This one-person operation proves that you don't need a massive setup and dozens of staff to make great character animation – just a copy of Cinema 4D, the right hardware and a passion for the medium
When two brothers quit their jobs to set up a ranch in the countryside, it's not chickens and cows they're raising, but baby trucks. Made in black and white using Cinema 4D, the charming five-minute film Truckin' has the production values of a Pixar short, with the classic animation style of a Looney Tunes cartoon. But it's all the work of just one person: motion graphics animator Neil Stubbings.
Neil was born in Switzerland to a British father – hence the not-terribly-Swiss surname. His path to the world of motion graphics and VFX started as a child. "When I was a kid, I already had a huge fascination for special effects," he says. "I loved the sci-fi movies of the '80s and I absorbed every making-of and behind-the-scenes feature on TV. At the same time, I was a big fan of the Disney and Warner Bros. cartoons. I think with most of my personal work, both the sci-fi movies of the '80s and the cartoon influences are apparent."
Neil dropped out of high school, aged 16, to attend art school, and began a graphic design apprenticeship at a small studio just outside the city of Basel. He spent his time doing logo and package design, and, after graduating, he was looking for a new challenge. "I was looking for something more 'glamorous,'" he explains, "so one day I found an advert for an internship at the on-air promotion department of a (now defunct) national TV station in Zurich. I applied and luckily got accepted."
His stint at the station was his first introduction to Adobe After Effects, which he used to create the graphics for programme trailers and, eventually, complete packages for TV shows. When the station shut its doors two years later, Neil received a call from what he refers to as "the hottest motion design studio at that time." When they offered him a job, he duly accepted, which provided an entry to the world of live action directing and green screen shoots.
When the company's owners parted ways, Neil and a few of his colleagues formed their own small studio, which enjoyed some success. But after five years, he felt the need to branch out on his own, so in 2012, he embarked on a solo career as an independent designer, director and animator. He currently shares an office in central Zurich with nine other artists, who work individually as well as a collective under the banner 'PULK,' which enables them to attract bigger jobs.
Neil's office space is equipped with an enviable hardware setup, boasting a three-GPU workstation and dual Xeon system, plugged into a 30-inch display. These, Neil explains, are geared towards different workflows and projects. "My 2D-looking cartoony stuff is mostly done with Cinema 4D's Standard Renderer, so this is preferably done with a strong CPU machine." For the more render-intensive work, Neil uses Octane or Redshift, two of the most popular GPU-based renderers, on the GPU workstation.
Neil's Cinema 4D setup is supplemented by a lot of Cineversity plugins, which are available at no extra cost to Cinema 4D users with a MAXON Service Agreement. "I still have Cactus Dan's character plugins installed because I'm currently still working on an age-old short film project, which used his tools. I also have Valkaari's Delta Mush plugin installed that improves deformations on rigged characters."
There's also a Wacom Cintiq connected to an iMac, which is used for conceptual work, character development and texture painting, as well as digital sculpting. And finally, there's a small HD Samsung TV hooked up, which is used as a separate palette monitor and to check how a project looks under real-world conditions. It's also useful for late shifts when there's a football game on.
"If we're not having a few after-work beers at our small in-house bar, I usually stay at the office till around 6:30 p.m.," says Neil. "I do have a small home office with a full-blown workstation, so a lot of evenings I work on my personal projects after dinner. Working on my own projects really helps me relax and take my mind off daily business. But if it's crunch time, I'll spend the night working on my clients' projects!" As well as the aforementioned TV, crunch times are supported by "electronic music, coffee and loads of sugary soda".
Neil has been using Cinema 4D for a long time – possibly since R8 (released in 2002), he thinks – but was initially against making the move from 2D. "Coming from a classic graphic design background, I refused to get into 3D for a long time; I felt it was too technical. So I went as far as to construct complete rooms and buildings via 2.5D layers in After Effects. Eventually, this all got ridiculously complex and there was no way around learning a 3D package. I did some research and came to the conclusion that Cinema 4D was the most artist-friendly 3D application around."
"I usually get my characters rigged by a pro," says Neil, "but if I don't have any budget or it's a character for one of my personal projects, I can quickly build a rig with the Character Object." After using the Character Object to quickly set up the joints, Neil then paints weights and adds pose morphs. "Building a rig that easy is a huge plus," states Neil.
As with many artists, Neil's favourite aspects of Cinema 4D are its ease of use, simple structure and the large amount of online resources. Neil admits that the technical aspects of character animation – things like joint weighting and corrective morphs – are still his least favourite parts of the job. "On Truckin,' my rigs had quite a few weak points," he confesses. "My simple solution to that was to just choose the right camera angles and hide broken parts behind other objects!"
However, the flipside is the creative freedom that CG animation provides in developing styles, stories and characters. "I also still love to animate," he comments. "I think it's a very creative task which adds a lot of expression to the project. It's like doing choreography."
Despite Cinema 4D's power, Neil still relies on Adobe After Effects for finishing touches and also to prevent re-renders if things go wrong. "Everything still goes through After Effects at the end," he says, "even if there's just a slight colour grading. I still feel very at home in AE, so I mostly do the post work in that package."
"The cartoony stuff gets the final cartoon look or some 2D effects added to the scenes. I dislike the perfection of 3D renderings so I mostly add some organic elements or imperfections in post. For my newest short film 'Sunday' (which is close to completion) I came up with a series of effects and adjustment layers that make the whole thing look more handmade and not 3D rendered."
Neil also uses MAXON's Cineware plugin, which enables After Effects to host entire Cinema 4D scenes, including objects, cameras, lights and materials. This gives artists the power to make changes on the fly, without having to render the entire scene each time.
"If it's client work, I try to figure out a system where I can easily switch out stuff in After Effects that's bound to be changed at short notice: backgrounds, logos, screens on devices, headlines, text… you name it. In Switzerland you have to do almost everything in three language versions. So it's way more efficient if you just have a beauty pass without any language-specific stuff, and then add all the text in After Effects. Also, if there's a typo, it's much easier to fix than if you have to render the whole 3D scene again."
Neil's broad range of commissions – which vary from cel-shaded infographics to colourful character work and VFX – means there's no such thing as a typical project. "It's very refreshing to jump from one discipline to another," he says. "I don't think I'd feel creatively satisfied if I was doing the same thing day in and day out. But I do have a favourite, of course. Character design, animation and story development is by far my favourite!"
One of his proudest achievements is the comedy short film Stopover, in which an astronaut is caught short among an asteroid field. The film won the audience award at the local edition of onedotzero in Zurich and was screened at numerous festivals across the globe. His latest work, Truckin' – which was commissioned by bag company Freitag – won the best animation category at the Edi awards in Switzerland.
So what makes a good CG artist? "That's a really tough question," says Neil. "I think it's probably when there's a noticeable personal touch to his or her work. If the work doesn't just follow a momentary visual trend, but also has something that sets it apart."
As for the future, Neil has recently joined forces with Jelly London, an agency that represents some of the best animators, illustrators and designers around. "I'm sure there'll be great new challenges for me with this cooperation," he says. "And in my wildest dreams, I'd be able to turn my animated shorts into a TV show."
Steve Jarratt is a long-time CG enthusiast and technology journalist based in the UK.
All images courtesy of Neil Stubbings.
Neil Stubbings Website
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