Find out how Gnomon Studios’ Meni Tsirbas created a fun CG animation using Maya, ZBrush, modo, MetalRay and V-Ray, and the help of some talented students…
Imagine a post-apocalyptic future where the only survivors are robots and… wait for it… slugs. Yeah – bet you didn’t see that one coming!
Exoids is the latest animation from director Meni Tsirbas starring a cyborg slug called Gus Nitrous.
Watch the Exoids trailer
Tsirbas has been directing film and TV for over 10 years and works in both live action and animation.
He has 15 years’ experience as a VFX supervisor and digital artist, and has worked on diverse projects ranging from Cameron’s Titanic to Paramount’s Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and advertising spots for Nike.
You may also remember him from a series of production diaries we covered in 3D World in 2007, when Tsirbas directed his first feature film Battle for Terra.
Tsirbas’s is currently the resident director at Gnomon Studios and this short marks the start of a new series of joint ventures between him and The Gnomon School of Visual Effects.
“I wrote and directed the film, animated all the animatics and camera, and did the lighting,” he says. “However, about 40 extremely talented part-time crew-members made the film happen.”
The trailer didn't take too long to put together: "Once we had enough usable footage I spent the good part of a week cutting, sound mixing, and animating the credit sequence," says Tsirbas
“Most were select students from The Gnomon School of Visual Effects. The film was made at Gnomon Studios, which is the school’s on-site content creation wing.”
“It’s an amazing place that I help run. Basically once a student is selected, they get to work on a real-world production with a professional director (me) while still at school.”
“The resulting high-end experience and demo reel material is so invaluable for the students that it usually leads to some pretty amazing industry jobs soon after graduation.”
A bumpy ride
The action follows Gus Nitrous on his quest to find water. On his way he makes a wrong turn into the Exoids-occupied city of Los Angeles which sets him off on a high-speed desert chase.
The CG film has a live-action feel to it, thanks to the camera moves and perspective tricks
“Exoids is a culmination of many influences including post apocalyptic action films like The Road Warrior, grittier animated films like Rango, and my recent focus on live-action direction,” says Tsirbas.
While watching the trailer you may notice that the camera moves are a little shaky and the picture doesn’t always look precise – don’t worry, that’s intentional: “This film has a deliberately imperfect and live-action feel to it, so the camera has a lot of bump and shake to it,” says Tsirbas.
“We use realistic depth of field and lens apparitions, and even simulate film stock that’s subtly aged and distressed.”
Exoids’ 3D software arsenal
Maya was used for most of the modelling and all of the rigging, lighting and rendering.
“Maya was our go-to 3D software for pretty much everything,” says Tsirbas. “So not only did we model, rig, light and render in Maya, but we also used it for dynamics, especially with Maya Fluids.
ZBrush was used for character sculpting.
Maya was the go-to 3D software, used for all the modelling, lighting and rigging
“MetalRay was our renderer,” says Tsirbas, “although VRay was also tested on some model turntables, since I’m very interested in using it on future projects. Our other modelling packages were modo and LightWave 3D.”
Maya used for dynamics
Tsirbas took advantage of Maya Fluids for a number of shots in the animation: from the dust kicked up by the car, to the missile trails, to the explosions.
“Fluids offer a more cohesive and contained look verses the more broken up look of particles,” Tsirbas explains. “For the Exoids’ lightning, I used Maya’s canned lightning effect as a starting point.”
“We then integrated some 2D solutions which worked well, but are now testing a new approach using Maya NURBS objects with animated displacements running through them. I think the final lightning will use a combination of 2D and 3D effects.”
Problems of a fast-moving pipeline
The major challenge for Tsirbas and team was was getting the characters completed in time for animation.
“[In this production] we started animation before the final sculpting and texturing was done,” says Tsirbas. “So we’re now doing some reverse engineering to make the character’s latest sculptural detail work with animation that’s already complete. There’s really no way around such pipeline challenges when you’re on a tight schedule.”
How did it all begin for Meni Tsirbas?
I started working in CGI back in the early 1990s with my company, but my big break happened in 1996 when I was recruited to work at Digital Domain on Titanic. That was a fantastic experience, but my original passion of film direction was still there. So over the years and while doing digital art, I spent my spare time making short films and taking any directing jobs I could get, often at the expense of more lucrative VFX Supervisor gigs. Thankfully the risks have payed off, and I’m extremely grateful to be doing what I love most of the time.
I knew I wanted to be a director since I was a kid. I also loved visual effects and, at the risk of ageing myself, thought I’d get into miniature work and motion control photography. But when computer animation emerged while I was still in film school I immediately took to it and started a VFX business. This was back in the late 1980s early 90s. I’ve been involved in CGI and direction as a career ever since.
Where does Meni Tsirbas look for inspiration?
Inspiration is a strange thing to pin down. Like all directors and most CGI artists I’m an avid film fan and watch at least one movie a week and usually more. I also love science-fiction novels and comics. So my influences are numerous, but my interests do tend to skew toward science fiction and fantasy.
I love what concept artist Neville Page has been doing lately, especially his work on Cloverfield and Super 8.
Director Meni Tsirbas singles out concept artist Neville Page as one to keep an eye on for his exciting work
I think The Incredibles is probably my benchmark for the perfect animated film. Beyond its great animation, design, premise and so on, it’s really just a great film, regardless of medium.
Words of advice for aspiring 3D artists
The animation industry is quite special in that true talent gets noticed and hired. It’s a simple as that. Character animation in particular is a very competitive field. So you have to have an exceptional demo reel. What that takes is a lot of hard work advancing your skills, seeking out honest critique, and being smart about just what ends up on your reel.