Neil Stubbings Infuses 3D Animation with Classic Cartoon Style

by Michelle Gallina

posted on 09-14-2017

As 3D animation technologies grow more advanced, major film studios are creating breathtaking animated features with three-dimensional depth, futuristic shine, and hyper-realistic effects. But other artists are taking the technology in a different direction, applying shading, lighting, and textures that strip the shine away. The resulting animations combine the best of both worlds: the fluidity and depth of 3D animation with the unique character of 2D animation.

The work of animation artist Neil Stubbings perfectly captures how 2D sensibilities can breathe life into 3D models. Now an animator, writer, character designer, and director of animations, Stubbings produces work for corporate clients while simultaneously working on short films for festivals. “My goal is to have a classic cartoon spirit with a 3D twist,” he says.

Building a career in motion design

Stubbings started his career at 16 as an apprentice graphic designer in Switzerland. During his four-year apprenticeship, he worked on logo and packaging design where he got his first taste of working with Adobe creative software, including Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator. Following his dream to work in the movies, Stubbings moved on with an internship at a local TV station, where he learned to use Adobe After Effects to create openings, closing, titles, on-air promotions, and any other motions graphics needed for shows. This internship lead to a job offer at a motion design firm in Zurich.

“During my years in the industry, I’ve completed most of my projects on my own or with one other person” says Stubbings. “So I do the design, look development, animation, finishing, compositing—every part of the project is me. This actually helped me out as I started working freelance. I embrace my passion for storytelling on my own terms and do almost every element by myself.”

Adding depth to animations

In 2012, Stubbings wrote, directed, and animated the short film Stopover, which showed at more than two dozen film festivals across Europe and North America. Stopover tells the humorous story of a solitary spaceman and his close encounter of the third kind. Primary 3D animation was done using CINEMA 4D, but Stubbings switched to Photoshop and After Effects to achieve his signature 2D look.

Textures created in Adobe Photoshop were brought into After Effects, giving all of the 3D elements a beautiful painted feel. Particle effects and lighting in After Effects add haze that gives depth to the endless space.

“What I like about After Effects and CINEMA 4D is that they play very well together,” says Stubbings. “I can bring in a CINEMA 4D render, then do the camera work, lighting, and compositing in After Effects. After Effects was a particularly big lifesaver for Stopover. I decided at the last minute to change the color of the spaceship to create more contrast with the spaceman’s suit. Instead of re-rendering everything, I just changed it in After Effects.”

Commercial applications

More recently, Stubbings worked with accessory manufacturer FREITAG to create the unique film TRUCKIN’. FREITAG creates robust bags, wallets, and accessories by upcycling the tarps used on large transportation trucks. While FREITAG first envisioned a simple explainer piece conveying how the bags are made, Stubbings convinced them to back a film as creative and unexpected as FRIETAG bags.

The result is a whimsical piece that captures the feel of classic Looney Tunes cartoons. The story follows two brothers at a “truck farm” who raise the trucks from “babies” into “adults”. When the grown trucks are ready to retire, they return to the farm where the brothers accept the long-worn tarps and turn them into fashionable accessories.

“It’s more or less an artistic interpretation of the production process,” says Stubbings. “I was inspired by old cartoons that I grew up with, so it’s a very graphic look with textures created in Illustrator CC. After Effects play a very important role for the whole look and feel of the piece. I tweaked the images to add imperfections, effects, and textures so that the final product didn’t look rendered or too perfect. After Effects gives my animations the more hand-drawn feel that I like.”

Neil Stubbings will be presenting in the Adobe stand at IBC 2017 on Sunday, September 17th at 2:00 PM (5:00 AM PT). His presentation on Monday, September 18th at 2:00 PM (5:00 AM PT) will be live streamed on the Adobe After Effects Facebook page (@aftereffects).

Learn more about Adobe Creative Cloud pro video tools

Topics: Creative Inspiration & Trends

Products: Photoshop, Creative Cloud