The Ghost Next Door
Karen Moltenbrey
October 7, 2016

The Ghost Next Door

“The Ghost Next Door” is a haunting tale about a skeleton whose sleep is disturbed by the cries of a newcomer to his graveyard – a lonely, sad, young ghost. Eager to help, the skeleton makes multiple attempts to cheer her up, each a bigger failure than the last, before a strangely sweet, last-ditch effort to comfort the frightened spirit finally does the trick.

“It’s a story about good intentions and comforting those who mourn, but most importantly, it’s about coming to terms with the things we cannot fix and making the most of our situation,” explains Christopher Bringhurst, who wrote, directed, edited, composited, co-produced, and co-animated the film with several of his fellow Utah Valley University students.

Of course, the prospect of creating an entire short film from scratch is a scary proposition for any filmmaker, especially for a student. However, Bringhurst endured more than his share of nightmarish situations in bringing this frightfully delightful animated short to fruition.

First, when Bringhurst’s pitch was accepted, he had the support of an entire class – nearly 30 students. Alas, those numbers dwindled and the team shrunk as other student projects commenced. Nevertheless, the handful of artists who remained had a hand in almost every aspect of the project. 

Zachary Thorpe handled nearly all the rigging. Bringhurst modeled the skeleton and co-modeled the ghost with Lead Concept Artist Kenwood Huh, who also generated the matte painting used for the backgrounds. Co-producer Kevin Roberts figured out the lighting and rendering, and handled the 3D elements in the sky – specifically, the moon and clouds. Justin Goulding oversaw the creation and rendering of the grass.

Also assisting in the various tasks were Kip Atkinson, Ryan Beukers, Lindsay Bowen, and Brad Horting.

Instructors at the school critiqued the animations and overall story, steering the group in the right direction when they got too far off course. “They were blunt and direct with their feedback, but still trusted us to govern ourselves and make it our own thing,” Bringhurst says.

Bringhurst first pitched the concept in September 2014, and preliminary work began immediately after it was accepted. “But those first four-plus months were the seventh circle of development hell,” he says, “lots of back and forth, inter-department politics, people joining and leaving the project, and so forth.”

Things then got even worse, when, in January 2015, an instructor advised the group to start over. The only asset that survived was the skeleton model and rig.

An even amount of time was spent working on the film inside and outside of class – with critiques done in class and the tasks completed outside of the classroom. That includes rendering, as two-thirds of that process was done using home computers.

An initial draft of the animated short was finished during Halloween 2015, but the group continued to polish it until the end of the year before entering it into the Student Emmy competition, where it won third place. “The version they judged didn’t have any grass, and a few effects still weren’t to our liking, so we got permission from our instructors to work on one more draft before graduating,” Bringhurst says. The final version was completed this past February and is being entered in various film festivals.

Gloom, No Doom

Because the story takes place in a graveyard at night, the gloom element of the film was unavoidable to some degree, especially since the group wanted to convey a cheerful, light-hearted tone.

“When I first pitched the short, I envisioned it as a faux stop-motion film, done on the computer but with its frame rate, rendering, and animation style mimicking films like Wallace and Gromit or The Nightmare Before Christmas,” says Bringhurst. “A few of our animators were able to nail down the look quite well, but we came to a crossroads when we started over. A lot of our team was struggling to capture the stop-motion look, and our textures and rendering weren’t giving us the plasticine look we needed to tie it all together, so we made the difficult decision to just go full-3D animation with no other pretense.”

Initially, Bringhurst and his wife, Jenni, came up with the original story, about a living skeleton who didn’t realize he’s an enemy character in an RPG. The filmmaker realized it lacked heart following a few failed pitch meetings over the summer months. “I loved the skeleton character and still wanted to use him, so after a lot of brainstorming with my wife, we came up with a graveyard setting and a story about a skeleton and a ghost on an awkward first date,” he recalls. “It still didn’t have the ‘soul’ we were looking for, but we knew we were close.” Bringhurst wrote the final version used for the completed film, about a sad ghost and a bumbling skeleton trying to make her feel better. 

As the story further developed in class, the team received help from Moroni Taylor, a story artist at Blue Sky Studios. “He was a huge help, especially with pinning down a lot of the essential beats, framing, and overall composition,” Bringhurst says.

Ghostly Technology 

The group did all its modeling (characters, props, environments, and so forth) in Autodesk’s Maya. “The skeleton was the very first thing I modeled, and strangely enough was the only thing that didn’t end up getting re-done later on,” says Bringhurst. “The ghost initially had a very different model and rig combo that wasn’t working, so in early-February 2015, we had to scrap it and start over. Kenwood [Huh] did the first pass of the new model, and I added details and finalized it. But then Zach [Thorpe] had to build a completely new rig.”

Initially, a lot of the texturing was done in Adobe’s Photoshop, but early last summer, the artists discovered Allegorithmic’s Substance Painter, and decided to scrap all the textures and rebuild them in this software. “The biggest problem was that, as gorgeous as our new textures looked within Substance, Maya didn’t really have a way to plug them directly in as materials, so we had to break them down and re-interpret them as Mia Material X passes. I’m relatively certain that a handful of useful texture information may have been lost in translation,” says Bringhurst.

The ghost, however, was the only exception. She was cel-shaded and lineless, but with a very soft edge on the shadows. Since the character was a ghost giving off her own light, the artists wanted her to stand out from her environment.

All the animation, meanwhile, was done in Maya. Initially, the crew used a small motion-capture studio on campus to record a few scenes for reference, but never did review those results. Bringhurst and Roberts came up with a method that balanced pose-to-pose and straight-ahead animation, but while it worked well for the two of them, disseminating it to the team was somewhat challenging. 

“A fair number of scenes were turned in with very few keyframes, leaving Maya’s auto-splining to do the majority of the steering,” says Bringhurst. “Getting rid of the resultant robotic, stiff motion meant adding additional keyframes and deliberate poses to give it more personality.”

The ghost’s transparency and glowing effect were done completely in After Effects, using a complex blend of effects and layers and involving fractal noise, Gaussian blur, matte chokers, color manipulation, and lots of alpha track masks.

Rendering was accomplished using Mental Images’ Mental Ray. 

The film contains three unique simulations. Goulding designed the grass using an xGen setup, duplicating custom blades of grass that he made. He also made a collision system using paint effects so the grass could move under the characters’ feet and other objects. But as the deadline drew nearer, all the blending was done instead within After Effects. 

“Our biggest technical challenges were by far the rendering and the grass effects,” says Bringhurst. “We hadn’t had any classes yet on either, so we were largely self-taught.” 

Robbins created the cloud system using a static smoke simulation within a volume container. Roberts, meanwhile, provided the effect of the leaves blowing in the background by creating a cloth simulation that was driven by a wind engine. He used a few camera tricks to make just one animated render that could be replicated with variations in After Effects.

Stop, and Start Again

There were two times in the production when the group had to stop and re-evaluate their work. The first was at the urging of an instructor, with performances that formed a more cohesive narrative. “A lot of our team reacted negatively at first. It’s hard to give up something you just spent four months of your life working on,” says Bringhurst. “We hashed out an entirely new system for critiquing and treated it like a re-awakening. In the end, it was one of the best things we could have done for the short.”

The second resulted from words of wisdom from Taylor, who had been mentoring the group from the East Coast. While in Utah, he invited the students over. “Roberts, Robbins, and I went, hoping to have praise heaped upon us, but instead, he just seemed confused and a little disappointed,” recalls Bringhurst. After listening to the critique, “we realized that we had to go back to square one yet again on a lot of stuff.”

Heeding the advice, the crew redid some shots, created new ones, and polished the rest. They also reworked all the textures and omitted environmental elements that were too distracting. “We bonded a lot over the experience, and, much like our January reboot, our short was far better as a result.”

Indeed, the restarts throughout the project – some more extensive than others – became valuable learning experiences. “The biggest lesson I took away from the experience was that there’s no such thing as wasted time if you spend it working on something you care about,” says Bringhurst. “We had to start over so many times that a lot of us felt like we were spinning our wheels. Yet each time we started over, [the film] got better and better. Our first efforts were never a waste because we learned what worked and what didn’t work, and came back wiser and more skilled. Learning to let go of things that weren't working, losing that fear of failure, that was huge.”