Saturday, April 14, 2018

Knotted - A Short Film Idea (for testing Tools for Animating Hand-Rope/String Interactions)

(This post was split off from my post about a grand vision for the future direction of animation tools, as it was growing a bit too large for that).

For the ultimate test of hand/finger interaction with a length of string, I've dreamed up a little short film, set in a village where everyone (but the main character) is a master knot-tier. In fact, the opening scene is literally a montage of different pairs of hands tying increasingly fancy knots and bows.

The idea is that, we'd produce this short once we have the technology in place to make producing it feasible. That is, we'd have a bunch of awesome new tools that are amazing at helping animators manage such interactions (which are fiendishly hellish now), meaning that doing such shots should be much easier, meaning that we can afford to do quite a few of them to show off a bit :)  Well, at least that's the theory!

Of course, we'd first have to find a solution to that technical hurdle :)  (I'd love to have a chat with some experienced animators about this sometime in the coming months, so get in touch)

Is it evil that I'd put animators through this?
Yeah, kindof... with that many moving parts, it's always going to be a bit of a struggle to animate! But remember the point of this is to showcase how we now have tools that are powerful enough to let animators do shots like this. (It also gives us an excellent body of real-world test data about how well it performs in different situations)

What about this main character? 
Let's just say that this character (boy/girl, probably in the ~7-8 year old range, or maybe younger) was somewhat inspired by myself. Specifically, a particular "incident" with a 5-ball perpetual motion physics toy (it took me over 10 years, maybe close to 20 to finally figure out how to untangle that thing - armed with a toothpick, forceps, and a few hours sweating and swearing while hunched over a desk with a bright desklamp aimed at my face).

What are the main story beats?
For a rough feel for the emotional/story arc of the film, grab the "Victoria and Abdul" soundtrack by Thomas Newman, and listen to the following tracks (in the following order, with the standard Spotify pause (1-2 seconds) between tracks):
  • (Optional: #9 - Florance  - Trimmed down to 15-30 sec, could be used for opening scene-setting shots, flying over misty hills by the sea in the early morning sun, until we see a tiny little "fishing village" - lots of wooden buildings... see Lyttelton, Norway/Sweden/Denmark  (EDIT 20180413 - After my weekend excursions, I discovered that Volendam is actually almost a perfect setting for this in fact!), and the NZI Devil's Chair Ad for an idea of what I'm going for.  If we do have this sequence, it'll mainly be for showing the "XYZ Studio presents...").
  • 3) Civilization!   -  i.e. The pompous opening montage with the fancy knots being tied over a series of different looking boxes and/or on ships/horse anchors, etc.  (Probably opens with shot of buntings - string with coloured triangle strips - being hung up, and tied back with figure-8 knots, before cutting to shots of boxes tied over gift boxes as we moved down a long table, eventually focussing on a MCU of the main character. Also, probably features a series of low-angle tracking shots - kid eye level - during the section before it starts to get going with the offbeat-syncopated rhythm).
  • 4) Victoria Regina - i.e. Crying scene, night/cobalt-blue. Words of wisdom from kindly figure - e.g. Grandma?  (#8 - "The Wickedness of Children", could also be included/substituted to have a longer scene)
  • 5) Quenelle with Regency Sauce - i.e. Strange visitors from out of town (e.g. strangely-dressed staff of some VIP - King/Queen/Prince/Princess/Lord/etc. - who arrived on a big white 3-masted ship), looking for a solution to a nasty tangled knot (i.e. a really massive tangled ball with stuff stuck in it). Naturally, none of the "expert knot tiers" can fix it!
  • 6) The Queen's Gaze - i.e. A small nervous/tentative hand shoots up, offering a solution - grand pause, building tension (probably need to cut in another snippet of music here?) - Success! (light + jubilant/bouncy choral exclamations @ the end)
  • 7) Jelly - End titles/credits.
As you can see, the story isn't really going to win any awards for creativity/originality. In fact, I'm pretty sure it does a lot of well-worn stuff that's pretty stock-standard in many respects. But, since this really just started out as a glorified tech demo that grew some extra backstory.

(Timing wise, some of the scenes may need more/less time than this temp music allows.  If we were really producing this though, I'd be seriously tempted to get in touch with the composer to investigate if some kind of collaboration could be arranged. I doubt it would happen - particularly since I don't think we could afford him even if he agreed to take it on - but still, part of me still dreams of making a film scored by the great Thomas Newman)

Who is going to produce/animate this short?
Good question ;)

By and large, this is just a theoretical exercise now. That said, this could be a nice tie-in with another "grand project" idea I've been toying around with for the past year or so now (Big Hint: it was really brought into focus while watching Escena's talk at BConf17 BTW ;)  There are still quite a few unknowns that I still have to find ways to resolve though, so I'm not going to say much more about this in public for now. Let's just say that, if all the pieces fall into place as I envisage, this could be a very good thing (TM) for both NZ and Blender in the next 5-10 years.


  1. Like!
    I'd like to see the stakes be set at a more personal level than recognition from royal authority, though. Like...
    - boy neglected by busy modern parent
    - weathered grandpa shows him a knot
    - boy skeptical, but finally lays smart phone aside and tries
    - fail... (needs some sort of fail moment like withholding tug)
    - resolution something like saving (mother/father/granpa) with knot that holds
    OR winning social event, but not one set by singular authority

    1. Good point! Indeed, that may turn out to be a stronger/better message.

      I just found it interesting how the rough idea I had corresponded to the soundtrack for a film I'd recently seen about a royal figure ;)

  2. Can I send you some storyboard scribbles? (email?)

    1. Yes! Absolutely, I'd love to see them! (Gmail: aligorith)

      I was tempted to try boarding this up too, but my sketches usually turn out too far from what I have in mind (skill vs vision gap I guess) that it'd probably give a really misleading impression.

  3. Expanding on davidmaas's idea: why not ground things by making the key element at the start shoe-laces? Grandparents give kid a big box for his birthday: it's new shoes! Beautiful leather ones. But... laces? Boy fiddles with them, thanks the folks half-heartedly. Parents exchange a look - they've clocked his reaction. Mother realises - mouths to Dad: "Laces? Does he know how?" Dad shrugs. Grandparents are saying "Put them on! Try them!" ... the boy takes them away to his room. Everyone waits for him. Beat. We find him in his room. struggling unsuccessfully to tie his new shoes. Tears in his eyes, he looks forlornly at his beloved old velcro-strapped sneakers. Granddad at the door. Wipes boys tear. Teaches him how to tie them. Leads him back out to the others - everyone impressed with the shoes: but boy gives grandpa a look of "thank you".

    Later, they're at the table: birthday cake is brought out. Everyone celebrating. Grandpa tries to get up out of his chair, but sits back down promptly. Tries again. Can't seem to get up. Huh? Grandma worried. Grandpa notices boy is the only one not concerned - there's a smirk on his face. Grandpa bursts into a huge smile as he realises. Camera on boy: he smiles with a big shrug - camera cranes down gently past Grandpa's shoulder, behind his chair - to find his belt has been tied to the chair with a bit of rope - in a perfect bow.

    Fade, applause, oscars all round.

    (needs no audible dialog, either, which is always nice form a localisation point of view)