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After Grindhouse, Robert Rodriguez returns to the kid-friendly fare of Sharkboy and Lavagirl and Spy Kids with Shorts. Only Shorts eschews greenscreen for more live-action environments and CG creature work in weaving its convoluted tale of a wishing rock, swarming tiny spaceships and aliens, crocodile armies, giant boogers and a towering Black Box robot.
Although Rodriguez's Troublemaker Studios did its usual design and previs and preliminary work, the director once again turned to Montreal-based Hybride Technologies for the bulk of the vfx work. We spoke about the particular challenges and new R&D with Daniel Leduc, visual effects supervisor & producer, and Joseph Kasparian, lead textures & lighting.
Bill Desowitz: So what was your focus on Shorts?
Daniel Leduc: Our focus was the crocodiles, the beetle, the alien, the space ship, the robot, the Black Box, at the end of the movie.
Joseph Kasparian: The giant bees.
DL: Yes, the giant bees at the end. We had 336 shots and more than 23 minutes of effects. One of the biggest challenges was in the area of character animation and we had a lot of R&D to generate so much of it. The crocodiles were difficult because we're used to seeing them in a resting position or on their bellies, but Robert wanted to see them walking. So we had to change the shape of the model so it feels nice and looks more natural and more human because it's an animal that doesn't at all have the same shape as a human, but it has to walk the same way as a human, so we did some R&D on that and we did some walk cycles and we shipped some animation to Robert so he could approve the personality of the crocodiles. Because it was a kid's movie, they couldn't look scary.
BD: So this character animation emphasis was different from the previous films you've done with Rodriguez?
DL: Yes, with Robert, we're used to doing a lot of greenscreen backgrounds for Sin City and the other Spy Kids. On this project, it was all shot live so we had to integrate all of the features in the background plate. So, for instance, in the section with the cobras, we had integrate the cobras and do the integration with the leaves on the floor, so we had to replace the floor with CG so that you could have interaction when the cobras are moving and going toward the kid and trying to bite him. There was also R&D with the transformation of the kids into creatures; for example, the boy and girl transforming into wasps.
JK: Mainly, because Robert was trying to find something looking a little bit funny.
DL: And because in the 3-D world it wasn't just a transformation where you pop the new model in; it had to have the face come in first; then you have the wings and then the legs. It was more of a transition transformation than anything else. Also, we had Mr. Black Box, the creature at the end.
JK: This had lots of R&D because all of the little cubes are animated and each piece is moving all over the place.
BD: And how did you animate that?
DL: It was procedural animation. We did a small program in XSI, which with sliders we could animate the intensity of the movement and the generation of the cubes. You could have one cube split into many cubes and, if you pushed the cube, it could also split into many small cubes, so we needed to animated a skeleton and put all of this cube generation onto that skeleton. So we had lots of tests that we shipped to Robert just to see if the level of complexity in the cubes was enough. Because if you have too many cubes, you lose the overall shape of the creature, so we had big cubes, small cubes. And it was all done in XSI with its scripting tool.
JK: And we used Flame and Fusion for compositing.
BD: And what other software did you use?
DL: 3D Equalizer, ZBrush. As you can imagine, there's tons of 3D tracking and extrapolation to integrate our creatures because there's straight live-action shooting.
JK: For the space ship, it was straight forward. Troublemaker did the design and shipped it to us because they did some previs for a teaser. We received this very early and the spaceship was one of the only designs that we had to follow. We had to work on the textures and everything but we got very good direction of what Robert wanted.
DL: With all the challenges of doing creature animation, it was still a pretty straightforward movie for us. It wasn't the kind of movie where you stay for a long period of time on certain shots because they don't have a defined look. But also we've been working with Robert for a long time, so we really know what he looks for and I think he's really confident in us.
And even though our last movie with him was Sin City, it was like a continuation of the first Spy Kids movie, which had a lot of creature work. The other ones had more environment work. So it was the same kind of production as Spy Kids but nearly 10 years later.
JK: For me, it was really the same kind of shots -- creatures in live action environments.
BD: And the aliens?
DL: We did the aliens but they only appear in a few shots. Again, Troublemaker did the design and we went from there to finish it. At some point, they talked about adding more shots of the aliens but changed their mind.
BD: And what about the final battle, which is like one big food fight?
DL: It's always like this with Robert and the final battle scene: everybody fighting with each other. It's like 130 shots where you have all the creatures in the same scene. This was hard because all the final shots that we had for every creature was built for one scene, not for having everyone interact with each other. So it was a big concern, but there were no surprises.
Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN and VFXWorld.
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