Bill Desowitz talks with many of the artists that formed the lush, retro-futuristic world of Robots.
One look at Chris Wedges dazzling Robots (opening today, March 11, 2005, from Twentieth Century Fox), and you instantly see what Blue Sky Studios is capable of with 3D animation. Its frenetic and colorful robotic world is a giant leap from the more primitive Ice Age; its metallic and mechanical form and function perfectly meld into a fresh and familiar world all its own. Sprung from the retro minds of Wedge and William Joyce (the creator of Rolie Polie Olie and other illustrated childrens books), Robots clearly is a seven-year labor of love about following your dreams.
Thankfully, the huge success of Ice Age convinced Fox Animation president Chris Meledandri to finance their slightly more expensive pet project ($75 million, up from $60 million) and trust the wisdom of their vision a cross between The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Wizard of Oz. The result is CG eye candy full of warmth and whimsy. Wedge and technical guru Carl Ludwig have been preaching the CG gospel right along with John Lasseter and Ed Catmull, and Blue Sky pushes the craft of 3D animation with its own distinctly wholesome touch.
After trips to the Brooklyn Museum of Art and various junkyards, car shows and airports, Wedge and Joyce (serving as first-time production designer) explored a timeless, mechanical look that encompassed the history of our industrial society steam engines and coffee pots, vintage automobiles and dishwashers and every type of utensil and gizmo you can imagine. Wedge says Robots is a metaphor for our technologically obsessed culture, in which we discard the values and humanity of the past. The trick was not only getting the story right about winsome inventor Rodney Copperbottom (Ewan McGregor) going to Robot City in search of his own Oz and saving all the outmoded Bots from destruction, but also establishing a complex yet believable world, which required a fair amount of advancements at Blue Sky.
Fortunately, Blue Sky staffed up from 180 to 240 and ramped up its desktop and rendering capabilities to meet the challenges of creating such a dynamic and detailed metallic world made from Maya. The White Plains, New York-based studio purchased HP Render Racks with twice the speed and three-and-a-half times the memory as was required on Ice Age. It also acquired desktops with Linux-based HPs that are four times faster than the previous Unix-based systems. Meanwhile, its proprietary ray-tracing renderer, CGI Studio, which creates lighting as it appears in the real world, was tailor made for Robots, allowing Blue Sky artists to literally place lights as if working on a live-action set.
The technology that you see on screen that we developed for Robots has to do with the way we textured the world, and the way we created crowds, Wedge explains. The Materials guys came up with ways to create procedurally distressed surfaces degrees of wear and tear on metal. It mostly had to do with how objects age, so you could show the chips the closer you got to the surface curve.
Thus, because of the tremendous size of the virtual environments Robot City (combustion), Big Weld Industries (high-tech) and the subterranean Chop Shop (steam) Blue Sky developed an interactive way of applying multi-surface layering instead of texture mapping. This procedural mapping, in which the computer automatically applies, say, the amount of chipping and how far the artist wants it to go, is quicker, more productive and stable and less expensive. For individual characters and crowds, Blue Sky developed a Bot Creator (a web-browsable interface that allowed the design team to create robots from interchangeable parts and then repurpose them for crowd scenes that did not require lots of detail), along with Frankenbots (which allowed the computer to randomly pick and create generic-looking robots).
We actually had to pull back on the amount of background detail, recalls Joyce, who is collaborating with Wedge on a new feature and is trying to set up his own animation studio in Shreveport, Louisiana. There was so much fun stuff that we could tell it was hard for the audience to stay on point. We gave them too much eye candy and had to start using more close-ups. Unlike the upcoming Disney feature adapted from his book, A Day with Wilbur Robinson, Joyce concedes that Robots is a world they made together at Blue Sky. The interesting thing about Chris is that when we started, he told me that there would be many times when [the Fox] executives would say that this couldnt be done. But if you wait long enough, [the Blue Sky team] will figure out a way. And they did.
A perfect case in point is the Dominoes sequence in which famed industrialist Big Weld (Mel Brooks) joyously rides a cascading wave of two million dominoes in his palatial home. Indeed, it is Wedges proudest moment. That for me is the kind of audacity that movies are all about. It kind of sneaks up on you. For me, its like an acid flashback. I wanted it to be a big, strange, psychedelic sequence. There are a number of reasons why its in the movie. Youve been waiting an hour to find out what happened to Big Weld. I just wanted to figure out what hes been doing. We struggled and struggled and struggled with that. Did Ratchet [Greg Kinnear] put him under guard in a dungeon and they had to break him out? But that seemed too easy. At one point, he was just hitting golf balls off his terrace. It was actually funny. And then there was a big party at Big Welds, but he was a bit of a jerk.
Then, one day, [co-director Carlos [Saldanha] said, Maybe hes just playing dominoes and then it clicked. I wanted it to be [Dave] Fleischer, Old Man of the Mountain, out of the inkwell, and suddenly everything goes crazy. Everyone thought I was crazy to do the ocean thing with the dominoes, but I thought it had to be big. A couple of the last shots we did in the movie were for that because it took a long time to get the technology together to do the dominoes. By the time it got on the screen, everyone in the effects crew was so jazzed.
Joyce is even amazed that Fox approved The Domino Wave, created through the rendering technique of Instancing, which defines the geometry of an individual domino and recreates it in volume. I remember the day that Dominoes came to be I think it was boarded by Moroni. I was in Louisiana and they were so freaked out by it that they sent me all the boards and we had a conference call with the Fox executives and Chris and Moroni. They asked me if I thought it was too weird, and I said it was perfect. The only courageous act there was the willingness to be completely insane. We started to get so nutty with it, that Im actually stunned that we pulled it off. Its so silly and seemingly trivial and yet it is one of the most complicated things.
Meanwhile, one of Joyces proudest moments is Robots biggest set piece when Rodney first gets to Robot City and takes The Crosstown Express with the wily Fender (Robin Williams). It turns out to be a wildly unexpected ride, greatly influenced by Rube Goldberg and Mousetrap. There was one line in the script, And they take The Crosstown Express to Big Weld. Now this could be fun, I thought. We just sat around for a couple of hours and Chris said he didnt want jetpacks this should feel more mechanical like everything else. Designer Dave Gordon and I were assigned to think about this for a month. All these centrifugal forces and magnetic pull sort of things that we had. Actually, the first drawing I did of the catapult was only eight inches high, but it was 84 inches wide and covered an entire wall. I kept taping pieces together to make the arm of the catapult incredibly long. Chris told me that this wont fit into the frame this isnt Cinerama.
Animator Aaron Hartline, who worked on such gags as Rodneys hair getting magnetized and the interplay between Ratchet and Madame Gasket (Jim Broadbent), his evil mother who runs the Chop Shop, says the can-do attitude at Blue Sky began at the outset with early testing of Rodney. I actually worked on that where they had this whole debate about how strict we should conform to their metallic nature. I had done facial rigging on Ice Age and was asked to do the same on Robots. I was just bending metal all over the place to prove how pliable it is. It was a very slow process. We actually started animating some of the film with no deforming metal on his face. All Rodney had was an open mouth that rotated to resemble a smile. We had to deform up to get him to smile. After a couple of months, Chris and the executives realized that we had to start bending the metal and do tricks and hope the audience would go along for the ride.
Hartline adds that the biggest difference between Ice Age and Robots was that there was more direct contact with Wedge here. In the first movie, the sequence directors would convey Wedges instructions to the animators, but on Robots, they all met every day in The Sweat Box to hammer out details. There was no holding back. It was fun to get in there and play around with different character traits. With Ice Age, we were breaking the rig a lot with Scrat, and they were worried about joints and fur breaking, but on Robots they said we could bend it way beyond where you think youd want to go. The pistons would go even farther. You can actually feel that squash-and-stretch in there even for a single frame.
The biggest improvement was the auto extends on all the limb rigs and the arm rigs. Wed throw them in anywhere. We did a test of Fender holding his breath where he blows up and all the pieces go flying. Like Scrat, it was just to show them that we can blow these guys apart and not be afraid to be expressive and push us a little bit.
There were lighting challenges as well in dealing with such a wide array of day and night scenes. In the broad daylight scenes with all the metal characters, you want to get nice flaring highlights, explains lighting supervisor Dave Esnault, so in our renderer we have Extended Pixels, where the file format has values over 1, which gives you super bright pixels, and in our compositing, we have a little dial that you can play with thats like an aperture in a camera. With so many metal objects, you would attract tiny highlights into that area and flare, so we had to do some tricks and flare it only selectively. Depending on how sunny it was, we might run a separate path just for the flaring and re-route everything else. And then for the night scenes, we had practical light sources that we didnt have to deal with at all in Ice Age streetlamps, lights on buildings which were done in Materials or we had separate light sources set up.
And what of the enhanced look that IMAX provides for its day-and-date large-format release as a result of its highly successful DMR remastering process? They have an amazing process, Wedge beams. It doesnt look degraded at all its just gigantic and clean. I wanna know how they do it, just to help get the artifacts out of our stuff.
Now, with Robots opening today, Wedge can go back to his creative seclusion at Blue Sky and do what he does best. At Blue Sky, we just make whatever excites us and go for it. Is there pressure that so many people are making these movies? I honestly feel that competition is where someone is trying to beat you. Nobody is opening a CG-animated movie the same day as us. Disney and Pixar going head to head with DreamWorks for the summer audience is unfortunate to me. From where I sit right now, I think that all of this activity is an opportunity for us. It just means that if youre going to make a movie like this as a filmmaker or an animator, you need somebody to pay for it. I dont have tons of millions of dollars to pour into an animated feature. If I had it I would thats for sure. The market is there, the audience is there. If other people are out there doing it, good for them. Fortunately for us, I can think about the next movie we have to make.
Bill Desowitz is editor of VFXWorld.