How to make a festive animated short

Now in its fourth year, Blue Zoo's shorts programme seeks to provide a creative platform for the studio's artists to flex their talents on internal non-commercial projects.

This year we commissioned musical comedian Ben Champion to write and produce a festive song to parody an animated musical.

The whole studio had the opportunity to pitch to direct the short, and animators Simone Giampaolo and Joe Kinch's quirky elf pitch won the company-wide vote.

A parody tale of a quirky elf

A parody tale of a quirky elf

The design

The look of the elves was the key element to getting the whole animation to work. It's extremely hard to come up with a new take on something that has literally been done thousands of times, such as the bell wearing elfs from Rise of the Guardians or the 'special operative' approach from Arthur Christmas.

Joe and Simone knew they wanted the cast to look as dopey and manic as possible, but very cute at the same time. By giving the elves massive eyes gave them a uniqueness whilst addressing these needs.

Our lead modelling artist on the project Pietro Lincini needed to quickly get the custom knitted texuture sculpt working, so he created the pattern in 3D in Maya then rendered it to 2D using the depth pass.

This created a texture for the jumper using noise maker in ZBrush.

The characters needed to look dopey, manic and cute at the same time

The characters needed to look dopey, manic and cute at the same time

As we only had a limited amount of time to create the short - just 11 weeks. We knew we had a to be very creative when it came to asset builds.

So a large amount of the environments were digital matte paintings that were projected onto geometry, to avoid having to spend a long time on building sets.

Digital matte paintings were projected onto geometry

Digital matte paintings were projected onto geometry

We wanted to give the animators as much flexibility as possible when it came to positioning the mouths anywhere they wanted to on the face.

But this would create a very complicated rigging problem, so we avoided that by rendering the lips and mouth cavity on a separate layer, so these could be added onto the face in comp.

The lips and mouth cavity were rendered on a separate layer

The lips and mouth cavity were rendered on a separate layer

The animation

The animation style took inspiring influence from two masters of traditionally animated comedy: Tex Avery and Genndy Tartakovsky.

Our aim was to push our Maya rigs in order to achieve the fluidity and snappiness typical of traditional animation, making large use of smears, squash/stretch and deformations whilst giving it the friendly charm of a stop-motion animation.

We were lucky to have a lot of really talented animators in the studio who all jumped on board to help, who all added little extra bits of surprise animation to really give it another layer of humour.

Unlike most of our studio's normal work, the animators were encouraged to go off-model and produce extreme poses to add to the craziness.

Extreme poses add to the craziness

Extreme poses add to the craziness

The render

To get the short rendered in just three weeks was down to not jumping in straight away, which is hard not to do. But spending time making sure the workflow and files are very well structured and organised, and writing scripts to help automate efficiencies.

At Blue Zoo we use a variety of render engines, but for this short we opted for RedShift due to requiring a very physically tactile render, and needing it very quickly.

This meant we could get through a lot of creative iterations of a render in a very short space of time, allowing us perfect the look dev stage quickly. Even with all the characters with felt fuzz and hair, each frame only took a few minutes to render.

The team got through a lot of creative iterations of a render in a very short space of time

The team got through a lot of creative iterations of a render in a very short space of time

We encountered a bug in the render software which caused some frames to crash when rendered at HD resolution, we found that a new version of the software fixed this issue. But another projects in the studio needed the old version still, but both projects were using the same renderfarm.

Having a solid studio pipeline enabled us to branch out a different version of the software, and the renderfarm would automatically switch version depending on which project was being rendered – that one small thing saved the project from missing the deadline.

Words: Tom Box

Tom Box is the owner of Blue Zoo

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