The Passenger: The Making of a Seven-Minute Epic

October 2012 Artist of the Month Chris Jones shares his experiences and gives a peek at his newest project

Posted: Wed 10 Oct 2012

At the 2006 Los Angeles International Short Film Festival, “The Passenger” won “Best Animation.” As part of its whirlwind tour of the film festival circuit, it also won “Best Australian Film” at the 2008 Melbourne International Animation Festival and “Best Animated Film” at the 2011 Renovation Independent Fan Film Festival.

While audiences were impressed and amused by this very special seven-minute 3D-animated cartoon, little did they know that 3D artist Chris Jones spent eight years of his life and exhausted his savings to make it.

The saga began at Siggraph in 1998 when Jones was inspired to create a quirky, spooky yet humorous animated adventure for his demo reel. As a freelance 3D artist, he wanted to show prospective clients the true nature and scope of his talents. He thought that if things went exceptionally well, the short might even be an Oscar contender; and in fact, it narrowly missed being considered for that high honor in 2006.

While this creative exercise was supposed to take only a year or two, it ended up consuming eight years of his life. During the first two years—1998 to 1999—he worked on it part-time around his job as a 3D artist for game developer Beam Software, now Infogrames. Motivated by an unshakable commitment to get his pet project completed, he spent the remaining six years—from 2000 to 2006—working on it full-time on his bedroom computer in his rented Melbourne, Australia home.

What makes “The Passenger” particularly impressive is how much Jones accomplished on such a modest, rudimentary platform—a garden variety Pentium PC running early editions (versions 4.0 through 6.5) of the LightWave 3D animation system by NewTek, Inc. in San Antonio, Texas. This self-financed labor of love did not benefit from supercomputers, teams of artists, or high-powered render farms—just sheer determination.

Who is The Passenger?

As sunny skies darken with storm clouds and gusty wind blows through the trees, a skinny character with bulging eyes walks along the sidewalk towards the bus stop. The story has no narration or dialogue; only Jones’ own original cinematic music score to support the visuals. So we assume he’s “The Passenger” because he’s reading a paperback book of the same name and, well, he’s about to board a bus. Just before the bus arrives, he opens his umbrella as it starts to rain and that sound provokes a dog to stick his out head from behind a broken picket fence and bark viciously at him.

In the next scene, the Passenger is sitting at the back of an empty bus next to a plastic bag filled with water and a goldfish. However, whenever the Passenger attempts to play music on his Walkman—(remember, it was the nineties!)—the fish becomes agitated to the point where he’s instantly transformed into a huge, predatory alien creature that threatens to bite his head off.

The Passenger fights back against the now huge, menacing fish, fending him off with his umbrella as it chases him up and down the aisle. He then discovers that whenever he takes the jack out of the cassette player, the fish returns to his tranquil, innocuous state in the bag. In the end, the Passenger leaves the bus, and sets the bag with the fish by the fence near the dog, puts his headphones on the plastic bag, opens his umbrella to summon the dog and plugs the headphone jack into the player. The abrupt ending suggests that the Passenger provokes the fish’s angry alter ego to explode out of the bag and exact revenge on the barking dog.

Models, rigging, and animatics

“The Passenger” was a relatively ambitious undertaking that encompassed 3D modeling, wireframes, character rigging, and keyframe animation. It also involved extensive scene composition, layout, and the manipulation of a wide array of textures, lighting effects, and other elements.

To perfect his storyline and vision, Jones began with concept sketches, storyboards, 2D animatics (created using Adobe Premiere 5.2), and 3D animatics done using LightWave. The visual style looks like the monochromatic illustrations one might see in a Grimm’s fairy tale book. The creation of the main hero character began with sketch designs as well as making a 20-cm tall clay maquette that served as the template for the digital rigging and 3D modeling in LightWave.

“Rigging the main character involved setting up the model so that it’s movements could be controlled and manipulated,” Jones said. “But I soon realized that his oversized hands and feet on such short, stumpy limbs made animating him very clumsy. His feet frequently intersected, making even a simple upright pose impossible, and his fingers badly deformed and intersected each other.”

“Also, the fact that the upper portion of his head was comprised almost entirely of eyeballs—with no nose, eyebrows, or cheeks—impaired his ability to express emotion,” Jones said. “I resolved these issues by extending the character’s arms and legs and adding eye socket enhancements, which made his movements more manageable and his facial expressions more emotive.”

Once Jones had all of his 3D characters modeled—including the bus driver, the barking dog and the goldfish in the bag—he was ready to put them into 3D settings such as the sidewalk and the bus interior.

A blustery storm

To achieve this complex animation with the tools he had, Jones pushed his legacy version of LightWave to the limits of what it could do, and relied on his own cleverness and resourcefulness to achieve the results he wanted. He also filled in the gaps with other third-party software like Corel Painter for the backdrops, 2D paint, texture mapping, and color grading.

In the short’s opening sequence, blue skies, puffy clouds, and butterflies give way to ominous storm clouds. The skies were created with LightWave’s Hypervoxels (volumetric particles) combined with backdrops created in a third party 2D paint program, Corel Painter. “Since the Hypervoxels behaved unpredictably, the only way to preview the results was to endure numerous 10 or 20 minute render tests in low resolution until I found the right look,” Jones said.

 

As the perspective shifts from the skies to the sidewalk, there is a knotty tree with its branches and leaves forcefully swaying due to the gusty winds. “I needed to find a way to simplify the making of the trees and leaves. So I modeled them all individually and attached them to the tree using the soft body dynamics feature within LightWave’s Layout module. The trick was to make sure all of the polygons were linked together because it had to be one continuous object or it would otherwise just fall apart.”

Never ending renders

“This amounted to weeks of testing and tweaking until the motion was just right,” Jones added. “The 12 second motion file for the 3D tree took about five hours to generate and since this placed excessive demands on my one and only computer (limited to 384MB of memory), I was forced to take very long lunch breaks.”

Many of the techniques and tasks he tackled in the making of “The Passenger” would have been much easier had he been using LightWave 11, the latest version NewTek released in the spring of 2012, packed with productivity boosting tools. For example, LightWave 11’s Viewport Renderer gives artists a quick way to see how their finished renders will look. Another feature called Instancing makes it easy to clone objects, such as the leaves of a tree, and apply unique attributes to each one.

At various points throughout the short film, the Passenger is reading his book entitled “The Passenger.” In a strange synchronicity, the text on the pages he’s reading always spells out exactly what is about to happen to him in any given scene. For example, when he’s walking on the sidewalk with storm clouds darkening overhead, he’s reading about the storm just as we hear a thunderclap and see raindrops falling onto the open pages causing the text to smudge.

Jones created this effect by changing the spectral properties of the page surface—as well as image sequencing of black splotches created in Corel Painter—to suddenly darken certain spots on the page as if they were getting wet.

On the 3D bus

“The Passenger” features exterior and interiors of a 3D bus, including changing views through the windows of the bus as it’s moving. The interior was modeled in a modular fashion, including the front section where the bus driver sits, the mid-section, focusing mainly on the aisle and some seats, and the rear of the bus with a wide back seat with rips in the leather.

In Layout, Jones placed his 3D characters on the bus, including the driver who was swatting an annoying bee while he was driving, and the Passenger and the fish on the back seat. LightWave’s “camera” follows the action—such as the giant fish chasing the Passenger in the aisle.

As the bus moves, the surface of the water in the plastic bag appears to slosh around, and air bubbles rise up from the fish. “Once you set parameters like viscosity and elasticity, the object behaves accordingly,” Jones said. “I also applied a morph technique to alter and rotate the surface of the water to create the illusion it was moving.” Jones placed a spotlight behind the plastic bag to illuminate the water and give the fish’s fins a slight translucency.

Illuminating The Passenger

Shadows, reflections, and spotlights were some of the most challenging and laborious effects Jones generated for “The Passenger.” Without the benefit of more advanced 3D animation software and greater processing power for rendering, round-the-clock rendering was needed to repeatedly test, evaluate, and tweak how the lighting, shadows, and reflections were performing.

Jones first tried to work with area lights, where a single light source disperses in multiple directions along with the shadows it creates. While area lights produce realistic light, the rendering results can be grainy. So in lieu of area lights, Jones used spotlights and then applied motion blur to simulate the look of an area light without the graininess. “Spotlights don’t give you realistic shadows, but motion blur helps blur the shadows for a more diffused, realistic look,” Jones said. “This shortcut also minimized the rendering burden.”

Towards the end of the eight years the short was in production, computer costs decreased and Jones was able to buy two additional computers to accelerate the rendering. He also re-rendered previously rendered files so the entire project would finish at a higher PAL widescreen (1024 x 576) resolution. “The Passenger” was also transferred to 35mm film for screening at film festivals as well as distributed on DVD. It may also be viewed online at YouTube and on Chris Jones’ website at www.chrisj.com.au.

Jones wishes he could have produced the entire short in high-definition but working in HD wasn’t cost-effective at the time he needed to finalize the rendering. Jones said, “At that time, it would have taken four times longer to render in HD. But if I had waited a year or so longer, I could have rendered it all out at HD in just one month. That’s how quickly the technology changed.”

Since the completion of “The Passenger,” Jones has received many job offers to work on 3D animations, videogames, and film effects for clients around the world. While a paycheck keeps a roof over his head, he candidly admits that he also takes commissioned work to defray the cost of his entrepreneurial endeavors.

A sneak peek at what's next

Now armed with LightWave 11—which is rich with 3D animation features and productivity tools—Jones is embarking on a new project he refers to as a “Human Work in Progress.” The first step is the creation of a 3D humanoid using an Ecorche “skin-off treatment” as a workflow test. A turntable animation of this 3D human can be seen below.

 

“The idea behind this ‘subproject’ is to make a general purpose humanoid that can be adapted to any future project that needs humans or other bipedal creatures, whether realistic or cartoonish in style,” Jones said. “I’ve figured out a workflow using Sculptris [free third party sculpting software] and LightWave that allows me to use the same base model and rig without having to retopologize or rebuild anything from scratch. That means I can throw new characters together fast, and concentrate more on artistic processes like sculpting and texturing, instead of being bogged down in the more technical aspects every time I need a new character.”

 

This subproject also involves the 3D modeling and rigging of a realistic 3D man that can be animated using inverse kinematics. The rigging system allows the character to be operated as a puppet. In this way, when you grab the character and rotate its hips for example, the rest of his body automatically conforms to that motion.

“Considering the high level animation I’m now capable of doing with LightWave 11,” Jones said, “there’s no telling what I’ll do next—maybe this time a full-length 3D-animated movie, who knows.”