Janet Hetherington and Bill Desowitz report on the digital action at Montreal's conference for digital arts, ADAPT 2008.
Late last month, digital artists gathered from around the globe for the third edition of Montreal's ADAPT (Advanced Digital Art Production Techniques) conference. The show moved its venue this year to the Pepsi Forum, former home of Canada's hockey greats, the Montreal Canadians, and held its seminars, master classes and workshops in the renovated site's multiple theaters.
Andreas Deja of Walt Disney Animation Studios delivered the keynote address, and recounted that he was just 11 years old and living in Germany when he saw his first animated film -- The Jungle Book. "Suddenly, my life had a mission," Deja said.
Deja was successful in his mission to animate for Disney. However, by 1980, the "Nine Old Men " of Disney had retired and Deja arrived at Disney too late to work with them. Still, that did not stop Deja from contacting his idols. "I made a nuisance of myself. I made friends, and I picked people's brains," he stressed. "When the credits roll, you would see the same group of names over and over. I wanted to find out what made them tick."
Deja went on to demonstrate what made such animators as Frank Thomas, Fred Moore, Ollie Johnston, Marc Davis, Eric Larsen and Milt Kahl so exceptional. He cited some of their inspirational sayings, including:
Don't animate drawings, animate feelings!-- Ollie Johnston
I don't actually draw that well. I have to work like hell to make a drawing look good. -- Milt Kahl
I think Walt's greatest achievement was having us working together on good films without killing one another!-- Marc Davis
Deja recently animated Goofy for the short film, How to Hook Up Your Home Theater. He is currently working on the upcoming feature The Princess and the Frog, which marks Walt Disney Animation Studio's return to hand-drawn animation. Judging by the photo in the program, Deja is supervising Mama Odie, the voodoo fairy godmother.
In discussing his approach, Deja commented, "Things need to be thoroughly analyzed. Explore all the possibilities of what you are going to do."
Afterward, Deja spoke to VFXWorld: "We're all thrilled that Disney will now be involved in all kinds of animation, mostly CG but also hand-drawn and eventually stop motion [with Tim Burton's Frankenweenie], so we're doing it all," he said. "And this is great that Disney is getting back to hand-drawn animation."
Deja added, however, that they will not be going paperless on The Princess and the Frog, which was a partial experiment on the Goofy short. And although the studio is coming up with a new pipeline, Deja said his job remains the same. "I still work at my desk with pencil and paper and animate, and we have assistants who do the rough in-betweens and we scan our drawings but the end result is still the same."
Deja added that the former notion of competing with CG by making hand-drawn characters look a little more like CG has been abandoned. "I always thought that maybe we should distinguish ourselves to go back to what 2D is good at, which is focusing on what the line can do rather than volume, which is a CG kind of thing. So we are doing less extravagant Treasure Planet kind of treatments. You have to create a world but [we're doing it more simply]. What we're trying to do with Princess and the Frog is hook up with things that the old guys did earlier. It's not going to be graphic…"
As for John Lasseter's influence, Deja said he wanted to aim for the Disney sculptural and dimensional look of the '50s. "He quoted all those things that were non graphic, which means go easy on the straight lines and have one volume flow into the other -- an organic feel to the drawing. Of course, John is involved in story, but also performance and the look of the characters: obviously not on a daily basis, but there are pivotal moments when we meet with John and talk about that. What is really great is that we look at dailies as a group effort and everybody fires off ideas. This is what Pixar does and what Walt used to do. It has really been helpful."
Speaking of Disney classics, Deja has been serving as an advisor on the mastering of the catalog for Blu-ray, beginning with this week's release of Sleeping Beauty, to be followed by Pinocchio, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in the spring and fall of 2009 and Fantasia in 2010. "My jaw dropped when I first looked at the [Sleeping Beauty] Blu-ray on my plasma," Deja enthused. "It's almost like removing a filter between you and the film is how I see it. It is a whole new experience… somehow the art is more exposed: the background art and then the character art, because of the clarity and the pristine quality."
View from the Whiskytree
Jonathan Harb, CEO and creative director of Whiskytree Inc., also believes in observing and analyzing -- and creating vfx with the simplest methods possible. His presentation at ADAPT focused on making complicated things with simple techniques, and showed how impressive set extensions and other effects could be achieved by using Photoshop. "This stuff isn't rocket science," Harb said. Harb's background is in industrial design, and it shows in his analytical approach. "I'm more concerned with how consistent things are… whether they're consistently real or consistently unreal, if that's the look you're going for," he added.
Whiskytree is a young shop that has been around since 2007. "We don't aspire to be a vfx house," Harb told VFXWorld. "We concentrate on concept art, environments, final shots, composition, and matte painting." Whiskytree is currently doing some set extensions, establishing shots and compositing for the new Adam Sandler Disney film, Bedtime Stories. The firm is also providing concept art for Terminator 4.
Halon and the Previs Biz
Halon CEO and Previs Director Dan Gregoire returned to ADAPT this year to talk about the use of previs on DreamWorks' Kung Fu Panda. He noted that yesterday's previs included creating storyboards, editing old footage and using a "lipstick cam" with scale models; today's previs includes previs for "pitch" materials (pitchvis), technical previs, on-set previs and postvis; and tomorrow's previs will give a director a "hands-on vision," likely in realtime, with AI capability.
Gregoire said that he worked on Kung Fu Panda as a freelancer, and that utilizing previs is a new process for DreamWorks. He showed in his presentation how a sequence depicting the tiger Tai's escape was first realized in previs, giving the animators options to follow or reject. "Every time we do a film, it's different," Gregoire insisted. "This was our first foray into the animation world. In this case, we were asked to be much more exploratory."
Gregoire was unable to comment on another big film he worked on -- Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull -- but he did speak to VFXWorld about his work on The Spiderwick Chronicles, which was filmed in ADAPT's home town of Montreal. "I was in Montreal for six months," Gregoire explained. "It was interesting and constantly evolving. We had to do things 'on the fly' and come up with stuff, re-engineering shots and sequencing."
Gregoire noted that directors are making it a routine part of production. "It's a lot more prevalent," he said. Halon usually works on three to five films at any given time, with a team concentrating on a specific job. However, Gregoire advises that he often receives assignments on very short notice. "It may be a week or less," he offered. "Depending on who the client is, you might get a heads-up. But most of the time, you don't get any warning. You've got to be ready to go." While the lengths of jobs vary, Gregoire said, "It can be a month to nine months. For Avatar, it's been two-and-a-half-years."
Kung Fu Panda Pointers
Alex Parkinson, vfx supervisor for DreamWorks Animation, spoke about Kung Fu Panda and said that while the movie started up production in 2004, "we had to make it 2008 good" -- reflecting on how technology can change and raise audience expectations year to year.
"We wanted to make it the coolest looking movie that DreamWorks had very made, and pay homage to Asian martial arts films," Parkinson added. Right from the beginning, decisions had to be made based on the budget of where money would be spent and who the best person would be to do a certain job. "If you waste money on one sequence, you can't spend it elsewhere. There's a constant rearrangement of the budget."
The movie is 3D, but Parkinson said that Kung Fu Panda draws much of its inspiration from 2D sources, including Chinese art, icons, architectures, plants and environments that were based on real-life locations. Money was spent up front on research and development on such things as feathers and a bridge so that dollars could be conserved later on.
Color plays an important role in the film, with protagonists taking on warm hues and rounded shapes while antagonists feature cool hues and spiky shapes. Parkinson advised that the Rhino designs could have been wasted do to a story change; they were originally designed as antagonists, but became protagonists. The problem was solved -- and the character designs utilized -- by turning the rhinos into guards. In the end, the rhinos play an integral role in the escape sequence that Gregoire prevised for the movie.
The lead character Po presented both color and fur challenges for the production. "Po isn't actually black and white," Parkinson said. "He's dark brown and cream." This allowed for better responses to different light sources and different colors of light on the character.
Another challenge was to make the characters behave like animals while accurately performing human functions, especially during martial arts scenes. The goal was to make the fight sequences as realistic as possible, but no motion capture was used. Instead, the animators did extensive research. "Everyone did kung fu training, and we screened martial arts movies," Parkinson added. "We needed the right weight, gravity, and for the animation to feel organic and alive."
The Manufacturing of WALL·E
Disney/Pixar's first science-fiction film, WALL·E, presented different challenges. Animator Michal Makarewicz said that he was "excited to work on the project, because as an SF geek, he got to work on a movie where a robot falls in love."
However, robots do not communicate the same way that humans do, so Pixar looked to early silent films for inspiration. "We watched Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, especially the love scenes," Makarewicz added. The services of sound designer Ben Burtt were engaged to create the sound fx, which were inspired by the "beloved walking trashcan" R2D2.
With Pixar, everything starts with the story, which is developed in an "incubator room" where artists and writers can figure out the nuances of the story. The story department prepares development drawings that provide a first glimpse into what the characters might look like; these go through numerous changes. "Changes are made to serve the story," Makarewicz reiterated. The story is put onto storyboards and scrutinized. "We do everything on storyboards. We watch it play out like a comic book up on the screen. Ideas are pitched to the director. They may get done or they may be changed. There's iteration after iteration."
As for design, the goal was to achieve "a machine quality first and add character later." "WALL·E is a square and Eve is a circle," noted Makarewicz. "We went through many iterations with Eve. We wanted her very sleek. Essentially, WALL·E is a garbage truck and Eve is an iPod."
Research was also necessary but somewhat smelly. "For Finding Nemo we got to go into the water," Makarewicz said. "For WALL·E, we got to go to the dump." However, being able to see real-life trash cubes being stacked proved extremely valuable, as well as the study of decay.
In the end, WALL·E required130,000 frames rendered, 1,600 shots, 445 models, 41 sets and 80,000 storyboards and four years to make.
Bolt and Rhinopalooza
For Philippe Brochu, Clay Kaytis and Hidetaka Yosumi of Walt Disney Animation Studios, the challenges of its 3D CG feature Bolt meant creating a completely new working method. While Bolt, a dog, is the lead character, it was a hamster named Rhino that posed unique problems. "He had to work as a quadruped, he had to be able to stand up and act, he was a couch potato with a fat body and fur, and he exists in a hamster ball," Kaytis said.
"The first thing is to make the character look appealing," said Brochu. To hone in on the best designs, the team created something called "paloozas," which is a creative refining process that began with a successful "Boltapalooza" (for the dog) and progressed to "Mittenspalooza" (for the cat), "Pennypalooza" (for the human girl) and "Rhinopalooza" (for the hamster).
The team also underwent an enormous change in workflow. Instead of moving from modeling to rigging to animation, which would then go back and forth, and back and forth for approvals -- and could cause huge problems if a rigging change was required. "It was difficult in a really big place where everyone had specialized tasks," Brochu added. "We needed to change that. We did not have time for things to take days to get approved."
For Bolt, there was a formation of a character team that works interactively, starting with modeling and moving to rigging and then to animation, but proceeding back and forth in a fluid, circular motion. "There are no departments in character teams. We work collaboratively," Brochu added. It has proved so effective that the change in workflow is becoming a new standard at Disney.
As for Rhino, the animators turned to squirrel designs from the 1956 film Sleeping Beauty for inspiration. "They were stylized designs, but they were anatomically correct," commented Brochu. Rhino had to be re-rigged using a new PSD (pose shape deformer), and distance locators constantly needed to be adjusted. "There were too many in the neck, so we added locators in the arm," Kaytis said. The animators even added a "bonus" of "granny arms" or skin flaps to the character make the appearance and movement more realistic. For fat and fluffy Rhino, Kaytis said, "Fur was a miracle that covered up problems."
Building Iron Man
Marc Chu, animation supervisor, Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), faced different obstacles to digitally dress the armor-clad Iron Man. Attendees at ADAPT were amazed to hear that famed ILM had to compete for the job of working on the film. "It happens a lot," Chu offered. "We have to do a test like other companies. The competition has really risen, and studios are getting savvy. They all want to see what you can do for the money."
To make the armor realistic, ILM had to conceive of where weapons might be placed and logical ways to access those weapons. They had reference in a suit created by Stan Winston, which showed how armor would react to movement. "During production, it was all about reference," Chu added. "We used 44,000 photos. It was a non-stop process to find anything we might need to create the suit in CG."
Chu said that depictions of take-offs and flights were particularly challenging. "For Iron Man's flight, the suit was driving him. The direction we got was to 'make it look like a satellite in the sky.' Superman takes off fast and lands slow, and Iron Man takes off slow and lands fast," he said. ILM animated digi-doubles, vehicles and jets to achieve believable effects.
Chus provided "shot stats" for Iron Man, which included: 409 total CG shots, 289 3D animations, 254 keyframe animations, 29 iMocap (ILM's lightweight and flexible on-set motion capture technology) shots, as well as four traditional MoCap shots.
"For everything that moved [on the suit], we had to figure out, 'what's the mechanism?'" said Chu. "We had to figure out how pulsar technology would work. It was all about realism."
Framestore and the Badger
Realism was also the goal for Framestore, the vfx shop tasked with providing CG animals Aslan (the lion) and Badger for The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian. In his presentation at ADAPT, Kevin Spruce related how Framestore had to work with an existing model for Aslan, while building Badger from scratch.
"For Aslan, we wanted to try to improve him and present him on a larger scale," Spruce said. "We looked carefully at the first film and noticed that there could be work done, particularly on his eyes."
Badger was a new character that had to be realistic, go from biped to quadruped, be appealing, look "40ish" and present himself as a respected mediator and battle veteran. "We started by looking at reference to get the head shape. We made lots of sketches and played with the silhouette. We paid attention to how he stands up… badgers do don't have a straight back, so we added a curve to his back," added Spruce.
Framestore rejected the idea of picking up a dead road-kill badger and instead used a stuffed one for the scanned model. "Reference is your best friend," advised Spruce.
Blinking Out Loud
Carlos Baena (Pixar) and Shawn Kelly (ILM), co-founders of animationmentor.com, used lots of reference in their presentation on the fine art of animating eyes and blinks. "Eyes are important for communication," Kelly said. "Eyes have meaning. Eye movements have a purpose. When you're animating, don't move the eyes unless you show why you're moving them."
Baena and Kelly showed clips from Casablanca, Forrest Gump and even The Bachelor to demonstrate how eyes can communicate meaning and emotion even when words are not spoken. "We look up when we're thinking of a recent memory, and look down when we're thinking of an older memory," Kelly added.
"Rapid eye movements can indicate someone is frantic or desperate, shy or nervous, hopeful or perhaps lost in imagination," Kelly explained. "Slow eye movements can indicate that the person may be stoned, in shock or possibly lost in a deep memory. In Indiana Jones 3, when Indy has that fixed stare, he is processing information. The character is thinking; his eyes communicate it." However, animators do have the option to play with eye movements. "In cartooning, there is a little more range, and you can sacrifice reality for entertainment," Kelly said. However, Baena and Kelly both warn that demo reels with badly animated eyes can brand an aspiring animator as a novice. "Nailing eye stuff demonstrates that you really can animate," Kelly said.
Fight for Life
Phil Dobree of Jellyfish Pictures took up the challenge of animating eyes and more in the BBC television series Fight for Life. In his ADAPT talk, Dobree revealed how Jellyfish created 3D representations of internal microscopic organisms, human organs and other elements to show how the human body works. The goal was to create CG shots that looked like they were achieved on camera.
The project turned out to be CG from day one. "It was a waste of time to do storyboards," Dobree said. "We had to dive in and do animatics." Dobree said that Jellyfish took "a very graphic approach, but less gory. We had to provide a clear way of showing what was going on [inside the human body]."
While some elements were built from scratch, including a CGI baby ("They were not convinced that we could do it," Dobree offered), others were a combination of real shot elements -- for example, fat cells. "We had to be grounded in reality. We also had to be photoreal, so we added real elements whenever we could." This included "splattering stuff on glass in front of a high-speed camera" to "using detergent spray on a piece of plastic" to utilizing theatrical blood.
"We did a lot of 'matchmove'," Dobree said, which involved matching moving elements from live-action seamlessly into CGI. As for textures, Dobree noted that the painting was highly detailed and comments, "We used lots of reference from the butcher."
Bourne, Jason Bourne
Reference of a different kind was used for High Moon Studios' treatment of the Robert Ludlum's Bourne Conspiracy video game for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. "Our Jason Bourne is not based on Matt Damon," said principal artist Mike Brown. "We used both the books and the movies to re-imagine this Jason Bourne."
High Moon engaged martial arts expert Jeff Imada (Big Trouble in Little China) to help map out Bourne's moves. "We used MoCap a lot," advised Brown. High Moon also used Autodesk 3ds Max and photo-based modeling, creating a reusable head template that created a repeatable process and recyclable assets. MotionBuilder 7.5 was also used, which resulted in a mixed pipeline that made hiring easier to do.
Bourne screenwriter Tony Gilroy was available to provide valuable insight into the Bourne character. "We learned that Bourne always has a target and a goal. He also uses objects at hand as weapons. He's not James Bond; he improvises," Brown said.
"There was pressure to create the game to release with the Bourne movie, but we decided to create this as an original franchise instead," added Brown. "This gave us the extra time to work with experts and to do things right. The most important thing was to make the game as cinematic as possible, with lots of camera moves," Brown said.
Henson's Digital Puppetry
Jim Henson's Creature Shop has been moving into new territory with its digital puppetry and associated technology, although 16-year Henson veteran Kerry Shea said that Kermit shouldn't worry. Soft puppets are still popular and are, in fact, enjoying resurgence in popularity. At ADAPT, she screened a Sesame Street counting segment featuring singer Feist and commented that puppetry was used in Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Henson still builds soft puppets in New York and Los Angeles.
Henson's digital puppetry, currently being used on PBS' Sid the Science Kid, allows for CGI puppets to be created in studio in realtime.
"This was something that Jim Henson has imagined back in 1989, but the technology had not caught up," Shea said.
However, it is now in play at Henson's virtual TV studio in Burbank, California. Performers are suited up with body pointers, and hand controls are used for the digitized puppet heads. "Entire performances are done in a single pass," Shea said. "You can see in real time how the performance is."
Environments are created in advance. "We build all characters and props in Maya," Shea says. There is a proprietary viewer that allows input from the mocap, audio and cameras to be stream into the computer, providing the real-time visuals. "Mission control hits the green button, and we record it," Shea said. The process allows for completion of a 22-minute episode in two-and-a-half-days.
Henson is also in development on a new take on The Dark Crystal movie that will utilize animatronics against CG. "There is a tactile loveliness to puppetry," Shea said.
She later told VFXWorld, "Our challenge, which I posed to the Motion Capture Society and the motion capture companies [at a recent panel discussion], is how can I get better, faster, cleaner capture data? Is there a way? Is there an advancement within the capture industry where it will not require additional post cleanup of the data? Because then it will be truly realtime and then what I'm capturing on the stage will be immediately transferrable. I didn't hear any significant answers at that panel, so I'm continuously looking for the answer to that question."
Grains from The Mill
Tom Bussell and Rob Petrie from The Mill presented two interesting commercials using vfx -- a Cocoa-Cola commercial featuring Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade balloons Stewie and Underdog in an aerial race to capture a Coke balloon; and a Guinness commercial showing the "music of the brew" as human cannonballers who burst into bubbles.
"We did rough storyboards and then previs to show what would be good for the camera," Petrie said of the "It's Mine" Coke commercial. "They shot on the day of the Macy's parade and what they shot was nothing like the previs." Further scenes were shot in the Paramount backlot, but more material was needed to make the commercial work. "We went to New York and took lots of pictures," Petrie added. The Mill effectively rebuilt the backdrop to simulate the desired parade environment. The balloons had to depict 2D characters in 3D, and have balloon-like elements. "It was 11 weeks from start to finish," Petrie said.
For the Guinness "Music Machine" ad, Bussell said that he received "quite nice photo reference from the director," which helped define the direction of the spot. The commercial featured men in white suits jumping against big drums before bursting into bubbles. Bussell said they realized the live-action footage of the men that had been shot needed to be more convincing, so it was desirable to do CG character modeling and movement. However, The Mill was in a time crunch. Bussell said that The Mill decided to use a video game technique -- endorphin, which prompts the CG characters react at random -- in order to get it done in time. "We had only four to six people and five weeks to do it," Bussell said. "I didn't go home."
The folks at Rainmaker are working to have the first CG television series, ReBoot, come home to a loyal and new audience. Director William Lau spoke about how the TV show, which ran from 1994 to 1998, was attempting to "do the kind of stuff that Hollywood does." Lau said, "We developed time-saving techniques. We phased out hand-drawn storyboards… what we did was eventually called previs or digital layout. We had a proprietary lip synch and facial animation program called GRIN. We were fast but we were creative."
ReBoot is currently being revitalized through a project conceived with Vancouver's Zeros 2 Heroes online social network. The site ran a competition that encouraged fans to "pitch" their own vision of ReBoot. The winning story has been published as a comic book and can be viewed online.
"The hard-core fans want us to pick up where the last episode left off, but in 2008 we have to engage a bigger fan base," said Rainmaker EVP Paul Gertz. The company is planning new ReBoot films, which will not be the same storyline as the comic book. "We're in early stages of visual development and the middle stages of story," Gertz said. And while ReBoot has a reputable past, its newest incarnation will have to reflect all the new bells and whistles that CG animation has to offer. Assets from the old show will not be repurposed. "Don't let what happened before drive what goes forward," Gertz added.
He later told VFXWorld, "There's no way we can make a $150 million film, so how can we be clever and do what nobody has ever done? Zeros 2 Heroes helped reintroduce and reinvigorate ReBoot with Web 2.0 techniques and social networking constructs to reach out to the fans and help us bring this property back."
Rainmaker now has a framework from which to build a trilogy of movies (which may be for DVD/Blu-ray with limited theatrical distribution). "Not only does Zeros 2 Heroes design the campaign and have brought in artists from all over the world," Gertz said, "but they're also a research company and have compiled all of the comments that we get into a white paper that we can look at and make sense out of analytically in terms of trends and what people are responding to. The other fascinating thing that we learned was that the fans came to our defense for us to try something new through social networking. That has also been very helpful in moving forward."
Jason Manley, president of Massive Black Inc., shared insights into color theory by using examples from great masters of art during his presentation at ADAPT. Along with artist Andrew Jones, Manley believes that the expensive art education he received should be affordable and shared with others. "There's a whole core of people who are not being educated until later in life," Manley said. "I firmly believe in the traditional language of art," Manley added. Through their school and through the conceptart.org website, Manley and Jones are trying to bring art instruction to those who seek it -- as all of the instructors strive to do at ADAPT.
Janet Hetherington is a freelance writer and cartoonist who shares as studio in Ottawa, Canada, with artist Ronn Sutton and a ginger cat, Heidi.
Bill Desowitz is editor of