The Wild, opening April 14, is Walt Disney Pictures first leap into 2006s jungle of animated feature films, a domain in which the studio was once upon a time king.
Whats unmistakable this year are the visual and thematic similarities between The Wild and DreamWorks Madagascar. Both films focus on the escape from New Yorks Central Park Zoo by a lion-led band of animals, and their adventures in the Big Apple before heading out for parts unknown. While Madagascar reached theaters last year, Disneys publicity material makes a point of crediting producer Beau Flynn and writers Mark Gibson and Philip Halperin for pitching The Wild to Disney over nine years ago.
These similarities continue a what many in the industry perceive as a rivalry between the two studios that stretches back to the day Jeffrey Katzenberg left Disney to partner with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen and launch DreamWorks. Its a situation thats led to some interesting coincidences in the past, not the least of which were the late 1998/mid 99 insect movies: DreamWorks Antz and Pixars A Bugs Life.
No one at DreamWorks whose summertime release, Over the Hedge, will premiere next month was available to comment on Madagascar s origins. Its worth noting however, that Madagascar and The Wild arent the only two cartoon concepts centering on pampered animals out on their own. At one point Warner Bros. was said to be working on The Zoo, its own film about critters with New York attitude. Then theres Open Season, due out from Sony in the fall, about a pet bear talked into giving up his cozy domesticated lifestyle, while Family Guy s Seth MacFarlane recently teamed up with the Farrelly Brothers to write and direct the brothers Party Animals script.
There are so many of these movies being made now with talking animals, theres bound to be some similarities, allows Clint Goldman, The Wild s top-billed producer and partner to the films director Steve "Spaz" Williams in the pairs San Francisco-based-production company, Hoytyboy Pictures. The key thing is, is the voice of the movie, the poetic/dramatic thread different from other movies, so the one youre seeing stands alone as a piece of entertainment? Madagascar had its audience and were clearly going to have an audience for our film.
Disneys original intent was to make The Wild a hybrid film, with its animal characters composited over real-world backgrounds, much like Who Framed Roger Rabbit or The Garfield Movie. In 2001, the studio asked Industrial Light & Magic alumnus Williams, the creator of numerous and groundbreaking live-action/CGI meldings to direct. Disney had done it before with Dinosaur, Williams recalls. Id done it with the Blockbuster ads [featuring a talking, photorealistic hamster and rabbit], Id done it with Jurassic Park and Terminator 2 and every movie Id ever worked on as chief animator.
They said because of your computer graphics and live action [background] youd be good for this. I said, Thats great, but I think we should do the whole thing CG because there are so many unknowns when it comes to developing these stories. You dont want to have to be re-putting sets together for reshoots.
Not only did Williams talk Disney into abandoning its hybrid approach, he also convinced them to bankroll a new animation studio in Toronto to produce the film: C.O.R.E. Feature Animation, an offshoot of effects shop C.O.R.E. Digital Pictures. (In this respect, The Wild follows the lead of numerous live-action American movies and TV series that have used Toronto to replicate New York City.)
Williams and Goldman had many reasons to base their production in the Canadian metropolis. According to Goldman, The last five years Spaz and I worked almost exclusively in TV commercials while looking for another feature gig. We worked in Toronto exhaustively and had lots of relationships with people there.
Beyond that, we were trying to make a movie where the graphics were truly leading edge. For us to set up a studio in the [San Francisco] Bay Area and compete against DreamWorks, Pixar, ILM or Tippett Studio for the same sort of labor pool wouldve been, in my opinion, an impossible task. In addition to the CGI studios, Sega is right down the street, Electronic Arts is just down the road. In Toronto, we were the big game in town, we were the show. We had support from the government, C.O.R.E. and support from the Canadian animation community.
Williams adds his own thoughts about working in Toronto: C.O.R.E. was already there, doing CGI for commercials and movies. When Disney came to me, I said if we were going to do this film we needed to build a facility to do it, an off-site dedicated place that we knew how to run. I was sort of at the forefront of setting up pipelines [from his ILM days], so I knew the way I wanted to do it.
Ive known Bob [Monroe] and John [Mariella, C.O.R.E.S owners together with Kyle Menzies] for years. They had a good track record and they survived; theyve been established for 15 years. We kind of piggybacked off of that, just kind of supersized their facility.
It was a hometown boy makes good opportunity for Williams. The Toronto native and graduate of Sheridan Colleges animation took the reins of what turned into the largest Canadian production ever, a project that came with a supersized set of challenges. The first time I saw anything was in February 2002, he says. I saw a script, but it was nothing compared to what the movie is now. Its completely different, the characters and the entire film.
We took this thing from zero, we built a facility and a story. These other [CGI animation] companies already had an established pipeline. Its one thing to do a movie and put it in a pipeline, its another thing to build a goddamn pipeline. It was crazy; it damn near killed me.
We completely gutted many, many ideas on this thing. It was literally like steering a battleship thru an obstacle course. The biggest difficulty was putting the story together and getting it to work. Sometimes we had to change the cast based on how that was going. We changed stuff all the time, then youd run into huge technical problems that would make you go back and address a bunch of [previously nailed-down] shots as a result.
The process of revising existing shots and reworking characters during production might have been close to insurmountable, but fortunately for Williams and C.O.R.E., their project had an eager and willing partner on the software side.
Other than a brief, deliberately surrealistic introductory sequence from Reel FX in Dallas (depicting father lion Samsons legendary ferocity), C.O.R.E. used an animation package known as Houdini to animate The Wild in a close to photorealistic style. Houdini had never taken on an entire feature before and its developers, the Toronto-based Side Effects Software (located just down the street from C.O.R.E) were anxious to prove their baby could hold its own against the currently popular Maya as well as the proprietary programs developed in-house by other studios.
Houdini was born as more of a TV tool, a general thing focused on the visual effects side of films and features, says Warren Leathem, C.O.R.E.s supervising lead animator. Companies all used it for doing really good particle effects, dynamic stuff like that, but never for character animation at this level or size of a project.
We used Houdini at C.O.R.E. for character work, we were familiar with it. We used it for maybe 30 or 50 shots in a movie: in Blade 2 we had vampires dissolving into ash, we created a monster hamster in Nutty Professor 2, but never for hundreds of shots like we have in this film it was never tested to that extent before.
It takes a lot to bring up a software package to be really good at animation. Side Effects actually gave us programmers and set up shop in our building. We had anywhere from five to 10 of their people here at any given time. If I needed something so the animators could work better, I would go into their office, bring them over to my desk and show them what we needed, rather than writing e-mails back and forth. They could give us that change within a day. That was a really good part of it, because we needed to build the package up quickly.
I was the only Houdini vet at the beginning of the project, adds Leathem, whose interest in stop motion animation led him into CGI. Because its a visual effects package, sometimes theres a little intimidation factor of how complicated it can be. We tried to strip that all out so the animators would not have to know any of whats going on in the background and just concentrate on building the character.
According to Leathem, Houdini creates Object Type Libraries that package a character into a single node. The animator only needs to adjust the controls at hand and can ignore the guts working behind the scenes. Those controls still number around a thousand and give the animator the choice of working with either forward or inverse kinematics.
Robert Magee, Side Effects product marketing manager goes into more detail about Houdinis character animation-friendly aspects. He points to Digital Assets, a feature that helps construct the character nodes and allows for studio-wide character updates via a very strong referencing scheme. Most proprietary systems are designed to do that, but off the shelf software generally dont. Maya has a referencing system for instance, but its got chinks in the armor so to speak. That part of it can be a little flaky in commercial software. Often people end up having to write a lot of scripts to transfer rigs and animation. A whole management process has to be put into place, whereas Digital Assets gives you all that for free.
Houdini also allowed C.O.R.E. to build a paste-and-clip library where the animators could store and share their work. There are mechanical steps that can speed up the production process, explains Magee. When somebody else is working on another shot, they can access other peoples library: Oh somebodys already done that pose. If things are similar enough, a walk or a run for instance, you can import a clip, customize and retime it for your shot.
Side Effects helped Williams and C.O.R.E. set up their production pipeline before animation began. There was time to plan, says Magee. C.O.R.E. did some very serious tests early on knowing that this project was coming and came up with a list of things needed to be production-ready.
In building their pipeline [C.O.R.E.] could create custom tools themselves using their own programming team and scripters [via Houdinis developers kit]. In some cases they went that route. But by having a partnership with Side Effects, their other option was to come to us and say can you fix it? We had programmers working under the surface, fixing things there.
Edward Lam, Side Effects senior software developer was one of Side Effects people based at C.O.R.E during production. His presence there typifies the software companys commitment to Houdini and The Wild. Houdini is a procedural package. Its composed of different tools that can be put together in a flexible manner to achieve results. The C.O.R.E. people knew they could do it in Houdini and that they could trust us for more efficient solutions. They could put the pieces together themselves, but software development made it faster.
We talked beforehand about list of things they would need to improve productivity. We would often consult with them on specifics, to understand what tools they needed and how to come up with the most efficient way of doing things: you need these tools and heres how to put them together.
Sometimes we offered a bit of training in how to use tools, sometimes we would write some operators nodes that would put the tools together for them. For example, the texture department needed a tool to maintain work changes the modeling department made upstream from them. Traditionally, the texture department would have to redo their work. We created an Attribute Transfer tool that allows them to adjust the existing texture over a revised model.
We were able to make the tool for that purpose in a general way because of Houdinis inherent flexible architecture. When the rigging department started doing characters, the tool was flexible enough to let the modeling and texture changes upstream adjust their work too. Attribute Transfer permeated through the entire pipeline with no tweaking. For example grooming positioning the feathers on each bird characters normally took two to three weeks, but the AT tool let animators reuse work and groom a new bird in two or three days. Attribute Transfer was one of the first tools we developed for The Wild; in 2004 we put it in the main Houdini package and released it to other users. Meanwhile, other software packages have come up with similar, AT-style tools since we introduced ours.
With a production pipeline now in place, C.O.R.E. Feature Animation is up and running as an independent service provider, ready to take on projects from studios and distributors other than Disney. For his part, Williams reflects on the ordeal of by fire of bringing his first animated feature to the screen. Its funny, the day Disney said we want you to do this movie, Bob Zemeckis called and wanted me to do one as well the same goddamn day. This one came up first, thats just the way it is. This one was moving along like a freight train.
It was crazy. Apart from the tech issues we dealt with, coming up with story that worked was really, really tough. This was huge, massive. We were trying to satisfy many masters at same time. We had to have something else ready every four weeks to show to Disney. We ended up working in sort of a reactionary mode all the time. Disney was going through their own growing pains with Pixar in or out, who knows. Then along comes our little film and all of a sudden people started taking notice. The big boys were there, they thought wow, look at this.
Williams notes that he and The Wild were around for both Pixar exiting [their estrangement from Disney] and Pixar coming back [Disneys purchase of the company]. In that respect, The Wild may have been like Valiant another attempt by Disney to find an independent studio capable of filling Pixars computer-generated shoes. Now that Pixar is permanently in Disneys orbit, and with their own in-house facility [responsible for last years far more cartoony Chicken Little] up and running, Disney may no longer have the need it once did to find an outside partner for its CGI fix.
Joe Strike lives in New York City and writes for and about animation. He has recently completed a childrens novel.