Beautiful puppet animation challenges ideas about gender

This thought-provoking short has rightly won an award at Siggraph.

The industry's great and good are currently in LA for Siggraph, the annual gathering of global animators, where the best work from 2014-15 is being honoured in the Computer Animation Festival Awards.

And it's not just the Pixars and the Framestores who are getting recognition at Siggraph. This year, a student team from ESMA (École Supérieure des Métiers Artistiques) won the Jury's Choice award for their short animation Amir & Amira.

The endearing short, which you can watch above, takes on the topic of gender-strict traditional education through the eyes of two wooden puppets at puberty.

We caught up with director Sara Ayoub to find out more...

What inspired Amir & Amira?

When it comes to gender equality and freedom, we face more or less the same problems regardless of our race, nationality, religion or political views. So this story could have taken place anywhere in the world. But I was raised in Tunisia for a good part of my childhood.

I faced some of the twins' issues and met people facing them too. And that's what inspired me.

The story was inspired by Sara's Tunisian childhood

I wanted to point out the problems with a strict traditional education and show the world that we could change for the better.

I wanted our twins to be an example of that: they make mistakes under peer pressure and when they finally realise that they were manipulated, they fight together for their freedom of choice.

How did you go about making it?

I first wrote Amir & Amira during our second year of school in 2013. The team members were then chosen by our teachers at the end of that year. We were six: Martial André, Benjamin Condy, Ariane Dedulle, Cécilia Maturi, Tatiana Tchoumakova and myself.

We started working together on the script during our third and last year on September 2013. This part took us a while since what we were talking about were very sensitive matters.

We always worked at school from 9am to 6pm, everyday except for the weekends. And then little by little, we started working the weekends and very late at night. Some of us had little sleep by the end of the year and pulled all-nighters many times.

Maya, Mari, Renderman and ZBrush were all used to create the animation

This movie allowed us to work with some very interesting people. We met puppeteers and dancers who both helped us for animation references. But we never used motion capture actually!

We worked with Autodesk Maya for modeling and animation, Adobe Photoshop and Paint Tool SAI for drawing, Photoshop and Mari for texturing, we used Renderman for the hair, Qualoth for the cloth, Zbrush for the sculpt, made the compositing with Nuke and the Montage with Premiere.

We worked on the movie all summer and finally finished it on the due day in September 2014.

Why do you think it won a SIGGRAPH award?

Maybe it's because Amir & Amira has this political and social message: We talk about something that everyone has experienced in some way and, even if the story was set in a specific environment, the subject is meant to be universal.

The poster for the movie

Our goal was that everyone could relate to this story and to these characters. It is also supposed to deliver a positive message about freedom of choice and equality. So yeah, we have a pretty serious story but we tried our best to make it look poetic and visually appealing and that's probably what made it stand out.

What advice do you have for other animation students?

What we probably learn the most by working on such a project is the importance team work. What counts at the end of the day is what you built with your team mates.

The team behind the animation

So if we have any advice for anyone who'd like to make a short movie, it would be to be patient, to keep an open mind and listen to your team. The rest is only technical, it's the human part which can be the hardest or the most enjoyable.

You will face hard times, but we personnally focus on the good ones we all spent together. Oh and of course, be prepared to work a lot and don't EVER procrastinate (for your own sake haha)!

What effects do you think awards have on the industry?

For us, awards have only positive impacts. It is a graduation project and we are at the beginning of our career so receiving an award gives us more visibility.

Receiving the Jury's Prize at Siggraph in the main competition is a huge recognition for our work. To have our student movie in the same category as professionnal ones is the best award we could ever hope for.

Is there a certain type of work that tends to get honored in awards ceremonies?

Every award ceremonie is different, they all have their own artistic preferences. So, if you look at every ceremony independently you may have the feeling that they reward the same kind of work.

But if you look at all the festivals, there is room for everyone. And even with that in mind, there are some surprises sometimes. No one would have bet on Mr Hublot for the best animated short for the Academy Award in 2014. It was up against Walt Disney studios but it still won.

If you hadn't won this award, who would you have liked it to have gone to?

It's really hard to pick just one. There is so much diversity in the projects submitted and they are all so great ! And if you think about the animation and vfx industry in general it's even harder to choose. This is such a cool thing about the Siggraph! To be able to see such an important variety of projects with such high quality. It really blows our minds to see all the amazing projects that were submitted in the same category and to realize that we're the ones rewarded. This is really incredible and amazing for us.

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