The team who created award-winning short film "The Beauty", break down their technique. Check it out below!
This is a breakdown of how we created our short “The Beauty,” which imagines an underwater world integrated with the plastic waste mankind has dumped into the oceans.
Early on, we kept asking ourselves “What if plastic could be integrated into sea life?” We wanted to explore a kind of detachment from our environmental guilt in the film. At this point, Pascal started sketching creatures that would help embody this idea. After many iterations, he ended up creating three main creatures: a tire eel, a bottle whale, and a bubble fish. He followed that up with three secondary creatures: a flip flop swarm, jellyfish bags and straw weeds.
Once the concept and creatures were figured out, the next challenge was to find a way to tell a story around it. Should the creatures communicate with each other? Should there be some sort of relationship between them?
In the end, we decided that we wanted to document these creatures as they would exist in nature. We took inspiration from typical BBC documentaries where you get an inside view on animal behavior. From that point on, all the puzzle pieces started coming together: the voice over that talks about how plastic is living in our coral reefs, the irony that comes with that, and the ending of the film that shows the real world consequences of our collective actions.
Once we decided that we were going to create a twist on a documentary, the main challenge became how we would achieve a photorealistic aesthetic. One of our solutions to this was by shooting real footage underwater, and the other was by using the most advanced technology and talent to generate the creatures. At this point, we got a team together to tackle the film: Marc Angele (VFX Supervisor), David Dincer (Underwater Cinematographer) Noel Winzen (Rigging TD and Animator), Aleksandra Todorovic and Tina Vest (Producers).
David and Pascal started diving together to figure out how they could capture underwater images that were usable for a CG workflow. During that process, Marc and Pascal started with some rendering and lighting tests to see if we could render physical objects in an underwater environment. After both aspirations proved successful, we were all set to go, and Aleksandra and Tina found this amazing location at Diving DE in Egypt. They allowed us to shoot everything we needed in the most amazing scenery.
We shot the coral parts and all our references in the Red Sea in Marsa Alam, Egypt. For the garbage scene in the end, we went to France. Brittany and Normandy are famous for their “nature pools,” which are public swimming pools built close to the sea, so that when the high tide comes in, the pool gets flooded with ocean water. This proved to be the perfect location for us to shoot our plastic trash scenes: clear water, no environmental reflections, and small, ocean-like waves. Most importantly, none of our handmade garbage items got lost at sea!
Last but not least, we captured some soft corals in front of a green screen in a coral store close to our film school.
We started off by analyzing all the references we shot, to get a feeling of how the materials behaved and moved underwater. We realized right away that there is a different Index of Reflection for these materials underwater compared to when they are viewed in air, meaning that their reflections behave differently. For example, a surface under the water reflects 100% from a much steeper angle, so the Fresnel effect is much more visible.After coming to that conclusion, we tried to reproduce all of these observations in CG and generated simple tests to figure out which approach worked best.
Modeling, Shading & Look Dev
These tests were important to kick off the look dev and modeling process. For the transparent creatures, it was hard to find the right balance between the visibility of detail and the transparency of the plastic. But we brought in as much detail as possible to the textures and modeling so that the creatures would look believable.
Rigging & Animation
To convince the audience that our plastic creatures could actually exist, it was also important to create realistic movement. The challenge here was finding the right balance between the physical behavior of each material, and the unique movement of each animal. Again, we were thankful for all the reference footage we shot. We even captured a giant moray eel swimming in front of us in our reference footage, which ended up proving to be very useful for early rig explorations.
We noticed that some of our reference animals had very organic, cloth-like motions. To replicate this behavior, we had to come up with a flexible solution, which gave the animators as much control as possible but also allowed for some additional simulation.
After testing different approaches, we ended up with something like a hybrid rig. The rig of the pufferfish, for example, has guides for the fins and for the inflation. The animators were animating these guides in Maya, then triggering a cloth simulation in Houdini. With this approach, the animator had full control over the movement, without having to struggle too much with replicating this organic behavior.
Lighting & Rendering
We created a rig, which allowed us to control and simulate the underwater light conditions. The rig consisted of a water surface with wave displacement, an HDRI sky that only shines above the water surface, a lot of fog under the water surface, a directional light for the sun, and a light with a caustic texture for the typical water effects. (Side note: We recorded the caustic texture at our all-inclusive hotel pool in Egypt, which later became a very important asset.) We then applied this light rig to all our scenes and adjusted it a little bit for the individual renderings, which we did in Arnold. For the scenes, assembling, and lookdev process, we used Cinema 4D and imported all the assets from Maya and Houdini as alembics.
We prepared and tracked all our plates in Nuke. For animation and lighting purposes, we generated matchmove geometry, so that we knew where the light bounces and where exactly the creatures needed to move. In half of the shots, we needed to integrate our creatures into live-action plates, which involved a lot of rotoscoping and color tweaking. The other half of the shots were full CG, so there was a lot of playing around with AOVs. We also created a custom color configuration with OCIO to bring the best possible image quality into the grading.