Traversing through darkly alien foreboding landscapes, Paris filmmaking duo Stef & Wyt’s (Stef Meyer & Pascal Bourelier) fully CGI sci-fi music video Ghost Culture, is the unsettling nightmare that’s difficult to articulate yet lingers at the back of your mind for days. In this guest post, Stef & Wyt explain how they drew from classic sci-fi narratives whilst experimenting with photo-realistic 3D animation designs for this overlapping archiological journey through fallen civilisations.

Concept

This animated music video came from the desire to create a visual universe for Dawn Geometry’s cinematic music. Dawn Geometry is Alex Edenne’s solo musical and visual project, the music composer behind the soundtracks of our previous short films.

The title Ghost Culture, the deep ambient music, and the lyrics made us think of popular science fiction narratives, such as the short stories written by Ray Bradbury and Philip K. Dick. Stories about civilizations that rise and fall, on Earth or other planets, leaving mysterious traces through ruins, bones, ash and dust. These stories reflect similar situations that have happened throughout our human history. It’s a great mythological theme, constantly re-actualized.

But we wanted to talk about this cyclic idea through various perspectives:

  • By playing with different scales of time and space, from a microcosmic perspective to a macrocosmic one. From the close ups of the desertic grounds to the planets seen in space infinity. From the beginning of life portraying microorganisms trapped in primal ice, to a dusty rocky planet, seemingly dead.
  • We wanted to put the accent on an absence of what is familiar to us: no plants, no water, no animal or human presence. We decided to show human figures through ghosts made of particles, architectural ruins, and bones. The plants also have a ghost-like appearance, as if they were made out of a carbohydrated material.
  • An archaeological picture of an unknown period and an unknown area. It could be another planet, it could be Earth. We wanted the film to be like it was an archive itself, digital and synthesized, with a specific neo-rendering style, between 3D-scan and holographic point-cloud. Still, on the idea of cycle, the human particle figures are designed as if digital ghosts revived each night and vanished at dawn.
  • The ghosts were a key element in what we wanted to convey. We wanted them to have a technologic feel, like holograms, or the rendering of the electromagnetic spectrum. A kind of phantom trace within the archive image. The idea came from one of Bradbury’s poems in The Martian Chronicles, where one of the human colonists confronts a group of Martian ghosts, and the way they’re described and the way we imagined them, like a form of energy, is pretty close to what we achieved for Ghost Culture.
  • We also wanted to engage a reflection about ecological problematics, by displaying an absent, ghost-like mirror of a planet. As well as a reflection about the way civilization’s cultural identity survives or doesn’t survive time.

We decided that the best way to tell this visual and musical story was to follow a poetic narrative path, with crossing timelines, where we can see the various mineral, organic, and architectural elements develop and evolve, intertwined in a very choreographic and naturalistic way.

With the desire to blend a cinematographic atmosphere with an archaeological approach, we chose to go towards photo-realistic 3D animation design. Playing on different scales, it meant that the elements had to work visually on both of those scales, which is easily possible in 3D animation and allows us to have total control over each and every aspect of the images.

Production

We started to storyboard and draw visual concepts. We studied the huge archive of NASA imagery to precisely reference elements and textures, in order to re-create highly organic and realistic space environments. We added to that an expressionist treatment of color and light, to keep a special graphic tone that relates to Dawn Geometry’s music and visual identity.

We then created a 3D animatic of the entire film in Maya, displaying the storyboard image and the reference moodboard for each scene. This step is very important because it is vital to strictly define the length of each shot, the angle and movement of the camera, the scale, the key objects, their animation and their position in the frame, in order to gain time when designing the environments in 3D. It’s such a heavy process that this method enables us to create only what will be seen, and the way it will be seen, and not waste time and energy on elements that won’t be visible, or redefining a shot several times.

For the architectural design, we were inspired by Giger’s universe as well as existing ancient temples and statues. We had to create different versions to finally end on the correct one, switching from clay modeling to 3D modeling and scanning software. For the ghosts, we wanted them to be coherent with the rest of our mineral environment. It seemed like a good option to imagine them as made of particles, vulnerable to physical turbulence and magnetic fields.

Claysculpt – Photoscan – Octane Render

We then presented our animatic to a small team of 3D artists (Nicolas Saury, Sylvain Gallard, Laurine Fleurynck), and started collaborating with them on the 3D design and animation. Having experience in special effects and in post-production, we could design and animate scenes along with our team, and not simply direct them. It was a very collaborative work where each person could easily switch to a different role depending on the needs of a given time during the creative production of the film.

We used several softwares: Z-Brush to design the 3D elements and environments, Photo Scan to re-capture a 360° view in 3D of a sculpture that had been physically sculpted to be integrated in the environments (the Giger inspired titan and the bone pile close-ups), Maya and 3D Max for the environment setups and animations, Octane Render for the image rendering and Nuke for the base grading and compositing, then we used After Effects to complete the compositing process, and as a final ‘beauty’ pass. We also had to make Sylvain do specific coding systems on Octane and Maya to make the plants and the vertical lines spawn following a semi-random pattern.

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Finally, we used motion capture to capture the artist playing the different ghost postures and attitudes. We liked the idea of having a cameo of himself in the film in a barely recognizable way. We then used the captured cloud of points of his body as a vector and spawn grid in Maya to create our particle ghosts, that we retreated with motion-vectors.

If we were to condense the entire time spent on the project, it took us four intense months to create the film, from pre-production to final render. The rendering of the shots took a whole month!

Up Next

We have 4 upcoming projects:

  • We are producing two other narrative music videos, one of which will have lots of special effects, and is set in a world between Blade Runner and Metropolis.
  • We are directing a short film written by British writer Graham Farrow and starring Maya Diehm, and preparing an animated short film about the mythological story of Siegfried.
  • We are also preparing our first feature film.

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