Fallen Soldier Animation
Fallen is a narrative short film that takes us into a child’s cozy, safe bedroom, but we’re soon reminded of the burdens and cost of war. It was made to honor those who’ve served in the armed forces.
For this project, I wanted to use KeyShot animation features to tell a story. The story opens up with some toys on a boy’s shelf in his bedroom. We see the soldiers and their array is reminiscent of both soldiers ready for battle and the orderly rows of the white crosses that represent fallen soldiers. The jacks represent the Czech Hedgehogs used as barricades in war. The toy soldier on his side represents both literally and figuratively, the fallen solder, reminding us of the cost of war.
After the camera pans up to the next shelf, we see a wedding band and dog tags signifying the death of a solder related to this boy. We then see the fallen soldier’s lighter, a Vietnam-era Zippo. The camera focuses on the fallen solder flag and photo, telling us this boy’s father is the one who was lost at war..
With the exception of the toy solders, I would model everything (except the curtains) in this film using Autodesk Fusion 360. Next, I’d assemble and export the scene as an OBJ file. The scene would be imported into KeyShot 7 where texturing, lighting and camera animation happens. Finally, frames were to be compiled in Adobe Premiere Pro where color correction and tone mapping takes place. This project would be a labor of love. However, I didn’t expect to chip away at it over the course of nearly 8 months. I had to do little bits here and there due to my work travel schedule.
March 2017, I have an idea for an narrative-heavy rendering project. I email my friend Andrew Bougie of Digitize Designs to ask how much detail he can capture in a small toy soldier scan. He ends up scanning a pack of classic toy soldiers for me to use for this project. At this time, I wasn’t planning on creating a KeyShot animation, but thought it would just be a series of stills.
The Toy Soldiers were scanned using an Artec 3D Space Spider, a $25,000 high-precision handheld scanner. While it may have taken an artist countless hours to model the toy soldiers by hand, Andrew made quick work of it and could scan each model in a matter of minutes. Anytime you need a high-fidelity 3D model of a detailed, physical object, scanning is the way to go!
Andrew came through with the scanned models very quickly. Then my work schedule became hectic and I delayed the project. After a few months passed, I felt guilty and decided I owed him a better idea than just rendering out the scans on their own.
After brainstorming, I decided I wanted to create a narrative on a meaningful subject. I chose to tie the toy soldiers to the true costs of war and decided to pay homage to Steven Spielberg’s 1998 film, Saving Private Ryan. Pixar’s A Toy Story had a big impact on me as a child. I wanted to tap into what that film did and use inanimate objects to represent real-world situations and tell a story. This is how I ended up with a young boy’s bedroom as a setting.
I then broke the project into steps as outlined below.
Create storyboard & narrative
Choose 3D applications (Fusion 360, Blender, KeyShot, Premiere Pro)
Gather ample photo reference
Model everything (except the Toy Soldiers provided by Andrew)
Light the scene & animate the cameras in KeyShot
Render some Keys to check materials, lighting, samples etc.
Render low-res. animations to test camera motion & pacing
Test the low-res. image sequences in Premiere Pro and learn about post-production
Render full-res. sequences
Composite & post in Premiere Pro
This whole process took me about 4 months to complete. I needed to chip away at it bit by bit before and after work on evenings and on weekends, in airports and other countries as I traveled for work. Eventually, the KeyShot animation came to life.
Every project comes with challenges. Here are a few I was presented with during this time.
The first challenge arose when I was modeling and compiling the scene in Fusion 360. It’s become my go-to modeling application for its ease-of-use, cloud-based file management system and price tag.
After adding more and more detail to my scene, Fusion 360 stopped exporting my scene as a .obj which was necessary for this project.
After troubleshooting with Autodesk’s support over the course of a few weeks, I learned that I eventually reached Fusion 360’s .obj export limit. Read more about that here. I finally solved this by simply kitbashing and organizing my scene inside KeyShot, which has no issues with triangle count, thank goodness!
Creating a KeyShot animation is generally very fast and creates some great results. I however, was rendering one of the worst-case-scenarios with this project. First off, it’s an interior, something that always requires lots of indirect illumination to produce nice results. I also wanted everything to look life-like while utilizing depth of field and motion blur on the camera.
My old 6-core i7 machine didn’t like this. It took one to three hours to render a single frame. The entire animation has 1,032 frames. The final animation alone consumed about 1,500 hours, or about 62 days of non-stop rendering. I broke this into smaller segments and pieced the frames together in Premiere Pro to complete this project.
While this project was very rewarding, I learned some lessons that will help me on future projects of a similar scope.
Planning – The more planning done up-front, the more time you’ll save in making revisions to your project. Have a true day-by-day game plan for how to execute. And plan as much on paper as possible before going digital.
Render Keys – Luckily, I did this and it saved me time and frustration. I created a low-resolution animation first, to resolve the camera motion. Then, by rendering out higher-quality stills throughout the animation, I could match quality of both motion and image fidelity. This saved lots of time and resources. Do many drafts before committing to the final rendering.
Hardware – I need faster hardware, so I’m building a new computer. It’s not cheap, but it’ll pay for itself in time savings.
Saving Private Ryan was a huge inspiration for this project. Specifically, I looked at the introduction sequence for that film. Here are some stills below, which are property of the production companies of that film.
Ever since completing this project, I’ve wanted to create another KeyShot animation and hope to improve on the overall process and story-telling elements. I’d like to be able to create something to contrast the feeling of this short film.
It was an overall great learning experience and I had lots of fun during the process. While the result is not perfect, I’m proud of the finished piece and have noted how it could be improved to strengthen the next piece I produce.