财神爷 (God of Fortune) [pronounced Cai Shen Ye in Chinese] was inspired by childhood experiences as a Malaysian Chinese celebrating Chinese New Year - a Chinese festivity that celebrates the beginning of a new Lunar year.
"恭喜發財，紅包拿來!" (May you attain great fortune, now hand me my red packet!) This was a common phrase jokingly used among peers during Chinese New Year.
Reunion dinners and dressing up in new clothes were both exciting; but as a child, the excitement of receiving Ang Pao was what celebrating Chinese New Year all about. Back then, we didn't know the significance of Ang Paos, nor the real value of money as we did now. We were just happy to receive each Ang Pao, naively thinking that it's better to have more than less.
Characters: Ah Boi and Cai Shen
The designs for the characters were developed simultaneously in both 2D and 3D. Our concept artists first came up with tons of concept sketches; in which our 3D character artists will then produce a rough sculpt of the favorable designs. Any further refinements of the 2D designs were then transferred onto the sculpt until a satisfactory design was put together.
Proportions played a huge role in achieving a balance for the cartoony look we were aiming for. While Ah Boi had a large head (with each consequent body group downwards decreasing in size), the opposite was done for Cai Shen Ye (small head, larger body). We pushed Cai Shen's design further by giving him an exaggerated belly and a bean-shaped head. The edges of the characters were also rounded.
Initially, we were opting for a more realistic, physically based rendering (PBR) finishing, but the early render tests were unsatisfactory as everything seemed plastic. We were struggling until we stumbled upon a diffuse-only channel in the viewport, introducing us to the possibility of a cel shaded finishing.
From there, we experimented with the VrayToon shader which produced a promising result; the only downside was that the shader was not supported by most of our setup. We then discovered EnoguToon (selling on gumroad by the username WataruCG) which unfortunately was not able to produce high quality renders; though it was adequate for real-time viewport previews. Eventually, we settled with Arnold, which creates the same results from the previous shaders and is also compatible with our pipeline.
Have a look at our turnarounds for Ah Boi and Cai Shen below!
In the early development phase of the environment and props, our concept artists explored and experimented on several versions of the temple’s interior, as well as the arrangement of each props.
To ensure that the designs of our characters complement the environment and vice versa, we came up with a shape language design rule that applies to all assets including the temple itself.
To break down this design rule, every object is split horizontally into 3 parts, applying the ratio of 3:6:1 (top:middle:bottom); where the middle part of an object is always twice the length of the top part, and that the bottom part takes up only 10% of the height. Next, for when bevel is needed, the bevel angle from either side shall only be 30 degrees.
With the concept designs finalized, we started on the models and completed them with hand painted textures applied accordingly.
Focus was given mainly on the facial on both characters, especially the Cai Shen Rig - whereby most of his acting shots are close ups. The use of both joints and blendshapes were implemented for this, maximum flexibility for the animators and authorship for the deformations by the rigger. The hardest setups were Ah Boi's bendy arms and his facial expression.
The animation style of this film was inspired by Looney Tunes 3D animation, with the animation’s “cartoony level” differing based on the intensity of each shot.
Each shot started with layout - arranging the camera angle and characters' position based on our storyboard. After that, we did thumbnail sketches to improve the acting, and to have a clear idea of the action before blocking it out in 3D. Next was blocking out the characters' movements and facial expressions; as none of us have younger siblings as reference, we had to act out the actions and behaviours ourselves to have a better understanding of the body mechanics in each shot for the acting to look natural. We then finished up with splining and polishing.
Here are some of our early key art explorations and their corresponding stills from the film, as well as the full colour script below!
All in all, it was a fruitful journey despite the hardships and challenges we faced. We manage to have a better understanding of a film’s production as well as one’s strength and weakness. It may be luck that brought us together as teammates, but all the hard work and effort poured into completing this film was what made this an enjoyable and rewarding experience.