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Bringing Blue Sky’s ‘Ferdinand’ to the Big Screen

Blue Sky’s animation team discuss the challenges of creating the Academy Award-nominated adaptation directed by Carlos Saldanha.

‘Ferdinand’ has been nominated for an Oscar for best animated feature, as well as a VES Award and two Annie Awards. All images © 2017 20th Century Fox.

Carlos Saldanha’s latest CG-animated feature, Ferdinand, tells the story of a peace-loving bull (voiced by John Cena), who is adopted by a loving farmer and daughter. However, his idyllic life changes after he is mistaken for a vicious beast and taken away to a bull training camp to face off against a matador in the arena.

Based on the 1936 book The Story of Ferdinand by author Munro Leaf and illustrator Robert Lawson, the film was released by 20th Century Fox Animation and Blue Sky Studios in the run up to Christmas.

The plan to bring Ferdinand to the big screen began more than six years ago when Saldanha was working on Rio 2. “I was very excited when I found out that Fox and Blue Sky were thinking of developing a movie based on the book,” the director recalls. “I had read the book and fallen in love with the story and its wonderful message of acceptance and diversity. I thought that this was the right moment to take this lovely little book and develop it into a family movie for today’s audiences.”

The film has been nominated for an Oscar for best animated feature, as well as a VES Award and two Annie Awards. Saldanha, known for his work on the Ice Age and Rio film franchises, was previously nominated for an Oscar for his 2002 animated short film Gone Nutty.

This is Saldanha’s seventh major feature film with Blue Sky, an animation studio of about 550 employees based in Greenwich, Connecticut that was founded in 1987. “It’s important to have your core team that knows you and supports you all the way through it,” he says. The studio was acquired by 20th Century Fox in 1997, and really burst on to the scene with Ice Age in 2002, which was co-directed by Saldanha.

Animation World Network recently had a chance to speak with four of Blue Sky’s key department heads -- production designer Tom Cardone, lighting supervisor Jeeyun Sung Chisholm, supervising animator Scott Carroll, and visual effects supervisor Kirk Garfield -- to discuss their tools and techniques as well as the unique challenges they faced bringing the classic story to life.

Crafting Sunny Spain: Production Designer Tom Cardone

Production designer Tom Cardone, who is nominated for an Annie for his work on the film, alongside colleagues Arden Chan, Andrew Hickson, Mike Lee and Jason Sadler, explained that he started early in the development process working closely with Saldanha to sketch the characters and develop the look and feel of the film.

Cardone said that they wanted Ferdinand to have a friendly, lovable feel. “He’s a very large character, and he dominates the composition when he’s on screen, so we wanted his silhouette to be really beautiful, and have a lot of curves to it.”

“Then in contrast to that we have the matador. He’s like a vertical wall, in a way,” he explains. “The humans are skinny and taller than they would be in real life, so that dictated the height of the buildings, the doors, the cars… everything around them. These two ideas, harmony and conflict, really influenced the whole shape and style of the movie -- that distortion of the elongated verticals contrasts against Ferdinand’s rolling, horizontal shape.”

Cardone explained that after they had arrived at a basic design for the characters, “then we bring in animators and riggers and modelers and everybody that is involved in developing the characters, and it changes as you progress. But what you want to do is keep the spirit of your original idea that everybody was happy with, yet make it functional and sustainable as it moves forward. We don’t push anything too far without input from everyone. Part of my job is shepherding that concept through, and hopefully, you get to the other side with something that is in the spirit of what you came up with originally.”

At the outset the production designer traveled with the director to southern Spain where the story is set to get the lay of the land and take visual cues from the landscape and architecture. Their travels took them to bullfighting stadiums to get a sense of what it would feel like standing in the middle of the arena facing mortal combat.

“We wanted the look to come from the story itself. We wanted it to be authentic to the area where it takes place in Spain,” says Cardone. “We came back with a lot of information about the vegetation and landscape, and textiles and colors.”

A main part of the film takes place on the training compound where Ferdinand meets the other bulls. It has a neutral palette, with white buildings set in an arid landscape. Cardone said that they had to find ways to use very bold and unexpected colors in controlled ways. “Just because something is made out of wood, it’s not necessarily going to be brown, or gray. For instance, the fence posts on the farm are red, or you’ll have a yellow ochre gate, or the doors on the barn are cerulean blue.”

In contrast to that, the farm where Ferdinand grew up is very lush and green, and has its own idyllic feel to it.

Cardone says that early on, they developed a “color script” for the film. “We try to take a look at the big picture and come up with some kind of a logic based on the time of day, and the emotions that you’re trying to communicate,” he explains. “But staging is a big thing for us too, just keeping the viewer focused on the focal point of the scene, and we do that with color, light and shadow.”

“For example, we set it up so that Ferdinand comes out of a dark tunnel and emerges directly into bright sunlight. And El Primero comes out of his side in through the shadow and he walks out into the light, but we used that sort of half-and-half lighting throughout the film to support them opposing each other in certain key moments -- where Ferdinand is in light, he’s a dark shape over light, and then El Primero, who is opposing him, is standing there as a light shape over dark.”

But Cardone added that throughout the film, one color was held in reserve for the climactic scene with the bullfighter -- the saturated red of the matador’s cape.            

“We didn’t use saturated red in the film except for Ferdinand’s flowers and for that cape, and we reserved that saturated red for those two very significant moments,” says Cardone.

Cardone added that the studio’s proprietary rendering system -- called CGI Studio -- gave them a “really nice feeling of bounced light and warm and cool gradations on the walls and things like that and it just creates a real feeling of light.”

A Touch of Atmosphere: Lighting Supervisor Jeeyun Sung Chisholm

Lighting supervisor Jeeyun Sung Chisholm, who has been with Blue Sky since 2005’s Robot, oversaw a team of about 40-50 artists helping to create the atmosphere for the film using lighting.

“My job is to make sure that sure that everything flows well in the story, enhancing the storytelling,” says Chisholm. “That could be a market scene, or it could be a beautiful hill with flowers where Ferdinand is smelling the flowers. We basically design the lighting scenario that suits Carlos’ storytelling point in that particular scene.”

Chisholm explained that the company was able to take full advantage of its proprietary raytracing rendering technology on every single shot. “It enabled us to accurately portray how the sun affects the grass and the flowers and then also bounce that warm light from the ground plane onto Ferdinand in very natural way without having to artificially mimic the lighting scenario.”

The system basically gives a realistic simulation of how light bounces in real life, but it’s a process that can be compute intensive and very unforgiving, taking up to 40-50 hours per frame, and if the render comes outs wrong, you have to re-do it. Plus, of course, since the film was released in stereo 3D, they had to render left- and right-eye views independently.

However, Chrisolm explained that she has a lot of confidence in the system. “Our renderer is so accurate, that we could focus on the crafting aspect of the lighting instead of worrying about if our outcome would look different or would look unnatural,” she says. “And because of the accuracy of the renderer, the shot-to-shot consistency and the efficiency of how we could process massive amounts of shots, we were able to do that faster than what we could imagine.”

Chisholm added that having an in-house R&D department is also a major bonus.

“If we encounter problem, we can just literally walk over to the person who wrote this renderer software and have open dialogue, and they would just fix it for us. It’s a very smooth relationship and I feel like that’s the essential in our studio to be able to advance the technology in each movie,” she says.

Bull in a China Shop: Supervising Animator Scott Carroll

Supervising animator Scott Carroll said that there were close to 80 animators working on the project at its peak, with a little over a year to deliver the finished film.

He explained that Blue Sky had character leads for all of the primary, secondary and supporting characters. “We try to cast to our character leads as much as possible because they become the experts on that character,” he says. “But they’re also there to support the whole team, so pretty much every animator should be able to animate any character in the film. We have to have that flexibility based on how the production rolls, but if a particular animator has shown a certain proclivity to produce a really great performance with a particular character and they seem to have a connection with that character, we will cast them on more shots with that character.”

Carroll explained that they also have sequence leads who oversee a particular sequence of the film. “They’re usually a character lead on one of the main characters and they’re also kind of assisting the supervisors in their day-to-day work and sometimes they fill in for us if we’re out,” he says.

He explained that this structure gives animators a direct line to their supervisors, or even to the director, without “too many cooks in the kitchen.”

For Carroll, putting Ferdinand in a proverbial China shop was a particularly tough sequence, in part because it was one of the first scenes they started on, so they were still figuring out exactly how the friendly bull should move.

“We were trying to cheat the space so he felt really crammed,” he says. “We wanted it to come off comedic because this is the worst possible place that he could be. So, when we started this sequence, we had boards and we had layout, but Carlos wanted us to try to eek a little more out of it, so we did a lot of previsualization and explored ideas of how we might do things a little differently based on his kickoff.”

Those tweaks involved moving things a little closer and positioning the virtual cameras so that it felt that Ferdinand was squished in as tight as he could possibly be.

“It was also tricky working out a lot of the timings that Carlos wanted and making sure that all of it escalates in an appealing and funny way in terms of how he keeps bumping into things and then has to catch them and make sure they don’t break, where has to keep juggling more and more things and it just kind of escalated, and you get into more and more trouble and it blows up at the end.”

In another key sequence, Carroll had to deal with a chase through Madrid. He explained that they started by drawing up maps, including key moments like the traffic circle, and the streets they have to run down as well as a café and a town square, before they get to the train station.

“So we drew out variations of maps and came to an agreement on one that might be able to encompass all those things and then our previs department started blocking out shots with rough representations and we started to see how we could flesh out some of the action before we moved forward in actually modeling all the assets,” he recalls. “You want to create the illusion of Madrid, and all those vehicles and lamp posts and everything that goes into making a city feel like a city, so you have to figure out how many buildings you need to make it feel like Madrid? It really was a huge team effort to get all of that working together.”

Plotting a Course: Visual Effects Supervisor Kirk Garfield

Visual effects supervisor Kirk Garfield and his team faced a lot of sequences with vegetation and had to make sure they had the techniques for adding “anything from dry grass, to green grass in the foreground, to trees in the mid-ground and background and deep pastures all the way into the distance.”

The film also called for a lot of dust to be added as well as a lot of crowd work. The film’s climactic stadium scene had over 2,000-plus characters.

Garfield explained that the company built its own software for simulating crowds within Houdini that interfaces directly with their in-house renderer.

The company’s simulation team had a lot of work in this film as well, “from the horse manes, to Paco the dog with his long hair. But the biggest thing that they worked on was the cape,” says Garfield. “The cape was sort of an extension of character for El Primero and the flow of line and form was so important. We didn’t want the simulation to upstage that. We wanted to support it, so we came up with a great hybrid method for animators to see, somewhat, what they’re going to get [in the final render].”

Garfield said that his job starts with the script, with a complexity analysis in order to develop “recipes” for some of the technical challenges they will face along the way.

“And then, I work with every team through the process -- the character group and the enviro-group -- and work on all the technical issues and keep that information flowing downstream,” he said.

He explained that work in stereoscopic 3D was one of the challenges.

“These are huge bulls and we’re putting them in these tight spaces and sometimes, just because it looks good on camera, you might see that cheating stereo, so the animation department had to be wary of how much they cheated,” he explains. “Even eyelines became a little bit more challenging because we had very tiny characters and a very big character and it’s very easy for them to look past each other by just being a fraction off. So that was something that we found hard at first, but then got better at as time went on.”

One of the big challenges for Garfield were the car chase sequences -- one through the city, and one on the highway.

“Both of those sequences were quite vast as far as covering a lot of distance,” he says. “The layout teams were key to figuring out how much area we needed to cover and we also wanted to establish proper speed for vehicles and make sure that the physics of things were okay before we started adding simulation, whether it’s clothing or grass interaction or dust and that sort of thing.”

Blue Sky’s crowd simulation team helped propagate cars in the scene while the assembly team mostly focused on propagating vegetation and some cars as well. Throughout the process, everyone had to stay in close communication, “so that the crowd animation, when it was added in, was proper and then if assembly was propagating cars in a jam, that they didn’t overlap with other cars and making sure that all of those technologies are also keeping continuity and making sure the material of the cars stays relatively consistent.”

He added that there were some curve balls along the way, where they had to go back and adjust things, “but in the end, by having all these groups work on all the different possibilities of cars, from driving down the highway to being stuck in a traffic circle, we were able to get through the shots a lot quicker.”

Garfield said that they had to pick and choose where to expend their time and resources along the way in a process he called “progressive refinement.”

“We don’t want to invest too much time or money into something that we’re not going to stay on for very long, so it’s better to wait and see and then in the end, populate and refine models and materials and put more props and staging in when we need to,” he concludes.

Scott Lehane's picture

Scott Lehane is a Toronto-based journalist who has covered the film and TV industry for 30 years. He recently launched VRNation.tv -- an online community for VR enthusiasts.

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