A "Sticky" Situation: Gaining Studio Experience While in School

The new animated short entitled, "Sticky" is a simple story about a chameleon trying to get the better of a fly. It's artistic and technical execution, however, is much more complex. The minute-and-a-half long film's 3D artists and animators did a superb job in bringing the two natural enemies to life both in their movements, modeling, and textures. What's even more impressive is that "Sticky" isn't the product of a high end animation studio, but the result of some very talented students from the Arts and Technology (ATEC) program at the University of Texas at Dallas. Like many animation, game, and VFX schools today, ATEC is a program that is designing its curriculum to resemble mainstream working studios. The move is designed to mimic the real world working situations with the result that students in these programs are gaining studio experience while at university. From pitching story ideas, recruiting talented individuals, to extensive post production looks, these programs' students are producing professional looking results. "Sticky" is certainly one of those impressive results. We first became acquainted with "Sticky" at SIGGRAPH last summer. Two young students named Adam Nusrallah and Gabrielle Polanco approached our booth to say hello. They were enthusiastic about expressing their appreciation for Digital-Tutor's courses--a resource provided to upper-level students at UTD. We were, in turn, impressed with their work on "Sticky", which has helped to spawn another project coming up next year and headed up by Gabrielle. Since then, we've been following their progress and asking them questions about what they've learned from the experience. Such an artistic undertaking was sure to instill some valuable production experience.

The Origins of "Sticky"

Every year in the Spring Semester, UTD students are given the opportunity to pitch a story to the ATEC department. The winning idea is then produced by a group of carefully selected students for a class called Animation Studio. While in their 3D modeling class, Adam and Gabrielle first heard about the short film project from a professor who told the class that pitches for the next project were being accepted the following week. "My goal and dream is to be a director," Adam explains, "I love story telling and development. So basically without thinking I just decided 'what the heck' and told him I'll be pitching and signed up to do it. But at the time I didn't even have a story, but I was going to do it anyways." Adam soon realized he had to come up with an idea fast, so he began looking at the project's parameters. "What they required from you was to create a story that could be told within thirty seconds...then you create your storyboards, you have to create a little write up about it, and then you go and pitch it." But the projects requirements were only part of Adam's problem getting prepared. Next, he had to come up with a compelling story that would catch the attention of the professors who made the final decision. "That same day, I was just hanging out brainstorming. As I was looking on the internet, I came across a picture of a chameleon, and I started Googling them. One thing that really fascinated me was how chameleons change color. I thought there could be something really cool that we could do with this." environment Adam then began to break his complicated problem down by looking for unique ways to translate real-life chameleon activities into a story line. "I thought, okay, what do chameleons do. They eat bugs. Okay, how can I make a story about a chameleon and a bug and him trying to eat the bug. Over the weekend, I came up with the whole story of the chameleon and the fly where there's this whole back and forth...tug-of-war game." After Adam had a basic story he felt good about, it was time to start thinking about a production crew. He soon enlisted Gabrielle and some of his other friends. "A few of us were pulled in to help Adam refine the story before all going in to pitch the concept," she recalls.

Connecting with the Pitch

"I didn't quite know how this whole pitching process really worked," Adam admits, "I had never pitched in a professional sense. It was always just to friends, family and people in general, so pitching was natural to me, but I didn't know what the whole process entailed to actually getting a project made." Gabrielle was also a first timer to selling an idea within a professional setting. Even though she helped prepare the presentation, she had a hard time keeping her anxiety as bay. "Going into the room was very nerve racking," she states, "but we were all very determined to show the professors something great." tank The panel of professors were very receptive to the idea of "Sticky" and found Adam, Gabrielle, and the other team member's self-organizational approach very encouraging. In fact, the panel had previously never been pitched an idea by more than one person, and now they were being sold the "Sticky" short by a group of students who had already organized themselves. "One of the things I wanted to show them was... that I'm a leader," states Adam, "and that we were all able to come together as a team. What also caught the professor's attention was Adam's vision to push the boundaries of what had been produced at UT thus far. "Everything that we'd made so far sort of had this 'toony' nature. So, one of the goals I wanted to achieve was to push the animation to a more realistic look. I told them I wanted to create this fun looking short where characters have a kind of stylization you see in Pixar or Disney in the way that they look and move; however, they would also have the hyper-realistic textures and details. That way we could really push ourselves a little further than we had done in the past. That really peaked their interest. They really could see the visual of what we were trying to pitch to them." color change In addition to the group's organization and ideas, it was also their enthusiasm and commitment that helped impress the panel of professors. "If you're confident and passionate about your ideas," Gabrielle explains, "that excitement will be more likely to spread to others." That following week the team found "Sticky" was chosen for production. However, they also discovered that the University had decided to pick two shorts to produce for that year. While Adam would become one of three other coordinators for the 32-person project, Gabrielle would become the lead for pre-production, lighting and texturing. "Leading these three different teams was a great challenge," she recalls, "but it was very enjoyable seeing my peers make things they were exited about and to assist them with the progress made every step of the way."

Real World Experience

The next step was to gather talented and experienced students who could flesh out the rest of the production team, and the University took the opportunity to introduce students to a real-world application process. Adam explains, "Once they chose the shorts, they sent out applications saying 'Hey, everyone apply for the Studio Animation Course'. It's a two-semester long course. You apply by sending in an application with what you want to do, what experience you have using what software, what experience you have in general, and a portfolio link. Then they choose the students based off of their experience and their portfolios. So, it's kind of like getting a job out there in the real world." After students were "hired" based on their experience and the needs of the project, they were introduced to the class organization. "The class is structured is to be like an actual production pipeline," Adam explains, "The professors are in a sense your directors and have the final say, for the most part. We go all through concept phase, layout, modeling, texturing, animation." fly After the class was organized and work began on both projects, Adam and Gabrielle soon learned that coordinating the two shorts was going to be challenging. One major hurdle would be communication problems that result from the two very different animation styles each short called for. While the plan for "Sticky" was to create a hyper-realistic look, the other short had a much more "painterly" one. "Having everyone working on both at the same time, and jumping back and forth between these two completely different styles was very difficult," Adam explains. There were times when switching between projects would create confusion. Sometimes assets would get mixed up and artists would become confused about the overall style that was desired. "We had a lot of trial and error, and communicating those styles was definitely important." Making sure everyone was on the same page was also a challenge given the relatively large size of the class studio. "The most important lesson I learned," states Gabrielle, "was how to manage time and how important it is to clarify with individuals what tasks they have and what is expected." fly rendered "We were uploading everything to a server that we had at the school," Adam states, "and sometimes files would get lost or misplaced. We had to really communicate where assets need to go." To help with organization, the team used the organizational software, Trello, to ensure everyone was up-to-date on about where their completed assignments would move within the pipeline. This was for things like a rigged asset going to animation or maybe an animation going into a specific file for review.

Karma Chameleon: Designing the Film's Look

"Fright Light" was the previous short produced by ATEC students and one that was well received by audiences. Its style of animation resembles a more traditional one you might see in a Disney, Pixar, or DreamWorks film. However, Adam and Gabrielle wanted to push "Sticky's'" animation and the team's skills beyond what the ATEC department had done previously. Adam really wanted to pursue a style that resembled a more rugged hyper-realistic approach found in works by studios such as Blizzard. "Nothing in Blizzard cinematics looks real at all in terms of the characters themselves," he explains, "but the details that bring them to life are, to me, just incredible. The way it looks just has this sort of rugged, in a sense, adult feel to it." [caption id="attachment_37145" align="alignnone" width="800"]Heros of the Storm An image from Blizzard's "Heroes of the Storm" Cinematic Trailer[/caption] What Adam and Gabrielle were looking for was a style that was both stylized yet had that detailed, hard-edged look to it. To find references, they began researching the way chameleons were depicted in other films. One of the character references was the chameleon Pascal from Disney's Tangled. What Pascal's look brought to the project was the cartoonish look that was needed from "Sticky's' family-friendly storyline. "He was really big-eyed and very toony looking, but if you look close at the texturing on him, he's pretty flat." Pascal would only get the team half of the look they were searching for, so they looked to other chameleon characters like Rango who has a more realistic, rugged look to him. "We wanted to take that detailed look from Rango and slap it onto Pascal," Adam recalls. [caption id="attachment_37128" align="alignnone" width="800"]rango_pascal Pascal (left) from Disney's "Tangled" and Rango (right) from Paramount's "Rango"[/caption] However, to keep their chameleon more familiar and fun they made it a baby, which ended up making him look squarish and boxy. Adam explains, "If you look at the chameleon, he's sort of boxy and squarish. Even his eyes are a little boxy. The way he moved and looked gave you this familiarity with what you've already seen in animation." To enhance this squarish look, the team even turned to Pixar's UP for inspiration. "We used Carl, the old man. We used his chin as a reference to make the chameleon more boxy." As a contrast, the team decided to design the fly in an opposite way. It was given circular, spherical, and even asymmetric eyes that were different sizes. carl reference Most importantly, the team's emerging vision was to create familiarity while highlighting the detail within the environments and characters, to push their skills to the limit. "You get like this familiarity when you watch "Sticky". It has a toony look to it, but then you have all of this amazing detail when you look at it a second time. The first thing that captures people's eyes is the environment. It's like 'whao, it just looks absolutely incredible.' That's what I wanted to push. I think in the animation world the possibilities are limitless. That's the beauty of it to me. You can create absolutely anything. You can create an entire world and share it with everyone. That's why I'm in animation.

The Pipeline 

The pipeline's chain of command was also something Adam, Gabrielle and others had to learn to work with. Given the complicated structure of the review process, mis-communication was something one had to be vigilant in avoiding. Adam explains the process, "Professors would communicate to the coordinators and coordinators would communicate to the leads, who would then communicate to the different departments." Within any system there will inevitably be mis-communications or interpretations of information as it moves up and down the line. "There was nothing that was major as in 'oh my gosh, we are completely screwed,' but definitely as a whole we really needed make sure everyone was on the same page." It's easy for those who currently work within real-world pipelines to overlook the specific complications that Adam, Gabrielle, and the team faced as being students as well as pipeline artists and coordinators. "You also have to keep in mind that in this specific situation we're students," Adam explains, "and we also have thousands of other things we have to do in a bunch of other classes." Adam, Gabrielle, and the entire team had to deal not only with keeping the team organized, but with managing their own academics. Adam explained some of the specific leadership skills that were required given the sometimes chaotic life of college students, "Their minds are already naturally everywhere. And you have to really rope them in when it comes time to and get them focused on what they're doing. This project wasn't just an "every week I'm going to come to class and that's when I'll do my work or do it like the night before.' This was a project you had to spend literally all of your time on. I'm talking about 40 hours a week it felt like, especially towards the end during the rendering process. I'm talking about spending 50 hours a week. We slept in the building at times. It was every day, all day, every weekend, all weekend. You had to look at it as, 'This is not a class project, this is an actual production pipeline,' and we had to get it done." This real-world view of production pipelines that the students were assuming also had to included the interconnected-ness of one another's work as Adam explained, "If people didn't get their stuff done, or if they didn't get it done correctly or if they did the wrong thing on accident, everyone else down the line following them couldn't get their stuff done. So, it would basically trickle like a domino effect."

Using Digital-Tutors in the Pipeline

To make "Sticky" the team used Maya as their main software along with 3ds Max, Mudbox, ZBrush, Photoshop, Nuke and Arnold for rendering. While talking with Adam, we found out how video tutorials like Digital-Tutors are being used in Universities like UTD to help learn specific software and as a supplement to traditional class work. In general, students who are in upper-level digital arts courses at UTD are given accounts to Digital-Tutors, and this included everyone on the "Sticky" project. Having access to Digital-Tutors courses gave Adam and the team a set of flexible resources to be used outside the formal classroom setting. The intention behind providing tutorials was to allow students to push ahead with a tool for self-directed learning that could further their knowledge. For Adam, Digital-Tutors courses became an essential part of the process once the team lost a member. "We had two VFX guys, and one of them had to leave after the first semester, so there was one guy left. I'm not a visual effects person, but I knew what we wanted to create, but I didn't know one hundred percent how we were going to do it. So, to help figure it out I sat down with Digital-Tutors watching all kinds of videos just for visual FX in general, just to get an idea of how stuff in Maya, dynamics, nParticles, all kinds of random things just worked." Using Digital-Tutors helped Adam work with the remaining VFX artist to figure out how they were going to composite all of the visual components together. In fact, Adam's experience with VFX work has now garnered him that position on Gabrielle's next team project. "At the moment, I'm the sole VFX guy [laughs] given my research last year. It's definitely not my forte...I'm more on the story development, story boarding, and layout. I'm currently working on layout, but after that I'm going to be figuring out the visual effects stuff. I'll most likely be going back to Digital-Tutors." See the entire "Sticky" production team list.