Nature Will Prevail

Designer/illustrator/art director Sasha Vinogradova on her new short film, Forest.
By Bryant Frazer

L.A.-based art director Sasha Vinogradova’s animated short Forest is an environmentally conscious fairy tale that doubles as a grim fable about humans’ capacity for destruction. Made with Cinema 4D, Arnold, and After Effects, Forest is a milestone in Vinogradova’s fast-developing career as a visual artist and art director. Just eight years ago, in 2012, she was working as a web designer in Moscow when some of her personal artwork suddenly went viral and her career path changed radically.

Here’s what happened: A self-proclaimed “Lord of the Rings nerd,” Vinogradova was captivated by the first season of Game of Thrones, which inspired her to create a series of desktop wallpapers spotlighting the rival clans in Westeros. Her designs quickly went viral, and a couple of months later she got an email from Los Angeles-based agency And Company that said: “We’re working on a new season of Game of Thrones, would you like to join us?” Vinogradova remembers being floored and stammering, “What? Wait … what?”

She freelanced for And Company for about a year before the agency invited her to move to Los Angeles. She made the move and worked there for another two years, contributing key art to projects, including 12 Monkeys, Tomorrowland, and The Crown. But when she saw Elastic creative director Patrick Clair’s title sequences for True Detective S2 and Westworld, she knew she wanted to work on titles. And that meant motion design.

So she migrated to The Mill, where she worked for nearly four years as an art director doing titles with Clair for True Detective S3, as well as music videos for Jay-Z and brand work for Facebook, Sony, Lexus, Bentley, and many others. This past May Vinogradova landed at Apple, working as an art director for Apple TV+, creating visuals for shows that stream on the platform. “I like Apple TV+ because it combines key art and motion graphics, so I don’t have to pick between my passions,” she says.

Combining Beauty with Darkness
Vinogradova began working on Forest before she left The Mill. Set in a verdant, sunlit land, the animated short tells the story of what happens when, in her words, “small, yellow-bellied forest sprites make a discovery that threatens the balance of their world.” That discovery is a fallen soldier with an assault rifle, and it is not surprising that she has assault rifles on her mind.

Guns were a familiar part of Vinogradova’s life in Russia, and the factory that originally manufactured the infamous AK-47 was located in her hometown of Izhevsk. She developed the concept for her film after a wave of school shootings swept the U.S. “I have this feeling that the world is going crazy, and I have this theme throughout my art where I combine something really beautiful with something sinister and dark. Forest is about believing that nature will prevail, that there is something stronger and more beautiful than human violence and conflict.”

Because the film’s lush, green microworld is viewed from the perspective of tiny, magical spirits, even small plants loom overhead like trees. The environment was inspired by the natural beauty of California, especially the Sequoia National Forest, as well as the art of Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, particularly his original Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind manga series. “The feeling is not fully captured in the film,” she says, explaining that “the original manga is more conceptual about the relationship between humanity and the environment, comparing greed and aggression among people to nature.”

Breaking Down the Process
Vinogradova used Cinema 4D for look development along with ZBrush and Substance Painter. Her friend, Woosung Kang, another art director at The Mil, served as co-creative director and did all of the compositing for the film. Kang also developed a number of tricks to optimize the animation processes and enhance the film’s look, including using C4D’s MoGraph shader effector to randomize plant animations. He also created an animated mask based on the movement of leaves to filter the atmospheric sunlight streaming down into the forest.

While some of the forests’ plants were modeled from scratch, realistic-looking plant models from Quixel Megascans helped them efficiently populate the environment. For moss in static scenes, Vinogradova used cloners in C4D to replicate planes with opacity and a moss texture, using C4D hair as filler where needed. But, during animation, generating hundreds of thousands of cloner objects to build out the moss brought the team’s workstations to a crawl. Fortunately for the team, C4D R 20 was released, and the Multi-Instance mode made it easy to work with millions of cloners.

They custom-built the forest sprites and imbued them with a soft magical glow. Character animators Ilya Mozzhukhin and Kyle Moore helped bring them to life. Vinogradova’s favorite scene is where two of the creatures pop up from inside and behind a delicious-looking mushroom. “I really wanted the sprites to have translucency, like they are little mushrooms themselves,” she explains. “I’ve had so many people say they wanted to eat them! That’s not what I was going for, but I guess it’s a good thing.”

In Vinogradova’s mind, the film was designed to give the impression that the forest sprites were on a mission from the start. But it always felt like something was missing. That’s when her boyfriend, filmmaker Seth Epstein, who served as story editor, suggested that they introduce a character to help viewers understand what was happening on screen. “Even though the film was 70 percent finished, we decided to introduce the soldier so we could bring people into the film from a subjective perspective,” she recalls.

It was Kang’s idea to create the shot introducing the soldier, who is refracted through a water droplet. The climactic scene showing white flowers blooming around the abandoned gun, created with the help of animator Anastasia Skrebneva, symbolizes rebirth and a return to innocence. Colorist Thomas Mangham graded the film at The Mill. And Zhenya Diachek was the sound designer, who also composed and performed the music on a 100-year-old, slightly out-of-tune German piano. “It’s really simple, but has lots of heart,” Vinogradova says, approvingly.

Despite the technical challenges, the hardest part of making Forest was just finding the time and motivation, Vinogradova says. “The trickiest thing is to work on a personal project outside of a full-time job. There were lots of weekends where I was like, ‘OK, today I am sacrificing my Saturday for the film.’ And then I’d think, ‘Why am I doing this to myself? My friends are partying, so why am I sitting here, in front of the computer, making these little creatures?’ But you find new friendships in your work and, in the end, gain tremendous satisfaction from the final result.”

Bryant Frazer is a writer and editor specializing in media and technology.