Sinking Feeling: Using Blender To Do Good

An interview with the award-winning Blue Zoo, in which they explain how Blender was used to create a short film for charity.  

Blue Zoo is an animation studio based in London. They’re responsible for a range of content, from television to online — with an array of BAFTAS to show for it. As part of their desire to support young talent, Blue Zoo created their own program of experimental films: Blue Zoo Shorts.       

Grace Hebditch of Blue Zoo’s communications department explains more. “We give a brief to the entire studio, and people pitch their ideas. This year, the brief was provided by PAPYRUS UK, a charity working to prevent youth suicide. We’re interested in working for the social good, and this was a great opportunity to do pro bono work. So there was a big pitch session and our director Mark Spokes’ film idea was picked. It’s called Sinking Feeling.” 

Get Paid To Learn Blender

As well as tackling social issues, the Blue Zoo Shorts program gives the studio an opportunity to try unfamiliar software. Grace: “Sinking Feeling is the first short created by a big team working in Blender. We’ve worked with Blender for advertising projects, but this short is an opportunity to experiment with a larger crew. It’s also an inclusivity project, so it means anyone in our studio can get involved.” 

Director Mark Spokes says, “We’re working with around thirty artists, including eighteen animators. We try to include as many people in these shorts as they wish to be involved, and we divvy up the shots as fairly as possible because people are working in their paid overtime.”

When complete, Sinking Feeling will run to a scrappy one minute twenty seconds. “It’s pretty much one animator per shot,” says Mark. “Which is perfect because most of the animators are completely new to Blender. Actually, that was part of our pitch to them: we’ll pay you to learn Blender.” This meant many of the team switched to Blender from one of the biggest players in the animation software business.  

Sinking Feeling: A Short Film On A Big Subject

“PAPYRUS is dedicated to preventing suicide in the under thirties,” Mark says. “It shows a man slowly sinking into the floor, as though it’s mud. We really wanted to include these 2D effects, like the ripples spreading out around him, and him interacting with this mud floor. But we also wanted the film to be in 3D, like the actual characters and animation.” 

Sinking Feeling
Sinking Feeling by Blue Zoo Studio

Mark and his team searched for a program capable of delivering these results, and alighted on Blender — and specifically Grease Pencil. “We could integrate Grease Pencil into our 3D scenes and light it. We also saw how accessible Blender was, and its shaders, and we found a lot of nice tutorials online about how to get a really nice grainy illustrative design look. We got really excited and decided at that point that, yes, we want to do this in Blender. It’s also a good experiment for the studio itself, because the studio is interested in using Blender for bigger projects down the line.”

Sinking Feeling
Sinking Feeling by Blue Zoo Studio

From Dream To Pitch To Choir To Festivals 

Where did the idea for the short film come from? “I was probably half asleep,” Mark says, “I think I was brainstorming ideas about what it feels like to be depressed, to feel like you don’t have any options, as though things are closing in around you. I thought that sinking seemed like a really good metaphor. Nobody around you seems to notice that you’re sinking, because it’s all in your head. Nobody around you seems to empathize.”

To realize Mark’s idea, Blue Zoo will include an unexpected dimension in their production. “The Blue Zoo choir will be involved doing a version of True Colors,” Mark says. “They’re a virtual choir, of course, which got set up during lock down. So that was quite nice, to have that as the audio idea for it. To add a bit more emotional oomph.” 

The film will be published online and submitted to different animation festivals.

Sinking Feeling & Blender

For Mark, Grease Pencil is the most exciting part of Blender. “It’s so lovely to be able to draw 2D animation in 3D space. So even if the layout changes, and we want to move the camera slightly later on, we can do that. For the most part, that animation is still usable. Also, it’s a really nice way to get the physicality of the character working.” 

“We got an external rigger for this called Chris McFall who has been pretty much exclusively working in Blender throughout his career, and does his own commercial work. He’s been doing the rigs for this project for us, and he’s been absolutely brilliant. He implemented this lovely system where we could swap out the characters’ face rigs for a flat 2D Grease Pencil face, so you can draw onto those. For certain emotional close-up shots, the 2D artists can go in and draw some lovely emotional shots in 2D animation.”  

Mark also loves the dynamic parent addon for making constraints. “That’s been really useful. It makes the process even easier than in other programmes.” 

As a trained animator, Mark especially appreciates any tools that make an animator’s life easier. “Because of the very 2D illustrative look of the short, it’s really important to get a strong and easily read silhouette. So with viewport shading, you can on ‘flat’ so it’s like a studio, and you have flat colors. That’s very useful for ensuring you have strong silhouettes. It’s a small thing, but it’s a great boon for me, especially when it comes to reviewing shots.” 

You can watch Blue Zoo’s Sinking Feeling on YouTube