As the campaign for the ADC 95th Annual Awards implied, ADC Cubes are a very rare thing — unless of course you were talking about the addictive frozen chocolate mousse Gold Cubes that were served at last week’s Celebration. But there’s rare, and then there’s rare, and last Thursday night etched itself into history as the ADC Black Cube — already an honor so unique that it isn’t even bestowed every year — went to four School of Visual Arts students. This ts the first time in ADC’s 95 years that a Best in Show honor went to students.
The Black Cube was awarded to SVA Computer Art, Animation and Visual Effects students Elizabeth Ku-Herrero, Nicholas Manfredi, Thaddeus Andreades and Marie Raoult for their animated short Taking the Plunge. We had a chance to chat with Elizabeth and Nicholas after the ceremony about the challenges of such an ambitious project, the honor of winning such a top award and their plans for their professional futures.
If we may keep the nautical theme going here, when coming up with a thesis, the world is your oyster. How did you and your teammates settle on what you wanted to create?
Elizabeth: We were influenced by a number of aspects in regards to what kind of story we wanted to tell. Firstly, we are a team of four Computer Animation students who were just about to spend an entire year on a film, so we needed to make sure that we were taking advantage of all our skills. Specifically, we had Nick, whose strength lies in Cinematography and Layout. Thaddaeus is one of the most intuitive animators I know. Marie is an incredible modeler and rigger, and I focus on Look Development. This means we needed something that could truly evolve over time, cover a large environment, and would be techincally challenging for us.
Nicholas: Well we started off the process by deciding what environment we wanted to “live in”. Then one day Liz had the idea of a man proposing to his girlfriend on a dock and just when he’s about to ask her to marry him he drops the ring and has to dive in after it. It sinks down to the depths where it lands on top of a Shark King. From there myself and the rest of the team spoke about different films and stories that we all loved and tried to take different elements as reference from each of them to formulate the story that we wanted to tell.
Elizabeth: We were captivated by a story of love and wanted to turn it into an epic action adventure.
What were some of your inspirations and influences in making this film?
Elizabeth: During the creation of this film, aesthetically, we were inspired by a lot of incredible individual 3D artists like Pedro Conti and Vitorugo. We also used films like Tangled and How to Train Your Dragon as inspiration for lighting, and how to properly move a camera through a high action sequence and enormous set, respectively.
Nicholas: There were also such films as The Lion King, Aladdin, The Little Mermaid and The Great Mouse Detective to name a few. We really just took a look at all of the work that really affected us and made us want to become storytellers.
But actually one of our biggest influences came from our co-director Thaddeus’s true story of his marriage proposal. Luckily his went nothing like the one in our film, but the emotions that he felt really helped us guide our story.
“…one of our biggest influences came from our co-director Thaddeus’s true story of his marriage proposal. Luckily his went nothing like the one in our film, but the emotions that he felt really helped us guide our story.”
Tell us about the team dynamic. How did you all work together? Who did you turn to for guidance and advice?
Elizabeth: Our team dynamic is what I think has led to such a successful film. Marie and I specifically sought out Thaddaeus and Nicholas to work with us because they are extremely kind hearted, level headed, and patient artists. They’re the kind of people whose vibe you want to constantly surround yourself with. In complete opposition, Marie and I are extremely high energy and passionate. I think we worked wonderfully together because we maintained that passion and level headedness throughout the whole film.
Nicholas: In order to balance the workload, we split it up and put each person in charge of the areas that were their strength, so that person had the final say when it came to decision making. From there we each helped on different sections. Thaddaeus and I split up the Animation and the Camera work, Liz and Thaddaeus split up the Lighting and Compositing, Marie and Liz split up the Modeling, and Liz and myself worked closely on the Storyboarding process. Throughout the process we looked to our thesis advisor Joe Burrascano to keep us on task and on time. Whenever we hit a roadblock with the story Joe was the first person we went to for guidance.
Elizabeth: Of course, there were plenty of times we butt heads, but that will happen when you have four directors. We also give a lot of credit to the fact that we were all directors in our success. Stylistically, Thaddaeus and I tended to agree on most things while Nick and Marie usually saw eye to eye. In this way, we found ourselves having to constantly explain every decision we wanted to make. When I watch our film, it’s hard for me to let myself relax into the spot of an audience member. To me, the film is a composition of every conversation we had, all the disagreements, all the debates — you’re just seeing the solution!
“To me, the film is a composition of every conversation we had, all the disagreements, all the debates — you’re just seeing the solution!”
Were there any surprises along the way? Did things ever take a different direction than you initially envisioned it, or did you stay pretty close to the plan?
Elizabeth: There are parts of the film that follow my storyboards exactly, shot for shot. However, there are plenty of moments that have been completely stripped out all together. Every day we reminded ourselves that the decisions we were making were to strengthen the film, which made these decisions easier. But besides story hurdles, there were plenty of technical challenges we didn’t plan for.
We didn’t think we’d ever show the top of the ocean. We didn’t consider the fact that our main character would expel bubbles using his scubadiving gear. We didn’t wrap our minds around how we would populate an entire scene with hundreds of fish either. The animation pipeline is very interesting because you generally will be modeling the environment as the animators are adding life to the characters. Then shading and lighting is introduced in which you can really hone the look and feel of the film. Therefore, there are a lot of things being juggled at once and they will periodically fall on your plate and on others at other times. Within this ebb and flow of this process, as we were starting to recognize these new technical challenges, we understood that they had to be faced head on because there were just too many other things happening in the pipeline. I guess you could say we went through this film with brute force, but we were all extending a hand to each other where ever we could. It was truly a fantastic collaboration of friends. It kind of reminds me of those human pyramids (or maybe the arms of an octopus if you want to get corny), we all supported each other.
How did you know when the project was “finished”? Was there anything you’d do differently with more time or resources, or do you look at the end result and say “yeah, let’s not gild this lily?”
Nicholas: We had a strict deadline with the school on when the project was due, so that date is when it had to be “officially” finished. Looking back. there are only one or two things that I would’ve wanted to change but that’s just the perfectionist in me! But in all honesty I couldn’t be happier with the version of the film we have now! I’m very proud of it.
Elizabeth: For me, it truly did not feel finished until about four months after its completion. I think for the first couple of months I felt extremely guilty relaxing. It was engrained in my head for a while that time I was taking off meant extra pressure that was spilling on to my teammates.
And in regards to the finished product, we impressed ourselves a lot along the way, and I think for that reason we were able to move on from the film feeling pretty content. Of course, looking back at it now, there’s a million things I would change! However, that’s the beauty of this industry. The most powerful thing in my career has been to be inspired by amazing artists and learning to become your own version of that. I love what we do so much because we’re constantly learning. And the more you learn the more tools you have to tell the stories you want. I look back at our film with pride and a little bit of wincing, but I’m extremely inspired by how much more we have to learn.
So how does it feel to not only win Best in Show, but to be the first students to do so in ADC’s 95-year history? You beat out some pretty renowned industry heavyweights to take that honor!
Nicholas: We are truly speechless. We’re so thankful and honored that the ADC jury chose our film for such a prestigious award. We want to say a special thank you to the group of extremely talented artists who made up the jury this year, who saw something in our work that appealed to them. That really means the world to us. Also we’re so blown away to be recognized by an organization whose past honorees included innovators like Jim Henson and Walt Disney, who are both personal heroes of ours! Winning the Black Cube, is really an amazing and unexpected honor that we will cherish forever!
Elizabeth: Tt’s really difficult to answer this question because we’re honestly just four friends who love doing what we do. It almost feels unfair that on top of the amazing experience we’ve had and the joy we recieved while making it that we’ve also been blessed with so much support. I can’t really wrap my mind around it, so I’m just going to keep making things!
“…we’re so blown away to be recognized by an organization whose past honorees included innovators like Jim Henson and Walt Disney, who are both personal heroes of ours!”
So what’s next for you guys? Surely this win will put a slight uptick in your already phenomenal career prospects.
Elizabeth: I’m specifically looking to stay in New York for a while. I’ve been freelancing around the city and have had to pleasure of being able to wear many hats as a Look Development Artist. However, I’m specifically looking to find that studio whose environment I really click with. The team is extremely important and I’d love to be surrounded by individuals who inspire me once again. I’m also hungry to be challenged to do my best work and constantly learn.
In my spare time, I’m working on a personal project. I’d like to push my 3D style a bit and am interested in pushing some quirkier content. You can expect some thing out of me in 2017!
Nicholas: I’m open to anything! Ultimately I want to direct a feature film, but right now I want to start working as a Director on both animated and live action commercials/short films, and continue working as an Animator and Previs artist at different studios in both New York and Los Angeles. I’m also interested in traveling abroad to work at different studios all over the world. My main goal is to continue telling stories whether they be long or short, because storytelling is what I love to do.