Robot Gone Wild

January 22, 2011 3:07 pm

Tags: 3D, CINEMA 4D, MAXON, Meleah Maynard

Visual effects artist Noah Rappaport directs a team of CINEMA 4D artists in the creation of three music videos for Disco Biscuits.

What would a skinny, gangly robot do if it could break free from its, well, robotic life and roam freely around a big city? Noah Rappaport has some idea. A longtime visual effects and broadcast motion graphics artist, Rappaport has always wanted to direct a project. This spring he got his chance when Los-Angeles-based Ghost Town Media, whom he had been freelancing for, asked him to submit a story concept to go along with three tracks from the new Disco Biscuits album, "Planet Anthem."

Rappaport found it fascinating to watch actors, like the bouncer at the nightclub, reacting to a robot that would be composited into a scene at a later time. "We had to describe what the robot would do so the actor could pretend it was there," he recalls.

The band, which describes their music as being electronica jam-fusion, loved Rappaport's idea to use a robot as the main character in their music videos, including one for their single "On Time," which includes a lot of tech-related lyrics. With just five weeks to complete the first of the three videos, Rappaport had to work fast. So he quickly assembled an international team of skilled 3D artists he'd learned about while participating in forums for users of MAXON's CINEMA 4D. Rodolfo Roth, from Brazil, modeled the robot. Anton Moss, from Philadelphia, did all the texturing with BodyPaint 3D. And Dublin-based Brian Horgan rigged the model to work with pre-captured motion-capture files, as well as key-framed animation.

"I had been the lead 3D artist at Ghost Town for about a year and I really wanted to do something to highlight my 3D skills," says Rappaport, who has been using C4D for about five years. "I have notebooks full of ideas that I would like to pursue and this robot was one of them."

Rappaport used an HDR globe made from on-set photographs to help create realistic lighting inside the dance club where the robot hits the floor with the woman he later goes home with.

Though each of the three-minute videos is for a different song, they make up a trilogy that tells the story of a robot who escapes from a factory where robots are made by other robots. The first video, "Widgets," makes clear that this robot is more sensitive and aware than his counterparts, so when he sees his chance, he escapes and immediately begins observing humans to learn how they behave. It's clear, though, that he doesn't fit in, especially when a hot brunette mistakes him for a parking meter.

Later, in "On Time," the robot spots the same woman going into a nightclub with friends and follows her. Soon, the two of them are out on the floor where the CG robot blends in seamlessly with the dancing crowd. For all his awkwardness, the robot has clearly got the right moves and the woman takes him back to her apartment where their make-out session is abruptly halted when one of his eyes shatters.

In "Widgets," the first video in the trilogy, robots are shown toiling away in a factory where more robots are being built.

"Fish Out of Water," the last video, is more introspective, picking up where the fiasco with the woman leaves off. "The whole story is kind of about if something couldn't talk but had intelligence and emotion, how would it build on that and communicate," Rappaport explains. (Check out the "On Time" video, which debuted on MTV2 and MTU, here:

To stay on budget, footage for all three videos was shot at the same time in just five days. Two weeks into production, as they were about to start shooting, Rappaport had finished creating animatics from C4D to use on set and plan each shot. High dynamic range (HDR) photos he had taken of the club set came in handy when Rappaport worked with David Torno of Ghost Town Media to light scenes and composite scenes in CINEMA 4D using Global Illumination and minimal directional lights. Ghost Town also handled all the motion tracking for the videos. Compositing was done with After Effects.

Shortly after escaping from the factory, the robot spots mannequins in a shop window and realizes how different he is from the people around him. To make the reflection Rappaport put in a reflective plane and replicated the distance between the robot and the glass, rendered out a separate image and composited it in.

Shots inside the robot factory were filmed with a handheld camera so Rappaport could 3D track what the camera was seeing and replicate that in C4D. "We used SynthEyes for all of our 3D tracking," he explains. "I wanted to see exactly what the camera did, so inside C4D the motion blur could be fully replicated." If time had allowed, Rappaport would have liked to do more 3D tracking but, instead, he added in camera motion in After Effects to get the look he wanted.

Rappaport found the team of 3D artists he used to create and animate the robot through C4D forums he follows online. "It was great because even though we had never met, we were able to easily exchange our 100 MB files and work together well on the project," he says.

Lighting in the dance club was a little tricky to pull of, Rappaport says. To do it, he used an HDR globe he had made from on-set photographs that he took with the help of the director of photography and an actor who stood exactly where the robot would be in the shot. "I used a panoramic camera and photographed multiple exposures of the spot where the robot would be so I was able to replicate the lighting setup with one-hundred percent accuracy," he says, adding that if there were one thing he would do over he would make the robot a little beefier because his skinny frame got lost sometimes on camera.

To make animating the robot as efficient as possible, Rappaport made good use of C4D's powerful layer browser and Visual Selector tool to quickly locate and select parts of the robot for keyframing. The actual footage was used as a backdrop during the animation process.

Having used both Global Illumination and HDR for the project, render times were too long to be rendered in house, so Rappaport and Ghost Town opted to use a render farm for most of the shots. "We processed a few things in house, but there were something like 70 shots in "On Time" and the entire video was about 6,000 frames, so we needed to crank that out someplace else," Rappaport says.

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Meleah Maynard is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer and editor. Contact her at her website:


January 24, 2011

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