Creating Cute, Funny, Poetic, and (Sometimes) Disturbing Animation in Adobe After Effects and Maxon Cinema 4D
In the Oscar-nominated short film "A Single Life" (trailer), a woman named Pia discovers that she’s able to travel back in forth in time when she plays a peculiar vinyl record. Dutch filmmaking team, Job, Joris and Marieke created the 2:15 short, tackling everything from concepting, writing and directing to design, animation and scoring.
Using Cinema 4D and After Effects as their primary tools, the three-person team deftly showed Pia aging from a young girl to an old woman as she time-traveled by spinning the record forward and backward. First created for Ultrakort, a project of the Dutch Film Fund and Pathé Cinemas that promotes animated shorts for larger audiences, it has been seen by more than a million people in the Netherlands and continues to screen at film festivals all over the world.
Cute, Funny, Poetic and Disturbing
In February, Job Roggeveen, Joris Oprins and Marieke Blaauw, founders of the Utrecht-based animation, illustration and design studio, traveled to Los Angeles for the Academy Award ceremony. Though they didn’t win, they were happy to have received their unexpected nomination. “Working on the film, we never imagined it would bring us to Hollywood,” Blaauw recalls. “It was a thrilling experience to be there and walk on the red carpet with Hollywood stars—though our category was supposed to be fifth, but they changed the schedule so we were nervous for a long time.”
Blaauw, Roggeveen and Oprins founded their studio in 2007 after meeting at the Design Academy in Eindhoven, in the south of the Netherlands. The three of them work together on all of the projects they take on, including short films, music videos, educational projects and commercials. Oprins and Blaauw work primarily on storytelling and animation while Roggeveen usually handles illustration and music.
They describe their work as “cute, funny, poetic and sometimes disturbing.” Watch their award-winning short film, "Mute," about a world of people born without mouths who figure out how to cut themselves to create them, to get a sense of why they chose those descriptors.
Originally a 2D stop-motion studio, JJ&M eventually moved into doing 3D animation, but stuck with their stop-motion style for many projects. It took about three months from start to finish to make "A Single Life." The biggest challenge was to show Pia aging through five stages of her life in a very short time frame. Each time she changed, her size, hair and clothing had to change too. Thankfully, her shape stayed the same so they were able to use the same character rig throughout, Oprins says.
Instead of creating a detailed storyboard or animatic, the team decided to roughly estimate the duration of each shot and write a description of the shot on a timeline created in After Effects. “The timeline was our guide, and we kept on adding animations to it until the film was finished,” Oprins explains.
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“We were constantly tweaking camera positions and editing while we were animating scenes, and that worked very well using Cinema’s intuitive timeline tools.” To stay within their timeframe and work more efficiently, the team used xRefs (external reference files), to organize elements, use placeholder props and work simultaneously on scenes.
Getting the Details Right
After making "Mute" in 2013, Job, Joris and Marieke knew they wanted their next film to have more details and dramatic lighting. To create dramatic, stable lighting that worked well with Pia’s hair, they opted not to use Global Illumination and instead built a light set-up with a dome and a cluster of soft spots, which they rendered at 32-bit. “This was all new to us, and it took some time to master, but we were really happy with the results,” Oprins says.
After doing some tests with clay, they found that putting lines in Pia’s hair worked well to give it shape and definition. They achieved that in Cinema 4D by making a gray image with blurry, black stripes and using that as a displacement channel. A jiggle deformer was used to give Pia’s hair and breasts some realistic bounce in keeping with a stop-motion look. “It was great because we could make a map of how each point would be affected by the jiggle and decide how the movement should look,” Oprins continues.
With "A Single Life" still screening at festivals, Job, Joris and Marieke are already at work on another short film for Dutch television that will be about eight minutes long. They aren’t allowed to say much about the plot just yet, but they do say that the film has an “absurd” concept, and that they’re aiming to tell a more emotional story. They hope to finish in time for Oscar season next year.
Written, directed, and animated by Job, Joris & Marieke
Produced by Job, Joris & Marieke
Music: Happy Camper featuring Pien Feith
Musicians: Jeroen Kleijn, Ben Mathot, Patrick Votrian, Coen Hamelink
Sound design: Job, Joris & Marieke
Mix and mastering song: Martijn Groeneveld
5.1 and stereo mix: Bob Kommer Studios
Financial support: Nederland Filmfonds, Fonds 21
Meleah Maynard is a Minneapolis-based writer and editor.
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