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PP-One Rat Short Animated Film

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One Rat Short, Alex Weil’s animated film about a rat’s journey from a filthy underground subway to a pristine laboratory, recalls the tale of David and Goliath. Recently awarded Best of Show at Siggraph, the film beat out top contenders from Weta, Sony, Pixar and ILM. The 10-minute short sets new digital standards in camera motion, dramatic lighting and focal depth, and features rat characters who are virtually photoreal in comparison to the snuggly cartoon animals usually seen on the screen.As executive creative director and owner of New York post/VFX house Charlex, Weil won the first-ever MTV Best Music Video Award, and went on to direct digital commercials for over 300 of the Fortune 500 companies over the course of his 20-year career. For this first foray into narrative, Weil is proud to say that his film was created entirely with “off the shelf” equipment—mainly Autodesk Maya. “But when I say ‘off the shelf’ I don’t mean to imply that it was made by the guys from Wayne’s World. I have a large facility; however, it’s equipped with essentially off-the-shelf computers.”When he decided to make a fictional story, he set himself certain challenges, one of which was to create animal characters with the knotty problem of hair. “But it wasn’t just a question of doing hair. I wanted to tell a story that began with something revolting, where you would want to look away, but it then turns into a love story. It’s sort of an experiment; I wondered what effect it would have on people.”To create the characters, Weil first brought on character designer Peter DeSeve, who designed Scrat for Ice Age. “We started with a rat with big eyeballs, leaning on a lamppost smoking a cigarette, but I looked at that and realized that’s not my movie. I wanted to go for realistic rats—I didn’t want to do what everyone else is doing.”So he contacted Muppets designer Michael Frith. “We had a first realistic rat, but the eyes were still too much in front, so we pushed the eyes back, and kept going towards realism.”His next decision was to avoid all anthropomorphic motion. The rats don’t shake hands or talk—they do nothing real rats wouldn’t do. Hence the film has no dialogue or narration, and keeps the audience enrapt with fast editing, plot twists, and rapid camerawork that lets the viewer in essence become the main character. “If you examine the film closely, you’ll see that there are almost no expressions on the rats. None smile, or make sad faces; the most you get are little sniffing gestures.” The audience fills in the emotion, depending on their interpretation of what the rat is looking at.While some storyboards were created, line producer Bryan Godwin points out that Weil’s style of directing involved quickly entering the online world. “We worked with low-res proxies of the sets and characters and quickly roughed out shots, angles and actions directly in the 3D package,” Godwin recounts. Working with a crew never larger than 15, he and his team gathered reference material of laboratories, rooftops and subways, shooting digital photos all around New York. But Godwin points out that every pixel of the film was computer generated; photos were not digitized for settings or textures. “Even the hair on the rats was done by artists. A lot of software was written to assist the off-the-shelf software.”The motion of the rats was done with keyframe animation. “We looked at tons and tons of footage and documentaries on rats and studied them; we actually had live pet rats for a time that the animators would study. Alex didn’t want this to be your typical squashy, stretchy, cartoony thing—it was done as if a real rat could take direction. That’s the way he told the animators to approach it.”DP Todd Winter points out that one of the main differences between One Rat Short and other animated films is the constant camera motion, which follows the rats like combat camerawork, leaping through crevices and trundling along the ground. “Most CG films do not move the camera because every frame has to re-render. So they’ll do a separate pass on the background, and just render it once, and then they just have to worry about the animation. Well, in our case, Alex wanted to have this seem as real as possible, so we had to learn how to animate moves that had a really nice hand-held feel.”This required using texture mapping for the backgrounds that could be repositioned. But Winter sees the use of focal depth as the biggest innovation. “What’s really wonderful about [eyeon Software’s] Fusion for compositing is that it retains all the digital information from Maya, so even though you are working in a 2D environment, it retains all the 3D maps. If you pick a focal point for a camera with a 35mm lens, it will blur-out exponentially the foreground and background.” Watched frame by frame, this sort of effect occurs all throughout the film, as does motion blur—also a result of using Fusion.Weil’s idea was to make the subway so murky that you had to peer in, and the lab so bright that you almost have to look away. “We used Mental Ray as a rendering tool,” says Myung Lee, lighting technical director. “And we rendered using ray tracing [techniques]… which give a more accurate representation of how light goes into a surface and then bends, and then bends again at a different angle when it comes out.” Ray tracing is particularly effective in the lab scenes where showers of bright white light fall on crowds of scurrying white rats, creating beautiful images of dissolving light and motion.Summing up the film, Weil says, “I see it as a sad song—I think that’s the structure. If somebody recently broke up with somebody, I think they might cry at the end of this film.”

Written by Henry Turner

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