The same can be said of the student creators of this animated short film, Carla Lutz and Alli Norman from Ringling College of Art and Design, who received a second-place Student Emmy for the work this past May. Not only did they take this filmmaking journey together, but they are continuing their professional journey in Los Angeles as best friends and roommates, with Norman working at Hasbro doing 3D modeling and sculpting for toys and Lutz working on the animated series All Hail King Julien for DreamWorks Animation Television.
“We actually used to joke that this film was just a story about the friendship between Alli and myself, since I relate to the serious demeanor of our main writer character and Alli has the same spunk and spontaneity our comic girl does,” says Lutz. “Because of this, so much of us are embedded in every aspect of this film, which we hope audiences can subconsciously feel.”
The 3-minute, 49-second film was created by the two friends, who acted as co-directors. Norman served as lead for design, character/environment modeling, texturing, painting, lighting, and “caffeine.” Lutz, meanwhile, was producer, heading up story edits, animation, technical rigging, and compositing, as well as managing and scheduling the team of composers and sound designers.
“Even though we each acted as the leader for certain sections of the pipeline, we both modeled, rigged, textured, animated, lit, and composited for this film,” notes Lutz. “Even our design work was 50-50, as all assets were split up between us. Our characters are a great example of this: We both created designs for each, and then one of us acted as the ‘lead’ for that character, to finalize it.”
Pre-production began in a class during the second semester of junior year. From that point on, the two women worked on the film full time from roughly 8 am until 2 am daily for a year and a half until April 2015. However, before the project was greenlit, the pair also worked on a completely different thesis pitch.
“During pre-production, we were challenged with coming up with multiple pitches. In order to create ideas we were passionate about, we gathered and stored all of our favorite inspirations. We drew from film, art, life, and anything else that inspired us. We made cheap, cardboard ‘corkboards’ and hung up anything we liked or that was meaningful to us,” explains Lutz. “The ultimate aesthetic of our film was made from our favorite things: stark contrast of light and color, vintage times and vintage art (specifically, the UPA style of animation), and love stories. There was a moment when we both sat down and decided we had gone too big and that we didn’t know how to bring this film to life and do it justice.”
Momentary doubt, though, turned into action when they had to get the ball rolling, so their design choices came from their own personal art styles in the end. “The characters became so personal that they ended up looking and acting a lot like the both of us,” adds Norman.
The style is indeed unique and compelling, and the imagery based on news typography, newspaper sections, news stories, and news makers.
“We had discovered that we both used to save our parents’ newspapers to read the comics. We loved how they covered a whole world’s worth of information. It made sense that this would be our ‘world,’ and fitting a story within these mechanics just felt natural,” explains Norman. “Once we locked into using a newspaper world, we dissected the structure of the printed text, symbols, and images to set up a playground for our characters. The contrast of black and white vs. color helped us to form our colorful comic gal and monotone journalist guy. We added some conflict, multiple acts, and boom! The film began.”
For the content creation, the filmmakers utilized software they were familiar with, rather than spend what limited time they had researching new programs. To this end, they used Autodesk’s Maya 2015, Pixar's RenderMan Studio 19 (RIS), The Foundry’s Nuke 9 and Mari 2.6, Pixologic’s ZBrush 4R6, Pilgway’s 3D-Coat, and Adobe’s CC Master Collection.
As for hardware, the filmmakers used the lab computers at the school, which included an SGI Octane III and HP Z820 workstations with Nvidia Quadro K4000 graphics cards. They also used Wacom Cintiqs and Intuos tablets.
Due to the time crunch, the filmmakers made a lot of the design packets in conjunction with the story creation, meaning a lot of their first ideas were fully designed and cut later in production. The character models were started the summer before their senior year and tweaked in the first couple weeks of production. The environments, props, and sets were built as needed, depending on the needs of the shots.
“We were designing as we were modeling, making assets that could read at as low poly as possible, and made sure they could each be kitbashed together to appear as an entire populated city,” Norman says.
Lutz describes the design process for one scene: “For the letter bridge in the Obituaries, I had a simple sketch on a Post-it where I described what I was envisioning, and that was about as far as our design process had time for,” she says. “Luckily for us, we understand each other very well.”
Letter by Letter
In this newsy world, many of the textures include type – single letters, words, paragraphs. The majority of the textures were created in Mari 2.6, with Photoshop used to paint in specifics or to color tweak on the fly. All of the buildings were stamped with “paragraphs” that the women typed up utilizing elements from photo textures they made themselves.
“If you look through the film, you may spot a lot of ‘articles’ that are made up nonsense – this helped keep things fun during the long work hours,” says Norman.
The bumps, displacements, and normal maps were all created in ZBrush. “We saved out a 256, 512, 1K, and 4K map for almost everything in our shots, and swapped the texture resolution per scene in order to save on render times,” Norman points out. “Our girl character gave us some creative challenges, with her halftone texture. We wanted to give her textures the same quality as printed ink, but not have it be distracting. We wanted Frank, our male character, to gradually become more colorful as he changed throughout the film, which required five separate texture maps that were incrementally saturated for his hair, face, hands, shirt, vest, pants, and shoes.”
The animators were new to RenderMan RIS, which had just been released at the time, and found themselves with little documentation or experienced users to offer guidance. Needless to say, rendering and render times became an early obstacle. “We found ourselves divvying up the expensive scenes evenly between us to prevent any person from pulling out too much of their hair,” Norman says.
For one of the final shots when the main characters fly over the newspaper city, because of how close the characters were to the camera, render times were eight hours per frame for the characters alone. “Their long render times also meant they would not work on the renderfarm. With three days to our final film deadline, we looked for solutions on how to achieve our final city, and taught ourselves projection mapping,” explains Lutz.
The shot includes three different 3D cameras set up in Nuke with more than 50 mini-matte paintings by Norman, to create the appearance of a fully rendered city.
Lighting also proved challenging due to a number of bugs that popped up. “Our slogan jokingly became, ‘We’ll fix it in post,’” Lutz says. One of those bugs was a shader issue that prevented them from successfully lighting or rendering any shot for two weeks. “Through our magical IT team and the power of coffee, we troubleshooted the issue and lit 54 shots in two weeks,” she adds.
Because the pair wanted to push the film dramatically, they made the story span an entire day. “Setting up a new lighting rig for each scene felt very ambitious, but I’m glad we went for it, since it gave us more control over the art direction and color palette,” says Norman.
In It Together
Along the way, Lutz and Norman also encountered non-technical challenges, especially in the way of maintaining a nearly impossible schedule that took a toll on them physically, mentally, and emotionally, as there wasn’t time for anything else other than this film. “It was also a true test of our ability to separate our friendship with our professional working relationship, since not only were we best friends and co-directors, we were also roommates (then as well as now),” says Lutz.
Nevertheless, the two have many fond memories from this time. “This was our first film ever, so everything felt magical, special, and terrifying all at once,” says Norman.
One of their favorite moments includes the day they found out this pitch was selected to move forward, as both were convinced that it would be passion project they would have to revisit later in our lives. Luckily for audiences, this was not the case.
In addition to the Student Emmy award, “On the Same Page” was a National Board of Review Student Grant winner, and has received a host of other awards and accolades.
“I loved being able to make something with my best friend. The filmmaking process was hard and fast, and it was great to have someone to trust. We both have such similar tastes and complementary specialties that it was a perfect match,” says Norman.
“Creating a film is such a unique and rewarding experience, but it’s so much better when you can share it with someone you know so well,” adds Lutz. “Creating this story and shaping it and watching the effect it has on our audiences are the most magical feelings in the world.”