Client: University of Portsmouth’s FOAM Digital
Need: Preparing students to animate in a real production environment
Author: Chris McMahon
With Stina & the Wolf, Portsmouth University’s FOAM Digital is finding new ways to educate the CG industry’s next generation of stars. Read on to learn how Faceware Technology has helped empower both the studio and its students.
Samuel Butler once wrote, “Don’t learn to do, but learn in doing.” It’s an important sentiment in any craft, but one of particular significance in an art form as complex and intricate as animation.
FOAM Digital was set up with this in mind. A visual effects facility with a difference, FOAM operates out of the Faculty of Creative and Cultural Industries in Portsmouth University. With education as its core motivational goal, here it’s the students that create the work, engaging in an extracurricular project that imparts practical, hands-on creative insight. These students are learning how to apply their skill set in an real production environment, rather than passively watching a lecture from the back row of a theatre.
The project in question is Stina & the Wolf – a feature-length animation about a young girl living in a fantastical world of impossibly high mountains, and drawn into an exotic realm beyond the boundaries of her own.
FOAM isn’t shying away from putting its students to the test with one of the most difficult animation tasks that there is – drawing an emotional, character-driven and nuanced performance from the faces of its photoreal characters. And yet the results – as seen in the trailer released last year – are stunning to behold.
Although predominantly driven by the extremely talented abilities of the FOAM Digital students, Faceware also played its part in making Stina & the Wolf a reality. Read on to discover how it breathed life into the CG facades of the film’s colourful characters…
A New Approach To Learning
“The whole point of Stina & the Wolf, when you get down to it, is giving students real-world production experience,” begins Paul Charisse, director on the project. “Our method of teaching is all about teaching through real-world application of the technology, and allowing the students to learn from each other just as much as they would learn for us.”
For Alex Counsell, VFX supervisor, the project’s lack of an unshakeable curriculum gives it educational benefits that cannot be found elsewhere. “A curriculum is very set in its ways – there’s a set syllabus and you learn in a very static way,” he explains. “Production is not like that at all. It’s reactive to the needs of the shots and the challenges that you need to overcome.
“We wanted to give students that kind of experience in production – they can learn the button presses and the theory on the course, and on the Stina project they then get to apply them to real production problems in an organic way,” continues Counsell. “As the project operates outside of the curriculum, it doesn’t put any pressure like grades or marks on the students, and on our side, it means we don’t have to ever slow the production aspect down by making sure all of the paperwork is in place. It keeps everything free and open.”
It’s an interesting approach to CG education for sure, and one that is certainly working, with FOAM Digital alumni achieving a 100% employment record thus far. For students like Fiona Ware-Heine, animator on the project, Stina prepares them for the kind of challenges they wouldn’t otherwise encounter prior to working in a professional visual effects environment: “Working on Stina is nothing like regular taught lessons,” she says. “I’ve been working on Stina for a year and a half now, and I’ve learned as much from this as I have from my course. The way it imparts industry-relevant techniques in an authentic way is absolutely invaluable.”
Face To Face
FOAM Digital isn’t holding back just because Stina is a student-led production. The feature-length animation is a sprawling, epic adventure through a breathtaking dreamland, containing all the kind of cinematic beauty and animated flourish that you would expect from a CG blockbuster.
And it’s not just visually ambitious – Stina’s narrative will be key to its success, and that means drawing believable, sympathetic performances from the faces of its cast. This is where Faceware comes into the project – a solution that has enabled the FOAM students to turn digital assets into people.
“When we started the project back in 2011, bespoke capture solutions were very expensive, so we decided to build our own!” says Counsell of the project’s origins. “Paul improvised with a bit of webbing, gaffer tape, superglue and HD webcams – essentially creating a facial camera system in his shed. The problem following that was what finding a software solution that could cope with the somewhat shaky footage we had captured. That’s when we came across Faceware.”
For a project like Stina, which had vast amounts of data to work through, Faceware was the perfect fit.
“We had hours and hours of footage across multiple characters – we were never going to be able to handle it alone,” says Charisse. “We needed a solution like Faceware that we could quickly upload to and get a result out the other end. That was so important with the volume of data that we had.”
“Stina is also a very performance-driven film,” he continues. “There’s a lot of emotional interactions between characters, so the facial performance was incredibly important, especially in the close-ups. We needed a solution that was going to help with that, while also teaching the students about the subtleties of facial animation.”
A Helping Hand
Obtaining quality facial data out of the gate was vital on Stina, given that many of the students were just making their first steps into the world of animation. Spending hours up front on highly technical, challenging animation work was simply not a possibility. Thankfully, Faceware Analyzer and Retargeter were more than up to the task.
“As a general rule, the quality of the capture received via Faceware is dependent on shot distance,” explains Counsell. “When we’re working on extreme close-ups Faceware’s tools get us 30-35% of the way, with everything else completed via keyframing. For medium shots Faceware gets us 80% of the way there, and for long shots it’s 100% Faceware – we don’t need to touch it at all.
“Frankly, Faceware cuts off masses of animation time. It allows us to do large-scale work with a small team that simply wouldn’t have been possible otherwise, and the quality of the capture is great – it’s full of the subtle, precise inflections that communicate inner emotion.”
For Ware-heine, Analyzer and Retargeter lead on the project, Faceware has been a revelation. “You get some very high fidelity movement – the eye animation is usually completely done with Faceware, from the tracking of the eye position to the blink information,” she explains. “The students don’t have to sit there and animate that high-frequency movement of the eye – Faceware gives us it, and the results really help the viewer to read the character’s emotions. Even if the eyes were all Faceware did, it would speed up the production pipeline immensely!”
Unravelling Facial Animation
Faceware hasn’t just impressed from a technical standpoint – its value as an educational tool is not to be understated. For starters, the software works well with all of the skill levels currently working within the Portsmouth University academic model.
“Using Analyzer requires a lower level of skill, so we can give that part of the process to the less experienced students and train them in it,” explains Charisse. “The students don’t have to worry themselves about the complexities of a facial rig – they can jump into the pipeline very easily. Retargeter requires a more specific skill set, so the more knowledgeable students can work on that side.”
Not only do Faceware’s software solutions scale to the ability level of each of FOAM’s students, but they also teach the basic principles of facial animation as they work, imparting a deeper understanding of what is a very complex craft.
“It’s an excellent teaching tool,” says Charisse. “The students get to sit down and watch a lot of very close-up, 30 fps facial performance – they watch those faces to see what they do and how they work. And then, when going through Analyzer sequences, they find those key poses to mark out and pass to Retargeter.”
Charisse – who runs a separate unit on facial model rigging – finds that this approach greatly helps his students get to grips with the overall facial animation process. “Analyzer really supports the unit, because it gets students to scrutinize the structure and anatomy of the face,” he explains. “Students often find facial animation difficult, because they’re not used to drilling down to that level of detail. There are a lot of assumptions that people have that simply aren’t true – looking closely at facial movements with Analyzer helps students to deconstruct those assumptions. They learn to constantly reassess their approach.”
For Counsell, the software also teaches wider lessons about the nature of the production environment. “While they are learning concrete lessons about how to perform specific tasks, the students also encounter challenges that aren’t so objective – that’s the beauty of it; learning that not all scenarios in facial animation fit! There are exceptions all the time; that’s the complexity of facial animation. It’s the kind of thing that’s incredibly difficult to teach in the classroom, but on the Stina project, and using Faceware, these lessons arise totally organically.”
There’s one other element of professional production that’s difficult to replicate in a classroom environment, but which forms the very core of the FOAM Digital experience: creative collaboration.
“The retargeting process using Faceware is extremely collaborative,” enthuses Ware-heine. “Every single shape we created to retarget we discussed in depth to make sure we were all on the same page. The process really brings the team together!”
The Next Step
For the team at FOAM Digital and the students of Portsmouth University, the relationship with Faceware has enabled the Stina & the Wolf to reach the next level, and enhanced the educational impact of the project across the board.
“It’s been absolutely amazing,” says Counsell. “Faceware has been so helpful, from getting us set up in the beginning, to dealing with things like supporting our continued use of Softimage, despite the product being discontinued. It’s all been really informal and stress-free.”
The next steps for the Stina project include finding the least disruptive way to move out of the Softimage pipeline and into Maya, while continuing to search for funding. With a constant influx of students, production will continue into the coming months and years, and Faceware will remain an important part of the mix.
“We’re currently in discussion about the use of Faceware Live,” says Counsell, ruminating on the future. “If we can prepare our video and stream it through Faceware Live we might be able to get rudimentary performances on Unreal Engine, which can then tie into training students in virtual production – we can have them play back pre-scripted animation, and then frame it up with the virtual camera.
“There are so many possibilities, so Faceware will remain a key tool in bringing our vision for the Stina & the Wolf project – and the whole FOAM Digital concept – to life.”