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Doing Jackals Doggy Style in ‘Riddick’

Mokko Studio brings vicious dog-like jackals to life, alongside some nasty looking mud demons, in David Twohy’s Riddick.

Riddick. All images © Universal Pictures.

As Riddick completes its first full week of release in the U.S., it’s clear fans of Vin Diesel and his first Riddick appearance in 2000’s Pitch Black have embraced his latest turn as the inter-stellar badass who cannot be killed and should not be trifled with.  Compared to 2004’s The Chronicles of Riddick, which saw little traction with audiences and did poorly despite a budget three times greater, Riddick was shorter on spectacle and longer on closeup action that showcased our hero’s callous humor and unmatched physicality.  Central to that action were vicious creatures including dog-like jackals and our main foe, the nasty mud demons, laying dormant within the ground until a huge rainstorm unleashes their murderous fury. 

Montreal’s Mokko Studio, lead by co-owner and visual effects supervisor Alain Lachance, worked in close collaboration with the film’s director, David Twohy, handling 321 shots with their 100+ artist crew.  These included extensive creature work on the mud demons and jackals, including pups, as well as building five different sets, some as full CG environments and a few as matte paintings.

Mokko’s involvement started early on, before pre-production.  Twohy contacted the studio after seeing their work on Discovery’s The Last Day of the Dinosaurs.  At the time, Mokko was creating and animating the Lycan creatures for Underworld Awakening.  That work sealed the deal with Twohy.  Soon, Lechance’s team was breaking down the project, proposing solutions and working intimately with the director on creature design.

Working from original drawings and basic creature designs done by Patrick Tatopoulos, Mokko’s art director, Arnaud Brisebois, and his team of modelers and texture artists pushed the designs further and created ZBrush sculpts for the director, who used them to judge proportions and size before the final modeling stage.

The design process also involved creating textures and shaders for the creatures, ranging from the jackals, with their fur and quills, to the iridescent mud demons.  According to Lachance, “It was important for us and production to base our art on nature, on something plausible even if we were on a different planet. Nothing was left to improvisation, from the bone structure necessary to have the jackal’s ears open in a very specific way that David had imagined to the mud demons breathing holes in their tails.”

Mokko’s pre-production work also included extensive R&D testing to develop tools and techniques for water and mud simulations.  Said Lachance, “It was important to determine the correct scale, viscosity and density of the water and mud right from the start, based on the shots we knew David was going to shoot.  We had to match the water and mud perfectly to the elements they were using on set.  But, we also had these huge creatures jumping out of the water, adding an extra level of complexity.” After extensive testing and tweaking of their Renderman pipeline, Mokko chose Autodesk’s Naiad for the water simulation and Yeti Fur for the jackals’ hair.

All told, Mokko produced 25 minutes of material, which included creatures, quite a few environments and all the water simulation.  One of the most difficult aspects of the film was getting a proper, believable performance from Riddick’s pet jackal.  An important part of the story involves Riddick’s capture and domestication of a jackal. In stark contrast to Riddick’s normal demeanor and the harsh alien world environment, the emotional, often touching connection between jackal and man brought needed humanity to the proceedings.  Making sure the jackal, especially as a puppy, conveyed believable emotion required creation of an extensive rigging system that gave the animators maximum flexibility when it came to facial controls.

The jackal’s movements were based on dogs – for reference, the crew film trained dogs walking, running and jumping on greenscreen with grid patterns. Lachance explained, “It was important for the director that our animators capture the unscripted animations of the jackal. What would a real jackal do when not receiving commands from its trainers?”  The crew solved that problem by bringing into the studio the animators’ dogs to study every movement carefully, especially when the dogs were not performing for their owners.  Lachance continued, “One of the shots has a jackal sneezing. It wasn’t part of the script, it wasn’t part of the concept, but that’s what dogs do.  So, we just threw that in and it just made the shot much more real.”

The mud demons, who literally take over the screen in some shots, posed their own set of challenges, especially when it came to movement.  How would one run? How would it distribute its weight jumping out of the water? How much flexibility should their tail have? Again, Mokko’s artists did extensive walk / run / jump studies to determine the best, most believable creature movements. 

Additionally, you can’t have a mud demon without having mud.  Water and mud go hand in hand.  As Lachance described, water simulation is always complex technically and artistically. “What made these shots most challenging was that we had to seamlessly extend the live action water in which Riddick was standing with our CG water that needed to interact with the mud demon.  Great lighting and compositing was essential and indispensable for making this work.  I was even fooled at times about where the transition were between the live water and our CG simulations.”

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Dan Sarto is editor-in-chief and publisher of Animation World Network.

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