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Natural Selection – Adapting to your limits

Thanks to availability of comparatively cheap, easy-to-use graphics software, it's easy to think that all things are now possible when it comes to making a film. Even a no-budget short like Star Light, Star Bright, a short that I worked on almost entirely alone, has a lot of doors open to it. Alien armies? Done with a few clicks. Planet-sized transforming robots? There's an After Effects plugin for that. Kung-Fu animals fighting in zero gravity? Here's a link to a Creative Cow tutorial. This can be a trap, though, and when starting out I've learned to recognise my limits early, be they time, computing power, budget or whatever. These limits can kill a film when a director realises that their climactic scene isn't actually feasible to produce, but early planning means that they can actually shape and inform your story in a unique way.

'Star Light, Star Bright' bounces between two planets and involves factories, fairies and shooting stars. The initial idea was to have it run for less than a minute and send it off as part of a micro-film festival that I'd been invited to. One with a quickly approaching deadline and with only my personal home computers at my disposal. This was to be a largely one-man production on a short time scale with limited resources, and that set of restrictions informed a lot of the initial design. While the film length eventually changed, there was no way of out-smarting time and rendering horsepower bottlenecks. Rather than taking the easy route and eliminating elements I had to figure out how to simplify them and boil everything down to a workable level.

Star Light, Star Bright - Official Trailer

First up, the script. It was going to have to be unvoiced. This is common in short animation for a reason. It means no talent costs, no lip syncing and no back-and-forth to make sure that your talent pronounces that ridiculous made-up name just right. The script had to be written with this in mind and be very clear visually with what was going on. The whole film was therefore written straight up as a storyboard from the start. Every shot needed to be a clear visual and there was no point in planning them as anything else.

Knowing the animation work needed meant that I could also write some cheats into the script now, rather than adapting it later, such as keeping the main character behind a desk. This would save time in rigging and animating the character as I could just ignore her legs. However, this also wound up locking the action into place and stripping away extraneous movement and plot elements. It forced simplicity, which benefited the storytelling immensely. It also gave an extra dimension to my character that I could work into her behaviour as well. She was literally trapped behind a desk, which made her bored out of her skull. Early animation tests and character designs made sure to keep this in mind to infuse a sense of routine-based fluidity, which in turn lead to the final reveal of the story, where the character doesn't notice an important detail as she's lost in the repetition of her work. One lazy cheat ended up cascading into decisions that shaped the entire script and character, because I'd identified and adapted to it as early as possible.

Next, art style. I wouldn't have the time nor the power to render out a lot of shading or texture detail, so I looked at a lot of the 2D motion-graphics based work that was out there and based the look on the commonly used flat, vector-shape-based design, translated into 3D space. This had a number of benefits beyond just saving on render times. The lack of dialogue meant that everything would need to stand out clearly and be very expressive, so boiling the characters down to fundamental shapes helped them to stand out and be readable. The main character is essentially just two spheres and a couple of noodles for arms, for instance. The simplicity also meant that it was easy to layer elements together in post, or edit a shot that didn't turn out quite right without needing to re-render everything.

Finally was the overall production workflow. Making sure that I was familiar with all of the software that I was using meant that I could offload different elements onto the stage that could handle them most effectively. The eyes, for instance, were animated separately from the rest of the body in a different program. This allowed more focus on them, in a more suitable space, that meant that I could animate them faster and with greater expression than I could back in the 3D scene itself. Adding certain lighting and colour elements in post, rather than rendering them into the animation, added some interesting texture and light to the shots that I otherwise wouldn't have discovered, too. It taught me a lot about the versatility of the programs that I was using that I can now take on to every other project that I work on.

Had I been given a longer timeframe to work on, or to fit the film into, or if I'd had the machines to render whatever I wanted whenever I needed it, then the film would be completely different, and worse for it, I believe. What I created with Star Light wasn't just a budget version of a better film, it was the product of adapting the story and the art to a very restrictive set of challenges. Every filmmaker learns how to do this, but the important lesson, I felt, was in identifying those challenges, from every stage of the workflow, super early and letting them shape the story, rather than circumventing or ignoring them, into something far better than what it may otherwise have been.

Check out more about Star Light, or my other works, at

Liam Newton is an award-winning animator and short film maker currently living and working in Canberra, Australia.

After graduating from the University of Canberra Liam first made his mark when his film ‘Awakening’ was selected as a finalist in the 2010 Tropfest short film festival. Since then his films have been selected at a number of festivals around the world, from the San Jose Short Film Festival in the United States to hometown awards like the Canberra Short Film Festival.

Outside of filmmaking, Liam works at Nimic Productions as the head of Graphics and Animation. He’s had lead production roles on a wide range of projects ranging from national and local advertising, government and corporate media production and web development.


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