Renderosity Moderator and Staff Writer Sergio Rosa Directing First Animated Film

Anyone who has been around Renderosity.com for a while will recognize the name – Sergio Rosa (aka nemirc). He's been writing reviews and co-moderating the Maya Forum at Renderosity for some time now. Sergio and I also co-moderate the Reallusion iClone Forum. I had the pleasure of meeting Sergio and spending a lot of time with him at the SIGGRAPH 2008 convention in Los Angeles. I was impressed. He struck me as an obviously skilled 3D artist and a very smart guy. Listening to him critique the various software programs we had both encountered on the main trade floor at SIGGRAPH was an education in itself.

Sergio (his full first name is 'Aristides') told me he was from El Salvador and that because of his great love of movies, he decided he wanted to make them, too. He particularly enjoyed animated films and wanted to know how they were made. So, using a demo of the program Bryce, he started teaching himself how to create his own 3D worlds. This lead him to Maya, a sort of holy grail for Sergio (and a lot of others). Amazingly, Sergio is a self-taught Maya artist. I remember being impressed when he said in the car after I asked him how he learned the program; “I just read the book”. Of course, this disguises the fact that he must have spent countless hours figuring out how the various parts of Maya work. Not to mention all of the ideas behind modeling, animation, lighting and rendering in a complicated 3D program like Maya. Now, Sergio works professionally in the growing CGI industry in El Salvador and in Central America. He does animations for commercials, training videos and interactive CD's.

I was very happy to hear from Sergio several months ago that his proposal for a short animated film was accepted by "Escuela de comunicaciones Mónica Herrera", a design and publicity school in San Salvador, which runs “workshops” for a select group of filmmakers who receive funding and equipment to create their own animated films. His film “Atormentada” (Tormented) is something he's been working on for several years now. Modeled on Japanese horror films like “Ringu”, Sergio wanted to create something different from the normal “family friendly” animated films that dominate the genre. He wrote a story of a young girl who is tormented by her parents while she is alive. Then after she dies, she returns for revenge.


The directors of the selected projects

After getting his script together, he pulled in a crew of about 7 people to create “Tormented”. Many of them are friends and co-workers from the professional company he works with. He and his crew have been hard at work to make a May '09 deadline. Over several months, in an attempt to create and render almost 100 separate shots for the film, Sergio has created storyboards, an animatic, many test renders and even wrote code in Maya for a special facial animation panel which sped up the process.


Tormented screenshot
View the Teaser Trailer in the Renderosity Video Center

I've been following his production blog and managed to get an interview with him while he was rendering and rendering and rendering. His choice of High Def (HD) as his final video output is probably keeping him from a lot of sleep right now. But his answers and comments to my questions are interesting and very much in the “Sergio” style: honest and smart. I just love his advice to those trying to make their own animated film, “Never listen to others” and “Don't be afraid of trying new things”.

Oh, the release date isn't set for “Tormented”, but after the rights to the film revert back to Sergio in a year, he plans to release a Blu-ray and standard DVD versions of the film with lots of extras. I'll be sure to review it here and do some follow up questions with Sergio.

Good luck, Sergio! I hope you and your crew come up with something great.


                                                                                                                           


The smooth director.... yeah, I do wear the shirts they give me at SIGGRAPH (that one I got from Matt at the TSplines booth).
This was taken during one of the voice talent auditions.

Question: Sergio, can you give me a brief background on your CGI experience and what let up to you deciding to do this project.

Well, that question takes me way back! I've been working with 3D since 1997 when I discovered Bryce. I was using the demo version, and I remember having to stay one hour or so in front of the computer waiting for the images to render, with my finger ready to hit the Print Screen button to capture the image before it got covered with countless watermarks. You can imagine that was a lot of fun...

I eventually found out about Maya, and I've slowly become a specialist, so to speak. I'm not saying I'm an expert, but I usually manage to find a way to do whatever I want to do.

I'm also a movie fanatic, and I've always had this drive to create, so to speak. As a matter of fact, the movies and their cool VFX made me want to know more about how digital effects are made. So in the end everything is connected, the desire to invent stories and to actually make them.

Unfortunately, the project was put on hold for over 6 months because it was a matter of working, or making a movie and forgetting about eating during the time the movie would be in production. This is where the school "Escuela de comunicaciones Mónica Herrera" comes in. This is basically a design and publicity school, but they have taken on the task of opening these "film workshops" where people can participate, and possibly get their movies made. I say "possibly" because before you take part of that workshop there's a pre-selection stage. Basically what you do is to send in your project, and if they like it they'll pick it. At the end of this workshop there should be 7 finished projects. What's cool about it is that you get to see them in the movie theater, so it's like making a real movie (although on a smaller scale).

The workshop also gives you a fixed amount of money. That's also a good thing since you can forget about the "making a movie and forgetting about eating during production." Now it was more about "ok, we have everything we need, so let's get this going." 


Maya screenshot

Question: Tell us about the team members and how you decided on working together.

Actually some of them are the guys I work with all the time on commercial projects (we make animations for commercials, training videos, interactive CDs and such), so I have first hand experience with them. Even if not all of them are not such hardcore moviegoers like me, they like to innovate, and also take ideas from what you see in movies and games. That's what's so nice about working with them, because even if we can't produce work that can be comparable to the latest Dreamworks film, we try to produce the best work we can and make people go like "Woah! That looks like those films made by those guys who made *insert any cool 3D animated film here*! I didn't know people here could do such work!" 


Set modeling in CINEMA 4D

Question: What about script development: how did the idea of the story come about?

The original idea was to make a horror-thriller movie. Mostly because the majority of animated films you see are family-friendly. That was back in 2006 when I began to write my outline. A few months of work I heard Sony was working on the movie Monster House, which is somewhat of a horror movie. That's when I thought "well, there goes my original idea of making a horror film."

I continued working on the project, though. My inspiration was those Japanese horror movies where you have these ghosts wanting to make everybody suffer as they suffered in life. My ghost is a little girl, and that's nice because you have 2 contrasting ideas right there. On one side you have a menacing ghost that can make you go through hell, and on the other side you have an innocent kid.

The next thing was to decide why she was so angry and ready to destroy anything on her path, and someone came up with the idea that maybe her parents treated her badly, and that her living that life would eventually make her crazy. In the back story, she went crazy and killed her parents, but that doesn't stop there, as she is constantly looking for new victims.

So that's why the story is titled "tormented." You can say it's about a tormented little girl, but also about a tormented victim. 


Maya view

Question: Work-flow: what system did you set up to create the film?

As you know, I'm a Maya guy, so everything is designed around Maya, and even if we may take assets from different software packages, in the end everything has to work in Maya. Anything that is not 3D (like textures, mattes), is done with Adobe software.

The guy who modeled and dressed the entire sets is very proficient in CINEMA 4D, so we had to go back and forth between applications during preproduction. One of the problems was that it's extremely easy to get models inside CINEMA 4D, but it is not as easy to send them back to your primary application and yet retain all of your texturing and such. Luckily, CINEMA 4D R11 is capable of reading and writing COLLADA files, so we could send everything back into Maya using that format.

On a hardware level, we use Dell computers to do all the dirty work, save for a guy that likes to use Macs instead. Rendering on these computers is done during idle times, and the rest of the renders are executed on the school's computer lab. They have allowed us to use one computer lab with 14 next-tolast generation iMacs in it, meaning that we have 28 cores just for rendering, and to tell the truth we're barely getting the renders on time because of the frame format we're using (HD video), lighting setups, skin shaders and hair systems.

We're pretty much having to get creative to get the renders as fast as we can, without any impact on the final quality. 


A little "facial panel" that I put together to make facial animation easier.

Question: The workshop situation you talk about sounds ideal. How did you find out about it and is the money involved something like a "grant" for your specific project? Did you have to "pitch" the film to anyone?

Well, I'm part of a little group of film makers here in my country, so they passed this information along. I first had to find out if they would accept animated films, as a friend an I are the only ones in that group who do animation.

You could say the workshop is something like a grant, but we didn't have to "pitch" the project to anybody. They ask you for your script, budget, résumé, general information on the movie as well as a letter explaining why you want to make it. You send all your documents to the school, they review them and in the end they pick 7 different movies (including both fictional stories and documentaries).

The first 2 months of the workshop are used to rewrite the script and "polish" it, so to speak. I don't know about the filmed ones, but in animation we made the storyboard, animatic and then we moved on to animation. The school gives a fixed amount of money, but if your budget is higher than what they give you, each producer must go out and raise more funds. This part proved to be difficult, as most people in my country will wonder why you need money if you don't have to rent equipment, go somewhere to shoot a scene or buy props and such. That makes me wonder if those people are aware those guys working at Dreamworks or Pixar actually make a living by making animated movies. 


The storyboard in Toon Boom Storyboard Pro

Question: Can you give me a breakdown of the people working on the film and their jobs?

We only have 7 guys working on the actual movie. Now that I think about it, the crew is larger than your averange animated short film, as most animated short films I've seen are made by 4 to 5 people.

-José Contreras is a character modeler, texture artist and animator.

-Hans Rosemberg is an animator

-Ronald Huezo modeled the entire house, and he also set up the lighting for each and every room. He also did some post

-Rubén Orellana modeled the father character. I should mention this was the first time he took on a project of this scale.

-Carlos Perez did extra modeling for the house exterior, and he's also a lighter and render guy.

-Hugo Rivera is the matte painting guy. We only have 3 mattes, but they are amazing and they got quite a few jaw-drops.

-Pamela Albayero did some storyboards and concept design.

-I model, texture, animate and setup the renders with all the different layers used in post. 


Voice recording

Our main problem wasn't the size of the crew, but the lack of balance between skills. For example, you see we only have 3 animators and the character animation is the bottle neck of the animated films.


Mariana's not-so-simple face skin shader.
The countless textures there are the different "wrinkle maps" that are triggered whenever she makes a facial shape

Question: How do you plan on promoting the film? Since the premiere will be in a theater, will you be making it available online? Will you have a DVD?

The school retains the rights of the film for one year. During this year they will be sending the films to different film festivals. In the meantime I'm just looking for animation festivals where they can send our film, as they are not familiar with those kind of events. My plan for next year is to release a Bluray as well as a DVD, with extra features and such, and also make the film available online, maybe on iTunes or any other VOD site. 


Setting up the computers at the school as render slaves

Question: Is there any advice you would give to filmmakers who want to create their own animated film?

The first advice I can give is never to listen to others, lol! Seriously, someone told me once I should never listen to those wanting to bring me down, as they do it just because they envy you. If you like to write, make movies, animate, or anything. If you have a story, try to put your team together and make your film (if you can get the money, that's even better. Remember that even if we love movies this should be considered a job, not a hobby). Also, don't be afraid of trying new things. I know some people may not like my movie because there are a couple of violent scenes, but I made it anyway. On the other hand, a lot of people will think animation is only meant to make Sunday cartoons, and that other genres are better as live action movies. I strongly disagree, as I'd love to see something like "The Hours" as an animated film. Maybe one of the readers will be that guy that finally makes an animated movie that is not some sort of fantasy-unreal thing, but rather something very real that will touch our heart rather than our eyes with flashing visual effects. 


Sponsors for the Escuela de comunicaciones Mónica Herrera workshop

Notes:


Editor's Note: Be sure to check out all the valuable resources available right here on Renderosity, for all your artistic endeavors, starting with the following related links:
Ricky Grove [gToon], Staff Columnist with the Renderosity Front Page News. Ricky Grove is a bookstore clerk at the best bookstore in Los Angeles, the Iliad Bookshop. He's also an actor and machinima filmmaker. He lives with author, Lisa Morton, and three very individual cats. Ricky is into Hong Kong films, FPS shooters, experimental anything and reading, reading, reading. You can catch his blog here.
June 8, 2009

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Member Opinions:
By: StaceyG on 6/8/09
I'm so happy for you Sergio!! Very Very cool

By: DreamWarrior on 6/8/09
Wow! Very detailed and complete interview!
Thank you for the interview and the best of luck with it for you and your team, Sergio!

By: JenX on 6/8/09
That is awesome, Sergio :) I hope you let us know what festivals they'll be shown at, and/or when they'll be available in a VOD format :)

By: TheBryster on 6/8/09
Wassamatter? You couldn't use Bryce?
Kidding - WTG! I wish you every success.

By: Daidalos on 6/8/09
Hey way to go Nemirc. Thats awesome news brother I can't wait to see your film hope you'll share/afford us the oppurtunity to see it with us when it's done!

By: UVDan on 6/9/09
Congratulations and much success in the future.

By: nemirc on 6/9/09
@JenX: well, all the information about festivals will be available on the production blog, so check it often :p

@everybody else: thanks for the comments :D

By: nickcharles on 6/10/09
I've had the opportunity to see this interview come together from the start, and still enjoy rereading it. Great interview and excellent intro, Ricky!
Sergio, it's great to see your story on the Front Page! I'm sure the film will be a great success with all that you've put into it!

By: LilyHawk on 6/10/09
Way to go Sergio! It's so exciting to see your dream manifesting into reality. Congratulations :-)

By: jhustead on 6/11/09
Segrio,

It's good to see a fellow Maya user making his own work and creating a team. Granted I'm somewhat new to the Maya world (only for about nine months working with version 2008) I look forward to making my own short movie one day.

A couple of questions:
What is the running time of the movie? What is this film's primary language? And if it's in Spanish will you create a secondary track or closed captioning in English once it's released on DVD?

I definitely look forward to the release of this movie. Somehow and someday I will see it!

Fellow polygon modeller,
James a.k.a. jhustead

PS Nice interview and write up gToon.

By: nemirc on 6/12/09
@jhustead: hi there and thanks for the comments.

As for your questions. The running time is 9:19 minutes (without title credits nor end credits). It's indeed in spanish, and as of today there's no plans to release an english-spoken version. If we did, we'd have to animate some parts, as I'd really LOVE to have a lipsync according to the english languaje instead of keeping the current one.

We're going to release the DVD with english and french subtitles, though.


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