Director Noah Rappaport’s new animated short film, My Nature Documentary, is edgy and darkly comic in an ‘Oh-my-God-should-I-really-be-laughing-at-this?’ kind of way. Rappaport, who is also a digital artist, 3D animator and VFX supervisor, relied primarily on Cinema 4D, Photoshop and After Effects to create the 6 ½-minute film, which is based on a short story (http://www.newyorker.com/humor/2007/07/02/070702sh_shouts_handey) by Jack Handey (of Saturday Night Live fame). And he describes it as “a 3D animated documentary as imagined by a precocious, disturbed 6 or 7-year-old boy.”
What does that look like? Rappaport says that what gives the film it’s weirdly bizarre sensibility is the strange duality that happens when you combine Handey’s acerbic story with whimsical animation that seems to come straight out of a little boy’s mind as he tells the story. (Watch the trailer here: http://vimeo.com/m/75355774)
Rappaport worked on the film for two years before releasing it to film festivals a few months back. So far, the response has been mixed with some people being confused about what they’re seeing since the story doesn’t play out in a typical fashion. But that’s okay with Rappaport, who says he enjoys working on unusual projects that allow him to experiment. “People are used to formulaic story structures, but this format allowed me to break from that and try out different approaches,” he explains.
As a busy freelancer, Rappaport is always juggling a number of projects while fitting in filmmaking whenever he can. During the making of this short, for example, he also managed to serve as consulting VFX supervisor on the feature film, Safe, work on six commercials and several music videos while completing eight additional short films of his own.
Having been raised by a painter and an engineer, Rappaport says he grew up valuing technical and artistic achievement, so he enjoys working on a wide range of projects simultaneously. “I think 3D animation is the perfect combination of artistic and technical because you have to start with an interesting idea, and then you have to execute it,” he explains. “I get to constantly flex technical muscles doing freelance work, but I find that to really flex artistic muscle, I need to create something entirely for myself.”
Animating the Action
After getting Handey’s approval to use the story as the basis for the film, Rappaport initially planned on having marionettes act out the story, so he had puppets of a giraffe, a chimpanzee and a human made by Scott Land and Christina Papalexis. Next, he shot footage of the marionettes at a motion capture facility at Children’s Hospital in San Diego that is normally used to analyze children’s gaits for diagnostic purposes.
Unfortunately, once he saw the footage, Rappaport knew the puppets weren’t going to work. But the motion capture data did come in handy because he used it as the basis for the characters movements when animating. “I could see how the puppeteers had moved the puppets, so I could just kind of replicate certain aspects of that when I was animating,” he recalls.
Working with the motion capture data was challenging in many ways, particularly when you consider the difficulty of making simple adjustments to the characters’ movements at 24 key frames per second. Rappaport says using Cinema 4D’s Nth Frame command saved him countless hours.
“You just type in something like, ‘I want to select every, third keyframe,” he explains, “and then you can invert your selection and delete all the other keyframes. So I could adjust performances much more quickly and efficiently.” This also allowed him to add movements that the puppets hadn’t acted out such as the chimp reaching for something in a shot.
Cartoony Yet Realistic
The cartoony look of My Nature Documentary helped ensure that Handey’s sharp humor wasn’t too cutting. Rappaport based the look of the chimp and giraffe on real animals, and 3D animator Eric Deuel gave each of them a kind of stuffed animal quality, a touch that’s especially noticeable in the giraffe’s joints and the sheen of the chimp’s chest and stomach.
Creating the variety, gradients and contrasts of the patterns of spots on the giraffe proved to be challenging for Rappaport. To help convincingly accomplish the look he wanted, he used BodyPaint 3D. “UV mapping wizard was fantastic, and then I could go in with BodyPaint and actually paint the various spots on the giraffe,” he explains.
To give the chimpanzee’s skin it’s milky, almost waxy texture, Rappaport utilized sub-surface scattering. And for its fur, he used C4D’s Hair, which allowed him to create a region for the top of the chimp’s head that was dynamically responsive to the animal’s movements so as it moved, its hair moved realistically. He considered making the fur on the rest of the chimp’s body move, too. But after conducting a few tests, it was clear that the look was far to busy visually, so he opted to have the fur just clump to the body.
Rappaport based the look of the land in the film on the terrain in the cult classic film, The Gods Must Be Crazy. Using Photoshop, he created a kind of greyscale topographical map using black values as the depths of the lagoon, moving up to 75 percent grey for the road, and up to white for a small sandy hill. The final textured image was applied as a displacement map over a modeled plane object.
Plants were crucial to the look of the landscape. Rappaport used SpeedTree (http://www.speedtree.com/) for the Acacia and Baobab trees, and then brought both into C4D for animation. Smaller bushes, thorny plants and shrubs were made with Xfrog (http://xfrog.com/), and all of the plants were added to scenes using a MoGraph cloner object. “I found it to be a very organic way to populate plants. And I was able to make the plants look more natural using the random effector, which just modified the generation of where they were going until I was happy with the result.”
What did Rappaport love most about making this film? Sharing it with audiences. “There’s no greater reward than sitting in a theater, listening to people around you laughing at a film you’ve worked so hard on and probably watched 100 times,” he says, adding that he’s in the process of developing several animated shows that he’ll be pitching to networks. “I hope one of the projects lands because I would love to push my storytelling even further.”
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Article by Scott Strohmaier
Scott Strohmaier is a writer living in Los Angeles living with his wife and son.
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