Joe Strike talks with vfx supervisor Markus Manninen and production designer Raymond Zibach about the realization of DreamWorks' "most ambitious project ever."
"This film is the most ambitious project our studio has ever tried. The running joke was that it would almost be impossible to create.
"It got me pumped, so to speak."
That's Markus Manninen talking. The DreamWorks veteran is visual effects supervisor for Kung Fu Panda, the studio's newest film. Without taking anything away from directors John Stevenson and Mark Osborne, Manninen describes his role as "working with the production designer to really create the imagery of the movie. We're responsible from the very beginning for the actual production imagery and computer graphics, all the way to putting it on film and digital projection."
The production designer he mentions is Raymond Zibach. Panda is his first CGI project and his second as production designer after DreamWorks' final 2D effort, Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas. Previously, Zibach had toiled in the world of episodic television as a background artist on shows ranging from Alvin and the Chipmunks to Star Wars: Clone Wars before moving up to features and DreamWorks.
"Raymond and I were very much on the same page as to what was important for the show," Manninen relates. "He had great design ideas for the show in terms of the characters' shape language and the textural detail we wanted to achieve. There was a certain amount of complexity in that in the baseline. We spent a lot of time evaluating and deciding how to get that richness onscreen while making smart choices about what big complicated systems we needed to develop."
More about those complicated systems later. Zibach's onscreen richness is evident throughout the film, particularly (as befits a former background artist) in vistas of bottomless chasms and star-filled skies that are almost hallucinatory in their otherworldly beauty and detail -- environments reminiscent of the classic 1960s album covers for the rock group Yes. If you assume those covers were his inspiration, however, you'd be wrong.
"Our original [concept] paintings of China were a big influence," Zibach says. "They were done in watercolor and ink wash, but the more modern colors we used came naturally to me from working in animation. I was more influenced by people like Mary Blair and classic animation art directors who always pushed the color emotionally. Our backgrounds have an electricity to them when they're lit in CG that might remind you of those covers.
"I was definitely more influenced by traditional animation, but also by movies like Hero, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or House of Flying Daggers. They're kung fu movies, but they're so heavily art-directed and beautiful, with a great emotional tie between color and what's happening onscreen. I thought that came close to some of the great animated films like Bambi.
"We used tons of reference sources. I was on the film for five years, our art director Tang Heng for three. We looked at Chinese art and architecture, even temple carvings. We both immersed ourselves in the culture, but Tang knew a lot more about what things really meant and brought a lot of amazing talent to film. He came to the U.S. when he was eight, I think from Vietnam; his parents are Chinese. He kept me honest and helped me see the culture very well. Even though he grew up here, he wanted to depict China so everyone could see its beauty."
Unfortunately, Zibach missed out on seeing that beauty first-hand. "I haven't broken my string of not going to the places I get to depict. We almost went to Hong Kong to pitch to Stephen Chow [Kung Fu Hustle]. We were all ready to go, but the trip got cancelled two days before we were supposed to leave."
Both Zibach and Manninen agree that the film's story called out for it to be visually depicted on as broad a scale as possible. "We used techniques to make the world feel vast and airy," says Manninen, "and emulate the look of Chinese paintings -- but also to build a sense of peril: this is a big world and there's a lot at stake." (The pair had a big canvas to fill too: a widescreen 2.35:1 aspect ratio and eventual IMAX projection.)
"Somewhere in the first year people asked me, when did the film take place -- what year, what dynasty?" Zibach adds. "I just said it was a 'legendary time' and started using that term in general. That led us to the idea that the story was so great it had to be retold, and usually when stories get retold, they get bigger and bigger. And that led us to an epic scale and level of detail. The ideas for what could happen in the film got bigger, like the showdown on the rope bridge or the villain's escape from prison.
"I'm proud my art and design ideas could enhance the drama. That's when I'm doing my job well. You don't always get an opportunity to enhance the story as much as I did on this film."
Getting DreamWorks' "most ambitious project ever" off the ground called for plenty of planning -- and some crossed fingers. According to Manninen, who was responsible for developing the film's workflow processes, "a production like this is so complex it needs a holistic view to make the choices that make it all possible. We started with the panda [Po, voiced by Jack Black], our main character. We looked at the designs Nicolas Marlet came up with for him -- how his proportions work, how his different lines flow together. Once you put that into the computer, it's not a drawing any more. You need to find a way to emulate that shape language in a dimensional object; it's a translation process we needed to be very careful about. We have a great partnership with Hewlett-Packard and we knew 64-bit processors were on the horizon. We made some assumptions -- 'we know we can't do this today, but when we get 64-bit in two years…'"
Manninen explains that the extra power provided by the new processors "allowed us to use a larger memory footprint when rendering our scenes. In 32-bit you can use a maximum of four gigabytes. Each render you send off needs to be managed down complexity-wise to fit within four gigs to be efficient on our render farm. 64-bit lets us double that to eight gigs and put more complex scenes through the farm. We could spend less time breaking scenes down to fit within allocated memory and more time creating the pictures. Then it became a process of finding work-flow solutions that used processing power rather than hand-tweaking to free our artists to be productive and creative.
"A perfect example in our film is feathers. Traditionally they've been accomplished in visual effects-type scenarios -- to make feathers look good in a specific shot, you'd have an army of people doing frame-by-frame fixes. We knew from the get-go our world was populated by furry and feathered animals, all wearing simulated clothing on top of that. We needed solutions that made the process more or less automated. We spent a fair amount of time early on -- between 2004 and '06 -- developing techniques that sent feathers through an automatic 'de-interpenetration process' to keep them from lying or moving against each other, or buzzing or flickering in any way. There's a SIGGRAPH paper on it; I know a lot about the process and I don't even understand half of it."
While Kung Fu Panda's main characters are a varied assortment of exquisitely rendered beasts -- from a villainous snow leopard to a glowering tigress, a wizened turtle or a surly red panda, for example -- the hundreds of background critters are restricted to rabbits, pigs and ducks (oh my)...
"We could only afford to do three species," Zibach admits. "We wanted to make sure they were the most innocent characters you could find -- and an interesting variation of body shapes. After a lot of drawing and whittling down and theorizing, the directors picked those three. It was interesting trying to get as much variation as you could out of them. We'd shift their proportions around a bit -- giving the ducks longer or shorter necks, sizing the rabbits up or down, or having some pigs with oversize heads. It worked out well because the costuming added an additional layer of variation; it made it feel like there were a lot of different characters there."
Another shortcut Panda took was eliminating physical maquettes of the characters for the animators to reference. "We only used virtual maquettes," according to Manninen. "We went straight from drawings to CG models. Partly it was a choice by the schedule and partly by me. I felt the maquetting process, even though it's very creative and ambitious as far as what you can do with it, actually creates another target and I was much more comfortable going for the final target, so to speak. You want to focus your attention on how it's going to look in your actual medium, which is computer graphics. It was the first time we've done that, but it was very successful because of the talented modelers we had translating their designs from paper to CG."
Kung fu films are noted for their unbelievable martial-arts showdowns and the often physically impossible maneuvers their protagonists are capable of. Kung Fu Panda goes beyond anything those live-action movies depict -- and yet because it takes place in a fantasy realm of cartoon animals, it seems far more believable. "We had these animals," Manninen reflects, "and we wanted them to go animalistic. By going that route they had more physicality and could therefore do things we don't expect human being to do.
"Because it wasn't a photorealistic movie you don't expect the same [reality] you do from live-action. We had to sell what it meant to be a panda in this world. You see his weight tumble around in action sequences -- we had to make it happen in a believable way so we don't lose the audience. We were checking ourselves throughout the process: does this fit into the rules we set up for this world? The directors never stopped analyzing what was happening onscreen: if we're breaking the rules of this world, are we doing it for a good reason? The tricky part is always 'is this cool and something that doesn't break the believability of the film?'"
In order to ground the film's battles in real-life kung fu, the filmmakers watched a demonstration from fight arranger and stuntman Eric Chen, then turned to one of their own: Rodolphe Guenoden, a Panda supervising animator who also happened to be trained in tae kwon do.
"Rodolphe has a great appreciation for the other martial arts as well," Zibach enthuses. "He has the ability to choreograph fights, that's why they feel so authentic. He worked as a storyboard artist and did what we call 'pose-to-pose:' planned drawings for what the action could look like. He would almost animate on a very limited number of frames, every 20th or so to show the animators what these poses could be. It's because of that we have such great action. There was so much integrity put into the fight choreography because they weren't just for show -- there was a dramatic context to what the fights were about -- big story things were going on."
In an age when CGI rules the feature animation roost, Kung Fu Panda throws the audience a curve ball by beginning with a stylish 2D animated sequence, a visual tour de force from the James Baxter studio depicting Po's dreams of kung fu glory. (Interestingly enough, Blue Sky's Horton Hears a Who allows its star a similar moment of 2D fantasy.) "We talked a lot about anime for that scene," says Zibach, "but we didn't want to get too Japanese, we wanted to do our own style. We thought we came up with a nice blend that has the energy of anime but doesn't look like anime. Coming from traditional animation, I just loved doing that sequence.
"I'm worried that 2D animation is now considered the niche," he continues, "maybe because it's too dependent on having a traditional look. What I liked about our dream sequence was that it really had a graphic, impactful style. I don't know if we could support that for an hour and 20 minutes, but it was great to see it on the big screen."
Perhaps the biggest difference between Kung Fu Panda and previous DreamWorks efforts is Panda's near-total absence of contemporary pop-culture references. Po may have his room decorated with posters of his heroes ("Wow, you're much bigger than your action figures" he says upon meeting them, "except for you, Mantis, you're about the same size"), but there's not a single ancient Chinese Starbucks logo or panel of Martial Arts Idol judges anywhere in sight.
Both Manninen and Zibach are well aware of the change in tone. "We didn't think of the film as a parody," says Manninen. "It was a comedy set in an ancient world. The comedic part wasn't to make that world non-believable or funny, but putting a modern Jack Black character within it: an awkward fanboy who doesn't fit in. That was the contrast we wanted to have stand out. If we'd made other things funny, his character and arc wouldn't have played as well. That was the esthetic we wanted to serve."
"We make a certain kind of film [here at DreamWorks] most of the time," Zibach admits. "Shrek heavily depends on spoofing the fairy tale genre, there's so much there to have fun with. John [Stevenson] and Mark [Osborne] love kung fu films, so we didn't want to make fun of the genre. There are a few moments where there's this nice bridge between the modern world and the more ancient one, but we didn't have to go all the way to references from today to get there."
Joe Strike is a regular contributor to AWN. His animation articles also appear in the NY Daily News and the New York Press.