Animation: CG short <I>Windup</I> showcases music's healing power
Issue: January/February 2021

Animation: CG short Windup showcases music's healing power

SAN FRANCISCO — Windup is an animated short by Chinese filmmaker Yibing Jiang that showcases how music can provide healing powers. The project centers on a father, who tries to communicate with his unconscious, hospitalized daughter through a simple tune that plays from a windup music box. He hopes that the music will inspire her to stay strong as well as to lead her home, where he will be waiting for her.

Jiang wrote and directed the short, which runs just under ten minutes in length. Jason Keane, who served as animation director on the project, recently joined Jiang on a livestream to share their experiences in making the piece.

Jiang, who is based in San Francisco, but grew up in Wuhan, says the concept for the short was inspired by her own experiences as a child. She was sick when she was younger, and while her memories are a bit foggy, her parents recall the events much more clearly. Now an adult, she can empathize with what they must have gone through. To date, she has worked on seven animated shorts, but Windup marks her debut as a director. 

Jason Keane is based in Connecticut and has been animating for 12 years. He comes from a family of artists that include Bill Keane and Glen Keane (Dear Basketball, Over The Moon). Jason became a new father during the short’s production, and can also empathize with the emotions the film’s father must have been going through, pointing out that life does, in fact, often imitate art.

The short has no dialogue, and Jiang says that was intentional, making the story accessible and relatable to audiences worldwide.

“The music serves as a main character,” she explains, and the simple tune that comes from the music box the father keeps is something that the viewer can easily hum along to.

According to Keane, the entire production process spanned nine months, ultimately wrapping up in February of 2020, right before the pandemic. Using the Unity realtime engine came as a “mind-blowing revelation” he recalls, allowing the team to create feature-quality animation very efficiently. 

“We can see final renders instantaneously,” he explains. “Typically, renders take months to finally see, and you forgot your inspiration.” In this case, they were able to quickly see lighting changes and tweaks to the characters’ expressions in realtime.

Jiang says the production brought together 20 artists from 10 countries, some of whom already knew how to use the game engine, though for most, it was their first time. 

“Most were working at home and it had to run smoothly on regular computers,” she says of Unity. “Compared to other animation that takes time to render, we were a million times faster! It was quite rewarding and we felt we were changing the history of realtime rendering.”

Traditionally, she notes, artists have to imagine what a final production will look like. Using Unity allowed each department to see their results instantly. They could also polish their work in parallel with other departments and see how action and lighting affected scenes — something that is “unthinkable in traditional pipelines.”

The short’s characters were created and animated in Autodesk Maya. They were then exported as FBX files for Unity. Environments, lighting and camera movement were all created using Unity.

Jiang concludes by saying Windup is designed to offer hope for those going through difficult times.

“This film is important,” adds Keane. “When times are tough, if you have hope and loved ones, things will be alright.”