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'Bolt': Disney Gets Reborn Again

AWN goes deep into the animation challenges of Bolt, the first Disney animated feature produced under the new John Lasseter/Ed Catmull regime.

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Bolt continued in American Dog's painterly direction, but it was toned down for a more believable-looking character design. To accomplish this painterly look in CG required lots of R&D.

Lusinsky says their painterly look included brick detail in close-up, edges on models that look like brush strokes, integrating matte paintings more seamlessly into 3D spaces and applying distinctive lighting and detailed sensibilities for each city on this road trip. For instance, San Francisco contains cobblestones coming up from the asphalt in old shipping yards; a gray haze and de-saturated color palette for New York's garment district; turquoise haze for Kentucky and Ohio; the neon look of the Las Vegas strip or the baked in mid-day heat on asphalt; and the Santa Ana winds with purple skies in L.A.

The idea was to combine the urban, cinematic look of Hopper with the naturalistic exposure sensibilities of air/atmosphere in the cinematography from the films of the '70s (most notably Vilmos Zsigmond's McCabe and Mrs. Miller). This included lens effects such as light scattering, blooming and lens flares.

Felix cites the painterly influences of Pinocchio and other Disney classics while further exploring the new CG techniques for normal painting (3D painting on normal maps with receding detail) and ray painting, which provides brushstrokes with perpetual painterly edges.

"They did a lot of testing to try and figure out that balance [between achieving the right look but not be too distracting]," says director Williams. "A lot of people have commented to us that there's something so real about the world, but actually there was quite a bit of abstraction: the further you get away from the camera, the more broken up the shapes get. It's softer. And I think that's because it starts to mimic your own eye and your ability to diffuse detail that is unimportant. And so while, on the one hand, it's more abstract, on the other hand, it feels more believable. But that was something they had to tinker with a lot: If a character gets this close to an object, how diffused, how painterly should it be? And it still has to serve the story. Why is that object way over there suddenly crisper? And why does this thing so close to the camera suddenly feel so broken up like a painting? And so often times we'd have more than one version of an object, so there were two U-haul trucks. If Bolt and Mittens were close to it, we'd bring in the one with more resolution to it, but if it was farther away, it allowed us to go more for that painterly thing and have that spectrum from right next to the camera all the way to the horizon, with Paul Felix and the technology team figuring that stuff out as we went along."

The painterly look included brick detail in close-up, edges on models that look like brush strokes, integrating matte paintings into 3D spaces and applying distinctive lighting and detailed sensibilities.

Howard adds that they were constantly fighting what the computer does so well, "which is creating perfect shapes, perfect straights, perfect curves and completely blended, even colors. And there are so many imperfections and trying to create that imperfect, organic world is such a challenge. As the industry matures, you'll see a lot more of this organic [treatment]."

In fact, this maturation will serve Howard well on his next project, the equally painterly Rapunzel, which he is co-directing with Nathan Greno (head of story Bolt). They have replaced Glen Keane and Dean Wellins. Keane suffered a "personal, non-threatening health issue," but will stay on as exec producer.

"It's been going very good so far -- the same kind of schedule that we faced with Bolt, maybe a little longer," Howard offers. "There's been a lot of development work done already. It's exciting for us because we're given an opportunity to work on a fairy tale. Again, John is here and he loves Disney more than anything else and you want to raise the bar every time and live up to expectations for a Disney fairy tale: it has to sit next to those other classic films. When I was being trained in CG animation, it's so different from drawing. And I gravitated toward story because I wanted to stay as a hand-drawn artist. I miss that immediacy of pencil and paper even though I use a tablet now. But with Glen's help, I think we can make the toolset more user- friendly.

"There are masters that now exist in CG animation: people that have become so facile, so fluid with their style and their command of the tools and it's great to see. So there are stars out there at Pixar and Disney and DreamWorks as well. I see stuff that feels like a great drawing; it feels well composed and it feels like a controlled performance, and it's great to see that kind of maturity happening."

Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN and VFXWorld.

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