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Interview – Migrants: this polar bears might win an Academy Award

Update – the short is now available online, we have uptaded the article.
Interview first published Septembre 16 2021.

Directed by 5 French artists from the French school Pôle 3D (Zoé Devise, Hugo Caby, Antoine Dupriez, Aubin Kubiak et Lucas Lermytte), Migrants is a movie about two polar bears driven into exile due to global warming. They will encounter brown bears along their journey, with whom they will try to cohabitate.

This short film has been very successful, with over 60 prizes including a Best In Show award (SIGGRAPH 2021), an Outstanding VFX in a Student Project award (VES Awards), a VIEW Award (VIEW Conference). The film may also win a Student Academy Award.

We interviewed the directors about the artistic and technical challenges they faced during the production of their short film. Here is the movie, followed by a breakdown and the interview:

3DVF: Why did you choose to focus your short film on global warming & migrating bears?

The directors: We knew we wanted to make a short film about society and current issues. In 2018, there was a controversy about the “Aquarius” boat, which had rescued migrants in the Mediterranean sea but no country wanted to allow the boat to land at its ports. We were touched by this, and we were inspired by this event as the subject for our movie. So we made a story about the issue of migration, but with the global warming theme layered on top of it. With polar bears as our main characters, as they are one of the species most affected by climate change.

3DVF: How did you share the workload within the team?

We were 5 students working on the production of the film. Each member of the team was dedicated to a specific field of development, in accordance with his will for a future position in the industry. As the team was complementary, we shared the workload in a natural way!

The team was made of one animator (Aubin Kubiak), a visual effect artist (Antoine Dupriez), a rigger/pipeline developer (Lucas Lermytte), and two people for the surfacing, lighting and compositing (Zoé Devise, Hugo Caby).

As soon as everyone had the same vision for the film, we really trusted each other and let everyone be autonomous in their domain, while always staying available to help each other when needed if one department was under too much pressure.

3DVF: How did you come up with the overall visual style of the short?

We’ve watched a lot of short films as references and inspirations and we were attracted by stop motion style. We liked the idea of building a world that could have been handmade, and we were excited by the challenge of making it believable. From this idea, we searched again for references and tried to spot what were the codes of stop motion.

We wanted to make our assets with a texture reminiscent of materials from everyday life, like they were handmade (plastic for water, wool and fabric for grass and leaves…). Added to that, we looked for stylized shapes for our forest assets and tried to make the most variations that we could. With all of this combined, we were able to have a dense, colourful and textured style.

3DVF: Can you tell us about the creation of the polar landscape ? What about the lighting?

For the polar landscape, we wanted something soft and uncluttered. Like for the rest of the movie, we always tried to transpose the environments with crafted materials. So for the ice we choose polystyrene, and plastic for the water. In terms of lighting and compositing, it was a little bit challenging. As the mood is very monochrome, we had to be careful about the white balances and overexposure.

3DVF: The sea, waves and rain have a very stylized appearance. How did you come up with this style, and how did you achieve it from a technical point of view?

Transforming our water into plastic material was our first idea when we started to think about the style of the sea, and the stop motion films we got as references confirmed this choice. It was the first visual effect we worked on and it resulted from several tests. First we tried the water simulation, so the movement of the sea would have been very realistic and, but the results didn’t match with our artistic direction.

It was the same for the second test with the cloth simulation, it was not what we expected and both techniques were hard to implement in our workflow. So we decided to use a displacement which recreates the movement of the waves. It was perfect for us because we got a lot of control and it didn’t use simulation. We could add or remove details, try different types of waves and have the result in real time so it helped us a lot for the look of the sea and the exchange between vfx and animation. We got a few simulations for adding some layers of details, like cloth simulation on plastic pieces on the water, and some modified particles simulation for the rain and the splashes. After all this we got to work a lot on the shading to increase the feeling of the plastic.

3DVF: How did you handle the knitted appearance of the polar bears, as well as the fuzzy look of the brown bears?

For the appearance of the bears, like the other department, we started by creating a large bank of reference for choosing the kind of material we wanted. We noticed that almost each cloth material has a pattern repeated so the first step was to create the pattern of the material we choose (Substance Painter). After this we use Substance Painter to apply this pattern on our character, find the perfect size to match our scaled world and add a lot of details like dirt or dust to feel like our characters are alive. We also got a lot of work on UV to find the perfect seams.

3DVF: Furry/fuzzy animals can be quite challenging when it comes to rendering & compositing. What challenges did you bump into ? For example, was it hard to keep render times under control?

It was really challenging because it added a lot of steps in the production. First we had to groom our characters, and like the textures, it took a lot of time to get the results we wanted.

After this, we needed to find the perfect compromise between the look of our bears and the optimization we had to do, to keep our render times reasonable. It also added a step after the animation, we had to prepare the bears and be sure that there are no interpenetrations during the movement because the fur didn’t like that at all. And then it needed some searches on compositing, because getting the perfect outline of our characters with fur was a bit difficult at first.

Next Page: rigging, animation, creating the forest, prizes.

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