Have a watch of the beautiful and award-winning Apodemy by Katerina Athanasopolou.
I met Katerina a couple of years ago and she mentioned that she was making the jump into 3D after years working in 2D. Then when I saw documentation of her talk at the Accelerate Animation event (below), I put two and two together and realised that Apodemy was the reason for that jump. It’s a well-delivered and concise presentation that elucidates some of the mysterious processes that 3D animators go through when realising a project. It’s also valuable in a wider context because it helps demystify the digital for audiences that find it hard to see the craft in an immaterial medium.
I was intrigued as to how Katerina found working in 3D and thought it might be interesting to find out more. So I did.
CGWTF: Hi Katerina! Please tell me about your lovely film Apodemy.
Katerina: Apodemy was commissioned by the Onassis Foundation, which is a Greek arts organization. The theme was Emigration and the Crisis, which made me think straight away of migrating birds. The film was going to be part of a wider Installation, called Visual Dialogues, taking place in an old Archaeological Park in Athens, Plato’s Academy, where it’s believed the philosopher talked. It was that space that inspired me towards the design of the film, as Plato had explored the idea of the human soul as a birdcage, which worked well with the basic film concept of migrating birds. The film was completed in November 2012, and it’s had a very positive response. It won the Lumen Prize, it was a finalist at the Best Commissioned Film category at the British Animation Awards, a Special Mention in Animasyros festival and Best Animation at the London Greek Film Festival. It’s also a Vimeo staff pick, for which I was very grateful as it attracted many viewers; this was important for a film of the moment, about Athens - my place of origin - disintegrating. I was also incredibly lucky to work with a great composer, Jon Opstad, whose music developed as the film itself was in the making.
CGWTF: The music was really beautiful. How much input did you have in the score? I found with my last film that being in the studio with the sound designer revitalized the whole creative process for me. It was like watching a new film.
Katerina: I had two months to make the film, and it was exactly midway that I made contact with Jon Opstad, by sending him a still from a test render, asking if he’d like to work with me. Due to me working day and night on the film, we didn’t have the time to meet in person so for the next month I would send him tests and he would respond with music. He would experiment, inspired by the visuals, and I would respond with comments. It was an amazing experience for me to see the film starting to take shape along with Jon’s score: I would put together a rough sequence, with placeholder shots together with almost finished work, and then I would make further changes inspired by the music. We only met in person after Apodemy was completed; he was the first person to see the film after I delivered it to the Onassis Foundation. I couldn’t be happier with our collaboration, he’s so attentive and amazingly talented, so we’re definitely going to continue working together.
CGWTF: Your talk suggested that this was your first attempt at a 3D animated film. Is that right? What made you choose 3D for this?
Katerina: I had worked for years in composited 2D, which was brilliant for overlaying and mixing up video and stills, but I needed a way to construct space that I could freely move around in. I realized that only in 3D would I have the flexibility to form the city and the carriage in a really organic way. There was a fair bit of risk in that decision, as I had two months to make the film and had only had a taste of Cinema 4D, never having completed a project using it. But it really was the only way, and I guess all art projects contain an element of chance.
I chose 3D because I wanted to be able to look sideways at things, and for them not to be flat and angular – I was craving three-dimensional curves. The real world is full of dents and bumps, places that collect dust; it’s in the corners of spaces that history is accumulated somehow. 3D was a means of constructing a world and then entering it, in way that you can’t really do with a 2D approach, where your point of view remains that which you designed in the first place.
CGWTF: That’s a good point. It reminds me of some of my early 3D modelling projects, which were all about recreating spaces I’d dreamt about. Everyone has those places I think – fantasies that are a mix of places you already know and places you’ve invented. I had a recurring dream space that involved hidden staircases and attics and it was great to start fleshing these out in 3D, figuring out how these could fit together or not. You can become your own architect in a way.
Katerina: I think we’re having the same dreams! Staircases and attics are definitely part of our collective unconscious somehow. I’m also very inspired by early films shot on trains, which were mainly one long panoramic shot; there’s something fascinating about a slow track that reveals a landscape. Some of the most interested viewers of Apodemy have been architects, which was great as it was the very architecture of the space that drove me while making it.
CGWTF: Can you recall any of your first impressions of the software, tools and workflows? Were there any things particularly that puzzled, frustrated or excited you?
Katerina: I remember the joy of beveling and extruding! It felt like suddenly corners were so much richer, deeper and exciting, and I could build a world through opening infinite drawers -which is how I still think of the extrude tool. What is fantastic about Cinema 4D is that it’s very user-friendly, the menus and tools are well designed and easy to access so the learning curve is not as steep as in other 3D software. It’s fairly quick to come to grips with, and the most basic render you get from it is something that you can actually use, with an inherent simplicity that lends itself beautifully to further work in After Effects. I also love the cloners, which allow you to multiply and animate objects in a dynamic fashion. I used those to build the city and to animate the birds, and this tool is such a wonderful example of computer-generated geometric art.
CGWTF: It’s funny that you actually can’t tell what software the film was made in, which is something especially rare with Cinema 4D. It shows that you came to 3D from a 2D perspective, and with your own styles and preferences. You’ve successfully avoided all the usual Cinema 4D clichés. Weren’t you just a little bit tempted to clone a few shiny spheres and make them pulsate!?
Katerina: There’s always a need for shiny pulsating spheres! Actually, some of my first renders in Cinema 4D were glowing capsules, rotating perpetually, that I would just stare at for what felt like forever while they were looping. Suddenly I was like a little child in front of a shiny screen.
CGWTF: What has the reception of the film been like in comparison to your 2D works? Are the sort of conversations you’re having the same? Do you discuss the making process?
Katerina: Apodemy had had a really warm reception and has been my most successful film, which means a lot to me especially as it’s a film about modern Greece within a seemingly crumbling Europe. I do enjoy talking about the process, as I have been sole animator in my projects so far, and you do crave to share the making of a piece. It seems to me that in big team projects, there’s a hierarchy that keeps the technical away from the conceptual, but it’s the behind the scenes little eureka moments that really drive me so I love to show how the animation was made. Some people have initially seen it as live action, which I find fascinating as it was built very simply, with hard shapes so that it would render fast, a single “sun” light and raytraced shadows. I had my own laptop to make the film, so the design is quite minimal, but I think that restrictions help you make creative decisions.
CGWTF: I love this! It’s so tempting to tick a bunch of boxes and end up down a rabbit hole of advanced settings, but your approach was technically quite restrained. Within those simple technical choices, you’ve conjured something really atmospheric. Was there a lot of trial and error?
Katerina: I layer my basic 3D render in After Effects and start blending and cutting out things, and then return to Cinema 4D and alter it some more. I repeat as long as it takes for something to come up, and it may take a day or a month. One thing I have learned is to first try big, loud movements, over the top lighting and harsh textures. Then, I tone down the exaggerated elements and let things settle. If you start too subtle, it can easily go bland, whereas big and loud can be chiseled down to exciting forms.
CGWTF: That’s also a fairly unique approach to 3D animation - retaining enough flexibility to go back and forth between 2D and 3D. Working with software, especially 3D software can often make this sort of flexibility difficult. Is this an approach you see as important for future work, or was it just a part of learning new software? Are you getting more ambitious?
Katerina: I find it really important to be able to play with the film, so this flexibility is key for me. I relish the possibilities of layer interaction within After Effects, and it’s a much faster software to experiment in render-wise, so I try to get a good basic render in 3D and alter it dramatically in the compositing stage. It’s also a means of getting to know and own my work, letting the initial stage change and mature into something more refined/ exaggerated. My first animations were live action video, old films and stills cut up in a kind of moving collage. I now do that with 3D renders, but the collage element remains.
CGWTF: What’s next for you? More 3D, more commissions?
Katerina: Definitely more 3D! I find that it has really invigorated me creatively and it’s opened different doors in terms of fashioning worlds. I’m currently working on a commission for the London College of Fashion, where I’m combining live action, 2D and 3D so it’s a very exciting process. I’m relishing the time I have on it to experiment: I’m not really a storyboard kind of person, but prefer to work on my ideas through writing and research and then designing the environment. Which for me is the sheer joy of working in 3D: you can create the space that’s in your head and then enter it, place a camera inside and look for all the secret corners that you didn’t even know where there. There’s another commission project coming up, which is too early to describe, as well as other personal projects that I’m writing. I just feel lucky to be able to experiment daily, with my computer being a set, a camera and an easel all at once.
Check out Katerina Athanasopolou’s other films on her site Kineticat.
Accelerate is a professional and practice development programme for animators being developed by Animate Projects and London College of Communication, University of the Arts, London, with additional support from Jerwood Charitable Foundation.