and calmness. When the wolf appears, the colours shift to inky blues and purples and the once vibrant colours become dull and desaturated. This indicates the shift to stormy weather as night falls and creates a gloomy, menacing atmosphere. After the lightning strikes and ignites a forest fire, the forest is bathed with pink and red tones, creating a sense of intense energy and danger. Once Synne is reunited with his lamb, the fire dies down and dawn breaks, bathing the surroundings in warm, soft colours once again and creating a new sense of calmness and hope. The new day symbolizes the start of Synne's new beginnings as he lives on Earth.
Compositing & VFX
The most challenging aspect of the creation of Counting Sheep was the reliance our film had on VFX elements. It was ultimately decided that our film would make use of 2D VFX for many reasons- firstly, the hand-painted aesthetic of our film would not suit realistic simulations and VFX. Secondly, simulations can be extremely heavy on rendering, and we had limited time and resources. We used a variety of techniques and software to achieve different effects- the transition between Earth and Cloud forms of the characters was created in Houdini. The fire, embers and lightning VFX were created using After Effects. The smoke was hand-animated on 1s, 2s and 3s in Toonboom Harmony.
The shots were lit in Autodesk Maya with the colour and position of the VFX elements in mind, which had to be added in post-production using render layers. As can be seen below, compositing starts off with the raw render from the lighting department and is done in Nuke in passes. The focal point of the shot is first enhanced before the colour is graded and finally the VFX is seamlessly integrated.