Inspired by the silent films of the 1920s, the animated short "Meet Cute" tells the story of a fateful day between two people waiting for the bus. This is truly a short film - just 2-3 minutes long - but it tells a clear story and features beautiful animation. The story, characters, animation, simulations, compositing and titling was all created by Shon (Shawn Patrick Tilling) to capture the feeling and charm of the silent film era. Sound design was created by Siddarth Sadashiv. The film will be screened at the New Jersey International Film Festival on Sunday, June 11, 2023 at 7:00pm along with the feature-length film Stargazer. Both will have an in-person screening on the Rutgers University campus and available on demand for 24 hours starting at midnight.
Shon is a filmmaker from Canada who served as the Head of Department for the Shanghai Vancouver Film School for 8 years, developing the next generation of international animators. After finishing his contract with the school he moved to Arlington, Virginia where he is currently associated with the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design (RMCAD) in Colorado as an Adjunct Instructor teaching classes online and working on his next short film "Li Sa So". Shon has been involved with animation for over 25 years, is passionate about photography (and works as a professional timelapse photographer), has a unique perspective of the Chinese film industry, and worked on Stargate: Atlantis (one of my favorite sci-fi tv shows of all time) and Stargate: SG1 for a few years!
As someone who knows next to nothing about how animated films are created today, I reached out to Shon to learn more about the process and his career.
It amazes me that a film can say so much in about 2 minutes. Were you always able to create works this concise or did that come along over the years and with experience?
I think a little of both. Being raised in Northern Ontario, Canada, I watched A LOT of television as a child, especially in the winter months as it gets very cold and very dark out. I loved watching stop motion animated shows like Colargol and Paddington Bear, and later a lot of fantasy and monster movies. This took me away to fantastical worlds and introduced me to wonderful and engaging stories. Then, in my early teens, my parents bought a VHS player for the family. I loved watching movies so much I ended up renting two movies a day on the weekdays and up to four movie a day on the weekends. Over the years I must have watched tens of thousands of movies of all genres. I think this really had a positive effect on my visual storytelling!
I have also been teaching animation for many years, and I always start with the 12 Principles of Animation by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnson. Not all principals are equal, but one of the most important ones is the idea of staging. It is the positioning of elements in the composition, but more importantly, it’s the idea of never overlapping multiple actions, and making sure that any idea is completely and unmistakably clear. In “Meet Cute” I was especially aware of this, and I tried to separate every action, so they read well on their own.
I also believe in a natural rhythm to storytelling. I wanted to introduce each character and set the time and place. I wanted to create a sympathetic character in the man, so I added a moment at the beginning to make him likeable. I then introduced the women and gave a moment for us to know her before the story turned. Each moment was considered, and every action was planned. It makes “Meet Cute” easy to understand and hopefully very watchable!
I really don't know how animation is created. How was this film created?
It always starts with an idea. Then the idea is organized and given form in some way. For film this is usually in form of a script. But as I do every aspect of production myself, I don’t usually need to write a script, as I don’t need to communicate the story to others. A treatment or outline is usually good enough for me to start. I then do a ton of research and reference. The era the story takes place it, people’s clothing, the locations, different cultures, and things like physical body language all enrich the work and elevates it. For “Meet Cute” I wanted to do a romantic film, and I instantly thought about Buster Keaton and 1920s movies, which I love. So, I researched everything I could from this time period!
Once I have a pretty good idea of the story and have research everything I could, I then do thumbnails, which are quick rough sketches of shots, followed by the storyboard. The storyboard is really where the story starts to take shape, and I like to use it to work out the sequencing, composition, and lighting of the film. Once this is done then I use the storyboard to create an edit with the titles, timing and temporary sound added called an animatic. At this point you know if it will be a good film or not, as the creative is mostly done.
Then it’s time to do the hard work. I start with orthographic drawings of everything I need to create, which includes the characters, sets, and props. I then model and texture everything in 3D. This takes time and patience, as there is usually a lot of little things, and they all need to work together in the same design language. For “Meet Cute” I tried to make everything simple and charming.
Once everything is modeled and textured, I then need to rig everything, or build skeletons and deformation systems so characters can move and express themselves. This is the hardest part as one mistake at the beginning can extremely limit the range of expression a character can achieve. I usually take my time to get this right. I wanted the “Meet Cute” characters to be bouncy, with a jiggle in everything they do. They were an odd shape though, so this was challenging.
One this is done then I come away from the computer and start to work out the performance. Like all actors, I score the performance based off story beats and try to find some wonderful character moments I can build on. Once I practised a full performance, I film it as reference. I usually do all the characters, so I film reference for each one. For “Meet Cute” I performed both the man and the woman and edited them together. It’s quite funny watching me trying to meet myself, haha!
I then use the reference as a starting point to animate the 3D characters. I normally approach this sequentially, as I like to keep continuity between shots. This part takes the most time as I believe character performance and quality of animation to be the soul of an animated film. “Meet Cute” characters where extra hard as they are very nonhuman shaped, so translating my performance onto them in a way that kept the my characterization was quite the challenge!
Once I finish animation, the rest of the production is fun! If there are any simulations to run, I would do that then. Clothing, rain, smoke, or even dust floating in the air all can add life to your scenes. This takes time and experience to do, but it’s really rewarding when you finally get it right. For “Meet Cute” I hand animated the clothing and the swinging of the suitcase and umbrella, and the subtle movement of the leaves and clouds being blown by the wind. I did run a simulation on the rain and water splatter though.
Then it’s time to finalize lighting, perfect the camera compositions and movements, and render everything out. As this film is in 4K the rendering was going to take quite a bit of time on my single computer, so instead I used an online render farm for the first time. It was such a huge time saver and allowed me to iterate and re-render if I saw any problems, which increased the quality of the film.
The very last part is putting everything together. I composite all the many layers into the final shot, edit, and do the titles and credit. I believe from the first moment to the last of your film, everything should be considered, so I put a lot of work into the “Meet Cute”’ titles. Along with my studio logo, I designed and drew a whole alphabet in a matching old script style. Unfortunately, it was hard to read and clashed with the round design of the characters so in the end I used a simple font instead. Such is life!
Last, but not least, is sound. I find sound to be extremely important. For “Meet Cute” I worked with a wonderfully talented sound designer named Siddharth Sadashiv. We spent weeks going through both the sound and music. As “Meet Cute” can be considered a silent film, it was important to create a soundscape that filled out the background but didn’t draw too much attention to itself. I’m really very happy with the result!
You've been creating animation for over 25 years. What, if anything, has changed for your process over that time?
If I look back to my earlier short films like “Marco’s Dreams” in 1998, “Art” in 2001, “The Monster”, “The Hole” or “The Traveler” in 2002, 3D animation was just in its early development. It took so much time and effort to learn the software and methodologies, and to develop solutions around the many limitations I faced at the time. Computers were slow, the software crashed a lot, and I was just starting out as an artist as well, so I was learning as I went. I had to be extremely creative in how I did things. It took time, patience, and perseverance.
The general process was the same, though. Get an idea, visually develop the idea into a story, then model, texture, rig, animate, do the effects, light, render and composite everything into a final work. I think the thing that makes me, and my work, a little special, is the fact that throughout my whole career as a 3D artist, I aspired to do everything myself. Normally most animated short films are done with a group for talented specialists, but I wanted to get good at everything, which was really challenging. It wasn’t until my short film “Happiness!” in 2005 that I could say it started to become easier for me.
As I developed as an artist, so did the technologies. The computers got faster, the software smarter and more sophisticated, and the process much quicker. Now I can think up an idea and know I can achieve it given time and effort. This would be the biggest change over time, my confidence and comfort level in all aspects of 3D animation production. So many years of experience is a wonderful thing!
And the future looks bright. Virtual reality, augmented reality and extended realities are all starting to develop to the point of mainstream acceptance. This opens a whole new challenge in narrative storytelling, and I am interested to explore this as a filmmaker. How to stage the performance when the audience can move around freely? How to design and model sets so there is a natural falloff to nothingness? And on the technical side, would it be better to create everything in the virtual spaces with new 3D tools? So many new and interesting possibilities!
"Meet Cute" is a selection of film festivals throughout the world. Have you been through the festival circuit with a film of your own before?
The film festival circuit is kind of a new thing for me! “Meet Cute” is actually my 14th short film, but it is the first one I have officially submitted to international film festivals.
Usually after I finished a short, I would just post it online and move on to the next, as submitting to festivals took so much time and effort, especially in the days of VHS and snail mail. I would rather have spent my time learning 3D and creating more short films then spending months rewatching my submission a thousand times as I taped copies making sure the VHS recording was clean.
An earlier film I did, “A Tiny Tiney”, did get invited to international film festivals, but it was because they found it online, not because I submitted it for consideration. I later found out it was also featured in some international magazines, art galleries and museums as well, but because I was so busy on my next short film, I completely missed all of that.
Then last year, I turned 50 years old, and decided to focus my attention back on my short films. “Meet Cute” is the result of this renewed focus, and I wanted to send it out to festivals to get it out to the world. It still takes time and effort, creating posters and press kits and the like, but I was surprised to find that actual festival submission is now very easy, as everything is through the internet. I am very happy I did submit it as I now realise how important it is to make sure your work is out there being seen and enjoyed!
And the festival experience has so far been amazing! I love going to festivals and meeting people and talking about 3D animation and filmmaking. I’m really looking forward to the New Jersey International Film Festival in June, as Albert has been a wonderful host. I hope to continue to do more festivals and presentations in the future as well!
How does it feel to have such a positive response from around the world?
I truly am very thankful for it. Ever since I was young, I always wanted to create engaging stories that people would enjoy, so I am happy to receive so much praise from all over the world for my work! All my films are inspired by what I like to term as “the commonality of humanity”, or simply put, experiences we all can share and relate too, regardless of age or culture. I want to create work that celebrates the things we all have in common and that can bring us all together, and I think because of this, my films tend to appeal to an international audience.
My work is also unapologetically positive in nature, as this not only reflects myself as an artist but also contrasts with the darker themed narratives of other animated works that seem prevalent today. I am also very influenced by the “culture of cute” of Asia and try to instill a lot of charm and appeal into everything I do.
I am hopeful my work can continue to entertain and have a positive impact on the world, if even in just some small way. And if I can inspire other filmmakers to use 3D animation to create their own stories in their own way, like I was inspired to do when I was young, then I will be quite happy!
Roughly how long did it take to create "Meet Cute"?
It usually takes me about 4 to 6 months to complete a short film from scratch, depending on my production schedule. “Meet Cute” was an exception to this. I originally got the idea for the film way back in 2014 when I was doodling in a random meeting. I ended up doing the storyboards and modeling the characters over about a two-month period in the summer of 2014. I was then hired as the Head of Department for 3D Animation and Visual Effects at the Shanghai Vancouver Film School in China and got so busy redeveloping a complete course of study for them that I put all personal projects on hold.
I ended up doing a lovely little short film called “Xiao Ming’s Diary” in 2017 to be shown in public schools and public transit to raise awareness for traffic safety, and it re-sparked my interest in going back and working on my own films. But it wasn’t until the global pandemic that finally granted me the opportunity to take some time off and re-evaluate what was important to me. So, on my 50th birthday, I decided to start creating my short films again!
I had a few projects in development at the time. I had written and done some treatments for some interesting stories and had a few other projects already in production. “The Potion” was just starting in 3D modeling, and my next short “Li Sa So” was ready for animation. But I always loved the idea for “Meet Cute” so I decided that it would be my first short I should finish. I re-started in March of 2022 and finished it in September of 2022, so 8 months in total. It is a very special film for me, as it marks a turning point in my life!
How did you first get interested in animation?
As I said, I was born and raised in Thunder Bay, a small town in northern Ontario, Canada. During the long, dark and extremely cold winters, I would bide my time watching television, reading many novels, and using art to draw and paint the many stories of my overactive imagination. In 1983, when I was 11 years old, my mother bought me an Atari 600XL for Christmas. She knew computers were the future, and that she wanted me to be computer literate. So, during my childhood I spent my time writing text adventures in Atari Basic language and creating plot point graphics of environments for all the stories I had in my head.
Fast forward to 1989. I was 17 years old and went to a small multiplex cinema to watch a bad b-movie. Before the film started, they showed a short film called “Luxo Jr.”, from Pixar Studios. It was the very first time I saw 3D animation, and I just sat in awe.
Three things occurred to me in those moments. Firstly, was the fact that I understood the core concept of computer graphics as I spent the last 6 years getting comfortable with it. I thought “I can do this!”.
Secondly, having watched so many movies as a kid, I understood that filmmaking was “art by committee”. It usually takes time, money, and people to create a film, and the odds of a young man like me being able to do that seemed so far away. Other art forms, like writing, painting, music, etc. could be created by one artist, with one perspective. I recognized that 3D animation could, for the very first time, allow a single artist to create films with the same fullness and richness as larger productions, without having the need of studio support.
And thirdly, I knew that 3D was just in its infancy, and if I started then, I could learn and develop myself as an artist as the software, hardware and methodologies developed along side me. After “Luxo Jr.” finished, I decided right then and there I would become a 3D artist and work towards creating my own 3D animated films!
How long did you live in China?
I moved to China in late 2014 and lived there until mid 2022, so about 8 years total. It was the first time I lived for so long in another culture and I have to say it was a wonderful experience for me personally. I got a chance to travel to many provinces all over China and meet so many talented and interesting people!
What classes did you teach at Shanghai Vancouver Film School?
I taught A LOT of classes, haha! When I first got to Shanghai, I realized that the outstanding curriculum that I was importing from the Vancouver Film School needed to be adjusted to suit the Chinese educational system. So, for the first 2 years I ended up redeveloping the entire course of study from scratch and taught pretty much everything. I taught modeling, texturing, rigging, animation, visual effects, lighting, rendering, editing, etc.
After a few years, as the school finished construction, I expanded our team to bring in more specialist instructors and take some of the load off myself. So, over the last 6 years I taught courses like the History of 3D Animation and Visual Effects, Writing and Story Development, Photography, Cinematography, 3D animation, Acting for Animation, Performance Capture, Visual Effects Production, and a host of specialized classes, masterclasses, and presentations, not just for the Shanghai Vancouver Film School but for universities and events across China. I really love teaching and sharing my passion with others!
What is the film industry there like?
The film industry in China is growing and developing at an extremely fast pace. Over the 8 years I was there, I saw the quality of work rise year after year and was amazed at the development of talent. Chinese filmmakers now have access to world class equipment and have learned a lot from international productions. The domestic film market is also healthy so there is lots of opportunities for young filmmakers to get hands on experience.
For animation, China is also extremely strong. They have some amazing artists. Illustrators like Zao Dao has been producing some incredible work, integrating China’s rich textural history and aesthetics into engaging stories that have received international acclaim. For 3D sculpting, every year I attended WonderFest I was just stunned at the artistic and technical quality of the work I saw. All this is being driven by talented young people who invest a tremendous amount of time and effort into their work. This has influenced Chinese animation over the last ten years, and you can now feel a major shift happening.
I am also lucky enough to be invited as a judge for the Chinese International Comics Festival in Guangzhou every year, so I get to see all the animation that Chinese animators and studios produce. Every year the work is becoming more narratively sophisticated, more technically outstanding, and more original in nature. It’s just incredible to watch an industry grow and develop in such a short time period.
Finally, how did you get started with time lapse photography?
When I was a on set visual effects artist, I had to take set survey photos and HDRIs for 3D lighting, so I had to become familiar with cameras. We would only have a few minutes after a scene was filmed to go it, get what we need and get out so the film crew could strike the set and move on. It was stressful, so you had to know what you were doing and be able to do it fast. When I started teaching visual effects production at the Vancouver Film School, the students needed to learn cinematography and get comfortable in shooting plates, photographing textures and reference. So, I became quit experienced teaching with the equipment.
Then in 2010, I was asked if I could instruct a photography class for a friend who took maternity leave. At this point, I knew cameras well, but I didn’t have a lot of experience with the art of photography. I used the months leading up to the class to completely immerse myself in shooting all styles of photography. I shot portraiture, landscapes, panoramas, astrophotography, macro photography, street photography and timelapse. My timelapse work was seen by the Olympic Arts Committee for the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics and they invited me to shoot coverage for the games. It was my first professional gig as a photographer/cinematographer!
Years later, when I moved to China, I continued teaching photography and cinematography as part of the visual arts program. Some documentary productions saw my work and asked me to shoot timelapse for them. I ended up shotting quit a few international documentaries, working as a cinematographer as well as timelapse photographer.
Where did your favorite time lapse take place?
As for my favorite timelapse shoot, I would have to say the production I did in Mexico would be at the top of my list. I was asked to shoot astrophotography timelapse of the stars moving behind a Mayan temple on the Yucatan Peninsula. It was 3 am in the morning with me laying on the grass in front of a beautiful temple just staring at the starry sky while the cameras clicked away. One of those truly beautiful moments of life!
The 28th Annual New Jersey International Film Festival will be taking place on select Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays between June 2-11, 2023. The festival's setup is a hybrid with films available online as well as via in-person screenings at Rutgers University (71 Hamilton Street, New Brunswick, NJ). For the full schedule of films or to purchase tickets, click here.