A Million Dreams

How Ars Thanea used 3D to create a short film for Huawei, featuring a miniature, wooden world.
By Bryant Frazer

When Huawei approached the WPP Team Huawei agency about creating a promotional short showcasing some of the ways in which technology improves quality of life, they tapped Warsaw-based design and animation studio Ars Thanea to be the creative production lead on the project.

Working closely with WPP Team Huawei, Ars Thanea used Cinema 4D, Maya, Redshift and other tools to create the short, “A Million Dreams,” for TECH4ALL, a digital inclusion initiative supported by Huawei.

The original plan was to shoot real people in several locations around the world to depict technology’s positive impact in four fields: education, health, the environment and development. But the pandemic shut down production, so Huawei pivoted from live action to animation, opening the door for Ars Thanea to reinvent “A Million Dreams” for a miniature CG world with an animated protagonist.

“We wanted to be able to show our craft and achieve the client’s goal in an interesting way,” says Ars Thanea Art Director Maciej Mizer, explaining that the short was based on a realistic mock-up that followed the principles of stop-motion animation. In fact, the characters, as well as the world itself, are all made with textures that suggest tiny puppets hand-carved out of wood.

Crafting a Handmade World

The main hero character, a tiny robot animated in Maya, travels through a handmade African Savanna, a hospital, a rainforest and a remote village world as a metaphor for technology. Nearly everything else was created in C4D, rendered in Redshift and composited in After Effects.

Redshift’s accelerated rendering capability was key to the success of the project, Mizer says. “We wanted to push the renderings as far as possible, even on the lightest workstation, so that the final look was 95 percent there for the artists to see when they were making creative decisions on their own.”

Because Ars Thanea’s specialty is CG, the studio reached out to Argentine directing duo Mab & Becho, who have a background in stop-motion animation. Mab & Becho came up with the story and managed the narrative flow, while also advising the studio’s artists on how props and puppets would be used in real stop-motion films.

“It’s lit as if it’s a miniature, with some puppeteers underneath bringing it all to life,” Mizer explains. To create a sense of racial diversity, the team created several different wood textures reflecting different skin colors. The texture of the domed baobab trees over the heads of figures on the African savanna was designed in C4D and Substance Painter to suggest wooden elements that had been painted by hand.

Designing the sets and props was a balancing act between adding enough detail to make them seem physically plausible without cluttering the frame with unnecessary elements. “The client wanted a very natural feeling, not too busy, so we tried to put details in while also keeping it as realistic as possible,” Mizer recalls.

Modeling, Lighting and Animating the Story

Animation was carefully considered in order to keep each scene believable as a physical construct. As an example, Mizer cites the screens on the wall of the hospital scene. For a typical 3D animation project, the studio would have filled the screens and changed their appearance using animated textures.

For this, they used a kind of flipboard animation to change out the images, he explains. “You see a transformation happening, and it seems to be transforming something that’s really there instead of just being digital images.”

Artists involved in making the characters were sometimes asked to make them appear to be actual toys, like the donkey pulling a cart, which was disassembled in the scene to show the mechanisms inside its body. “It was a completely plausible toy,” Mizer says, adding that while the inside of it was never intended to be shown, “the modeler was so into making toys, he built it that way.”

Lighting decisions, particularly for closeups, were made to add depth and dimension to characters and environments. “There’s a shot where light is reflected by a monkey’s fur, making it look like a real wooden figure,” Mizer says. “It’s imperfect, so you can imagine that a person really painted it.”

Lighting was also used to enhance certain textures and direct viewers’ eyes in certain scene. Making those creative decisions quickly was possible because Redshift helped the artists see nearly final versions on their screens as they were working, rather than following a compositing process that delayed review by hours or even days.

“It was easy for the client to imagine what it was going to look like and also for me to get feedback,” Mizer says, explaining that attention to small details drove the whole process, so having the finished look at the artists’ workstations was crucial.

He credits the entire team with creating a “A Million Dreams,” a high-quality project that they pulled off on a demanding deadline thanks to everyone’s commitment and hard work. Ultimately, Mizer says the project was a welcome opportunity for Ars Thanea to stretch beyond the more design-oriented projects on which the studio’s reputation is built, allowing them to develop an original, animated piece with a story and characters.

“We wanted to make something really special and original since we already have motion design and other more abstract projects in our portfolio,” he explains. “All we really needed was a nice story to tell, and this story was it.”

Bryant Frazer is a writer in Colorado.