Getting a Hand-Drawn Look from CG on Potapych: The Bear Who Loved Vodka and the Solitary Workflow SetUp for Motorola's Film Bunny

Animator/vfx artist Darren Price of Nexus Productions talks about his first step into the realm of directing, as well as techniques used to get a cel-animation look from CG, with his short animated film Potapych: The Bear Who Loved Vodka and the animation workflow on the Nexus Productions project for Motorola in which a bunny travels through the history of cinema.

Scroll down to Watch Video of Potapych: The Bear Who Loved Vodka and Darren Price's Commentary on how he created it. Further down you will find the Motorola video.

Inspiration can come from strange places. Over a year ago Price in London found a blurb in a tabloid newspaper about drunk animals, in particular the account of a bear who was adopted by a drunken caretaker in the middle of Moscow. This served as the catalyst for his three minute animated film that was seen by millions of viewers in England.

Watch Potapych: The Bear Who Loved Vodka…

…then listen to the audio commentary from director Darren Price.

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Price applied and received a funding grant from England’s Channel 4 as part of its MESH program which funds short films and broadcasts them throughout the year. But once he received the grant he spent many more weeks working on the script, with the help of Andrew Jolliffe, and getting input from the production company BlackWatch Films, which produces the MESH projects.

“Part of their drive is to work on all the directors storytelling skills so there were a few workshops with some animation writers and work up the scripts for a while before we hit production,” Price explains. “So before the 12 weeks of production I worked on the script a lot and the animatic and really nailed the animatic as much as possible before getting into the full CG process.”

Autodesk 3DS Max is Price’s (and Nexus’) animation tool of choice but Price wanted a to achieve a hand drawn animation look for the film.

“That was a bit of a struggle getting it to look exactly the way I wanted it to. As soon as you lose a bit of dimension where you are not highly rendering and texturing these characters and they are supposed to resemble 2D cel shading animation you’re comparing it to drawings and people can draw a far more elegant line than a computer will ever get. I wanted it spend a fair amount of time adding subtle lighting effects and getting the lines to be fat and wobbly so it had a nice hand drawn feel. I was happy that it was CG but I wanted it to have as much appeal as a drawing could get.”

So Price set out to hand draw, with gouache and chalk, the backgrounds and various elements. But incorporating hand drawn background into a 3D space proved difficult so the process became one of drawing, scanning, animating, redrawing and reanimating.

“It became more complicated because there were slight 3D camera moves and a bit of depth was needed so I needed that tree on this layer and this building on another layer so it became all rather integrated into the 3D process. I was working with an illustrator Matt Taylor and he was drawing a lot of the buildings, the house and the interiors of the buildings in [Adobe] Flash and would give me these. He’d draw them in pen and then convert them to Flash and color them and then I would get those and I would do a painting of what he’d done and then pull some of his vector art back into the painting and mess it all up again.”

From London to Israel and Back
Add to the mix that as Price was searching for a good animator to handle some of the work and found a one in Yuval Nathan, who was recommended by a friend. The only problem, or so it seemed, was that Nathan was located in Israel.

“It was a bit of a leap into the unknown working with an animator off-site that I didn’t really know,” says Price. “He did all the shots of Micha up the tree and sets the top of the tree on fire and then falls down into Ptopych’s arms. That’s some of the nicest animation in the piece. He was quite technically proficient with 3DS max as well as being a good animator so I could give him a rough rig of the tree and then he would fix it to make sure it would do exactly what he wanted.”

Riggin' It
With limited time and budget Price and his lead 3D animator Michael Greenwood could not afford to create custom rigs for the animals in the film so they turned to the pre-built rigs created by Brad Noble, who benevolently offers the rigs for free. (
“Brad had been working on these rigs for a couple years before we ever used it. What he has is this one’rig-fits-all system where he’s built it up himself and he offers it for free from his Web site. You can resize the arms, legs, head, and torso and fit it in just about any biped character you want. Although we have talented riggers her that do make proprietary rigs for a lot of our characters brad’s rig is all set so you don’t need the R&D time to set it up and work through it and make sure it won’t do anything weird for production. Because he’s tested it for so long you can through it right into a job and not worry. You can do everything with it and we use it al lot unless we are called for something special.”
Noble’s rig however is created for bipeds and they needs rigs for squirrels and other furry quadrupeds, not a recommended technique.
“At first I was suggesting to [Michael Greenwood] to try and build the perfect squirrel rig but with a 3-minute film he just pushed Brad’s rig into the squirrels and dogs. They are small on the screen so we could get away with a lot. He made it work so. I’m sure people that pride themselves on their rigging would look down on that technique but it if you want to get a film made sometimes you have to bash it into shape.”

Hare in the Gate
Motorola and the directorial team of Alan Smith and Adam Foulkes came to Nexus Productions to execute a journey through the history of cinema starring an animated bunny that leads the viewer through various film genres.
“They came with a fairly open brief and we pitched them about how we would make it work and it all happened pretty quickly. It was only a few weeks from when we first heard about the project and pitched it to when we started working and we had nine weeks for production,” recalls Price.

Abandoning the typical assembly line-style workflow where the specialized artists work on a single element and then pass it along to the next person, Nexus separated the project into sections and each animator was completely responsible for their part.

“It just felt like we could divide this project up and hand off full scenes to an animator to get them excited about doing the animation and rendering and lighting and modeling it and plotting out their own little movie within a little movie. It was tough because we didn’t have a huge budget where we could have different departments working on shading then off to the renderers and the lighters. We would have ended up with a much larger team. And so partly it was a budget issue but part that we had the talent that could handle full scene, people who could animated but also model and light and render. We were lucky to have a good core of animator that have all around skills.

“The scenes were chosen for each animator, based on particular strengths – we had one animator, Stuart Doig, who handled most of the traditional 2D animation, but could also animate in 3D. He took the 2D beginning of the film, and continued into some of the 3D shots. The 3D Charlie Chaplin shot was all animated by him helping the hook-up from the 1930's style 2D. Another of our animators, Reece Millidge, also has very strong After FX skills, which led to us giving him the Tron, and the Saturday Night Fever scenes. He animated these, rendered them, and could apply all post-effects to the scenes.It was a very fast way of working, and allowed the animators to all feel a lot of pride and ownership of their sections. My position on Motorola was as a lead 3D artist. I modeled and helped design the rabbit with directors Smith and Foulkes, and then went on to model, animate, render and texture the Nosferatu, Metropolis, and The
Cook, The Thief and Her Lover

Price notes that taking on all aspects of an animated section was not without struggles.

“It is a little difficult at first because that’s not the way we are used to working,” recalls Price. “You have to rev yourself up for it a bit. You realize that no one else is going to come clean with up for me, I have to see it all the way through. You do have to throw yourself in there. Half the time I am supervising larger jobs and I found it hard not to delegate when I got to a hard spot. So it was a challenge but you get into it. We started looking at different films and emulating them and putting in a bit of film grain and make it look like Nosferatu or some other style. So you get excited about some of the details that you don’t think about when you start out.”

The animation was hand drawn and scanned into After Effects where it was inked and then animated in 3ds max.

“There as quite a bit of traditional animation in there all penciled in and scanned and inked in After Effects. Even the section of The Man with the Golden Arm where the bunny gets pulled out by the big angular hand, it’s kind of like a Saul Bass animated bit, that look like it could have been done in Flash but all of that was hand drawn and inked in After Effects. In the Charlie Chaplin section we did a bit of trickery in AE in that we animated that in 3D and rendered it out in grayscale and then animated it quite carefully to make it look like a Charlie Chaplin film. A lot of the animation was chopped up and frames dropped out of it and a lot of frames held to make it look like old film running at a funny speed.”

The 3DS max plugin for the job, RP Manager, which helped divide up render passes to the Brazil renderer.

“We’re a smaller studio so I find it has all these solid renderers like Brazil that are very accessible, unlike Renderman or something like that where you need a shading expert to translate everything and to do a bit of coding. With Max your everyday 3D user can get beautiful images out of it quite quickly.”