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Ring of Fire

Studio Filmbilder just uploaded Ring of Fire in full 1080p glory into YouTube. And since it’s one my favourite projects that I had the chance to work on, here it is:

Flay.com used to host an article about the production process of Ring of Fire in 2000, unfortunately it isn’t hosted anymore.

I did retrieve it though and here is a repost. One thing to remember… these were the days when half a GB or RAM was huge and disk drives were still 10s of GBs as opposed to thousands…

Ring of Fire is a short animated film produced by Gambit Films with a “Western Theme”. But the West was never like this! (If it was, somebody’s been eating dried cactus bits again 🙂 ). Produced using ink-on-cel AND 3D animation, this 35mm film took about two years to complete and, as you can see from the trailer, it pretty much rocks. Michael Wolf, credited with “postproduction” on the film was good enough to send in up a write-up on the 3D aspect of the piece which used some custom software, Lightwave and a lot of hard work to get the look of the film just right. It’s suggested you watch the trailer first, then come back and read how this novel animated short was put together.

Ring of Fire Overview, by Michael Wolf:

Ring of Fire started for us in the middle of 1997. The producer Michael Jungfleisch and the artist and director Andreas Hykade had this wild idea in their head, and were looking for ways to create a new look for their animated short.

So they consulted with me and we made a couple of preliminary tests that turned out to be just right. I opted to use Lightwave instead of a 2D compositing solution because I have much more flexibility animating and the real-time OpenGL preview is a real time-saver as well.
The film was to be produced in 2K Cinemascope. The workflow was as follows: According to dopesheets traditional (pencil) key-drawings were made and then in-betweened. Once the results on the linetester were satisfying, the paper & pencil drawing went to the artwork department, where every drawing was reworked on to cels using a very work intensive technique by first inking the cel and then scraping of the highlights using a small knife (well, it is a very unique look, and that look was one of the reasons why we couldn’t use something like an Animo for animation).

O.K. So we ended up with tons of boxes with artworked cels. Most were in the A3 format. I think we totalled around 8000 cels. So the next step was to scan them in at 600dpi, crop them and create cutout masks (->clipmaps) for every single cel in Photoshop. That took one person around 1 year (Thanks to Liana for doing an amazing job, never running out of patience and cooking tea in-between scans).
Now we had 30GB full of single frame 8 bit .TGA’s, RLE compressed (actually 2 images per cel, one containing the cel and one with the clipmap, which had to be 8bit as well !). Luckily most of the images compressed really well, but there still a couple that wouldn’t go below the original 40MB on disk. The real problem would come at rendering time anyhow, since the images loaded in Lightwave would definitely take the original amount of memory.
So the next step for me was to write a plug-in to help with the image sequences. I got the dopesheets from the director and soon found out that renaming all the images so that they would load properly was out of the question. The plug-in I wrote basically allowed me to transfer the dopesheets to a list of frames and spew out that list as a new sequence of dummy files containing the image name of the original file. Then I programed a loader that loads the dummy files, retrieves the original image file and loads that instead. Since I had this loader anyhow, I modified it so that it would create smaller proxy files that were loaded instead of the big images. This saved a lot of time when loading scenes and doing previews.
The cels were mapped on simple polygons with a matching clipmap, the ground is usually a plane as well and we sometimes used hemispheres for the sky. In one scene we actually built a room out of flat textures that were given to me (A bit like hand-drawn UV mapping).

Using key visuals and the dopesheets supplied by the animator / director we were able to layout the scenes up to the first test render (in PAL 720×306). Then I would sit down with the director and tweak the scenes. First we’d finish up the placement of props (some scenes have more than a hundred characters) and then tweak the animation (mainly the position of characters and the camera). When all shots were complete we went over all of them again to adjust the lighting. (Funny thing, lighting. At the start of the project lighting was only supposed to be used in one or two shots, but the director got so excited about the possibilities that we ended up lighting almost every scene.)

Awards

Ring of Fire has won numerous Awards after release, here’s a list:

  • Best traditional short animation at the Vancouver Effects and Animation Festival
  • Canal+ Prize at the Fantastic Film Festival of Brussels
  • The Animation Studio`s Award for Best Animation Film, Black Nights Film Festival, Tallinn, Estonia
  • Best Int. Animation Award, FAN 2000 Norwich
  • Best Animated Film Prize, IMAGO 2000 Covilha, Portugal
  • Best Short Animation Film Award, Sitges Int. Film Festival 2000, Barcelona
  • Special Prize of the Jury – I Castelli Animati, Genzano di Roma
  • Grand Prize at the Ottawa Int. Animation Festival 2000
  • The City of Melbourne Award for Best Short Animation, Melbourne International Film Festival 2000
  • Animation Prize in Avanca 2000, Portugal
  • 2nd prize at the World Festival of Animated Films ZAGREB 2000, Croatia Francois Ode Prize
  • Special Prize of the Jury – shortfilmfest Hamburg 2000
  • 2nd prize (animated films) at the Filmfest Dresden 2000

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