Flight of Fancy
The dazzling, Cg-animated short Spacebound launches School of Visual Arts graduates’ careers. by Ellen Wolff
The dazzling, CG-animated short Spacebound launches School of Visual Arts graduates’ careers. by Ellen Wolff
Life and death in outer space propels the megahit Gravity, but that’s not the only recent film to tackle this theme. A CG-animated gem called Spacebound also uses a lost-in-space premise that leaves viewers pondering the question of how to savor life right up to its end. Spacebound depicts a boy and his dog romping through a dazzling galaxy— even as their oxygen supplies run out.
The two-and-ahalf-minute piece of pure animation was created by Kyle Moy and Ellen Su as a thesis film for their Bachelor of Fine Arts degrees from New York’s School of Visual Arts (SVA). But the film, which was chosen as a Vimeo Staff Pick, went viral and has sparked emotional reactions from viewers. As SVA teacher Joe Burrascano observes, “It taps into a much deeper level. The boy is sad but the dog is not, and the dog shows him that no matter what their circumstances are, they can enjoy themselves. The boy has trouble with that at first, but by the end of the piece he transforms and embraces that final moment. That transition is something anyone can understand.”
Moy and Su first pitched the idea for Spacebound to the SVA faculty by presenting a production book of Su’s concept art and a three-minute previz animated by Moy, who used downloadable Maya rigs from CreativeCrash. com. “It was a very rough previz,” Moy recalls. “A lot of the ideas in it were cut afterwards, but it got our point across. We figured we’d worry about the details later on!”
“The basic story was hammered down from day one,” notes SVA teacher Seth Gollub, Moy’s thesis advisor. “What we did play around with was how to create the best composition in each shot to sell the emotional connection between the characters. Since there was no dialogue, it relied wholly on body language and expression.”
It was by no means certain that SVA would permit a collaborative thesis, and Su notes, “If two people pitching together have the same skills, it won’t be approved. Kyle is mostly an animator, and I’m mostly not an animator, so our skills worked out.”
As Su’s thesis advisor Joe Burrascano remarks, “Ellen is great at painting and designing, and the film stayed true to her concept art. Kyle is great at creating the illusion of life and understanding performance and timing. She might have a clear idea of how something would work artistically, while he’d have a completely different take because he was coming from the angle of animation.
They weren’t always in agreement, and sometimes I felt like their marriage counselor! But the chemistry that came out of that made the piece so strong.”
Gollub agrees, noting, “We try to prepare students for when they’ll be hired to be professional artists, and they will be expected to defend their opinions and accept criticism.” (Both Gollub and Burrascano are graduates of SVA, and currently work at the N.Y.C. animation shops of Framestore and Nathan Love.)
Spacebound was animated in Maya and its textures were painted with Photoshop and Mudbox. The shots were laid out in After Effects, and the piece was rendered in V-Ray, which was a first for Su. While she admits being intimidated by using a new renderer, her advisor Burrascano says, “Some of her classmates understood the benefits of V-Ray and could help her. She was flexible enough to embrace new technology and not be afraid to evolve.”
Su and Moy were also unafraid to put their ideas online when they sought a soundtrack composer. They posted an ad on Mandy. com, explains Su. “We said, ‘Student project.
“What we did play around with was how to create the best composition in each shot to sell the emotional connection between the characters. Since there was no dialogue, it relied wholly on body language and
Very low budget.’” And they found Swedish composer Johan Ericsson Degerlund. “This was the first piece of animation he ever scored,” says Moy. “But he hit the emotional notes perfectly.” Degerlund now is offering his Spacebound soundtrack for sale on the website Bandcamp.com.
The production came right down to the wire, admits Moy. “It was like those cooking shows were you take every single second to finish.” But when Spacebound screened in
— SVA teacher Seth Gollub
front of a jury of industry pros and a public audience, it earned high marks from the judges and was voted the audience’s favorite. Spacebound was subsequently accepted for SIGGRAPH Asia and several other film festivals.
Meanwhile, Su and Moy have begun their careers as freelancers on the N.Y.C. production scene. Moy has animated commercials at Nathan Love, while Su has done projects at R/GA and The Mill. There’s little doubt that Spacebound (which has its own Tumblr site) will continue to spark emotional reactions. Su remarks, “It’s great reading people’s comments online, where some say: ‘That light at the end isn’t the sun—it’s the light of a spaceship coming to rescue them!’ Everybody has their own view of what happens.”
“That’s the best art, when a piece leaves things open to interpretation,” believes Burrascano. “I knew it was good when I cried at the end.” Ellen Wolff is an award-winning journalist who specializes in visual effects, animation and education.