Making of an Animated Film: “Planet”


Back in July 2018, I was thinking about what I should make for my graduate production. I was then a final year final semester student of Television & Film Studies. It didn’t take a while to decide I’ll be making a 3D animated short film, but what made me worried is how I could pull it off in less than six months while continuing my other courses with no relation to 3D; because the deadline was January 2019.

But that was just a scratch on the surface of issues I faced later on. Making a short film of this caliber was extremely challenging for me with the limited resources I had back then. Furthermore, I got only 1.5 months full time to work on this project. However, being the only person, I had both advantages and setbacks. For the first time, I had the opportunity to work on every single step of the 3D filmmaking process. It pointed out the limitation of the skills I had. Overall, It was an unforgettable one-of-its-kind learning experience for me.


The Story

The story is a vital part of any animated film. For Planet, I was thinking about a story that ticks the following marks:

a. Not too short, but not too long (7-8 minute when converted to film)

b. Doable with my current hardware & software limitations

c. Doable with my knowledge & experience with 3D

d. Not overly simplistic but ambitious (while keeping ambition in check)

e. A story that will reflect my thoughts and interests

So I started brainstorming. Before that, I watched a ton of animated short films on YouTube, made primarily by students. I came to the point that the two-character formula is working great for student filmmakers. But I needed to be careful about the characters. Organic 3D characters – even though I had modeled and animated before – seemed unfit for my project. Contrary to inorganic 3D characters, organic 3D characters require extra sophistication that takes much more time. 

My obsession with science fiction comes here to play its role. Space, robotics, terraforming – from childhood kept me wondering – and they never make me bored. So why not make a short film about them?

Finally, I started writing. Short Films like Planet Unknown, by Shawn Wang and Wire Cutters, by Jack Anderson specifically caught my eyes and inspired me. Other inspirations include NASA videos and documentaries on the Curiosity rover and Cassini spacecraft. And, of course, WALL-E!


Meeting Hardware + Software Limitation

Up until the beginning of 2018, Autodesk Maya is the only 3D software I knew. For rendering, I was using Mental Ray and Arnold. None of them had GPU rendering support back then. On top of that, the only machine I had was a laptop I bought in 2015 – Dell Inspiron 7447 with Intel Core i5 4210H CPU, 4GB Nvidia GTX 850M GPU, 16GB DDR3 system memory, 250GB SSD, and 500GB HDD. I knew rendering a 3D animated short film on this laptop will be a nightmare, but I had no choice. My department had some base model 5K iMacs, but they were sloth at rendering 3D.

Even if I had used a GPU renderer, it wouldn’t keep up with the tight deadline and the low specced hardware available to me. I needed something fast, something real-time. One might think the obvious choice for me was to switch to game engines. But I was looking for a quicker workflow to save time where no import-export is needed. Eventually, I experimented with Blender’s new real-time rendering engine, EEVEE. I instantly realized its potential and decided to use it for my production. That’s how Blender became my primary 3D software. I had some knowledge about Blender before, the good old 2.79, thanks to Blender Guru Andrew Price. But this is a new adventure for me, with Blender 2.8 Experimental.

EEVEE was in beta throughout my entire production timeline (2018 – 2019). It wasn’t producing the quality I was looking for, but it was fast. I was ready to compromise visual fidelity for the price of completion of my film. By February 2, 2019, the film was complete.


Final Release in 2021

Fast forward to 2021; I finally got my time to work on the project again. This time it’s rendered entirely in Blender’s path-tracing rendering engine Cycles. Around 70% of the film rendered using Blender’s upcoming version 3.0’s Cycles X render engine (which is now in alpha by the time of this writing) and the rest in Blender 2.92. Most of the shots have rendered in 1080p, and some were in 2160p. Sample count was between 256 to 384 most of the time.

How much time did it take to render this film?

For the first time, I’ve taken notes of the time each shot was taking to render. With my current configuration, this whole film would take under 380 hours to render for 1x time. But I’ve made several revisions before considering a shot is OK enough. (Who doesn’t do that?)

So it’s around the 800-Hour mark. That’s 33 days running my PC 24×7 with RTX 2070 Super GPU, Ryzen 7 3700X Processor, and 32GB 3200Mhz RAM doing nothing other than rendering inside Blender.

I didn’t bring any change to assets in this new 2021 version. Only some camera movements, effects, and lighting have changed. The entire visual overhaul is the credit of a path tracing render engine. I’m shocked to see how drastic change it can bring to the visual fidelity by switching the render engine from real-time to path tracing. 

So that’s how I made my first animated short film, Planet. You can watch it here.