Next Flight Home
Next Flight Home is a short film that follows a pigeon as he makes the biggest decision of his life. At the beginning of the story, he has everything a pigeon could ever want - a buffet of forgotten street food, a cozy pigeon apartment in the city, and pigeon friends to talk and poop with. But when he meets a beautiful dove one day on the street, he realizes how much better and more exciting his life is with her. As he is following her out of the city, he stops, unwilling to give up the life he has built for himself after such a short time together. However, he soon realizes the monotony and loneliness of his life in the city and goes back to look for her again. When they reconnect for a second time, the pigeon doesn't hesitate at all - leaving the city behind him, and following the dove to wherever their life outside of the city will take them. Please enjoy, Next Flight Home.
As is the case with any story, it is much easier to tell when it has relevance to the creator. And for this story, it is a direct reflection of the last year of my life. In December of 2017, while living in Lyon, I met my girlfriend, Phoebe. We had a very short time together, less than a month, but it was overwhelmingly good. However, I wasn't quite ready to give up the life that I had built up for myself, and decided to head to Dublin, and subsequently back to Seattle. After a short time, I began to reflect on how much I missed our time together and the joy that she brought to my life. Less than a year later, when we met for a second time, I was adamant to not make the same mistake again. I decided to move out of Seattle and join her in Canada, leaving the city and flying to the mountains. Making this piece acted as a sort of therapy for me during the time of transition. Leaving a city that you love, and friends that make it home is never an easy transition. However, pouring those emotions into a short film about two birds ended up being much more productive than gazing out at the Puget Sound wondering endlessly if I was making the right choice. At the time of writing, I am not sure what the future holds for the the pigeon and the dove, but the choice to be together was undoubtedly the right one.
Below, you will find a few breakdowns showcasing the work that went into making this piece - the development of the story, the design of the characters, the simulations and procedural systems, and more. Projects like this are a fun way to showcase the variety of tools and techniques that I get to use on a daily basis, and I hope that you enjoy seeing the process I used to bring this piece to life.
This project gave me an opportunity that most of my projects don't - the need to explore a story arc. From the start, wanting to create a short film, I knew that I would need to have stages where specific things happened to my character and keys where I wanted emotions to come through to the audience. So, the first thing I did for this project was to write out a script. I am not a writer, and the script is not formatted anything like a traditional animation or movie script, but with the story written out into four acts, I was able to start on the storyboarding with a clear mind and direction. Here, you can see a few of the original storyboards and en example of how a sequence looked in my original animatic.
Once I had the animatic in a place I was happy with, I moved on to blocking out all of the shots in 3D. While the renders look incredibly rough, this stage allowed me to work out camera moves, speed, and emotional queues without waiting for long renders to calculate. Below, you can see the same sequence that was shown in the storyboards once it was moved into the blocking phase.
After the blocking phase, I moved on to animation. On the master rigs for the pigeons, I built all of the controls into sliders. This allowed me to animate the head turning, feet flopping, mouth opening, etc. all with great efficiency. On top of keeping all of the controls on sliders, having a simple character without any organic movement made the animation process smooth and efficient. Here, you can see how things looked once all of the animation was done, before I moved into lighting, shading, and compositing.
Lighting and Comp
Lighting, shading, and compositing is one of the most rewarding steps in the process for me. I finally get to see my characters come to life in a way that feels tactile and believable while having full control over the art direction in the process. Being intentional in using light and color to drive the mood of each scene helps to elevate the emotional cues and bring the story to a new level.
Designing the characters was the first stage in this project - before I even knew that I would be creating a short film. In the initial phases, the characters went through quite a few design revisions. Originally, they only had a moving head and moving legs, but after a series of motion tests, seen below, I recognized the need for additional controls to convey emotion. I ended up including a moving mouth, wings, and a butt door. Through the entire design process, I tried to walk a line of being comical and expressive while staying in a world that felt plausible and mechanical. The Canadian-style mouths are a great example of a compromise I made to step away from being physically plausible for the sake of expressiveness. Because I spent so much time in the initial phases of character tests, I was able to move into animation with all of the controls that I needed and no revisions to the master rig were required through the entire production process.
An Infinite Supply of Buildings
Filling a city with unique buildings is a lot of work. Even early on, I knew that I wanted the world to adhere to a specific style, so buying a premade building pack was out of the question. By building a system in Houdini to randomly generate buildings of various heights, widths, styles, etc. I was able to create a library of as many buildings as I needed within two days - saving valuable time for other elements of the piece.
Having all of the characters and most of the environment as rigid objects left me without much need for large simulations, however I wanted to include crumpled newspaper in the apartment set to act as a couch. To accomplish this, I used Houdini’s great cloth tools - a simple breakdown of my process is below.
First, I remeshed the plane using a noise value fed into the targetmeshsize attribute to get a random arrangement of triangles.
Then, I used a global force to attract all points to the origin. Using vellum cloth, I simulated the plane until it reached a hero pose I was happy with and exported that frame as static geometry.
On the static crumple, I used the curvature of the geometry to define the stiffness attribute, creating more structure under the folds before simulating with the pigeon sitting on the pile.
Keeping Things Tidy
Trying to keep all of the files, assets, and progress organized on a three minute animation is one of the least glamorous, but most important aspects of the process. Early on, I built a spreadsheet to keep track of progress on each shot, length of each shot, rendering budget, and asset creation. Throughout the process, this was the key to keeping me organized and on track. At a glance, it was easy to see what shots were rendered, which were in the edit, and which needed to be animated. The pie chart to the side was also a good motivational tool for me - slowly watching it edge towards full with each day of work that I put into it.
Embracing Every Role
One aspect of creating personal projects that I reluctantly appreciate is that I am responsible for every aspect of the production. This is incredibly fun for me on the elements that I am good at - look development and styleframes, modeling, animation, compositing - but much less fun on the aspects that I am not great at - editing and sound design to be specific. However, I do my best to enjoy stepping outside of my comfort zone and learning something new. On this project, I took on the role of editor and sound designer using Premiere and Audition. This was my first time using Audition, and it made the audio process incredibly easy having a large library of foley, free from Adobe, at my disposal. Looking back on the process of creating this film, I really do cherish the opportunity I had to explore so many new disciplines.
I want to thank all of the friends and colleagues that gave me feedback, advice, and encouragement while I was working on this film. The additional input into the story and edit truly helped to make this film better than I could have made in isolation. On top of that, I want to thank my friend Jordan Ruiz for taking this animation to a whole new level. I originally planned on using stock music for the film, and instead, Jordan composed something that not only fit with the animation, but elevated the emotion and impact that it has. And lastly, I would like to thank my girlfriend Phoebe, who alongside being the inspiration for this film, put up with me working on a surprise project for two months without showing her anything or explaining what it was that I was working on.
Below you can find some still frames taken from the final video. Thank you for spending some time to view my short film, Next Flight Home.