Cyan Eyed: Developing a Steampunk Film

The Director and Writer of Cyan Eyed Ryan Grobins talked about the idea behind the film, explained how environments, characters, and VFX were created, and what tools were used in production.

Introduction

My name is Ryan Grobins, originally from Adelaide, Australia, and I’ve been working in the VFX and animation industry for 25 years in six countries. Back when I started in CG, Australia, in general, didn't really have much to offer in the field of CG education, and Adelaide, in particular, had even less. I did manage to find a ‘multimedia’ course that gave me a basic introduction to 3D Studio R4, and it was enough for me to decide what I wanted to do with my career.

I’m currently Head of CG at FuseFX in Vancouver, Canada where I enjoy being able to tackle big and small issues in order to produce high-quality images as efficiently as possible. Professionally, my background through CG came from the path of lighting where I spent 12 years working, though my personal work gives me the opportunity to work in every part of the pipeline. I’ve been fortunate to be a part of some cool projects, such as the Emmy award-winning episode in the final season of Game of Thrones, Captain Marvel, Ant-Man & the Wasp

The Cyan Eyed Project

As well as writer/direct/producer on the film, I was also an artist in every pipeline step. Of the 1679 asset and shot tasks on the film, I personally completed over 1200 of them myself, from previs to comp and everything in between. I also wrote myself a new pipeline from the ground up, including file management tools, render submission and AOV management tools, texture, material, hair, cloth, animation, and asset management tools, as well as a whole lot of ‘quality of life’ tools to make the workflow easier. All up, over 10,000 lines of code went into this film.

The Teams and Working Process

Over the life of the film, there were three producers that took over the reins of managing the team. Jasmin Watkins was the first producer and was instrumental in getting the film up and running all the way to early shot work. Melissa Olsen then took over for a time to help out during the middle of production, and finally, Hugh Behroozy took the film all the way to the end, also helping to give me the motivation I needed, because when you work on a project for seven years, you need motivation from time to time. Most of the artists were either existing contacts, sourced from call-outs on LinkedIn, or selected by trawling through ArtStation.

I was extremely fortunate to be able to use Shotgun (now called Shotgrid) for the film, where everyone was able to access the relevant information, briefs, and feedback they needed to get their work done. Everyone uploaded versions toShotgun, and I reviewed it all, making heavy use of annotations and reference to help explain my notes. What was great about this is that all the members of the team could do everyone’s work, which was important to maintain a close team spirit. Almost everyone reported directly to me, except for comp, where I was able to rely on Conor Schock to help with notes to the comp team help. As for data sharing, Shotgun was used for almost everything except for comp, where because of the large amounts of data (some shots were over 50GB of render data), I ended up dropping off physical hard drives to the compers using ‘sneaker net’.

Altogether, there were a little over 50 people responsible for the visuals, and another 50 people responsible for the sound and music, definitely the largest team I have ever lead on a personal project.

The Birth of Cyan Eyed

I love trying new things. My first animated short film was a toon rendered adventure for children titled Sneeze Me Away, and my second film, The Rose of Turaida, was a highly stylized film made completely with sand-like CG particles about a 16th-century tragedy based on a true story set in Latvia. This time I wanted to do something fun with a big spectacle, something as good as a cinematic from Blizzard or Blur, and not necessarily have it be a ‘festival’ film. I’ve always loved steampunk, and I decided that I had a chance to contribute my own adventurous interpretation. I also decided to release the film online shortly after it was finished, instead of locking it behind another festival circuit for more than a year. In 2014 I came up with an outline of a robot rescuing a young girl from a bounty hunter pirate, then dived immediately into previs with the help of John Chen. I had the idea to give the young girl some sort of supernatural power, and the film’s title was born as an anagram of "eye candy". Because I was going for ‘spectacle’, I wanted to have the best-looking CG that an independent film can accomplish. I was constantly finding ways to increase the quality of the film and as a result, this film took far longer to complete than what I originally had hoped for.

Early Development and Music

I’ve always known about the power that great concept art has, not only in setting the look for the film and providing the necessary inspiration but also attract the right talent. My wife, Hyojung Kim created the earliest explorations of some character designs, and Artur Zima provide the fantastic final concepts of the characters. Jessica Smith provided the inspirational concepts for the internal skyship environment, while Yucheng Hong completed the amazing concept for the external design of the skyship. Christian Ronquillo came up with a brilliant design for the walking cannon. Conrad Allan, Matthew Zikry, and Ned Rogers contributed to further ideas about the skyship and the landscape environments.

An epic steampunk-themed animated short film needs an epic sound design so I took a chance in sending a cold email with concept art and a link to the latest previs to the world's best sound design company, Skywalker Sound. I was very surprised when I received a reply telling me that they were very interested in being involved! I had two mix sessions at Skywalker Sound lasting about a week each almost a year apart, led by supervising sound editor, Mac Smith. I can honestly say that being able to stay at Skywalker Ranch has been the highlight of my career so far, I was fully geeking out every minute of every day I was there.

My composer, Nicole Brady, gave me more amazing news: she managed to secure Peter Rotter, one of the most well-known music contractors for major Hollywood films and the Hollywood Studio Symphony orchestra to contribute to Cyan Eyed. I was able to attend the recording session in person at The Bridge, and was able to hear the music in all its full glory live!

Characters

I knew right from the beginning that I wanted this film to be the best quality that an independent film can have, complex cloth sims, hair sims, high-quality skin shaders. I had never built a high-quality character before, so I definitely needed help in a number of areas, especially hair grooming, rigging, face sculpting, and skin texturing. Andrew Krivulya provided the hair grooms for the pirate and the prisoner, while Phil Hook completed most of the rigging for the characters (body and face). John Chen and Damien Lam completed the head sculpts and Jennifer Kim created the skin textures for the human characters. Joseph Roberts, John Toth, Jonathan Romain, Benjamin Wheatley, and Ivo Šucur rounded out the character asset team by assisting in various asset-building tasks.

All of the cloth were designed, tailored, and simmed in Marvelous Designer, which produces fantastic results fast. Both the pirate and the prisoner have three layers of clothing in some places, and there are a number of buckles, buttons, and chains that are attached to the cloth that all move as expected. Some final touches to the human characters really finished off the quality I was aiming for: peach fuzz, clothing fuzz, and feathers. Hair and skin shading in Corona was released partway through the production of the film. It was a bit of a gamble to choose a renderer that had promised certain features at the time but didn’t have them yet, but it all worked out in the end.
The robots were quite complicated to build, and of particular note, how the two of them fit together, and the transformation that happens contains no intersecting geometry. I rigged up all the chains, hydraulics, gears, and hinges to work properly. The transformation shot was one of the few that survived from the first version of the previs, so knowing that I was going to get so close to the surface meant that I needed the appropriate textural detail. I also rigged all of the gears and other moving parts of the face to be able to create facial expressions.

The animation team on this film was quite large and made heavy use of an animation import/export tool I wrote that also was able to record link constraints, even when animated. Many thanks to Damian Castelini, Eddy Burnfield, Ivan Cadena, Joseph Leong, Kim Allen, Matt McGrath, MichaelRaiti, Paul Ziola, Rana Kar, Robert Paternoster, Samuel Collins and Stanley Darmawan. Conrad Murrey helped re-previs a fight sequence late into the production of the film that wasn’t quite working.

Environments

Everything within the skyship environment including characters were built in 3ds Max and rendered with Corona Renderer, and all external environments were either full-frame ranged sequences or individual HDRI’s rendered in Terragen. I was quite proud of developing a fully procedural aurora setup in Terragen at physically accurate heights. UV unwrapping both the internal and external surfaces of the skyship took about a month and 95% of the skyship was textured in Substance Painter. To help keep the number of textures and the memory usage as low as possible, I first created a number of tileable textures, then used the RGB channels of masks to mix between the dirt, scratches, and stains. Benjamin Holen and Joseph Roberts helped with some of the modeling tasks, and Sheree Chuang created the sail design textures. In much the same way as the robots, all the internal and external sections of the skyship fit together perfectly, with no intersecting geometry. The sails and wing flap cloth sims were a 400 frame cloth sim from Marvelous Designer that was reused and offset for each shot.

VFX

Most of the external clouds in the sky were created with Terragen, except for the wispies which were mapped particles in Nuke. Houdini was used for most of the other FX elements, including all of the destruction sims. One bug in Corona that was particularly difficult to work around was when the camera was inside a bounding box of a VDB, the VDB would disappear so I had to modify a few cameras to accommodate for this. Prateek Rangineni completed all of the destruction tasks, and the rest of the volumetric effects were completed by Cary Graham, Jacob Zaguri, Nick Biens, VictorMahnic, Zoran Dragas, and myself. The sparks and sword hit effects were mostly 2D particles and setups comped in Nuke.

Finishing the Film

I set up and lit every shot in the film myself, and most of the film was rendered on my three computers: a Dual Xeon workstation that was rendering when I wasn’t working and two AMD Threadripper 2’s that rendered 24 hours a day for almost two years. They were great to have around during the wintertime, and my wife often used the hot air exhaust to raise bread dough that she then baked. During crunch times when I needed to have some deliveries by a certain time, for example, sound lock, I used the fantastic and easy-to-use online rendering service GarageFarm.NET.

The final look of the film was developed by the talented Curtis Carlson who comped several key shots at the beginning of the compositing stage that really elevated the raw renders to something special. Conor Schock was instrumental in helping to lead the other compers by giving plenty of notes, allowing me to focus on lighting and rendering the entire film me. Michael Plotnikov, Devon Gay, Rahul Manoharan, and Noemi Cini were all instrumental in being able to comp a large portion of the film, and I comped the rest and then did an overall color grade on the film for continuity.

The rest of the visual team was filled out with Tanya Philipsen Jørgensen (title shot design), Sean Watts (public relations manager, who sadly passed away before the end of production), Kenji Gonzales (close up map design), Daniel Alvarez (title design explorations), Arthur Moody (hair design exploration) and Brooks Kim (picture frame illustration).

Conclusion

For a fully independent animated short film, sometimes it was tough to find the right people for tasks, and some other times it was tough to have people deliver tasks in a timely fashion, but in the same way that I was constantly motivated by my team’s updates to deliver, so to did I act as motivation for my team to deliver.

It was also tough to develop a pipeline while making this film. Often I would spend many days in a row to write tools, solve bugs, research methods, and test results. Some tools were rewritten multiple times to add new features, and sometimes I realized that some tools would take longer to make than the time to do an operation manually. Any time spent making tools was obviously time not making the film, and all up I think I spent around 5 months making those tools.

My first two films took three years each, Cyan Eyed took more than double that time frame at over seven years. It was sometimes tough to keep up with the motivation to complete this film, there were many times where days or weeks went by without me moving the film forward, but thanks to a hugely supportive team, their work kept giving me the inspiration to keep going. Though I think what kept me going most of all is the thought of spending all this time and money, and not finishing the damn thing. In the words of Kamaji from Spirited Away: “Finish what you started, human.” And that's the main advice I would give to anyone who wants to create an animated short film.

Ryan Grobins, a Director of Cyan Eyed

Interview conducted by Theodore Nikitin

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