A father possum reads his kids a story that’s an alphabet of the most dangerous animal of all – HUMANS! This black comedy for kids and parents alike is a hilarious and brutal alphabet of death and mayhem exacted upon animals by ignorant humans. 30 CGI animals were meticulously crafted and killed by a team of 44 students at Media Design School.
Inspiration for Murder
This project was born out of the necessity to make a film with a huge production class of 44 VFX and animation students. Could we make something that was simple to shoot, so production could start immediately? Could we make something that had enough diversity and complexity to give all the students something different to work on? The solution came from an old book from the 1960s called The Gashlycrumb Tinies by Edward Gorey. We would show what life is like for animals, continually threatened by brutal and clumsy humans. I set about writing the script. This turned out to be immensely difficult. For each letter I had to decide upon an animal, how it would die and I needed to make that rhyme with the next letter. The final letters were not decided upon until well into production, and yes, X was the hardest.
The shoot was executed with a Sony FS7 camera coupled with an Odyssey external recorder. This allowed 4K ProRes acquisition and gave immense color fidelity. The bulk of the shoot took place over a three-week period and was filmed in, around, and above Auckland city. The crew on most days was just two people, myself and DOP Oliver Hilbert. The performers in most cases were friends, family, and students, but we got in front of the camera too —hitting a golf ball, squashing a newt, and falling in the bath.
The film was edited in Premiere Pro and then brought into HIERO, where we created our post-production EXR plates and exported all this into our pipeline system run through Shotgun. The class of 44 had three specializations: animation, technical, and compositing. The animators were given plates and started drawing in post-viz of the action. The key thing here was refining the gag and seeing how much more humor could be milked out of the performance. The animators also filled up the time before they had completed digital rigs doing research into how the animals would move and understanding the body mechanics of all these diverse creatures. The technical artists were assigned animals to build. This all started with research of real animals, getting the right one approved and then into modeling and texturing. A couple of key students pulled together the rigs for all the creatures. Two of the key creatures that took a lot of time were the Octopus and the Possum. The Octopus was extremely complicated to build then rig and then tear apart. The shading and texturing is very complex with a tricky balance of reflection, diffuse and sub surface illumination. The Possum was even more complex —not just due to the fur but also the range of performance that the rig required— the combined efforts on the possum would take well over 12 weeks spread across 3 key artists. The fur was set up using Yeti, donated by Peregrine Labs. Yeti was quick to learn and allowed for easily controlled grooming and a caching system that was reliable and trustworthy. And yes, the face is slightly based upon Liam Neeson. The compositors had plenty of shots to 3D track in SynthEyes and set up the digital layout scenes. There was also plenty to do in Nuke, like painting out mistakes, combining takes, and adding effects to help sell the humor. But most important was integrating the CGI creatures. The most complex comp shot was X. This was built up from a couple of takes and had to create the explosion and the animation of the X-ray unit. Our key software tools are Maya, V-Ray, Nuke, SynthEyes, Yeti, ZBrush.
James Cunningham (NZ) born in 1973, is a film director and animator. He has directed eleven award winning short films and is based in Auckland, New Zealand. James is a Senior Lecturer at Media Design School, the premier Animation and Visual Effects new media school in New Zealand, where he produces and directs short films with his students. Prior to that he was Head of 3D at Digital Post working on Visual Effects for local and international TV Commercials, and he was a technical director on The Lord of the Rings at Weta Digital. He has a Bachelor of Fine Arts in photography and a Master of Fine Arts in digital animation from Elam School of Fine Arts (Auckland, NZ).
Written and directed by James Cunningham
Producers: James Cunningham, Oliver Hilbert
Father Possum: Phillip Greeves
Baby Possum Boy: Drew Cunningham
Baby Possum Girl: Eleanor Cunningham
Visual Effects and Animation: Media Design School, Bachelor Of Art And Design Class February 2015
Composer: Emile De La Rey