The making of Dinner for few
I had the opportunity to meet Nassos Vakalis, he currently works at Dreamworks SKG, he is from Greece, and in his spare time he created “Dinner for few”, a short film that has been internationally acclaimed, Nassos got help from Eva Vomhoff who is the technical director on this short film, It´s a really great short film and if you have not seen it, I hope you have the chance to take a look at it, it really worth’s it. And he was kind enough to answer some questions for us and share part of the development process of this great shortfilm.
This article focusses on the technical side of the production, I don’t intend to spoil the short for you since you can now buy it from vimeo here is the link.
I did very little visual development, I kind of had an idea in my head and went with it, the first thing I did was to do the boards and when these were finished I tried to improve on the characters that I drew on the boards. For that I did several drawings but while I was building the models I changed stuff sometimes to the better. My biggest concern was to keep the pigs different. All the pigs but the two politicians since they were the same design to emphasize that they regardless their political views deep inside they act the same. But the remaining pigs are off different sizes. This was the complete opposite for the cats that I wanted to look the same. For the cats I looked as some Egyptian statues and art deco stylized cats and send the ones I liked the most to Eva for modeling. She is the one who came up with the model based on the pictures I send her. I also drew the machine and Eva created a model out of that and rigged it. Later though the machine was for me an imaginary piece of equipment Eva found that something similar existed in the First World War to feed the troops in the battlefield.
I did all the pigs and the human character modeling but Eva took that and fixed it. She is very talented and she also rigged the characters so she had to adjust the geometry of the model to something that was working for her rigs. She also simplified some of the forms and deleted all the triangles since the rig needed quads. We used the same basic geometry for the pigs’ heads so the different heads you see are the same basic geometry with an applied morph target. We used morph targets for the expressions too, so we created a set for the eyes, a set for the eyebrows and a set for the mouths. If while working on an animation we needed something special this was designed on the spot or used the point animation tool to achieve it. For the sea we used the Carrara 3d ocean function except for the opening and closing scenes where we used Blender, who has a great ocean function where the waves actually clash. I wrote the shader for the water based on the cell function available in Carrara shading room.
Lighting and render
We used a toon shader to do the line and the shadow. The line, as it came out of the plugin, was a wire looking line that we treated next with a Photoshop action to create a more interesting line with thick and thin flavor. This was part of a pipe line I designed to achieve the look of picture. The line was transformed to a path in Photoshop using a low tolerance setting. This method flared the line and gave it nice curves I mentioned earlier. Then the path was rasterized and exported as a black line over transparency. This layer was applied on top of the color layer. The color layer was a Carrara 3d render using shaders with only color in the glow channel. This function in Carrara creates a flat shape for the colored area and was exactly what I wanted for the 2d flat cell animation look. The tone was another function of the toon shader that with the help of a set of scene lights generates a gradient of tone and shadow. Coloring everything white and choosing the lower setting in the gradation get you only one transition from white to black. This created a mask to cut a bluish tone for the shadows. For the candle scenes the gradation was set to 3 levels white, gray and black, which created a mask to cut a yellowish tone for the scene.
We tried to keep rigs as simple as possible. The rigs of characters were designed clean and light rigs that allowed us to focus more on animation rather than dealing with dozens of widgets. For the humanoid and the cat type characters we had a basic rig, which was modified for each character to match the different body shapes and clothes. In addition to the regular deformation bones we added a separate layer of muscle bones to make the body deform more natural and maintain the feel of volume of the bodies. For the cat spines, tails and tongues we used a spline type setup, though finding a good control setup for the tails was quite challenging. I think the most interesting object to rig was the machine, because the engine uses procedural way of animation. This introduced some challenges on deciding how to make it work.
As I explained earlier the rendering passes were few. The normal compositing method was to separate the scene to background/room and foreground/characters elements and if visible the sky, the rain, the sea and the land. The sky was a flat sky drawing and the rain was a layer of rain from after effects. The sea was created with a similar method as the one we created the tones and shadows. We rendered the waves with the toon shader in a black and white two tone gradation and cut a mask from a bark blue layer against a lighter bluish layer. Everything else had two elements, the color element and the line elements. These is described earlier how they were created but always the line was composited on top of the color. On top of everything I composited the shadow tone which was one pass for all the elements regardless how complex the scene might have been.