, by Ryan Grobins

Cyan Eyed: The Journey of Making a Steampunk Animated Short

Industry veteran Ryan Grobins discusses his 7 years of work on 'Cyan Eyed'.

  • Film
  • Interview

My name is Ryan Grobins, originally from Adelaide, Australia, and I’ve been working in the VFX and animation industry for 25 years in six countries. I’m currently Head of CG at FuseFX in Vancouver, Canada where I enjoy being able to tackle big and small issues in order to produce high-quality images as efficiently as possible. Professionally, my background through CG came from the path of lighting where I spent 12 years working, though my personal work gives me the opportunity to work in every part of the pipeline. I’ve been fortunate to be a part of some cool projects, such as the Emmy award-winning episode in the final season of Game of Thrones, Captain Marvel, Ant-Man & the Wasp.

Cyan Eyed

I’ve made two animated short films previously that have done quite well on the festival circuit, playing in over 100 festivals combined and winning a number of awards. But I never like to do the same thing twice. My first animated short film was a toon rendered adventure for children titled Sneeze Me Away, and my second film, The Rose of Turaida, was a highly stylized film made completely with sand-like CG particles about a 16th-century tragedy based on a true story set in Latvia.

This time, I wanted to do something fun with a big spectacle, something as good as a cinematic from Blizzard or Blur, and not necessarily have it be a ‘festival’ film. I’ve always loved steampunk, there isn’t much quality content in this genre that I know of, so I decided that I had a chance to contribute my own artistic interpretation. I also decided to release the film online shortly after it was finished, instead of locking it behind another festival circuit for more than a year. Just after The Rose of Turaida started the festival circuit, I came up with a story outline of a robot rescuing a young girl from a bounty hunter pirate. I had the idea to give the young girl some sort of supernatural power, and the film’s title, Cyan Eyed, was born.

Altogether, there were a little over 50 people responsible for the visuals, and another 50 people responsible for the sound and music, definitely the largest team I have ever lead on a personal project. As well as writer/direct/producer on the film, I was also an artist in every pipeline step. Of the 1679 asset and shot tasks on the film, I personally completed over 1200 of them myself, from previs to comp and everything in between. I also wrote myself a new pipeline from the ground up, including file management tools, render submission and AOV management tools, texture, material, hair, cloth, animation, and asset management tools, as well as a whole lot of ‘quality of life’ tools to make the workflow easier. All up, over 10,000 lines of code went into this film.

Art direction

The title of the film, Cyan Eyed, is an anagram of ‘eye candy’, and that is exactly what I wanted Cyan Eyed to be, a visual and aural feast for the eyes and ears. I knew I wouldn’t have the resources to go all the way for photoreal and to tell the truth, photoreal can be a little limiting. I wanted more of a ‘hyperreal’ look, a style that allows for some more artistic freedom, while retaining a high level of quality. Because I was going for ‘spectacle’, I wanted to have the best-looking CG that an independent film can accomplish. I was constantly finding ways to increase the quality of the film and as a result, this film took far longer to complete than what I originally had hoped for. But the result is exactly what I was after, as evidenced by the supportive comments it has received so far.

Concept art:

Conveying story through color, texture, and lighting

I wanted my steampunk genre film to be full of warm colors, supported by surfaces like copper, brass, wood, and red fabrics set against an iconic sunset backdrop with an almost horizontal sun key orientation. Inside the hold of the skyship, there are almost 200 lights of complementary warm and cool colors for balance, creating a moody and cinematic atmosphere. Outside, there are four main environments: the opening shot, the fight on the deck of the skyship, the falling sequence, and the final flying sequence, all a different flavor of sunsets.

Everything within the skyship environment including characters were built in 3ds Max and rendered with Corona Renderer, and all external environments were either full frame ranged sequences or individual HDRI’s rendered in Terragen. I was quite proud of developing a fully procedural aurora setup in Terragen at physically accurate heights for the final flying sequence.

Substance 3D Painter

I’ve been using Substance 3D Painter since the 1.0 release. I was a huge fan of the workflow that the release introduced, and have been a fan of all the changes since, and there was no other program or workflow that satisfied the need I have for speed, quality, and ease of use. In regards to Cyan Eyed, the earliest use of Painter for the film was in March of 2016, and it was used on 98% of the skyship (internal and external) that wasn’t wooden planks, all of the robot, all of the clothing for the human characters, all of the cannon, and most of the props. So essentially almost every surface that isn’t a landscape was textured in Substance Painter.

Texturing workflow

Early on, rather than a standard set of output maps for each UDIM, I decided to use the RGB mask and tileable technique. The two main reasons were to save on memory and to allow for far more texel density and detail. For example, the robot is 113 UDIMs, and if this asset was textured in the standard way, then multiply that by 5 (albedo, bump, glossiness, normal and displacement) equals 565 textures. But for the method I used, only two types of unique UDIMs are required (RGB mask ‘utility’ and displacement) plus another 30 tileable textures of different surfaces (brass, copper, iron, and rubber) and a couple of multi-use utility textures like scratch maps all together reduced the total amount textures used by the robot asset down to 260.

The human assets had two RGB utility maps for complete control over the fabrics. If I need to get very close to a surface, I can easily increase the detail by increasing the tiling attribute on a case-by-case basis. The savings on memory become even greater when I use the same tileables on other assets; from a few base materials, I created many variations simply by adding color correct nodes in my shader network. Even more memory savings were made by a tool I wrote that was able to easily swap the resolution of a texture (and more). Most scenes used no more than about 15GB of texture memory.

Experience in the VFX industry

This is a constantly evolving industry, change happens all the time, and the people that tend to succeed are the ones that are able to adapt easily. Though the longer one has been in this industry, the less desirable it is to change, so it is an advantage to try and resist the urge to settle. I think one of the reasons I have gotten as far as I have, is because of my personal projects that I work on during my evenings and weekends after I clock off my day job. I’m definitely not the example of the average VFX artist, most that have been in this industry as long as I have usually want nothing to do with CG when they finish their workday.

I have also found that over time, work has become less about the credits, and more about being able to spend time working with people I enjoy being with while producing great content. Work from home might have changed things a little, but generally in this industry, we spend more time working than we do with our families, so we better like the people we work with.

Challenges of making animated shorts

My first two films took three years each, Cyan Eyed took more than double that time frame at over seven years. It was sometimes very tough to keep up with the motivation to complete this film, there were many times where days or weeks went by without me moving the film forward, but thanks to a hugely supportive team, their work kept giving me the inspiration to keep going. Though I think what kept me going most of all is the thought of spending all this time and money, and not finishing the damn thing. For a fully independent animated short film, sometimes it was tough to find the right people for tasks, and some other times it was tough to have people deliver tasks in a timely fashion, but in the same way that I was constantly motivated by my team’s updates to deliver, so to did I act as motivation for my team to deliver.

I never thought I would spend so much time and effort developing the pipeline while making this film. Often I would spend many days in a row to write tools, solve bugs, research methods, and test results. Some tools were rewritten multiple times to add new features, and sometimes I realized that some tools would take longer to make than the time to do an operation manually. Any time spent making tools was obviously time not making the film, and all up I think I spent around 5 months making those tools.

Ultimately while I very much enjoy what I do doing my day job, it will never satisfy the storyteller and world builder in me. The thought of creating something, then affecting the lives of many other people by having them spend their precious time watching my creations is quite rewarding and is what will keep compelling me to continue to create.

Recommendations for VFX and Animation students

My main recommendation for students wanting to go down the path of VFX and working on their reel on their own is to do small things and do them well. Do not make complicated characters, fight sequences, aliens, robots, explosions, spaceships, etc. Go and shoot some footage of a street or a desk, and put in some simple objects, a mailbox, a pencil, a mug. Juniors are rarely asked to work on hero elements at the beginning of their careers, and quite simply if juniors can not do simple things well, then they will not be able to do the complicated things well. Think about it this way, it takes many senior people in VFX companies to create good-looking characters, how in the world would a student expect to produce anything as good on their own? I would rather hire a junior that had a 30-second reel with some well-made simple CG objects in footage that I can not immediately pick, than a complicated reel of images that are not polished off well.

Final words

An epic steampunk-themed animated short film needs an epic sound design so I took a chance in sending a cold email with concept art and a link to the latest previs to the world’s best sound design company, Skywalker Sound. I was very surprised when I received a reply telling me that they were very interested in being involved! I had two mix sessions at Skywalker Sound lasting about a week each almost a year apart, led by supervising sound editor, Mac Smith. I can honestly say that being able to stay at Skywalker Ranch has been the highlight of my career so far, I was fully geeking out every minute of every day I was there.

Partway through production, my composer, Nicole Brady, gave me more amazing news: she managed to secure Peter Rotter, one of the most well-known music contractors for major Hollywood films and the Hollywood Studio Symphony orchestra to contribute to Cyan Eyed. I was able to attend the recording session in person at The Bridge, and was able to hear the music in all its full glory live!

As for finishing the film, I set up and lit every shot in the film myself, and most of the film was rendered on my three computers: a Dual Xeon workstation that was rendering when I wasn’t working and two AMD Threadripper 2’s that rendered 24 hours a day for almost two years. They were great to have around during the wintertime, and my wife often used the hot air exhaust to raise bread dough that she then baked.

This film has been an amazing journey, and I am so glad to have the amazing team I did to make something that everyone can be proud of.

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