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(W, A, S, D = Move, MOUSE = Look around)

Pinball 1973 is a short animation film made for the 120 feet long video wall at the IAC Building in New York, a collaborative effort with Franklin Zhu and others. The story is adapted from Haruki Murakami’s novel Pinball 1973.


There is precious little you can gain from a pinball machine. Only some lights that convert to a score count.

On the other hand, there is a great deal to lose. All the coppers you’d ever need to erect statues of every president in history, not to mention a lot of valuable and nonreturnable time.

Pinball machines won’t lead you anywhere. Just the replay light. Replay, replay, replay…. So persistently you’d swear a game of pinball aspired to perpetuity.

This is a story about pinball.


English script: Alfred Birnbaum

Producer: Franklin Zhu

CG Lead: Phil Guo

Cinematography: Eva Huang

Voice over: Scott Reitherman

Music: Tenderness (Agraph), My Machine (Boris), Kenji (Akihiko Matsumoto), Piano Concerto No.5 (J. S. Bach)

Production Notes

World building: Reproducing the original scenes

We started out by blocking out the world with 3D models and seeing which direction the story could possibly go. For the benefit of Murakami fans, we decided to recreate the original settings of scenes whenever we have enough information. The original Murakami novel has highly detailed description of the warehouse where the final reunion took place, ranging from the layout of pinball machines (from which we can calculate the dimensions of the whole warehouse pretty accurately) to the number of steps, not to mention things like the texture of the floor and the smell of the air. We built the first version of the warehouse interior model based exactly on information from the novel, although some modifications had to be made to accommodate the special aspect ratio of the work. The exterior, however, was completely made up from a set design perspective.

Warehouse interior model Warehouse lighting according to the novel Warehouse final lighting

When it comes to J’s Bar, the most important scene of the story, we were lucky enough to obtain some photo references. Fan investigation has led us to an actual bar called Halftime Bar in Kobe, Japan, which is believed to be the original form of J’s Bar that existed in multiple Murakami novels. We didn’t make a field trip to Halftime Bar, but just from the photos found on the internet we were able to measure the dimensions of most objects, allowing us to model the architectural structures and some important objects quite accurately. Like the warehouse scene, after reproducing the real-life setting of the bar, we modified it for layout purposes.

Halftime Bar interior reference image Halftime Bar interior reference image J's Bar architectural structure J's Bar interior lighting according to the reference J's Bar final lighting as appeared in the film Halftime Bar exterior reference image J's Bar exterior model J's Bar exterior shading

Animating: Knowing the ins and outs of a pinball machine

The most labor-intensive animation scripting in Pinball 1973, as the name might suggest, is animating the pinball game. The first step was to get a detailed 3D model of pinball machine that we would use throughout the film. Modeling a pinball machine that looks convincing up close would be no small feat, so we bought a commercial model from Turbosquid. We spent quite some time cleaning up the object hierarchy, naming the objects with their actual names (after studying the repair manual of that pinball machine), fixing rotation axes and parenting moving parts with regard to their connectivity.

Cleaning up pinball machine model

The shading of the pinball machine posed us some serious challenges. The parts all together use numerous texture maps, and the model has a really high polygon count, with no obvious way to reduce. Some parts have fancy looking materials such as the painted acrylic covers and frost plastic bumpers with light bulbs inside, but they really slow down the renderer. We ended up keeping several versions of the model with different material combination and level of details, and switched between them based on camera distance.

Pinball machine shading: acrylic and light bulb Pinball machine shading: plastic Pinball machine shading: metal

Another issue we were excited to address before actually animating the game is scripting the moving parts. Let’s say we want to animate a ball hitting a bumper. It would start with the ball pressing down a ring trigger, the light bulb turning on, and then the solenoid actuator moves down in split seconds, squeezing the ball away from the bumper shaft. Then, as soon as the ball leaves the ring trigger, the spring underneath resets it and the solenoid also resets. The light bulb goes off after a couple seconds. Animating a single bumper hit in the traditional way would require key framing so many objects, whose actions all take place at different times. Despite the complex process, the series of animations is in fact as simple as something that can be controlled by one slider. Realizing this, we scripted the logics of all possible actions that can happen in that pinball machine with Cinema 4D expresso tool, leaving only a handful of 0-1 sliders to keyframe.

Light bulb switchboard

This video demonstrates how the sliders were used to drive composite motion:

With this trick, I animated a round of pinball game, from where all the shots of pinball game are taken.

Shading and lighting: Defining the style

Heavily influenced by Japanese animation director Makoto Shinkai’s visual style, we both wanted to pursue non-photorealistic style but with different approaches. Franklin used sketch-and-toon style in his part, which is akin to Shinkai’s early works, while I explored Shinkai’s modern style that is made famous by his work 5 Centimeters per Second.

5 Centimeters per Second, image courtesey of Makoto Shinkai

To start with, I employed a standard PBR shading workflow, trying to render out neutral looking images first. Then I gradually shifted the shading setting towards a non-photorealistic flavor with exaggerated coloration, reduced level of detail, non-realistic reflection characteristics, along with the excessive use of volumetric lighting and unusual tone-mapping.

J's Bar with neutral shading J's Bar with non-photorealistic treatments

The biggest breakthrough came when I learned Shinkai’s signature edge/rim specular, which you can observe in all kinds of subjects he painted. I tried to reproduce this effect along with some other above mentioned treatments in a small prototype, and finally applied in Pinball 1973.

Below is a reference image I used to learn to approach this style. It is done by Photoshop. (

Artist imitation of Shinkai's style, image courtesey of

And here’s my result that came straight from Cinema 4D.

Cinema 4D approach to Shinkai's style

Characters: 2D or not 2D

For many reasons, we had been inclined to do 2D hand painted characters for quite some time. The uncanny valley is the main reason, besides, 3D characters are a pain to animate for two of us. Therefore we carried out some tests on 2D characters and hoped it to work. The results were not exactly awesome:

2D character test

So we went with 3D characters and bought a rigged model from Turbosquid. As a compromise, we figured that we were not going to animate the model a lot, and had to avoid showing his face. It worked like a charm, especially in silhouettes:

3D character test 3D character as appeared in final shot

Post-processing & compositing: Additional trickery

Some other trickeries we used lie in the field of post-processing and compositing. We used Optical Flares plugin for several shots with dramatic lighting effect, and Trapcode Particular for snow and dust effects. Simple bloom and hand painted glow were used in some shots, including the one below and the warehouse exterior shot.

Post processing example

For this taxi shot we tried compositing 2D matte backgrounds with a multi-pass rendered foreground. With this carefully chosen camera angle, parallax motion, motion blur, depth of field and camera shaking done in After Effects, the shot looks quite satisfying.

Below are the assets used:

Taxi shot background Taxi shot midground Taxi shot foreground with reflection layer