In issue 158 of 3D World we find out how director Tomas Vergara created this black comedy using Maya, V-Ray, Mudbox, After Effects and Premiere. Watch the CG animated short here…
Chilean artist Tomas Vergara retreated to a small cabin in the woods of Pucon for 15 months in order to create this short: “I had a fairly comfortable life but I was going nowhere,” he explains. “Here in Chile, if you want to make a living out of being creative you have to succumb mostly to advertising in the retail area, which sucks.
“To show off my vision I had to make my own material, so I decided to cut all expenses and save money for six months prior to starting my own short film.”
Watch Tomas Vergara’s The Chase
Synopsis: A contract hit goes horribly wrong, sparking a chain of unexpected events
It was during the few months before resigning from his job that Vergara came up with the idea for The Chase and wrote the script. “I made a few storyboard drawings and gathered some reference to see where it was headed visually,” he explains. The result was a story about a young hitman, Vincent, whose assignment goes wrong. Curiosity gets the better of him and as he hesitates, albeit slightly, his target notices him, sparking a chain of unexpected events.
Vergara knew the intricate plot featuring multiple characters would involve a huge amount of work and was determined to get it done. “It was going to be impossible to develop while I still had a full-time job,” he says. “I wasn’t going to be able to hang out with friends and do all the normal stuff.”
The Chase contains multiple characters which Vergara started work on as soon as he reached his isolated location. He used Maya to animate them
When Vergara moved to South Chile he started on the pre-viz and character designs. “I wanted to portray a stylised reality – that’s why I tried to make it as photoreal as possible,” he says. “The characters had to feel [as though they were] from the same world, but also look like they had flesh and feelings. I tried to make them very human in their behaviour and not just cartoon things that moved.”
To create realistic human movements, the director studied various movies, including the Bourne franchise and kung-fu films. Vergara was influenced by other sources for the set designs and overall feel of the film. “I used Studio Ghibli as inspiration for the look and environments, as well as concept art by super Japanese artist Tatsuyuki Tanaka and Craig Mullins – I think he’s one of the best out there.”
With pre-viz, character and environment designs finalised, Vergara started working in 3D, opting to use a Maya and V-Ray pipeline. But, being his debut film, one of the director’s biggest challenges was learning techniques he’d never attempted before. “The most time-saving tool I had was Animation Tools’ AdvancedSkeleton plugin for Maya,” he explains.
Maya rigging made easy
“I’d never rigged a character before and I knew it would take me several days to learn the craft. And even if I did, the rig had to be perfect to avoid the whole thing falling apart in the middle of the project. The free plugin allowed me to make a fairly decent rig per day, instead of a possibly defunct one in a week.”
The plugin also helped when it came to the facial expressions, which was a massive technical challenge.
The short stars four mute characters, so it was essential that their faces tell the story. “Having no rigging experience, I had to think carefully about how to tackle it,” Vergara says.
The director turned to AdvancedSkeleton for the facial expressions
“The first and most obvious alternative was to use blend shapes, but at that length and with the timeframe I had, it seemed like an almost impossible task. But then I found that AdvancedSkeleton also provided a facial rigging tool, and even though it wasn’t flawless, it ended up working very well.”
While the isolated location enabled the director to focus on his work, it also created some time-consuming technical problems. “The biggest and most frustrating issue was gaining access to the internet,” Vergara says. “It only worked about three days a week and only for a few hours, so things like gathering references was a crusade in itself.”
The weather also proved to be a bit of a problem, with heavy rain, blackouts and poles falling onto electricity lines were common problems, but Vergara’s hard work, effort and months of living in isolation eventually paid off.
“The Chase got me some attention among Hollywood people working in the film business who want me to make my feature debut as a director there,” he explains.
“My ambition is to direct and produce lots of cool projects over time, make stuff that I really want to see and make a living out of it.”
But would he endure such a unique production process again? “The experience was refreshing to me as an artist and as a person,” Vergara says. “I needed time and space to think and try to see everything from the outside, from a very different perspective. I guess it’s not a false statement to say that someone would go literally crazy being isolated for a long period of time. I was, many times, very close to that. Luckily for me, the area was big and there was plenty to do; it was definitely a very stimulating place. I think it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but just once. The next thing I do has to be a collaborative effort.”
The Dynamica plugin for Maya provided the solution to the complex action sequence where hitman Vincent falls into some barrels
The Chase is full of complex action scenes: in particular the one where Vincent falls into some barrels proved problematic: “There were at least a couple of thousand objects in this scene and I quickly remembered why I don’t like using any dynamics in Maya: they suck.”
So Vergara looked to find a better alternative. “I did some research and found a free plug-in for Maya called Dynamica, which uses the Bullet physics engine,” he says. “I tried that and it worked straight away.”
“You can spend hours playing with that thing; it’s incredible – it makes everything feel so organic. I baked about five versions of the fall in a couple of hours and used the one I liked the most.”