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No-A is an ambitious little short that tells a lovely story of a robot, which will do anything for his master. This heartwarming and action-packed little animation was actually created by a group of students held by Liam Murphy. Using modern middleware solutions they have created an incredible tale with the production quality of the AAA-blockbuster. In this interview Liam talks about the project and its development.
Me and about 8 other Visual Effects and Animation students began brainstorming NO-A about a year and a half ago. The initial ambition was to create something that we just hadn’t seen from a student animated film before. It’s funny because some people call it cliche’, yet NO-A is one of the only student animated films of its kind. Usually, all animation students produce very similar looking, Pixar/Disney style animated films. I honestly just thought it was time to try something different. Something a bit more relevant. That ended up being a giant robot bashing soldiers faces in and saving a young girl! We had never done a project Like this before though. It was a first for all of us. We started concepting during our 3rd year of school and completed the film maybe 3 months ago.
After we produced the first 10 shots of the film, we had our winter break to step back and look at what we had made so far, and plan ahead. We ran into a bit of a snag though. Our render times were just too long to realistically finish the film on time. We had about 10 weeks to finish another 40 shots or so. Our render times were at worst about 2 hours per frame. When there are 24 frames per second that can really add up. So we went to Kickstarter to fund a third party render farm. We ended up getting a staff pick, so the funding actually came in pretty quickly. The best part of Kickstarter though, was that it introduced us to a lot of great composers! Led us down a good path to get the music for the film completed.
Conveying the Story Through Characters and Light
Being an animator at heart, I do believe that if the character performance isn’t there, your story is lost. With that said I think that the animation might be a principal author of the story, but not the sole author. There are a lot of things going on that subliminally direct your emotion during these stories. For instance the lighting played a big role in representing characters and their intentions. The soldiers we tried to keep in shadow a lot of the time due to their dark nature. And NO-As journey is a path to the light both figuratively and literally. If you compare the first and last frames, in the first he is coming from darkness and in the last frame he is jumping into the light. The light possibly representing saving the young girl because she is the light of his life. And of course I can’t talk about the story without mentioning the music. If it weren’t for Jacob Yoffees score, the ending especially wouldn’t be as effective.
In regards to the technical aspect, the lighting was all done using rendermans lighting tools. We used global illumination and everything else that was probably overkill. But it we finished despite not being the most efficient we probably could have been!
I’ll use our main character as an example of our workflow. I started by drawing out dozens of rough possibilities for his entire body. Then I would post the many options to our forum where we would all vote/critique what was or wasn’t working in some of the options. Maybe the characters silhouette was too large or too small. Maybe his head was featureless and wouldn’t show emotions well. We would then narrow it down to one drawing that we liked more than the others. I would then flesh that drawing out until it was incredibly detailed.
Once the character was impressive enough on paper to meet all of our standards, we would take it into Autodesk Maya and model it out. The modeling process took several weeks. The main thing here was to get as much detail as possible into the character and to make his proportions appealing. It became very easy for his arms to look too large for instance in 3D space. The really intense detail was then added in ZBrush.
Then we moved onto the texturing / coloring process. This was done in Mari. We first would block in this colors on a 2D image in Photoshop. Once the character had a color scheme we all liked, our texturing artist would block things out and add in all the detailed rust, edge wear and paint chipping. Once the character was totally done in look dev, I would take him back into Maya for rigging and animation. I would then set up the skeleton of the character and begin animating his movements. While animating I would roughly layout the camera animation and sort of work back and forth until everything was working together.
After that we would light and render the scenes. The rendering was completed with Pixars Renderman.
We used Mari and Photoshop. I would say a lot of people don’t spend enough time in the planning / color blocking stage if texturing. I see a lot of people just jump into adding little details like paint chipping or rust, but you should spend time thumbnailing out the color palette of the entire character. Make sure all the colors relate to one another in an appealing way. And ask yourself why they would have these colors or details in the first place. For example, more edge-wear would be found on the corners of NO-As body that received the most impact. Such as areas around the hands.
With the environment we wanted to first create contrast throughout the film. So the first part of the film would be all cool colors then the later part would be all warm. Just so that we arent looking at the same thing throughout the entire film. I think it just adds interest. We also just wanted the interior space to be as detailed as possible since it was the first thing people would see. We knew we had to hook people early.
The Length of the Production Process
All of production from concept to completion took about a year and a half. Yes! These things can take a long time. It took an especially long time for me because I had separation anxiety. At a certain point I had to just say, “good enough,” and move on. It was tough though. The music is a prime example of that. We went through about 3 different composers over the course of 6 months before I was hearing something that I was happy with.
Plans for the Future
Right now I’m gearing up to start animating at a games studio in LA. I can’t say exactly who it is yet, but it’s an awesome studio.
But my real ambition is to try and use NO-A as a springboard for my directing career. I would love to direct at any scale and I’m hoping that this film opens some doors.