The Dance of Life in CG

Playful Studio explains the making of their nature-inspired short film ‘Magna Mater.’
By Paul Hellard

The collective behind Argentina-based Playful Studios collaborates on a wide range of creative campaigns for clients all over the world. They’re also committed to their own collaborative ventures, including their recent CGI short “Magna Mater,” which uses dance to celebrate Mother Nature.

We talked with Pablo Alfieri, creative director and founder of Playful to find out more about the film, which features the work of more than 30 artists using many different tools, including Cinema 4D, Houdini, Redshift and more.

Tell us about yourself.

Alfieri: I was born in Avellaneda, a big city in the province of Buenos Aires, Argentina.

My first steps in the industry were at the local graphic design studios. During those years, I started to build my own artistic profile in networks such as Flickr and Behance. At around the same time, I also discovered Cinema 4D for the first time.

In 2010 I opened Plenty, my studio on the Buenos Aires scene. For six years I worked on more than 60 international branding and advertising projects. My team has lately been using Cinema 4D, Gaea, World Creator, Redshift, Forester and Houdini, so I’ve gone from being a graphic designer to CGI motion director.

How would you describe Playful and how you work as a collective?

Alfieri: I started Playful in 2016.That was my own artist screen nickname at the start of my career.Plenty was successful, but I wanted new languages ​​and challenges. I wanted to lean closer to the digital world, and I wanted to be able to work in the animation industry in a different way. This was the remote studio concept.

Back then, a proposal to open a studio without a physical space, was unthinkable to most clients. Admittedly, with the Playful team working from their homes, it was very hard to compete with all the established studios of the time. It took us almost two years to win the trust of international agencies, brands and clients.

At the same time, freelancing was booming in our industry and I found myself and two partners, Matias Furno and Agustina Santkovsky, working for international brands and digital campaigns. Just a few months later, we were a bunch of people working from all over the world, and over the years, Playful has become a successful creative collective online studio.

Tell us about “Magna Mater.”

Alfieri: The idea struck me maybe five years ago, when I began work as a live-action director.My initial idea was to do a mixed-media film inspired by places like Lanzarote and Iceland. I watched a couple documentaries about these islands where volcanic eruptions hundreds of years ago had taken humans completely by surprise. The crazy thing about nature is how, despite the destruction, it always re-emerges and grows again.

We wanted to make the film to stretch ourselves creatively as a group. The script described the connection we wanted to achieve between mother nature and humans through dance. My original idea was to approach a truly old, ancestral ritual where a group of humans evoke the newborn of Mother Nature.

The core theme being that nature reinvents itself over and over. To save time and budget, we produced the completely CG film using the dance moves of Carla Sisteré Lopez (as Cosmo). A powerful muse, she used dance to communicate bringing Mother Nature back to life again.

How did you find 30 artists to contribute and how did you collaborate?

Alfieri: In February 2020, one month before COVID-19 spread all around the world in a matter of weeks, I was at home reading through a notebook of rough sketches and concepts. On an impulse, I called some talented friends to start to massage those ideas and decide together if the story was strong enough to develop.

In a matter of weeks, we were five artists doing experiments from different parts of the world with Gaea, World Creator, Forester and Houdini. It was quite hard in the beginning. None of us had done landscapes on the level that “Magna Mater” required, and we had never done crazy sea creatures like we featured in the film.

The creation of the Cosmo character also exceeded our skills, and we knew five people could not create a CG film by themselves in six months. We brought on more people and took 15 months to finish it: even though we really worked only eight months, but we took breaks to work on commercial projects to help fund it. Everyone was commissioned to work on the production.

Walk us through your process?

Alfieri: Other than a couple of documentaries we watched for inspiration, we worked without a storyboard or references. We just followed our instincts and artistic tastes, at least in the very beginning of the project. The documentaries were on Iceland and coral reefs.

While creating the sea creatures, CG artists Matias Furno and Martin Salfity started to do something interesting in Houdini. Using a simulation as a modelling tool, they inflated a simple sphere with a balloon-like surface texture and randomly affected the areas of the sphere we wanted to inflate.

We used some of the inflated instances to simulate over the top of that again until we found the motion we wanted. From there, we created incredibly organic shapes inflating in a very natural way. We’d created a creature that looked a lot like a jellyfish.

Meanwhile, Fede Kanno, Macs Riedel and Mariano Abel created environments not from this planet. Their strangeness and uniqueness allowed us to create a surreal perception of another world where even bioluminescent flora comes to life.

We used 3D models of plants, and with Forester, Matrix and the cloner resources in Cinema 4D, we created all the arid landscapes we required. We assembled everything in Cinema 4D, and Cosmo was added as an Alembic asset and animated and simulated in Maya and Houdini. The landscapes were imported from Gaea & World Creator and then shaded and lit in Cinema 4D.

Redshift was used for the final rendering across the whole film, which allowed us to integrate Houdini and C4D scenes easily. Matias took charge of post-production to give the final touches to each shot, mostly in After Effects. Nuke was used to tweak some details related to post effects in 3D environments.

Say more about how Cosmo was created?

Alfieri: Rafa Zabala created the character in a matter of weeks with Blender and ZBrush. Rafa introduced us to the crew at Twisted Mountain Animation. They rigged Cosmo in Maya and Ruan Els and Nemanja Ivanovic used C4D and Substance Painter for the final texturing and shading, first in 4K and then in 8K, to make sure Cosmo could feature in closeup.

Meanwhile, I received the Rokoko Pro Suit in Barcelona. After some experiments with a Rokoko Pro suit, we called Carla Sisteré Lopez. There were some precise actions she needed to do for the story, but Carla also improvised some moves to express her unique style through dance.

Cosmo had to be dressed, so we took on the challenge to digitally create the black poncho, our first fashion piece. Alex Levinton, Ferran Sellares and Martin Salfity brought the poncho to life by applying complex fabric dynamics simulations attached to her behaviors in Houdini.

What else would you like readers to know about your studio or the film?

Alfieri: I would tell people to trust your investment of time in experiments. Try to find the balance between commercial and artistic projects and surround yourself with talented people who trust in the power of ideas. Don’t stay still, keep moving and go for each challenge life puts in front of you. There is literally nothing we cannot do in this CGI world.

Paul Hellard is a freelance journalist in Melbourne, Australia.