Visual effects thesis receives $10,000 grant from AMD

Photo Courtesy of: Taos Whittaker; from The Sandman, 2018


Three digital arts seniors are developing their thesis film, The Sandman, with new technology from a $10,000 film technology grant sponsored by Advanced Micro Devices, a graphics hardware company.

The Sandmanan eight-minute film that mixes visual effects with live-action footage partly shot in France– and three other Chapman films each received $5,000 AMD grants, but this project received double the funds for its ingenuity in visual effects. With the tech scholarship, digital arts seniors Richard Duan, Ben Jannasch, and Taos Whittaker are pioneering visual effects methods that are new to the digital arts program.  

Grant winners were determined at the AMD Studios Senior Thesis VFX Pitchfest at Chapman on September 5, 2017. The grant was open to any senior thesis film or advanced production project that utilized significant visual effects, which AMD provides technology for.

At the Pitchfest, dozens of undergraduate and graduate students pitched their thesis films that sought to solve a problem in the visual effects pipeline and featured innovative and professional quality visual effects techniques, according to AMD Studios.

The Sandman’s creators showed the scholarship board samples of their method of digital day-to-night conversion, which is used to change daytime plates of their footage from France to the nighttime scenes of their film. The team designs their Sandman character’s emission of light to interact with his surroundings.

They also showed samples of how they planned to develop the film’s dream sequences in real-time rendering engines with gaming software. Additionally, they showcased examples of photogrammetry, a method that involves taking a photo of an object from every angle and using 3D software to create a textured digital model.

“I think that’s how they ended up selecting us,” Jannasch said. “There’s a lot of creative projects out there, but they not only want to see creativity, but ingenuity and people trying to do something that hasn’t been worked on a lot, especially here at Chapman.”

The AMD funds, which supplemented the original $10,000 grant from the Dodge College of Film and Media arts used on production, opened up a world of opportunity for The Sandman.

“Essentially, this grant allows us to expand the scope of what we can do with post-production,” Duan said.

Though the current post-production phase is the heaviest workload for The Sandman team, their collaboration dates back the end of their sophomore year. Digital arts majors can develop thesis films individually, but the trio opted to work as a team.

Since we’re the only visual effects people in our class, we’ve come together to conjoin our powers,” Jannasch said.

By teaming up, the trio had the opportunity to explore storylines and forms of storytelling during the pre-production phase. The initial idea of the film transformed from sci-fi to fantasy as they refined their concept and brought in a live-action director and a producer.  

“It’s all because of the collaboration,” Duan said. “I could never have come up with this idea by myself. Originally I wanted something very simple that could have been done by one or two people, but we allowed it to grow. It’s a complex enough story, yet simple in its basis; it’s rooted in folktales with added twists people might like.”

Essentially, The Sandman follows the folktale character of its title as he travels through dreams of 1950s France and his disastrous mistake of putting a train conductor to sleep – without knowing how to wake him up. With an oncoming train quickly approaching collision, the Sandman must put his powers to the test to save the trains’ passengers.

After developing the story, the trio enlisted their director, senior film production major Natalia Hermida, to shoot on location in the south of France during the summer of 2017.  

Photo Courtesy of: Taos Whittaker; from The Sandman, 2018

“I think something interesting about this project that AMD found very attractive is that we shot on location,” Whittaker said.

Hermida was shooting her senior directing thesis five hours away in Spain at the time and made the trip to France to shoot plates with her director of photography, Santiago Cervantes, and production designer, Alberto Achar.

“It was a completely different experience for me,” Hermida said. “It was imagined timing: where is the character supposed to be right now, and how much time until their next action?”

Hermida says she was constantly consulting with Duan, Jannasch, and Whittaker.

“They are as much directors as I am,” Hermida said. “They are all amazingly talented and I’ve learned a great deal from all of them.”

After filming in France, the team worked on live-action interior scenes shot on film stages on campus. Achar built two bedrooms and the interior of a train conductor’s station in 1950s French style.

It’s fun for us on the digital arts side,” Jannasch said. “We get footage sometimes, but usually just get stuck in editing suites. It’s fun to actually spend concrete time on set and seeing directing in action. This really gave us an opportunity to see the other side of production.”

Photo Courtesy of: Taos Whittaker; from The Sandman, 2018

After the production phase and winning the grant, the team began the post-production phase, setting up their three new AMD workstations side-by-side in an editing suite at the Digital Media Arts Center on campus.

“The hardware is brand new, state of the art,” Duan said. “Even if it renders just one minute faster, if you have 200 frames, that’s 200 minutes saved.”

Now, you can find Duan, Jannasch, and Whittaker working in their suite almost all day, everyday.

“We’re in our arena,” Duan said. “We spend all night working and we love it. Doing something you love for hours on end is a very gratifying experience.”

Hermida says that in the post-production phase, she can take a step back.

“With post-production, I just let these guys do their thing,” Hermida said. “These guys are wizards. I completely trust that what they’re doing will be incredible. I just come by once a week to make sure they’re alive and bring them snacks.”

With the remainder of the grant from AMD, producer Yelim Heo says the team is looking to book live musicians for their composer’s soundtrack to the film.

“It helps to raise the production value of this film,” Heo said.

With the post-production phase in full swing, Hermida says she is excited to see how the film turns out.

“On my side, I feel grateful that I’ve been able to work with such amazing people and to collaborate,” Hermida said. “I’m sure we will have a very interesting, cool project in the end.”

The Sandman will be screened at both the film production and digital arts thesis screenings this spring.

Brittany Toombs

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