When Cinesite was first approached by director Cinzia Angelini to help complete her animated short Mila, the film was already well on its way, having had over 350 volunteers in over 35 countries over the better part of the last decade contributing to it. All it needed was the final push to get it past the finish line.
In part two of our two part case study of Cinesite’s work on Mila, a few key members of Cinesite Vancouver’s team discuss the artistry behind the film.
Leading With Heart
It was June of 2019 when Cinesite officially considered coming on board Mila’s production to take it to the finish line. The studio’s Vancouver division had just wrapped up work on The Addams Family and was looking to sink their teeth into something a little different.
The team at Cinesite was immediately enamored with the story of Mila. “It was emotion that led the way,” recalls Tara Kemes, Cinesite Vancouver’s General Manager. “The story has a lot of heart and that resonated with us. We knew once the decision was made to take it on that we would have the creativity, technology and tenacity to solve any problems it threw our way and get it done.”
Scope Of Work
“Mila consists of six sequences of which Cinesite tackled five,” begins Nate Barnard, Cinesite’s Visual Effects Supervisor on the film. “One sequence, the fifth, was a dream sequence of low complexity and the Mila global effort took this one home. Although there was a selection of shots partially lit from other sequences, for continuity of look, Cinesite rendered every frame of the remaining five. This amounted to 137 shots and nearly 12 minutes of footage on Cinesite’s plate.”
The film represented many technical challenges to the crew. The project was taken on in the midst of a pipeline upgrade. The studio ingested many partially completed assets and started work on some that were not yet thought of. This included 11 characters, some with look and geometry variations, 32 sets, 14 vehicles, and 266 props. “To maintain efficiency we had to ingest all assets and shots and convert them to a consistent, pipeline digestible entity,” continues Barnard.
Surfacing & Lookdev
“The textures and shaders for most of these assets were created by volunteers from around the globe, but they all needed to be converted into our unique pipeline and quality controlled to make sure they would look their best when delivered to the Lighting and Compositing department,” starts Grace Verhagen, Surfacing and Lookdev Supervisor. “The beginning of the film has a different visual feel than the rest, and the textures had a large part to play in this. The first sequence is brighter, cleaner, more colorful, but then after the bombing, the textures become less saturated and covered with dirt and ash. When we were working on assets, we would keep in mind which sequence it was to be used in, and make sure it matched the tone of the story at that time.”
While artists had models, UVs, textures and shaders provided to them in most cases, they sometimes pushed them a little further to add extra details, make them more production friendly, and make sure they were consistent with all the other assets. “For instance, sometimes we would make the fabrics appear a little softer by adding sheen to their shaders, add extra stucco texture to Sofia’s house walls to ensure it had enough detail to withstand in a close up camera angle, or add displacement to the broken boards of the destroyed carousel to maximize visual impact,” continues Grace.
“CFX helps bring life and realism into the story, by making things like hair and cloth act and move in a way that they would in real life. If a coat sways in just the right way, it is one more step towards believing a character’s actions,” explains Lauren Sanson, CFX Lead on the project.
One of the first elements artists worked on was recreating Mila and Sofia’s curls in their hair grooms. “They were two really fun hairstyles to work on, particularly with the stylized look of Mila’s ponytail,” says Lauren. Both characters also had quite large coats which proved challenging at times. For Mila, artists worked hard to keep the baggy, slightly oversized look of her coat as it was important to the story. Other elements they worked on include Sofia’s scarf, kites, curtains and various furniture.
Sophia’s scarf in particular was memorable for artists. Noah Peterson, CFX Supervisor describes “a tender interaction between Mila and Sophia where a cloth scarf is offered to Mila for warmth. It’s a special moment in the story. Challenging CFX elements like these really help bring life into a show, and are so rewarding to solve.”
“When we received the Mila project, almost the entire movie was already through the rough layout phase and into animation,” describes Oscar Lo, Director of Photography. “Pepe Valencia, Co-Director of Photography and his team had already provided a very strong foundation for the film. In terms of layout, there were technical challenges we had to figure out to get the shots into our pipeline and through into animation. However, the bulk of our time was in the cinematography. We wanted to ensure the intent of each shot was maintained and that every shot was beautifully composed, as compositions often change after animation. We also looked at the film as a whole to make sure lensing was consistent across the entire film. Another important aspect for the look of the film was working with Cinzia to find a “hand-held” camera style that gave the appropriate energy to the action sequences. That, in conjunction with the camera shakes for the explosions we added, really tied the shots together. We also did some re-editing/re-ordering of shots to have the film flow better.”
The animation style of Mila leans more towards realism in order to gain greater empathy from audiences for the characters.
“The animation was done by volunteer animators from all over the world,” says Eric Cheung, Lead Animator at Cinesite. “We took their animation scenes in various stages and saw them through our pipeline. We had a small team of animators going through these shots and ironing out the kinks. Some shots were previously approved which were given a polished pass, some were in blocking stages which we took to the finish line, and a couple were new sequences which we animated from scratch.”
Preserving as much of the animation that the volunteers worked so hard on was of utmost importance to the Cinesite animation team. They ensured cohesiveness across all shots regardless of what stage it came into their hands. Of equal importance was capturing realistic movements in key framed animation.
“Emotions are recognized not only from facial expressions, but also from whole body expressions and movements,” continued Eric. “So shooting reference videos were essential to achieving that, especially when Mila is a silent film. Every subtle movement on the eyelids or lips can give that extra push to believability.”
Many layers of fire, dust, smoke, and explosion elements were created to help achieve the look of a town under siege,” describes Vijay Manral, Lead FX artist at Cinesite Vancouver. “Smoke columns, blazing fires and collapsing buildings played a part in portraying the horrors of war for the civilians.”
All these elements were important in creating the feel of chaos and turmoil within the film. Careful consideration was given in the placement of the FX elements in how they would frame the characters and contribute to the composition of the shots. Explosions were strategically placed to heighten the sense of danger the protagonists faced. A thick smoke haze hanging over the town gave an oppressive feel and lightened when the characters narrowly escaped to safety. Drifting hot embers hinted at more fires off screen.
“In contrast, the character’s interaction with the communal water fountain after their escape helps bring the story to a more intimate, innocent, and peaceful moment,” Vijay continues.
As a small FX team on a limited time budget, artists dedicated a good portion of time on creating a library of elements to increase efficiency. This allowed them to complete large sections of the film in minimal time. With these elements they were able to map out key areas of action and place FX in advance, making adjustments when a scene called for better composition and framing. “This left us with more time to handle craft FX elements for the more involved scenes, such as the bombing of the bridge and buildings.”
Lighting and Compositing
“Since we inherited Mila from a group of passionate volunteer artists, we first wanted to understand what lighting concepts had already been developed. More specifically, we wanted to make sure Cinzia’s vision in how the story is conveyed with lighting aligned with our sensibility in how we light each sequence to best convey the effects of collateral damage, of despair, and of hope in the aftermath of war,” says Kenny Chang, Head of Lighting and Compositing at Cinesite.
“We handled the lighting and integration of all assets from upstream departments,” adds Allan Toellner, Lighting and Compositing Supervisor. “Naturally many of the more dramatic elements needed to be featured during the bombing of the town; explosions, smoke columns, fires, embers, etc. We also worked closely with the matte painting artist who was off-site to ensure the skies matched the lighting we created for the 3D elements.”
Deciding upon a more naturalistic approach to lighting, artists used a fairly simple lighting setup and incorporated specific colour palettes in the lights to emphasize the mood of the story.
Artists tried to use colour in lighting to enhance the symbolism found in the story. “For example, warmer colours are always found on and surrounding the characters,” continues Kenny. “This naturally leads to the viewer’s eye focusing on those characters and connecting with them on an emotional level. Slightly desaturated, cooler hues found in the set environment and in the shadows does the opposite where it naturally recedes into the background and disconnects the viewer from this world. Even though our characters are navigating through the streets and plazas of Trento, the lighting environment created very much feels like a nightmare they are trying to escape.”
Then as the pace of the film changes, the lighting changes again. During the sequence where the characters are sheltering in Sofia’s house, delicate cool moonlight is used. Mila, along with the viewer, is trying to make out the shapes within this foreign environment. As small sources of warm candlelight slowly appear, Mila and by extension the viewer is reassured that Sofia’s home is indeed safe and the tone shifts from ambivalence about Sofia to connecting with her. This warm lighting also helps viewers transition to the warm dream sequence of Mila with her mom.
“Finally, the dawn of a new day is conveyed with warm sunlight spilling through the window and then flooding all around the wreckage of the town. The theme of a new beginning brings a sense of relief, a bit of melancholy but ultimately hope,” concludes Kenny.
A Career Highlight
Without question working on Mila was a highlight for much of the crew at Cinesite. “Being able to work on such an emotional and collaborative project was very special. Knowing that artists around the world had been working on this for years before us, made us really want to do their work justice,” says Lauren.
“Working with Cinzia on this film was a delightful experience for the entire crew,” adds Nate. “I will always remember this experience as a highlight of my career. Cinzia was the most appreciative and collaborative Director I have worked with. Sure, this could be from the impact of us taking her decade plus dream to closure, but her notes carried great vision and passion and it inspired us to do our best to satisfy them. There were several moments with Cinzia where it was tricky to not share a tear as things were coming together.”