UTS Animal Logic Academy creates galaxy’s fiercest furball
What’s cute, furry, and possibly one of the most dangerous creatures in the universe? Hoo. Wait, who?
In their latest animated short film – Bounty Hunter – the creative minds at the UTS Animal Logic Academy have embarked on a uniquely challenging mission to create what could be the galaxy’s fiercest furball.
Bounty Hunter – which is being released this June – is a collaboration by students in the academy’s Master of Animation and Visualisation (MAV) program. The film tells the story of an overweight, middle-aged, intergalactic bounty hunter on his last mission to catch and destroy the universe’s most dangerous menace – a furry little creature called Hoo.
And while the mission for the titular character seems easy enough, our space hero is about to encounter more than he bargained for …
Watch the full film here:
Each year, the MAV students work together on two major production projects, and are presented with a number of ‘challenges’ to incorporate into each work. 2019 proved to be the most ambitious to date as students were tasked with developing a ‘two-hander’ story (a story focused on two central characters), with comedy elements.
From this challenge, the Bounty Hunter was born.
“The scale was a huge step up from our previous works; creating three unique environments, working with fur, hair and cloth, but, at the same time trying something not in the typical student 'dystopian sci-fi' genre,” says Matt Estela, the academy’s VFX lead, and one of the world’s leading experts in Houdini, a popular visual effects software.
“While we're proud of our previous films, the challenge here was to make really appealing characters with a simple comedic storyline. Getting the comedy beats right in this film were a lot harder than staging an action sequence!”
For Bounty Hunter, students were also given the additional challenge of incorporating fur into the animation. Believe it or not, fur is one of the more technically challenging surfaces to realistically create in animated films.
“The primary challenge with fur is the amount of stuff you have to generate and animate,” explains Matt. “The Hoo character without fur is 330kb – about the same size as a SMS photo. The fur for our character is 2.5 million hairs, which is 170mb per frame; that's the same file size as a 30-minute YouTube video. And we have 24 of those every second!
“Plus, it's easy to get fur that looks wrong. We're so used to seeing dogs, cats, furry animals on screens that we immediately detect when fur looks ‘off'. Our primary fur artist Elizabeth Hadenfield had to really study how the fur flowed over the character, how it clumps, how it rustles in the wind, then make that work reliably and quickly across the entire film.”
For Elizabeth, who already had an undergraduate degree in animation, it was exactly the sort of challenge she had come to the academy to tackle.
“When I first entered the academy, I had no idea who Matt Estela was or that he was ‘the’ Houdini guy until he told us. I thought, okay, surely he'd find this easy. So in our introductions, I declared that I wanted to learn character effects (CFX) because I love animals; fur would be cool. I asked him how it works and he just looked at me, laughed and shrugged, ‘Dunno’.”
She didn't know it then, but Elizabeth would soon become the film’s primary ‘fur artist’.
A mission like no other
Matt’s sentiments echo the ethos of the academy – a partnership between UTS and the world-leading animation and film studio Animal Logic – where students in the accelerated masters degree are encouraged to demystify the many elements of the production process in a hands-on, practice-based learning environment where the focus is on “learning by doing”.
In an exact replica of a high-end real-world production, a melting pot of students from a broad range of design, 3D modelling, animation, coding and technical backgrounds learn the tools of the animation and visualisation trade, working under the guidance of three industry ‘leads in residence’ who provide technical, visual effects (VFX) and creative expertise.
Over the course of 12 months, the intensive learning experience sees them work hands-on across all areas of production – from building advanced capabilities in story and character development, storyboarding and layout, modelling, rigging, 3D animation, surfacing, lighting, compositing, coding as well as exploring emerging visualisation technologies and professional teamwork practices.
Matt says a year at the academy is like no other. “Students get to experience a commercial studio environment, but with the ability to ask questions, get advice, be mentored throughout the process.”
“While most student films involve four to 10 students for 10 weeks, we have 30 to 40 students work on a film for nine months. That means our master’s students polish their work, really dig into their particular craft, until it’s at industry standard.”
Elizabeth, who graduated from the MAV in 2019, says she initially found the course “challenging”. That was, until, she found her feet playing a range of roles in the team that produced the Bounty Hunter.
“The academy was such a different environment from what I was used to – it didn't take long for me to realise what a comfy place it was though!” Elizabeth says.
“It soon became a second home for the year and as a whole, the Bounty Hunter project started slow and then snowballed down a hill until I blinked and it finished.”
Riding the pipeline
Although she found a niche as resident ‘fur artist’, it wasn’t Elizabeth’s only role during the Bounty Hunter production. She was also part of the FX team and one of the two ‘riggers’ on the film. Riggers create a ‘rig’ or skeleton of a character or model that enables it to move in a lifelike way.
“I had no idea what I was getting myself into,” Elizabeth laughs.
“I was determined to learn Houdini and create something fluffy. Most of my time on the Bounty Hunter was spent creating the fur pipeline, grooming it, getting it setup in RenderMan and USD [two types of 3D animation pipeline software produced by Pixar] to send to other departments.
“I found the process of creating the fur pipeline really enjoyable. Grooming the creature became relaxing, and putting it into USD was like a jigsaw puzzle. It started out completely as ‘research and development’, until Matt turned to me and said "Hey, you made fur!" and then I took a step back and – yeah, I made fur.”
Similarly, fellow MAV student Jess Lyon says her “spur of the moment” decision to study at the Academy saw her take the lead as art director on the film. It was an opportunity that enabled Jess to built upon her passion for creative writing, painting and 2D illustration that she developed during an undergraduate degree in Fine Arts.
Jess explains: “This meant coming up with the overall style of the short film and also aiding in look development for surfacing and lighting for the film. At the beginning, this was mostly trying to figure out what the environment would look like and how it would work with each shot made by the storyboarding and layout artists – but throughout the production I did art and design, surfacing, lighting, and compositing.
“I came in knowing one program – and that was Photoshop,” Jess adds. “I knew nothing about pipelines or the industry, and during the course I learned everything. Just the amount of knowledge I acquired during the year was amazing – I’m proud of the number of software and skills I have learnt, especially coming from a primarily 2D background.”
Visualising the future
For students, gaining experience with a broad range of the most popular and emerging software used in the booming animation and visualisation industries is a key element of the course.
“An animation studio is rarely built around a single piece of software, each department will use the best tool for the job,” explains Matt. “At the Academy, we use Maya for rigging and animation, Zbrush for high-end character sculpting, Substance for surface appearance, Katana for lighting, RenderMan for rendering, Nuke for compositing, Premiere and Resolve for edit and grading,” he says.
And of course, Houdini.
“There's more and more demand for 3D 'stuff' – TV, film, games, advertising, mobile, virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR). Not only is the demand growing, animation studios are expected to make it to a higher quality and in less time than before,” Matt says.
“Houdini allows artists to get away from the manual labour, handcrafted workflow that has dominated our industry for many years, and push towards efficient fast solutions that can still look high quality and unique.
Lights, camera, action! Check out the academy’s projects showcase – from real-time visualisations, immersive VR experiences, out-of this work animations – and more!
“Demand for Houdini is growing, and it's not just in the animation industry; more and more engineering, medical, data analytics industries are using Houdini to do work that would be too time consuming otherwise.”
Indeed, industry demand for visualisation specialists is booming, with 71 per cent of Australian companies planning to adopt augmented and virtual reality technologies by 2022, according to a 2019 World Economic Forum survey.
It’s why MAV students focus on two major productions during their studies – as well as animation-focused sessions where they work on films like Bounty Hunter, students also undertake a second studio where they interact and research everything in the emerging technology space – AR, VR, real-time and data visualisation.
This is essentially a fun, interactive two-and-a-half month masterclass, where they “pull out all the toys,” says Matt. In 2019, this saw the creation of SubAqua, an immersive 360-degree real-time visualisation experience.
A team effort
For Elizabeth, the most rewarding experience during her time at the academy wasn’t just mastering the technical skills required, but learning to work collaboratively with a diverse team of peers to solve complex creative and technical challenges that both Bounty Hunter and SubAqua presented.
“For me, my biggest triumph from going to the academy was developing my soft skills. Knowing how to work the best in a professional environment so I could hit the ground running and not fall on my face when it came to getting a job,” she says.
Since finishing the course at the end of last year, Elizabeth is now working in rigging at the Sydney-based production company Flying Bark, which specialises in 2D and 3D animation.
“At Flying Bark, I’ve had the chance to work on some super cool props, characters, and even some animals – it's been really exciting,” she says.
Similarly, Jess, who has also recently started as junior compositor at Flying Bark, says the balance between technical and professional learning has been invaluable.
“Stepping into new roles and leadership roles can be quite challenging, especially ones where communication is so important. It was so valuable building teamwork and understanding that what we wanted our final outcome to be had to go through compromises. Understanding other viewpoints and valuing team members and trusting them to do their best work was a big part of the year at the academy.
“Whilst I am still looking to get into concept art and story, and have faith I will get there, given the current economic/pandemic world I am open to working across the board - so also surfacing, lighting, and compositing - as well as picking up other skills in VFX and modelling as necessary,” she says.
“I’m also just generally fond of stories and 3D animation combines my love for art and story quite well."
As for the Bounty Hunter, while plans for a physical world premiere were scuttled due to COVID-19 pandemic, it also created the opportunity to share the film with a much broader audience at the academy’s upcoming ‘virtual’ online premiere this month.
Now the academy’s graduates – many of who are working in international production houses in places like the UK, Canada, and Asia – will be able to showcase their work with friends, family and the general public wherever they are in the world at the June event, featuring a special screening of Bounty Hunter, alongside a ‘making of’ Q&A session with Matt and Jess.
As for Matt, he’s now working with the academy’s 2020 MAV students on a new project, as well as crafting brand new challenges for this year’s cohort. Those challenges are set to bring the action closer to home with a heartfelt, drama-focused story line centred around the impact of the recent Australian bushfires. But, Matt says, thanks to the efforts of the students on Bounty Hunter, the bar has definitely been raised.
“As a Houdini person, I was most proud of the complex FX work right through Bounty Hunter. From the opening rocket blasts to the fur to the OTT explosion sequence, we really packed it in!” he says.
“To be honest we were a little overambitious – yet the students managed to finish the film to a high quality, and we made something we're really proud of.”