Sonder by Soba Productions. An intimate look into the production of Sonder, one of the first animated films created in Unity! Watch producer Sara Sampson (Pixar) and director Neth Nom (Google Spotlight Stories) share their insights into this groundbreaking production.
Storytelling across time zones
Neth Nom and Sara K. Sampson work long hours at their major-studio day jobs, where Neth is a supervising animator at Google Spotlight Stories & Chromosphere Studios, and has worked at studios such as Pixar, Disney, and Sony, while Sara works as an animation producer and was a production engineer on Pixar feature films.
Several years ago, when Neth conceived the idea for a story about a young man struggling with the end of a relationship, these two busy industry professionals committed much of their free evening and weekend time to bring his story to life.
And a huge part of their creative journey was assembling a highly talented team to assist them. Starting in 2015, they engaged an equal number of male and female artists from far-flung locations. Yee Sum Hoi managed creative departments from Malaysia, Ruby Han helped with layout and set dressing from Japan, Sunny Tien supervised art from Taiwan, and Jean Moreno, their lighting & shading tools lead, did his magic from France.
The group calls itself Soba Productions, and many of the crew members didn’t actually meet in person until Sonder’s wrap party in Berkeley, California in spring 2018.
A dark story about love and loss
A charming yet dark fantasy about falling in love, heartbreak and loss, Sonder is like a two-genre marriage of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a sci-fi drama, and Princess Mononoke, an animated epic. The team’s goal was to create a compelling 10-plus minute film that would be screened at festivals around the globe.
“We wanted a distinct look for the film, combining the familiarity of 2D animation with the richness of fully realized 3D environments. We also wanted to innovate with our production process,” says Neth.
Their biggest challenge? Achieve the quality that Sara and Neth were accustomed to at their major-studio jobs, yet produce it with an indie budget and pipeline.
Their solution? Create the pipeline in Unity, leveraging its real-time rendering capabilities to achieve the desired graphical quality in half the time, and at half the cost, without needing a render farm.
But could this new pipeline give them the feature-film look they were striving for, yet with a crew new to Unity?
Mastering the tools, crafting the story
Soba quickly got to work identifying the tools they’d need to build their story.
Led by CG supervisor Farhez Rayani, the team set out to achieve that high-end animation look. Particular focus was placed on the characters’ eyes, which can so often make or break the look of the art style. “Eyes are an important feature when it comes to filmmaking – this is how we connect with our character,” says Sara.
They employed the Toony Colors Pro 2 shader from the Unity Asset Store. One benefit of this shader was the separate controls for each part of the eye. “This gave us the flexibility to tweak the pupils, gleam, highlights, and iris per shot, ultimately enhancing character performance.”
3D assets and 2D goals
They went for a 2D toon-shaded look, even though all their assets were 3D, which meant they had to develop some sophisticated shader designs.
“We wanted the shader to be unique to give the film a special look. Our goal was to create a distinct visual style, one that you don’t typically see in projects made with a game engine,” explains Neth. “To achieve it, we created a custom shader tool, designed by Jean Moreno, our shading & lighting tools lead.”
The result is a simplified, almost 2D style, accomplished with 3D animation techniques. “The combination plays really beautifully, and we couldn’t be happier with how it turned out,” says Neth.
The Alembic Importer proves its worth
Since all their assets were created and animated in Maya – with easy round-tripping in and out of Unity – the Soba team also depended on Unity’s Alembic Importer tool for handling the animated assets, which Neth says, “saved our lives.”
“Our Pipeline and Tools departments worked most directly with Unity, as did our Lighting department,” says Neth. “We also created an Assembly department to package assets from Maya into Unity.”
… and they bring it all together with Timeline
Andrea Goh, TD supervisor, oversaw Sonder’s assembly. Once all alembics were imported, they used Timeline to choreograph the animation. For Neth, this was one of the project highlights and a significant benefit of working with Unity: The ability to query the frame ranges and preview the alembics in Timeline.
Selecting Unity for Sonder turned out to be the perfect recipe for this moonlighting team.
“We no longer have to spend hours rendering frames only to find we need to adjust a character’s eye highlight. With Unity, what we see in the scene is what we get. This lets us address notes and fixes on the fly while granting artists more time to achieve the desired look. As a result, we save a great deal of time in our production,” says Neth.
Sonder will make its exclusive premiere at Unite Berlin in June and will be screened at film festivals worldwide throughout 2018–19.