Relicts: Bringing atmospheric cinema to 3D animation

How a CG artist and director is taking horror and cinematic realism to animation

9 mins

Aimed at painting an emotion-ridden, atmospheric picture for his viewers, Arkadiy Demchenko looks to create Relicts, an animated horror short film that borders on reality. We interviewed him to get a closer look at the film’s development so far. 

Describe the plot of the film for us.

It opens with a harsh blizzard tearing through a small village surrounded by dense forest. At first it looks abandoned, until we see a light in one of the windows. By candlelight, a young woman is knitting for her soon to be born baby, waiting for her husband to return home. When he does, something unexpected and weird happens, and that drives her out into the cold world outside in search for answers.


What inspired the film?

While Relicts isn't really based on any existing work, it is definitely a twisted mix of a ton of different things, but in a fresh and creepy way. The most prominent influences include H.P. Lovecraft's mythos and occult stories, Ridley Scott's Prometheus, and the Silent Hill game series.


Why choose such a realistic visual style for an animated film?

My work and interests are much closer to movies than animation, and I’ve always been fascinated by Digic Pictures and Blur Studio cinematics, so the initial approach to this project was "a movie in a digital world." I call our visual style, "artistic realism," since it looks real but still allows for a certain degree of stylization.

Another reason for this realistic style is to make those creepy things that happen to our character more visceral and rough. It just won’t have the same effect in, let’s say, a cartoon style.



What challenges have you and your team had with this realistic visual style?

It increases the complexity of everything – when you make characters more detailed, their motion and rigging have to be more detailed, and environments have to be more elaborate. Larger tasks aren't as complicated when broken down into smaller ones (well, some of them still are, like character rigging for example), but they still require time anyway, so the biggest challenge is really to handle and survive the myriad of different tasks.

Another huge problem was the reliability of freelancers.. I was lucky to meet some extraordinary people that have contributed invaluable input to the project, but there were also a lot of disappointing relationships along the way. The more complex the task gets, the harder it is to achieve, especially remotely.

Another challenge has been reworking our assets due to changes in the technology we were using. For example, subsurface scattering is an important effect for our characters, and at the beginning of the project, my best option was Mental Ray's shaders that required slow Lightmap computations due to the dense hair and fur we’re using. After switching to Arnold, this whole situation got a lot better but our fur had to be recreated from scratch with something compatible with Arnold  – we went with Yeti plugin. Also, I started off using the alShaders pack since Arnold shaders were quite limited at the time. When Arnold 5 was released and alShaders were discontinued, I decided it was necessary to upgrade and had to rework over 100 assets, from something as simple as a nail to as complex as our “Girl” character, for the new Arnold 5 shaders.

Relicts poster wire frame sculpt and finished product


What has been the most time-consuming element of the project?

The facial rigging, for sure. Our characters are designed and created completely in CG, they don’t have real-world counterparts, so, that requires extra effort to keep their personality. We’ve spent a lot of time trying to make facial expressions manually but it wasn’t working well enough. Just recently, we delved into scanning technology, which allows us to make much better results based on the real actress’ facial movements. Of course, scanning by itself doesn't magically give you a ready-to-use facial rig that can be used in production, so, there’s still a lot of work to do.

relicts facial scanning animated horror short film

What’s it been like rigging the characters?

Realistic character rigs may not require as many features as a cartoon rig does. Technically it's simpler, but it's harder in terms of achieving a credible anatomy. Our body rig starts with a solid joints base with the best deformations we could achieve. Then there are a lot of influence joints to help the base deformation – we have over 300 joints just for the body. On top of that, over 250 blend shapes are used as correctives and for muscle bulging simulation. We use our custom nodes, based on vectors angle, direction with magnitude and distance readers, to drive influence joints and blend shapes.

Since realistic characters usually require realistic animation, body motion capture becomes a very useful technology. We’ve created a mocap version of the rig and a set of custom tools to transfer the captured data with the possibility of adjustments along the way.

Do you feel the entire story can be adequately told in 15 minutes?

The movie is planned to be 16 minutes. It's structured as one complete story/incident in a bigger world/universe, like a cherry in a pie – you can enjoy the cherry by itself knowing it's a part of bigger pie possibly with other cherries inside.

How many artists are working with you on this project?

Due to the non-commercial nature of the project and the heavy reliance on remote collaboration, artists typically join the team for a certain task, which can last anywhere from a day to a year. For now, it's typically a few people at a time, but in total, more than 50 people have contributed.

What’s it like to work on an atmospheric short?

Emotional impact becomes more important than technical aspects. You're focused more on the feeling an effect produces rather than, let’s say, it’s proper integration. Often, you’ll choose something that gives a better impression/mood, even if it means sacrificing functionality or physical correctness. And you’ll get furious comments like, ‘It can’t be like that!’ Well, to hell if it can’t. My world, my rules!

Music and sounds become a very important part of each shot/sequence; the very same imagery can tell a different story depending on particular music/sound effects, or even a lack of them.

How long have you been working on this and at what stage are you in the process?

The project started a few years back, in my free time. The story was written and storyboards wer created. Several artists joined for the concept art and eventually, two main characters were sculpted. After that, the pace of the production incresed, and it’s been running at that speed for nearly three years. Main props and environments have been designed and modeled, most of the technologies have been tested and used for things like rigging and mocap transfer, cloth and hair dynamics, caching, and so forth. Now we've made our first trailer to proof-test the shot production and visual style, which will soon be available to the public. We plan to run a crowdfunding campaign to complete it by the end of 2019 or early 2020.

Since you’ve been on this for several years now, how do you stay motivated?

It's mostly thanks to the Girl character. Each time we make something cool for her, when she starts blinking, starts moving her eyes, or smiling and walking, it's like a new log into the fire. It's the same with other artistic and technological things – solving tasks, achieving certain goals – the process of making the project pretty much fuels itself. Working with wonderful artists that care about their tasks and put their skills and effort into making it better is very inspiring. And, of course, the interest people have in what we do.

What’s been your source of creativity throughout the making of Relicts?

For me, it’s listening to dark atmospheric music. It gives me some interestingly weird ideas, especially in a half-asleep state. My ideas are based on things I’ve read or watched or done, and they come together as something specific with eerie soundscapes in the background.

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