Pick Of The Week: Planet Unknown (3D Animation)Blake Harris 09.28.2016
Did you like Pixar’s WALL-E? What about Toy Story? Or how about just compelling buddy stories in general? If you answered yes to any of that, then there’s a strong chance you’ll enjoy Shawn Wang’s thoughtful, accessible and endlessly endearing animated short Planet Unknown.
“At the end of 21st century, mankind were facing global resource depletion. Space Rovers were sent out to find potential inhabitable planets.”
With those words, so begins Shawn Wang’s Planet Unknown. And before we talk about what happens next, and what we liked so much about this animated short, let’s briefly talk about the filmmaker and the making of this film.
Although Shawn Wang didn’t start officially working on Planet Unknown until the summer of 2015, the seed of an idea started growing one year prior earlier. With the release of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. “I was deeply impressed by the movie,” Wang recalls on Vimeo, “and was inspired by the two robots TARS and CASE. The idea of intellectual robots exploring space developed from there.
In addition to Interstellar, Wang cites a host of other influences. Like Pixar’s WALL-E, NASA’s documentaries about the Mars Rover and short films such as Erik Wernquist’s Wanderers.
Fusing together these inspirations, along with an original story idea, Wang spent 11 months creating Planet Unknown as his thesis film at Communication University of China.
This 11-month journey was very challenging, but it was a perfect learning opportunity as well. Upon completion, the film was accepted into several prestigious festivals. Including LA Shorts, the Lisbon International Film Festival and Burbank’s International Film Festival (where Planet Unknown won Best Animated Short). Yet despite the acclaim, one of the first things to hook me about this project were these inspiring-yet-humbling words from Wang:
“This project pushed me to do what I never thought I could do. However, it also keeps punching me in the face and shows me how limited my skills are. There are still tons of problems in the making that I can’t figure out even now.”
Without further ado, welcome to Planet Unknown…
- Written & Directed by Shawn Wang
- Modelling, Texturing, Animation, Compositing & Editing by Shawn Wang
- Music & Sound Design by Echoic Audio
- Musical Composition by Sam Foster
- Sound Design by Tom Gilbert & David Johnston
- Re-recording Mix by Will Norie
- Faculty Producer/Adviser: Xinyuan Huang
Three-Dimensional 3D Characters (and 3D Animation)
We all know that “interesting characters” make for “interesting stories.” But what does that really mean? What makes for an interesting character?
There is, of course, no magic recipe. The reality, truly, is an alchemy both strange and beautiful. But a great starting point—and a great motivator to push creators—is the idea of a three-dimensional character. By which we mean a character that feels fully fleshed; a character who leaps beyond mere one-trick superficialities and delivers an authentic and unique sense of personality. This does not mean we need to know everything about the character. In fact, it has almost nothing to do with biography and backstory. It’s more about thoughts, feelings, desires and tendencies.
Establishing these things with consistency and accessibility is not easy. Especially not when your story is devoid of dialogue (which is so frequently how we shape character for the audience). Nevertheless, Shawn Wang does a great job of this and that starts at the very beginning.
Part of that execution entails acknowledgement of expectations. Because, let’s face it, expectations play a key role in how we perceive story. If you’re watching a scary movie, you expect a monster to pop out of nowhere. If you’re watching an explainer video, you expect to have something explained. And in the case of Planet Unknown—whose setup certainly bears resemblance to the characters and world of WALL-E—we can’t help but anticipate similarity.
Yet early on, Wang demonstrates two key difference.
One difference is a sense of vibrancy and fun. Which contrasts the bleak just-do-your-job loneliness that WALL-E experiences at the beginning of that film. Here, instead, we open with speed, playfulness and a mild sense of adventure:
And to point out the obvious—though it’s the other major differentiator—this exploration is not a solo endeavor. It is the mutual quest of two robots with good rapport:
That rapport is vital because of what comes next…
2. The Element of Surprise
Bucking expectations is a great way to keep a narrative lively.
That said, it’s often not a good idea to go overboard with the surprises (as it can desensitize audiences and make them lose trust in the storytellers). It also doesn’t mean that you need some big M-Night-Shyamalan-ian twist! Rather a few well-timed and well-executed elements of surprise can be a great way to engage audiences and keep them riveted.
In Planet Unknown, there a handful of such instances. The biggest being the central conflict of our story: a bombardment of fiery threats from the sky.
One of the keys to why this device works so well is the skillful manner in which it is deployed. So let’s quickly break down how this development is introduced…
First, we start on “business as usual”:
Then…what was that? And we share that flicker of surprise with our characters:
Okay…hmmm…let’s process this information with a quiet moment. Maybe it won’t be so bad!
Sorry, nope, it’s about to get much worse. Runnnnnnnnnnnnn!
A sequence which, ultimately, brings us to another surprise: Wait, what happened to me pal?
3. The Music and Sound Design
What can we really say? Echoic Audio, you took a “silent” movie and filled it with friendship, drama, chaos and hope. A++