Legend of the Guardians, opening today, is the latest instance of a hot live-action director trying his hand at animation without sacrificing style and vision. In this case, Zack Snyder finds a comfortable fit for his balletic action and deconstructing of myths; and Animal Logic has done well in surpassing the Oscar-winning Happy Feet by beautifully rendering Kathryn Lasky's beloved Australian adventures about owls overcoming fascism to preserve their homes, families and heritage.
Perhaps doing Guardians keyframe instead of performance capture made all the difference. But then owls and their bucolic world are a lot more complex to animate than penguins living in the Arctic. And conjuring up Lord of the Rings
also makes it a unique animated feature.
"I was attracted to the project because I liked the idea of getting away from the animation mainstream and I wanted to work with Zack," suggests Eric Leighton, the animation director (Coraline, King Kong). "I like Zack's physicality, which is how I like to work, and we live in the same world, which is we both like to have truth. Zack wasn't in Australia very often, but his energy was always there. TDs can get lost in a digital world and I really liked the idea that Zack pushed them to be physical. And I wanted it to feel real, so we looked for the unique characteristics and then tried to incorporate as much of that as we could."
In the beginning, there was a heavy push by Art Director Grant Freckelton and Production Designer Simon Whitely to go naturalistic."The environment was going to be hyper-real, along with the lighting," explains Alex Weight (Happy Feet), the animation supervisor. "So before we even started animation, some big choices were already made for us. We did some early tests that were a lot more cartoony: squash-and- stretch, bigger arcs, heavier anticipations, but as soon as we placed these owls in our realistic world, they didn't belong. Especially once they had the feathers applied. You just didn't buy it. We had to go for a more realistic 'creature' type animation that would fit in. But then we didn't want a documentary either, so it became a balancing act. We found that when the owls were flying, branching or walking, we could lean more toward the naturalistic side. But then when they had to perform and talk we took some artistic license and move a little more toward traditional animation techniques.
"For all the joints to move accordingly, we didn't use the wings as hand or fingers, since feathers don't have muscles and can't move by themselves. By giving ourselves these limitations it forced the animators to think more creatively about how to convey emotion. To help this along we had an 'Owl School' and all new animators were given time to study the owl footage and anatomy before starting work. I had to make sure they were given a chance to get some animations out of their system before starting production shots."
The feather system was the biggest R&D project on Guardians. Right up front, from the grooming tools, rendering, collision, feather effects, winged on feathers, snow on feather, collisions between feathers on individual characters and feather to feather collision between different characters. It lasted up until the last months of production, according to Ben Gunsberger (Happy Feet, The Matrix Reloaded, Shrek), the digital supervisor.
"The solution," he says," was a combination of things: a lot of effort in grooming to alleviate where we knew where the feathers were going to intersect, and a lot of iterations. We constantly did test renders. We have an automated rendering pipeline where we can send assets through from any part of the process a test with as much context as we want. If an artist wants to see how their textures look or how their groom looks, they can set up an automatic render that will send them a shot back with the correct lighting."
Although the Animal Logic team still used Softimage and Maya, they created a lot of new proprietary grooming and shading tools to meet the demands. "We did further computing for the collision and simplified models for the characters that were rigged for character to character collision. Also, we did dynamic simulations for wind effects and generated particles off the feather locations for sticking snow particles onto the characters or for interacting with rain, clouds and fire."
Since owls have beautiful large eyes, to enable them to see in the dark, they can't move, they are locked in their heads, which proved to be a further challenge. "The art department wanted to keep the depth and refraction of these eyes as well, since it is something so iconic to owls," explains Weight. "So we tried some test animations with the eyes completely locked off. Any eye dart became a head dart. But we found it made the character too detached, too much of a creature and therefore unable to be connected to by the audience. Plus, the eyes are such a large playing piece when it comes to conveying emotion that we were robbing ourselves of too much."
For Leighton, the biggest challenge was maintaining the continuity of performance through a very substantial series of story adjustments throughout production. "We ended up shooting a great deal more than what you'll see on screen," he reveals. In fact, Warner Bros. pressured Snyder to omit a very intense sequence early on reminiscent of The Searchers, ironically, because the studio thought the darkness came too early and there hadn't been a break for the kids in a while. Fortunately, Snyder says the sequence will be viewable on the Blu-ray/DVD.
"It was a central moment, and it was the most emotionally powerful scene that we shot, by far; and it was difficult for us to get out of that zone because it is the thing that propelled the rest of the story," Leighton insists. "It created a great conflict and certainly a great motivation for Soren to make amends. It became quite a challenge to wrap our heads around such an omission and maintain character performances without it. Arcs, relationships and subtexts were altered significantly. Right up through the last weeks of animation we had to keep up with that and keep everything integral. Once you get into the heat of production and plans change, then, unfortunately, what happens is your ideal casting choices and shooting sequences get thrown out. So you wind up casting people on characters that might not be their forte and you have to shoot things much more dramatically out of sequence. You're trying to manage a balance of a shifting dynamic and shifting story while you're shooting checker-boarded the entire thing at the same time."
Still, Leighton says that in almost every case the animators willing to embrace a more physical way of performing ended up showing the most improvement. And the Guardians was the better for it.
Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.