An interesting film usually has an interesting story behind it. This is certainly the case with Machu Picchu Post, the story that inspired the short film takes place on a map from the 1920s/30s, and is populated by legendary names such as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the Compagnie Générale Aéropostale (a.k.a. “Aéropostale”), as well as the history of the birth of some of the first national airlines and airmail routes in South America.
Machu Picchu Post is an atypical short film, one that contains elements of magic, familiar images from Peru’s culture, a spontaneous narrative with many unexpected plot points, and an interesting use of subjectivity that turns parallel lines of narrative into different points of view of the same narrative. The film’s changing POVs produce a notable contrast between the innocence of the child’s play and the desperation of the aviator. One that recalls that old phrase by Chaplin: “life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long shot.”
Machu Picchu Post was created by Supinfocom students Clément Crocq, Margaux Durand-Rival and Nicolas Novali. We had the great pleasure of interviewing them regarding the production of their short film, their personal experiences at Supinfocom, and their views on why some of the best CG animated shorts produced in recent years are coming from France.
Part I: Conception and Production
How did the idea for the script come about?
It was Clément’s idea. In our third year at Supinfocom we all have to work independently on a synopsis for a short movie
project. Around ten ideas are selected by a jury. Clément wanted to work with a simple concept, the link between a paper plane and a real plane, as an excuse to dive into a visual and magical world. Using 3D for producing the story was great because the medium offers no limitations except our own imagination and skill.
Why did you choose to locate the story in Machu Picchu?
An early version of the titan character trying to catch the plane, concept sketch by Clément Crocq
The story is located in Peru for many reasons. First of
all, there’s a true historical root to it: the story of the French airmail pilot flying in Peru really existed. Many movies were made about it, telling the tale of the famous pilot who crashed in the Andes. His name was Henri Guillaumet (Ed. note: Guillaumet was a prominent pilot who worked at the French company Aéropostale with friends and renowned aviators Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and Jean Mermoz – see notes below). Our story was based on this historical fact and an imaginary encounter between the pilot and the local culture. We chose to locate it near Machu Picchu because it’s a well known symbol of the Inca Culture, which is rich and interesting in many ways, especially in its iconography, statues and divinities.
How did you approach the concept design for the characters?
First we tried something very smooth and spherical, but we finally went on for shapes with sharper edges, following the Inca designs. The character that changed the most was the titan. At first he was made of stones and born in the city of Machu Picchu, our best inspiration was the fantastic video game “Shadow of the Colossus”. After a bit of discussion we settled on for something more logical and coherent with the narrative: we made a giant that looked more like the little boy in general shapes and proportions but had the aesthetic of an Inca divinity.
You have mentioned Japanese artist Hayao Miyazaki as one of your main influences. What other sources have influenced the production of the short?
We watched a lot of movies related to the subject to get a more complete idea of what had been done before: “Kuzco” from Disney, “Road to El Dorado” from Dreamworks, “2001″ from Stanley Kubrick for the psychedelic trip, Indiana Jones… and a good collection of psychedelic art. We looked at watercolor paintings too, for our landscapes.
The story runs smoothly thanks in part to the careful coordination between the shots of the paper airplane and the real one. How much time did you dedicate to storyboarding and animatics?
The storyboard took about 2 or 3 weeks. We co-directed the whole movie so we were all very involved in the process. Then we made a 2D animatic, we added some animation to the original storyboard in After Effects, in order to get a better idea of the timing.
Images from the outdoor environment showing 3D meshes, projected textures and painted backgrounds
For the 3D animatic it took a bit longer. We discovered a lot of problems while working on it, regarding issues of space and camera moves. Some of the transitions didn’t work at all, and we quickly realized that our psychedelic trip was a bit poor. Above all, the connection between the boy and the titan was not clear enough. So we changed our plans to locate the psychedelic trip inside the house of the boy (which was at first anecdotal) and also made some changes to the final scenes with the titan. We reached a good 3D animatic by December (three months after we started working on it), and later we didn’t move from it at all. It turned out to be the best tool for guiding our work.
Your choice of portraying large, open landscapes was a good challenge in itself. How did you go about creating and animating them?
It was in fact a good challenge, and we tried many different techniques. As we didn’t have too many outdoor shots, we decided to use a mix of matte painting and camera mapping with self illumination projected onto a 3D low poly mesh. The 3D base was necessary to build the landscape and to capture the shadows of the plane, and then Clément painted textures on it. The really far mountains were only matte paintings. The clouds were all made in 2D and we incorporated and animated them in compositing. For the mist and the wind we used a simple particle system with a map projection of a cloud and a lot of compositing. We didn’t have time for using volumetric clouds, and also it was not in line with the look of the movie.
Did you build any special rigs for animation? How did you animate the falling letters and the paper
airplane inside the cottage?
For the boy we used a specific rig for his clothes with bones, so we could have something as rigid as we wanted. Our cloth simulation tests weren’t very conclusive so we preferred to avoid using simulations in animation whenever possible. For the llama it was more complicated because its rigid fur was skinned and rigged (Nicolas did a great job on it). The letters were all hand animated because we weren’t looking for realistic motion and we needed control of their trajectories. Also we had only two or three shots with the letters, so it was actually faster. The paper airplane had its own little rig and the real plane had a big one, because we wanted to have the possibility of doing stretch and squash effects with it.
What lighting setups did you use for outdoor and indoor illumination?
We worked with the scanline renderer, an occlusion pass and a lot of textures. We used a dome of lights based on an HDR Map generated from our pictures of landscapes and concept art. Then we added a lot of spots to simulate bounces of lights and colors. We worked this way to get the kind of render we wanted (highly textured and paint-like), and because of HD resolution constraints (we needed images to render fast). We wanted to have a cold ambiance outside in blue / green to feel the air and altitude, and a warm ambiance inside the house and in the Inca world trip.
Rigging for the llama and boy characters,
facial UIs included
Did you experience any problems while rendering high resolution images?
The only big problem we had was the big quantity of textures we had in an HD frame. Even with optimized textures for the characters and props (we had a low / medium / high sets of textures) we had problems with memory allocation in Max (we were also limited by the RAM of our machines), so we had to render our frame in many separates passes in order to retain the quality of textures we wanted.
Please explain some of the compositing techniques you used for the short.
We first had to recreate our full frame with all the separate passes. Then we had the occlusion pass, the FX passes, matte passes, 2D animations (like clouds), then we added our DoF with the Z pass, and integrated the characters’ shadows and made the final integration.
The audio and music add a lot to the images and rhythm, and help give a polished feel to the short. How was the collaborative process of working with Thomas Vaquier from Chocolat Noisette?
It was really great, Thomas got very involved in the project. He did a lot of work like finding the boy’s voice or musicians for the music. We worked with him via Internet because he was in Belgium and we transmitted him our professor’s review of his work. We wanted something that had the local sound of Peruvian culture but not too much “cliché”. We think he managed to do something pretty original, that still sounds Peruvian.
Any improvements in Max that you think could’ve made your work easier?
A better management of textures in HD renders would be welcome, and in general more stability too, because we stopped counting very soon the number of crashes :)
Part II: Personal Experiences
Supinfocom has earned a reputation for the quality of shorts produced by students at the school. How was your experience of studying at Supinfocom?
Nicolas: The interesting thing about making this film at Supinfocom was to be among many other students. We could support each other, ask for advice… I think the stimulation between the students is the key to the success of Supinfocom.
Margaux: It was a great experience… making your own short movie in a team during one year, spending days and nights, nearly living at school… sharing this with all our classmates left us with great memories. The stimulation process between the students year after year is very helpful and motivates one to give everything one can and to always try to do better.
Clément: I loved my two years at Supinfocom. I liked the friendship and good atmosphere that prevailed in the classroom. Every Saturday, I came early and drank coffee with a member of the “From the Hoop” team (see notes) until my teammates arrived.
Great shorts are being produced at some other French schools, too, such as Gobelins (La Migration Bigoudenn, Burning Safari, Oktapodi, etc.), ESMA (Dans la Tête, Hugh, Mon ami Charly, and more), etc. What do you think are the reasons for this trend in French animation?
Nicolas: No idea, there are great shorts too being made in other parts of the world.
Margaux: Maybe it’s a matter of history… the schools are old (Supinfocom is one of the first big 3D schools I think, 20 years old at least), the museums… It’s true that we’ve often heard about the “French Touch”, but I don’t really know the reasons for this, except that we had a lot of good schools. Maybe it’s the French wine, since you were talking about the possible influence of our food…
Clément: Culture as always has a leading place in France, animation is just the extension of the arts and literature. It’s normal that French animation uses this enabling framework. Also the access to these studies costs less in France than in some other countries. This education is not reserved to a small and rich elite, it’s available to all the people who are talented and motivated.
What have you learned from the production of “Machu Picchu Post”? Which parts of the process did you enjoy the most?
Nicolas: Above all, the experience of working on a team: the power to extract the best from everyone in his chosen field and to make it all work together in order to get the best possible result. A great part of the process has been directing the animatic, which is a decisive element for any film to come out well. What I enjoyed the most was giving shape to Clément’s drawings and seeing them with volume, and also animating them after the long rigging process. Seeing a character that came from your imagination suddenly moving on the screen is magic!
Margaux: I’ve learned to work hard for a long time, on a team! We had a very intense rhythm of production and we were all together during one year, every day. It was also very interesting to do nearly every step of the production, something you don’t get the chance to do often. It’s difficult to tell which part I enjoyed the most, if I had to choose only one I’ll say the animation part because I discovered what I’m passionate about. And the pre-production part too, because it was very exciting.
Students at work at the Supinfocom Arles facility
Clément: I’ve learned to do matte painting, and I love that!
Any interesting or funny anecdotes that you would like to share with our readers?
Nicolas: I liked it when Margaux kept bringing fresh fruit for me during my work time!
Margaux: *laughs* I remember the never ending discussions about the shape of a certain rock in the background, or the color of a statue in a dead angle of the house… those little details were so important for us and now nobody sees them! I remember people playing darts during render time, people sleeping under their desks…
Machu Picchu Post has received a lot of positive feedback on the net, especially and most significantly from people from Peru. Anything you’d like to say to the Peruvian fans of the film?
Nicolas: Just thank you ! If you enjoyed it, it means that we weren’t totally wrong with our research on the Inca culture…
Margaux: We are so happy that they enjoyed the movie… we did our best to portray their country and culture, with a personal touch, and it was a big surprise when we started receiving so many greetings from Peruvian people… hope to go there one day!
Clément: Muchas gracias !!
Many thanks to Clément Crocq, Margaux Durand-Rival and Nicolas Novali for answering our questions and providing us with such a detailed account of the creation process of their short film. Thanks also to CG artist Anthony Arnoux and the authorities at Supinfocom Arles for their help with this article.