400 MPH | Retro-Artikel

Blast from the past: In DP 06 : 2019 we went apeshit for the Planet of the Apes movies – and then the animated short "400 MPH" from students of "Supinfocom" came along. Ready for a chimpanzee aping Icarus?

This interview was published in our print issue DP 06 : 2019. For the complete short, please check out our news item from 2nd Juni 2022.

It seems that chimpanzees have made an impression – and six students from Supinfocom Rubika took that one step further.

DP: Just to satisfy my curiosity: Did the ape at least know he reached 700 mph in the final seconds?
Team 400mph: Maybe. No matter how fast he goes, to him it will always feel like he hasn’t managed to exceed 400 mph.

DP: Considering the basic story line: How did you get the idea for that movie?
Team 400mph: The story was inspired by the attempts to break the sound barrier in the 1950s. The pilots at that time were taking incredible risks to beat this record. Quickly the lake of Bonneville became an iconical place for speed records, and it made us think of the Moebius comics, such as “Arzac Thapsody” and “40 Days Dans Le Desert B”. Having a chimpanzee as a main character reminded us of the space race and reinforced the impression of danger for our character.
In addition, we could accentuate his emotions while still keeping him very animal. He could sometimes behave in a human way and his emotions would be clear to the viewer but he also could show a primitive rage in his moments of anger.

DP: How big was the team and how long have you worked on this movie?
Team 400mph: We were a team of six and worked on it for a year and a half, even a bit more for the original storyteller that came up with the original idea.

DP: How did your team get together?
Team 400mph: Each student presents a project, then there is a selection by teachers to keep the films that seem the most different but also feasible and interesting with the knowledge we have acquired in school. Then each student decides the stories he/ she wants to work on the most and makes a list of the projects that interest him/her and the role he/she wants to play. We all try to shape complementary teams based on each other’s strengths and weaknesses. This helps us form a balanced group that can work on all different aspects of the creation of a 3D animated movie.

DP: Can you tell us about your pipeline?
Team 400mph: We mainly worked in Maya, the rendering was done with Redshift and for the FX we used Houdini. The monkey was sculpted in ZBrush, his hair was done with Yeti, and for his textures we used the Substance suite and Mari, the modeling and simulation of his clothes was done in Marvelous Designer. The compositing was done with Nuke.
Finally, for editing, sound design and calibration we used Avid Media Composer, Pro-Tools and Resolve. We used a pipeline tool called Pipou, developed by Fabien Meyran for their film “028” (see page 80) – it would manage the shader exports and animation as well as all the hierarchy of the files. As hardware, we had six working machines and in addition to that we had access to 3 machines with more RAM for Houdini and Marvelous simulations. For rendering, we had six other computers equipped with GTX 1080Ti as well as a server with 4 Quadros.

DP: Any special tools, plug-ins or scripts besides those?
Team 400mph: We created several more scripts, in the beginning for the animatic and the forecast in order to update the editing more easily. Then for rig and clothing simulations, especially for baking simulations onto the low-poly model. For the animation, we used AnimBot and Studio Library to make the general process easier and more time-efficient. We also had some homemade camera shaking scripts to make the shots inside the vehicles as intense as possible.

DP: And with that setup, how long did the render take?
Team 400mph: It depends obviously on the shots, but generally speaking the shots outside were delivered in a few minutes by frame. For the monkey shots it would range from 15 minutes to an hour. Except for a few very close-up shots, we tried to never exceed one hour of rendering.

DP: The protagonist’s face is awesome and on par with the work done by Weta and ILM. How did you do that, and could you describe your design approach and the underlying rigs, textures, and muscle systems?
Team 400mph: Thank you for the comparison! The making of Icarus was a huge process that involved a big part of the team through the concept phase of the movie. For the design of Icarus, we really focused on the chimpanzee’s characteristics by watching many documentaries and photos dealing with the ape’s appearance and anatomy. The only difference with reality is that we wanted our character to be able to express his feelings the way humans do, while still having his animal side (for example by moving his eyebrows more than a regular chimpanzee would).
After the drawing of the 2D concepts, Julia used Maya to model the skeleton of Icarus to have the correct proportions and make the whole structure credible. Then she used ZBrush to add the main details such as wrinkles on the model. For the facial setup, she created many blendshapes for the principal expressions. Then Lorraine, who was working on the rig, added a joints system to allow the animators Alice and Quentin to bring deformations to the face of our monkey. Meanwhile, Paul-Eugene was working on the texturing of Icarus with Mari to give this particular skin aspects that make the chimpanzee realistic, and Natacha worked on his eyes to get a chimpanzee/human look as realistic as possible. We really wanted to have a very characterized chimpanzee.
For the character FX, Lorraine dealt with the cloth modeling of the clothes Natacha had designed, textured, and simulated in Marvelous Designer, as Julia was establishing the fur of Icarus with Yeti.

DP: The rig for that face must have been detailed and extremely fine-tuned. Could you describe that setup?
Team 400mph: We first focused on creating a generic yet detailed deformation system that is close enough to what we could expect on a common human face, implying jaw/lips, eyelids/eyebrow controls. The biggest difficulty came when apprehending the deformations and their impact on the other controlers, especially around the mouth. That was built in two steps: the first one implied a complete skin weight based deformation with multiple bones around the lips and the cheeks, which are driven by the jaw control to redistribute the weight of the skin, when the chimp opens its mouth wide enough, and is complemented with corrective blendshapes. This system let us have rig based controls above for animators to tweak on the same skin weights distribution. Above this was added sticky lips setup, specific blendshape deformations and sticky clusters.
The eyes’ regions had to be so expressive, we worked specifically on them based on the animated shots and rendering requirements. We weren’t sure yet if the chimp was going to be faithful to a real chimp’s muscular movements or if adding human type expressions would deliver a good impression. We finally did add them, step by step, adapting the deformation blendshapes for nice rendering shapes and expressions based on the feedback of rendering for the closest shots.

Finally, it’s a rig based setup mounted with corrective blendshapes and sticky clusters, with maximum control over each stage of deformation, to get all the subtle movements right.

DP: And how much research did you need to do to get it just right?
Team 400mph: For the rig: It’s hard to get specific information on a chimp’s muscular motions, so the research mostly implied searching for human anatomy specificities to translate to the chimpanzee proportions. Drawing helped a lot in the process. For the animation, we watched a lot of documentaries and scientific videos, even some films like “Planet of the Apes”. We also shot a lot of references in order to see exactly how we wanted Icarus to move and react.

DP: The cars in the beginning: Were they based on the Saltlake Tests from the 60s? If so, how did you put them together and how did you make them look iconic, but not just a copy?
Team 400mph: The cars are actually based on real iconic models, which are in order of appearance: the Indian Scout of Burt Monroe, the Thunderbolt of George Eyston, the Challenger 1 of Mickey Thompson and the Spirit of America of Craig Breedlove. It was our intention to stay as close to reality as possible, but we also needed to adapt a little bit – for example, adapting the car cockpits to the shape of a chimpanzee driver. We also chose an angle of view which is made possible with the 3D techniques but generally not possible in reality. For example the last car is more like a rocket than a car, so our originality is in our camera choices.

DP: And what have you been working on since?
Team 400mph: We’ve all started working in different studios, some in Paris, some in Brussels and even some in Sydney.

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