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Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs opens today from Sony Pictures Animation and Columbia Pictures, and its wacky premise of food falling from the skies, is not only tailor-made for 3-D but also for a stylistic pairing of UPA and The Muppets.
Animation Director Pete Nash, who is currently working in Bristol with Aardman on Arthur Christmas , tells us how they pulled it off. I also had a follow-up chat with the amiable directors, Phil Lord & Christopher Miller .
"The biggest challenges in Cloudy were the stylistic choice," Nash suggests, "because the directors were very inspired by two things: UPA, the group of Disney animators that broke away in the '50s because they wanted to do a more flat, graphic design oriented way that was much more abstract and much less about accurately moving volumes around in space. And then The Muppets.
"And so the challenge was how do you do that in 3D, which is a lot less abstract. You have realistic lighting and textures and you can't really stretch anything because the textures will turn into lines and it will look awful and it won't look like the material it's made out of anymore.
"And where applicable, they wanted to apply the held-cel UPA [approach] but only on certain characters. So the challenge was figuring out what the boundaries were before it broke in 3D."
In fact, Manny, the cameraman, was probably the most UPA-esque character, according to Nash. He's very short, has tiny, skinny legs, an enormous head and giant nose. And he has a hat that covers his eyes. "He has an economy of motion and often would not move at all because his character is quietly confident and has nothing to prove, and only speaks a few times in the movie," Nash continues. "So, that confidence and precision lent themselves to the UPA approach.
The cool thing about Flint [the protagonist] is that he grew up as a loner in a town where he had to invent his own way of dealing with social situations, and they were always wrong and awkward. So he never knew how to interact with people, so his hands were always making adjustments and his eyes would dart around nervously, while the rest of him would be hunched over. And whenever he was alone in his lab, he would ham it up and act like he was in his own adventure movie.
"So when he has to solve a problem in his lab, we would have him walk around and intentionally abandon mechanics that you would normally have in a walk cycle. So there would be no up/down to his body and his feet would be articulately animated. The idea is that other than traveling through space, he was intensely focused, so the unnecessary motion was stripped away to help support that idea."
Meanwhile, Sam, the beautiful TV journalist newbie, was a nerd in adolescence, which she now hides from the world to gain acceptance. "So she would act like a ditzy blond character -- no offense to blonds -- and whenever she heard something that intrigued her, she would forget herself and go back to her true nature. And then she'd start acting a bit more like Flint, where she'd start to dissect all of the information and process it. But then she'd catch herself and over compensate by acting extra ditzy in hopes of erasing that she almost exposed her true nature."
Not surprisingly, a lot of work had to be done on the character rigs, so, among other things, "you could turn the chest into world space, which means it would be completely lockedp while the legs and pelvis moved separately underneath. You could do that with the pelvis and head too and then snap them back in body space over a frame, and this allowed do this very stylistic approach. Also, we could wire control the limbs and either have a skeletal structure in the arms where there was a defined elbow or we could erase that and turn it into like a rubber hose, which we did with Flint a lot whenever he was panicking or moving around like a maniac. We kept him loose like a Muppet, and that's when we treat his arms like hoses.
"We also had a pretty well engineered facial rig where we could add incredible range. Normally, you're concerned about how, if you lift up the corners of the mouth, does that push the cheek mass falling into the eyes and how does that affect the lower lids? But we were actually trying to not do that because they were going for more of a graphic look. So it was harder for the riggers, who had to figure out a way to hide that mass when you push the corner of the mouth up instead of having it bulge, which actually gives it a place to go. But they figured it out and they had so much range that we could pull the corners of the mouth all the way around the head and then literally turn them into a Muppet-like character."
And what do the directors think of the results?
For Miller, it was important that the town looked real: "We didn't to hide the power lines and the air conditioning ducts on the roofs. And we were able to find beauty in that, especially in that part of the movie right before the food arrives. We wanted it feel like going into Oz when the food comes, with a big burst of color and happiness."
As they previously told AWN, they're very proud of the food, but also the cloud work and cartoony snowflakes. "Again, Imageworks does an amazing job and they were able to take advantage of Arnold , the ray tracer that's able to calculate bounce light and shadows and have a real feel even though it was so stylized," Lord adds. That's why the shots of the town look so good."
"I'm just so shocked that the thing's finished and it came out," Miller jokes. "We didn't get fired and people like it. I'm not quite sure if it shows great faith or negligence on the part of the studio. Either way, I'm very thankful that they gave us the opportunity and turned a blind's eye to our deficits."
Lord concurs that it was a great learning experience, considering that this is their first animated feature and initial foray into 3-D. "So, obviously, we were in over our heads, but we've always been in over our heads every step of our career, even on Clone High.
"When you're in the fox hole, you wonder how anyone wants to make another one of these. But then Jill Culton  [Hotel Transylvania, Open Season] told us that we're going to be shocked at how much we'll want to make another one. You learn so much and you realize that you can actually do better now."
But if they make another 3-D film again, Miller wants to take better advantage of the depth cues and Lord wants to open things up more and perhaps cut a little differently. "I think the movie looks amazing in 3-D, but now I really know how to make it pop."
Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.