Christopher Harz speaks to Vanguard Animations John Williams about what it took to make the studios first CG feature, Valiant, fly.
Valiant, a new computer-animated film from Vanguard Animation and producer John Williams (who also produced Shrek and Shrek 2) will sees its release in the U.S. by Walt Disney Pictures today, Aug. 19, 2005. It is the tale of a brave-but-undersized pigeon named Valiant (voiced by Ewan McGregor), who realizes his dream of joining the elite Royal Homing Pigeon Service (RHPS) in Great Britain during World War II. He is accompanied on his quest by a lovable rogue named Bugsy (voiced by Ricky Gervais), and they join a squad of misfits (a sort of avian Dirty Dozen) for training to carry secret messages to and from allied units behind enemy lines.
When they go into action they are threatened by enemy falcons, including the dastardly General Von Talon (voiced by Tim Curry, who must have had a lot of fun with this role). They meet up with French Underground mice, get the secret plans, and then set off to the perilous journey to make it back to the White Cliffs of Dover and the anxiously waiting beautiful nursing dove, Victoria (voiced by Olivia Williams). I wont give away the ending.
Valiant is a well-produced film that moves along quickly and has a lot of gag lines. One of the most creative is when Mercury, a veteran pigeon of the RHPS voiced by John Cleese, is captured, put into a bird cage and is tortured by General Von Talon with loud Alpine yodeling music. One can almost see Cleeses wonderful body language in the anguished writhing of the animated character as he wonders how anyone could inflict such cruelty on another. Cleese had previously worked with Williams, as the voice of the King in Shrek 2.
The story behind the scenes was just as dramatic as the film itself. The challenge the production team had to meet was to create a top-flight (pun intended) film worthy of a Shrek producer and of Disney distribution but with half the budget normally allocated for such a film ($40 million, instead of $80+ million), and in half the time (just 24 months to deadline). The film had negative pickup, meaning that the distributors would not have had to pay for it if it did not come in on time and budget the risk was totally on the shoulders of the producer and the production team. To make the task even more daunting, this was one off the largest such animated projects ever produced in Great Britain, or by an independent studio.
It really was a Herculean task, said Williams. We had nine months of hard work in Los Angeles and then 15 months in London to complete it. It was a major challenge to find almost 200 talented people and get them situated and working together as an efficient team. With the time pressure, there were no opportunities to make mistakes like changing characters or deleting them while midway in production. Our group really got into it. There was a garage band feeling we all knew we had to prove ourselves.
Williams certainly had no dearth of talent. Gary Chapman, who had a background in drafting and sculpting, created most of the characters in the film. He proved so expert at developing the characters and settings that he was asked to become the director. Likewise, the actors that voiced the characters were real professionals. It must have taken some stretch of the imagination for Ewan McGregor, Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars, to play an underdog character. On the other hand, Tim Curry has become the quintessential bad guy. We had another very distinguished actor in mind for that role, notes Williams, but Tim was so much better at it. No one can play a gleeful villain like he can.
Pre-production was started in the Los Angeles Vanguard studio, which created the character and location design, storyboarding and animatics. The work was then transferred to the London, to a new facility housed at Ealing Studios, to take advantage of Britains lower costs and generous tax subsidies. Artists from 17 different countries comprised the production team and spoke seven different languages, offering diversity in talent.
There were lessons learned along the way. I would have liked to have had focused story reels up sooner and faster, said Williams, and more time for revisions at the animatics stage. Fortunately, we had a script we could all get around. We didnt have to discover the entire movie in the storyboarding process. With Shrek, which took almost six years to produce, we started character model development long before the script was written, and made lots of changes. With only two years to produce Valiants, I made sure we didnt start until the script and character concepts were complete.
The film probably saved some production costs by avoiding large crowd scenes such as those in Shrek 2, but there is no real cost cutting evident on the screen, which has richly detailed environments with lots of highlights, although a few of the scenes are darker than those of a typical Disney film. The attention to detail can be seen in the texturing of some of the buildings and metal containers, which reveal chips, cracks, rust and dirt, in contrast to most animated films, where every object appears to be brand new. Aging surfaces requires more work, it takes one more pass at everything, Williams noted. But the dirt on something shows its history.
One factor that did save a lot of cost was having only one director, according to Williams. A lot of studios use multiple directors, who sometimes compete with one another. That costs a lot of time, and ultimately, in a production like this, time is money. It was great to have one director and one organizing voice on this production. The team also appreciated the clear vision and direction we were all working with, instead of experiencing the deadening effects you often get with large studios and different layers of bureaucracy contradicting each other.
Among the most challenging tasks was the interface between the highly detailed feathers on the birds and their wardrobe, which included helmets, belts and backpacks. Side Effects Houdini software was used to pull this off; its Attribute Transfer Tool was used to define the areas where the feathers needed to be pushed down. Because this tool works procedurally, based on the proximity of the wardrobe object to the underlying surface, it was possible to move clothing around and compress the feathers (and in the case of the mice characters, the fur) correspondingly. Some of the most difficult tasks were creating the wardrobe changes, said Williams, with the characters putting gear on and taking it off. Because this is so hard to do, you will normally never see characters getting dressed in an animated movie.
A key decision was to create a VFX pipeline based on Maya software for the production backgrounds were rendered as plates separate from the characters, so a scene could be composited in layers, instead of all in one fell swoop. If a final render contained an error, for instance, just the component with the mistake in it could be corrected and then sent back to the compositing team, instead of having to re-render the entire scene each time.
Three different rendering machines were used, according to Curtis Augspurger, Valiants co-producer. We used mental ray, RenderMan and Maya, according to what was best for the scene, he said. For instance, Maya was often best for great illumination. The Shake toolset was used for compositing, and Final Cut, running on MacIntosh computers, was used for editing. The team was able to generate the project with a render farm of about 500 dual-processor computers (1,000 nodes), running on Linux. We kept all rendering work in-house, in order to be able to accurately predict both time and costs; it would have been too hard to budget otherwise, said Augspurger.
Like the little bird of the film title, the Vanguard team managed to pull off its near-impossible task. Team members seem to have recovered well from the long hours and hard work. The journey was fantastic; we managed to do a lot of things right. noted Augspurger. Vanguard hopes to have more offerings soon, with four more releases slated for Disney, and five more in the pipeline. Look for Valiant in major theaters soon. And dont choke on your popcorn during the yodeling scene.
Christopher Harz is an executive consultant for new media. He has produced videogames for films such as Spawn, The Fifth Element, Titanic and Lost in Space. As Perceptronics svp of program development, Harz helped build the first massively multiplayer online game worlds, including the $240 million 3-D SIMNET. He worked on C3I, combat robots and war gaming at the RAND Corp., the military think tank.