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Cinesite Shares ‘Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank’ Breakdown Reel

The studio took over the troubled production that began life as ‘Blazing Samurai,’ and with directors Rob Minkoff (‘The Lion King’) and Mark Koetsier (‘Minions’), working from only an animatic, concept art, and some 3D models, brought the 3DCG film to a rich and colorful completion.

Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank, the 3DCG animated comedy feature, follows hard-on-his-luck hound Hank (Michael Cera), a picked-upon dachshund who decides to defend himself by embarking on his dream of becoming a great samurai. In setting off in search of his destiny, Hank ventures to the town of Kakamucho, a rather unwelcoming place, given that it’s populated exclusively by dog-wary cats. Nevertheless, Hank succeeds in commencing his samurai training under the auspices of the once-mighty Jimbo (Samuel L. Jackson). However, when Hank becomes embroiled in Ika Chu’s (Ricky Gervais) plans for world domination, things unravel like a ball of yarn under a cat’s claws.

Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank is packed with humor and comments on the serious prejudices that reflect on our society right now,” said director Mark Koetsier (Minions, Big Hero 6, and Madagascar). “The film is intertwined with a lot of love, heart, and hope. We have an incredible cast of actors who bring a unique richness to the characters, each of whom will put a grin on your face and bring a skip to your step.”

Initially conceived in 2010 and titled Blazing Samurai, the film was in the works at Arc Productions when the studio suddenly shut its doors in 2016 - read Toronto Animation Studio Arc Productions Locks Out Staff in Receivership Crisis - before being picked up by Boat Rocker Media. In 2019, Cinesite’s Montreal and Vancouver facilities took the reins, reanimating the production with new concepts, storyboards, animation, choreography, and cinematography.

Check out the breakdown reel, then read more about how the film was produced:

With Cinesite firmly committed to the project, Rob Minkoff (The Lion King, Stuart Little) joined Koetsier as a director; using only the existing animatic, concept artwork, and some 3D models, Cinesite FX Supervisor Chris Kazmier started basically from scratch.

“Rob thought the style previously created felt too 2D and flat,” said Kazmier. “He was much more interested in volumetric lighting and a fuller, richer 3D style. So, at Cinesite, we got to work taking things in that direction!”

“Although much of the rough groundwork was complete and we had some animatics, the work was from many years ago,” noted Cinesite’s Director of Cinematography Olaf Skjenna. “By 2019, many of the ideas behind the film had evolved – not to mention that the creative process naturally changes over time. So, upon receiving boards or a panel, the directors would usually talk to us about how they wanted to update things. It was then up to us to work through that process and deliver the film’s new vision.”

Directors Minkoff, Koetsier, and Chris Bailey brought extensive backgrounds in animation to the project.

“Rob and Mark were 2D animators at Disney once upon a time, so their thinking and ‘draw overs’ on top of production images helped to embellish and evolve the new direction we were to take,” said Jason Ryan, Cinesite’s Animation Director. “Rob’s drawings always pushed the appeal of the characters and strengthened their poses. Mark also storyboarded some full sequences himself. When he did so, he almost animated the characters, so his direction to us as a team was always clear.”

The directors also worked closely with Skjenna on updating the film’s cinematography and provided insight and feedback on every shot and sequence.

“When it came to executing the scene, as we went along, a lot of the shots, we tried to take Sergio Leone’s style of filmmaking,” said Koetsier. “Those really tight shots of the eyes and low camera angles.”

“We spent a lot of time looking at storyboards and discussing them,” said Skjenna on working with the directors. “Once happy, we’d launch on the sequence and think about cinematography, discussing things like the cameras we should use and what movement they should have. I’d pass on Rob and Mark’s feedback to the artists, who could then build out the sequence as a rough staging pass. They’d find the emotion in the framing and context and use that to drive the camera’s language: making Ika Chu look powerful and grand, or Kakamucho feel poorer and more down to earth, for example.”

He continued, “Once we were sure everything jived and the camera movement felt good, we’d present to the directors again. The sequence would then go downstream so the visual effects and animation teams could put the proper action in place, after which we’d pick up the shots for final layout. Through every stage, the directors were there, giving us feedback and making sure everything stayed true to their vision; it was a positive and collaborative relationship – the directors were always open to suggestions, and their feedback was clear and valuable.”

Elaine Martin, Cinesite’s Lighting Supervisor, discussed the early challenges of trying to lock down the film’s aesthetic.

“At the start of production, we didn’t have many color keys or concepts to work from, and what we did have were very monochromatic,” said Martin. “However, the cool thing is that we have a superbly creative and talented team at Cinesite; even without the color key, our artists dove in and started to build out ideas. Also, the directors knew their stuff. They understood the theories behind animation and how to create a strong sense of character. Alongside Rob and Chris, we dialed in the new look. Everyone found their rhythm, and the direction we needed to take became obvious.”

Paws of Fury’s action covers a gamut of character animation challenges. Some shots required the careful timing of slapstick comedy, and others subtle shades of emotional experience, with no two shots being the same.

“All the characters were fun to animate; I enjoyed the Mel Brooks–voiced Shogun, as he has a great energy to his performance,” noted Ryan. “One shot that I remember being a particular challenge was when the ninja cats jump on Sumo. We needed to animate Sumo without the ninjas first! Once the directors approved the animation, we refined the performance and added the attackers – about 50 of them in all.”

Cinesite’s animators approached the movements of the film’s characters by acting out the sequences first and then interpreting those live-action references to drive the more exaggerated animated character performances.

Another challenge faced by the team was the different shapes and sizes of the film’s characters.

“We played a lot with the scale of the characters,” said Minkoff. “Many of the cats in our movie are 10 times as big as Hank!”

Hank posed a challenge with his long torso and tiny legs, and the animators had to make him feel both believable and capable of the physical feats that he performed. Meanwhile, Jimbo, the samurai master, has a broad chest and body, which posed problems when the character had to bring his arms around his chest. (For example, when holding a samurai sword.) Cinesite’s rigging team addressed this by creating a sliding system, which enabled the animation team to slide Jimbo’s arm connection when required.

The world of Kakamucho is influenced by Japanese culture and films set in the Wild West. (Particularly those inspired by Japanese cinema themselves!)

“Working with all these different inspirations meant we got to wear all these different hats,” explained Skjenna. “One minute we’d be making nods to Blazing Saddles, the next referencing Akira Kurosawa or Sergio Leone. We had free rein because we were not limited to one geographical place. Having all that sensory information allows you to cherry-pick different elements and create a new kind of mash-up – although, as Rob said throughout the production, whatever we were doing, comedy always came first!”

A constant theme throughout the palettes is the illustration of the haves and the have-nots - or the Hanks and the Ika Chus. So, whereas Kakimocho exudes a dustier palette and a more Western feel, Ika Chu’s fortress opts for more grandeur and opulent splendor.

“There was a definite choice of their being a literal ‘rich’ color palette versus a dull color palette to reinforce the film’s themes,” noted Martin. “In Ika Chu’s palace, the walls are a deep red; there are a lot of golden patterns throughout and jade statues. We wanted to communicate the vibrancy of those colors so people could feel the character’s richness and power. In Kakimocho, things are more humble and less saturated.”

Lighting was critical in creating the film's tone, differentiating sequences, and emphasizing the performance and personality of the film’s cast. Throughout the film, sequences are lit differently to create a sense of variety and rhythm.

“We strived to make every sequence look different,” said Martin. “One sequence might have a specific color palette, and then the next would go for a completely different mood, which helped create a very dynamic rhythm throughout the movie.”

One example is Hank’s flashback sequence, where the character remembers life before Kakimocho in slabs of vibrant, sharply accented pop-art color. Another sequence opts for a more natural feel, with a backdrop of softly falling cherry blossoms.

“In the sequence on the bridge surrounded by gently shedding sakuras, we went for a pastel look that stands out from the rest of the film,” added Martin. “After all, when you have a scene like this, where the emotional cues need to be happy and cute, you don’t want darkness and shadow – you want everything to feel light.”

In every scene, characters stand out from the scenery, with their distinct silhouettes remaining as recognizable as possible.

“We created a bright, sharp rim light on the characters to detach them from the set, which made them pop from the screen. We also created sharp shadows on the sets,” said Martin. “The result was a distinct look that almost blended the film’s original 2D style with our fuller, more volumetric 3D approach.”

One of the most striking features of Ika Chu’s palace is a colossal golden toilet/throne. At one point during Paws of Fury, this gargantuan latrine suffers a monumental case of blockage and overflows. Jets of toilet water issues forth, burst from Ika Chu’s tower, and cascade down the mountainside with Hank and co caught up in the torrent. The scene is a big narrative beat and required the expertise of Kazmier and the Cinesite FX team to execute.

“The flood sequence required a lot of careful planning,” said Kazmier. “We thought about what we needed to show on-screen – like the different camera angles, the transitions from above water to below water, and so on – and how to make our work cost-effective. We worked closely with the directors, Olaf and his crew in Layout and Jason in animation, to ensure everyone agreed on the approach.”

“Once ready, our FX artists did a low-res pass on the flood’s water movement; this helped the animation team to know where the characters would be and how fast they were moving and work from there,” he continued. “After that, we went in with the full FX. Maybe four or five shots of the flood used a real water simulation. Many other shots featured caches, surfaces, particle combinations, etc., which helped keep a real feel while also supplying us with a level of art direction over the water’s movement. The final scene looks stunning and is a testament to Cinesite’s FX artists!”

Another significant sequence occurs in the film’s third act, in which the inhabitants of Kakamucho go head-to-head with Ika Chu’s forces.

“There’s a lot of action going on in that sequence,” noted Kazmier. “The directors were keen to mirror the atmosphere with the emotion of the scenes, so we had low camera angles, fire, embers drifting around like something out of Gladiator, and a lot of dark clouds. The sequence has a really overcast battle vibe.”

Explaining that the sequence was about communicating the battle’s scope, Skjenna said, “I remember we spent a lot of time finding the staging for this battle – its scale was so large you can only storyboard it to a certain extent, so we spent a lot of time finding the action and getting the camera just right to capture the unfolding story. One thing we added was this huge swooping action camera, akin to something you might expect from a film like The Hobbit.”

The newly implemented Gaffer One was a valuable tool throughout the making of the film, but especially during this battle sequence. The node-based VFX application initially developed at Cinesite’s sister company, Image Engine, enables artists to build, tweak, iterate and render scenes efficiently.

The worldwide COVID-19 lockdown hit mid-production, forcing Cinesite’s animation team to move to a remote work model. Challenged with the new status quo, the team leads had to wrangle whole departments without being in the same location.

“I’m so proud of how the team adjusted to working from home; we just had to make it work, and we did,” shared Martin. “Ultimately, I put our ability to adapt down to the amazing team we have here at Cinesite. 95% of the team on Paws of Fury had worked together for the past four years. We’re a team that’s grown up together and really knows one another. And the handful of people we did hire for this production gelled with the team so well. I’m amazed at how quickly they embedded into our established crew. I could give them notes on a shot, they would action them, and then bam, first pass, approved. Everyone was so professional and talented, and we had such amazing production support, which made my job much easier. The team truly made working remotely on Paws of Fury easy and fluid, despite the disruption.”

Source: Cinesite