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ComputerCafe Creates Mutant Animals and Swashbuckling Skeletons For Spy Kids 2

Thanks to visual effects house ComputerCafe, a miniature zoo and menacing mutant animals are among the new adventures awaiting siblings Carmen and Juni Cortez, who are back in action in SPY KIDS 2: THE ISLAND OF LOST DREAMS. In SPY KIDS 2, a new mission takes Carmen and Juni to a mysterious island where they meet Professor Romero, a genetic scientist who has created the ultimate children's toy, a tabletop zoo featuring miniature penguins, a kangaroo, a lion and an elephant. In creating the miniature zoo, the professor has also accidentally unleashed gigantic mutant animals; bizarre combinations like a tigershark, catfish, horsefly and spider-ape quickly take control of the island. ComputerCafe's Santa Maria studio devised approximately 16 photo-real CG animals for 35 shots of two to ten seconds duration. Many scenes feature multiple creatures, with some including as many as 50 animals. ComputerCafe was challenged to blend the bizarre mutant animal combinations, which were more than just join two halves of very different creatures. For example, the catfish has fur and scales, the head of a fish and the body of a normal cat with tail fins. Working under animation supervisor Domenic DiGiorgio, ComputerCafe animators modeled all the animals with Lightwave 3D using subdivision surfaces. With this technique, the animators could work with low-resolution models, then render at any resolution desired. "That let us animate very quickly because there's less data to manipulate. We can increase the surface subdivisions when ready to render the final imagery," DiGiorgio explained. The technique was also helpful in controlling scene complexity by decreasing resolution for animals blurred by depth of field. Character animation was done with Project: Messiah, which offered additional animator controls not found in the basic Lightwave package, which was employed for lighting, texturing and rendering. "Because 90 percent of the animals had fur, and fur is traditionally tricky, we used Worley Labs' Sasquatch, a Lightwave plug in and fur shader, which we pushed to the extent of its abilities," DiGiorgio added. "Making fur look realistic, and creating correct and realistic movement, were key issues." Although ComputerCafe lit the creatures to match the live-action plates they would be composited in, director Robert Rodriguez often asked animators to enhance a shot by making the creatures' lighting more menacing or mysterious, and sometimes the lighting was altered so the animals would stand out better against the background plate. Under digital effects supervisor David Ebner, the Santa Maria studio composited the zoo and mutant animals' sequences using eyeon's Digital Fusion as their primary compositing package and 5D's Cyborg for keying greenscreen elements, which, like the movie itself, was shot in 24p HD. "There is compression in the HD image so when you pull mattes the blue video channel is very noisy, making it difficult to get a good key," Ebner explained. "Out of all the compositing packages we have, Cyborg has the best keyer and allowed our animators to build frames together and play them at high resolution and full 2K resolution, revealing more detail before we finished out." ComputerCafe wrote a custom HD grain tool to add the format's subtle grain back into composited shots. DiGiorgio and Ebner found a number of advantages in working with HD source material. "Everything was digital and at the right frame rate so we were able to work immediately without waiting for film scans," DiGiorgio says. "I was very impressed with the quality of 24p HD. It was very close to film."

In addition to the work done by the Santa Maria location, ComputerCafe's Santa Monica studio contributed approximately 38 shots in which the Spy Kids battle swashbuckling skeletons on top of a rocky cliff. Working from a low-res animatic that was originally done in Alias|Wavefront Maya by animator Chris Olivia, ComputerCafe integrated it into its Maya to Lightwave pipeline. Under the direction of the Santa Monica office's animation supervisor David Lombardi, a team of Maya animators continued with animation and later incorporated all new high-resolution models and textures into the scenes. In addition they added new skeletons in order to guarantee continuity from scene to scene. "We hand animated 63 characters," said Lombardi. "Over 28 shots feature multiple skeletons." Beaver translation software enabled the animators to efficiently translate all the necessary Maya data into Lightwave for lighting, texturing, and final rendering. Radiosity rendering, which calculates bounced lighting, was done in Lightwave. "It's uncommon to use radiosity rendering in production," Lombardi noted. "Traditional CG rendering is faster, but radiosity rendering is much more accurate and realistic, especially for an outdoor scene with nooks, crannies and sword reflections, because it's what happens in nature." The shots were composited in After Effects. The Santa Monica studio also completed wire-removal for the live-action actors in the shots. Writer, producer, director Robert Rodriguez also acted as visual effects supervisor for the film, and ComputerCafe animators were assisted in their communications with Austin, Texas-based Rodriguez by the use of QuickTime Synchro software, developed by visual effects studio Hybride Technologies, in Quebec, which also worked on SPY KIDS 2. Other VFX and animation studios that had a hand in the over 1,000 effects shots in SPY KIDS 2 were Dallas, Texas-based Janimation and Hollywood's Cinesite.