The 21st Visual Effects Society Awards, held last week at the Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills, CA, marked a night of celebration as artists and technologists across the industry gathered to honor the most outstanding visual effects in film, television, and other media from 2022. During the event, the VFX team behind Murad Abu Eisheh’s student short film A Calling. From the Desert. To the Sea accepted the Autodesk-sponsored award for Outstanding Visual Effects in a Student Project on-stage from Autodesk CMO Dara Treseder.
In addition to receiving the award and delivering a heartfelt speech, the student artists, who hail from Filmakademie Baden-Württemberg in Germany, saw their VFX breakdown reel play in front of industry luminaries like James Cameron, Jon Landau, Joe Letteri, and Gale Anne Hurd, among others. We spoke with Creature and Animation Lead Till Sander-Titgemeyer, Compositing Lead Lukas Löffler, and Rigging TD Lukas Kapp about the film and their experience as VES Student Award winners. Here is what they told us:
What is A Calling. From the Desert. To the Sea about?
Till Sander-Titgemeyer (TS): It’s a short film about the plight of 12-year-old girl Yasmin and her sister as they escape the life their father has predetermined for them. Along the lengthy desert trek, the girl is plagued by nightmares of a terrifying monster, but ultimately, the duo breaks free to reach a glistening horizon. Writer and Director Murad Abu Eisheh drew inspiration for the story from an article he read about a father who had his daughter killed for going out in public with a phone. In select regions of the world, families do not allow their daughters to have a phone or go out in public, so it’s a topic he wanted to shed light on through a creative lens.
Can you describe the film’s visual effects in three words?
TS: Detailed, fun, and overkill. Overkill in the sense that we found ourselves getting lost in the small details. This was especially true when working on refining the creature’s teeth and feet, which aren’t featured in a ton of close-ups, as well as its fleshy eyes.
Tell us more about the project timeline, team, and deliverables.
TS: The goal from the project’s outset was to keep a low shot count, so we could devote more time to delivering a high-caliber product. We started as a small team with plans for ten creature shots and a few matte painting shots, but the production quickly grew, as did our team and the shot count. Between 30 artists, we completed 28 shots in two years.
How did you bring the film’s harrowing creature to life?
Lukas Kapp (LK): The monster is an essential part of the story, so we wanted every aspect of it to look photo-real. This initially proved a huge challenge because the beast has so many parts and is a human/quadruped hybrid. Its back looks and moves like a mix of kangaroo, ostrich, and dinosaur, while its upper body movements mirror a human body. From a motion standpoint, this introduced bottlenecks, so we added a biped quadruped switch to the upper body rig, which allowed the animator to animate in both worlds since characters are rigged differently in quadruped versus biped. This also meant we spent a lot of time refining the animation process to ensure the beast didn’t look silly but truly terrifying.
We based the creature’s design on an environment we pre-scouted in Jordan. Our team researched animals that inhabit the desert region – including scorpions, camels, spiders, and lizards – and used it as a reference to ensure our ghoul’s features looked authentic. We also leaned on images of lions and ostriches and then blended these looks with the human elements we wanted to incorporate into the character to make him more photo-real.
Please tell us more about the work that went into the film’s stunning desert landscapes.
Lukas Löffler (LL): We first headed to the Joran Desert with the DP to scout rugged and remote terrain that we could shoot for reference. The team stayed in a hotel at the edge of the desert and had to drive nearly two hours each day to scan the area with no cellular service. We shot during the day in the scorching heat, and at night, when temperatures dropped below zero. We scanned the area with our cameras and brought the scans back to the university, where we processed them and built a real-time virtual environment. This allowed us to look around and prepare the shots. The director wanted our protagonist to advance toward a mountain range, but there was no mountain range in the desert, so we had to create that using our animation and VFX pipeline and then remove tire tracks and other disturbances in compositing.
Describe your technology pipeline for the film.
LK: We primarily used Autodesk Maya character animation and rigging; its retopology toolset is fantastic, and the software makes it easy to create the UVs our creature required. It’s the best tool for this purpose, especially when paired with the Ziva VFX plug-in, which we used for muscle simulations. We knew we’d need a safe, reliable toolset that could help us achieve the caliber of effects we were going for, and Maya and Ziva delivered.
We also used Houdini for the layout, effects, and lighting, rendered with Autodesk Arnold, modeled with ZBrush, textured with Mari, and composited in Nuke. Arnold was a natural choice for rendering because our creature was so heavy, and we needed a stable renderer to achieve a truly photo-real look. The fact that we had surfaces directly in the shader allowed us to do heavy close-ups of the creature.
This project also marked our first go-around with Autodesk ShotGrid. We used it to manage our pipeline and all the shots, which was a great learning experience. Our experience started in asset production, as we kept all our shot footage, creature asset, and matte painting materials in the software. This made it easy for team members to see the status of every asset across departments and kept the production on track. For shot review, we also leaned on Autodesk RV.
How did you manage look development and color?
LL: In the beginning, look development was complex because we had so many different looks for our creature inside the desert between the creature’s anatomy and lighting determinations. We shot at sunset, and the post team matched everything in post, but then we felt like the creature was missing something; it was realistic but flat, so we played around with the lighting to try and make it look darker. Color management was another hurdle we faced but quickly overcame. The team decided early on that we wanted to shoot RAW and use the ACES standard. A lot of time went into studying it, figuring out how it all worked, and determining the best way to implement it into our color workflow. Thankfully after two weeks of color science madness, we figured it out.
What did you enjoy most about working on the project?
TS: Developing the creature from start to finish and seeing it come to life was really rewarding.
LK: I loved the rigging and muscle simulation work on the film. I reviewed several anatomy books and looked at every muscle and how it moves to achieve just the right simulation setup. These are the kinds of details I had the opportunity to focus on that I wouldn’t have had on a traditional production timeline. I was also able to gather feedback from other animators and incorporate it into the project, which is important because every animator works differently.
LL: I enjoyed seeing the work we did scanning environments in Jordan streamline post-production FX simulation; we were able to get the creature to interact more naturally with our environments. The slime shoot was also memorable. We created a 3D-printed skull of the monster, put some industrial slime on it, shot on plates, and then created some additional drool footage that we then composited into the creature shot.
What was your biggest takeaway from the project?
LL: It’s hard to sum it up, but if you can work together and have fun doing it, everything else falls into place.
TS: If you have a good team, you have a good movie. That should be a bumper sticker.
LK: Being able to connect and get along with your team in a comfortable atmosphere is so important; otherwise, you can’t enjoy what you do.
Do you have any advice to offer to emerging filmmakers?
LL: Love what you do, and make sure you have a passion for the specialty you choose. Develop a thirst for learning and never let it go. The more you learn, the more fun you’ll have.
LK: Never give up, even when something seems impossible. Take the time to watch tutorials and learn; it will pay off. No matter how hard it seems, keep at it. In the beginning, we all had our lows, but with time we’ve continued to hone our skills and improve our work.
What inspired you to study entertainment creation, and what’s next?
TS: Dinosaurs. As a kid, I loved the Jurassic Park franchise. Fascinated by the creatures, I wanted to learn how they came to life on screen, and fittingly, I’ve now developed a specialty in creature work. I’m still working on my studies while taking a side gig at German VFX studio Trixter, where I primarily do character modeling.
LK: Star Wars. I loved all the fancy creatures and wanted to be the person behind the scenes creating them. As I began my studies, I came to love learning about and replicating the anatomy that goes into creatures. Right now, I’m on track to graduate this summer and plan to travel to Vancouver and land a job with a vfx and animation studio.
LL: Similarly, my experience watching movies as a kid led me to the field. I’m currently working in a compositing role for DNEG, and when I complete my studies, I hope to land a great job where I can hone my skills.
What does the VES Student Award Win mean to you?
TS: On behalf of the entire team, it’s a huge honor for us and Filmakademie Baden-Württemberg, the university we represent. We enjoyed our visit to LA and an opportunity to talk with some of the best and brightest in the industry. We can’t wait to see what doors it might open for us. It’s been such a great opportunity and experience that we encourage all student artists to put forth their work for future consideration.
Watch the trailer for the short below: