What if you were a spaceman and had make a pit stop somewhere to go to the bathroom? What if semi-trailer trucks had to be bred and raised so their "skins" could eventually be turned into stylish, recycled bags? Or what if Santa Claus were really just a delivery guy, going around dropping off packages? Those are the sorts of questions Neil Stubbings asks himself while coming up with storylines for the animated short films he's become known for.
Based in Zurich, Switzerland, Stubbings is a character designer and animation director who describes his style as "contemporary CGI that mimics the look and feel of traditional animation". His primary tools are Cinema 4D and After Effects, and he enjoys experimenting with modern techniques to achieve a classic look. "I really love classic cartoons, not just because of their brutal humor and hilarious character animation, but also for their fantastic background design."
Here, Stubbings explains a bit about himself and his personal and professional work, as well as his process for creating animated shorts, including Maxon’s 2019 holiday greetings.
Tell me about yourself.
Neil Stubbings: I am half Swiss and half British, and I live in Zurich. I have a degree in graphic design, and I started out working as a classic graphic designer, but only for a short while. I was always fascinated by moving images and the entertainment industry. When I found a TV station’s posting for an internship in their on-air promotion department, I took the chance. My boss gave me a short introduction to After Effects and I was completely hooked. That internship turned into a full-time job, and I worked there for about a year. During that time, they trusted me to create complete graphics packages for the station's shows.
Eventually, the station got shut down and I was hired by a local motion design studio. A few years later, I started a new motion design studio, LeMob, with my former boss from the first place that hired me and it was quite successful. But I needed a change, so after five years I went freelance again. Today I work independently within a collective called PULK. We're 10 guys sharing an awesome studio space in the heart of Zurich.
Although everyone is independent, and we’re not a company, we do share the studio and our workstations are connected to act as a render farm. We have a pipeline tool and we work together on a lot of projects. Currently, we are the biggest dedicated CGI and animation studio in Switzerland.
What inspired you to move into making animated films?
NS: After doing numerous motion graphics jobs, I felt the urge to introduce characters into my work. At first that meant ridiculously simple 2D characters animated in After Effects, and of course those animations where terrible so I tried to learn more about character design and animation. I also found joy in thinking up and creating the worlds and situations those characters live in. Those situations eventually became stories. I just love creating weird characters and the worlds they live in. I love thinking up the smallest details of what makes the characters’ world go around.
Watch Truckin' below:
Is that when you brought 3D into your work?
NS: I got to a point when the 2.5D world of After Effects was too limiting for what I was trying to do. There was no way around having to learn 3D, which I had always refused to do because I felt like it was way too technical for a graphic designer like me. I also had to learn character rigging because there were no easy auto-riggers back then. That was an absolute nightmare on one hand, but kind of fascinating on the other. I did some research to find a 3D program that was easy to learn for somebody with a design background and not too techy. I found that Cinema 4D was indeed quite easy to get into and understand, and there are tons of resources online and off.
You made a film for Maxon’s holiday greetings this year. What was your process?
NS: Maxon gave me a carte blanche. I really love jobs where I have the creative freedom to come up with a concept for the story, but it is also the toughest part. I didn’t have much time, so I needed a story that was not too complex or involved a lot of assets that I had to build from scratch. Normally, I design the characters first but, for this film, the environment was equally important because it almost takes on the role of a supporting character.
I wanted the film to have a classic look that would remind people, at least from my generation, of the cartoons we used to watch on TV at Christmas time. I had this scene in my head where a red van jumps over a little rise in the road. The full moon is in the background and there’s a nice, calm winter landscape. I took that as a key visual and started designing directly in Cinema 4D, quickly throwing some shapes together to get a basic landscape and then defining the design of the trees.
At the same time, I worked on the shaders that give my films their painterly look. The snow shader was particularly challenging and, in the end, required a slightly different setup for every single scene. When I was happy with the look of the key visual, I started to design the characters and the other locations. Designing the characters directly in Cinema 4D offers three advantages: It gives the characters a simple, stylized, almost vector graphic look; I can design and model in one pass; and the agony of rigging, especially skinning, is much lighter with simply shaped characters like these. I used the character object with the advanced biped preset for rigging. The rigs are quite heavy, but the setup is fast and simple.
Do you now work exclusively in the CGI/classic style you used for the holiday greetings?
NS: No, it just one style that I like to work in. I gave a talk about the technique at Maxon’s IBC Maxon booth in 2018, and it’s become somewhat of a signature style for me. See another example here. But I also do some more popular 3D-rendered character work. I do a lot of animated shorts for commercial clients, as well as personal projects that have been screened at international film festivals. And I’m available for freelance directing, design, animation and concepting. Overall, though, I think the influence of classic cartoons is noticeable in all of my work, regardless of the rendering style.