Filmakademie Baden-Württemberg: Student Short Film

Graduate of prestigious German film school Thilo Ewers uses Autodesk Maya software to create award-winning 3D animated short film.


The scene is familiar, but something is obviously wrong. New York City buildings and streets are deserted and neglected. Sound is muffled and distant. An ominous shadow travels across Times Square, Grand Central Station, and other landmarks to remind us of the city that was.

From the window of a dilapidated skyscraper conference room, an unlikely sight emerges. The tail of a whale gives a characteristic slow kick as it passes the length of windows. Two majestic whales are revealed chasing fish above the streets of downtown Manhattan.

Such is the compelling underwater scenario in They Will Come to Town, director and animator Thilo Ewers’ 80-second warning about the consequences of global warming. Conceived and created during Ewers’ years of study at Germany’s Filmakademie Baden-Württemberg, the 3D animated film was created in Autodesk® Maya® software, winning the Visual Effects Society (VES) Award for Outstanding Visual Effects in a Student Project.

The Challenges

Coming from the 2D animation world, Thilo Ewers began his four-year program at Germany’s prestigious Filmakademie wanting to learn more about 3D animation. He got his wish, and a good deal more in the bargain.

“Since we opened in 1991, we have been dedicated to teaching our students everything they need to know to work and succeed in the industry,” says Thomas Haegele, director of the Institute of Animation, Visual Effects, and Digital Postproduction and co-CEO at Filmakademie. “We’re different from other schools in that we rely almost entirely on working professionals who come to speak with students and share their work.”

The school has been committed from the beginning to the digital animation process and, therefore, provides students with full access to full versions of Autodesk Maya, Autodesk® 3ds Max®, and Autodesk® Softimage® 3D animation software, all of which are included in the Autodesk Education Suite for Entertainment Creation.

For Ewers, his idea for a film was the ideal opportunity to learn the software.

“The idea for my film came from a photograph of the Brooklyn Bridge shrouded in mist,” says Ewers. “I used my computer track pad to draw in a whale above the scene. That’s how the idea was born, but how was I going to make it real? For a long time, I sat with a piece of paper that simply said: ‘New York. Underwater. Fully CG.’ I had to find a way to make it real.”

Image from film by Thilo Ewers created with Autodesk Maya software

The Solution
They Will Come to Town would eventually take nearly 18 months to complete, but one viewing reveals that it was worth the wait. With the help of his fellow Filmakademie students, Ewers was able to quickly learn and fully benefit from the power of Autodesk Maya software.

“I literally learned Autodesk Maya while making my film,” says Ewers. “My fellow students and friends helped me a great deal along the way, and by the end of the project, I knew Maya very well and was completely committed to the software. The improved user interface, navigation, and help capabilities in the software made it very easy to figure things out.”

Perhaps not surprisingly in a film that takes place underwater, Ewers and his team were also impressed with award-winning Maya Fluid Effects system. “Maya Fluids were incredibly helpful with all the water,” says Ewers. “My rigging team was particularly pleased to have it on their side.”

“We choose Autodesk software systems simply because they are great,” says Haegele. “I was a professional animator prior to starting Filmakademie, and I have closely watched the development of all these systems from early on. They are all heavily used at Filmakademie, and they let our students and faculty do just about anything we want with them.”

The Results

Since 1994, Filmakademie has organized and staged FMX, the largest European conference concerned with animation, visual effects, games, and interactive media.

“FMX began as a small student event, but it has grown to be really big,” says Haegele. “We require our students to go to the conference, where they have the opportunity to listen to and meet some amazing speakers. In addition to that, we make sure to enter our students’ work in all manner of festivals and competitions.”

Case in point: Ewers’ work earned the Outstanding Visual Effects in a Student Project award at the 8th Annual VES Awards, among other awards. Since then, he joined German effects house Pixomondo, where he added his talents to such films as Ninja Assassin, 2012, and Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief. Now living in Los Angeles, Ewers is working on the upcoming Sucker Punch directed by Zach Snyder.

Image from student film created with Autodesk Maya software

“Filmakademie gives you more than film study,” he says. “It provides you with contacts and opportunities. FMX is one example, but the exposure to all kinds of guest teachers is just amazing. And, of course, there is the chance to learn and use powerful software such as Autodesk Maya.”