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Yowza Digital Brings DinoSapien to Digital Life

If you've been wondering how those amazing looking dinosaurs have made it to the small screen in DINOSAPIEN, the new live-action/animated adventure series airing on Discovery Kids in the U.S., you can look to Toronto-based animation studio Yowza Digital. Yowza Digital is crafting the 3D animation and visual effects production on DINOSAPIEN, which premiered July 7 in the U.S., after its earlier debut on BBC Kids Canada.

DINOSAPIEN features a dinosaur summer camp in the wilds of Canada's badlands, where a teenage girl's paleontologist father mysteriously disappears on a fossil hunting expedition. Lauren (Brittney Wilson) encounters a living, intelligent DinoSapien, one of several dinosaurs who have evolved like humans over time. She befriends him and names Eno. Lauren hopes to learn the fate of her father, but she must protect Eno from the Diggers, a band of dinosaurs that are trying to kill him.

Over two seasons, DINOSAPIEN will unravel the mystery of the evolved dinosaurs and reveal what really happened to Lauren's father in the badlands.

Yowza Digital produced an average of six minutes of integrated CG and animation for each of the 15 half-hour episodes. Yowza Digital's exec producer Pete Denomme had worked with series exec producer Rick Siggelkow previously on ACE LIGHTNING, also a live-action and CG series, on which they had established a road-tested visual effects and animation production pipeline. Yowza Digital sent three of its artists to the series' location in Drumheller, Alberta, with pre-approved storyboards, which they refined with the first unit. The storyboards predicated what would be shot for the 3D animation team to tell the story of the newly discovered DinoSapiens.

Yowza Digital's animation director, Marc Lougee, directed the second unit to generate back plates and other establishing shots. Lougee lead a team of 20 artists, who benefited from intensive research and development on dinosaurs to creation the DinoSapiens. Expert paleontologists and special effects model builders constructed models of a speculative modern dinosaur and helped to design the look of the three main dinosaur characters.

Paleontologist Hall Train helped Yowza Digital determine DinoSapien behavior and movement, as well as coloration and texture, while giving the CG characters a scientific base of realism. The animators had to drop any sort of humanistic thinking in creating the performances for the creatures. They instead took their leads from dog and bird expressions. Because of the creatures' reptilian facial features, much attention was paid to the expression in the eyes to convey emotion, with top-notch lighting and compositing to finesse the nuances.

The 2D design of the creatures was very specific about hand, arm and shoulder limitations and range of movement. Similar limitations were built into the rigging process to help maintain the right action. Inspired by WALKING WITH DINOSAURS, the animation team endeavored to accurately represent dinosaur movement and behavior, but take a new approach in portraying how evolved creatures might interact with humans in our world.

Creating fully displaced characters that were true to the series creators' vision, rendered on an efficient production timeline was challenging. Each episode features six minutes of animation, so the characters needed light enough geometry for animators to incorporate all the action, sometimes with all three CG characters in a scene, on the front end, and streamlined enough to render in less than three to six minutes per frame with fewer render passes.

"Achieving this scale of production and JURASSIC PARK believability on a children's television budget and schedule was no small feat," said Denomme. "And our audience has grown up with amazing animated creature features and television, so they are very sophisticated. Our team produced great imagery and drama, because of their understanding of story and character. We're very proud of what they've accomplished."

Eno and the Diggers were modeled and UV-mapped in Maya. Texture maps with bump and displacement were generated separately in Zbrush. These maps were then imported back into Maya and tested with Mental Ray to perfect. Once the look was achieved, Turtle was used for the final render solution. A 2D plug-in called Reel Smart was used or critical motion blur when compositing running and fighting sequences.

DINOSAPIEN is a production of BBC Worldwide and CCI Ent. in association with Discovery Kids, CBBC and Alberta Filmworks.

While Yowza Digital continues production on DINOSAPIEN, its visual effects division, Switch VFX, is in production on the feature films SAW IV and SNOW BUDDIES, and the CBC movie of the week, THE SECRET OF THE NUTCRACKER. Switch VFX recently completed visual effects for EMOTIONAL ARITHMETIC, the ABC Family series FALLEN and the miniseries EVEREST 82.

Yowza Digital (www.yowzaanimation.com) was founded in 2003 by Denomme, creative director Claude Chiasson and finance and business affairs exec Laurie Thompson to produce 3D animation for feature films and television.

Switch VFX is the visual effects division of Yowza Digital. Switch VFX specializes in the production of photorealistic digital visual effects and CG character creation for feature films and television. Switch VFX was founded in 2004 by visual effects supervisor Jon Campfens, Denomme and Thompson.

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