Yallah - Supinfocom Rubika
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Yallah: a deep dive in an award-winning short [SIGGRAPH 2022 interview]

This article is available in: Français (French)

A teenager eager to go to the swimming pool, a city torn by a civil war, a man trying to flee: Yallah is a surprising short film from French school Supinfocom Rubika (class of 2021). The movie was screened at the SIGGRAPH 2022 Electronic Theater this summer, and was awarded the “Best Student Project” prize.

Here’s our interview of the team behind this short (Nayla Nassar, Edouard Pitula, Renaud De Saint Albin, Cécile Adant, Anaïs Sassatelli, Candice Behague). Even though the short film is not available online yet -it is still being screened in various animation festivals around the world-, the trailer as well as the behind-the-scenes visuals shared by the team should give you a good idea of what the film looks like.

Real-life inspirations, visual style, surfing in the heart of Beirut, stylized FX: welcome to this deep dive in the secrets of Yallah!

3DVF: Your thesis short film at French animation school Supinfocom Rubika, Yallah, is set in Beirut back in 1982, during the civil war. As a man tries to flee the city, he crosses the path of a teenager who is eager to go to the swimming pool. This pitch might seem absurd, but it is inspired by real events… Can you tell us more about this? And why did you choose to tell this story?

The Yallah team: Hello! This story is indeed rooted in reality. Nayla, who wrote the script, heard this story from her father. A swimming exam had been planned for his high school diploma. Despite the air-raid sirens and the warnings of his relatives, he insisted he had to pass the exam, because he was worried he would be given a failing grade. This schoolboy arriving in a swimsuit in front of a shell hole, holding his covening notice in his hand, would have made for a great war photography should someone had been there to take a picture. But Naji was alone, and we thought this anecdote that made Nayla’s dad laugh so hard made for a very strong story, so we decided to develop it.

3DVF: How did you divide the work within the team?

Nayla Nassar was in charge of directing the short, she also wrote the script, created some of the rigs and she also worked on the animation. Edouard Pitula was the artistic director. He was also tasked with creating textures, matte paintings, FX. Renaud de Saint Albin focused on character modeling, texturing, lookdev and also worked on the animation. The asset modeling task was shared between Cécile Adant, Anaïs Sassatelli and Candice Behague. Cécile also created some of the storyboad and was the lead animator. Candice handled some of the layout and all the compositing. Anaïs was in charge of storyboarding, she was lead layout and she worked on the lighting/rendering.

Swimming pool sequence – animation & reference

3DVF: The short film is very stylized, especially when it comes to the texturing. Beirut is portrayed as a colorful city even though many people probably picture Beirut during the civil war as a greyish, dusty location. Can you tell us more about this?

For us, Beirut was not an environment but the third character of our story. Beirut is a vibrant city, full of life and surprises. Our goal was to convey this idea through our designs, with lots of colorful details and a warm atmosphere despite all the destruction.

Concept art – balcony

3DVF: Which visual references did you use?

There was a lot of research to find old pictures of Beirut, dating back to the civil war but also older pictures that would give us a good idea of the architecture style and colors of the city. When it comes to lighting, we were really inspired by the works of French photographer Raymond Depardon. Tekkonkinkreet [Editor’s note: Tekkonkinkreet is a manga by Taiyō Matsumoto, adapted as an animated feature film directed by Michael Arias] also helped us a lot. We used it as a reference to create a stylized yet detailed city, full of life.

Beirut – concept art
Final render

3DVF: How did you approach the main characters, Nicolas and Naji? Can you tell us about the character design, the riging/animation?

We wanted Naji to resemble Nayla’s father, both in terms of personality and design. The real Naji was a mischievous teenager, carefree and most stubborn. This was a good fit for the story we wanted to tell! Nicolas is also inspired by a real person, but more loosely. We wanted Nicolas to convey the idea of a dilemma shared by most people living in Beirut at the time: they loved their city but were also afraid and anxious.

We kept the idea of two contrasting characters when working on the animation. We allowed ourselves to use bolder and sillier poses for Naji than for Nicolas, whose facial animation is more subtle. The way we animated Nicolas changes during the short, to reflect the fact that he is evolving thanks to Naji.

3DVF: Of course, you had to reflect on how to portray the civil war itself. During most of the short film it seems to be either a distant threat or something portrayed in a cartoonish manner: planes flying high in the sky, stylized explosions, a tank gun that gets longer and longer… What was your thought process?

Many testimonies about the Lebanese civil war highlighted how absurd this war was. This is also the main idea of our short film, the idea that drove the story. Some testimonies are so incredible that you can only portray them using exaggerated drawings. This is the idea we wanted to convey, how absurd war is, rather than focusing on how cruel it can be.

Yallah - Supinfocom Rubika

3DVF: A brothel can be seen in one of the sequences of the short film, which might surprise the viewers. Can you tell us more about this location?

We included the brothel because of another surreal anecdote about this civil war. The city was split between East and West, with a No Man’s Land in the middle: a large road that was now deserted and deadly. A single building was still inhabited: a hotel, a brothel where soldiers from both sides would cross paths without killing one another. This brothel remained a peaceful place almost until the end of the civil war. This is a very famous story in Beirut, and we wanted to include a brief reference to this place that was flipping the bird to the civil war. It’s almost legendary.

Concept art showing the brothel

3DVF: How did you choreograph the “urban surfing” sequence?

We came up with this idea after seing pictures of the aftermath of the explosion that hit the Beirut port in 2020. On one of those pictures, destroyed building looked like waves. We looked for other pictures of fallen buildings that shared this look, and we pushed it further using perspective. On the animation side, Cécile looked for surfing videos on Youtube. This was helpful to learn how to choreograph Naji’s moves, and Nicolas just had to be following him awkwardly.

3DVF: Since the swimming pool is the place where the teenage boy want to go, it’s an important setting and you spent a lot of time to create this location. Can you tell us more about this process?

That was a real challenge, because we didn’t have any visual reference for the aquatic center that existed at that time in Beirut. We wanted a majestic facade so that the building would look important, which is rarely the case when it comes to municipal pools. We ended up using a big theater from downtown Beirut as a reference for the exterior, and more prestigious pools for the interior of the building.

The front of the swimming pool – modeling
The front of the swimming pool – final render
Concept art – inside the swimming pool
Inside the swimming pool – modeling

3DVF: How did you handle the FX (smoke, explosions, shots, water)?

Each effect was challenging. We ended up working on a case by case basis so that the effects would fit the visual style of the environments. Explosions were animated by hand in 2D, using the polygonal lasso tool. As for the smoke effects, we did a first pass using stylized 3D FX with Houdini, then some paint-over. This way we had accurate physics, then we tweaked the result to get the visual style we wanted. Shots fired are 2D animations used as textures for 3D objects, this way we could adjust their speed and size as soon as we began animating a shot. Water was hand drawn in 2D.

Explosion
Matte paintings – sky

3DVF: Could you also tell us about the rendering & compositing process? Which shots were the most difficult to achieve?

The main challenge for us during rendering & compositing was to create a visual separation between the characters and the environment, because their skin tone is close to the color of the buildings, especially during the first sequence. We had to work on color and lighting to achieve this, for example with the the purple shadows on the character.

The shot where we first see the whole pool was also difficult to achieve, because this is a key shot from the movie and the viewers have to be able to understand Naji’s emotions even though this is a wide angle shot. Lighting and contrast took a lot of time to nail down.

Nali discovering the pool basin – animation & references

3DVF: How did the real Naji react when he saw the short film? And did you get some feedback from other people who experienced this civil war?

The real Naji was very entertained. The short film is also dedicated to his sister, who still lives in Lebanon: she was even more amazed by the end result!!! The short film was screened in the streets of Beirut, which was a huge honor, and we got some amazing feedback from people who lived this war. They were often moved and proud. Some even shared anecdotes related to details we included in the short film: they brought back memories. This is a great motivation to keep making movies!

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