Making The Light At The End

It's been a few days now, and I'm really pleased with the attention that Light has had so far (it even got featured on CartoonBrew!). As promised, here's a little info about the creative process that went into the film.

I made a visit to a ragged coastline a couple of years ago. Waves crashed violently at the foot of a cliff, but up in the sky light rays broke through the cloud. The pairing of vulnerability and awe was something I really wanted to capture in a short film, so after a bit of image-gathering I put together this simple concept:

With the picture came questions. Had this person fallen or jumped? Why was he being saved? I wanted the film to get straight into the action, so I looked for a way to keep the backstory simple and quick to explain - hence the "broken heart" plot. Whether you've suffered it or not, it's something that everyone can instantly pick up on. The answer to the second question then came naturally - if he was being saved after a suicide attempt, he must have changed his mind.

The rest of the plot began to form. I made the most of having this "divine light" pick the guy up and move him around against his will, thinking up lots of different visual gags I could fit in. Without worrying about making it look good, I quickly boarded and began animating.

A couple of months later, I had around three minutes of near-final footage, but there was a slight problem.

It wasn't funny enough.

Parts of it were too confusing.

But mainly, it didn't mean anything. There was no message behind it, no underlying theme - just a quirky story about a man battling a light to get his phone back. Angrily, I went back to square one, this time thinking about the most important question of all: what effect does all of this have on out hero? It took a long while - longer than it should have - but eventually I realised: he becomes independent. All through the film, he's dependent on other things: his ex-girlfriend, gravity, the light.. But towards the end, he takes a stand - perhaps for the first time in his life. In the first version of the ending, the light just naturally peters out and he gets his phone back without really having to do anything. In the final, he grabs onto the branch, becoming an active controller in his own fate.

With that reworked, I re-animated the whole film, putting in more jokes (originally the girl texted back while he was already in mid-air, not stepping off). Finally, with the animation the way I wanted it, I moved onto rendering.

After taking some time away from it, I'd found that Taste Lab didn't look as good as I'd hoped it would. Technical details like subsurface scattering size and buffer shadow samples tend to go over my head, so with this film I wanted to opt for a very different style, with the mantra "keep it simple, but do it well". I turned to the excellent FreeStyle renderer for Blender 2.5, and did a number of tests to find the best look:

I'm not really a fan of toon shading, as I find it often looks too clean and kind of sterile, so I went for flat colours on solid objects, but made an exception with the clouds and anything else with transparency. And although the style meant I could ignore lights and textures, there was a serious amount of compositing needed to put each shot together:

Giving the film this kind of look let me focus on the animation and story, which, given it's been the main focus of this write-up, you can probably tell is where my interest lies. Judging from the feedback, those were the two areas that people liked the most, so I'm happy. I also learnt a lot about proper planning and pre-production, which is just as well because I really don't want to re-animate any more films from scratch!