Almost Christmas

“Almost Christmas” is a hybrid animated short film which tells a story that on Christmas Eve, a blind girl and cripple boy encounter a magical healing light which allows them to walk and see. They chase the mysterious light and step onto a life-changing journey.

HINT: sherry520

In the development, I emphasized on a simple story arc – the healed blind girl’s journey following the light – then others who are constantly joining this adventure: the disabled boy, the people in the window and the street guy who is fixing his car. 

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There are also challenges that play a role to connect characters together, such as the crack between the blind and the lame, the icy cold environment and slippery sidewalk and so on. 

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While the difficulties are all resolved depending on not only the help of the light, but also friendship between the blind and the lame. 

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The “dark night of the soul” comes as the final and most extreme down point: the two characters lose their sight and legs, so they fall again into the darkness. 

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When they are about to fall into the desperate, they found where the mysterious light comes from, which leads their journey to a happy ending. 

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With the Christianity interpretation, the light carries a meaning of the Holy Spirit which opens people’s heart (heal the blind and the lame) to lead them into light (the church). The cold environment produces difficulties of achieving the final destination in the journey, which is an interpretation that there will be challenges throughout one’s life even as a Christian, but the light and the others will help carry the burden. The whole journey represents the life of faith, and the friendship (between the blind and the lame) in the religion. 

Visual Development

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In the initial concept, I was imagining and sketching some running scenes of the girl, chasing the light and everybody is curious about what she is doing. Originally I was also figuring out the lighting to be dramatic, and the cinematic language to cut in different perspectives to create montage. 

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Concept Development.

After experimenting with a lot of tests to initiate the color and concept, I mostly preferred the purple color with a little pinky gradience which is in contrast to the amber light from the window.

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Style Frames.

Hybrid Production

The 2D pre-production starts from the modeling and rigging in Toon Boom Harmony. I decided to do puppet animation due to its efficiency of applying animated action compared with traditional frame-by-frame animation, which also benefits later in the lighting process. 

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Model Sheet.

The puppet has been built with basic bones as well as envelope deformers. The envelope deformers help with some bending in the textured area and shaping. Also I applied a weighted deformer to the textured scarf and jacket, which was a little trick to deform them smoothly. 

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Node View: the Blind Girl Puppet Rig.

Node View: the Blind Girl Lighting Solution.

Though traditional animation is not our choice, in our early 2D production, we intended to start our layout and rough animation in a traditional way during the progress of rigging. In layout animation we kept our focus on the placement and perspective of the scene; in the rough animation process, we used only line art to emphasize the character performance rather than keeping its shape, since we need the animators to be mostly creative about the action and animation principles, exaggerating the actions of the characters and making them alive. Then later when the puppet is ready to paste on top of it, the shape will play its own part. The 2D production process went well and very efficiently we stepped into the puppet process. 

2D Department Process Reel.

Our compositing is mainly done in After Effects, which includes but not limited to the lighting effects of the healing light, color correction and adjustment, texture application, illustration, motion blurs etc. The compositing process is to make the whole animation more unified with all elements as well as achieve the look of initial style frame, which produces further atmosphere and visual pleasure for the audience. 

Our 3D production focuses on background which reduces the load of illustrating background images but still keeps the background a 2D style looking. We started the process from modeling 6 buildings that will simply be placed as loop in scene to create a small town. The church and sidewalks are built later depends on the demand of the scenes. We also built shallow 2D models with 2.5D camera which makes it always face the camera to create an illusion of 3D space. This 2.5D modeling is mainly used on the decoration (such as balls and wreath on the window) on the houses and the Christmas tree on the streets to simplify the modeling and texture process. 

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Our 3D production focuses on background which reduces the load of illustrating background images but still keeps the background a 2D style looking. We started the process from modeling 6 buildings that will simply be placed as loop in scene to create a small town. The church and sidewalks are built later depends on the demand of the scenes. We also built shallow 2D models with 2.5D camera which makes it always face the camera to create an illusion of 3D space. This 2.5D modeling is mainly used on the decoration (such as balls and wreath on the window) on the houses and the Christmas tree on the streets to simplify the modeling and texture process. 

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As we needed a graphic 2D look, we applied the texture using hand drawing technique in Photoshop based on the UVs. The models we built were as simpler as possible with low-poly mode to decrease any render load. 

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Lighting Solution:

As after we finished the models, some lighting tests had been conducted for later reference. We tried both Lambert in Maya Software and AiToon in Arnold, which gave similar effects on the material, while AiToon shows slightly more delicate look when applied to details. 

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As for the windows, we tried glow effects in Maya software while it did not provide a platform to apply glowing individually. So we also tried mesh light, which became our first solution for the lighting in 3D. 

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Lighting test initial result

Later when we locked down our idea on using Arnold as our choice renderer (which we took advantages of the Gobo Effects), we started to test with the emission channel. We created glow maps for the window, which shows a better effect than mesh light. 

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For better color correction and reducing the load of painting the sky, we incorporated a skyDome and figured out the AOV rendering for skyDome. 

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3D Modeling - Houses.

UV & Texture Painting - Houses.

Lighting Tests.

Gobo Effects & Emission Channel. 

Lighting - SkyDome.

As for the production management tools, we benefits from them a lot to achieve efficiency. Gantt chart and Trello are our friends to maintain most of our schedule, and we utilized Google Form and Excel to help recruit people and manage our shot assignments. We also created PDF files to manage the naming convention and help people learn about the process. 

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Gantt Chart Addon: Big Picture.

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Trello.

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Production Schedule/Assignment Sheet.

Shotlist.

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2D/3D Naming Conventions.

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Linework Guide - 2D.

In production management, we are taking a lot of advantages from the hybrid film process -- a hybrid film allows people to work with the parallel production schedule. For example: when we are in the 2D rough animation process, our 3D model and textured are also being made at the same time, also the lighting team at the same time is conducting lighting and rendering tests already. The whole production management is mature and leads to success in the project.

During the pandemic, we still use Zoom to maintain our weekly meeting for the teams. 

For more info or request of a professional process book, please contact: sherryzhaozxy@gmail.com

© 2020 by  Sherry Zhao. 

sherryzhaozxy@gmail.com

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