I'm Morgan McGuire (@CasualEffects). I've been working on computer graphics and games for 20 years at great places including NVIDIA, University of Waterloo, Williams College, Brown University, Roblox, Unity, and Activision.

See my home page for a full index of my blog posts, books, research, and projects.

Monday, December 1, 2014

9 Years Later

The minimalist 9 title card
At the time of its premiere in 2005, Shane Acker's 9 (11 min, USA. dir: Shane Acker) was one of the the greatest student animated films yet produced. Student films and other low-budget computer animations often do not age well. Yet, Acker's film remains in rare company in 2014. With a few others such as Miss Todd (13 min, UK, 2013. dir: Kristina Yee), today it stands at the acme of short-form representational animation, with no "student film" qualification needed. This article analyzes why.

Acker's film depicts the life of rag doll named "9" and its mentor, "5." These dolls inhabit a still world of rubble and junk with their nemesis, a cyborg cat beast. The film is full CGI with design in the style of stop motion, an original score, and no dialogue.

I first saw 9 at the SIGGRAPH 2005 Computer Animation Film / Electronic Theater. The audience of animation experts was ecstatic about the film. That night, it topped all submitted professional animations of the year to win Best in Show and a nomination for the Best Animated Short Academy Award. (It didn't win that 2005 Academy Award, but neither did the excellent One Man Band short, with the resources of Pixar behind it.) 9 won the 2005 Student Academy Award, the 2005 Student Emmy, and first place at eleven film festivals.

9 now streams on the web at Vimeo, a bit degraded by compression. It looks soft at the original 720x540 pixel DVD resolution when compared to current 1920x1080 television and 4096x2160 theater standards but otherwise holds up well.

The Journeyman

Shane Acker directed, produced, and worked in the primary animation roles on 9 over four years at the UCLA MFA program. The lighting and animation are professional but unexciting. The next quality level would be more tonal contrast, stronger key poses, and some fog or dust clouds to frame the shots in depth.

Character designs are thoughtful. For example, 9 is burlap with a zipper that also reads as a short tie. Mentor 5 is older, so it has button closures instead. The characters are their own pockets. Acker channels Lasseter to make this charming; Burton would have made it insipidly precious and Miyazaki, grotesque.

Texturing and materials are uneven. The textures occasionally stretch too far for real materials, distorting their appearance. A master CGI animator at the time might have carefully adjusted material mapping over the surface for each frame to avoid this. Today, cloth simulation technology economically solves this technical problem. So, the visual artifact is more a product of its time than an explicit lapse.

The Young Master

Introducing the beast.
The film's greatness arises from Acker's confidence as a writer and director. In that role, he honors animation traditions, eschews showmanship, and develops interesting moments and transitions in a way that feels fresh but natural. He conserves running time for character and narrative by adopting conventional relationships, setting, and structure--we drop right into a new twist on a formula that makes us feel at home. The script is tight. The cinematography is immaculate.

The character designs are specific through recognizable materials and differentiation. 9 and 5 are clearly similar but have distinct eyes, feet, and chests. The designs are suitably generic, with no fixed ethnicity, gender, body shape, or spoken language. That removes any barrier the viewer's personal identification. The abstraction of hand-drawn animation naturally achieves this. Acker is able to translate the property to a representational film. The setting is ambiguous early in the film to strengthen universality. Later elements suggest Europe or North America as the setting. These include brick architecture, an umbrella, and a white porcelain doll in the ruins.

All plot points and character relationships are clearly established. We knows the rules of this world and the major props from the outset. The foundations of plot twists are properly established so that the audience never feels blindsided. We see each trap being built, even though we don't realize it at the time. 9's number immediately indicates that there were at least eight others. We see the beast consume 5's soul, so we are prepared for the ending.

The film opens with brief vignettes of 9's daily life, linked by fading through black. Introducing a character though mundane experience is a technique for creating empathy. From this classic opening, Acker follows through with transparent mastery of other techniques:
  • Clear establishing shots establish the set for each scene
  • Cuts from POV shots to the characters' eyes
  • Triangular compositions and blocking
  • Dynamic color script, from muted browns to greens to warmer colors, and then a burst into pink and blue for the finale
  • Clean lines and relatively high value contrast
The final showdown.
Two potential melee scenes are resolved abruptly. I suspect Acker wanted combat choreography (since it is the high point of his follow-up film with Tim Burton), but knew that it wasn't essential and didn't have the resources to deliver it in the student film. So, he cut it. The beast immediately snatches 5 for its victory and then later falls into a pit and is impaled for its defeat. A production house would have distracted from the story with elaborate battles. Acker made the right call, regardless of his motivation.


I quibble with only two of Acker's choices. The first is the walking cane (hook screw) falling at 4:30. This event distracts the beast and enables 9 to escape. One should use such coincidences to draw characters into trouble, but never to release them. This is Hitchcock's rule.

The back of the beast.
A second odd choice is at 5:28. The beast's back fills half the frame and we clearly see 5's skin (and the unknown 3's as well) taut over it. Presumably, the beast used their skins for repairs. Although we previously saw the beast manipulate the sensor, its quadruped articulation implied inability to reach its own back and its movements contraindicated self-repair. So, one can misread this shot as the beast being number 35, or 50-something (with the second digit concealed on the right flank). The development is inconsistent and the shot is confusing.

Moments of Brilliance

5 strolls into the frame.
Enter 5. 9 is painfully alone throughout most of the film. We enter the flashback at 2:00 and still see only 9 for the first ten seconds. Then, 5 casually walks into the frame. This is an understated moment for the film that provokes outside joy for the audience. It is powerful because we've been misled by the narrative to not expect another doll. Yet, it yields joy instead of confusion because the setting (again, especially those numbers) conveyed the possibility in a way that is immediately and retroactively clear.

Exiting the flashback. Acker uses traditional tools to signal the beginning of the flashback: change of music and pace, faux film scratches, and a younger version of a character. Exiting a flashback is tricky. Like the character, the audience will be disoriented as they seek to recall the conditions before it. One must re-establish the scene and thus risk tedium by, for example, recycling a wide shot and then closeups to recall the character relations.
Immediately after the flashback.

Acker deploys a bold technique for exiting the flashback. At 4:40, he crossfades between the flashback long shot of 9 running from the beast and the present-time, over-the shoulder shot of 9 in contemplation. The camera is in the same place but the lighting and color grading change. There is a necessary rack focus, but the depth of field is quite large at this point to obscure it. We never quite see flashback-9 and present-9 in the same frame, and the right-to-left running motion in the distance naturally leads directly to 9 entering the frame on the left due to a camera pan. This allows us to wake slowly from the flashback alongside 9 while avoiding repetition of the earlier establishing shot with the doll.

The reverse shot after the jump in time; Acker twice
advances time within scenes instead of between them.
The reverse jump cut. There's an aesthetic rule for making point-of-view (POV) shots read well: show what a character sees, and then a close-up of the character's eyes, or vice versa. This is called a reverse shot. This is workaday and is employed by Acker as it would be by any director, until 8:57. At that point, Acker cuts from the lit bonfire at night to 9's eyes at dawn. An abrupt jump between two otherwise (mostly) aligned shots is called a jump cut. Jump cuts are rare because, lacking any sort of spatial logic for the cut, they make the audience conscious of editing. The exception is that they are effective for quickly conveying the passage of time, but often bring comedy in doing so since actors appear to teleport between positions. More often one establishes the passage of time within a scene by a change of lighting or a series of ponderous cross-fades. Jump cuts are also hard to employ in anything other than a static shot; changing actor positions, time, and camera position simultaneously within a scene is confusing. Acker maintains momentum with a clean cut while advancing time. He pivots from the night POV to the sunrise reverse as if it were a jump cut, and this works. As when exiting the flashback, the audience then slowly senses the new day with 9 and turns to face the future.

Morgan McGuire (@morgan3d) is a professor of Computer Science at Williams College, visiting professor at NVIDIA Research, and a professional game developer. He is the author of the Graphics Codex, an essential reference for computer graphics now available in iOS and Web Editions.