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La Noria: A Chat with the Filmmakers on Artistic Inspiration and Their Distributed Pipeline

La Noria is an animated horror film directed by filmmaker/animator Carlos Baena and produced as an online collaboration with artists from around the world. The short is bringing a new vision to animated films by exploring darker themes, elegant visuals and producing it using online production technology. We talked to the filmmakers as they wrapped up their successful Indiegogo campaign this week.

First off, congratulations on reaching your funding goal!  We know it’s been a lot of work.  Looking at the the style of La Noria, it walks a fine line, simultaneously stylized and realistic. What were some of the references in art, film and culture that you tapped to find the look and feel?

Carlos Baena, Director: Thank you!  We’re thrilled to have met that goal. Regarding the style, we constantly looked at different artwork, inspirations and CG artwork online that we thought achieved a great combination of both. Finding the right line of stylization and realism has been tricky. For character stylization, Norman Rockwell’s illustrations were particularly inspiring to look at, from both a design as well as posing point of view. As we don’t have dialogue in this short film, when working with our lead character designer Dei Gaztelumendi, we pushed the stylization on the eyes and made them purposely bigger, so that it’s easy to see what he’s going through.

For camera/lighting/photography inspiration; I had a really talented Spanish lighter, Eduardo Martin, who worked at Pixar at the time, help me gather fantastic photography references in the early pre-prod stages of the film. These would cover different areas such as localized lighting, falling off lights with depth, projected shadows, back lighting/silhouettes and many others. They were and still are really valuable. Two film references I also studied early on in terms of the CG/photography work were “Wall-E”’s scene inside his home, as well as Alex Roman’s stunning work on “The Third and The Seventh.” Other films we looked at for photography/compositions as well as mood/tension were Tomas Alfredson’s work on “Let The Right One In” as well as Jee-Woon Kim’s “Tale of Two Sisters.” 

La Noria Indigogo Teaser

Given the unique look, what were the biggest challenges in finding the style? What were the biggest highs and lows when searching to find the look?

Carlos Baena: I’d say it is always a challenge to add imperfections on the work, be it props, cloth, lighting, etc. Whether on the modeling stages as well as the shading stages, we constantly looked for ways to adjust things so that they felt like they had been aged or worn whether it was a prop, cloth or skin. We tried to walk that fine line between something feeling dirty versus something feeling like it’s been used, so we looked into subtle ways of adjusting models or shaders. Computers make everything look too perfect…and that applies even to little things such as the corners of a model, paint scratches, or the subtle dark/dirty shadows that you find everywhere. Camera wise, there are always things happening in between the camera sensor and the character/actor himself…camera lens dust, air density, atmospheric effects, etc. It helped us to take all those into account.

Yasin Hasanian, CG Supervisor: Another challenging aspect is that we are after a look that has both cinematic and at the same time stylized quality to it. At first this sounded tricky to accomplish, however, we have felt confident to break the rules wherever it looks visually pleasing whether it is in animation or lighting and even take it to the extremes of it. That said, most of the concentration is put to captivate the eyes in the best way possible without binding ourselves to certain rules. It's been impressive that this vision has been fully embraced by the whole crew. We've been fortunate enough to have the support of some amazing designers and concept artists that have provided us with solid base for the look of the film and the assets.

With the distributed nature of the production, what were some of the greatest technical challenges to look development?  Any tips for successful distributed look-dev?

Carlos Baena: It always came down to what resources we have at any particular time. For example, since we are not sharing the same room, monitor calibration and darks/brights is a tricky beast. After doing a pass at the vectorscopes, we still checked certain things guerrilla style way (which is not ideal). For the purposes of the teaser for example, we would comp images, then look at them in different accessories such as computer monitors, TVs, tablets or cell phones, to look for what was consistent and what needed some dark/brights/color tweaking. Not ideal but we have to work with whatever we have. The other biggest challenge has been hair/cloth simulation cache file sizes. Regardless of whether we are using alembic or .ass files, they are still brutal when dealing with internet bandwidths.

Yasin Hasanian: The biggest hurdle for us has been the Internet. It's simply not up to par yet with the level of complexity we have in this production. There are textures that exceed 1GB in size and just transferring them across multiple countries with various connection limits and speeds could get really tricky at times. However, this has truly enabled us to establish a pretty decent pipeline around this constraint which works reliably for the most parts. We try to keep everything as optimized as possible so that artists could get their hands on required files with the least amount of trouble. This project has been in progress over the past couple of years and so technology advanced with it. A workflow that was working fine before is no longer effective and has much better replacements created for it by now. On top of that, assets have been look-dev'ed and shaded over this period of time by various artists with different workflows. Thus, we needed to make sure the pipeline is adaptive to all these changes as much as possible. With the help of our talented TD programmers, we've created tools for every single stage of the pipeline and a few of them are specifically written to help with these changes and migration processes whether on the server cloud remotely or locally.

Regarding tips, in a distributed environment, you need to make sure you have planned out the basic rules and workflows. All assets must be look-dev'ed in a unified environment; it's not like an on-site environment where a simple change could just take a simple few minutes. This is where versioning and naming conventions became vital. In our pipeline we had to be able to track changes or revert to or from various versions. Not everyone on the team has to get/download all the textures such as animators, so assets at least need to have a viewport material attached to them. Time management plays a big role since artists live in different time zones and things still need to be synchronized between them and ready to work on. More importantly be passionate and patient about what you are trying to achieve. If it wasn't for the passionate and ambitious La Noria crew, we couldn't have made it this far.


How many look-dev artists are involved on the show? Are artists overlapping on look-dev and production shot lighting?

Carlos Baena: We had about 6-8 artists helping on pre-production on their available time. After that ended, our Production Designer Eve Skylar and Lead Character Designer Dei Gaztelumendi stayed on to go over additional areas needed while in production such as color scripts, character or creature draw overs, etc. Indeed we go back to having 2D artists’ help even when we are in production. For example, as we get ready for our lighting phase, we find it’s faster to draw/sketch lighting/mood ideas over layout/animation prior to doing lighting render tests.

"Look Development" means different things at different studios and with different artists. Can you tell us a bit about the technical details of your look-dev workflow?

Carlos Baena: In our film “Look Development” has been about finding the right combination of the different elements that make up a full image. So in a way, it starts back in modeling/shading as they both start to define early aspects of the final image when thinking stylization and realism. A heavy aspect of look development in our case comes up after animation/sim is completed. Given the mood/tone in our film, the combination of lighting, comp and color correction has drastically changed our images. It’s been an area we’ve tried to be careful to get as appealing of a result as we could.

Yasin Hasanian: All the online procedures are happening through Artella, our cloud-based project management system. For every asset that needs to get look-dev'ed, first it has to go through a model check to be verified both automatically and manually by our modeling supervisor. The checks are on the geometry itself to make sure it has no errors and on the structure of the file. Every asset needs to have LODs already in place. Once the model is verified, it's ready for the shading/look-dev artist to jump in and carry on with the process. Once shading is finished with Arnold shaders, it is submitted to Shotgun for reviews and if it gets approved, the textures for that asset must be converted to .tx and get uploaded to the corresponding location on the cloud. Furthermore, Artella changes the file paths under the hood so it's all pointing to the project environment variable regardless of Maya project settings. Once again, the modeling supe would go over the model for QC checks.

Regarding specific tools, where did Arnold fit into the process, and how do you feel it contributed to the result?  Did specific rendering challenges come up?

Carlos Baena: Marcos (Fajardo, founder of Solid Angle) and I have been good friends since we first met in the late 90’s. I have seen Arnold grow over the years since the early tests that Marcos and Daniel Martinez Lara did for Siggraph in 1999. I know Marcos has put his heart developing Arnold over the years and it shows. At the time we were doing story passes on the short film, there wasn’t yet a Maya to Arnold plug in. However one day, Marcos was visiting San Francisco and he brought up that there was a MtoA version soon to be released. I pitched him this idea of this little film I wanted to do, and he supported us from the very beginning. We’ve seen big differences and advantages using Arnold compared to other renderers. I don’t see this film with this quality being done any other way. Arnold provides a great combination of speed and reliability that we love.  It delivers consistent results which allows better time management for artists and the team.  We also had many artists on the show who were passionate about using Arnold in their work.  Also the customer support of Solid Angle on our film has been fantastic.

Yasin Hasanian: For the teaser 70% of what you see is Arnold; that’s the render that we got except some added spice in comp, mostly FX: smoke, breath and some depth of field.  Arnold played a major role in our production and truly let us focus on the creative parts which was a blessing. What really stood out to me is that during these past years we never had a single issue with Arnold. The ease of use, reliability and robustness of this renderer totally enabled us exploring various pipeline workflows and incorporate something that works best for us and our needs. Arnold does a great job rendering motion blur at pretty reasonable render times. The main rendering challenge we've been having is that the entire film takes place in an indoor environment which can typically be slow.  Fortunately, our render times have been reasonable and we are happy with it already.  It’s also great to know that Solid Angle developers are exploring new ways to speed up indoor renders with statistical methods and we are looking forward to testing that as well.  We really can't be more grateful for the constant support of Solid Angle.

Can we get a little more info on your render pipeline? Were you rendering in the cloud? What has your experience been with remote rendering?

Carlos Baena: We’ve been using an early version of the Artella Pipeline, which takes us all the way from layout to animation, to lighting, recently adding cloth & hair sim. There’s no question that long, 20 second shots are painful when working across countries with different connectivity challenges. Cache file sizes are a big challenge.  Distributed workflow requires organizing around the weakest link and reminded me of the early days of building Animation Mentor when online video was still new.

We are rendering at 1080p in the cloud and our utilization is somewhere around 30 nodes on Summus Render (Madrid), who replicated our Artella pipeline on their system and provided incredible support. Render times range from 2 to 5 hours per frame. The teaser shot was a very expensive, long shot and will likely remain as one of the biggest on the show.

For a small, distributed team like yours producing a larger project, is bandwidth still the major hurdle for distributed production?

Carlos Baena: It’s a big one. It doesn’t matter if files are Alembic, .ass or whatever… for a shot that’s 10-20 seconds long, the numbers for moving data around go up. That becomes tricky with bandwidth differences per country. That’s one hurdle we deal with constantly. Bandwidth on Yasin’s connection in Tehran is considerably different from what I have here in the USA. Cache file sizes and bandwidth remain challenging.

La Noria Props & Sets

What shaders have you been using on La Noria?  Arnold Standard or any 3rd party shaders?

Yasin Hasanian: Most shaders are Arnold Standard. The power of that, since we’re distributed, is that we don’t need to ask everyone to custom install what someone else uses. It can be confusing so to keep it simple, we didn’t burden artists with installing things over and over. But we still do use some of the Anders Langlands alShaders in the pipeline.

We’ve used texture maps and layered shaders. In many cases it’s to put dust on objects.  Since they have a different response from the base material, we layered shaders on top of each other, keeping the layering simple and sensible. For map creation we’ve used a wide range of tools: Mari, Photoshop, Bodypaint and ZBrush. Whatever works!

I don’t see this film with this quality being done any other way. Arnold provides a great combination of speed and reliability that we love. It delivers consistent results which allows better time management for artists and the team.” -- Carlos Baena, Director, La Noria

Are there specific assets that are particularly dear to you, that exceeded your initial hopes when launching the production?

Carlos Baena: Most definitely. At first the props/sets modeling/shading done by some of the people in the team really started to set a high bar for ourselves in terms of what we could do. But as we continued working on the film, the characters in the film exceeded my expectations in terms of look and detail and performance. The team has done an incredible job on each area. To this day it continues to get us more and more excited.

Thanks to Marcos Fajardo and the entire Solid Angle team for both the opportunity and the support on our film.