Little Red Robot based its all-CG video for Hurt’s Forever on a Bosch biblical masterpiece but without a similarly epic budget and timescale the team needed a fast workflow able to defy the odds.
Matching the animation standards of Pixar is a tough challenge to set yourself when everything is in your favour, but when time and money is tight, the challenge is colossal.
Undeterred, US production outfit Little Red Robot set out to deliver world-class results for its all-CG video for a song called Forever, by American grunge-metal outfit Hurt.
Because the group had no interest in being filmed, and did not want to appear in animated form, the video had to be conceptual – and you don’t get much more conceptual than a bleak, nightmarish interpretation of Hieronymus Bosch’s epic study of salvation and damnation, Garden of Earthly Delights.
Project director and producer was Seth ‘S’, who says he submitted seven treatments. “The original treatment was very close to the final video,” he reveals.
“The main reference points were the tree spirits and the legions of evil adversaries, called Menehune, which is a Hawaiian term for little devil midgets. The overall inspiration came from Bosch.”
“When Seth pitched me the storyboards I knew this was going to be original in terms of narrative and visuals,” says visual-effects director and lead compositor on the project, Hasraf ‘D’ – known as Haz.
“And I knew we’d want this to be compared to a high-budget Pixar film, but also that we were working with a very tight budget and timeframe.”
Seth explains that they overcame these obstacles “by reviewing the technical direction of every shot, working out efficient pipelines, assigning the right assignments to the right people so there was no backtracking, and getting every single thing done simultaneously”.
One of the keys, says Haz, was being able to draw upon top talent from around the world “without regard to them being on-site”, meaning “we can work with some of the best people, and from extensive and diverse cultures”.
This, he says, saved on costs, as it cut down on overheads such as office space, equipment and travel. It helped with the tight timeframe, too, because “having crews in London and San Francisco means our clients get a team that’s working on their projects 24 hours a day”.
Haz reveals that there were also technical hurdles to overcome, in the guise of a rendering technology nobody at Red Robot had used before.
“Everyone on this project was new to nVidia Gelato, so we needed to grasp it quickly, and without the support of nVidia’s technical team we’d not have been able to.”
Given the tight schedule, Gelato was a workflow godsend, says Seth. “The renderer uses the card’s processor, leaving your machine’s processor to do other things. When it came to test renders, I was able to tweak lighting in the Maya file.”
And because Gelato displacement calculations are much faster than Maya’s, texture artists working on the project were able to create detailed displacement maps.
“Usually motion blur is done in post but we managed to get very good 3D motion blur at very fast speed using Gelato,” says Seth. Returning to the inspiration provided by Bosch, he says that while he “loves the detail of Bosch”, budget and time constraints precluded a similarly epic approach. The solution?
“I decided to change the cast of characters to be non-human, to get away from any Biblical relation. That’s when I wrote the script to be based around the last remaining tree in a once-great forest. I knew if we could have the action take place in just a couple environments, this could be done.”
Seth hired illustrator Wes Louie to style- up his cast of mythic characters, and these got the go-ahead from the band. Seth’s suggestion that the lyrics drive the visuals was also given the thumbs-up.
“The client let us roll with it because we provided a lot of pre-production material such as mood boards, concepts, treatments and early 3D pre-visualization,” says Haz.
Storyboard visualizations were crafted by artist Ben Beshaw, who Seth says “made highly detailed shaded illustrations of all the action, which were incredible”.
Rigging was the first part of the animation process, and characters were rigged in a way “that allowed animation to be tested and amended quickly as the dailies were coming in,” says Seth, adding:
“Because the animators were spread all over the world we avoided rigging and animation plug-ins. The rig was created using nothing but Maya’s toolset.”
Character animation pre-visualization was also carried out in Maya, using low-res geometry, but the animation rigging was set up only once, “so that when the high- resolution geometry was applied it didn’t affect the rig, and the scene could be worked on simultaneously from animation to modelling and from texturing to lighting”, explains Seth.
“In order for us to get this project done we couldn’t afford to go back to shots to redo things or set things up more than once.”
Seth and Haz then divided the project into a series of assignments, which were handed out to modellers, texture artists and character animators.
"I used a variety of artists, from those with experience working at places like Pixar to those with no credentials, but amazing student reels,” says Seth.
The other-worldliness of the video meant colour was critical, right from the off, reveals Haz. “We were doing colour tests very early in the project, as the visual palette was very important in setting the mood of the world we were creating, and the ambience the song depicted in this world and its characters.”
Making sure the video stayed true to its Bosch roots was all down to pre- visualization. ”Seth was able to make changes to the script and I’d amend the pre-viz, which was usually things like framing and camera work.”
The final work’s colouring is something of which Seth says he’s proud. “The painterly look is like nothing I have ever seen, and that was one of the main goals – to give it a fresco-like palette of colours, yet to keep it feeling like a CG piece.”
The focus of the narrative, meanwhile, is the lone, solemn tree. “I had a small group of guys called Shattered Images in Florida model the tree and, I loved how it looked and how detailed the textures were.”
The tree was first modelled and then broken up, to allow for the explosion scene and for the removal of branches that protruded into shots. No duplicating was done because the camera was sweeping right around the tree, and “we wanted to make sure it was random looking all around”.
Time was of the essence from start to finish – hence the need for simultaneous workflows: “Haz and I blocked out timing and cameras for most of the scenes that took place in [the tree] environment.
“Meanwhile, an artist started the flashback sequence environment, and simultaneously, Bill Stout in New York rigged all the characters using custom scripts”.
Once the rigs were set up, animation assignments went out to about 16 character animators across the globe, and while animation was being completed, Haz and Seth worked on lighting and rendering.
“We came up with a particle effect that shone from the inside out on the tree spirits to get that look,” explains Seth.
“Usually in 3D, the character is defined by shining lights on it, but these characters are supposed to be the life-force of Earth”. The glow was handled in post-production, using colour correction techniques to get the right look.
The shading for the Menehune and the main tree environment was done using ZBrush, while for the flashback environment Maya’s paint tools were employed. As the scenes came in, Haz worked with nVidia, who sponsored the video,” says Seth.
“They rendered everything on their local render farm. Haz set up the renders to have about ten passes each, all at HD resolution.”
These were then put into Combustion for compositing with visual effects, and taken by Seth into Final Cut Pro for editing. Little Red Robot is rightfully proud of its creation, with Haz reserving particular enthusiasm for the video’s exploding tree scene.
“This was created with a lot of layers of falling tree debris, branches on fire and an animation of the Menehunes falling helplessly to give the sense of chaos and destruction.
"As with most projects there are always areas you feel could have been improved if time and budget permitted and I just wished we could have had a lot of the scenes we planned such as the big crowd sequence of Menehunes at the end walking away which was originally in the boards but ultimately had to be cut due to budget and time constraints,” he adds.
“I love these little guys,” says project director and producer Seth ‘S’. “The particle glow comes from inside the character, whereas usually in 3D the character is defined by shining 3D lights on it.”
Once the written treatment was submitted Hurt's music label asked for concept imagery, and illustrator Wes Louie provided style frames of the characters.
Root and branch review
Little Red Robot was shown the album artwork, and told the band’s biggest influence was Tool. Seven treatments were submitted. “The band really liked the tree concept,’ says Seth, “due to their love of mystic art and mystery, and the occult.” He adds: “The original treatment was very close to the final video. The main reference points were the tree spirits (the little white guys) and the legions of evil adversaries, called Menehune (an Hawaiian term for little devil midgets).”
Detailed storyboard illustrations were provide by artist Ben Beshaw, who worked from concept illustrations. “This allowed me as a director to have a very literal representation of every moment of my treatment to discuss with my production team,” says Seth.
Project: CG video for Forever
Studio: Little Red Robot , www.littleredrobot.com
Software: Autodesk Maya, Softimage XSI, Autodesk Combustion 4, nVidia Gelato, Apple Final Cut Pro