The passage of time has been pondered by brilliant scientists and popular culture creators alike, and the two worlds come together in a delightful animated short from TED-Ed and creative studio Nice Shoes, “What Is Time?” The piece dives into the existence and meaning of time with the aid of an adorably rendered Albert Einstein as well as a number of Easter Eggs referencing surrealist art and classic sci-fi films.
From a script crafted by the TED-Ed team, director Harry Dorrington developed an approach that parallelled the subject matter, simulating how time only flows forward in one direction by taking the viewer through the story with no edits. Dorrington worked closely with design director Yandong ‘Dino’ Qiu, to develop an illustrated, 2D style for the overall piece as well as the Einstein character.
“The concept was very inspiring, and presented us with a rare opportunity to tell a story with a brand that wasn’t tied to a particular product. To match the fluid nature of time we wanted to explore this concept in a way that was innovative and engaging,” said Dorrington. “When you cut, you have the ability to jump through time and space. We thought it would be interesting to embrace the linear nature of time and take the audience through the piece with one continuous shot.”
Following explorations of the look along with the single-take approach, it was decided that the piece would be animated in 3D, while keeping the feel that Qiu and Dorrington had presented to TED-Ed. Nice Shoes engaged Animanistan as a creative partner to aid in accomplishing the complex animation, with director of animation Nikola Vulovic expanding on Dorrington’s vision and choreographing a seamless journey through space and time.
“Animanistan, and Nikola’s particular style is very fluid, flowing animation which lends itself really well to this, and why we brought them on as a partner studio,” said Dorrington. “The film introduces and explains a number of abstract and complex concepts across a short period of time, and their team was instrumental in maintaining synchronicity between the visuals and the script, while keeping the viewer engaged.”
CG director Andy Zazzera and CG lead Alex Kline collaborated with Qiu to match the look of the styleframes.
“We often need to make elements that are indistinguishable from real life objects. To be true to the spirit of this piece, we needed to deliberately break the pipelines we normally use and develop a new workflow to wrap the animation in this rich, storybook texture,” said Zazzera. “We ultimately developed some in-house tools and techniques in order to bring what Harry and Dino envisioned to life.”
As the colorful look was integral to the piece, Qiu would take stills from greyscale animation and paint the frame to provide color direction throughout the production. Using the techniques they developed with Qiu, the CG team added final color and lighting throughout the piece.
“We utilized bold, bright colors, which helped in conveying the passage of time from day to night, throughout the seasons, and to imagine an alternate universe Einstein who exists in a reality where time flows in reverse,” said Qiu. “Working with this palette was key to making these complex concepts accessible to a wide range of viewers.”