Making of Pura Vida

Pura Vida is a graduation film made at Estonian Academy of Arts in 2018, about four flawed friends traveling from New York to Costa Rica for vacation where things go wrong.


Pura Vida literally means pure life in Spanish, but particularly in Costa Rica it is a special phrase which can be used for different things like greetings, for saying “thank you”, “what’s up”, or “take care”, or to be just a happy exclamation - so it kind of means everything and nothing at the same time, like the film itself. The film is more visual rather than narrative, and I'll cover the making-of its aesthetics.

In order to get this specific a little bit ugly look, I set several rules in technique, style, animation, and character design, which helped me to make things more efficient and cohesive. My main aesthetic principle was to embrace digitalness. Everything was made pure digitally, without any raster images or fake imitations of traditional medium neither in textures or a line style.


One of the major things that forms the whole look & feel of the film is a line style and its quality. To get that rough effect I used only square brush with 0 smoothness. And also discovered that the level of zoom of the stage really changes the line quality. If to zoom in too close like at 200% - the line becomes too smooth, so I worked with 50 or 25% of the stage zoom level. That way the line looks really rough and ugly.


After setting up those restrictions in technique, I started to work on the style itself. I wanted to show the contrast between two different worlds of New York and Costa Rica. NY was supposed to be dark, dense, and overwhelming, with overlapping animation and sounds. And CR is kind of slow and chill, so it had to be simple and clean, and I made it mostly white with splashes of colors.


The real country of Cost Rica is tropical and colorful, but in my film it’s kind of an abstract one, and I wanted to show a relaxed atmosphere with some local carelessness. 


To emphasize that, I used unfinished-looking backgrounds to make it more abstract.


For the animation I set several rules as well. I wanted the animation style to be abrupt and snappy, without trying to be perfect and reality imitation. To avoid smoothness in motion I animated on 3’s whenever was possible. On 3’s means there are only 8 images per second, as opposed to the smooth mainstream animation where there are at least 12, or 24, or even 30 images per second.


This limited animation helped me to save more time, and for the same reason I used loops a lot.


Another thing that I used for the more dramatic effect was an animated camera. It’s when everything is animated by hand, including characters, objects and backgrounds, and everything is spinning and rotating around, like in these scene when Bob’s jumping into the water. He’s a pivotal point and everything is rotating around him.


In the scene with a volcano, first I drew the volcano in full size, then animated its rotation, including ash, clouds and smoke, and then I applied camera work, tracking and zooming in when it's going up to the top.


Another rule in my animation was not using (or as little as possible) a mechanical zoom - it’s when a software fills in-between frames automatically. In that case it looks too artificial cause it’s too smooth. So I usually draw all the in-betweens by hand and often I shift and alter them a little bit out of the perfect motion path curve just to break it and make it less robotic.


Another things I used are exaggerations and distortions. I used smears to show off character’s instability at that moment.


The most exciting part was to work on the characters design. Each character has their own flaws in their personalities: Jan, the girl, is too bossy and impatient, Q, the bird, is a paranoid drug addict, Bob, the big guy, is an alcoholic, and Carl has no personality - or at least a boring one - that’s why he loses his head constantly.

To match those personality flaws I put errors into the design: all the characters are asymmetrical, disproportional, and their facial features are slightly off. Also each character has some irritating element to keep it more disturbing: Jan has this inclined pose, and she walks off balance all the time. Q has the glitching glasses, helping him to hide his personality. Bob’s t-shirt has this noisy animated texture on it. And Carl has his unstable disattached head. 


The secondary characters - Costa Rican locals - have this simple white design to match their surrounding.


The very early concepts of the main characters looked nothing like the final version.


Before finalizing the form, I decided to find the right colors first. The characters looked like this - very sketchy, drawn with bold lines, just to test how all colors work together.


Here is the Q’s color scheme.


When the colors were found, I started working on the forms. Every character had several iterations until I found the right design.


At first they were all ugly - not in a good way - but then gradually I changed element by element until I liked the result.


The pivotal point in design was the third iteration when I decided to use outlines in the characters. That’s when it started to work.


For Carl I built the puppet to test his proportions and to see how he looks in different angles. And he has this disattached head on a magnet, which is kind of cool.


With character design there were 2 technical challenges. First one is that outlines have different width for different body parts, and also they all have different colors - it was a meticulous process to color them. And the second challenge was Bob’s animated pattern on his t-shirt. Each frame of animation with Bob has 3 layers: his body, then the t-shirt itself, and then the animated pattern masked out by the shirt.


The last month of production I spent on color correction and sound design. These are renders of the same scene with different color settings to get the right hues after H.264 codec washes off the original colors.


With sound there was a problem as my initial composer suddenly dropped out the project and I had to find the new one very quickly. With Nicolas we spent around 4 weeks on sound design and music, could have been more for such a long film, but I'm pretty happy with the result.


The world premiere of Pura Vida was at the local cinema in Tallinn along with other graduation films. I made a poster for the event featuring Antonio, the mysterious character from the film, who lives inside the volcano and wears an alpaca mask. He is hidden on background in almost every scene!


Making of Fears

Fears is a VFS graduation film made in 3.5 months. It's an attempt to understand whether fears hinder people from doing stuff or they also can be useful.


First there was a topic research, brainstorming and sketching down ideas about fears – what they can do to people and how they can interact with them.


Then a story about a fearless guy coming to a big city began to take its shape (in the first version the guy even has died because of his carelessness). Thumbnails and a general story structure:


At the same time I started making animation tests and exploring a possible look of the film.


Then there was a time for a proper storyboard with full-sized panels. I made everything in flash from the very beginning to have correct sizes, timing, and to be able to add camera movements right away. This way you can get a storyboard and layout at the same time.


Character design. On the first pass I quickly roughed out general shapes and colors with a standard square brush.


Then I went to the details, still trying to keep a certain level of roughness.


Exploring facial expressions.


My favorite part - color exploration. To me colors are very important for visual appeal, so I spent a lot of time on color-blocking and color-correction.


Until it became look good on all monitors, projectors and other devices, which is always a chellange.


The most elaborate part - animation! Though I was studying in a classical animation program, I didn't want to animate my film on paper. So I built my own digital production pipeline (based on a common sense). All animation was done in flash. Animatic was a first step:


Second step was rough animation (with added camera move):


Then was clean animation, which in my case is also a colored one. The jittering was fixed by putting action on 1's.


The final step was to add painted elements and textures. Here a background is painted in photoshop, as well as a fear creature and a tattoo on a macho man. To do that, I exported a png sequence from flash into photoshop (1 frame = 1 layer), painted them there, and re-exported a new png sequence back into flash. It’s quite a meticulous process, as all files have to be named properly and stored in certain folders, otherwise it wouldn't work. In the film there are 1,163 separate elements painted in photoshop.


All the backgrounds were painted between rough and clean animation stages, I tried to keep them abstract-ish. In the shots with animated camera all bg’s were painted frame-by-frame.


In complicated shots I used a lot of references. For a swinging bus shot, first I found a paper model of a real NY bus, printed and glued it, and shot it with a phone as a reference.


Rough animation:


Cleaned, colored, textured animation with special effects:


Then it only remained to listen to about 5,000 songs and pick the right one for the main soundtrack, and to fix couple of things:


A poster for the premiere at VFS:


And then I was pretty happy with a result and ready for the new films!