How Filmmaker Greg Jardin Created His Unconventionally Emotional VFX-Heavy Short

In Greg Jardin’s new short film, "Floating," a lonely person made out of balloons longs to connect with someone else in a city bustling with preoccupied strangers. Though he originally envisioned the story as a balloon-boy-meets-balloon-girl love story, Jardin later came to see the film in more neutral terms. “If you keep the characters' gender ambiguous, this could be a love story for any type of couple, or it could be a story of friendship or companionship,” he explains.

The film’s original score was written and performed by the Welsh band The Joy Formidable, and Jardin co-wrote the script with his friend Matthew Beans, a writer for Adult Swim’s Robot Chicken. But to understand how to pull off the 3D character animation and visual effects needed for the film, he spent six months learning Maxon's Cinema 4D and Andersson Technologies' SynthEyes camera tracker. “Years ago, I envisioned a simpler version of 'Floating' as a music video, but I didn’t have the technical confidence to do it,” he explains. That changed when he watched a Greyscale Gorilla tutorial on how to make a simple balloon using C4D.

Though the balloon Jardin was able to make didn’t work the way he needed it to for the film, just being able to make it helped him realize he could execute his idea. So "Floating" became “a labor of love,” as Jardin calls it. And two and a half years later, after working on it whenever he could in between paying jobs, it was finished.

From Film School to L.A.
Floating is Jardin’s second short film of note. He made the first, a 20-minute sci-fi romantic comedy called "The Problem With Fiber Optics," while in film school at Florida State University.

That film, about an anxious, sheltered man who buys a memory to boost his confidence, landed Jardin several meetings with studios and agencies in Los Angeles. Soon he was moving to Los Angeles and being represented by Radical Media, a transmedia global company with offices around the world. “I got lucky that people in L.A. saw that film,” says Jardin, who primarily directs music videos and commercials.

Though he always wanted to be a director, Jardin first studied graphic design before going to film school. These days, he still does some graphic and motion design for advertisements and title sequences. “Graphic design absolutely influenced my film work,” he says. “I think when you study any sort of art form that isn’t film, it will inherently inform all of the decisions you make as a filmmaker.”

It also helps that he’s taught himself how to use Adobe After Effects and C4D. “Now, when I’m pitching an idea for a video or a commercial, I feel like I can confidently say that I can do a lot more than I could before,” he says. Jardin and his 10-person team spent two days shooting "Floating" in Los Angeles. Half of the actors were friends or people he used to work with. The rest were gleaned from a general casting call managed by Ptolemy Slocum, a friend with experience casting actors who also played the lead in "The Problem With Fiber Optics."

Knowing that the main balloon character would be composited into the film during post-production, Jardin had production assistant Leon Bosket stand in as a height reference. “As we were framing up a shot of the character on the sidewalk, Leon would jump in where the balloon character was going to be and then hop back out, so we could shoot the plate that I was going to use,” he recalls.

Before and After

Mouseover film still above to compare to original live-action plate

Jardin only had to paint someone out of a scene once—when the balloon character tried to help a woman pick up the planner she dropped on the sidewalk. “We had to manipulate the object the character was interacting with somehow, so Erin, our production designer, used two sticks to pick up the planner,” he explains. “We shot her doing that, and then we shot an empty plate of the same scene so I could insert the character later.”

Bringing the Character to Life
Because of Jardin’s work schedule, the post-production phase of the film took nearly a year, with three months of that time spent doing full 1080p renders. He started by importing TIFF sequences of the Red footage into SynthEyes in order to get camera motion tracking data. “In our case, we had a person with a camera following the character walking,” he explains. “We used SynthEyes to figure out exactly what the camera motion was, so I could make a virtual camera and import that into C4D.”

Click on the animated GIF to load a (much) larger version.

For the balloon characters, Jardin initially envisioned a whole cluster of balloons that would “magically fill in the shape of a human body.” But when he tried to execute that, what he ended up with looked more like a “big blob of balloons than a person,” he recalls. So he opted to use C4D to create a more rigid balloon setup, starting with an initial character animation pass using a generic, skinned character that he made. “That way, I could get a quick look at how the movement was looking,” he says.

Next, Jardin attached splines to the bones of the character rig, essentially creating an animated stickman of splines. Using a MoGraph cloner, he attached a balloon to each point on the splines. Rigid Body Dynamics enabled the balloons to automatically react to another one and to the floor, giving them a realistic-looking bounce as the character moved around.

Jardin used Xpresso to tweak and animate the magnetism of each point using Follow Position and Follow Rotation. The technique made the balloons appear to be blowing around in the wind without getting too far away from the character’s body. “I’d have different values for the head, arms, torso, etc., and then, depending on the actions in the scene, I would animate those values downwards and upwards to simulate the idea that the balloons were almost free-floating for an instant before being pulled back into their anatomical hub in the body,” he explains.

"Floating" Credits:
Director: Greg Jardin
Original score: The Joy Formidable
Writers: Greg Jardin and Mathew Beans
Producer: Jason Baum
Director of Photography: Craig Kief
Production Designer: Erin Thiele
Edit/Sound Design/VFX: Greg Jardin

Coming Up Next
Jardin’s goal is to eventually move into directing full-time while also working on his own films. He is already collaborating with his friend, Matthew Beans, on another short film that has a clear narrative and a heavy visual element, like "Floating." “But the big, emotional core is very different,” he explains. “I really enjoyed the challenge of using VFX to not only create something visually arresting, but more so to create something unconventionally emotional.”

By that, he means that when someone hears that a film has a lot of visual effects, they normally assume that means action scenes and lots of thing blowing up. Turning the tables on that notion is fun. “Thinking outside of that zone is really exciting to me, and this next project aims to explore that further, utilizing the techniques I learned on 'Floating' as a jumping-off point to make something larger in scope with a heavy emotional core.”

Meleah Maynard is a Minneapolis-based writer and editor.