Concrete is a beautiful example of minimalist animation that taps into the universal theme of finding your place in the world. Created by Luca Struchen, Nicolas Roth, Pirmin Bieri and Aira Joana as their graduate film at Lucerne School of Applied Sciences, the directing quartet mined their own sense of longing to develop the core theme at the heart of their tale of a lone backpacker and his spiritual encounter with a fox. An arresting blend of natural brutalism and muted colouring, Concrete’s art style perfectly reflects protagonist Ato’s journey of self-discovery. Directors Notes asked the filmmakers about the creative impulses that informed Concrete’s brutalist environments, their blend of both 2D and 3D visual styles, and the roles they each took on as collaborative directors.

Concrete is such a beautiful, minimalistic animation, where did it begin?

The year before graduating, and by all having gone through some soul searching in our lives, we wanted to create something about the topic which we all felt was still a current and highly likely recurring theme in our lives: finding our place in the world. As we decided this would be the main topic, we found a common interest in brutalist architecture which quite soon became a pivotal element for our further vision.

We wanted to achieve a different 3D look than what we were used to from Pixar and Disney.

We aimed to evoke an out of place feeling and searched for strong visual elements to enhance this mood, which then became an aimless drifter in a vast swamp where the only other trace of life is depicted by wild flora and a mural fox.

How did you decide on the name Concrete?

Before we initially started brainstorming about how we wanted to tell the story, we just had pictures in our heads about bold brutalist architecture, the building even being a character in itself. The form and material, shifting and moving – so we decided on Concrete as a working title and even after bringing our protagonist into it, we stuck with it.

I really loved the style of 3D animation, it’s definitely not the kind you regularly see in more mainstream projects. How did you develop the characters visually?

We wanted to achieve a different 3D look than what we were used to from Pixar and Disney. Indie 3D shorts and various 2D/3D mixed shorts were mostly their inspiration. For the 3D part, Nicolas Roth and Luca Struchen experimented a lot with the looks and ended up using a stipple shader, random cloner paint and non-photo-realistic rendering. The transformations were done with a surface deformer simulation rig for our protagonist Ato.

A model sheet featuring early character designs of the fox.

And similarly, how did you approach the architecture of the building and its surrounding environments?

We were highly inspired by the contrast of edgy hard concrete buildings and the natural round forms in nature. The fox was animated in toon boom, as it was more efficient for this edgy look but also to produce high quality animation which then got imported into a projection camera. Aira Joana and Fela Bellotto experimented a lot with textures and came up with various chalk textures laid upon the animation, for which they also alternated the FPS and various textures to fit the movement.

How did you manage the division of tasks amongst the four of you?

As we were four directors and things can get quite complicated, we set roles early on so we wouldn’t need to discuss over every little detail. It was Pirmin Bieri’s organisational skillset that not only helped us to keep track of everything, but also to bring the 3D and 2D world together seamlessly.

Colour script used during Concrete’s pre-production.

I’m assuming Concrete was developed over the course of your final year. What gear did you use?

Since this was our graduation film, we were able to use Cintiqs and Mac Pros but Luca Struchen took his own self-built computer to school and worked with that on Windows. Pre-production took about three months of work including storyboarding, concept work and character design, as well as testing 3D and 2D stuff and bringing it together, which was crucial for our further time management. For production and post-production we had another four months. Thanks to some funding we got, we were able to get some help on animation and texturing.

We set roles early on so we wouldn’t need to discuss over every little detail.

I wanted to ask about the music and sound too. Did you have a particular approach for either of those aspects?

Rahel Zimmermann was the mastermind composer behind the beautiful and delicate music. The hammered dulcimer was as playful as the fox and sometimes even sounded a bit like its voice. The cello was Ato the backpacker’s theme and during the chase it was more like a dance. Moritz Flachsmann was responsible for the sound and brought the whole world to life, it was really important to us that this felt as real as possible with the rain, the wind and the sounds concrete and stones can make. For recording stones, Luca Struchen was able to go and record at a stone quarry with Ramona Graf and sound design professional Thomas Gassmann.

What are you all working on now?

Luca Struchen is a lead motion designer at Builders Club and is currently based in London, UK. Apart from his work there, he seeks out artistic collaborations such as the Whitening Out teaser he made for Biotop of Relevance and most recently The Angle.

Pirmin Bieri is a 3D artist/animator, producer and trainer at Burki Scherer, Oftringen, CH. In his free time he’s currently working on a children’s book alongside an AR app that expands it, he’s working on it in collaboration with his partner, Nadja Deborah Schöpfer, who’s also a 3D motion designer and artist.

Nicolas Roth is a co-founder of Flugi Studio, in which he embodies a motion designer, animator, web designer and producer. He’s currently developing a few film projects which are yet to be named.

Aira Joana is an independent animation director, 2D animator and illustrator, currently based in Lucerne, CH. She’s been working as an animator on short films, some produced by YK Animation Studio. She’s also part of the Trickfilmatelier in Lucerne, where she shares a space with inspiring animators, directors and illustrators. Apart from that, she’s been working on her personal projects, including her rescue pupper and urban garden.

Pirmin, Nicolas and Aira have been working together on another collaborative film since graduating. It’s an animated documentary based on the experiences Aira’s father had as a German teacher for refugees. They’ve received some funding for pre-production and are currently working on a refined script and test animations, as it will be a 2D/3D mix short film again. They hope for it to go into production in Autumn 2021/Spring 2022.

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