A Different Kind of Love Story

John Robson on using 3D-scanned actors and procedural effects for his latest film, “Safety First.”
By Meleah Maynard

John Robson has spent nearly 20 years creating award-winning content for top brands, film, TV and games. A Southern California native, he left Late Lunch, the studio he founded in 2005, behind two years ago to take on a director job at HouseSpecial in Portland, Oregon.

But the talented director and motion designer is also known for making thoughtful short films. His latest, “Safety First,” was made using C4D, Redshift, Houdini and other tools and explores what Robson describes as “the isolation, anxiety and self doubt that many of us have been left to face” during the pandemic.

We talked with Robson about how his own experiences inspired the film, and how he used 3D-scanned actors (Layla and Marcus), as well as procedural-based effects to tell a heartfelt story about humans, loss and love.

Tell us about why you wanted to make this film.

Robson: I think it was sort of a compass to keep my chin up through the pandemic. Having a goal further down the horizon was really helpful. I am fortunate enough to have my family close to me, but I still feel that fear of the unknown and that drove me to make the film, which in many ways visualizes my anxiety.

Our experiences of the pandemic can range a lot from person to person. A lot of us have done surprisingly well, but others have lost jobs, gotten evicted or lost loved ones. It’s a weird existence knowing that both realities exist. So this film may have started out as a short satire about wearing masks and other things related to the pandemic, but it expanded to help me keep my sanity.

Procedural static electricity generates randomly and connects two hands that never touch.

Rocks and trees are scattered across a human body in this shot that plays with color and light.

As time went on, I pushed myself to try different styles and technical ideas and I began stringing little moments into a fuller piece. My original thoughts on literal metaphors about romance and sexuality turned into more of a look at self love, comfort and solitude. The message is less about happiness than finding comfort in your own solitude because that’s what all of us have had to do during this pandemic. I think we’ll carry this experience with us for the rest of our lives.

Describe your process, particularly your use of 3D-scanned actors.

Robson: I had originally envisioned doing live action, but the pandemic changed everything, so I had to go a different route. 3D scans are heavy, which means they aren’t used for animation, typically. But my background does not include character animation, so I decided to tinker around to create a rig that would allow me to use 3D scans in ways that could be animated with motion capture.

Basically, I made a rig out of several scans and different facial poses. And then I figured out a way to blend that into a much more optimized setup that allowed for animation. The result is really interesting to me because a lot of people will try to avoid what’s called the uncanny valley, where something is so close to realism it can be disturbing, like young Mark Hamill in “The Mandalorian.”

Characters learn to love themselves during dark times in “Safety First.”

My thought was to embrace the weirdness rather than try to skirt around the uncanny valley, and when I watch the film, I feel comfort and uneasiness. It’s a gray area of emotion, which is really powerful to me. I like that the characters embrace themselves at the end because it feels human but also alien. It gave me the chills when I was working on it, and I know that if I keep pursuing that kind of emotion in my work, I’ll be able to come up with more interesting ideas.

Say more about how you worked with the 3D scans. Did you buy them?

Robson: Yes, I bought them at the 3D Scan Store. They have a whole library of 3D-scanned people, and it’s very difficult and expensive to do yourself if you don’t have all of the equipment. They license them the scans just like you would stock footage or a 3D model. Once I had the scans, the majority of my work was in Houdini and C4D and I rendered with Redshift.

A homemade character rig cycles through different actors who share matching topology and UVs.

Hair was built procedurally using Houdini and rendered in Redshift.

Using the 3D rigs, I created high-res faces that I could animate. I downloaded motion capture from Mixamo and used Houdini’s rigging system to map the models onto the lower-res animations. All of the camera work was done in Cinema 4D, and I used C4D’s Pose Morph features to blend different motion captures together with my own hand-animation here and there. Everything was exported into Houdini to match with the high-res scans.

Shading realistic skin and hair was really crucial for this project, and Redshift’s shading tools were great for that. Aside from being really fast, Redshift was very responsive, so it was easy to dial things in and get them looking right. There are some really stylized looks and a lot of the shading in the film that was all driven by attribute data. That data drives the complexity of the shaders, which is one of the things I love about Redshift because having all of those layers of detail and control is critical.

John Robson explored using styled textures over human anatomy in this shot.

One of the other things I purchased was entire human anatomy, so I had all of the muscles and bones and veins. I also sourced models of organs because I needed to deconstruct all of the layers of the body.

How do you fit personal projects into your life outside of work?
I’ve always been a very hands-on artist and leader, so I think it’s important to have personal work. It has definitely allowed me to explore ideas that wouldn’t fit a commercial brand, but there are also aspects to personal projects that inspire ideas that can be used for more branded content.

What kind of responses has the film gotten so far?

Robson: So far, most people have loved it. But I’ve always known that there would be some people who wouldn’t agree with some of the views I expressed in the film, but part of making stuff is sharing your perspective. There’s no way to make an objective film, even if it’s a documentary.

Redshift was used to create this shot of heat being transferred by a hand pressing into skin.

A smoke simulation was to to make Layla’s skin disintegrate into fiery particles.

I think what’s affected me most is what people tell me about how they relate to the film’s metaphors. I wanted people to experience it on their own as a personal thing, and I feel like that’s happening. It’s touching to think that this film has resonated with a lot of people, even internationally. Honestly, I thought the pandemic would be over by the time the film came out but, instead, I kept having to rerender the credits to update the number of people who have died worldwide.

Do you see connections between “Safety First” and your other films

Quality Time,” “Epoch” and “Connect?

Robson: I feel like my stories tend to cover topics that weigh heavily on my mind at different times. In many ways, exploring those thoughts allows me to hold a mirror up to my own behavior and imperfections. Sharing them helps me gets past them.

Even though the pandemic seems far from over, I feel more hopeful having dug myself a deep hole and climbed out of it. And even if the world is no longer like it was before, I think and hope that by the time my next film is finished, there won’t have to be a sequel to this same story.

Like his other films, “Safety First” explores a topic that Robson has struggled with personally.

Looking ahead, my fascination with exploring the uncanny valley has grown and I want to integrate more facial and body motion capture into my workflow to improve productivity and realism. Even though they were imperfect from a technical standpoint, there something about Layla and Marcus felt deeply human to me.

I feel like there’s a whole world to explore where these people who don’t really exist live. They have stories to tell, and it already seems like photorealism in CG will get to a point in the next few years where we can’t tell the difference between what is real and what is fake. It’s scary and fascinating at the same time, and I want to dive headfirst into that uncharted territory.

Meleah Maynard is a writer and editor in Minneapolis, Minnesota.