Indie Film Week | Shane Acker’s 9: from short to feature film
Discover how Shane Acker’s student-created short was made into a full-length feature film backed by the mighty Tim Burton
We kick off 3D World’s Indie Film Week with this inspiring rags-to-riches story.
In 2005 a student at UCLA by the name of Shane Acker released an 11-minute CG animated short called 9 (that had been produced in his spare time over four and a half years). Four years later it was developed into a Tim Burton-backed feature length film…
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KICKSTART YOUR OWN CG FILM
If you’d like to know how you could get financial support for your own dream movie, you can buy issue 155 of 3D World where you’ll find:
- Tips for creating a successful fund drive
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- How Hillary Yeo got his epic short, Godaizer, made
In 9, Shane Acker creates a gritty, textural world inhabited by creatures composed of scraps of fabric and broken machinery. Here the artistic 6 shows off his inky, pen-nib fingers...
THE MAKING OF SHANE ACKER’S 9
Lead: studio Starz Animation
Project duration: Four years
Team size: Around 150
Software used: Maya, Fusion, mental ray, custom tools
Is the Shane Acker short 9 the least likely candidate for a feature-length CG film yet? Starz Animation and the creatives behind the big-screen adaptation think not. Ed Ricketts finds out what it’s been like to work with legendary director Tim Burton
If the story of 9’s evolution from a student-created short to a full-length feature film was itself the plot of a film, it would probably be canned for being too unrealistic.
Things just don’t happen this way; not even the most starry-eyed animation student would ever dream that his work would one day become a film produced by Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov, and featuring the voices of Elijah Wood and John C. Reilly…
Except, in the case of Shane Acker, it really did happen.
Acker’s original animation thesis short, 9, was certainly visually arresting. Set in a strange post-apocalyptic world modelled after post World War I Europe, it features odd, tiny characters made of hessian, surviving as best as they can by scavenging parts from the ruined environment.
There’s no dialogue and no obvious back story, and yet it leaves the attentive viewer with an overwhelming desire to find out more about this odd universe.
9 takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where humans are gone, and only nine mechanical ragdolls, named 1 through 9, remain. The clever use of found objects in the environment is vital for their survival as they struggle to survive against killer robots
TIM BURTON’S BLESSING
Five years on, the full-length feature film 9, directed by Acker himself with Burton’s blessing, is set to expand on that original vision.
While Burton might grab most of the movie poster acreage, it’s Acker, his team of creatives and the crew at Starz Animation in Toronto who are largely responsible for this labour of love.
“I was in a unique position on the film in that I actually met Shane at UCLA and worked on the short with him,” says animation director Joe Ksander. “So he asked me to come and join him on the feature. The story process was all about how to flesh out the short. There’s kind of a back story there, and that’s hinted at in the short version.
“We knew that 9 was a young character who was the closest to perfect that the world would have – although not quite, which is why he’s 9, not 10. The appearance and roles of 1 to 8 changed right up to the final script as part of the story process.”
The feature retains the moody atmosphere of the short – a design element that initially posed some problems with muddy shadows and a general lack of clarity
OUT WITH THE OLD
While the short provided a blueprint for the visual style and a basis for the extended story, Ksander and Acker decided fairly early on not to use any of the actual assets they had created for it.
“One of the only things that remained from the short is the skull of the cat-beast,” explains Ksander. “Shane did that model in a really high resolution, so we could still use it.”
There were several practical reasons for starting over, not least being that both artists’ aesthetics have changed in the last four years, and that from a purely technical standpoint, some of the assets are now fairly primitive by comparison.
“There were a lot of really talented artists on this project, all with their own ideas, so we didn’t think that technically we should stick to what we had before,” Ksander says.
“Aesthetically, we wanted to make it feel like the sort of film you could make in your garage, but we were also making the character design a lot more balanced and appealing.”
The main characters, now expanded to the full complement of nine from the original short, were a primary focus of the design phase. The short was dialogue-free, but for a full-length feature the characters inevitably had to engage in dialogue, and thus emote, which is no mean feat when their faces contain so few features.
At one stage, Ksander experimented by adding more facial features to improve the characters’ emotional range – even making 9 looking more like Elijah Wood, the voice actor – but the results looked incongruous.
With few facial features to work with, the 9 team invested time in making sure that expressions were clearly understood
“It just didn’t fit the world – these guys are simple characters. So we did as much facial acting as we could, but when these guys look at something, they actually turn their whole body, they emote with their whole body. So the acting is a little more pantomime than you might see elsewhere. The riggers at Starz Animation did a really good job for us.”
Much of the acting relied on maintaining a strong silhouette, no matter what the character was currently doing. Their bodies are made of hessian, but a decision was made not to rely on render-intensive cloth simulation for each and every frame.
“Instead, the guys at Starz used [Michael Comet’s Maya plugin] Pose Space Deformer,” Ksander explains. “It’s kind of like a muscle system, but it’s a lot more designable – it’s not just based on anatomy.
“If a character lifts his arm, you get a nice clean S-curve from the wrist to the ankle. That meant that no matter what pose we put the characters in, we could get a nice shape and a clean silhouette.”
Initial designs focused on imbuing each character with a distinctive silhouette to make them easily recognisable, given their lack of identifying facial features
NINE CHARACTER TRAITS
Using PSD enabled the animators to imbue each character with its own personality – for example, 1 is older and made out of leather, while 7 is made of linen and is much more athletic.
“We wanted to be able to control that and not worry about how linen looks when it moves, for example,” adds Ksander.
THE BIGGER PICTURE
Another aspect of the original short that proved complicated in the transition to the big screen was the sheer amount of darkness it contained. “It was so dark that it would have been very easy to create imagery that was muddy and had no detail,” says Jeff Bell, visual effects supervisor.
“There were a lot of challenges in trying to keep detail in the darker areas. We didn’t want it to be totally black, so we were playing in the 0-25 per cent black range. That made some of the rushes interesting; our colour calibration had to be spot-on, and it was tricky all around.”
Unlike in the original short, the characters face far more than one foe – and a variety of other dangers
At some points, the team was tempted to throw in some ambient lighting simply to lift the overall levels, but this made the whole image too muddy. “Instead, we played a lot with values, depth of field, saturation and a number of different things,” says Bell.
“In terms of lighting we needed very specific bumpers and kickers in certain areas, so we would do an initial pass in terms of getting the location and set lighting right, without making it all look too CG. Then we would put the characters into that lighting and develop it from there.”
Lighting was developed in mental ray using frame-by-frame caching. While it largely relied on standard off-the-shelf software, Starz did develop its own caching managers and mechanisms to try to speed up the process, together with custom tools for asset and project management.
This was as much a budgetary consideration as a practical one. “For the most part, Starz tries to ensure that the third-party vendors provide as much value as they can, so the development that went into the pipeline was on top of those products rather than replacing them.
“We were creating efficiencies to allow the artist to concentrate on the image rather than on the more mundane aspects,” Bell explains.
Many of the original environment models were too detailed and couldn’t be used, so 2D paint fixes and texture projection were used to fill in gaps
THE FISRT ANIMATOR TO USE MAYA
The rest of Starz’s pipeline revolves around Maya, with Fusion at the back end. Maya happens to be a program with which Bell is very familiar, having worked on the original version at Alias Research.
Indeed, as he modestly points out, he was the first animator on the planet to ever use the program, and is also responsible for the design of the Qwerty-based keyboard commands. “Every artist has me to thank, or curse, for that,” he smiles.
In comparison to the original short, 9’s production budget was vastly expanded, but in commercial terms it wasn’t considered a costly feature – and this fitted well with the team’s vision for the project. “The mantra was that we weren’t going to try to do anything too expensive,” says Ksander. “Now that we had more time and money, we didn’t just want to throw everything at it. There’s no skin or human hair, for instance.”
One example is perhaps the film’s most complex scene in terms of visuals, in which a horde of mechanical spider-beasts chases the characters. Instead of opting for a full-blown crowd simulation such as Massive – costly both in time and money – Bell developed his own hybrid techniques.
“We came up with some clever techniques to simulate crowds,” he says. “It was a combination of the animation department creating appropriate cycles, and then a little bit of development work to make a simplistic crowd system. Again, that was a last-minute creative decision and it turned out really well, so we’re proud of that.”
Similarly, a lot of the original environment models developed in an earlier production phase in Europe turned out to be far too detailed and overly render-intensive. It simply wasn’t practical to use them in some shots, which meant that occasionally parts of the set or background were simply missing.
The film’s sets were largely modelled on the destroyed vistas of post-World War I Europe
“Fortunately, art director Kevin Adams was able to do a lot of paint-overs and 2D paint fixes for missing parts of the sets, and we were able to get a lot more visual detail that way,” says Ksander. “They used texture projection as well, so we could have depth and parallax and so on. Even the rain at the end –
a lot of that was done by hand. It was just enough to tell the story – we weren’t trying to do a Siggraph paper on water simulation, after all…”
‘Just enough to tell the story’ could well be a motto pinned to the wall of every animator’s cubicle. It may have taken him four years to do it, but Acker told his own unique story in less than 11 minutes of animation. Then five years later, that story came to life on the big screen.
Still from the Academy-Award winning short. Tim Burton says: "The short was among the most extraordinary 11 minutes of film I’ve ever seen. Shane’s conception was and is a stunningly detailed and hauntingly beautiful universe that resonates not only visually but emotionally”
Click Next to read Shane Acker’s account of his 10-year journey in ‘The director’s cut’
on Monday, April 23rd, 2012 at 11:55 am under Features, Making of.
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Tags: 9, CG animated short, CG feature film, CG short 9, Indie Film Week:, indie filmmakers, indie filmmaking, Shane Acker, Tim Burton