Making Babies in 3D

By VFS Web Team, on March 25, 2008

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"1713","attributes":{"class":"media-image","typeof":"foaf:Image","style":"","alt":"Fight for Life, Jellyfish Pictures\/BBC"}}]]3D Animation & Visual Effects grad Antonio Mossucca already had stories to tell before coming to VFS - floods in Bangladesh, the Pope in Cuba, crisis in Jerusalem. His work as a cameraman took him all over the world to see firsthand what the rest of us watch on the nightly news.
But while he was jetting around the globe, what he really wanted to do was satisfy a long-standing curiosity about 3D. After 12 years as a cameraman, he quit his job and flew to Vancouver. He graduated from VFS in 2005, and is now working for London's Jellyfish Pictures.
With Jellyfish, he was a big part of the team responsible for the visual effects on the BBC 6-part documentary series Fight for Life, an inside look at the human body's ongoing struggle to make it in an unforgiving world. Antonio's finest achievement on the production? He modeled and rigged a human baby.
The work done by Jellyfish has been roundly acclaimed, including an award for Best Digital Effects from the Royal Television Society and a coveted Visual Effects Society (VES) Award for Outstanding Visual Effects in a Broadcast Series - a huge honour for anyone in the industry. We got in touch with Antonio to hear more about the project - and his own fascinating career. Read on, and be sure to check out the gallery at the bottom of the post.
You've definitely done a lot of different things, before VFS and after. What drew you to 3D in the first place?
I was always fascinated by visual effects even before 3D came out. I used to draw and create characters. When 3D came out, that was a great surprise and challenge.
Having a traditional background, I didn't really know anything about computers. I bought my first computer in 2000, which opened up an entire new world for me. I found the 3D medium perfect to merge my two biggest passions: creating characters and using a camera to film them like they were real people. It was kind of a dream come true.

Then I did a lot of research about where to study, and VFS was absolutely the best choice for me. I quit my old job. It's a very intense program, and I just wish it could have be a little bit longer, because there's so much to learn. But one year was perfect for me.
[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"1714","attributes":{"class":"media-image","typeof":"foaf:Image","style":"","alt":"Fight for Life, Jellyfish Pictures\/BBC"}}]]Do you think your experiences as a cameraman have had an effect on how you approach your 3D work?
Definitely, yes. My approach is kind of camera first. I make sure that the camera is locked and approved by the client with an animatic - everything comes after that. It's useless to model, texture, light, or animate things you would never see in shot.
Another thing is, my approach is not coming from the idea that the computer does the job for me, but that I just use the computer to do the job. It's just another tool. A lot of people think that the computer does the job for you - I don't think so. I never look for the latest plug-in that does the job for me.
Maybe we could go into a little detail about your career since VFS - what have you been up to since graduating in 2005?
After graduation, I did a little period of internship in a small studio in Vancouver for around two months, which was a good experience to start. Then I got back to Italy, where I found a job surprisingly fast. I worked for around one year at Milestone, which is a video game company based in Milano.
But I was still much more interested in working in TV or movies, so I sent my demo practically everywhere in London, considering this the best place in Europe to work in this industry. And I got an offer from Jellyfish Pictures.
Fight for Life: What was your role on the production? What, specifically, were you responsible for?
[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"1715","attributes":{"class":"media-image","typeof":"foaf:Image","style":"","alt":"Fight for Life, Jellyfish Pictures\/BBC"}}]]Jellyfish told me about this amazing project. I couldn't believe the opportunity.
The biggest challenge for me, of course, was to model a photoreal baby. That was the first step. So I started to gather lots of pictures of babies and started to model from scratch, just using these reference pictures and XSI polygonal modeling, nothing more. After that, the rigging, and then building all the shapes for the facial animation.
At the same time, Marco Iozzi, our lead lighting/shading TD, started working on textures and building shaders, which brought a lot of the photorealism. Then I started to animate the camera, figuring out with the director angles and camera moves to simulate kind of endoscopic camera realism. And finally I did the animation of the baby.
Actually, I modeled three different babies for three different stories. They were slightly different in proportions - this was the biggest task I had in the poject.
Other more technical responsibility in the project was that, once Marco lighted and shaded shots, they usually came back to me to set off renders and making sure everything was working okay in the farm.
What about the challenges specific to modeling and animating for something which is supposed to be, above all things, realistic and educational?
Making the camera feel kind of handheld and not too perfectly smooth. I used some camera tracking from real camera movement we captured, and then reanimated shot by shot depending on what we wanted to achieve. Here comes my background.
[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"1716","attributes":{"class":"media-image","typeof":"foaf:Image","style":"","alt":"Fight for Life, Jellyfish Pictures\/BBC"}}]]Another challenge, of course, was to animate the baby, which was quite scary to do, especially because I consider myself more of a modeler and probably a camera person rather than animator, but in the end, it worked out quite well - especially because I set the rig and shapes with the XSI Shape Manager. So I could sometimes even reshape some facial expressions shot by shot, depending on what I wanted to achieve.
The series has gone on to win some pretty big awards, including a VES Award. How does that feel, as a member of the team?
Winning these big awards was great, and everybody is really happy about that. It's always rewarding to see your work appreciated. Sometimes it feels heavy, though, because everybody expects that level of quality, but it keeps you on the right track, I guess, and makes you more keen to learn and do your best on every new project. I feel really happy to be part of the Jellyfish Pictures team. It's not just a work team - we are also good friends and share a lot about what we love to do.
Any chance you can talk about what you're working on now?
At the moment - more body stuff.
Can't wait to find out! Thanks, Antonio, for taking the time to pull back the curtain a little for us. Here's a gallery of images Antonio was kind enough to share, and we encourage you to check out his brand-new site at blueturtle.org.uk as well.
And as a special bonus, here's a small selection of stills and process shots from Antonio's work on Fight for Life that he's been kind enough to share: