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Introduction: Into the Realm of 3D Animated Documentary Filmmaking

My name is Jamie Hurcomb and I am a Masters student in Media Production at Ryerson University. When I chose to apply for this program in the Winter of 2019, the world was a quite bit different (an obvious statement, but let’s not ruminate on the current pandemic for too long). I had previously completed my undergrad in Media Production at the same institution in 2015 and started to feel nostalgic for a time where I had complete creative freedom to make pretty much anything I was interested in. Since graduating, I had a string of desirable gigs within the documentary landscape that allowed me to cultivate a professional presence within the field. Though I feel extremely grateful for these opportunities, I still felt a longing for a creative venture that was intrinsically self-directed; I didn’t want to put all my efforts into working for someone else’s vision, rather, I wanted to create a piece of media that was more in line with my own interests. Essentially, I wanted to cultivate my own artistic voice. For a year, maybe, then return to working in the field but at least I can say I tried to make a piece of media that felt true to my own passions. This project, though not entirely fleshed-out, was always meant to take the form of a documentary. I was accepted into the Master’s program in late February. Two weeks later Toronto was completely locked down.

If you are not working within the realm of the professional film production industry, filming during the pandemic is a feat. Moreover, I would surmise documentary production might be even more challenging because the subjects you are attempting to document are completely autonomous; they may choose to participate for a variety of reasons but they don’t, typically, get paid for their appearance on film. The incentives for potentially breaking social distancing measures or putting yourself at risk for the sake of creation are simply not on par with a feature-length fiction film or television series (especially when working at the independent level). And so, remaining dedicated to this idea of entering my Masters and coming out with a self-produced documentary as a Major Research Project during the on-going pandemic needed to be harmonized.

As someone who has both studied and worked in the documentary landscape, a topic that had always fascinated me was, broadly, experimental non-fiction. It would seem almost paradoxical to conflate documentary (i.e. “capturing reality”) with any sort of experimental artistic flare (surrealism, expressionism, non-linear, etc.) because of the authentic “truth” documentary films purport to reveal. Manipulating with this unobstructed “truth” may, for some, be completely antithetical to the non-fiction code. However, a post-structuralist approach to the genre of documentary filmmaking might actually suggest that even the act of filming; capturing, editing, mixing, etc. is already in and of itself a distortion of the “reality” the film attempts to illuminate. Even the presence of a camera might influence a documentary subject to speak and act in ways that are completely devoid of “authenticity” or truthfulness. Baudrillard writes about the Simulacra being a copy of reality, that is further copied and copied until it loses all traces, all references, and all ties to the original. Still, standard documentary form gains its authenticity and authority through a variety of tools; evidence, documents, interviews, archival footage, etc. Bar none, the overarching tool used by non-fiction to appear truthful is photorealism. To capture “the truth” is to capture it in real-time; to film an event. As Roland Barthes claimed, “Every photograph is a certification of presence” (Camera Lucida, p.87). In this vein, how then can we qualify the truth of a documentary that is completely devoid of photorealism?

When it came to my options of trying to produce a Major Research Project documentary during the pandemic, I felt as though with my limited resources I had two options: film the entire doc over Zoom (or equivalent video conferencing software) or make a documentary that wasn’t physically filmed, rather animated. For someone like myself who has never animated anything in their entire lives (I took art lessons as a child but failed miserably), the former option seemed more realistic. But I’m tired of Zoom, so are you I imagine. The limitation of recording whatever environment is captured on your webcam is stifling. There is no “truth” in seeing the curated background of a subject’s surroundings. I feel as though audiences would feel immediately repulsed by the standard interface of video conferencing at this present time. I know I personally wouldn’t revel in the chance to watch content filmed entirely over Zoom as I would immediately feel fatigued by the reminder of countless hours of video meetings I've taken over the past 11 months. For this reason, the latter option, though obviously more challenging, was much more attractive. Additionally, it complemented my academic interests in dissecting the indexical relationship between photorealism and documentary truth values. However, because of my limited skill in drawing, painting, and rotoscoping- I decided to try my hand at 3D animation for the visual medium for this Major Research Project documentary.

Broadly speaking, the ethos of the documentary I’m creating for this MRP is related to the barriers of entry for artists who are trying to create, against all odds, in a medium they are not classically trained in. My main subject is a caricature artist from Winnipeg who has been working on an epic, fantasy, rock musical for nearly 20 years. His creation has taken on differing artistic forms over the years; from a comic book to a stage play to pitching Netflix with a treatment for a feature-length film. In all of these iterations, certain elements of the story have evolved, but the central idea has remained the same for nearly two decades. It’s this artist’s passion, dedication, and sheer creative drive that has caught my attention and made me decide to capture his process. So it’s interesting to note that as I document one man’s quest to actualize a fermenting creative concept in a medium he’s not classically trained in, I am concurrently doing something similar in attempting to document his story in a 3D animated likeness. The parallels are fascinating.

So, in short, this blog will serve as documentation in my own methodology as I attempt to teach myself 3D animation as a complete newcomer to the field and its subsequent software. I have divided each step of my process into the following assignments and will format for posts accordingly.

Assignment 1: 3D Character and Set Design

Character design will include elements such as facial features, hair, skin, clothing etc., and set design should incorporate environmental elements such as background features, furniture, props, etc.

Assignment 2: 3D Character Expressions and Lipsync

The expression mimesis will include movement idiosyncrasies (eye/brow movements, facial emotions, gaze tracking, head movements, hand gestures etc.) as well as text to speech emulation (syncing mouth movements to recorded audio).

Assignment 3: Virtual Film Production

Virtual film production includes virtual camera movements (for example multiple camera angles, zooms, pans etc.) and synthetic lighting that attempts to match the photorealistic footage. This step is not unlike the way one would light and film a live-action video sequence, bringing a realistic depth and texture to the final output.

I will be using a variety of online tutorials in the process; some publicly available and others available for a low cost which I will be discussing, critiquing, and linking in future posts.

Overall, this Major Research Project is supposed to act as a rumination on both the affordances of animated documentaries, especially during this pandemic, but also as a means to champion the power of self-directed learning and creating outside of traditional art institutions and industry.

Asking a question on the "Unreal Engine 4 Beginners" Facebook forum

Comment by a stranger that made me question everything I was doing

I wanted to remind him the name of the forum was "4 Beginners" but I didn't have the gumption.


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