Thursday, April 3, 2014

DreamWorks' artist Nassos Vakalis introduces his latest short film: "Dinner for Few"

Nassos Vakalis is a story board artist, director and animator who has worked for many years at DreamWorks, storyboarding on just about every DreamWorks film you can think of over the last ten or fifteen years. He and I worked together on many projects, during the course of which I learned to respect his skill, versatility and speed. Nassos also writes and directs his own short films; his most recent short is the impressively designed and very ambitious Dinner for Few. FLIP asked him a few questions about how he managed to complete such a complex project.

FLIP: What is the film about?

Nassos  “Dinner For Few” is about mankind. The story is told metaphorically. To be more specific, the film depicts an allegory of human sociopolitical existence in a hierarchically structured society through time.

During Dinner, which symbolizes the consumption of the wealth, the the system enjoys a long run working like a well-oiled machine. It constantly and solely feeds the few that foolishly consume all the resources, while others barely manage on what little is falling off the table. Inevitably, when the supply come to an end, what is left is a fuse leading to a catastrophic and violent conclusion. Sadly, the offspring of this profound change turns out to be not a sign of hope but the spitting image of the parents.

FLIP: How did you get it made?

Nassos: Through a lot of pain. I mean to say, the execution was painfully difficult. I spent almost two and a half years working on this. The only help I had was from Eva Vomhoff, who worked remotely from Germany. Early in production I was using some technology I needed some help with, and Eva had some great tutorials about the stuff, so I contacted her. Eventually I showed her my idea and dared to ask her to help me. She liked the story and agreed to assist me completing it. In effect, she volunteered. We ended up doing the work in another software, but Eva is behind every rig you see on screen. She also did some of the best cat and tiger animation.

As you know, I do have a day job at DreamWorks so the only available time was after work and after the kids went to bed [Nassos is a father to two twins] until really late hours and during the weekends. Throughout the production I think I went to bed around 2 am on average for two years! Artistically and technically this is a 3d film. It is designed to look like a 2d film, but it is either 3d animation or 2d effects done in after effects plus some photoshop actions of my own invention.

The good thing about this technique is that it was not render time intensive so the rendering didn't take too much time, and we did not need any special machines or software. I had a few plug-in developers rewrite some code for me but that's all with the technology; everything was off-the-shelf stuff.

FLIP: What were the biggest challenges in finishing it? 

Nassos: Well, the length of the film was a challenge. As you know it is not easy to produce ten minutes of animation. Then on top of that I had the complex scenes; there are scenes in which there are twenty cats running around and six characters eating. These were the scenes that pushed the technology and my computer power to its limits.

So in general I would say that the biggest challenges were the limitations of the technology and the stuff we could not do with what we had in hand - and had to figure out other ways to do. I can use an example here - it is the fur of the cats. Some of the cats have an underbelly fur. Though the system we were using had a hair and fur solution, the rendering of the hair/fur was not a volumetric effect; thus the toon outline renderer could not detect any edges to render. I felt that I needed the fur, so the cats at the close up scenes would look more soft. So, a solution was needed to solve this problem. It ended up being a complex workaround, using After Effects, and also the use of some edge detection methods which I had to create, in order to give a reasonable outline to the hair, as well some internal hair definition, all of which had to fit the graphic look of the rest of the movie. Early on this looked like it was going to be the biggest problem, but eventually it became a routine pipeline execution.

FLIP: What advice would you give to an animator who wants to make their own short film? 

Nassos: To have patience. I myself learned to have patience doing these films. Animation is something that takes a lot of time to get done, and needs great attention to detail. This tends to push the artist's patience to its limits. Especially when the team is small, it is easy to want to give up and not complete the film. You only have to give yourself a reason for that, to satisfy yourself with an excuse.

Having to give it to a dozen others is another issue. I have seen this happening to many people who start a film on their own time, like I did, but never finish it. It almost happened to me a few times during this production. When you run into technical problems it is easy to say that this can't be done or what is the point of finishing it, it won't look good. Support from the family comes a long way in such times. I was lucky to have my wife, my family in Greece and Eva to encourage me to continue.

(Editor's Note: You can see more about Nassos' film Dinner For Few at the Facebook page here.)

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