Fuelled by a chance online discovery of the exquisite creations of talented Russian doll artists Popovy Sisters, filmmaker Chiara Feriani’s 3D short ‘Human?’ transposes the beauty of the highly sought after physical dolls to the digital realm. A sensually expressive film which Feriani describes as “a female project made by girls for girls!”, DN asked the Italian director and VFX artist to take us through the 4 month long challenge of breathing digital life into this alluring haute couture art doll.
The project was born when I came across an article presenting the work of Lena and Katya (Popovy Sisters) on the internet. I was mesmerized by their creations, and the mood and style of their work was a love at first sight for me. I was hypnotised by the expressivity and intensity of their dolls and thought that I could use my experience and knowledge of computer graphics to bring life to their beautiful creatures. So I contacted the Popovy Sisters and explained my idea. They were enthusiastic and in love with the idea of seeing their dolls brought to life.
So the project started and, as with all CGI projects, was a very very long process.
The Popovy Sisters created a doll which took some months. We chose to do something simple in terms of the outfit and hair/make up to emphasize the expressivity and intensity of the face and animation. I wanted to do something very minimal at the visual level (no background, simple dresses, simple movement of camera) to underline the intensity of her expression and sensuality, and to emphasize the strong message of the song – a doll that states “I am human”!. I purposely didn’t want to do a spectacular fashion/music video, my intention was to create more of an intense film.
I was mesmerized by their creations and the mood and style of their work was a love at first sight for me.
After receiving the real doll we shot for two days with the help of a Milanese production company (Treeshome s.r.l). We filmed the real doll static in limbo (with a Kinefinity camera, chosen by DOP Gianluca Catania), and this allowed me to have a base to create a first draft edit, picturing the future movement of the doll. Meanwhile, a team of three people started to create a digital double of the doll. One person was dedicated to creating the model (body, hair and outfits); another person worked on the rig and setup of the model (to allow it to do the movements and facial expressions), and finally, another person worked on the textures of doll (how she looked), trying to achieve as much as possible an exact copy of the real thing. This computer graphics process (the creation of asset of the doll) took us something like one month of work.
For editing, I absolutely love the works and songs of musician Sevdaliza, and I thought the song Human was perfect in term of mood, message, words, and voice. Her words spoken by a doll created an exceptionally strange and crazy effect. A doll that claims to be human. So I asked Sevdaliza if we could use her song for the project. She was enthusiastic and allowed us to use it!
I wanted to do something very minimal at the visual level.
When the digital doll was ready, and the edit of shooting with the real doll was ready too, I proceeded with the long work of animation and rendering of every single shot. This also included a long process of creating the dynamics of cloths and hair on the final shot (another person who specialised in CGI hair and cloth dynamics was dedicated to this) which took around 3 months of work. What was important was to not create a fake 3D effect (especially for the hair and cloths), and have a hyperrealistic 3D copy of a Popovy Doll.
The entire project was made using 3D software (Houdini), plus other software for compositing, editing, and texturing.
What was very difficult for this kind of project, apart from the complexity of technical 3D elements, was also imagining the movements. Usually, computer graphics films are applied to a “narrative language” (for the most part they are short movies, or movies, or episodes of series), so you have storytelling, a storyboard and editing in which all actions of the character are functional to explain the story and are guided by this purpose. Instead in this kind of video there was no storyline. If we’d created this project with a real singer, usually you’d start from shooting, and shoot a lot of takes of the entire song with the singer/actor singing and improvising, and then you’d work a lot on the edit, using “the best” of every single long take you’ve filmed; so the editing comes from shooting (and not from the storyboard). In my case, I had no additional actions for editing! So there was a difficulty in replicating this process in digital.
This project was made over the course of 4 months of hard work in postproduction and is a female project made by girls for girls!
A Note From Popovy Sisters
We are Fine Art Fashion and Doll Designers Lena and Katya Popovy aka Popovy SISTERS. We’ve designed and made dolls since 2004. We always dreamed of seeing our dolls animated. None was able to make our dream come true until we met Chiara. With this film she did something that exceeded our expectations. We hope to see this project grow in the future.