Well, once the animation of the characters, ships, and foreground images got taken care of, it was time to create the backgrounds. First off, we needed an ocean. With square plastic blocks there are only a few ways to make an ocean, but in 3D I had the advantage of being able to control infinite plastic blocks.
This clip is my first 3D water test. I have 3D blocks moving up and down, controlled by an animated displacement map. If they get high enough, the top of the block turns white, so the peaks of my waves have white crests. Once I figured out how to do this, it was simpler than it looks. There were some downsides, though. While I can in theory control infinite blocks, my tight deadline meant that I probably wouldn’t have the time to render more than about 40,000 per scene.
That’s a lot of blocks. Fortunately, the storyboard (coming in handy once again) showed me exactly how many scenes needed close-up shots of the 3D water. There were actually not that many. In most shots, the ocean is much further away and I could cheat it with some simple 2D water. For that I created these two textures, which tile and loop, and mapped them to a single, flat, ocean polygon. The grey image is the bump map, and the blue one is color. Here is what it looks like animated. Not as nice as the 3D water, but fine for long shots.
Of course, we also need a sky. On the open sea the sky is a large part of the environment, and it would also dictate the lighting for the shots. As much as possible, I wanted to visual style of this short to mimic the great swash-buckling illustrations by Howard Pyle and N. C. Wyeth, who always had strong warm light, long cool shadows, and high puffy clouds. Of course, they also had a lot more swash and buckle than I can squeeze out of rigid little plastic men, but at least I can do puffy clouds.
The picture above is a quick color sketch I did in Corel Painter to experiment with a few things. When I was happy with it, I painted a panoramic sky image that could be mapped onto a giant cylinder that would be the backdrop for my ocean. It took some experimenting before I got the sunset colors to work in 360 degrees, but eventually I got it right. A real downside with this project was that I only got to do one matte painting, but at least it was a big one that was in every single shot.