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Cultivating 'Gnomeo & Juliet'

Bill Desowitz reports back from Toronto and London with an exclusive report of the first animated feature from Elton John's Rocket Pictures.

Starz made the characters come to life with detailed modeling and surfacing. All images courtesy of Touchstone Pictures.

It's taken 11 years to make Gnomeo & Juliet, which was financed by Disney but independently produced by Elton John's Rocket Pictures, animated by Starz Animation Toronto and distributed by Touchstone Pictures. The ceramic garden gnomes and the lush neighboring red and blue Stratford gardens, to be sure, required Starz to raise its game beyond the previous 9. But not before the design team in London did its essential work, headed by director Kelly Asbury and producer Baker Bloodworth.

"It was important to have a regular gardener with homeowners that were not extraordinarily eccentric but had a passion for gardening," explains production designer Karen de Jong, who previously worked with Bloodworth on Dinosaur. "Getting immersed in the real environments in London and the surrounding area was about trying to get as much of that flavor into it. We went to Stratford on a number of occasions and were inspired by houses and the yards. They weren't too big but were big for gnomes. You never wanted to lose sight of where they are relative to their world. We always wanted to be heightened reality. But it wasn't candy colored. Scale was very important as well as having a wide range of [more than 200] flowers and plants."

Back in Toronto at Starz, Igor Khait (Everyone's Hero was hired to help the Starz management team, which includes David Steinberg, head of studio; Terry Dale, head of operations and training; Rob Burton, head of technology; and Matt Teevan, head of production. And they brought in Henry Anderson (Stuart Little) to supervise animation, Xavier Bernasconi (The Tale of Despereaux) to supervise lighting, Freddy Chaleur (Mickey's Twice Upon a Christmas) to supervise surfacing and Corey Smith (Meet the Robinsons) to supervise effects.

Meanwhile, there were story issues that needed to be resolved: the end result was lighter and less daft. "Fairly early on, Kelly held up Grease as an example to us and said garden gnomes are ostensibly kitsch so let's not imbue them with heavy emotions," suggests David Stoten, head of story. He points to the "Hopelessly Devoted to You" moment in the backyard and the paddling pool that undercuts the sadness with humor.

Nothing got in the way of a good pose amid the splendor of a splatter-shaded garden.

"Gnomeo is definitely one of these projects that if it had come through another studio at a different time with different people attached to it, could've been a live-action movie with CG characters," offers Anderson. "Everything in the gardens is absolutely realistic, so the modeling and surfacing teams did such detailed work. The characters are heavily textured, so we had to be mindful of the fact that if you stretch a shoulder or an elbow or a chest too much, all the chips and cracks and paint defects would stretch or bend in an unnatural way and destroy the feeling that they were made of ceramic.

"I'd say that we tried to keep in mind that certain characters would be limited in their movements, but at the same time we never let anything get in the way of a strong pose or a strong attitude or a strong facial expression. Now Featherstone, the plastic pink flamingo, was definitely a challenge because of how he's built: he has a seam right down the middle of his neck, so we tried to get the best pose and make sure the seam was not twisting too much. But because Featherstone and the frog, Nanette, were not made of ceramic, we could stretch them more in an exaggerated way."

Michael Chaffe, one of Starz's supervising animators, adds, "Sometimes you can get funny stuff with limitations. You'd have to find ways of bending from the waist and act something out. You couldn't get a strong pose so that's where the facial gestures come in: "The Bennie and the Jets" sequence where Benny orders the lawnmower [on steroids] is a prime example."

According to Chaleur, "We had to figure out a way to relax the geometry so we could keep the detail. It was like a kind of post process after the animation was done. If the animation created some distortion, then we could take care of that by having this post process. Another challenge for the characters is that they were supposed to be a single object, but then we have those eyes, which are texture projected. They are not real geometry.

Scale was important and the gardens were divided into more manageable subsets.

"The toolset [Maya, Fusion, RenderMan and mental ray run on HP Z workstations and DreamColor monitors] evolved a lot for the project to provide flexibility and put a lot of information for lighting. Specifically, R&D worked on all the grooming for the foliage and all the controls for the grass and fur for the bulldog. For the dog and other characters, we ended up creating sub-clumping information. What we've done as well is create a splatter shader to cover the ground with 10 different textures that are small in size but have high-resolution. It distributes all the textures and melds them together without any seams through different alphas.

"Because of so much foliage, we optimized our work through mental ray and we traced everything. So we split our ceramic in different ways. We had the highlight, the retracing/reflection and the environment reflections. They were split so animation and lighting could create an environment reflection map that matched the actual light of the set. And that map would be automatically rigged by our shader."

Iain McLuckie, the Starz modeling supervisor, says they broke up the sets for the garden and town into more manageable pieces (about half a dozen) since the characters were so tiny and the sets so large. "For the garden, they captured video footage of trees and leaves blowing and plugged that into our 2D lights and interactively placed these lights, keeping our garden alive and creating caustic effects for water," he adds.

Bernasconi says Asbury "was really adamant about not letting the bushes look too busy. That was tricky because nature has an organic distribution of the leaf direction and when it's too chaotic it ends up that your key light, for example, doesn't fall off in the correct way. So you have this undefined shape that takes your eye away from the action. So, one of the shader writers, Daniel Lee, created a plug-in for Maya using spherical harmonics to get a smoother surface for the bush."

Stratford proved inspirational in designing a fresh locale with just the right heightened reality.

Then, when it came to post back in London, there was always Shakespeare and the music to comfortably fall back on. "We tried to stay somewhat true to [Romeo and Juliet]," suggests Catherine Apple, the editor. "We had to try and stay true to what the character actually would do or could do. We didn't go off on a tangent in editorial just to make something funny. And with Elton John's songs, we changed them around quite a bit, including "Hello, Hello," which was written for that moment when Gnomeo & Juliet met, but we tried it in other places and then came back to it there."

Stereo, meanwhile, was basically an afterthought in Toronto, according to Eric Deren, the stereographer. But he relished finding natural 3-D moments rather than having to design them. "Featherstone is made to be a 3-D moment anytime he talks near the camera because of all his pointy parts. In fact, we had to rein him in quite a bit to support the shots nearby and lead the viewer's eye in and out of these shots. Otherwise, he was going to jar the viewer's eyes."

And there should be nothing jarring about Gnomeo & Juliet.

Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.