Dream
Catcher

I present to you my diploma project, created at the end of engineering studies at Wyższa Szkoła Biznesu National-Louis University in Nowy Sącz. It is my first animation, and even though it is not perfect I’m fairly happy with what I got. Animation was entirely created in 3ds Max. For postproduction I’ve used After Effects, textures were edited in Photoshop. Final montage was done in Sony Vegas.

In July 2014 environment for animation was created. In the meantime I’ve studied and worked, so I didn’t start making it until April 2015. Half a year later it was done. I wrote down most interesting aspects of this project. What challenges I struggled with, and how did I overcome them? Well, first things first. I encourage you to get familiar with my diploma animation:

Dream catcher

The idea was born spontaneously. Overall concept and a scenario came into being during one evening. Later it was repeatedly changed over time, even at storyboard stage. A lot of scenes were also trashed during montage in order to maintain continuity of the plot. But let me be honest here- creation process started much earlier, even before scenario phase. Let’s take a step back.

I am a great fan of (early) Tim Burton style, who on the other hand is greatly inspired by Edgar Allan Poe. I knew that I wanted my work to be soaked with thick atmosphere of disturbing secret, but still easy readable. Angular, exaggerated graphic style of game ‘Fable’ was an inspiration as it fit pretty well to style of a story I wanted to tell. In order to tune in into atmosphere, I’ve listened to Poe’s stories read by Christopher Lee.

After I’ve created  world where my story could take place, I took time to think what kind of character would be a proper hero. I was strongly inspired by British figure- Dr. Who, played by David Tennant. Some of my friends kept comparing me to him, so my deeply hidden audacity generated an idea to create a character based on me and Dr. Who.

‘Vincent’ of Tim Burton from 1982. I sympathize more with his early works.

To sum up, I had marked out graphic style, I knew what kind of story i want to tell and who would be a hero of this tale. I didn’t sit in a room with intentions to plan everything upfront. At this point I still had a lot of time for unrestrained flow of thoughts, so rough ideas could appear in my mind until the connect into some stable vision. Then I started my writing.

Scenario

What story would fit to a calm place from before steam revolution and Dr. Who running around? I had several options on my mind. I’ve tightened them to only few with assumption that story should take place during night. Here’s why.

  • I really wanted to first scene to be camera flying through clouds lightened by a moon. I think this is my best scene. After that, I could just roll closing credits. For real.
  • At night everyone is sleeping, which means I don’t have to animate inhabitants wandering around. I cut a lot of potential work at this early stage of planning an animation.
  • Palette of colors. Yellow warm light of street lamps is perfectly mixing with cold shades of blue. Reliable solution.

After all the planning I could sum up the plot in this sentence: ‘One of unnumbered adventures that unnamed hero goes through, when he tries to keep nightmares away’. Reference to Indian decoration quickly snaps into right place. This way, our mysterious hero got his name- Dream Catcher.

Storyboard

On this stage I started to realize the great amount of work ahead of me. I was aware, that every month of delay will cost me several hundreds zlotys. Keeping that in mind, I’ve decided to cut yet another scenes that story can be told without. On a period of month, several versions were created.

I’ve started from simple drawings on paper with short descriptions of action. Every next iteration I drew digitally. This way I could quickly test a few frames variants and choose direction that narration should follow. Probably I don’t have to mention that my illustrations were awfully prepared. I didn’t waste time for refinements- the readable concept was more important for me.

City

I’ve started from modeling couple of unique buildings. I knew, that it would be enormously time-consuming to make whole city with this approach, but in this phase I worked out modeling workflow and get along with stylized form. After I was sure about style I’ve created modules for specific levels. When mixed, it served me as over 20 new unique buildings. It was fairly low poly- none unnecessary vertices.

I wanted to use aerial view for some scenes, so it was crucial to prepare interesting and convincing topography. To accomplish that, I’ve downloaded a few illustrations of medieval cities and listed out several similarities such city should contain:

  • town hall
  • marketplace
  • trade district
  • wealth district
  • suburbs

I have modeled surroundings based on previously prepared sketch. Firstly roads were created, and some landmarks placed. Later I filled empty spaces with buildings. Having complete environment, I could start tweaking Mental Ray settings and make a few test renders. I was rather happy with results.

Characters

Every appearing characters were poly modeled, based on previously created sketches- there’s nothing surprising there. For rigging and animation, I’ve used CAT system, which was pleasant to work with. Faces were animated with Morph Targets. To create some textures, faintly I’ve used Substance Painter, not knowing that some day this will be one of my favorite tools.

I sought for inspiration at various sources. Weapon to dematerialize nightmares was created upon ‘Nerf’ toy gun. Base style of certain elements perfectly fit to my project.

Cloth simulation of Dream Catcher’s cloak definitely was a challenge. Some scenes I had to cut earlier because of bunch of vertices going wild. Except this inconvenience, there wasn’t any more troubles, so I will go on to more exciting parts.

Particle systems

Dreams appearing in animation are PFlow emitters, attached to a sphere with emissive material and set constant rotation. Simple, quick solution, easy to calculate by CPU- I couldn’t handle much more sophisticated remedy since shadows of deadlines were instantly chasing me. The Bad Dream was created exactly the same way, only difference were used colors.

Clouds from my first scene is a completely different story. I desired something that will attract attention of the viewer and I think I achieved this goal. They were created using FumeFX and this whole sequence rendered for over a month (it took 40 minutes to save one frame). This was a brutal experience, because when at mornings I checked renders from the night before, it sometimes turned out that light is incorrectly calculated and dozens of frames must be rerendered. It often happened, that rerendering something left me with absolutely different results. That was exhausting.

Post production

While my last scenes were rendering, I jumped into post-production phase. From now, almost everything is prepared in After Effects. Flares, gun fires, distant landscapes- all that was added right here. I know this software pretty well, so I put everything together really quickly. At the end I did sound mastering in Sony Vegas.

Summary

Dream Catcher was a giant and challenging project. At the moment I’m writing those words I can notice how little I knew and yet, fact that I managed to finish it is incredible achievement. I gained basic skills at every field of 3d graphic, but I have doubts if jumping into project of this size alone was the right call. I wasn’t able to perfect any aspect of this project and final effect doesn’t look professional. This work doesn’t present my knowledge of specific software, but more like planning skills, optimization and lead of complex projects instead. Hence, I created everything by myself, I had a chance to look into every part of production pipeline. Retrospectively, I think this is the greatest value I obtained by finishing the Dream Catcher.