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No Ordinary Ghost

How a family of artists and storytellers used 3D and motion capture to create their short film “Grump in the Night.” 

Something’s Awry Productions is a family-run animation studio known for creating whimsical, intelligently funny, 3D-animated content from a “slightly awry perspective” for commercials and short films. 

In addition to working for top brands, the family of accomplished artists and storytellers enjoys spending their off hours creating original series for all ages. We talked with Kris Theorin, the studio’s lead animation director, about their most recent release, a 3D-animated short film called “Grump in the Night.” 

Kris will also be featured on a special edition of Maxon’s Ask the Trainer on July 20, 2022 where he’ll go into more detail about his workflows for Cinema 4D, Redshift and ZBrush, as well as techniques for integrating mo-cap into the animation. 

Kris, tell us about yourself and Something’s Awry.

Theorin: I started out doing Lego stop motion in 2008. I was 11, and it was my first real introduction to any kind of animation, A few years later, my brother Kurtis and I began creating promotional content for the LEGO Group. He would write and voice the characters while I would handle the production side. 

Later, we expanded into doing commercials for other toy brands, and that’s when Something’s Awry Productions officially became a company in 2015. But stop motion animation is a very specialized medium and I was anxious to expand my own skill set to help the company get more work. 

That’s when Cinema 4D really came into the picture. I got a copy of Cinema 4D in 2009 after seeing some other stop motion animators incorporating it into their work. Without even reading anything about it, I was able to wander through the interface and make a decent-looking glass bowl in no time. 

The Theorin family: Kris (left), Kurtis and their mom, Amy. Nik is not pictured. 

I went back to C4D over the next seven years to create occasional shots for my stop motion work, but I never devoted time to properly learn it until around 2016 when I tried modeling, UVs and rigging. 

That kicked off a process that took me from creating a low-poly planet to a rigged character and then some short films. They were only around 30 seconds long, but each new animation motivated me to learn a new technique. Now we’ve moved from stop motion into doing mostly 3D animation and we’ve created spots for LEGO, Disney, Warner Bros, NBC/Universal and many more. 

Explain what “Grump in the Night” is about. 

Theorin: The story started out as a short treatment written by my brother Nik in 2017. It’s about a guy who hears noises at night and goes downstairs where a ghost is watching TV. At the time, I wasn’t very proficient with 3D animation, but I wanted to create an animated short, so I designed the film around those limitations with just one setting, few characters and a simple slapstick style. 

The main character goes downstairs to find a TV-loving ghost. 
All of the characters were made using ZBrush. 

I returned to the project a couple of times but ended up shelving it until 2021 when I figured it would be the perfect short to work on for where I’d gotten with 3D animation. By brother Kurtis expanded Nik’s treatment into a fully realized script and split it up into several distinct sequences while adding more heart to the ending. 

Say more about why you wanted to make this film. 

Theorin: We’ve done a lot of projects that feature heavy motion-capture animation, but we wanted to make this film to see how far we could push mo-cap animation in a more stylized, cartoony way. (Check out the behind-the-scenes video here.

I’ve been using mo-cap animation in my work since I started experimenting with a rudimentary form of it, using two Xbox Kinects in 2017. I got an early version of the Perception Neuron motion capture suit from Noitom and eventually developed my own Cinema 4D mo-cap workflow, which worked well for the kind of animation I was looking to create.

I love to use the motion system tag because it allows me to mix and match different animation clips together, giving me a nice clean area to organize all things motion capture. Anything involving one character in an average environment, like walking on an even surface and avoiding complex interactions with things, can easily be achieved with motion capture and you avoid complex animation cleanup later. 

Kris Theorin used a mo-cap suit to act out the parts of all of the characters. 

I was pretty hesitant to try doing a film like “Grump in the Night” because it involved using motion capture in ways I’d previously tried to avoid—characters interacting and doing things like going downstairs and pressing buttons, as well as achieving a more animated, cartoony look. But I decided that it was time to try, and I thought if I could pull it off, it would open up a number of possibilities for future 3D work. 

Talk about how you created the characters. 

Theorin: I knew creating the characters was going to be the most time-consuming part of the production. So I optimized the workflow as much as possible so I could create, texture, and rig all three characters in just over a week. Luckily, ZBrush was the perfect tool for the job. I started out with a base mesh to create the main character. 

It’s a humanoid model that’s already been sculpted, retopologized and has good UVs Since it’s modeled to be almost a blank slate, I was able to sculpt on top of it, altering proportions and features to create my own unique character. 

While it starts as a ghost story, the film is much more sweet than scary.

That saved me hours of having to model things like the fingers, legs, heads and bodies from scratch and let me get right to the fun of creating the actual character. Once the first character was finished, I used that model as its own base mesh to create the mom and child by just altering the first version. 

Did you do all of the motion capture work yourself too?

Theorin: I loved doing all the mo-cap myself, using the Perception Neuron 3. I had a very specific idea for how each character would act from shot to shot, and it was a fun experience seeing my own performance translated onto each of the characters. 

The whole mo-cap process took about two and a half weeks and involved recording a handful of clips, dropping them onto my character rigs, cleaning up any issues and moving on to the next batch of clips. 

Describe your workflow, including your techniques for translating mo-cap into animation.

Theorin: After I recorded all the mo-cap takes I wanted for a particular scene, I brought the clips into Cinema 4D and applied them to my character using the motion system tag, so I could see how they looked on the rig. What looks good in real life, doesn’t always work when applied to a stylized character. And there was clean up to do, like making sure the arms didn’t intersect with the main character’s large belly.

What set this film apart from all my previous motion capture shorts was how often I used inverse kinematics (IK) animation to adjust character performances. For most shots, whenever a character wasn’t walking around, I made sure to stick their feet firmly to the floor using IK because without it, the feet might slide around, which is a common issue with mo-cap. 

The family worked together to battle the unseen ghost. 

The most challenging scene was at the very end when the entire family is locked in a tug of war match with the ghost. Since I only had one mo-cap suit and played every part, I had to act out a tug of war with myself. I’d repeat the same back and forth motion, playing a different family member each time.

I combined the best takes together in Cinema 4D to create a seamless mix of performances, and then used IK to stick everyone’s hands to the person in front of them and keep their feet from sliding around on the floor.

How was Redshift helpful to you?

Theorin: Something’s Awry switched to Redshift in late 2019. We had used similar GPU-based render engines but found them to be either too unstable or not optimized for interior scenes. I can’t imagine doing a film like “Grump in the Night” on any other engine. 

The entire film took around a month to render on several workstations using multiple GPUs. Each frame took an average of ten minutes to render (on four 2080 Tis), and the out-of-core rendering it provided also allowed us to use the system’s memory when we exceeded our GPU’s VRAM because of all of the hair and high-poly furniture in the scenes. 

What did you learn from making this that you could share with other artists?

Theorin: I think the best piece of advice I can give from this, and all my previous, animation projects, is to not overextend yourself. I’ve learned to plan the shorts I make around my strengths while still pushing my limits. One mistake a lot of people make is to bite off more than they can chew and give up. Even the smallest project can be a great opportunity to push yourself and grow as an artist. 

The mom character was based on the same model Theorin created for the dad. 

Do you think this film demonstrates Something’s Awry’s capabilities well?

Theorin: Absolutely! I love making animations because I get to learn new techniques and improve my workflows, and they’re a great way to show what the company can achieve. 

I love making shorts with a mix of genres and visual styles, so we can give clients a wide range of looks to choose from. And for our larger commercial projects, Something’s Awry often works with a group of freelance modelers, animators and concept artists who help us create high-quality animations in shorter time frames. 

Meleah Maynard is a writer and editor in Minneapolis, Minnesota.