Here you will find regular updates on the making of a feature length animated film called The Titans of Brahma.
My name is Richard Herman. I am a painter by profession who has been working with oil on canvas for 35 years, creating landscapes from memory. Alongside this mainstream day job I have had a persistent and peculiar dream-life. Since childhood there have been reoccurring characters, themes, symbols and environments. This dream-life has been the subject of my personal art and writing for many years. Over time it has developed into a series of narratives, and these narratives fall into a pattern that is very intimate to me, the six realms of the Bhavacakra, or Wheel of Becoming, from Classical Buddhist teaching/mythology.
Three years ago I began the work of bringing these dreams to life, with the first of what I hope to be six animated stories. The Titans of Brahma follows the struggle of beings within the Asura Realm, where humans must survive surrounded by jealous gods who are locked in endless war for expansion and supremacy. It is also a vast and beautiful world, moving within a system of planets and moons and wandering stars called The Iron Worlds.
This work began with a year of writing and storyboarding, then another two years of concept design, which involved visualizing this planet called Brahma Vihara, its flora and fauna, its gods and peoples. The project is now at the point of 3D modelling and animation, and from this point on I will be sharing the process here. I will be posting about the technical challenges of creating a CG animation, the editing and the soundscaping, and I will be exploring the in-story background of a world-system, a people who call it home, and their shared symbols that tell of remote origins.
This project is a labour of love. There is no deadline. What counts is creative free-play, balancing a planned outline with spontaneity, and making the best possible animated film.
Thanks for reading, and please enjoy. This project can be followed on Instagram or at reddit/u.
These images show the Titan Lepidus and his retinue approaching the docks of Tanha Brah in the morning light. The previous night Lepidus was beheaded, or debodied, in battle with the Titan Kali Yana Brahm.
This barge in the calm waters of Market Bay marks the confluence of two changing natures, a turning point for the planet called Brahma Vihara, and the Sovereign Titans who rule her.
The first change in nature is within the rising Kali Yana Brahm, who has dismissed all the honors and traditions of her kind, and has decided to do the next “best” thing to killing fellow Titans who cannot die. She has begun to cut them to pieces. Lepidus was her first victim, a chilling message to the rest of the world that the ancient “protocols of war” are effectively dead.
The second great change is a move in the opposite direction. Lepidus is approaching the docks of Tanha Brah, a land ruled by the Titan Tanha Brah. Tanha Brah is the “oldest” and most legendary Sovereign on Brahma Vihara, yet he is now disgraced for being the first among his kind to renounce war. It is a change in nature that mirrors the savage turn of Kali Yana Brahm, and it is just as revolutionary. For a class of Sovereign beings who’s tradition is to honour their competitors without pity, the act of offering asylum and care for the fallen in battle, is shocking. Only his reputation for ancient glories, and a lingering adherence to protocol, has protected Tanha Brah and his human subjects from attack, but now that has changed.
Kali Yana Brahm has turned a pale ocher eye toward her neighbor across the strait.
From concept sketch to 3D model
The above images show the final form of the film. A comparison with the original concept sketch below give a good example of how this project is being approached creatively. An established story line with sketched in visuals provides the structure. Confidence in that structure allows for creative free-play within it. Beyond the basic elements the scene is created without rules or constraints.
He is called Cic (pronounced kik) by his new-found travelling companion Thomas, who says he looks "Roman", and names him after the famous Roman orator Cicero. Cic does not know who he is. He is the first human to appear in the story, bruised and bewildered, on a lonely hilltop ruin, in a strange world, being terrorized by a god.
He is tough and has obvious battle scars, but he is no brute. He is reflective, and has a deep sense of responsibility for the well-being of new friends in a dangerous world.
Bringing Cic to life is a challenge. The level of "realism" in the character's sculpting and texture needs to match the level of "realism" in character's movements. Motion Capture is easy to do now, but as with the modelling I want to keep the action on the more painterly side of "realistic". To this end MOCAP is too realistic. So Cic will be animated keyframe by keyframe in a way that is analogous to traditional 2D animation. The model is rigged for this with both a bone armature and shape keys.
I made the image below to illustrated these two ways of animating a character, and will give a more detailed description of the process as work continues.
The Ghost Mantids get their name from their distinctive powdery white appearance, which is from a lack of pigmentation. They avoid sunlight and are mostly active at night, retreating into shade during the day. Ghost Mantis colonies are found throughout the temperate and tropical regions of Brahma, but thrive in the greatest numbers along the western coastline of the equatorial continent, with its rain forest cover and deep valleys. According to tradition* it is an invasive species, and was long believed to have off-world origins, arriving early in the reign of Tanha Brah. The “Song of Tusita Lost”, written during this period, describes Ghost Mantis swarms as a “white milk” descending from Ehe. Despite such ancient accounts there is no evidence to support the theory of an off-world origin, and many Educators today believe these stories were inspired by the unusual subtle body** of the Ghost Mantis, which bears little resemblance to other species on Brahma.
The Ghost Mantis ranges widely in size depending on elevation of habitat and rainfall. Alpine mantids tend to be the smallest, and live in smaller colonies, with individual animals averaging between 4 and 6 inches in length. Larger specimens are found along the western coast of the equatorial continent and on nearby island chains. The average length of an individual within this population 12 to 14 inches. Within this coastal population group there are several unique colonies inhabiting the Midnight Valley, a deep rift valley that lies within the canton of Tanha Brah. This population has developed in isolation due to a partial quarantine of the valley, which is believed by the local human population to be accessed from beneath by Preta. This isolation combined with optimal growing conditions to produce the largest Ghost Mantids on Brahma, with an average size of 24 inches. There have been confirmed cases of giantism within this population group. One deceased individual retrieved for study measured 61 inches from head to tip of wing casing.
The diet of the Ghost Mantis varies. The smaller alpine variety subsists on other insects, while their larger coastal cousins have a principle diet of birds, kooks, and small mammals.
The Ghost Mantis is not considered a threat to human life by most authorities on Brahma, and there has never been a confirmed case of a large Mantis preying on human beings. They avoid human contact, and will usually withdraw when approached. However, they are wild animals, and caution should be exercised if a mantis is encountered.
* There is much lore about a prophesied threat the Ghost Mantis allegedly poses to Brahma and to humans. Ancient myth and the testimony of people who claim to have visions of Ehe, have on many occasions resulted in the persecution of mantids, most famously in oa8760, when the largest island of the Dorian chain was deforested and salted in an attempt at extermination. This was, according to chronicles of the period, fueled by a religious fervor that swept the region, with whole communities claiming to have visions of Ehe. The population of mantids on the island chain took centuries to recover, and never regained the numbers recorded before oa8760.
** A Definition of Subtle Body: The structures and energy systems of an organism not usually visible to the human eye. These structures are permanent features just as the organs and glands of the gross body are permanent features. They are not an epiphenomena arising from the gross body (a common human misunderstanding) but are the less dense aspect of a single body that includes the full spectrum of elements from gross to subtle. The visibility of the subtle anatomy depends on the sense base of the observer, although it is also more or less visible depending on the developmental state of the world system.
They are one of the stranger folk on Brahma. Off-world in origin, and solitary, they are the Vixopheliadons, commonly called the "Dons". Their manner is reserved and their habits are quiet and frugal. They shun one another, yet are present at the center of almost every Court. It is a common sight to see a Titan receiving guests with his or her Don standing at the sovereign's feet.
The Vixopheliadon are feared by humans for their combination gentle manner and clockwork cruelty. It is not a cruelty that arises from sadism, and they harbour no hatreds. Cruelty is, for the Dons of Brahma, a matter of unimpeded function, and the removal of obstacles to declared goals. A fearful reputation is regarded as an asset by the Dons.
The Vixopheliadon pictured here is Hasdrubal, representative of the Sovereign Lepidus, the Titan who's fall signaled a turning point in Titan culture, and the international rise of Kali Yana Brahm.
The most Infamous Don in Brahma history was Gizgobal. Gizgobal oversaw the depopulation of Kali Yana Brahm's territory through exile and murder in oa18444, before being executed by his Sovereign in a fit of pique. This depopulation of humans was carried out because Kali Yana Brahm had determined that human beings were without strategic value to her future plans. According to legend Gizgobal survived the execution and fled, setting himself up as "Little Eyes" who until this day rules over the Preta beneath surface of Brahma. One version of the legend has Gizgobal flying to Ehe upon a mantis to receive his crown.
T. “Yes Laurentide”
L. “The news that Lepidus died in battle, was untrue...
T. “That is good to hear..”
L. “However, he was indeed decapitated...”
L. “He is in port as we speak .......seeking asylum.”
T. “Which part?”
L. “The top part, beloved.”
The discussion is between Tanha Brah (bottomless-desire god) the Titan and Sovereign of the territory of Tanha Brah, and his attendant Laurentide, a "tall one" from the Interior Desert, who is loved by the people of the canton for his compassion and wisdom.
The Titan Lepidus was brought down the previous night by Kali Yana Brahm, who has become the most violent and unprincipled Sovereign on Brahma, expanding her territory and provoking general warfare. Tanha Brah, who Lepidus seeks asylum under, is an “old” Titan who after aeons of fighting has exhausted his lust for expansion. His territory has since been spared attacked by covetous peers because he is a living legend, and still commands respect among his kind, but the rise of Kali Yana Brahm has changed that. She is like a tornado, ripping up the old honors and rules of engagement. The human beings who live under Tanha Brah have become free and prosperous under his softening, but that softening also means they have become vulnerable to outside attack. The rise of Kali Yana Brahm has caused panic.
Buddhist images and ideas are a strong influence on the cosmology and story arc of Titans of Brahma. On the one hand this influence is unavoidable, because I have been a practicing Buddhist for thirty years and it is baked into my experience, and how I see the world. On the other hand I enjoy exploring these influences. This project can be an experiment, a tiny part in the development of a meme that is many centuries old and has evolved through different cultures, finding different expressions, until arriving here in “The West” around the middle of the last century.
In every new country where Buddhist ideas have evolved, they have cross-pollinated with ideas that were already there, giving rise to new forms, and new cultural expressions. For example, early Buddhist forms and ideas were carried from northern India to Tibet. According to legend this was done by a great yogi named Padmasambhava, but it is possible that this colorful character represents an organic cultural exchange involving many people over time. As these ideas became part of the Tibetan landscape, they merged with the indigenous Bon practices of the Tibetan people and gave rise to what we know today as Tibetan Buddhism, with its unique qualities. Similarly, there is the legend of Bodhidharma who is said to have “transmitted” the "Buddha Way of Enlightenment" to China, where again it cross-pollinated with indigenous Chinese ideas and sensibilities, particularly what today we call Taoist thought. The resulting cultural and spiritual expressions were again unique to that time and place. The most well known form, Chan, could not be more outwardly different than Tibetan forms, even as they share ideas and values. This process of spreading and mixing went outward in every direction from India and beyond that there were secondary branchings. Chinese Buddhism found a new expression in Japan, most famously in Japanese Zen , which has gone on to influence our own culture on many levels, as a unique expression of Japanese culture.
Then comes the latest turn of the wheel here in “The West”. Buddhism in various forms has been practiced here now by three generations, and there are people like me for whom it is very ordinary. However, there are many people who see Buddhism as an “Eastern Religion”, sometimes in a negative way, and sometimes in an unrealistically positive way. Buddhist teachers, especially Zen and Tibetan teachers, are subject to a lot of projection from westerners who idealize Buddhism, and have ideas of meeting an "Enlightened Master". Something like this alien view was probably true in every place where Buddhism took root, but with successive generations the ideas were absorbed and the myths were adapted by artists and craftspeople who produced new, indigenous, visions. Here in “The West” that absorbing and mixing is complicated by the inheritance of a colonial past, and post-colonial thinking. It is not hard to find people with an ethnocentric view of Buddhism, maybe seeing it as “other” or foreign, or claiming it as a cultural property and raising the charge of cultural appropriation against anyone taking it up outside a particular circle of identity. Both extremes are not sustainable given the Buddhist view of identity as relative and fluid, and with the viral nature of ideas.
This brings me to the part that gives me a lot of joy. Having internalized these ideas long ago, and having found a certain fearlessness by sitting through the thick and thin of life on the meditation cushion, I can enjoy riffing on Buddhist themes, and expressing them freely though my own quirky imagination. It is an imagination rooted in my own time, and place, and culture. The Titans of Brahma is a mash-up, but it is also an attempt at expressing insights that mean a lot to me. Having said this, I could care less (in a positive way) whether someone identifies with the Buddhist elements of the story or not. It is just part of what it is, and like any story that touches on universal themes of life, death, exile, and journey, it is not bound by any particular tradition.
Note: A Titan belongs to a kind of being called Asura. This is the name by which they know themselves. The term "Titan" is a human colloquialism.
All beings from the planets and moons of the Iron Worlds, including those who developed on Brahma,, display the same basic pattern of subtle physiognomy, such as the posterior and anterior solar wheel, and a cranial flare in some form. This physiognomy has reached its most prominent (and spectacular) form with the Asura. The extinct Preta, judging by preserved blast captures, also had prominent subtle features relative to body size, including a well formed posterior wheel shield. However, the Asura’s subtle features are the largest relative to body size, of any known kind, and they are unique in two ways.
First: the shield not only displays spontaneous patterns, such as radii, or concentric waves, like shields of other species, it also displays a range of colours and patterns, including non-symmetrical patterns and even symbols that effectively advertise the mind-state of the Asura.
Second: within the posterior solar wheel there is a structure called a Diaphragm. The Diaphragm is the only subtle structure that can be either visible or invisible to the human eye depending on whether it is active or at rest. It is also the only instance, on any known world, of a subtle body feature that has developed into an offensive weapon. When active the plasma lace of the diaphragm condenses to a point where it interacts with the surrounding air as a pliable solid material. This is extraordinary when we take into account that a fully extended Asura diaphragm can have a diameter of up to 96 lengths. That is roughly 800 ft with a surface area of nearly 500,000 square feet. The enormous power of the diaphragm comes from that surface area being rhythmically deformed through contractions of a powerful plasma “muscle” at estimated rate of 200 cycles per second. These rapid deformations of the diaphragm create a stream of concussion waves that have an explosive effect on the Asura's surroundings for many kilometres.
Danger to Human Life
Asura Subtle Anatomy presents a danger to human life in two ways, ambient and active. The ambient danger is an ever-present field of EM disruption emanating from the Posterior Solar Wheel. The Posterior Solar Wheel Shield blocks the field forward and deflects it backward as illustrated below. Human heart function becomes erratic and can cease if exposed to this field. The common protocols on approaching and engaging an Asura have been developed to ensure safe interactions.
The second type of danger is from an active Asura Diaphragm, at any point in its active cycle. Within a radius of 10 kilometres there is risk of organ damage and permanent hearing loss. Within 7 kilometres there can be severe organ damage and permanent hearing loss. Within a 2 kilometre radius there would certainly be death from severe organ damage. For this reason there has been a convention established (ano 4848), agreed to by all territorial sovereigns, that fighting will occur in common areas no less that 100 kilometers from any territorial boundary. The convention includes a maritime protocol of "Fair Notice" requiring that maritime craft be given warning of impending action, and time to seek refuge in safe waters.
Beginning work on this animation involved making two decisions that were not as simple as I thought they would be. The first was deciding on an image aspect ratio. I thought of using use the same proportions as my landscape paintings, which are usually between 2:1 or 2.35:1. The painting below, "Row of Trees", is 2.35:1 which is in my comfort zone for working with composition intuitively.
The problem with using this ratio is that the animation will likely be viewed on screens smaller than a 6ft canvas, and will require letter-boxing. Letter-boxing is when, on a typical HDTV display, there are black bars at the top and bottom of the screen. This is common when a Cinemascope film is shown on television in its original format. Depending on screen size this can be a problem, with the much image detail being lost. After experimenting with different formats, and seeing how common letter-boxing is now, even in television advertising, I decided to go ahead with a compromise 2:1 ratio, with a resolution high enough so it can be viewed at any size, including projected onto a screen. The smallest method of viewing where it would still be a worthwhile experience is on an ipad, where letter-boxing still looks... ok, at least to this eye. Anything smaller, like on a phone, and most of the imagery will be lost anyway.
The second decision was frame rate. The most common frame rates are 24 fps for a theatrical film release, and around the 30 fps mark for video and television, with 60 fps slowly becoming more common for video and some theatrical films. It is easy to see the difference between 24 fps and higher rates. 24 fps has a “cinematic” feel whereas higher frame rates have a video feel, sometimes called the soap opera effect. I remember noticing this difference between film and television as a child and not being able to put my finger on it. Somehow with higher frame rates the artificial quality of the sets and the acting were more obvious. Even today when higher frame rates are used in a big budget production, like with the recent Hobbit release, it takes away from the illusion and especially the scale, revealing actors acting, and sets and CGI that are somehow smaller. This is not just personal taste. It is a well known factor and the reasons for it are debated. Early film makers chose 24 fps because film stock was expensive and using fewer frames saved money. It was not for aesthetic reasons, and this choice became the standard for the same practical reason. Yet, whether it was intentional or not, something was hit upon. 24 fps is right at the threshold where a sequence of still images will blend into continuous movement. With higher frames rates the movement becomes more and more three-dimensional as the still, flat, images are no longer perceived, even subliminally. The result is an experience similar to an exercise in perception done by painters, where the painted surface is made to fall away. 24 fps retains a subtle flatness, a subtle perception of the screen as a flat, luminous, composition, balanced with the illusion of depth within the imagery. This is very much like representational painting, where the art of illusory depth and the craft of a beautifully painted surface are (hopefully) in perfect balance. At higher frame rates, especially at 60 fps, that flatness is lost, and with that, a certain painterly scale. The scale of the movie as a rectangular object is lost to the illusion of depth.
Retaining this flatness is the main reason I chose to go with 24fps, but there is another reason that echoes the reasons of early filmmakers, cost, which for a CG animator is a time cost. Regardless of what animation platform is used, the individual frames will have to be rendered one at a time, either on a your own computers or through a render farm (a network of computers dedicated to rendering). Even with a good computer, rendering a high resolution sequence of 1500 frames at 24 fps, just sixty seconds of run-time, can take many hours, or even days. At higher frame rates production can become impractical, unless a render farm is used extensively, which can be expensive.
Here is an overview of how a computer model is animated....
In many ways it is just like traditional stop-motion animation going back to King Kong and the movie monsters of Ray Harryhausen, but with one big difference. Instead of moving the armature incrementally for each frame, the animator plots the movement as key-frames between two points in space and on a timeline. For example, you can set one key-frame with the character’s arm resting at her side, then set another key-frame five seconds along the timeline with the arm raised straight out from her shoulder. The animated element with be a pivot of the armature shoulder joint. Once you have establish the timeline between these two point, the computer will interpolate the points in between. The result will be a smooth movement of an arm being upraised.
Below is an example of a basic keyframe sequence for a single bone in a simple armature. The small diamonds are keyframes, and the graph where they are plotted is called a dope sheet.
When you are animating a complex armature corresponding to the skeletal structure of a character, the dope sheet becomes a pattern of coded movements. The time marker is the blue line. It sweeps from left to right along the timeline
Once the basic movements have been plotted, and the timeline is animated, the character will move, but they will move with a metronomic evenness. This evenness is something you can see in a lot of CGI, especially early CGI. All the movements of the characters and elements within the virtual environment will move as if it is a single clockwork world, which is pretty close to the truth. For the characters to have character each component has to have its own quality of movement with a lot of variation in subtle acceleration and deceleration. One way around this problem is motion capture (MOCAP), where the movements of a live actor are tracked on camera and transferred to the 3D armature. Motion capture is now cheap and easy to do. My personal view is that MOCAP looks good if you are trying to mesh a CGI creation with live action, but it goes down the uncanny valley if you are animating characters that are not attempts at realism, but something painterly and poetic. The characters in this project are not meant to compete with photography, or be invisible within a live film setting. The painterly movement of a 2D Warner Bros. or Disney animation is what I am aspiring to. A "hand drawn” movement done keyframe by keyframe can achieve this, and be like a sketch, expressive and spontaneous.
Achieving this requires understanding and getting a feel for editing F-curves.
F-curve editing works like this: Between each keyframe is a line, a literal time-line, called a function curve, that described the acceleration and deceleration of the animated object along the timeline. There are, depending on the restraints placed on the animated object, F-curve lines representing every axis of movement. You can shape this curves in such a way as to precisely control the subtle acceleration and deceleration of all movement of all elements along timeline
Working the graph editor probably sounds more complicated, and it is, and I will describe and illustrate F-curve editing in greater detail in future posts.
The Midnight Valley is a rift valley (circled in red) running parallel to the northwest coast of the equatorial continent, within the territory of Tanha Brah. The valley floor is below sea level, but separated from the Dorian Sea by the Sawtooth mountains. There are flash floods in the spring with glacial melt from the high Peace Range to the north. The flood waters drain into the subterranean cavern system at the southern terminus of the valley, in the area of the ancient stoneworks and wall.
The name Midnight Valley alludes to the perpetual mist and darkness within the valley, and superstitions surrounding the cave systems, which have only been partially explored. A quarantine has been maintained around the Midnight Valley for centuries, and was recently re-affirmed in a close plebiscite by the local human population under the auspices of the sovereign Tanha Brah. The reason for the quarantine is a common belief that Preta access the surface of Brahma from the valley floor, a belief based on ancient lore that is contested by Educators, and merchants.
The quarantine of the Midnight Valley effectively isolates the Sawtooth mountains and coastline from the rest of the sovereign territory. An ongoing territorial dispute over the Dorian chain of islands lying off the coast compounds the isolation of this region. Due to this isolation the region has become a sanctuary for species that are now rare in other territories, such as the Chimera and the large Ghost Mantis.
The top view is looking northwest near the southern terminus. It shows the difficult decent into the valley, and the the broad sedimentary flood plain on the valley floor.
The banner on the left is hanging in the sanctuary on the top right, which is located on the map in the area circled red.
This is the banner of Tanha Brah, who's name means "bottomless desire god". These ideograms/pictograms are unique to Titans. They have a specific purpose, to declare to the world, as a matter of pride, the styles of suffering a Titan has endured in battle. Some symbols are common to all Titans, and some are used by particular groups or individuals, but all Titan ideograms share one source, and are variations or abstractions of one ancient image. That image is of a six armed Titan hanging upside-down by his/her feet, from a star that is described as being "...remote from its own principle". All Titan ideograms are variations of this ancient root image, that is found daubed in red ocher on stone cliffs, and carved into ancient temples throughout Brahma. The meaning of this symbol, and those words, are one of the central mysteries of Brahma Vihara, and its origins.