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Getting Animated Over 'Happy Feet'

Bill Desowitz speaks with director George Miller, various supervisors and the co-founder of Animal Logic about the challenges of making Happy Feet.

Performance was key in Happy Feet, built around Mumbles tap dancing. Animal Logic created its own Creative Hub. © 2006 Warner Bros. Ent. Inc. All rights reserved.

For all of those cynics that have bemoaned the glut of 3D-animated movies with animals this year, take note: it's all a matter of storytelling, as George Miller (the Babe movies and Mad Max) so persuasively reminds us with Happy Feet (opening Nov. 17, 2006, from Warner Bros. Pictures). And that goes for penguins, too, for that matter. Because there's room for all kinds of different stories revolving around those furry, cuddly, funny and engaging birds.

Ultimately, though, what's so wonderful about Happy Feet is that it transcends any boundaries between live action and animation with its photoreal aesthetic and naturalistic performances. The odyssey of Emperor Penguin Mumble (voiced by Elijah Wood), who tries to gain acceptance as a tap dancer from his disapproving singing community in Antarctica, is the stuff of pure drama. And that's how Miller approached it.

"Animation was like shooting in slow motion," Miller says affectionately about his first experience with the CG format. "Babe alerted me to the potential of this form of storytelling." And what was the biggest learning curve for the self-described "Synch Nazi"? "To be honest, apart from just caring more about the mysteries of storytelling, the revelation to me was camera. I fancy myself as pretty good with a camera, but I just had no idea what it would be like and they built a special tool for me. But in this case it was no big deal to take a camera and go anywhere. As [Roman] Polanski said, 'There's only one perfect spot for the camera.'

"I sort of knew that but never so much as before making Happy Feet. As an experiment, I took exactly the same animated performance and set and the only things I changed were the camera angle and cutting pattern. And you could seriously influence how it played because of those variables. The other big thing about animation is that it gives you time to reflect because you're doing it bit by bit, whereas live action is all from the gut because there is no time to think."

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To help him realize this very special vision about the importance of individuality, community, nature and song and dance, Miller called upon Animal Logic, the visual effects studio based in Australia, from where he hails. Having never before made an animated feature, this was naturally a large leap for Animal Logic.

"Four years in the making... this has definitely been a big transition for us," remarks Zareh Nalbandian, exec producer/md/co-founder of Animal Logic. "But from my perspective, a natural one. I think we're in an industry that's very young and we'll look back and see just how young we were. And four years ago, the company was just under 10-years-old. We've grown from broadcast design to commercials to visual effects to films, as well as developing software and pipelines. I guess we were looking for something that would take us to the end of the line where we were more of a participant in the filmmaking process.

"We had the knowledge, the experience, the tools and the talent to take on something bigger -- the holy grail would be to produce an entire film and to tell a good story. The prompting was looking for next steps rather than doing more of the same. Having said that, we continue to work on major visual effects and our commercial division has been in the most successful years since Happy Feet."

Having collaborated previously with Miller on the Babe movies, Animal Logic first agreed to do a workshop approach and proof of concept. Warner Bros. then green lit Happy Feet on the basis of this really cute test of a tap dancing penguin in the snow.

"Everyone said it had to be photoreal, it had to be art-directed reality, it had to have a visual complexity that made us believe that they're in Antarctica with real penguins," Nalbandian continues. "And in the initial period that's where our focus was. But we overcame those challenges very quickly because of success with Pixar's RenderMan product. This raised the bar in terms of what we could achieve in the movie and performance. It's rich with character nuance and performance and full of close-ups. Our animators were somewhat homegrown and others were brought on as trainees. The community of animators from all around the world brought different perspectives and skills. It became a melting pot of characters and approaches. This is something we had to embrace as a company because you don't do that in visual effects. This meant getting completely immersed in story development, which became part of our culture, and completely immersed in bringing our characters to life from design through completion.

We developed certain tools and techniques, but the biggest thing we learned was about context, about being focused on story and delivering an entire film and not about thinking in terms of shots.

With the aid of animation director Daniel Jeannette, supervising art director/live action visual effects supervisor David Nelson, digital supervisor Brett Feeney, production designer Mark Sexton, art director Simon Whiteley, layout and camera director David Peers, choreographer Kelley Abbey and the rest of the animation leads and crew, Animal Logic formed a "Creative Hub."

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Glover is joined by other dancers in this clip. Happy Feet contained 70% motion capture, which provided a consistency in performance.

According to Nalbandian, this hub consisted of dialog editing, picture editing, lensing and blocking and a cinematographer station. "We developed some tools that allowed David Peers to sit with George and actually take previs scenes with blocked character performance in an edit on the webstation and spatially rearrange characters, if necessary, in relation to their set. This allowed us to set a lens, work a lens and review iteratively in context of the cut and even change cut points within the framework of one 3D workstation interactively with George... We studied every animation studio and the paradigm was a mix of live-action filmmaking and traditional animation. The structure we ended up with was unique to the film."

The two primary tools created by Animal Logic for Happy Feet were the following:

  • "Flense": A lensing tool that allowed them to block characters at the same time as lensing the shots and reviewing the cut. This allowed Miller to make multiple decisions at the same time interactively while playing to his strengths as a director.

  • "Horde": A crowd system that takes multiple performances with variation and then randomizes them further through time and space warping. Very naturalistic crowd scenes were made possible through this tool.

In addition, they used Massive for more procedural and cycle-based crowd sequences and a MoCap program devised by Giant Sudios called "A Giant Preview System." Animation was done in SOFTIMAGE|XSI and compositing was done with eyeon's Fusion.

"One of the keys is Mumble's individuality amid the community," explains animation director Jeannette, who came from Industrial Light & Magic, where he worked on The Mummy movies and Van Helsing. "One character pitted against thousands of other penguins that don't approve of his dancing. We designed a behavior pattern based on the realism of penguin movement but also taking license with choreography and dance. Even though there are different types of penguins, characters are difficult to distinguish. During the design phase, we made them slightly different in proportion. Mumble has molting and black-and-white fuzz on body to make him identifiable. We also varied the performance through signature walk, facial behavior and voice.

"George didn't want to create cool animation; he wanted the audience to believe in character. The performance drove the aesthetics. Animation, therefore, was not caricatured. This was the opposite of the normal animation style. We tried to avoid referencing the visual material. I encouraged the crew, particularly the animation lead, to think about what the story meant: how the voice played in collaboration with the physical performance that was motion captured and what the facial animation would have to do to bring in the third dimension.

"For example, Memphis [voiced by Hugh Jackman] is frustrated with his son, Mumbles, but his voice is actually very compassionate because he doesn't want to be too hard on him. We put anger on his face to counterbalance his subdued voice. So we pushed the facial features to be more dynamic.

"A great deal of attention was paid to the eyes and how they move, down to if a character closes his eyes. Typically in animation, we tend to shy away from getting too close to the eyes. But here we kept animating them in closeup so you could see if a character is troubled. You could see what's going on behind the eyelids. Keyframe was about 30% of the movie and provided the core of the facial animation. When we got very successful at capturing dancing, we realized the human performers could actually perform more drama scenes. They went to penguin school to study the naturalistic moves of penguins. That 70% of motion capture provided a consistency in performance."

Meanwhile, Nelson's job was not only interpreting the conceptual work, but also working with Miller to achieve an acceptable reality that took it beyond animation. "We looked at the production design that we were doing for the performance areas of the stage -- it's very musical and theatrical in many ways. And you want to get a sense of the real Antarctica. Basically, the environment surfacing, modeling, lighting and the character surfacing and modeling, to a degree, all came under my supervision, along with the visual effects integration and briefing.

"These are big landscapes, mainly shot from the penguins' perspectives, so they are shot pretty low to the ground. We wanted to retain a sense of vastness and scale. It became a balance of having enough detail, but not to distract from the performances. These are black-and-white characters playing in a blue-and-white landscape. We solved it by using a number of photographic devices. When it came to lighting and depth of field to help focus our characters, we used the construction of the environment where we put the detail in the surfacing. We took a lot of care not to make it too complex where we had crowds of penguins. We put granulations, sparkles and footprints in the snow."

Lighting also played a crucial role. They created a lighting arc for every scene and for the entire movie as a supporting role. Arcs range from dark to golden-lit Antarctic sun. Each lighting scheme supports the mood or dramatic play of a scene. They often would start in broad daylight and have cloud shadows come into play.

"We shot digital skies and developed a rig with three cameras where we shot skies in a time-lapse motion and then mapped those into an environment, so we had 360-degree coverage of sky," Nelson continues. "We were able to use movement in those skies to give a sense of perspective. This helped achieve vastness of landscape.

"We reconstructed environments out of thousands of photographic material shot in Antarctica wherever we could, and then matched very accurately into CG for full surfacing. Camera projection here was very flexible and integrated into the CG surfacing package. And we were able to add such layers as subsurface scattering and displacement into the camera projection."

We also shot real people for a zoo sequence in which spectators observe Mumble, and they were camera projected into plates and integrated into the sequence. George believed he had achieved a high enough degree of reality to warrant it. This was very much a holistic approach."

Bill Desowitz is editor of VFXWorld.

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