Company University of Hertfordshire
Website  herts.ac.uk
Location Hatfield, United Kingdom

Forget Ratatouille. In the short film Fusspot, an impressively realistic CG monkey takes the place of Remy as head chef, brought to life by a group of talented second year students at the University of Hertfordshire. We caught up with Callum McKay, Fusspot project leader, to learn more about the film and its process.

In Fusspot, a CG capuchin monkey contributes to date night by making improvised additions to a planned meal, with unsurprisingly chaotic results.

What’s really impressive is that the VFX short’s impressively photoreal primate is not the work of an experienced creative team, but rather that of a group of students. Callum McKay, Paulina Rybakaite, Piers Shepherd-Rose, Eirimas Jaskinas and Ji Hwan Kim, all Digital Animation sophomores at the University of Hertfordshire, challenged themselves to make a live-action short with a realistic 3D character at its heart. Such photorealism is no easy feat for even seasoned professionals. For a group of second-year students to achieve it on the level witnessed in Fusspot, it’s a real triumph.

Fusspot features a litany of creative challenges typically tackled by professionals with years of creative expertise under the belt: complex fur that reacts to changes in environmental lighting; compositing of CG into real-world plates; keyframed animation that’s true to real monkeys’ idiosyncrasies. Take all of those elements, add an unexpected COVID-19 lockdown into the mix, leave to bake for 60 minutes, and you have one hell of a recipe for a challenging creative project.

And yet Fusspot’s Hertfordshire students achieved their aims with aplomb.

To find out more, we caught up with the team about the project. Below, they tell us how they came together to upgrade their skill set ahead of their third year, all with some support from ftrack Studio.

Callum McKay

Second-Year Student, University of Hertfordshire

“ftrack Studio visualizes what everyone is working on and how fast we’re progressing, and sets predictable plans for our project”

Can you please tell us about the educational aims of Fusspot?

Working on Fusspot presented our first proper taste of what it’s like to contribute to a bigger industry project, and in the process taught us about the collaborative element of creative filmmaking, and of expressing your voice in a group.

Fusspot was so valuable to all the students involved over its year-long creation. During the creative process, we encountered situations where we had to give and take feedback or push our quality boundaries farther. We also learned how to work in a group and develop strong collaborative processes, and in turn, establish and stick to a precise schedule. ftrack Studio helped a lot with that last part.

What were the main challenges encountered in creating Fusspot?

The whole creative process behind Fusspot was incredibly challenging. From a technical standpoint, choosing to create a realistic 3D animal – and particularly a monkey – was a big challenge for second-year students. Even professionals in the visual effects industry find this a challenge, what with the awaiting gulf of the uncanny valley.

Another difficulty was external: the COVID-19 pandemic. Lockdown meant collaboration became a more serious consideration, as we were unable to attend physical meetings and had to track progress from home.

Nevertheless, the guidance we received from tutors and industry experts was hugely valuable. Everyone worked extremely hard and found new ways to collaborate; the experience we gained in doing so is invaluable.

How did you first learn of ftrack Studio?

Fusspot needed to mimic the challenges and collaborative approach of a” real” project. We were interested to know what industry professionals used to manage their projects and asked some graduates; that’s when we first heard about ftrack Studio. One of our group members also had the opportunity to use ftrack Studio during a summer internship at Blue Zoo; they were really positive about the experience.

We didn’t have a huge budget, so once we discovered ftrack Studio offers a considerable discount for students, we made our decision.

During our Creative Project module lecture, we presented our Fusspot schedule and plan. Our tutors were very supportive of us using ftrack Studio for project management as they were familiar with the platform. Furthermore, we could organize everything ourselves inside ftrack Studio without much involvement from tutors; they didn’t need to walk us through the process. Right from the off, ftrack Studio taught us to work systematically and independently.

How did ftrack Studio help you day-to-day in your delivery of Fusspot?

ftrack Studio helped to make Fusspot feel much more professional and as if we were working on an actual studio project. Using the ftrack Studio interface put us in a much more serious mindset.

We used ftrack Studio’s tracking feature heavily. We could make an exact schedule and see how everything was progressing and how much time everyone spent on individual tasks. Seeing such information had side benefits too: people stopped procrastinating as they could see group mates working on the project and completing their tasks in real-time! ftrack Studio was a real motivator.

ftrack Studio also made it easy to transition to WFH collaboration when COVID-19 hit. We were lucky to have ftrack Studio in place and be able to track progress and communicate remotely without interruption to our workflow. We didn’t need to panic about finding a solution halfway through our project!

Did ftrack Studio’s media review functionality help during this time?

When the pandemic hit we all moved to work from home, and we started to use ftrack Studio’s review tools a lot. ftrack Studio’s media review functionality helped us to get work approved and iterations delivered way faster. Everyone could review shots and add notes directly within the ftrack Studio interface.

Will you keep using ftrack Studio as you move onto your third-year projects?

Absolutely. Our experience on Fusspot revealed how easy creative project management could be. Furthermore, as physical meetings won’t be returning in the short-term, ftrack Studio will remain a vital remote collaboration tool. ftrack Studio will visualize what everyone is working on and how fast we’re progressing, and set predictable plans for our projects, even if me and my fellow students don’t get to be in the same room.

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