It’s hard to believe that the Student Academy Awards, the pinnacle of recognition for young filmmakers, is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. The gold, silver and bronze medals awarded to student animators in L.A. this week by the Academy inscribe their names on a prestigious list of talent from around the world.
What’s notable this year is that the schools which produced these winners are located solely in Europe — two in France and one in the U.K. Boom is representing France’s École des Nouvelles Images; Diplomatie de l’éclipse was made at France’s MoPA 3D Animation School; and Mum’s Spaghetti was produced at the U.K.’s National Film and Television School. This recognition is just the latest example of how animation education is thriving around the globe and yielding a new generation of talent.
Gold Medal: Boom
By Laurie Pereira de Figueiredo, Yannick Jacquin, Romain Augier, Gabriel Augerai and Charles DiCicco
It’s a safe bet that the wordless short Boom is greeted by laughter wherever in the world it screens. Like an Aesop’s fable run amok, the short celebrates the slapstick chaos that breaks out within a colony of birds when the volcano on their island habitat erupts. Some frantic birds dive like lemmings into the sea while others scramble haplessly to collect their nested eggs.
“Our inspiration was the work of classic comedy masters like Buster Keaton and Jacques Tati,” explains Gabriel Augier, who hatched the film’s original concept. “We also had more contemporary influences like the TV shows Family Guy and Fresh Prince. The original idea was to mix an apocalyptic environment with goofy characters and create a movie where VFX was a real narrative element.”
There’s enough realism in Boom to capture a believable level of peril among the birds as they rush to flee the exploding lava. As Augier notes, “If people understand our birds, it is surely due to the fact that our characters have very human solutions to the situations they experience.”
Their 3D flock was modeled using ZBrush and Maya, and then rigged and animated in Maya. Augier built a custom system in Houdini to generate and groom the birds’ feathers, and the crowd animation was created using Golaem software. A mix of Houdini, ZBrush, SpeedTree and Substance Painter were used to create the island environment of rocks, earth and trees, while the simulations — which appear in half the shots of the eight-minute film — were crafted in Houdini alongside custom-purposed tools. Guerrilla Render was used to complete the piece, with an average of 30-minute render times per frame. Augier also developed pipeline software that enabled the five co-directors to automate various processes that were redundant. With help from four interns, Boom was completed in nine months’ time.
When the film screened at SIGGRAPH’s Electronic Theater this past summer, it earned the Audience Choice Award — and lots of laughs. Industry recognition has been swift: The quintet behind the shot, all of whom graduated from École des Nouvelles Images, already landed industry positions at Skydance Animation’s Madrid offices, the Paris-based companies Monarch Software and Sacrebleu Productions, and TNZPV Productions in Arles, France. It’s nice to see that the Boom team has already spread its wings.
Silver Medal: Diplomatie de l’éclipse (Diplomacy of the Eclipse)
By César Luton, Achille Pasquier, Clémence Bailly, Selim Lallaoui and Axel Mechin
As enigmatic as its title suggests, Diplomatie de l’éclipse takes viewers on a surreal journey that defies simple descriptions of plot and character. The film’s three protagonists — a heroic diplomat and two “astral children” — confront a world upended by an eclipse. As director César Luton explains, “It took all five brains of ours more than three months to write slightly more than eight minutes of animation. The fact that we are all generalists who could collaborate on every aspect of the film definitely helped!”
Transporting viewers through CG environments as diverse as a child’s playground, a stained-glass cathedral and a field of lotus blossoms, Diplomatie de l’éclipse drew inspiration from myriad places. “Comics were an especially large source of visual references,” notes Luton. “Think of Otomo’s unending buildings or Mœbius’ fantastic empty landscapes. A lot of the symbols of the film come from the universe of childhood.” Although the sweep of the finished piece is quite grand, the original storyboards were very simple, recalls Luton. “Most of them were stick figures made on a whiteboard during brainstorming sessions!”
All the animation in Diplomatie de l’éclipse was done in Blender. “The best tool is simply the tool you know best,” Luton believes. “Through its community, Blender outclasses every other alternative. No matter the challenges you face, someone somewhere already faced it, solved it and shared their findings with the world.”
The team of five also used Houdini for cloth simulation, as well as ZBrush and Adobe Substance 3D Painter for the characters. They spent a bit less than a year to complete the piece. While all have graduated from MoPA 3D Animation School and moved on to professional pursuits, they’ve already earned the acclaim of SIGGRAPH, which awarded Diplomatie de l’éclipse its Best in Show prize this summer
Bronze Medal: Mum’s Spaghetti
By Lisa Kenney
“I always pitch Mum’s Spaghetti as Wallace & Gromit meets 8 Mile,” says director Lisa Kenney about her master’s graduation film from Britain’s National Film and Television School (NFTS). In fact, savvy music fans might recognize that Kenney’s title evokes a lyric from 8 Mile’s protagonist, played by the rapper Eminem. And her teenage protagonist, Poppy, paired with a beatboxing dog named Snoop, form a ‘gang of two’ that carries on the plasticine tradition made famous by the stop-motion experts at Aardman Animations.
Unlike the other two winning films this year which are largely dialogue-free, Mum’s Spaghetti talks a blue streak, such as when the feisty Poppy raps proudly that she can get straight A’s and “still write the best tracks.” Kenney recalls finding her voice actor on YouTube, and during recording sessions the director would join in rapping and dancing to keep the energy up.
Like the best stop-motion filmmaking, Mum’s Spaghetti teems with revealing details — from atmospheric tableaus of the rooms in Poppy’s home to the trash-littered world on the other side of the tracks. During 10 months of production, Kenney’s main team of 13 (plus volunteers) had three sets running at once, and the NFTS allowed them the space to swap setups as needed. “It took a jigsaw of a schedule to make it work,” she says. Working with 1:8 scale puppets made of plasticine, silicone and fabric, the director wrung palpable emotions from eyes that were simple white discs with black dots. “The animation was all done in-camera using Dragonframe,” Kenney explains.
When the director returns to Britain following the Student Academy Award events, she won’t be done quite yet with Poppy and Snoop. “I’m putting together ideas for a potential Mum’s Spaghetti series, and I’m developing my first live-action short (cue nervous laughter) as part of a scheme with the BBC and the NFTS. I’d love to direct a stop-motion feature at some point, but I think I’d like to get a few more shorts under my belt first. I’ll absolutely stay involved with the NFTS whenever I can. That place changed my life!”
The Student Academy Awards ceremony where the medalist placements were revealed took place on October 23 at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills, California.