In an exclusive interview, we spoke to Three Trees co-directors M.R. Horhager and Aaron Hong.
PH: Can you talk about how the short film Three Trees came about? What was the inspiration behind it?
M.R. Horhager: The whole thing started with a couple of drawings in my sketchbook; one of them was of this shy little girl who didn't like her curly hair - I drew the silhouette of her head as a square. And then I had this other drawing where I simplified a landscape into basic shapes like squares, triangles, and circles. These two drawings kind of merged in my head and eventually I landed on using the changing seasons to show how different the trees were - that's when the story really snapped into place for me. I wrote the script pretty quickly and from there boarded and put together an animatic. I tried a few times to get the film going, but it just kept getting stuck for different reasons. So it ended up sitting in a folder on my computer for a while. It wasn't until Aaron got involved and started reworking the look of the film that things started moving again.
Aaron Hong: After completing a few personal projects together, Mathias and I were in search of our next one. That's when he approached me with his script and storyboard for 'Three Trees.' I was instantly hooked by its charm and message. As we jumped into the project, I shared my thoughts and ideas on enhancing its visual appeal and adding even more personality. We carefully worked on refining these concepts while remaining true to the original idea, and finally presented our reworked vision to E.D. Films!
PH: How were children's books an inspiration?
M.R. Horhager: The film follows this classic fable structure; like using the rule of three with the changing of the seasons and all the repetition. We were really after something more lyrical with mood and tone. It just made sense to go for a more illustrative style rather than your typical animation look.
Aaron Hong: I have always been captivated by the hand-drawn and painted aesthetics in children's books. How the placement of each line and brush stroke, infused with thought and care, brings illustrations and pages to life. At the time I was really inspired by Jon Klassen, Kenard Pak and Charley Harper to name a few.
PH: The film debuted at the Palm Springs International ShortFest. What was that like?
M.R. Horhager: Unfortunately, we weren’t able to attend but we were super happy to premiere our film there. We were programmed alongside some amazing short films - ones I’ve been tracking online for a long time. It all feels surreal.
Aaron Hong: As Mathias said, unfortunately we were unable to attend, but it was so exciting to have its World Premiere at that festival and with such a great group of films!
PH: What did the pre-production process look like - how did you achieve the children’s book-like aesthetic?
Aaron Hong: I started with a few preliminary concept pieces and styleframes envisioning how the film could potentially appear. We then brought these initial visual explorations to E.D. Films, who at the time used a very unique technique to surface their 3D assets in a way you could break out each brush stroke and textured layer to really get a 2D painterly style. So from there I would design and paint each asset (trees,leaves, rocks, grass, etc.) using different types of brushes/textures and E.D. Films (Danel Gies) would build out our world in a 3D space.
PH: Why did you decide to go with Unreal Engine?
M.R. Horhager: That really came from E.D. Films. They were already using Unreal on a bunch of other projects at the studio, their expertise with it made them the ideal partners for us and the film. We knew we always wanted to keep the trees as actual trees and not give them human-like traits. If we anthropomorphized them, we felt, it would've totally undermined the message and purpose of the film.
So, since the trees were stationary, we had to rely on clever camera angles, blocking, and staging to tell our story. Creating the forest /set virtually in Unreal turned out to be the perfect storytelling tool for what Aaron and I wanted to achieve.
PH: Can you talk about the experience of working with Unreal Engine?
Aaron Hong: Working with Unreal was an amazing experience! It provided us with the flexibility to make real-time adjustments, experiment with various camera movements and angles, and immediately visualize a nearly finished product. In traditional 3D workflows, you often have to wait hours to see renders, and there are limitations on the number of assets in a scene or file.
However, Unreal allowed us to construct an extensive set full of trees, flowers, grass—basically anything we wanted—in a beautifully painted style that is typically challenging for other software to handle.
PH: What's it like being able to jump into the scene and move through it in real time?
Aaron Hong: It was absolutely fantastic! Having the ability to instantly see a shot that closely resembles the final product allows ample time for creative adjustments and further development. The level of control over art direction is remarkable, enabling the fine-tuning of lighting, mood, and atmosphere. You can effortlessly tailor set pieces to suit the environment and seamlessly adjust colors in real-time. This allows for dedicated time to compose and design a shot exactly as envisioned, without the need to wait and hope for a decent outcome in a render.
PH: What benefits does this create vs traditional animation?
Aaron Hong: The benefits are time, and the more time you have for the creative to explore and adjust. Unlike traditional animation, working with Unreal allows for unique and dynamic environments, enabling each department to focus on their artistic and creative tasks more effectively. The ability to instantly visualize lighting and surfacing empowers quick adjustments and recalibration of ideas or thoughts. Usually, assembling assets, surfacing, and lighting would often involve a bit of guess work, followed by waiting for renders to reveal the final outcome. Unreal's real-time capabilities eliminate this uncertainty, allowing us to see and make adjustments directly within the scene itself, resulting in a much more streamlined and efficient workflow.
M.R. Horhager: Traditional animation can be slow and expensive. It really forces you to think things through and “pre-visualize” everything but sometimes all that meticulous planning can make the final film feel a bit manufactured and stiff. What's really awesome about working in real-time is that you get to see things almost instantly, and it totally encourages you to experiment and stumble upon cool ideas that you wouldn't have even thought of in a typical animation setup.
PH: What were some of the challenges you encountered?
M.R. Horhager: It feels so long ago now but the biggest challenge we faced while working on this film was the fact that we had to make it during the pandemic - which meant everyone had to work remotely. Eventually we all discovered that the animation industry was actually well-suited for remote work but we had to learn that… in real-time (haha). We're talking a lot about the tech behind the scenes, but when it really came down to it, I'm most grateful that we had an awesome team of people who came together virtually to make this film happen.
PH: How does it feel watching this film come to life, and what does it mean to you?
M.R. Horhager: I'm incredibly proud of Three Trees! It all began as a small idea, a while back, and now, thanks to the incredible talents of many people, it has come to life and is out there for the world to enjoy!
Aaron Hong: Watching this film come to life has been an incredibly meaningful experience!! I’m so thankful to everyone whose invaluable contributions brought this film to life! Having the opportunity to create something original and see it through means a lot to me! I am super excited and proud to share this film and I hope that it resonates and brings joy to those who watch it.
PH: Are there any other projects on the horizon for E.D. Films that you can discuss?
M.R. Horhager: Right now the focus for us is getting Three Trees out into the world and seen. Working with E.D. Films was such a great experience - I’m sure we’ll be working together on something again and hopefully soon! Just need to come up with something…