We’re following along with this Kickstarter animated short film project

Rocket Migration_workstation

 Will it meet its goal?

Ever see those film or animation projects on Kickstarter and wonder how they got started, whether they’ll be successful, and what happens once they reach their goal (or don’t)? So did we, so we thought we’d follow a project along its Kickstarter journey to let you in on the inside.

The project we’ll be following is Rocket Migration, a planned animated sci-fi short from a group of Vancouver-based artists with experience at studios including MPC and Animal Logic. Their ambitious goal of $68,000 (Canadian) has less than two weeks to go. What are they trying to do? How will they do it? Will they reach their fundraising target? Keep on reading to find out.

The film’s title treatment.

Rockets are cool (and easier to make than furry animals)

If you want to read about exactly what Rocket Migration will be about, jump straight to the Kickstarter page. The short version is: ‘sentient rockets as an allegory to the real struggle migratory species are having’. That sounds like heavy subject matter – and to some degree it is, but it is also a strategic one, since it allowed the filmmakers to concentrate on achievable CG assets in a subject that also appealed to their own senses.

Tarek Elaydi
Writer and director Tarek Elaydi.

“Sci-fi is a great genre to address complex issues and from the start we wanted to focus our film on climate change and its impact on migratory species,” says writer and director Tarek Elaydi, who has worked at DreamWorks Animation, MPC, Animal Logic and Sony Pictures Imageworks. “The problem is if we choose to represent full-fledged animals, like the ones I worked on in Life of Pi, the cost would have been astronomical.”

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Instead, says Elaydi, choosing rockets allowed the team to “build simple character rigs and not worry about facial animation or dialog. Once we made this artistic decision, we had to rely more on the score to tell the story and we partnered with composer Mike Paprocki to compose and design the ‘voices’ of the rockets.”

Another member of the project is technical director Tom Norman, an assets TD at Animal Logic. A shared experience on a recent animated feature saw Elaydi and Norman realize first-hand the benefits of proceduralism in asset generation – that’s something they’re leaning on heavily for Rocket Migration.

The crew all met in Vancouver and actually began having meetings at Emily Carr University Library where they completed the storyboards and initial designs for the rockets and planets. “Once we started 3D production, we worked from home,” says Elaydi. “This proved difficult since we were sharing everything on Dropbox and didn’t really have a proper pipeline in place. We decided to rent an office and we got lucky finding a local company in downtown Vancouver that gave us a great deal on office space. We now have a proper pipeline and room for all of us to meet and work on the film. It feels like a proper studio and our workflow has been improving ever since.”

'Rocket Migration' storyboards.
‘Rocket Migration’ storyboards.

Where is the project up to?

Some people often think that the Kickstarter is just the beginning of a film or animation project, but in fact it’s often the case that the makers have already started on their journey. In the case of Rocket Migration, the small team have already been in a pre-planning phase. As mentioned, they’ve generated storyboards and made headway into asset building.

“The character models are all procedural variations of the same base rocket and the two planets are procedurally generated,” outlines Elaydi, in terms of the modeling process they’ve conducted so far. “Once we had a few successes in creating nice looking worlds we extended the procedural workflow to the rockets themselves. So unlike a traditional production where you have a design reference for each character and environment, we did a few simple concept designs and immediately started iterating in Houdini using a prototype rocket and world builder.”

Indeed, Houdini is central to the project; it is also being used for FX rocket plumes and explosions. SideFX has provided an Indie license, which has kept the cost of production down. Meanwhile, texture painting is happening in Substance and rendering of the short is being handled in Redshift. “I’ve been using RenderMan and Arnold most of my professional career but using an unbiased CPU renderer would have required a sizeable renderfarm to render the film,” notes Elaydi. “Naturally we looked at GPU based renderers and having used Redshift in a stereo VR 360 project, I was impressed with its speed and feature set. Luckily Redshift has a great Houdini plugin and we went with that combination.”

planet factory
A planet from the team’s ‘planet factory’.

What do they need CAD$68,000 for?

Since the team has already started making the film, they’ve been incurring costs already. This includes adding a second graphics card to their workstations, renting that dedicated office space and spending time on the project. They anticipate a fair chunk of the upfront cost will be during the asset building phase where the robot factories are under construction, with Elaydi figuring “once we were happy with the setup and design then the production would accelerate, and cost would drop dramatically as we completed more and more shots. One of the advantages of building whole worlds is that you can scout them for locations instead of handcrafting and set-dressing each shot.”

The team is hoping that the Kickstarter fundraising will largely aid in buying a dedicated server to act as a renderfarm to increase their throughout – their prediction is that they will need to deliver approximately 40 shots and render 6000 frames. “We considered using the cloud,” says Elaydi, “but given the relatively small number of frames we have the economy of scale wasn’t there.”

Coming up with the rewards can sometimes be the trickiest aspect of any Kickstarter. You can check out the Kickstarter page to see the different levels of support available and the matching rewards, which range from posters to prints from the film to crew listings and to 3D prints of the rockets themselves. Elaydi and his team found this part of the process – working out the rewards – to itself be a rewarding experience. “The fun part of the campaign is coming up with perks we can reward our supporters. For example, we decided to award 3D prints of the rockets in the film and it’s been a great learning experience.”

Dexter Rocket
Rewards: a 10cm 3D print of a Dexter Rocket, one of several that will be featured in the short.

The road ahead

The team knows that the amount they have set as a fundraising goal is on the high end – “The average successful film kickstarter campaign asks for around US$20,000,” notes Elaydi. We’re asking for around US$50,000, a minimum for what we need, and it feels daunting!”

However, just getting the project up on Kickstarter has effectively kickstarted the team to keep going, Elaydi concludes. “You can spend months and months in pre-production without feeling the pressure to start the project. The campaign put us on a timeline and helped us focus on what our supporters wanted. We’ve got a lot of feedback and we’ve acted on all of it which has made the project better.”

befores & afters will keep following Rocket Migration throughout its Kickstarter journey, and beyond.

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