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'First Flight': DreamWorks Stretches Its Wings

Renee Dunlop finds out how directors Kyle Jefferson and Cameron Hood stretched their wings on First Flight, the new 3D-animated short from DreamWorks Animation.

First Flight, DreamWorks new 3D-animated short, is screening in the coveted spot preceding Over the Hedge. All images courtesy of DreamWorks Animation.

First Flight, DreamWorks new 3D-animated short, is screening in the coveted spot preceding Over the Hedge. All images courtesy of DreamWorks Animation.

Getting Started

Kyle Jefferson and Cameron Hood were two animators from Toronto that met at DreamWorks, and became best friends over a common dream. Both had a desire to be filmmakers. In the down time during Shark Tale, they came up with the idea for First Flight, a production that took four years total from concept to completion, three years in actual production. You can only look at the Internet so long, so what we tried to do was take the gap time somewhere positive, to push ourselves, Jefferson suggested. The First Flight concept about a fastidious businessman that teaches a fledgling bird how to fly caught on with friends and co-workers, and what was an idea between two friends became DreamWorks new 3D-animated short film project, screening in the coveted spot preceding the studios latest animated feature, Over the Hedge (opening May 19), in New York and Los Angeles.

It was the perfect opportunity for the artists to stretch their wings in a direction they might not otherwise get to go. One artist was working at DreamWorks as a lighter, but on First Flight had the opportunity to set up master rigs. People that were working in technology could work as vfx artists. It also created a sub-culture. Studios usually work on large projects with a large team and artists can get isolated as they buckle down within the pipeline, but on a small project its a little club, and everyone hangs out to share ideas and work together.

Jefferson and Hood experimented with a variety of looks before settling on the highly appealing impressionistic one of First Flight. One attempt was a shower door look, but they found they were losing a lot of the acting, where they couldnt read the eyes, the small animations and the clarity of the silhouettes of the hands. The painterly style was inspired by artists such as Joe Soren, Ashley Wood and Odd Nerdum. With the help of Ramone Zibach, a DreamWorks top production designer, they came up with the signature style. We felt the story lent itself better to that particular look, with what falls away from the camera and what is going to read clear, Hood said. We made a lot of choices that could have been risky.

Flight Takes Wing

An early decision was pantomime, so they focused on subtle cues to portray the character arc, pushing straight lines vs. curves to help support elements of the story. Everything in the male character (Mr. Swift) was a little sharper than it needed to be. According to Hood, It was subtle undertones on how his world could have hurt him. For Swift, they focused on straight camera shots and desaturated colors to show the harshness and emptiness in his world. For Bird, the elements were more organic and brighter in color, a subtlety that increasingly became more apparent as the film progressed through the storyline. An added decision was that objects closer to the camera were more tightly rendered, and objects farther away were more abstract, adding an interesting twist to the perspective.

This early concept drawing shows off the painterly style directors Jefferson and Hood chose for the look of the film.

This early concept drawing shows off the painterly style directors Jefferson and Hood chose for the look of the film.

To help strengthen the darks, netting was included in the exposure pass, adding a variance to the black so there were small white dots throughout, so it was not just a flat dark shadow. The result was the color had this nice moist and blended look, explained Jefferson. It helped to strengthen some edges and loosen others. They also added elements to Swift when he was resurfaced, giving him a bright red nose, bright cheeks, bright blue eyes. We overdid it so that when we blended the color out and put it back over top he had this nice storybook look, very natural.

Great Talent

We were very lucky to have some top talent, Hood continued. Lead modeler Rachel Tiep-Daniels nailed the idea of lines and curves, building an environment that inspired the directors to find camera moves to show as much of the beautiful things in the set as possible.

Music was one voice that was important in supporting the film. The directors experimented with a variety of styles trying to find the appropriate mood, playing music in the background as they developed the arc. When the opportunity arose to work with James Michael Dooley, who composed portions of the music for Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, Madagascar and The Da Vinci Code, they were thrilled. His score coupled with the story leaves the viewer with a smile and a tear. Jeffrey Katzenberg was just as enthusiastic about the project as anyone. Hood summed up one meeting: There were times when Jeffrey was literally acting like The Bird. He helped us to step away from the canvas and take a look at the progress. It was a charming moment to say the least to sit on the couch and have Jeffery jump around like The Bird to help get things to read.

The Birds wings proved to be a real challenge, requiring enough mobility to convincingly open and close during two scenes. That goal doesnt sound like much but it takes a lot of real estate to give that much control, Hood explained. It took roughly nine months to achieve the goals they set for the wings alone. In the end, they decided on three birds: one with wings closed, one open and one in transition.

The directors used sharp lines to help portray Mr. Swift’s character arc. Straight camera shots and desaturated colors were used to show the harshness and emptiness in his world.

The directors used sharp lines to help portray Mr. Swift’s character arc. Straight camera shots and desaturated colors were used to show the harshness and emptiness in his world.

The Final Shot

The last shot lasts more than a minute, and The Bird flaps his wings 1,300 times, leaving the Maya file timeline as a bar of red from all the keyframes. The final scene had 14,090 frames in all, and was a continuous camera move while tracking two characters and a bus. Swift was attached to the bus, and the camera was required to circle around him. The Bird was attached to the camera, which was constrained to a target. “We were tracking the character, spinning around him, traveling past him,” Jefferson elaborated. “We would wake up sometimes in a cold sweat. I’ve worked on Spirit: Stallion of Cimarron, Sinbad, Pearl Harbor, and this was the toughest camera move I had ever done. In a good film, the character drives the camera. The nature of computer animation is the camera had to be there so the animators could animate. The camera came first, and in a lot of weaker films you would leave it that way. But we really wanted to work the camera and the animation so it felt that the camera was trying to keep up.”

When a scene is that complicated, even the best rig will fall apart. Enter Mitch Cockerham, who had experience with “reverse transformation” from working on The Polar Express. Reverse transformation is a sort of illusion trick where, in the perspective view where the animator works, everything looks fine, but the controls for the set are on the character. If they needed to move the Swift character forward, for example, they would grab the set control on the character, and move the set back. Swift wasn’t moving at all, but the illusion in the render is convincing.

Jeffrey Katzenberg enthusiastically supported the project and helped the directors perfect the short.

Jeffrey Katzenberg enthusiastically supported the project and helped the directors perfect the short.

Flight Times

There has been a shift in the pipeline since DreamWorks bought PDI. They’ve introduced the PDI tools into the background over the last year, adding to the challenges of bringing First Flight to completion. Films such as Shark Tale and Flushed Away were hybrid films where they used Maya for modeling, animation and rigging, incorporating PDI’s software Light, Cloth and Paint. The same was required of First Flight, with the added element of it being the first SubD film rendered in the DreamWorks pipeline. DreamWorks is basically NURBS-based, so the software to incorporate SubD’s had to be written. This allowed the directors to continue on with the models they had brought to the DreamWorks pipeline, while enabling DreamWorks to experiment with the introduction of SubD’s. Jefferson was thrilled with the opportunity. “The jump was wonderful, going from doing the work in an apartment building to DreamWorks. It was like taking a Corvette and turning it into a Ferrari, using all their tools.”

The film is now traveling the festival circuit, showing in Vancouver, Seattle, Tribeca, Croatia, Winnipeg and Malibu. “Having people who have never seen the film emotionally connect with your work was really exciting,” Jefferson enthused. “We have been living in a world where we have been looking for mistakes, sitting too close to the canvas. We are getting calls from places we’ve never even been, but where the film is going to show. The film is now out there traveling, literally, with a life of its own.”

Renee Dunlop has worked in film, games and multimedia since 1993. She currently works at Sony Pictures in Culver City, California, and freelances as a Maya lighting digital artist and as a writer for several trade publications.

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