From CG Experiment to Short Film

Takayuki Sato talks about the making of his latest short, Portal.
By Meleah Maynard

Freelance art director/motion designer Takayuki Sato is currently living in Japan, where he was born and got his start in the industry. But his career was meaningfully shaped years earlier when he moved to the US to study motion graphics and English. After working for a Los Angeles studio for a while, he joined the team of designers and filmmakers at Prologue as a senior animator/designer using Cinema 4D and After Effects.

Sato had long admired Prologue co-founder Kyle Cooper’s work on titles for blockbuster films. The opportunity to actually work with him felt like a “dream come true,” he recalls. “It was very exciting to be able to work at Prologue. Kyle’s work on Se7en and The Island of Dr. Moreau inspired my interest in CG design and animation, and I worked very hard every day I was there.”

By the time he returned to Japan in 2013 to help care for his parents, Sato had collaborated with many talented artists and directors at Prologue, allowing him to learn new tools and hone his skill set while adding the titles for films like Iron Man 2, Total Recall, Tron: Legacy, and Oblivion to his portfolio.

Takayuki Sato is an art director and motion graphics artist in Japan.

Since returning to Japan, Sato has continued to work remotely on high-profile title sequences for feature films and TV shows, such as Aquaman, Blade Runner 2049, and His Dark Materials. He’s also tapped frequently for commercial projects for brands, including Toyota, Nissan and Nikon. While Sato does most of the work himself, he has also assembled a small team with whom he collaborates on a project-by-project basis.

Designing, Animating, and Directing
When he isn’t working on an assignment, Sato enjoys studying new technologies/techniques and making short films. His first film, The Moment of Beauty, was a Vimeo Staff Pick in 2014, and was followed by Beyond the Moment of Beauty, which won a VFX-Japan Award in 2018. He describes his latest film, Portal, as a “personal project for learning and exploring new creativity.”

Like his other films, Portal depicts an imaginary world, this one reached by passing through a portal based on Sato’s logo. Using a combination of Cinema 4D, After Effects, X-Particles, Octane and Red Giant tools, including Particular, Trapcode Form and Looks, Sato designed, directed and animated the film with sound design by Yumetoki Suzuki. (Watch the making-of video here.)

Portal began with a detailed mood board.

Before it was a film, Portal was just an experimental project called Sato dubbed “X-Reel.” It was 2017 and he was doing a presentation for Maxon Japan and wanted to share something new with the audience. He spent a few weeks creating designs and animations while learning to use Octane, but unrelenting deadlines eventually derailed the project.

Though he made some tweaks to X-Reel over the years, he didn’t really finish it until the summer of 2020 when he realized his experiment had become a film. “I love beautiful visuals, especially of imaginary and surreal worlds,” he says, explaining that it’s important to him to always be creating something new.

As the camera gets close, the details of Sato’s logo more visibly demonstrate his style.

Orchestrating a Journey in CG
After passing through a macro view of Sato’s logo, Portal transports viewers into an everchanging world that includes several different sphere’s, each with its own universe. Particle looks and glowing lines were created using X-Particles. C4D’s Voronoi Fracture made the explosions possible with Octane Scatter coming in handy for creating shots that included asteroids, roses, butterflies and the futuristic woman’s face.

Sato chose the rose imagery as a symbol for “galactic birth,” combining X-Particles and Turbulence FD to make the particle movement more interesting and organic. At one point, the film’s soundtrack moved him to move from the surreal to a short infographic displaying details of a planet called Blue Rose. “It took several tries to get that right, and I got the look I wanted with a mix of Octane Scatter and Red Giant’s Trapcode Form.

A hint of a rose shape appears (top image) implying the birth of a galaxy. The infographic (below) is meant to depart from the more surreal feel.

Though he’d always envisioned including a human/humanoid character in the project as the implied creator of the imaginary world, Sato does not consider himself a character animator. So, armed with skills he learned between 2017 and 2020, he used Cinema 4D to modify his original 3D scan model to get a much-improved female character.

Sato used KitBash 3D for the “futuristic/cyberpunk” cityscapes, as well as Merk Vilson’s TopoWire plugin for C4D to connect various elements. Low-poly car models were redesigned to look like they could fly and retextured to appear futuristic. “I think I like making futuristic scenes because I was so amazed by some of the scenes I saw in sci-fi movies like Total Recall, Ghost in the Shell, and Blade Runner 2049,” he says. “And if I had not been at Prologue, I don’t think I would be able to imagine and create the kinds of details I’m able to do now.”

Sato loves creating futuristic cities. This scene was made using KitBash 3D and the C4D plugin, TopoWire.

Getting Noticed for Your Style
Working at Prologue helped Sato build a substantial client network, but it’s still been exciting to see how much his short films have helped introduce new people to his work. “When Moment of Beauty became a Vimeo Staff Pick I was already booked on several projects, so I couldn’t take much new work, but I was surprised by the number of emails I received,” he recalls.

Directors and producers who get in touch usually want him to create something new, but still along the same lines of the film they saw and liked. “I have had so many opportunities because of my short films and people I met at Prologue,” he says, explaining that he was asked to join the pitch for making the Power Ranger movie title sequence after Beyond the Moment of Beauty came out.

They got that job, and later he was asked to help with a pitch for the main titles for Aquaman after creative directors saw some of his X-Reel work. “We won that pitch too, and I had the chance to create the final version of the Aquaman main title sequence. I really appreciate that they offered me that opportunity.” Next came offers to be a part of the pitch for the Blade Runner 2049 titles and Captain Marvel.

All of the pitches were successful, and Sato is very grateful. “I deeply appreciate the friends and studios who have given me to opportunities to work together on great projects. At the same time, I enjoyed making Portal because it was something my heart wanted to try. That is the real happiness of creation for me, and possibly for audiences as well, so it’s a win-win.”

Meleah Maynard, Writer/Editor – Minneapolis