Ugly is a film built on beautiful contradictions. The characters have odd, blocky proportions and stumble around like a group of drunk boxers. The town, too, is comprised of weirdly angular cars, buildings, bicycles and trash bags. There's a consistency to the art style, though, that resembles origami and the papercraft video game Tearaway. And the lighting, a stunning mixture of pastel pinks and blues, gives every frame a warm, inviting sheen. It's an unusual, attention-grabbing blend that feels both charming and unsettling at the same time.
The aesthetic mirrors the story, which follows a wild tomcat, Ugly, and its friendship with a Native American chief called Redbear Easterman. At first, the world seems like a bleak place full of hurtful humans who want to bully the one-eyed creature. In one scene, for instance, a group of firefighters spray Ugly with a hose while a building burns to the ground behind them. Redbear sees the value in all life, though, and helps Ugly dream of a flourishing forest filled with creatures that float serenely through the air.
The film's exploration of appearance and kindness goes deeper than the story and character models, though. The team behind Ugly built the short using an irregular animation technique that relies partly on AI-driven simulations, rather than manually-controlled movement. The result, an unpredictable clash of realistic and utterly broken motion, accentuates the film and its message of embracing life's random and beautiful peculiarities.
In 2013, director Nikita Diakur wasn't thinking about obscure animation techniques; he just needed an idea. The filmmaker had returned to Mainz, Germany, in 2010 after completing a master's degree in animation at London's Royal College of Art. Three years later, and desperate for some creativity, he Google-searched "inspiration" and found a website dedicated to inspirational quotes. A few clicks later and he was reading a story about a real-life tomcat, Ugly, who sought compassion until its last breath.
"It didn't really connect with me at first," he said. "It was just funny to me. But the message of the story was very strong. And I felt that it needed to be told in a way that people like me could get connected to it."
"It didn't really connect with me at first. It was just funny to me."
Some visual elements, such as the snow-capped mountains, fell into place immediately. The stark, cuboid buildings were based on Moscow, where he grew up, and Mainz. Redbear, meanwhile, was based on relaxing YouTube videos filled with Native American music and poetic quotes such as: "The end will be as in the beginning, and this was beautiful, the heart pounding in the drums." Other ideas, though, took a little more time to formulate. "It's like when you move into a flat," he said. "Good flats become nice over time. You can't really decorate the flat completely on the first day, it slowly develops. And that's what happened with Ugly as well."
At first, Diakur was interested in simulated animation as a way to accelerate his workflow. In video games, developers use sophisticated physics engines to portray complex explosions and natural effects on screen. The fledgling director wondered if the same technique could be applied more broadly to 3D animation, removing the need to meticulously move characters and objects.