New York-based animation studio PandaPanther mixed CG and cel animation with miniature environments for a fun animated short that celebrates an Oriental legend.

New York animation studio PandaPanther’s newest project is a magical three-minute animated short film for agency Amsterdam Worldwide to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Japanese shoe brand Onitsuka Tiger.

The short is a seamless mix of high-end 3D animation, miniature environments and cel animation that retells the legend in which the animal characters that make up the Japanese zodiac race for their places on the calendar.

A similar legend, with slightly different characters, also exists in China. Headed up by Jonathan Garin and Naomi Nishimura, the PandaPanther team also hand-built a one-metre diorama housing a working miniature racetrack for an in-store display; this also served as a backdrop and environment for parts of the film.

While the agency’s brief had already established the idea of an island diorama – shaped like a shoe – that showcases a racetrack, the project offered the PandaPanther team plenty of scope to develop the storyline, the individual characters and the details of the island itself.

“We were given tons of creative freedom with the characters and environments, and worked with a great creative team at Amsterdam Worldwide to expand their script into a full epic,” says Garin.

“As the film was for an online campaign, we were able to expand it to three minutes in order to give each character some screen time and to hit on all the key moments in the story.”

According to Garin, the overall main creative inspiration was taken from the Japan’s mountainous landscape and the zodiac legend itself.

“Many details in the visuals stem from actual aspects of different regions in Japan, such as Mount Fuji, the sand dunes, the ice castle in Hokkaido, and Japan’s cherry blossom trees,” he says.

However, the team took a few liberties with the legend itself, adding a cat, a pink inflatable bunny, and a manga-style flag girl. “We didn’t simply want to resurrect an ancient legend without introducing a few new twists,” says Garin.

“Many of the things we grew up with served as a good foundation for inspiring this world,” he continues. “Everything from Mario Kart and Speed Racer to classic manga and Disney affected our thought process during the making of this film. We wanted to bring some excitement of the racing cinematography style and pacing to the piece while giving the characters and environments a magical and mystical presence.”

Most of the team’s research focused on the zodiac animals themselves says Garin, with lots of time spent examining the different ways each animal could be recognized in a non-literal way, what shapes and colours worked for each, and how they should move.

Further research was required for several scenes in the film that involved water and fire – two things that are always a challenge to pull off well in animation says Garin.

The film was conceptualized and planned following a traditional process of storyboarding, then animatics, which evolved into a rough previz, then the final picture.

The number of scenes and shots involved in the film meant the studio’s pipeline had to be carefully managed to ensure it all came together for the final film.

The PandaPanther team used Maya, After Effects, Photoshop, and Illustrator for the making of the film along with cel animation to produce some of the water effects.

The animal characters were built using polygonals in Maya, and the team used leather and fabric textures to blend the characters with their environments.

The ox was the most challenging animal to rig for animation, because of its rigid body form: “We wanted to take what is essentially a cube with legs, and give it the ability to run, jump, and swim,” says Garin.

A dash of realism

Environments were created physically – for the most part at an intermediate scale from the in-store display. “We needed to make sure we would be able to get close to the ground, with the right camera angles. As the in-store display measures about one metre in length, it meant that trees, and rivers would be in some cases less than half an inch in width or height,” explains Garin.

Terrains were made of foam core, wire, and paper mache, with coloured foams and fabrics used to create the flowers, rocks and leaves. There was real sand on the beach areas, and talcum-powder snow on the mountaintops.

2D cel animation was used extensively in the film’s water scenes to produce what Garin describes as the contact splashes and ripples – “a huge part of what sells the believability that something is actually floating or drifting in water,” he says.

“Cel animation is something we treasure when we have the time to integrate it into our films,” he adds. “It can achieve things in a unique and articulated way, especially when involving water, smoke, or giant fireballs.

"We create many of the cel effects in-house but for some of the big anime-style scenes, we work with Xebec in Tokyo who are grand masters of anime and cel-animated effects.”

The film’s water scenes are the result of a great deal of research and development by the team. “We knew we wanted a more ‘graphic’ look rather than a procedural or CG look, so we studied the ways in which water is depicted in cartoons and other stylized treatments,” says Garin.

He continues: “We wanted to be sure that when we combined the cel-animated elements with the CG water, they would blend and fit well together.

Some parts of the river were actually cel elements mapped onto 3D surfaces, while the rest of the water was a layered mix of CG reflections and refractions, mixing the surrounding environment colours to produce a believable effect.”

After Effects was used to composite the different elements for the final film. Numerous passes were used for the CG elements, which allowed PandaPanther’s compositors to adjust certain qualities to match the surrounding environment.

“In some cases, having a real background gave us a good reference point for how to treat the CG when it came to things such as shadow intensity, depth of field, and light directions,” says Garin.

Although of the entire project spanned ten months from the initial briefing, the team spent three months producing the short film. “We jumped at the chance to work on this project and held it very closely to our hearts,” says Garin.

“Many of the PandaPanther team grew up in Japan and are familiar with the zodiac legend, which made it even more exciting to work on.”

“With so many individual plot-lines interconnecting, we wanted to make sure the film held the viewer’s attention throughout, keeping a good rhythm while still making sense visually,” says Garin.

According to Garin, the most challenging aspect of the project was the actual production of the functional in-store display with its mechanical moving parts. The display had to be compatible with different electric voltages for use in various countries worldwide, and had to fit in a relatively small space to make sure it could be shown in most boutiques.


Project: Zodiac Race short film
Client: Onitsuka Tiger,
Agency: Amsterdam Worldwide Studio: PandaPanther, Software: Adobe After Effects, Adobe Illustrator, Adobe Photoshop, Autodesk Maya
On the CD: You can view the spot on this month’s cover disc.