Road to GDC: Sonder
Published 3 years ago
2.8 K
A New Way To Make Animated Films
Sonder is a CG animated short film that introduces us to Finn, a young man struggling to overcome a recent breakup. Using visually intense fantasy and surrealism, the film follows Finn on a journey of survival and hope. 
The film is directed by Pixar alum Neth Nom and produced by feature film veteran Sara Sampson. Nom is an animator and director who brings a decade of industry experience. He has contributed to the Academy Award-winning films Toy Story 3 and Brave, as well as Monsters University and Bolt, animating at studios including Pixar, Oculus Story Studio, Sony, Rhythm & Hues, and Disney. Neth successfully directed a number of shorts, including a VR experience called Lilypad. He always envisioned building a strong filmmaking team in order to tell a story of complex subject matter as well as challenge the traditional technical pipeline of animated films.
In Spring 2015, Neth paired up with producer, Sara Sampson, implementing a plan to do just that. Sara has a broad filmmaking background, having worked in both animation and live action. She has supported many features as a production engineer, which include Inside Out, The Good Dinosaur and Finding Dory. 

The Crew

Upon finishing the script, we immediately set out to structure and expand the crew, casting a strong team of creative artists and technical directors alike. Through Sonder, we’ve been able to pair longtime industry professionals with recent graduates, developing a strong and safe environment to learn and grow as both a leader and artist. We highly encourage team members to step outside of comfort zones, try something new and take challenges head-on.
Sonder is a passion project, which means everyone on the team only works during nights and weekends. Currently, we are a crew of 70. Though we are predominantly located in the Bay Area, our team spans across 14 time zones, with members stationed in France, Malaysia, Japan and more.
Needless to say, determination, time management and routine are key to keeping production on track. Sonder production is currently in full swing and scheduled for completion at the end of 2017. The Sonder teaser released in November 2016 served as a proof of concept for both pipeline and establishing the rendered look and feel of the film. Feel free to check it out on our site: Sonder Short Film
In addition to telling an animated story that explores mature themes, our Sonder crew welcomed yet another challenge - employ Unity, a game engine, to create a stylized film of cinematic quality. Unity is traditionally used to create games and VR/AR experiences. However, we are exploring new territory by using Unity to streamline animation production in order to craft a film for a theatrical release. Our goal is to push this technology so that viewers can no longer distinguish between a film that was made in Hollywood versus a film that was made in a game engine. We also plan to share an experience from Sonder in VR, since all the assets, models, animation, etc. are Unity ready. This way, the audience can fully immerse themselves into the world of Sonder.

Why Unity?

We have a unique pipeline in that we build assets and final layout, animation and simulation within Maya. We then export all data - from sets to character animation - directly into Unity where we apply FX, shade, light and render. Most everyone on our team was new to Unity at first, so training and building tools for artists took time. We encountered several challenges, including finding a solid method for assembling and importing assets into a scene.
In a normal pipeline for Maya, the shading and texture mapping are essential components while passing assets downstream. Since we export Alembic cache into Unity, the assembling actually happens as the first step within Unity. So far, this is the biggest difference we've experienced. Going forward, we plan to make tools which will automate this seamlessly.
The benefit of using Unity versus a traditional method (rendering out every single frame via a render farm), is the real-time flexibility. We no longer have to spend hours rendering frames only to find we need to adjust a character's eye highlight. With Unity, what we see in the scene is what we get. This allows us to address notes and fixes on the fly while granting artists more time to achieve a desired look. As a result, we save a great deal of time in our production.
Apart from assembly, we've had to adapt to Unity's layout, which requires working from the inspector and adding layered scripted components. This has turned out to be a very handy workflow overall.

Engine and Asset Use Examples

  • Post-processing/Image Effects​ - We have used this Post Processing script almost exclusively. The most common uses include bloom, motion blur, and color grading. We employed the Unity camera motion blur (the old motion blur component included in Unity because Post Processing is also made by Unity) when we wanted a different motion blur look.
  • We also made a custom version of the Global Fog image effect, to have a bit more control and achieve a horizontal color gradient for the fog.
  • EXR Recorder and Alembic Importer​ - helped us the most when completing the Sonder teaser.
  • Toony Colors Pro 2​ - Fantastic collection of stylized shaders and tools. Allowed us to match concept art and achieve Sonder’s unique look. Developed by Sonder’s very own TD, Jean Moreno. Available in the Asset Store.

Sonder Release

Sonder is scheduled for completion at the end of 2017 followed by a 2018 film festival circuit run. Throughout this journey, we've been able to build a strong team of creatives. We hope to continue telling stories together that are both meaningful and visually compelling as well as expand on the norms of the animation genre.

GDC 2017

The Sonder crew is very excited to announce that we are part of the Made with Unity showcase at GDC 2017 in San Francisco. We will share live demos of how we utilize the engine to achieve Sonder's distinct style. Hope to see you at our kiosk!
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Sara Sampson