How do I make a short animated film about a robot using Blender?

This article will describe how I made “Maple,” a short animated film about a robot. If you are interested in using Blender to make your own animated film, look no further. Before I share my advice, please watch the film below.

Like editing, animation is a relatively technical area of film. However, while an editor would cut between recorded camera angles, animators have direct control over virtual camera placement. Unfortunately, while a camera may capture 30 frames per second, a rendering computer may consume 30+ seconds per frame. For this reason, it is necessary to plan ahead to avoid making mistakes that cost major amounts of time to re-render.

Animation has recently become one of my skills. In the majority of cases, animated films require a diverse set of expensive tools which have a major effect on the outcome. Fortunately, a free and open-source project exists, Blender, which combines the disciplines of modeling, animation, rendering, and editing is available on Linux, my operating system of choice. Although I won’t be the first, I want to demonstrate with my short films that free and open-source software such as Blender and Linux has film-making potential.

This clip, which constitutes the entirety of my animation reel, is a short film that I created individually. It depicts the escape of toy robot that was originally intended as a Christmas present. The first step in the production of the film, after creating the storyboard (Figure 1), was digitally modelling the film’s setting. For this, I employed Blender’s advanced modeling tools and a free architectural addon to create a living room scene, which takes 2 minutes to render (Figure 2). I chose to use a wide-angle, fish-eye lens to reveal more space.

Figure 1: First page of my storyboard

Figure 2: Test-render of living room scene

Next, I needed to create a bit of exposition so I modeled part of an adjacent room, the kitchen. I resolved to use various refrigerator magnets and notes to introduce the plot. Once I created the basic refrigerator, I tested a depth of field transition, using keyframes to animate the camera’s focus. At first, I focused the camera on the refrigerator (Figure 3) and then transitioned to focusing it into the room where the robot will reside (Figure 4).

Figure 3: Camera focused on note

Figure 4: Camera focused into living room

Whereas the low-key orange light is clearly visible and representative of morning, a less obvious change was animating the brightness of a light bulb that I modeled and placed in the kitchen room. This, which I accomplished by using an oscillating waveform in Blender’s graph editor, causes it to appear to flicker. The next order of business was modelling the robot. Again, I turned to Blender to model and rig the robot for animation, taking a screenshot a preliminary design without secondary features such as eyes (Figure 5). Animating the robot’s treads was a challenge and I had to devise a system to control each segment with a single keyframe.

Figure 5: Preliminary robot design

Figure 6: Robot’s terminal screen

Next, implemented two ways for the audience to gain an insight into the robot’s mind. First, I wrote a program to print terminal messages from the robot’s computer (Figure 6). Second, I positioned a second virtual camera in front of the robot to act as its vision and made a vignette effect to make that clear. Then, having created the setting and character, I began to animate and render the film. Using keyframes, I made the camera slide past the refrigerator elements, eventually moving into the living room (Figure 7).

Figure 7: Camera animated into room

Figure 8: Animated robot movement

Using consecutive keyframes, I added cuts between various camera positions. Ultimately, I made the camera follow the robot in its animated movement around the room (Figure 8). Using a glass shader built into Blender, I created realism with dynamic reflections (Figure 9). Here, through the use of a denoiser, I could render at only 30 seconds per frame.

Figure 9: Dynamic reflection

Figure 10: Physics simulation

Figure 11: Motor audio circuit

Another way I created realism was by animating the falling battery according to a Blender-based physics simulation of it falling off the shelf and hitting the robot (Figure 10). I created the cloth, that made an appearance at the start of the film, with another simulation. After rendering the video, my final tasks were audio and editing. Using a battery-operated audio recorded several devices including a camera, for beeping sounds, and a circuit I built, for servo motor sounds (Figure 11). For music, I sent my film to a composer that I’ve worked with previously. Though he delivered a long enough track, synchronized to my film, I made the decision to stop the music seconds before the end to foreshadow conclusion.

When I screened my film to friends and family, some issues were identified. As the robot’s motor sound was said to be too loud, I reduced its volume. Next, I fixed a continuity error by reducing my use of unclear, overlapping editing. Finally, I re-rendered the final scene with much darker trees, making it look much more realistic. Hopefully, the end result will act as evidence that Blender has film-making potential.