Andrew Stadler on creating a desolate alien world in BEACON

BEACON is an animated science-fiction horror film from the mind of Andrew Stadler, which he directed during his final year at the Savannah College of Art and Design. In his atmospheric short, Andrew explores themes of loneliness and isolation that stemmed from his time during the pandemic; an experience that helped to inspire the cold, desolate landscape in which BEACON’s story of survival unfolds. 

We spoke with Andrew in-depth on how he created BEACON. He shares detailed insight from the work that went into the breathtaking backgrounds, visceral weather effects and expansive spacecraft that we see featured in the short — as well as the research that went into creating an otherworldly, alien environment. Andrew also credits the film’s crew, his fellow SCAD Animation students, for their contributions to the film’s unique atmosphere. 

A freak accident leaves a mechanic fighting for his life on a desolate ice planet.

Hi Andrew! Please give yourself a short introduction.

Andrew: I’m Andrew Stadler, a 2D FX artist who specializes in creature animation. I’m from Dayton, Ohio, I recently graduated from the Savannah College of Art and Design. And I am currently in LA animating at Titmouse.

Please tell our readers about BEACON in your words with a short synopsis.

Andrew: Beacon is a sci-fi horror short about a mechanic who barely survives a freak accident on his ship. He evacuates to the planet below where he’s able to make contact with a rescue team. The rescue team gives him brief but very specific instructions not to leave his pod. But when he gets a distress signal from another survivor, he makes the difficult choice to try and help them, unaware of the consequences.

Layout (top) and final render (bottom) from BEACON.

BEACON takes place on a desolate planet with an eerie landscape. What inspired this world?

Andrew: When I first started Beacon, it was set in a jungle. The main creatures were going to be invisible and would be hunting the survivor. I was leaning into Predator a bit too much, so back to the drawing board. It jumped from a jungle to a desert to a water planet, with each iteration changing both the characters and creatures.

It was really important that we got this ‘man versus nature’ feel to the film, while also being realistic with what we could do. When the pandemic hit, a lot of what was going on started working its way into the story and environment; feelings of loneliness and desperation in a cold, unforgiving landscape. I went to my pitch class, did some early thumbnails of what I thought the planet could look like, and immediately the professor asked: “How does this feel different from Earth? How does this feel like an alien planet?” So I went on a research spree: Looking at different formations of ice, and combined that with the kind of emotions I felt during the pandemic. 

Can you tell us about some of those references?

Andrew: There’s this fantastic documentary called Chasing Ice which is about the retreat of glaciers all around the world; in it they capture the largest glacier calving ever recorded on video. It’s both horrifying and deeply saddening and there’s still this sense of awe to it. You’re seeing pieces of ice as tall as a skyscraper roll over in the span of seconds. That really helped push the landscape where we wanted it. It’s this sad, dreary, unforgiving landscape but we still wanted it to have this sense of beauty. 

When we were assigned our crews for our student films, I got to meet Casper Symons. Absolutely amazing artist who was responsible for most of the backgrounds. We bounced ideas off each other, further locking down the look of the planet. We again looked at formations of the way water runs through ice, and other natural phenomena that occur on earth. It didn’t make it in but there’s this bluish, purple lava that occurs when sulfur combusts. It gives off this crazy neon blue color, so we mulled over the idea of the survivor encountering this blue lava river in the darkness. We also really wanted our own version of aurora borealis, which is such a beautiful natural phenomenon, and ended up coming up with bioluminescent bacteria or mineral deposits in the upper reaches of these colossal mountains. Using real life phenomena and emotions helped us explore a grounded but alien world.

Storyboard samples from BEACON.

How did you decide the colour palette and how would you describe the feelings it invokes?

Andrew: When we started there were more vibrant saturated colors. Especially in the original color script. We had this very colorful color palette and were like: “Okay. We’ll use this as a base.” When the film starts, that was, in our minds, the most colorful part of the film. The comets crashing into the spaceship, and even the initial launch out of the tube, have a lot of warmer colors. But when he starts heading toward the planet, that’s when you transition into the cold, unforgiving color palette. 

The color drains from the film as it progresses, but we still wanted to have vibrancy. We kept certain aspects more colorful and saturated, like the creatures, gunfire, rescue ship, even the explosions. But then the vibrancy stops and you’re reminded you’re still on this cold, desolate world. We wanted this feeling that the planet isn’t letting go. 

Face exploration from BEACON‘s protagonist, the survivor.

How did you come up with your protagonist and what was the character design process like?

Andrew: We went through many iterations and motivations for the survivor. At one point he was very cocky and it was very much like he was only in it for himself. This didn’t jive well with the centerpiece of the story which is that BEACON is a tragedy. The survivor barely escapes with his life.

He’s one of the lucky ones. He’s made it out alive and he even gets notified that he’s going to get rescued. But then he gets a distress call, and that’s where his motivations come through. That’s where he has to make a decision: Do I try and help anyone who may still be alive? Or do I stay where I am? It felt more believable and personal to us. We gave him a big exo-suit and huge gun to convey this feeling of confidence and determination; that even in the elements he feels confident of his survival.

We also did the same kind of treatment to the planet. The planet has been worn down from weather and storms. It’s constantly changing and is as much a character as the survivor is. The survivor is essentially being worn down by the planet both physically and mentally. This played heavily into how we designed his character in the end. 

Concept art of the Archimedes in BEACON.

Can you tell us about your process of designing and animating the spacecrafts we see in BEACON?

Andrew: Designing ships was quite the process. The most complicated ship, the Archimedes, came together the fastest. Even though the ship gets maybe 20 seconds of screentime before being obliterated, it was the most complex of our shots. Its concept stayed largely the same from the beginning. 

I’m a huge fan of sci-fi and horror, so we used the Archimedes as a homage to science fiction media. The layout of the ship is similar to the Event Horizon. The rotating ring was something I’ve always been fascinated with after seeing it in 2001: A Space Odyssey. We had it modelled, which went through a lot of back and forth and draw overs. A lot of long nights went into creating the Archimedes. 

Draw overs of the Archimedes, during the process of refining the ship’s 3D model.

How did you approach the ship’s destruction?

Andrew: Once it was modelled, we had to figure out how to destroy it. And that was incredibly challenging. We had to break up each section of the 3D ship into layers. And then 2D effects were coming in from on top and below different parts of the ship. The hardest part came from blowing up the sections of the ship, which we used Houdini for. Getting it all put together, and textured, and lit, and then comped, was like one giant puzzle. That whole sequence was honestly a nightmare to work with, but I’m so glad we stuck it out. The end result was so worth it.

For the escape pod, modeling it went quick but animating it proved to be very difficult. I think with more time we could have integrated the escape pod a bit better with the 2D environment, but that’s just how it goes. You only have so much time.

The rescue ship ended up being the most complex of the ships to get right. The original design had to be changed. It worked out because the rescue ship was only seen in full in one shot. We had time to really flesh it out compared to the escape pod. We decided to give it this sleek, almost gun-like profile. And had the thrusters work like an osprey, which has a vertical takeoff but the turbines can rotate horizontally once the plane is at a certain altitude. Even though the spaceships took a long time to design and put together, and were on-screen for mere seconds, I was glad they were able to go out with a bang.

What was the process of creating the atmospheric weather effects?

Andrew: Creating the weather effects for BEACON was surprisingly — I don’t want to say easy — but it was very manageable. A lot of the snow, wind and lightning effects were tests I had made previously. They took a bit of touching up but they were easy to drop into scenes. It really helped to have the rest of the team just drop in an asset and not have to worry about the effects, which definitely helped speed up production. There were a few scenes where the snow was coming in from above or toward the screen, where we had to make new assets. The final compositing pass we did on all the effects, by the end, really helped them feel more realistic and grounded in the world, and helped sell the weather effects.

Model sheet of an alien creature in BEACON.

Which tools in Toon Boom Harmony proved useful when making BEACON?

Andrew: The node system was really helpful in keeping the pipeline efficient. And also allowed us to test the look of certain effects. We used the ability to import .obj files into Harmony to use the 3D gun as a guide for the 2D animation. 

Ease-of-use is just so nice in Harmony. I love being able to bounce between vector and bitmap brushes and being able to experiment with both seamlessly. We were able to plus a lot of the shots with foggy, misty bitmap brushes. Using the camera for parallax and screen shake was also a big plus. I absolutely love the camera in Harmony and wish there was a way to export the camera data to After Effects.

[Editor’s note: This is possible through through scripting! The TB_ExportCamera.js script included in Harmony’s Application Resources folder can be used to export camera movement to other applications.]

Are there any collaborators or team members from BEACON you’d like to shout out?

Andrew: Even though we didn’t get to pick our crews, I couldn’t have asked for a better one. Patrick Sholar and Simon Ardoin, were the other two animators besides myself. Together we each did nearly two-and-a-half minutes of animation. Casper Symons, who did nearly all the backgrounds and helped a ton with visdev. Kass Augustyniak who modeled the Archimedes and animated the escape pod. Holo Gass, who animated the Archimedes as well as the 3D VFX of its destruction, and Emily Fulp, who modeled the rescue ship, animated and did a whole bunch of compositing. 

Also a huge shout out to Alex Rocca who did the wrist map and icons. And Chad Gutierrez. I’ve known Chad for a couple years but I was so happy when he agreed to help out on Beacon. We’re both huge fans of the Half-Life series and when we were talking about what direction to go with the score, he always knew where to go with it. I could thank every single person. It was so amazing to have everybody come together and help this project come to fruition.

Character design exploration of the ice behemoth in BEACON.

What have been some benefits or learnings from the SCAD animation program?

Andrew: SCAD has been really great for networking. I met some of my best friends through the animation program. It’s wicked to be surrounded by like-minded artists and having a place that really encourages us to work collaboratively and bounce our ideas off each other. I’m grateful that SCAD didn’t try and restrict the vision we had for BEACON. Instead we had great professors like Timothy Steele encouraging us to experiment with what we wanted to do. 

I came into class after redoing the entire ending of the animatic one weekend. And had the shot where the ship ascends and gets hit by a tentacle. Even in the animatic stage you could tell that shot felt daunting, but he looked at it and said: “That’s gonna be a crazy shot.” Never once did he say we couldn’t do a shot and that really fueled us. Nothing felt impossible on this film. Daunting and complex, but never impossible.

The professors are really what make SCAD worth it though. John Webber was a professor I was in contact with a lot. Every time I would pitch my ideas for BEACON or send clips of the animatic in its earliest stages, he was always so excited and eager to see where it would go. 

Having access to a lot of software was also really beneficial. Having it all in one place made hopping around the pipeline much easier and gave the whole production a big sandbox feeling.

Do you have plans to develop the world of BEACON further?

Andrew: Yes! Beacon is the first story from an anthology idea I’ve had for a long time, called Ferocious. A collection of short stories about the consequences of humanity expanding out into the cosmos. The shorts have different characters and situations but are all set in the same universe with connections between each story, sharing a similar atmospheric horror as BEACON. I would like to return to the world of BEACON with a prequel that explains the ship graveyard and the first encounter with the creatures of the planet. For now, I’m currently in pre-production for the second short that follows a teacher and their student using the rain to survive after an attack on their colony. I’m being vague but I’m very excited for it!

Early thumbnails from BEACON‘s ending.

  • Interested in exploring more work from Andrew Stadler? You can find more of Andrew’s art on Instagram and Twitter.
  • Looking for another film created by SCAD’s students? Read how Neko Pilarcik-Tellez and a team of students created volumetric lighting effects in The Pope’s Dog.
  • Interested in using Toon Boom Harmony for your thesis film? Students can get access to industry standard tools for up to 84% off.

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