We don’t normally cover Kickstarter campaigns for shorts on CG Channel, unless they’re a bit out of the ordinary. Niles Heckman’s Auroras was a lot out of the ordinary.
The five-minute VFX short was in need of $10,000 completion funding when we featured it in the CG Channel Facebook feed earlier this year. It went on to make over $12,000.
At heart, Auroras is a simple, almost wordless story – Heckman describes it as being “about love, separation and having to say goodbye” – given a new twist by the fact that the separated lovers are both female cyborgs.
But just as importantly, it takes place in a world of neon-lit cityscapes and space transport conduits, whose gauzy, saturated visuals owe a lot indie anime auteur Makoto Skinkai.
Put simply, Auroras looks gorgeous.
Made by one man, in one living room, on one PC
Despite its visual polish, the film was shot entirely in Heckman’s living room on an improvised greenscreen stage, using Panasonic DMC-GH2 and Canon EOS 5D DSLR cameras.
The visual effects were created by Heckman himself, using Maya and V-Ray, with help from art directors Bastiaan Koch & Marco Iozzi, who also contributed Photoshop matte paintings.
“[I've done] a variety of different roles in VFX, so I can be a whole mini-pipeline from start to finish myself if needed,” says Heckman, a former lighter and compositor for studios including Digital Domain and Weta Digital.
Shots were rendered on what Heckman describes as a “zero-budget render farm” – a single PC – running for up to a nerve-fraying three weeks at a time. 2D work was done on a single iMac, in Nuke and After Effects.
‘Like climbing ten Mount Everests’
From start to finish, Auroras took over three years to complete, with Heckman snatching time in between commercial jobs to continue work on the project.
“Out of the ‘good/fast/cheap and you can only pick two’ rule, we definitely jettisoned the fast,” he says.
“Attempting to create a short with lots of high-end CG outside a paradigm of large professional teams is a bit like climbing ten Mt. Everests all by yourself.”
“I can see why so many CG projects never finish because to get it looking good with little money takes forever.”
A true labour of love, about true love
It may be a technical marvel, but ultimately, Auroras is as much a film for the heart as it is for the eyes.
“It shouldn’t be understated that this massive amount of work was done to serve what we feel is a good short story,” says Heckman. “[It's] told in a very technical way, [but it's] one with a fresh concept and underlying culturally relevant themes that’s also packed with symbolism.”
Updated: Auroras art director Marco Iozzi has posted a nice breakdown of the environment art for the short.