Bill Desowitz chats with ILMs Joel Aron about the challenges of converting Chicken Little into the all-new Disney Digital 3-D process.
Chicken Little not only represents Disneys first fully 3D-animated feature; it also marks the industrys first digital 3D presentation. Dubbed Disney Digital 3-D, the early box office returns are very promising, as Chicken Little hatched an estimated $2.1 million in 85 U.S. locations in its first weekend, prompting Disney to confirm that next years Meet the Robinsons will also be platformed in 3-D.
The 3-D Chicken Little was a collaboration between Disney, Industrial Light & Magic, Dolby Laboratories and REAL D, which equipped theaters and supplied the glasses. Joel Aron, ILMs digital production supervisor, discusses the limitations and achievements in delivering the project.
Bill Desowitz: First explain how the work was divided between Disney and ILM?
Joel Aaron: We wanted to do something unique on Chicken Little. [But] because of all the patents out there for 3D, we had to essentially lift up one leg and skate on one very thin ice skate to get this done exactly the way Disney wanted it without stepping on toes of what other companies are doing. What they gave us as their final comp we treated as the left eye. So no matter what, when we made our right eye version of this, it had to look identical to the left eye. The only freedom we had was when we dealt with the depth in a scene, like pulling something farther off the screen. Obviously, the more you pull something off the screen, the more your right eye needs to see around it. So if theres no information for that, we can only take it so far.
On Polar Express, for instance, they knew it was going to be made in 3D, so they used three cameras: one in the middle and one on each side. So the one in the middle was the one that rendered the movie for general release; the ones to the left and right were used for their stereo release. They created their own left eye and right eye.
BD: How long did this take?
JA: That was my mistake. I was in like this War Room with all these Disney executives and they said pick a date that you can have this [preliminary work] done because well need to finish a test. So I said June 1, and I didnt realize that that was a holiday weekend, so it immediately knocked down the number of days we had to do it. So Id say in about 12 days we came up with a method to do these shots. I took three shots with me back to ILM and each shot was a progression. By the time June 1, rolled around, we told them absolutely, yes, we could meet this deadline. We had already put a team in place at Disney, so I took with me six of the best artists we could find on June 1 that knew Shake and knew ILMs pipeline and we just all dropped in and went through Disneys show structure like a virus and found where everything is in every shot.
The rest of the process was working with that team we had to rotate people out and send them up to ILM and then send more people down. At one point we had about 12 people working at Disney we even had to hire people down south for ILM at Disney, which is very bizarre. We had a deadline of 12 weeks to not only pull up 1,400 shots from Disney but also reconform them because they were working on their movie. We had to really dig deep it was a real banjo-tight pipeline that we had to build quickly. That also fell onto my wife, Lisa, whose department is the information tracking system here at ILM. So we had to write in a tool that told us which files were coming from Disney, if they read online here, if they conformed to ILM's format, if they were ready for an artist to work on, if there were missing elements from Disney, did we need to recreate things or did we need to have Disney recreate things.
That was a tool that she actually had to put into place because of what were doing with animation in Singapore. So Chicken Little became this fantastic testing ground for this software called Q, and it was a window that just came up that was such a good instrument for me and the guys I called wranglers, who were basically the sequence supervisors on the show, to constantly monitor whos working on what shot, what shots need help, if they were taking longer than a day.
BD: How difficult was the actual work?
JA: The average shot would take about four hours to do. Some shots were very, very difficult where we didnt have a lot of information, so we had to do a fair amount of cutting out from the original comp, once again staying within the boundaries of the legal limits, and so some shots took a week to a week-and-a-half to do. Some shots were even 4,000 frames long, so it was quite a challenge to get everything developed and done by Sept. 19. Around the second week of August, we locked down our software. We had taken development so far that we pretty much had it automated it was a very smooth operation. That meant that any artist in the company, if theyre rendering on Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe, theyre blazing away, they could run a Chicken Little shot real quick. So there was a lot of that going on. Also, one thing that really gave me the drive to bring this movie in, was that it was a very slow time for ILM and a very slow time for the industry. By bringing Chicken Little in, it allowed everyone to hang onto their jobs for the summer. And learn tools that they ordinarily wouldnt use. I had hard surface modelers running shots, I had roto artists running shots, I had visual effects supervisors running shots. Everyone jumped.
BD: How many people worked on this project?
JA: At its peak, we had about 80 people. There was close to 200 people overall that worked on Chicken Little. A lot of people ran it just to dip into Zeno because its so new. The roto artists are never going to go into a render program.
BD: Sounds like quite an accomplishment despite the limitations.
JA: After three-and-a-half months of working with it, they realized our limitations. Disney even wanted to take some more shots over the top in 3D after we had already delivered the movie. They wanted the alien invasion of the town to pop more, which is actually one of the shots that we did that landed the job. Theres an incredible whoosh swoop of Chicken Little running through people on the sidewalk. They took that shot where characters are coming completely off the screen. It meant that Disney did what we werent able to do But Ive never before experienced such teamwork. Everybody wanted to work on Chicken Little.
Bill Desowitz is editor of VFXWorld.