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The Snowman vs. The Alien

L.A.'s Duck Soup Studios Turns Out Its First Fully CG Animated Film By Frank Moldstad
Click image for QuickTime movie
The Snowman refused to die. The first fully CGI animated short film done by Duck Soup Studios, a 30-year-old Los Angeles-based commercial animation house, The Snowman hit a snag when original writer Jonathan Lyons left to join ILM. Existing as rough storyboards, a few panels and some models, the project lay waiting for someone to see it through.

At a busy facility like Duck Soup, with multiple commercial animation projects from name brand clients such as McDonalds, Nestle's Crunch and Coca-Cola going through the pipeline, finding time to produce an in-house project is a challenge.


So when Duck Soup animator/compositor Lane Nakamura was given The Snowman, his principal objective became to finish it. In the process, Nakamura served not only as animation director, but also completed the storyboards, did all the voices, and helped with design and modelling, rendering and compositing. "It was basically a labor of love," he says.

A comedic tale of really stupid aliens who abduct and interrogate a snowman, it premiered in August at the World Animation Celebration in Los Angeles. Nakamura couldn't attend the opening, but by the time it was finished, he says he was so close to the project that he had difficulty telling if it was any good anyway.

Inventing an Alien Language
If you listen closely to the language used by the aliens, you might hear some words that sound vaguely familiar. Director Lane Nakamura says he is really into cooking, and when the production team was devising a language for their aliens, they decided to construct a language based entirely on the names of sausages. "But we ran out of sausages, so we had to expand it to meats," he says. Some of the choice cuts from the alien leader include: "Vienna Dodger Dogs ecoli Spam" and "Kalbi Andouillie Lop Chong." Using his food dictionary, Nakamura added Kielbasa, Lugano (actually an olive), Caponata and Smoky Turkey Jerky to the language.
The audience reception was strong, however, and The Snowman won Second Prize for Best Computer-Assisted Animation Produced Professionally. Part of the film's attraction is its looney sensibility, led by a blustering alien leader who falls out of his chair, while screaming orders at his flunky aides as the kidnapped snowman silently melts under the pressure of interrogation.

"Its Mars Attacks meets Charlie Brown on Bobs Planet playing Geris Game," says Executive Producer Mark Medernach. "The Snowman has been an incredible collaborative effort with both technical and creative challenges that have made it a terrific development tool for our team."

Nakamura chose Alias|Wavefronts Maya as a one-package solution for creating the story. "The animation and character tools in Maya gave us the organic control I was looking for and the shading networks are fantastic," he says.

The film was rendered in Maya as well. "The biggest challenge was to get everything the way we wanted in the Maya renderer," says Nakamura. "All the shaders were already built. Maya has some quirks, so the glows were popping on and off when lights with glows were going off screen. We developed workarounds using shader glows instead. We had problems with depth of field, fogs, and glows. We started getting some artifacts. That's why we cheated it in After Effects using blurs."

Still images from The Snowman.
The alien leader
The interrogation
The Snowman before being kidnapped.
They used procedural textures in Maya to make the snow, creating a lot of chatter on the snowman, which was solved by rendering some scenes at two or three times the required resolution. "There were a lot of things we muscled in," Nakamura says.

At first, they were using SGI Octane R10000s and O2 R5000s, older models which rendered at 30 minutes to an hour per frame in Maya; when they brought in some new Hewlett-Packard Kayaks running Windows NT, the rendering time dropped to 15 minutes per frame.

Nakamura says he is grateful for the help and support he received from numerous people on the project, including making decisions about what to include and where to pull back, straightening out the storyline, and of course, production and technical help. "We worked hard and had a lot of fun making The Snowman and we feel our collaborative effort has produced a story that should be enjoyable to all," he says.

Duck Soup Studios began as Duck Soup Produckions in 1971. Co-founded by director and artist Roger Chouinard, the studio is privately owned and operated. "Pushing to incorporate the emerging systems, software and services, we expanded into 3D animation using Alias, Softimage, and Maya, integrated the digital ink and paint system, US Animation, and adopted digital compositing, editing, and pre-visualization," according to the mission statement on their web site.

"Beyond commercials, we take on a variety of work including interactive CD-ROMs, film titles, music videos, short films, TV bumpers, and theme park entertainment. Our fusion of craft, tradition, and technology attracts a diverse spectrum of talent.

"Directors ranging from the organic ink lines of Maureen Selwood to comedic shenanigans of Sam Cornell, from the eclectic expeditions of Miles Flanagan to the adept designs of Robin Cottle. This myriad of directors is supported by a team of seasoned animators, digital artists, editors, technical directors and nuclear engineers. (Okay, we only have one of those.)"


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Related Keywords:animation, 3D, CGI, Duck Soup, Maya, After Effects

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