The force awakens in Cardiff

A few weeks ago in a studio not far far away...

Turmoil! After months of work coming through the door, SPIN THE YARN has had the briefest of quiet periods. Jobs are on the horizon, but the thought of waiting for them was causing a disturbance in the force. With plucky new recruit Sam Aylward, their forces had never been stronger. Alice Ridding had a strong force to lead, but nowhere to lead them.

Excited by a new STAR WARS film on the horizon, Stephen Thomas remembered a crucial date in the calendar of any battle tested nerd. May the 4th was quickly approaching. STAR WARS DAY! A chance to fight boredom. A chance to flex some graphical muscles. A chance to pay homage to the greatest film franchise the galaxy has known.

Battle plans were made and an alliance formed with the almighty ON PAR PRODUCTIONS and EKHO MUSIC. The window for pulling this off was narrow. The stakes high. The ALLIANCE forces approached the battlefield...

In the past 10 years there has been a resurgence of Star Wars and May the 4th has been known as Star Wars day since as long as I can remember. As many of you will know, the date was chosen as a play on words of the catchphrase "May the Force be with you." We wanted to celebrate the up and coming Star Wars day with a homage to the films and our city by bringing Star Wars to Cardiff. I mean, who doesn't want to see the real Yoda on St Mary's street? Or a Star Destroyer hover over Cardiff Bay? We certainly did, so we made it happen.

We collaborated with our good friends On Par Productions and Ekho Music to produce a 1 minute film of Star Wars characters invading Cardiff. We not only wanted to create something for fun, but we also wanted to highlight how much talent is in Cardiff and what can be done when you collaborate. 

Where did the idea come from?

The idea came from Spin The Yarn's Animation wizard, Stephen Thomas. Being a big fan of the films (mostly the original trilogy, not so much the prequels, but very happy with The Force Awakens), Stephen wanted to take advantage of the small lull in work to make something fun while paying homage to some great films. We thought this the best time to make such a film, with May the 4th quickly approaching. Only two weeks to make a VFX heavy short film? Some would shrink from such a challenge. We jumped at it like a dog leaping at a car tyre. We knew what we wanted and weren't swayed by "what is possible". That's the whole point of personal projects. Stretch those legs. Make sure they're in good shape for when you're performing on a paid job.

Star Wars is so popular, I think most people have seen at least one of the films. It was only today that I saw lady walking her dog who had a Star Wars collar on. We're Star Wars mad, old, young and animals!

We always knew that this idea could be better by getting other people involved, so we thought who better to work with then good friends On Par Productions and Ekho Music. We knew that On Par could create something special with the footage and Ekho Music would be able to work their magic on the music and sound design. Because of time constraints we needed to move quickly with the pre production and after having a few meetings with On Par we all agreed on a shot list. We agreed to limit the amount of movement in our shots so it would be easier for us to aff the CGI Star Wars characters. 

The script and storyboard

After scripting The Force Awakens in Cardiff Sam dived straight into the storyboard. He did amazing work on hand drawing the shots, scanning them in then adding colour. At this stage we could really see the production coming to life.

If you live in Cardiff you may have seen the Yoda street performer around and we decided that he HAD to feature in our production. The only problem was we didn't know if he'd be around. We decided to give ourselves the alternative option of filming Roath Lake and adding our VFX Yoda to the shot. We thought it could be fun to see him levitating a pedalo. 

The filming

It was the day after our meeting that On Par set off around Cardiff to get the shots. Luckily the weather was perfect AND the street performer Yoda was around, which made our day! As you can tell from the film he was a really sport and loved the camera.

To get the shots On Par used a Sony FS7, which is an amazing 4K camera. It makes a real difference to the quality of the film and we're thrilled the guys got involved.

The modelling

To put together this piece within such a short amount of time, it would have been impossible to model all of the characters and vehicles in time for May 4th. Luckily, the Blender community is full of Star Wars nerds who love creating models from the Star Wars Universe. We scoured blenderswap.com and downloaded everything from Star Destroyers to a lovely model of Yoda. Excellent, we were well on our way, but we were missing a couple of key models though. A Stormtrooper and Luke Skywalker's Landspeeder. Stephen rolled up his model making sleeves and got to work.

There are lots of different variations on the Stormtrooper, from the classic design in original trilogy, the prequel Stormtroopers and the newly redesigned troopers from The Force Awakens. We decided classic was, well, classic. Can't argue with classic, so that's the design we went with. Using referent images, Stephen set about pushing vertices around the screen until they resembled a stormtrooper. Being a stickler for good topology, Stephen was sure to keep the lines of the model nice and smooth, flowing in nice bands, pinching where we needed crisp edges, spacing them out where we needed smooth surfaces. Good topology can be a time consuming thing to get right. You;re often thinking where lines should go before you lay them. It's like building the model in your head before building it on the computer. If something isn't working, often the best thing to do is delete and start again on that section. Re-modelling something the second time around is often quicker, as you know where you're going. The topology usually turns out better too, as you know what didn't work last time.

Once the modelling is done, it's time to add materials to the mesh. In computer graphics, especially with 3D animation, your aim is to create materials as close to the real thing as possible. This involves mixing core building blocks together to get the right look. For example, the white armour of the Stormtrooper is a white diffuse material with a slightly blurry reflection. We created this look by mixing a white diffuse node with a slightly reflective, the mix is 90% diffuse, 10% glossy.

To animate these models we use armatures. You can think of these as skeletons to help move our CG creations around the screen. As most of the models were vehicles, they only required very basic armatures (sometimes just one bone). The Stormtrooper was a bit trickier. We need to be able to make him move like a normal person would, meaning bending elbows, knees, finger joints. The armature for the finished Stormtrooper is far from perfect, but it does what was needed. This with the armature in place, brings us nicely onto...

The animating

 With this being a VFX project, a mix between animation and footage, the first step is to matchmove the footage. This involves selecting points in the footage and tracking them as far as they will go. After tracking, the software crunches through the numbers and, seemingly by magic, the computer predicts the motion of the camera that recorded the footage, recreating the motion on a virtual camera. Why is this useful? With the motion data inside a virtual camera, the 3D objects will move with the footage on the screen. This allows us to insert the graphics into the footage, allowing us to blend CG with reality.

Animation for this project was mostly quite simple. Vehicles with no moving parts that fly around the scene simply needed one bone for moving and rotating. 

People/characters are notoriously difficult to get right. This is because we know how people move. We know of all the nuances of this motion. If something is missing or wrong, it stands out like a sore thumb. As we had a very short amount of time for this production, we kept character animation to a minimum and cheated whenever we could. In the shot with the Stormtrooper approaching the camera, it looks like he's walking. If we tilted the camera down, you'll see that we didn't animate his legs. Nobody will ever know (unless you're reading these words right now) and i'm sure most people wouldn't care. The most important thing is the final image and the legs aren't part of it.

The most satisfying section to animate by far featured a CG Yoda and a street performer dressed as Yoda. The Yoda model that we downloaded had a decent armature which allowed us enough flexibility to get believable animation for our short green friend. We watched through the footage of the street performer and thought how we'd like Yoda to be reacting in this shot. We originally wanted to simply have Yoda floating past, giving the street performer a glance and disconcerting "Hmmmmmmm". We decided to go a step beyond that and have Yoda watching the performer as an audience member. This allowed us to have him reacting to the street performer, making a more interesting shot.

The crux of this production was to tie CG images into footage. This is where compositing comes in. The 3D animation is rendered out of Blender as images sequences. These image sequences are just a collection of png images, one for each from of footage. Using After Effects, Sam composited the CG images into the footage. Compositing can be thought of as the video equivalent of photoshopping an image. This is quite a complicated process that involves rotoscoping, colour correction, blurring, lens flares, light wraps, particles effects... We're basically adding loads of little effects that individually help push the CG image closer to reality.

Rotoscoping was an especially time consuming task for this project. Rotoscoping is basically drawing lines around items in footage to make a mask. This allows us to separate items in the footage out from the rest of the footage. This can be especially tricky with people. We have limbs that bend, we carry bags, ride bikes. We generally do lots of things that mean 're constantly changing shape in a non-linear way. This means that the rotoscoping artist needs to make sure that each frame follows all of these changes as closely as possible. Luckily, we have 3 pairs of hands at the Spin The Yarn Studio for such occasions. While one was busily making models, the remaining two were tediously drawing around people, cars, bicycles and stadiums. It;s a slow and mind numbing job, but the results are worth it.

When we render the images from Blender, we try to match the renders to the footage as closely as possible. This will hardly ever be 100% perfect. No problem though. We simply push and pull some colour curves in the composite and BAM! Our CG renders look right at home in the Cardiff capital. This, along with shadows, a pinch of blur, lens flares, sweat and tears and we have our final images. Looking good is all well and, um good, but this isn;t quite the end. Oh no. A film often isn't a film without the sweet sounds of laser blasts, spaceship engines and an epic soundtrack. This is where we pass things on to Ekho to work their audio magic.

The music

When it came to the music, Stephen had originally scripted that we’d film a local choir singing Duel of fatesWe felt like it really matched the pace of the film and had the dramatic opening we could all imagine. We thought it would be a great idea to get in contact with a local choir to see if they would sing the song and in exchange we would produce a film for them. But it soon became apparent that what we were asking was for a group of 10+ choir singers to get together, practice a song that they may never of heard of in under 2 weeks and to do it for free. This was very wishful thinking. Nevertheless we thought we’d try our luck and contact some choirs. I think we all knew that this wasn’t going to happen.

Back to the drawing board.

The music is such an important part of the any film especially one that’s so recognisable. Sam, being the massive Star Wars fan he is showed us a video of the the latest Star Wars cast singing a “Star Wars” medley A Cappella style. It’s so good we’ve included it in our blog.

Immediately we all thought "yes let's do that!" And then we thought, "wait, who will do  that?", I think it was me who suggested that WE (Spin The Yarn, On Par and Ekho) do it.  I don't think anyone was convinced that we'd be able to pull this off. Mainly because half the team are tone deaf. By thus point time was running out and we needed to make sure we had some awesome Star Wars tune over the footage. Music was always going to be the tricky part to this production, to recreate one of the most iconic film scores was going to be hard. Using the original track as many know isn't an option what with licensing laws and the facts we had no budget. With this in mind Ekho suggested we go big on the sound effects and use some atmospheric music. So we did usr that and we think it really works. We couldn't be happier with the outcomes of The Force Awakens in Cardiff. 

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