By Greta Chiocchetti
For students in Studio X, the School of Animation & Visual Effects’ (ANM) faculty-mentored animation production studio at Academy of Art University, the year 2020 was a momentous one, despite everything that was happening in the world around them.
During the last class meeting of this past fall semester, ANM Director Catherine Tate delivered the crew (including Lead Producer Melissa Spearman; Compositing Leads Courtney Cheesman, Yan Li, Ron Marelli, and Romina Zolpirani; CG artists Maria Cifuentes and Ryan Arnanjaya, among additional student artists) some gratifying news: the film they had worked on for the past three semesters would be premiering at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
“Strawberry Mansion,” a surreal story of a dystopian future in which even dreams are not safe from the surveillance state, is the sixth film to make its debut at Sundance that Studio X has partnered with in its 12 years of being established at the Academy. It’s a highly-saturated, dreamy fantasy romance that left the students a lot of room to flex their imaginations. But more importantly, said Tate, it’s a film that speaks to the current moment.
“We definitely go for things that are pretty—with great art direction—and that look good on a reel when we’re scouting for projects,” said Tate. “But it’s also important to us that the films we partner with say something substantial about the world we live in.”
The film’s setting, which takes place mostly in a dream world, offered the chance to take some artistic liberties in post-production, especially with one asset that the Studio X team lovingly refers to as the “buffalo shot.” In one dream sequence, a papier-mâché buffalo gets shot, but the 3-D team, supervised by ANM Faculty Technical Lead Jason Patnode and adjunct faculty Michael Raphaelovich, decided that—to maximize its impact—the buffalo could be more lifelike. Integrating the papier-mâché with a lifelike CG buffalo head, the students added a realistic bullet hole and eerie oozing blood that took the scene over the top.
“For that shot, I had to do a lot of things I wasn’t familiar with,” said Maria Cifuentes, a CG artist on the Studio X team who textured and rendered the head. “I was learning the techniques at the same time in a different class, and I was applying what I was learning to what we were doing in Studio X. It was really the best way to learn it, but definitely high-pressure.”
CG artist Ryan Arnanjaya animated the head to make the buffalo blink, breathe through its mouth, and look around at the live-action actors, bringing the shot to life. As Compositing Lead, Romina Zolpirani was responsible for combining all of the different generated elements and putting them into one scene. For the buffalo shot, she integrated the blood and the breathing into the scene, in addition to compositing the computer-generated buffalo head with the practical body.
Throughout the project’s three-semester run, students learned to interface with their client and problem-solve along the way. But when their deadline was suddenly moved up by a month and a half, the Studio X crew found themselves up against the clock.
“It was definitely a stressful time,” said Courtney Cheesman, a compositing lead on the project. “We were scrambling to make sure every shot was done. It was right around midterms season, too, so we were all juggling a lot.”
But it’s all a part of the studio experience, noted Ron Marelli, a compositing lead. “I think the thing that separates Studio X from other classes is that there’s someone else—it’s not necessarily all about you learning—it’s about someone else getting what they need, so their film can proceed,” he said. “There’s a certain amount of ‘Oh, my God, this is crazy. How the hell are we going to do this? I’m not going to sleep.’ And then you’re like, ‘Okay, let’s do it.’”
The crew leaned heavily on the leadership of Studio X Head of Production Sasha Korellis to cross the finish line.
“That’s where she shines— she knows how to redirect and get things done,” said Tate. “She was able to accelerate the schedule and let go of things that we didn’t need to do, so we could focus on the work in front of us and complete it at the highest possible level.”
To keep up with the project’s demanding deadlines, Lead Producer Melissa Spearman worked closely with the artists to ensure they were supported and helped them avoid burnout. One of her suggestions—to add additional compositing lead artists (Marelli, Zolpirani, and Li) so Cheesman wouldn’t get overwhelmed—streamlined the process.
“Encouraging the artists to stay positive and persevere through creative challenges was another important responsibility that my producer-student friends and I strove to fulfill every week,” said Spearman. “I couldn’t be more proud of my team and the effort that they put into it every week from all corners of the world.”
In addition to tight deadlines, Studio X students were scattered around the country and attended class remotely over the course of the entire project. But rather than allowing their distance from each other to be an impediment, the crew used it to their advantage.
“I was in Florida while I was working on the project, so I was actually in the future,” said Cifuentes. “It was actually great because I could wake up at 8 a.m. and start working, and it would still be 5 a.m. in California, so I got this big jump start.”
In the end, Studio X delivered 61 shots and nine 3-D CG assets—a record production for the short time frame and a smaller crew. The film’s upcoming premiere at Sundance is slated for Friday, January 29.
“It’s quite a dance,” said Tate. “It’s an amazing feat that we can actually make this work.”
Join Studio X on Thursday, Feb. 25, at 6 p.m. (PST) for a panel discussion with the filmmakers, faculty, and students. Register for the event at bit.ly/strawberrymansion.
“Strawberry Mansion” Studio X Team
Catherina Tate | Senior VFX Supervisor
Sasha Korellis | VFX Producer
Jason Patnode | VFX Supervisor
Michael Raphaelovich | CG Supervisor
Romina Rabti Zolpirani
VFX Production Manager
Victor Almanzar Polanco
Cristiano De Souza
Halimat Folake Usman
VFX Production Assistant