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Summer 2008: VFX Gets More Animated

Vfx in animated features takes center stage this month on VFXWorld. So, let's open with a little quiz.

The list of effects in Horton Hears a Who! is surprising. Photo credit for all Horton images: Blue Sky Studios.

Of the animated features released so far in 2008, which one contained all of the following effects?

Water surface simulations, water drips, water spray, water jet, water falls, water splashes, bubbles, fountains, clouds, sawdust, rigid body sims, blowing leaves, cloth sims for flags, buntings, awnings & blankets. Boiling oil, fire/campfires, dust/debris. 3D fluid sims for fishbowls, melting snow, chemical spills, saliva/mucous, Novocaine, antacid liquid, popcorn kernels, shower heads.

Did you figure it out yet? If you didn't guess it with Novocaine and antacid liquid, here are some more effects from the same feature.

Tears, confetti, airborne clovers, Dandelion seeds, Demolition Dust, Dew Drops, Pollen, Soil debris, Soil Impressions, snow prints & snow powder & snow chunks. Flowing rivers, lasers, steam, smoke, mist, other volumetric effects. Mower clippings, sand, splinters, ice debris, distortion and cloud effects for the soundwaves.

If you guessed Horton Hears a Who!, you guessed right. Out of all those, which ones would you say were the most challenging to create?

According to Kirk Garfield, visual effects supervisor at Blue Sky Studios, "Some of the most challenging effects were in the opening sequence where we watch droplets of water collect on a leaf, drip and dislodge a seemingly massive spiky nut. This spiky nut then bounces down a tree and through a dandelion field.

"For the droplets collecting on the leaf, we used a combination of methods. The main droplets were animated by hand in Maya using spheres. The surrounding droplets that filled out the leaf were procedurally placed. We then used some of our in house post-particle editing scripts to combine the systems into one for meshing.

"Once the water droplets collect at the tip of the leaf, the droplet falls through the air until it collides with the spiky nut. The nut detaches from the branch, and then we witness the seed bounce down a tree and finally falling into a field of dandelions. The directors' wanted it to feel epic, so we cheated the physical forces a bit depending on the camera angle. The individual seed tufts dislodged from the core of the flower based on a custom set of rules written in both Maya (MEL) and CGI Studio."

Garfield added that since many of the effects are final animation dependent, pre-production was vital. "During pre-production is when we do most of our look development. By coming up with practical solutions to effects, we were able to provide more of it for the production. We also do a lot of housekeeping during pre-prod like refining our pipeline scripts (fxPipe) in preparation for the next production."

For Horton, the overall relationship between animation, layout and effects is important. Based on the script or storyboards, assumptions are made about what effects are needed for the film.

Meanwhile, the overall relationship between animation, layout and effects is once again important: "As early as the script or storyboards, I make assumptions about what effects are needed for the film," Garfield continued. "I collaborate most with story and layout to ensure what is requested is able to be produced with the current resources. We do a lot of planning with previs and layout to minimize the complexity of effects. We try to raise red flags before it is too late to basically avoid a crisis."

As for the interaction between characters and effects, they start by planning the collaboration in the early stages of production. "We often request temporary animation of a character or prop to help develop the work flow and or the look for the effect in question. Like any production, time is precious. Instead of waiting for final animation, we usually get in early and test things out, so by the time final animation is delivered, we have 75-90% of the work complete. In the final stages of effects production, we work very closely with materials and lighting to ensure everything looks good and is ready to hand off.

"Time and resource concerns were alleviated with proper planning, simplifications, and creative workarounds. It was imperative that we work close with the departments up and down stream of us. Horton was a good challenge for us. We had to learn how to achieve style without making the effects look too fake. We did this by paying attention to the way Seuss would draw effects.

"During previs effects exploration, we tried to adhere closely to the way Seuss illustrated effects like water, smoke, etc. We found that if you wandered too far from reality, it looked surreal. We had to find a middle ground where the effects were believable but stylized at the same time. We found that Seuss had a very specific way he would space things in his drawings and we tried to mimic that when placing our effects."

An animated feature that adheres even more closely to the look and feel of live action is the spacey comedy/love story WALL•E, which just opened from Disney•Pixar. After hundreds of lonely years of doing what he was built for, WALL•E (short for Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class) discovers a new purpose in life (besides collecting the waste that human left behind) when he meets a sleek search robot named EVE. She comes to realize that WALL•E has inadvertently stumbled upon the key to the planet's future and races back to space to report her findings to the humans who are hoping to return to the planet they deserted.

The interaction between characters and effects in Horton is planned during the early stages of production. Temporary animation sof a character or prop help develop the work flow and the look for the effect.

Chris Chapman, a Pixar effects sequence lead on WALL•E, says that this was a "rewarding project to work on not only because it had challenging effects and an interesting look, but also because it is a unique blend of elements that I feel hasn't really been seen before in a film.

"The effects on WALL•E were wide ranging," Chapman continues. "The film was heavy with man-made effects such as explosions, energy effects, propulsion effects, as well as more natural phenomenon such as dust storms, acid rain, sludge and solar flares."

He said there were two large vfx challenges for WALL•E: "Since the look of the movie was to be a more filmic style, we had to design the effects to fit within that framework. The second challenge was the sheer number of effects needed on the film. On Earth, for example, it was not uncommon for an average shot to have four or five effects elements just for 'environmental keep alive' where dust might be blowing about or trash moving around in the background. When you layer effects related to characters and story points on top of that, the number of effects adds up rapidly.

"The main way we went about solving the integration of the effects into a filmic world was by scrutinizing reference footage and essentially extracting its essence and imbuing that into our effects. We not only paid close attention to the wide variety of forces and textures within a given effect, but also to scale. A small dust plume from blowing up a cockroach had to feel much different than a dust plume kicked up from a large spaceship landing. We had to make sure to get the feel of the scale right for these two extremes as well as everything in between."

In terms of trying to deal with the large number of effects in the film, Chapman said they spent time early in the production creating semi-automated effects rigs. By applying an automated effects rig to a given shot, they were able to get the effect two thirds of the way to completion while expending minimal manpower. At this point it was up to the effects artist assigned to each shot to take it the rest of the way.

"We created effects rigs for fluttering trash simulation, blowing ground dust, WALL•E's tracks and dust, flying paper simulation, EVE's energy trails, EVE's blaster effects, WALL•E's fire extinguisher exhaust, scanning energy effects and electric taser effects, to name a few.

The effects on WALL•E were wide ranging. It was heavy with man-made effects as well as more natural phenomena. All WALL•E images © Disney•Pixar.

"By using reference footage to nail the look of our effects, and using automated rigs to maximize our resource usage, we were able to blend our work into a believable environment and get our effects work done in a timely fashion."

At Pixar, they use a number of tools and techniques in creating their vfx. Maya is used extensively for the particle-based effects. They rely heavily on their proprietary software to export particle data from Maya to Pixar's pipeline. "The software allows us to manipulate and filter exported particle data in order to enhance our effects or create new looks. We also relied heavily upon the use of an internal volumetric shading system. This system was built in a flexible way so that we could quickly create a wide array of volume shaders. The shaders were used to create the looks for the dust storms, explosion and dust plumes, for example.

"In pre-production, we would sometimes make use of very simple modeling primitives to create a stand-in effect. For instance, we'll use a few spheres to block out the overall timing and expanse of an effect so that initial camera work can be done."

DreamWorks Animation's Kung Fu Panda had its share of large scale action as well. "We're an action comedy and not a parody," explained Visual Effects Supervisor Markus Manninen. "So, when we do our action, we do it properly. We have several big action sequences, and those obviously need to have the appropriate amount of peril and weight to them. A big portion of what we felt was important was to have the effects support the action.

"One of the big [action sequences] that we hit was the escape sequence of our villain [Tai Lung, the snow leopard] from his prison. We have this huge bridge at the end that we broke procedurally. It's like he should be able to make it across, but it becomes an obstacle course that he needs to make his way over while it's basically crumbling underneath him from stalactites falling from the ceiling. So, it's a huge amount of procedural breakage, a huge amount of procedural dust added to give it impact, to give it scale.

There were two large vfx challenges for WALL•E. The effects had to fit the more filmic style of the film, and there was a large number of effects needed.

"We developed this procedural tool for art directing that kind of breakage. We wanted to be able to use it without having to worry about the kind of shot costs. We want to have that enabling things. We actually ended up at the end battle using it more or less to destroy the building underneath our fighting characters. Again, [we were doing] a lot of procedural breakage but also adding a lot of dust and debris to give it that kind of peril."

And what did the toolset consist of on Kung Fu Panda?

"For the bridge, we wrote our own plug-in into Maya to be able to do the procedural breakage of the bridge. Then we piped that through Houdini for the actual rigid body dynamics. Then obviously everything is rendered through our proprietary lighting-rendering package and through our proprietary particle renderers and so forth."

The vfx team relied on previs as well, which was introduced on Bee Movie. "We were on pre-production for that for a good year. We were trying to find what the solutions were for getting the coolest possible action sequence out of it and how we could get the tone and action of our movie worked out with the choreography, the staging of the characters, the camera and its relationship to the characters and the effects we were going to use.

"A lot of the final effects came out of that previs and trying things out. We kept refining that process as we went. As we learned more about the movie, learned more about what the sequences needed to be able to accomplish. We kept adapting the process depending on what the sequenced needed to do.

"Sometimes it was more about the characters. Sometimes it was more about the environment. Sometimes it was more about the effects. [Previs] was really to work out the big components of what the tone of the sequence was, how much effects we could get away with and also where we could go further.

"[It] was a very helpful tool. But rather than a visual effects tool, we think of it similar to how it is thought of in live action as a story tool. You're actually trying to work out your story but in an effects-heavy sequence. You want to know for sure that you have captured that story in the best possible way by visualizing it as early as possible."

So how long did it take them to complete the sequence?

"It was probably a good two years or more by the time we had the final shot of sequence done because we were defining the tone of the action of the movie. It was a lot of exploratory work as well as upping the ante as we thought we could go further.

The Rope Bridge Fight in Kung Fu Panda shows how the layout, animation and effect departments were doing work on top of each another. All Panda images © DreamWorks Animation LLC.

"And we kept doing it even in production. The previs was a guide. But as we started seeing what was coming through in production in animation, layout and effects we kept adding to it to make it even cooler."

There was no better example than the Rope Bridge Fight of handling several characters and vfx, in which the bridge is being torn to pieces beneath them.

"That meant that at the same time three departments -- layout, animation and effect -- were doing work on top of each another," Manninen explained. "We found flexible workflows that allowed each department to do their work the best way they knew how while collaborating together. It really had a lot to do with setting expectations of communication. The tendency for departmental structure is that everyone works without understanding one another. So, there's this sense of ownership over their piece but not ownership over the whole.

"What we actually did was create a 'Bridge' task force, which allowed everybody to be in the room together talking about the issues and challenges we needed to solve in each shot. So, they were all present together. We had the director, the fight choreographer, the animation team, the effects lead, the head of layout. They all looked at the shots together and made decisions together on how to proceed.

"We also made sure that we didn't slow down any of the departments on their side of the process. We, for instance, felt the animation should focus on the characters' performances and not worry too much about the bridge because the effects would be much better adding the hind of cool, dynamic bridge motion that we wanted.

"But we knew Animation needed to be able to accommodate their animation based on what the bridge did. But the bridge also needed to react to what the characters were doing. So Animation went first with a rough bridge motion and added the big impacts the characters needed to have to make it feel like they were actually on the bridge – the fine dynamics, the cool small jitters that really made us believe the bridge [was actually there]. After Effects had taken their pass, [the shot] went back to Animation, and that collaboration became the key for allowing us to do it on the kind of timeline schedule that we had for it."

Panda was the most ambitious movie ever dreamed up at DreamWorks. It was known as

And what distinguishes Kung Fu Panda from its DreamWorks predecessors?

"It was the fact that we didn't say, 'No.' This was the most ambitious movie we ever dreamed up here at DreamWorks. It was kind of known as 'The Movie That You Can't Do That.' We felt like to be able to get the non-parody movie we needed to be able to accomplish a lot of these things. We needed to be smart about finding workflows that really allowed us to not say no, to not shy away from difficult sequences.

"We did amazing work on developing a feather system that allowed us to have an automatic process for shot application, where we allowed ourselves more or less to do anything with the birds that we wanted to. And we had crowds of birds, all having feathers.

"What we call the De-Interpenetration Process was just amazing at solving that for us, being able to have that amount of birds in a shot, which is unheard of in animation and live action. It was a great R&D effort that took place on our show. We were able to get to a level where there was no shot cost to actually having feathers in our movie... It just creates a richness to our look of not only having plush toys but [also] these feathered characters that looked amazing."

DreamWorks additionally came up with a new foliage system "that married art direction and foliage creation in a really interesting way, being able to get rich detail and a very complex look. It's a lot about selling scale. As always, to go further than you think to make it not look like a simple animated film yet have the rich textural detail. You have to have a lot of geometry in it and obviously you try to proceduralize that as much as possible.

"So, our tools are really built for that. And our effects team took that to the next level by building in controls to not only do one version of a tree but to do variations of that species and still have it be art directable. You used to take one tree and turn it around and it would look different from different angles. But we were able to create a more complex look of a forest by being able to put unique trees into it."

J. Paul Peszko is a freelance writer and screenwriter living in Los Angeles. He writes various features and reviews, as well as short fiction. He has a feature comedy in development and has just completed his second novel. When he isn't writing, he teaches communications courses.

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