Norman’s Island

von Little Mountain Animation
The studio
Righteous robots for the win

Little Mountain Animation is based in a suburb of Vancouver at the heart of a family home owned by Nathan Thomas, his wife and their two kids.

Thomas, a senior animator at Industrial Light & Magic (Bumblebee, Guardians of the Galaxy) and his best friend Bradley Sorochka, a character artist at Electronic Arts, resolved to embark on their first independent animation production after they posted a test shot on Twitter in 2018 and received a favorable response.

From left to right: Kimberly Thomas – Writer, Bradley Sorochka – Artist and Nathan Thomas – Director

From left to right: Kimberly Thomas – Writer, Bradley Sorochka – Artist and Nathan Thomas – Director

The two artists are supported by Thomas’ partner Kimberly Thomas, an English teacher who developed the concept for a children’s series that celebrates friendship and teamwork. Norman’s Island – an action-comedy show for 8-12 year olds – is about two kids who land on a deserted isle crawling with giant-scary transformer-like robots and they must figure out how to save the world by allying with the “good” robots.

It’s the kind of adventure that can charm kids and parents alike with its innocent joy and warmth. Not unlike a certain 80s marooned alien trying to find a way home.

The trio tested an early version of the trailer with the Thomas’ 4-year-old daughter, who also voiced one of the characters. She and her friends all yelled “AGAIN!”

That was a highlight, chuckled Thomas.

The project
Sweet look-development with PBR

As Thomas prepares to make the pilgrimage to the Annecy Animation Film Festival and MIFA to present Norman’s Island to potential financiers and distributors, he’s happy with his choice to create in Unity. “For me as a small studio, it makes complete sense to be in a real-time environment. Roles can overlap because of streamlined tools and the time savings are huge.” This is particularly useful when you’re a two-person creative army.

The director worked his camera and character magic in a DCC software, and nearly all other tasks were handled inside the Unity Editor, including the set design, lighting, visual effects, and post-processing.

From a lookdev perspective, “getting everything to work inside Unity was very easy,” reported his partner, Sorochka. They created all the textures using Substance Painter. From there, the team used both Marmoset and Painter to bake maps (AO, Normal, Position, etc.) before creating basic materials like rust, scuffed-up paint and dirty glass.

Once they had a decent library, the final step was mixing everything together, using smart masks and hand-painted grunge maps inside Painter to drive damage and wear on the 3D assets. “After all the models and textures were imported, I simply created a new shader that I could plug all of my textures into. All of the assets used a physically based rendering (PBR) roughness workflow that translated nicely into Unity.”

In terms of world-building, Unity’s new terrain tools in 2018.3 provided a winning advantage, not to mention the Asset Store. A pragmatic Thomas explained, “Why spend a day on a water shader when I can buy one in the Asset Store? $30 is a lot cheaper than a day’s wage!”

Schauen Sie sich den Trailer zu Norman's Island an

Because the style is inspired by the 1980s, it was important for each character to have a nice bright rim light, so Thomas lit everything with spotlights to draw the eye to pools of light. Thanks to Unity’s post-processing tools, he was able to achieve that dusk feeling where shadows are made of cool blues and purples, and the sun is a nice warm orange.

“Volumetric light offered great power, and I had bloom and color correction too. Unity condensed so many parts of the pipeline into one simple straightforward tool that it was like having an extra employee on the project!”

The reveal
Experimental XR workflows fuel their animations

While Thomas may dream of a HAL 9000 assisting him one day, the veteran VFX professional didn’t bank on the Unity community becoming his backup team so soon, “Everyone is so open and willing to share. The community really took me by surprise – there is a wealth of knowledge.”

Much like the series’ heroes, Norman and Juniper – who need to team up with a ragtag gang of robots to defend the island from the Evil Major Balmer – Thomas took help wherever he could find it, even if it meant adopting unorthodox ideas. “When you’re commuting, and working on a big movie like Bumblebee, and raising a family, you have to be disciplined.”

World-Building in Unity

He saved time on keyframing by using an ingenious workflow in AnimVR which is real-time, and exporting VR animations directly into Unity via Alembic, as in the case of the blast from a yellow robot you see in the trailer.

For more subtle pose animations, he used Oculus Rift. With the headgear on, Thomas acted out his own shots and was able to record his shoulder and head motion as well as rotation, which he loaded into Maya and then sent to Unity as FBX. “My Dad worked in construction, and he always said, ‘Give a lazy man a hard job, and he’ll find an easy way to do it,’” joked Thomas.

Animation von VR zu Unity

The finished trailer plays impressively close to 24 fps in real-time, and there isn’t any baking, so the assets and animation are video-game-ready. This can unlock great return on investment (ROI) for an indie series looking to penetrate a competitive market.

Little Mountain Animation may have modest beginnings, but it clearly has the AAA talent required to climb the industry’s highest peaks.

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