Exploring new and accessible tools in the creation process
Watch the teaser for Small Blue Shadow, below.
A look behind the scenes at Ari Rubenstein’s Small Blue Shadow, including how he’s been using Character Creator and Unreal Engine to make it.
The short description for filmmaker Ari Rubenstein’s Small Blue Shadow CG film project is: ‘Feeling trapped and restless, a Manhattan professional dreams of escaping the urban rat race.’ You can now see the visualization of that description in a teaser for Small Blue Shadow, but Rubenstein, whose day job is as creative director and visual effects supervisor at studio BREAK+ENTER, wants to take it much further into a 30 minute short.
Already, he has made a high quality teaser short film with a primary digital human character crafted in Reallusion Character Creator with the addition of add-ons like SkinGen and CC Morphs. As part of his goals of this film project, Rubenstein wanted to see how the standard VFX and 3D animation pipeline tools like Maya, Houdini and Nuke could work hand-in-hand with Unreal Engine.
That’s partly because Rubenstein knows those pipelines deeply from previous work at Tippett Studio and Blue Sky Studios, but it’s also because he is deeply interested in testing out the new waters of real-time tools, like Unreal, and accessible 3D creation tools, like Character Creator. befores & afters asked Rubenstein to outline his goals with Small Blue Shadow further.
b&a: Why are you making Small Blue Shadow?
Ari Rubenstein: I’m doing it for three reasons. It’s something to keep me intellectually engaged, like writing a story or expressing something that I want to express and feel the need to express that I can’t do in my day job. I’m also not just interested in the storytelling, I’m interested in exploring the art and tech of filmmaking. So the second reason is learning that which I don’t know.
The third reason is that I want to push new things. I worked at Tippett Studio for a while and then at Blue Sky Studios. At Blue Sky they were using compositing as if it was primarily a finishing tool. I thought, ‘Wow, we do these elaborate lookdevs in live action. Why aren’t they exploring this craft as much in animated feature production ? There’s so much that could be converged between the two.’ And so, I spent years at Blue Sky trying to push compositing into the pipeline.’ It was a political challenge, a creative and a technical challenge as well.
With Small Blue Shadow, it was all about the new era of Unreal Engine. There’s so much hype– and I love what Epic is doing–but I wanted to separate the wheat from the chaff and ask, ‘What is Unreal? Do I have to do everything in Unreal?’ Few articles, interviews or other sources discussed in any depth where and how Unreal fit into film production as I know it.
b&a: How did you apply that thinking then to what you wanted to make?
Ari Rubenstein: I wanted to create a film where I learned how to stitch Unreal into the standard VFX and animation pipeline, not use it alone. To that end, the shots in this are Unreal, V-Ray for Maya, Nuke, Character Creator, Nuke DMPs, and more, all stitched together.
I stripped away all those post processes in Unreal. All the things that give it that Unreal look: depth of field, the chromatic aberration, camera motion. Everything. I had to turn off all the bells and whistles and learn to use the Movie Render Queue to render out the same AOVs I would use in standard live action compositing. I thought it was more interesting to figure out, what are the strengths of Unreal?
There’s some awesome propagation tools. There’s some incredible tools that could be utilized in the pipeline. Real-time’s a misnomer, in my opinion, but the notion of enhanced visualization during the look development process is a great idea. Or the accessibility of building a previs pipeline that’s way more advanced than most of the studios employ, is also a great idea. Overall, for me it was about figuring out what its virtues were, and then leaving its weaknesses behind, and then using the strength of the standard VFX tools.
b&a: Since you’ve used multiple tools for Small Blue Shadow, where do Character Creator and other Reallusion tools fit in with your pipeline?
Ari Rubenstein: Character Creator specifically came in because, for my primary character, I needed to do a lot of stuff myself. The plan is to use artists all over the world, like I did with my last film, The Blues Crab, but the reality is you still do a lot of things yourself. I also feel like I’ve got to technically know everything, soup to nuts. If there’s something I can’t do at all, then I don’t even start the film.
So, the first thing I did was write down a list of things I didn’t know how to do, and a list of things that I knew how to do. One of the things I had to think about was, ‘Am I going to model a photo-realistic person? How long is that going to take me? When was the last time I modelled a photo-realistic person?’
Now, I used to do spline cage modelling in 3ds Max 25 years ago. I can model in ZBrush, but I considered that a bridge too far. Here’s the thing: I was standing over my daughter playing the Sims game while she was creating all her custom characters, and it made me think, ‘I really need to look for tools that are kind of like a Sims game.’
I came across Character Creator, and I thought, ‘Wow, that’s very cost effective. Now what can I do with this tool?’ If I want to get the geometry, it’s got all these plugins, tons of morph targets, and I can just sit there and design a character, just like Sims. And of course it’s great quality.
It’s also got all these tools for different skin, and it’s got SkinGen. So I said, ‘Wow, what if I use Character Creator, with the SkinGen plugin and CC Morphs, to design the character I want?’ I might still do hair in Maya and I might push it into ZBrush and Mari to do some tweaking and enhancements. But I knew that so much could be done in Character Creator.
b&a: There’s a lot you can do in it.
Ari Rubenstein: Yes, I just looked at it and said, ‘Wait!? You get a model of a male or female? You can then use the morphs to design it? Then you can use SkinGen and change textures, everything? They’re all already nicely UV’d? And you can export that out into Maya? This is amazing.’
Plus it’s also only around $300. It meant I could design a character, export the whole thing, all the parts stay separate, all of the maps export all in an automated way. It was an incredible starting point. I don’t have to get a modeler. I don’t have to get a texture artist.
b&a: What was your experience getting up to speed in Character Creator?
Ari Rubenstein: Character Creator is very intuitive to learn quickly. I’d already been going through lots of Unreal tutorials on YouTube, and I did the same thing with Character Creator. Some VFX hero out there on the internet has made an articulated tutorial that is literally just for you, believe it.
b&a: What are the future plans for your film right now?
Ari Rubenstein: My ambition is to take it from a teaser to a trailer and to the whole entire film. It’s very ambitious. But I also have to be practical–I’m creative director of BREAK+ENTER and we have been very busy, which is great. I have a lot of energy still to give, though, and there’s so much to do.