Dec 12 2016

A Formula for Animation & VFX Success: Collaborating with Writing, Directing, Sound, Music and Production Design

By Susan Danta, AFTRS' Head of Animation & VFX

Is there a formula for creating a successful animation/VFX short film? I would argue that yes, there is indeed a formula, a recipe even, for producing lasting and impactful stories through the medium animation and VFX. The secret is this: a truly collaborative approach to creative production, particularly with key discipline areas of sound, music, writing, production design, editing and cinematography, to enrich storytelling through sound and image.

Take, for example, animated/VFX driven student films from AFTRS that represent collaboration in action: Birthday Boy by Sejong Park (Academy Award nominee) and Plastic by Sandy Widyanata (Visual Effects Society Student Award Winner, Academy Awards). Each film project underwent substantial development processes involving collaboration and research across a spectrum of creative disciplines within AFTRS. The intense workshopping in the AFTRS learning environment provides students with a deeper understanding across disciplines while developing long-lasting creative relationships. The pedagogical approach was developed by Peter Giles whose graduates include multi-award winning Creative Director, Patrick Clair (Emmy award-winning titles designer for The Man in the High Castle and True Detective) and VFX artist turned feature film director, Sandy Widyanata (Monument 14 – in development). To illustrate the creative process for Masters students who specialised in 3D animation and VFX at AFTRS, we will look at the development process of each of these films below.

Birthday Boy (2005) is a powerful short animated film that explores childhood at the time of war. Park (who directed and wrote the short film) worked closely with his writing lecturer in developing his script over 12 months prior to the film’s production. The rigorous writing and re-writing process resulted in a story that attracted a strong creative team, each contributing the best of their creative skill-set to the film. In addition to Park’s remarkable production art skills, fellow AFTRS students in the disciplines of Sound (Megan Wedge), Music (James Lee), Editing (Adrian Rostirolla) and Producing (Andrew Gregory) add an incredible emotional depth to the film. When watching the opening sequence to Birthday Boy, one is at once mesmerised by the mysteriously ambiguous landscape that isn’t fully revealed until after the title sequence. The world is slowly defined by sounds – an echoing child’s voice and metal clanging in empty chambers. In this 3D animated film, the camera leads the viewer further and further out to reveal an empty South Korean village damaged by war. The exceptional execution of lighting and texturing is notable in this student film and Park draws from this Production Art background to create a digital world with a traditional cinematic aesthetic. The subdued colour palette reflects the sombre tone of the war-torn environment which is enlivened by the complex sound design that sharply draws us in and out of the child’s reality, often juxtaposing his small-world point-of-view to the ravaged world around him. The subtle musical score that runs throughout the film expresses the quizzical innocence of the child and almost breathes as the music fills the expanse of the environment in view. Instrumental to the development and production of the film was Producing student Andrew Gregory (now Executive Producer for TV series, Rake) who closely collaborated with Park throughout the project. Park was also assisted by fellow student and gifted animator, David Williams (who has gone on to become Lead Animator at Animal Logic) who brought life and a comic touch to the unwitting mailman who gets knocked off his push-bike by one of the child’s pretend grenades. Birthday Boy was a mammoth undertaking with Park and his team sending their days and nights completing the project over 12 months.

Watch Birthday Boy.

In contrast to Birthday Boy, Plastic plays with our notions of beauty in a contemporary media-saturated world. Director/compositor Sandy Widyanta collaborated with Producing student Courtney Wise to develop a sharply sardonic script about body image and our self-perfecting fantasies. Widyanta’s script underwent a similar editing and rewriting process typical of AFTRS films in the Masters space, spending her first year of study researching and refining her story. Together with Wise, Widyanata used her training in animation and visual effects to plan and shoot her ambitious VFX short film about a young woman preparing for a dream date, augmenting her physical features that become ‘plastic’ with the magic of CG VFX. Using her live-action footage as her palette, Widyanata digitally sculpts her protagonist’s idealised image of herself. The 3D moth flits in and out of scenes as metaphor of the magic realism that Widyanata creates for her character. Wise and Widyanata collaborated with cinematography student, Greg de Marigny and was supported throughout by lecturer and 3D artist, Ian Brown (Moulin Rouge, Lord of the Rings) to artfully realise their film. Plastic again begins with a 3D moth that leads the camera to the title sequence and it is here that we get a hint of the VFX aspect of the film. What at first appears to be a conventional screen narrative soon transforms into an unnatural representation of reality. The sound design by Sound student Cameron Grant (location sound by student Rainier Davenport) adds a grounded realism to the distorted images on screen, subtly immersing the viewer the alternate world. The playful musical composition by Composing student Maja Petrovna defines the protagonist’s character and emotional point-of-view. The combination of all these talents resulted in an acclaimed short film that received the prestigious VES Student Award at the Academy Awards in Los Angeles.

Watch Plastic.

AFTRS’ new Masters of Arts Screen: Animation & VFX is a return to the pedagogy that defined a generation of screen artists studying at Australia’s national film school. A new generation of students is about to embark on 2 years of intensive industry-based collaborative workshops and we can’t wait to see the results of their future collaborations.

Watch past AFTRS Masters student films here:


The Australian Film Television and Radio School would like to acknowledge the Traditional Owners, the Bidjigal people and Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, on whose land we meet, work, study and teach. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and extend our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from all nations of this land.