On a damaged and drifting interstellar science vessel, an aging mother watches over her cryogenically frozen son and husband as she waits and hopes for an improbable rescue.

The screenplay, written by myself, was a finalist for Best Short Screenplay at Filmquest Festival.

I knew it had to be fully 3D CG because of how I knew the cinematography would look. The camera was going to be constantly moving and a bit disorienting in zero gravity, and the character was going to be spinning and flipping around (sometimes on purpose, sometimes not so much!).

Pre-Production designs

When the script was finished, I started on story boards, and did several passes at an animatic. Because my team was going to be mostly myself with a couple designers and modelers and (hopefully) an additional animator or two, I could afford for the boards to be super rough-looking and the animatic to be a bit messy.

I figure as long as I know what’s going on in the drawings, I can work quickly to do a ton of iterations.

From there I started getting some designs for the ship. In Photoshop I sketched out as many silhouettes and variations as my carpal tunnel could handle.

I picked my favorite 10 or so and did some blocking in 3D in Maya. Here are some turnarounds:

Character Designs

The scope of the “short” film was starting to weigh on me, so I began to solicit some help.

To my own surprise, I had the best luck searching through Tumblr. I found someone in Australia to help me out: Kurt Peterson. He started with some basic thumbnails of the character, Betrys, and we continued to hash out her designs via email.

Designs from Kurt Peterson
Designs from Kurt Peterson
Rendering, and Unreal Engine

Meanwhile, I was doing experiments in Maya, rendering some blocked-out set pieces using VRay. I was very happy with how things were looking, but feeling frustrated with render times. One of my favorite parts of film making is cinematography, and especially lighting. Watching film should be an experience, and the tone and atmosphere (along with sound!) are KEY in my mind. So for me to want to tweak the lights a little, then have to wait anywhere from 3-5 minutes to see a relatively final look of a single frame, was frustrating.

Around that time, Neil Blomkamp’s short film Adam was making the rounds. While I don’t care for the film itself, the fact that it was rendered in Unity – a video game engine – was really intriguing! Real-time rendering was exactly what I was fantasizing about while waiting for a single frame to render after tweaking light exposure by 5%!!

So I grabbed a copy of Unity and tested it out. I was a little underwhelmed with the interface, and wasn’t as excited about the way things looked, so I decided to give real-time one more shot with Unreal Engine.

I loved it. The first few lighting and atmosphere tests I did were pretty darned close to what I wanted, and the interface and work-flow completely made sense to me.

Making films in After Effects, I was always using certain concepts like modular set-building and decals, and when I begin working in Unreal I realized these are exactly the sorts of things that game designers do! So I felt comfortable with the engine very quickly.

Character models

Kurt was finishing up the character designs, and I found another person to help me out with the modeling the characters while I continued working on sets and textures and lighting. I reached out to a former student of mine, Brittany Davies, and she was able to find time into her busy schedule while getting her MA. She started modeling the two versions of Betrys that would be needed for the film.

Betrys in 3D, based off Kurt’s design
Betrys in 3D, based off Kurt’s design

Rigging 3D characters is about my least favorite thing to do because of how difficult it is for me, so I’m not going to discuss that process except to say that I ended up using Advanced Skeleton rigger, though I got great advice from the gentleman who wrote Perseus Autorigger. I’m hoping to get someone else to rig the second version of the character…

Unreal Pipeline

One of the absolute best parts of working in Unreal for me is the fact that I can essentially have one master set, with ALL the assets (of which there are already thousands) set up, with some generic master lighting (a purplish sun plays a major part in the film), and just do essentially per-shot overrides on lights/props and even the angles and positions of certain set pieces!

Unreal Betrys

However, knowing that I was going to be bringing everything into Unreal – constructing sets, plopping detail decals onto walls, lighting, and ultimately rendering through the sequencer timeline – I still had to figure out my pipeline.

This was a challenge.

There aren’t a ton of people who are writing about these things online, and the Unreal forums seem to be mostly filled with game devs and not a lot of filmmakers. So I had a hard time getting answers to some very specific questions. Because I’m using the free version of the engine (for studios who make less than 100k, which is DEFINITELY Electricbeard), it’s harder for me to contact their tech support directly using the license that I am.

Luckily the Sequencer in Unreal – essentially the timeline – is VERY intuitive, and allows me to just sneak by and get enough render passes for compositing. The graph editor is very similar to that of Maya or After Effects, so even doing some additional detail or BG animations in the Sequencer is a cinch.

Painting and Texturing

Texturing was the next task.

I didn’t want to shoot for hyper realism because it’s not as interesting to me as a designer, but I wanted it to feel somewhere closer to that than something super stylized or cartoony (at least for this film). So I ended up going with Substance Designer and Painter.

Somewhat automated pencil shading in Substance

I developed a material that would look at AO and curvature to create essentially an automated pencil shading look. If I had more time and $ I would continue to develop this look but got reasonably close to what I was hoping.

I scanned two pages of pencil shading – one thick, one lighter – and use Substance to apply the lines to darker areas of the object. This lets me keep a similar look that I’ve used with most of my other films, all of which had characters drawn by hand on paper with pencil.

Set Designs

Most of my pre-production designs are SUPER rough because I’m the only one that has to understand them, but if I don’t do them, I waste so much time in production.

Set designs
Set in Unreal, unlit
Set in Unreal, undecorated with lighting tests
Sets – actual lighting
Sets – actual lighting
Bunk set

I love putting Easter eggs into my films, even though I’m the only one that typically knows they’re there. In the above shot – a CU of the inside of a sleeping bunk – there are photos of my grandpa, my wife, my baby son, a canoe which was featured prominently in a previous film, and the poster for that film.

Here are some more images of the exterior of the Aveta, still in progress: