Passion is Everything: Introducing Enthusiastic 3D Animator, Maynard Ellis
What if Santa wants to be a superhero?
Showing us a story about Santa saving a young lady in his heroic dream, Maynard Ellis’s 3D animation short Santa's Dream won third place in the 2020 Animation Holiday Contest of Renderosity.
As the old friend of Fox Renderfarm, the largest cloud rendering service provider in the CG industry, Maynard Ellis told us his inspiration and how he made the animation.
Fox Renderfarm: Could you tell us what is the inspiration for your 3D video Santa's Dream?
Maynard: The inspiration for this video came from the contest theme 'Dreams of Peace'. I took the theme quite literally and thought it would be cool to have Santa dreaming of being a buff hero type keeping the peace for the local villagers near his South Pole home.
My original concept was a little grander and a little better executed than the final piece but that mainly came down to time. Having said that I think I ended up staying pretty true to the original idea and the original story board narrative that I put together.
Essentially I planned to have:
- The opening scene with Santa falling asleep outside his home, including a cool effect to transition into a dreamstate.
- The party full of young revellers in the village.
- A monster charging in and creating some mayhem, throwing aside one of the young men and carrying off his girlfriend... very King Kong sort of style.
- Another character running up to Santa's house and alerting him to what had gone on. This was dropped but I think it worked better with Santa in attendance at the party. It certainly cut some corners having him there witnessing it all.
- An epic showdown in the monsters lair followed by warm accolades from the rescued young woman.
- A return to the original scene with Santa waking up exclaiming that it was all just a dream. This too was dropped but I think it worked ok ending it the way I did and it saved on some time which I just didn't have a lot of.
Fox Renderfarm: How much time did it take you to create your work?
Maynard: Time!!!! Aaargh!!
Anybody who does animation will tell you how long this process can take and when you are trying to do a full narrative style production and not just a moving montage there is a sooo much to do and you certainly need plenty of time. As I have a day job I generally only get to work on projects like this at night and on weekends, although I have been working from home during the Pandemic so I do get the luxury of kicking off test renders during the day and other little things I can do on breaks.
I really wish I'd had 6-8 weeks to get all I had hoped for done but I barely had 3 weeks as I didn't realise the contest had started. Luckily I still had some time left when I checked for it. I guess I should have been looking for it earlier, and knowing it was coming I guess I should have been planning stuff but I hadn't heard anything and just assumed it would run closer to the end of December and not need to be done by the 10th of December!!!! So all gripes about my stupidity aside this was a tough project to finish in 3 weeks and the soundtrack, voice overs, the quality of animation and the overall content I included all suffered as a result of this. I was still pretty pleased with how it came together though and it is always great to see a concept grow from your initial idea into something that works out OK.
Fox Renderfarm: There are many characters in your video, such as Santa, the snowman, the monster, and the beauty, could you introduce the design of these main characters?
Maynard: Firstly I generally use high quality DAZ characters brought from DAZ to iClone and the main characters were mostly created this way, but the performance of iClone was getting bogged down so the villagers and the main beauty were iClone characters which are lighter weight than the DAZ characters. With more time and planning I could have reduced the resolution of my DAZ characters but I just dropped some people out of the village scene and substituted some of the DAZ characters for iClone characters and this helped enough to get something out.
Just before I started this project Reallusion ran a sale on a Christmas character bundle so I had a couple of young girls in Xmas outfits although I originally planned for the main woman to be a DAZ character that I had prepared.
The snowman character came from DAZ and I took his hat, scarf and glasses and put them on a traditional snowman model to help sell the concept of him coming alive. With more time he would have had a bigger role in the story but he still worked out OK.
The traditional Santa was easy enough in DAZ and then I made his buff alter ego in a less traditional outfit. Doesn't everyone have a better looking, younger, sexier alter ego they see themselves as in dreams?
I was very disappointed with the monster and really wanted a furry snow beast but had to settle for the pasty, hairless, albino abominable snowman type of beast. As my animations are very small and quick projects just for personal pleasure under contest deadlines there is no real time to model custom characters but I would like to do more of that for my animations in future. I have a bit more to learn in that regard though!!
Fox Renderfarm: In the video, Santa has a wonderful fight with monsters, and also there are some people who dance in the snow. Could you tell us how these characters' movements are achieved? Did you use any motion capture?
Maynard: I really wanted to use motion capture and tried to, but I didn't have a successful pipeline for this in place and in the end I abandoned those plans as the lack of time caught up with me. I have a Kinect and tried using that and I captured a couple of animations that both ended up on the cutting room floor as I ran out of time and fast tracked each scene. I motion captured Santa yawning before falling asleep and the monster picking up the girl and putting her on his shoulder. In the end I just had Santa drop straight off to sleep and I cheated with the snatch and grab by cutting to the monster running off with her already on his shoulder.
I was thinking of buying the iClonect Kinect plug-in but I was not overly impressed with the demo and I have some software for Kinect capture that works in Unity but I had issues trying to get that animation into iClone. What I did end up using was a little capture app that was a freebie in the DAZ community. It writes out a text file of the motion capture data that is then imported into DAZ by a script and applied to a figure. This worked surprisingly well and was easy to get into iClone after I exported it out as an FBX. iClone recognises FBX files based on Genesis 8 so that would have been what I used if I persisted with motion capture for this project. I currently am looking at some solutions that work with Unreal Engine 4 as that has better integration with iClone and I have also downloaded some new iphone motion capture apps to try.... oh and who knows I might even win a Renderosity animation contest one day and get a licence for the iPi mocap studio.... one can only keep dreaming of these things :)
Most of the animations were crafted from stock animations from Mixamo and from iClone animations that I have. In order for these animations to tell the story I tweaked them in iClone and created custom keyframe animation to string them all together cohesively where required. The fight scene was especially difficult in regards to this. I had hoped for it to be a longer and grander battle but that was just going to take far too long to animate. Luckily I think it fitted the theme that the dreamstate buff santa hero was able to dispatch the villain so easily :). The hardest part of that fight scene was creating something credible and despite it being short with the help of some sound effects I think I pulled it off ok. I was quite happy with it in the end and Santa really did save the day with his devastating roundhouse kick.
Fox Renderfarm: Did you use any new approach during creating the work?
Maynard: I think you always end up trying new things when you are doing new projects. Something always comes up that you don't know how to do or you research new techniques, or your idea just makes you think outside the box. This is one of the great reasons to do stuff even if it is just for your own pleasure or as a contest entry.
The following were new things I used, or tried to use
- I really wanted to use Depth of Field (DOF) camera blur in this project, especially for the monster reveal. iClone has this feature but for some reason I couldn't get it to render properly. I am sure with some more time I could have worked this one out but I ended up just removing it altogether. I think this would have been a very cool little trick to have given some more sparkle to my video so I will investigate this again.
- I used a toon shader built into iClone for the dreamstate. By not coming back to reality at the end it wasn't as effective as I would have liked as most of the video was dreamstate. It would have been nice though to see the video go into this rendering mode when the dream started and to come out of it when the dream stopped.
- I used a friend for voice-overs. I sent her an email with some lines I wanted and chatted to her about the story and the emotion I wanted in the lines and she recorded them on her phone and sent them to me. This worked surprisingly well and I will hopefully use her again in future projects, although I am investigating AI based text to voice and may use that as well for future projects. I had to use my own voice for Santa (which I hated) and I had wanted the 'Gary' character to have a line and the snowman character could have had some dialog, so just one female friend willing to help with voice overs does not give me enough scope for a large project. I have found an AI Text to Voice service that is surprisingly good allowing you to add different emotions and emphasis to the dialog and it is far superior to other services I have looked at. It has a cost but given that when I investigated using someone from Fiverr they started at $15 USD a good paid service that is not too expensive may work for me. I highly recommend checking out the one I found. https://replicastudios.com/ They sell 4 hour blocks of voice generation for $20 USD and with careful planning that should be good for a few projects so all in all I think they are dirt cheap.... and they have amazingly good AI text to voice so check them out!!
- I learnt more about iClone which is great. I bought it last year when they had a big sale during our first COVID lockdown and I am starting to get the hang of it now. I learnt about auto switching between my cameras on the timeline while rendering which really helps in assembling complex scenes quickly and I learnt about using paths for more fluid walking and running animations. I also used their automatic lip synching from a sound clip for the first time in this project. If I had more time I would have tweaked the phonemes to get a better result but for what I was doing it was all I really needed. For something more advanced in a future project I think I will use facial mocap from an iPhone app.
Fox Renderfarm: Did you meet any difficulties? And how did you solve it?
- I had time difficulties as already mentioned and I just cut corners and simplified my scenes and soundtrack. This was not ideal but sometimes being leaner and tighter is better than what you were originally intending.
- I encountered difficulties with the motion capture I was trying to use. Having a good and reliable pipeline is very important as no single app will do everything you need and I just didn't get a suitable pipeline worked out in time for motion capture. I will definitely persevere with this though as just using stock animations gets very limiting even though you can tweak them quite significantly in iClone.
- I encountered problems with the DOF feature in iClone. I need to look into this more as I was not able to solve the issues and I just dropped it. I really wanted the background to be blurred during the village party scene so that when the monster is first revealed I could have blurred the foreground and brought him into sharp focus in the background. This is a cool technique and it actually worked well when I tried it but using the DOF on the entire scene left some strange artefacts in the background and I just wasn't happy with it overall. I have seen videos of DOF being used effectively in iClone so I need to try again for my next project.
- I had major performance issues with iClone for the early attempts at creating the village scene. There were just too many characters moving in the scene and too many of them were high poly count models. I swapped a few of the villagers that I had prepared in DAZ out and replaced them with standard iClone characters and I reduced the overall number of characters in this scene and this helped immensely. When having just 2 or 3 characters in a scene there is not much issue if they are high poly count but for bigger scenes with more actors this really has to be considered. I use Reallusions Character Creator 3 (CC3) in my pipeline between DAZ and iClone and I did reduce some of the size of my main characters in CC3 as well but I was mindful not to push this too far as they were often focussed on in close up. In future I will take all my characters through CC3 and prepare them for their role by reducing the quality and amount of textures and also removing hidden meshes where appropriate. I may also try to use billboard crowds if I want to do scenes with large numbers of characters..... maybe that can be what I do next time... have huge crowds in a scene... an epic battle or a city overrun with zombies :)
Fox Renderfarm: Do you have any advice for future participants in the competition?
Maynard: Here are some thoughts for aspiring animators:
- Don't let yourself be easily discouraged.
- Give yourself plenty of time and use good time management.
- Try to tell an engaging story. I have seen some very simple animations brought to life with narration or with text so any project can aim to engage and tell a story.
- Plan your animation and storyboard it. This can be as simple as a scene narrative in dot points or some stick figure drawings, but it will help immensely and will allow you to better manage your project if you need to make changes on the fly. A good story board can also help you see the overall picture more clearly and lead you to make better decisions about the project.
- Don't be afraid to cut something you planned to add.
- When you have a plan for your scenes don't always just create them in large linear blocks, have fun with how you tell your story and break scenes apart and intercut them with other scenes, you may be surprised at the results.
- Try new techniques and don't always just use the same approach, I am wanting to do a stop motion animation soon which will be very different from what I have recently been doing
- Never stop learning, there is a wealth of great learning material out there for anything from 2d keyframed techniques to stop motion against green screens to AAA quality 3D epic adventure sagas.
- Check out as much stuff other people are doing as you can. Seeing what is being done by others should encourage you to create and may lead to some ideas you hadn't thought about.
- Treat anything you are watching as being a potential idea playground for things you can create. I recently re-watched the film 'Memento' There is no other film quite like it and it is a story told completely backwards. Thinking about techniques like this could trigger a great idea for your own project and I am planning to try something like that one day with some sort of backward narrative.
Dream Big and Fly High.
There are no rules and you can make no mistakes. There are just the things that you imagine and the things that you create.
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