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Final composite

Tomek Bagiñski on “The Cathedral”

by Pablo Hadis

A significant number of CG artists have already seen “The Cathedral” or are aware of its existence. “The Cathedral” is a unique short film, not only due to its intrinsic qualities, but also because of the way it was conceived. This non-commercial film is the result of the collaboration between two highly talented individuals: Polish science fiction writer Jacek Dukaj, author of the original “Cathedral” story, and Tomek Bagiñski, an accomplished CG artist with a strong background in painting and architecture. Working together with Jacek Dukaj on adapting the story for short-film production, Tomek spent 14 months on this project, switching through all the different hats of the CG trade and using Max as his 3D program of choice. Thanks to its amazing visuals and a storyline of unusual content and depth, “The Cathedral” has earned (and continues to earn) awards around the world, including SIGGRAPH’s Best Animated Short award and an Oscar nomination. We had the pleasure of interviewing Tomek Bagiñski, who gives us a detailed account of the production of his short film.

Why? (Why did you make the short film?)

I had been working for two years doing commercials before I started working on “The Cathedral”. Commercials in Poland are a fresh topic. We’ve had a non-communist government and a market-based economy for I think 13 years now, so the history of commercials in Poland is only 13 years old. What does all this mean? It means that we are at the beginning of this road and most commercials created in this country are of poor quality. They are evolving very fast and there is already much more good-quality output now than, say, for example, 5 years ago but it is still a very fresh topic. So, I had been working on ( very bad ) commercials for two years and I felt that my brain needed some exercise or I would otherwise end up brainwashed, flat, non-creative, an ex-artist. I needed something creative to work on after the hours I spent at my day job, I needed “The Cathedral” to prove to myself that I was still able to create cool pictures.

Why did you choose The Cathedral in particular, among other possible sources?

After I decided to make a short film, I contacted my favorite SciFi writer here in Poland – Jacek Dukaj – and asked him if he would be interested in getting involved in such a project as a scriptwriter. I did not believe that he would agree at first, but he did. A miracle. During the next six months he sent me more than 400 pages of ideas and finished stories in different stages of evolution. There were dozens of ideas described in a few lines and also some full length short stories. One of them was “The Cathedral”. It was 80 pages long, very visual and an excellent short story. We did not think at the beginning that we would end up choosing “The Cathedral”. It is extremely good literature but it was way too long for a short film project and when we started we had no idea how to edit it down to its current size. But we also felt that it was the best – way too long, but definitely the best.

“Cathedral” hero, modeled after musician/actor Witalis Popow

It took us almost six months to decide ourselves on the “The Cathedral” and to find the way to turn this long, multithread, multihero story into a 7 minutes short with only one hero ( this was one of the self-imposed restrictions with which I decided to work on for the project ). The final screenplay is only 2 pages long and the story line can be told in just one sentence, but it still retains the mood of the original “Cathedral”. In this case, the mood of the story is much more important than the story line. Both in Jacek’s original concept and in my movie.

Which were the biggest technical obstacles for making your short film?

Animation. When I started “The Cathedral” I was a quite good modeler but I didn’t know anything about animation. It was a really tough road to travel. My first scenes took ages to complete. A few months later my producers decided to make a motion capture session in order to help me. We had to make some Mocaps for “Quo Vadis” ( a Polish feature film production ) so we did some for “Cathedral” too. This was great for me since I was really tired of fighting with character animation. Unfortunately, this was not the best way to solve the problem. The Mocap we used wasn’t very accurate, and cleaning this Mocap data was taking more time than creating keyframe animation from scratch. In the meantime I had upgraded my animation skills a lot and I had started to work really fast so in the end clean Mocap data was only used in three or four long distance shots. The rest was animated by me from scratch or animated with Mocap as a reference for timing and poses. I have still lots to learn regarding animation, but I can gladly say that I am now much better than before I started the project.

There were also some “pure” technical obstacles like the cloth simulation for the hero’s cloak, which was real pain in the ass and never looked the way I wanted it to. Also, the need to manage big quantities of data ( I’ve rendered the project in 1,5 K and in many layers so it has more than 300 Gb of data. – all this in my head ). Work proceeded slowly when time was spent on the big scenes and big compositions.

Which elements of the film did you enjoy the most playing with (modeling, texturing, lighting, animating, editing)?

I really liked compositing and matte painting. I’ve learned a lot, I really liked it. Most of the scenes in “The Cathedral” are a mix of 3D rendering, 2D graphics, and some compositing tricks. I’ve invented many things on the way which were needed for solving certain situations and it was really fun to do it. I also enjoyed the concept and pre-production stages. While you are doing concept art you can take risks because you don’t have anything to lose yet. You haven’t started working on the really huge scenes, you can free your imagination and the mistakes don’t cost much. You can experiment freely and test a few scenes in one evening. All of this becomes impossible at a later stage.

The elements I mentioned are the ones I liked the most but I also enjoyed modeling, texturing and lighting. I liked to invent tricks to make things which are theoretically impossible to make. Many people asked me how I did the final part of the animation, what is the name of the plugin that I used to create it. They find it hard to believe that it is just the result of using a few modifiers wisely; pure 3ds max with no plugins. Just tricks.

A partial list of layers used for compositing one of the sequences: ambient, texture, light, rays and z layer (final image at bottom right)

At what point did you consider the film a ‘finished’ piece?

The film was finished at the end of April 2002, at that time it was printed to 35mm film. But I only came to feel that this project was really closed several months later, a few minutes after the cinema premiere for “The Cathedral” took place here in Poland. That was on October 16, 2002, and after that the film was screened in many cinemas here in Poland as a bonus addition to “Minority Report” and “Signs”. I always wanted to show this film on the big screen, inside the cinema. It was one of my dreams and I did it with the help from many great guys. What more could I ask for?

Which ‘classic’ painters have influenced your work? Any other inspirations?

I find inspiration all around me. The light changing behind the windows changes my mood. Every little piece of reality influences us these days, but of course there were some more important and visible inspirations: painters like Rembrandt or Beksinski. Architects like Gaudi. Gothic architecture ( I’ve read dozens of books on the subject before I started working on the film ). Some other less visible but very important inspirations like Japan Anime, Music Videos, music itself, movies, books. Many things.

How did you find out that you had been given SIGGRAPH’s award for the Best Animated Short? What was your reaction?

I got an e-mail from the jury and my first reaction was feeling scared. I know it sounds strange, it was strange for me too, but that was my reaction: I was scared. You have to understand, I was really exhausted those days: the work I put on “The Cathedral” during the last weeks of the project was done under extreme pressure, I worked days and nights, and my brain was overheated… I started to celebrate sometime later when I was 100% sure that it wasn’t a joke.

I never expected that my film would win as the Best Animated Short of the event. I wanted to get into the Electronic Theather but I never thought that I could win the prize for the best short.

Which effect have the prizes you’ve won for The Cathedral been having on your life/work? What about Platige Image, have they considered embarking on an animated feature length film?

Test model, previous to MeshSmoothing

We aren’t involved in an animated feature film yet but I have some plans :) Of course all this has influenced my life. It’s been a bit more peaceful these last days, but at certain momentsit’s come to a point when I sometimes have no time for 3D, have no time for art because of interviews, workshops, and travelling. A year ago I had never travelled outside Poland. In the last 6 months I’ve been twice to the U.S., several times to western Europe and even visited Japan last month. And these people even pay my bills, only for an opportunity to watch “The Cathedral” and watch and hear some “making of” materials. It’s great – but it is also quite exhausting. We also made a big noise out of “The Cathedral” and its awards locally, here in Poland. As I said – the film has been screened in cinemas around the whole country. I’ve done many interviews for the media here, and of course we now have more work than before. It’s quite a good time, but sometimes I really yearn for calmness. I can’t forget now about the surrounding world and make art as I could before.

Any improvements in Max that you think could’ve made your work easier?

I like Max but in my opinion it needs some speed improvements. MeshSmooth is a very slow modifier for example ( even at a value of zero – which is strange ). Skinning is very slow in Max. In most cases you have to work on a VERY simplified model or with a skeleton. Messiah:animate is, for example, many times faster – not two times or three times: it’s a dozen times faster – so optimization in these regards is possible. Even Lightwave ( oops ) is much faster than Max in that part ( I’m working with Grzegorz Jonkajtys, he is very good in Max but he is also a LW master, and he is doing all the character animation in LW. When I saw how fast it is compared to Max i stopped wondering why he is doing it ;-) I really like Max, though, and I believe this can be easily fixed.

And of course the traditional problem – booleans.

Thank you for sharing with us, Tomek, and congrats on making such an amazing and visually stunning film! We’ll be looking forward to your next short!

Or maybe a full feature. Who knows ;-) I’ve made some connections these last months. Anything is possible. All you need is to try. I can always return to making commercials, and shorts, right? ;)

***
For more information on “The Cathedral” short film visit:
http://www.platige.com/katedra/eng_/strona_glowna.html
Jacek Dukaj’s website:
http://dukaj.fantastyka.art.pl/index_english.html (English)
http://dukaj.fantastyka.art.pl (Polish)
Platige Image, the studio that helped produce The Cathedral:
http://www.platige.com

Document last edited: September 16th, 2003.
Images courtesy of Tomek Bagiñski and Platige Image.
(c) 2003 MaxUnderground