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RenderStreet interviews: William Reynish, director of Whole

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Recently graduated from The National Film School of Denmark, William Reynish released his bachelor film Whole, that took one year to produce. Marius Iatan got William to reveal the project’s spicy moments that were put together in the amazing interview below. This, and some of William’s views on animation, 3D and creativity.

Marius Iatan: How did your professional skills evolve up to directing animation films? What would you choose instead, if you had to pick a different path?

William ReynishWilliam Reynish: I was always into animation. I grew up drawing a lot, and I liked to act. Animation is the natural combination of those two things. I worked as a character animator on other Blender projects such as Big Buck Bunny and Sintel.

An alternate career would be in software. I am passionate about software design.

There’s a huge opportunity to be the first really well-designed 3D app, and I think Blender should be it.

Marius: What were the turning points in your career – who or what inspired your life and where you are today?

William: I am mostly inspired by other media than 3D animation. I’m especially intrigued by intuitive, designer-driven films of which there are many examples on Vimeo. Animation is an expressive medium, but it’s absurd how many animation films look alike and boring designs that look alike. I never understood that. All too often, a film’s looks are completely separated from the story. I see all the elements of a film as one. It must intertwine to truly be great.

I’m inspired by film directors such as Kubrick and Jodorowsky, and animators such as Malcolm Sutherland, Bruce Bickford, Nelson Boles, Allison Schulnik and David Shrigley. Many of these animator/directors use simple drawings or coarse clay to tell their stories. The simple tools they use frees them from the burden of the complexity of many 3D apps. I love this kind of free, unburdened and intuitive approach to animations.

Marius: Where does Blender stand among students’ choices for 3D modeling?

William: Most schools et educational licensed for Autodesk apps, including the National Film School of Denmark I attended. Many students also seem to like the intuitive clay in Z-brush. The modeling tools in Blender are quite un-intuitive, messy and hard to learn.

There’s a huge opportunity to be the first really well-designed 3D app, and I think Blender should be it.— William Reynish

Marius:  How long did it take to create Whole and what were the project’s milestones?

William: From initial concept to final film, it took a year. We went through a process of scriptwriting that took probably three months. In the start, the story was supposed to be about Ayahuasca, the hallucinating drink of central America, but we found it was more interesting to use drumming, because we can recreate it on film better. We also changed the setting from a jungle in Ecuador, to a European city. This way, we get a greater difference between the two universes in the film, and most people relate more to the city too.

Then we went through a process of building puppets and models we used as a starting point for the 3D. For the models, we used ShapeWays.com to create 3D-printed character models which we built the environments around.

We then spent the next months photographing these sets and organising them, before mapping them into 3D using the UV-Project modifier in Blender. For rigging we used Rigify, Nathan Veghdahls’ excellent rigging system that comes bundled with Blender.

Next was animation, where we split up the shots between animators. Each animator made a list of shots he/she would prefer and then we divided up the shots so each animator got something they’d like. This went on for six weeks.

Then we went to rendering where we used RenderStreet’s rendering service. We went through and packed the files and readied them for the farm. We used the great Cycles rendering engine which is very easy to use and requires very little tweaking. We used the branched path tracer which is the only practical way to get clean results with SSS and volumetrics. As time went on, I got more used to how it works and how to set the samples correctly. This took some time to get used to after having used regular path tracing with only one sample setting.

Eventually we downloaded everything, and combined the shots in Blender’s VSE, and then exported it to grading.

On the side, our amazing sound designer, Philip Flindt worked on the audio side. There’s so much you can do with sound that tricks you into thinking there’s more in the film than there really is. It’s amazingly important, yet many animations and film only treat sound as an afterthought.

Whole character

Marius: How did you find the experience of seeing your first movie (Whole) screening in Copenhagen?

William: Fun, and also a bit scary. It’s very different watching your film with other people in the room, especially a packed cinema full of people who have never seen anything from it.

Marius: How did you pick the subject and where did you get the inspiration for it?

William: I used to have neighbours who were practicing shamans. I always thought it was fascinating that you can be a shaman, but also live in the 21st century. Shamanism is often seen as something exotic, but it can also be used to deal with real problems we have now. That’s what inspired me to do this film.

Marius: What 3D methods did you put at work in Whole, and how did they compile to your intentions as a director?

William: One of the cool things about this project is that we rendered it in stereoscopic 3D. We used the add-on available here to do the camera setup. A stereo version of the film can be seen here. We use the stereo 3D to tell the story in a fun way: When in the regular universe, it’s grey and 2D, but in the alternate universe, it’s 3D and colourful. This helps underscore the story.

Also, we used camera mapping for most of the environments, using the UV Project modifier. We took photos of actual model landscapes and then mapped them onto 3D shapes to give them details. This allowed us to get lots of details quickly and easily without having huge textures of model assets.

Marius: RenderStreet was one of the backers of the project. Who else got involved and how did you manage to find these partners? Share some of your tactics that might help other artists find resources and help for their projects.

William: We produced the film with The National Film School of Denmark. They have a special agreement with DR (Denmark Radio) who financed part of the production. There is also a great collaboration with The Animation Workshop in place, where animation students from this school visit us up to six weeks to help with the animation process.

This is very specific though. Here in Denmark there are a few different ways to get funding – Nordic Talents, New Danish Screen, Filmværkstedet etc. I’m not sure about financing in other places.

Whole caption

Marius: Open movies are a great asset for users, especially for the Blender community. What made you decide to make it public and when will we have the assets available online?

William: I have to collect the assets from the server system, and then upload them to BlendSwap. I plan to start with the characters and a few scenes to make it clear and useful to others. I’d rather do that than release the whole repository, which would be unwieldy for others to figure out.

Marius:  What is your experience with animation around the world? What are the emerging industries where talented 3D artists are needed?

William: I think 3D is creeping into many more fields than before. Design, visualization, decoration, communication are all fields that I think are using it more and more, so it’s not limited to films, games and architecture. But, it’s also just a tool – I don’t like to think of 3D animation as a separate medium. Film is a medium, but 3D-animation is just a technique. Likewise, I don’t think of myself as a 3D-animation director. I just make films and animate. This medium-agnostic approach I think is overtaking the old idea that sees different mediums as silos.

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