Netflix’s Emmy Award-winning series boasts colorful and emotive CG characters, forgoing the soft, rounded look of cell-shading that’s much easier to produce but not nearly as sharp, snappy, or stylized.
When it came to fleshing out the CG look for Aaron Ehasz’s and Justin Richmond’s Daytime Emmy Award-winning fantasy series, The Dragon Prince, director and executive producer Villads Spangsberg knew exactly what to start with.
“Pretty quickly, we realized that we had to fix the way faces were done in cell-shaded CG,” says Spangsberg. “There’s been a lot of 3D shows in the past, and I personally don’t love the way most of them looked, with the way the CG was blobby, and the way shadows were crawling on faces. So, I found a few examples of very dynamic, brushy toonlines that we could add in to give the characters a more stylish appeal.”
The Dragon Prince, with four seasons released so far on Netflix and three more on the way (release date to be announced), takes on a storybook look as it tells the tale of two half-brother princes and a moonshadow elf who join forces to protect a young dragon – Prince Azymondias – and end a thousand-year-old conflict between the human kingdoms and the mystical creatures of the magical realm of Xadia, their home.
“There are parts of Season 3, in particular, where we have a lot of hand-painted CG sets, to get the brushy, hand-made feel,” notes Spangsberg. “And then we had these sets that were purely DMPs (Digital Matte Paintings), where the only things that were CG were the characters. And that's when the show, for me, stylistically, really gets lifted to another level. A lot of these men and women working on the backgrounds were trained in traditional oil painting and we pulled many of them out of retirement to work on this show.”
But as easily as the environments came together for the crew, Spangsberg shares that the crisp, colorful, emotive CG characters – which have garnered critical acclaim over since the show’s 2018 release – were not as easily constructed to a satisfying result, even after the director’s pitch to use dynamic toonlines.
“We realized that's really hard to do in the computer,” says Spangsberg. “Because, when you're moving the characters and the computer is calculating all the brush strokes and the thickness of the lines, it becomes really flickery. And not in a nice pencil test sort of way. It’s very hard on the eyes.”
The director explains that there had originally been two extreme ways to achieve the stylized look of the CG characters’ faces. One was using the dynamic toonlines and setting up a variety of well-shot camera angles where the light would fall nicely on the geometry of the characters’ faces, but if the character moved even slightly, those toonlines would flicker like sparklers on the Fourth of July. The second way was doing away with the toonlines altogether and having that, as Spangsberg puts it, blobby shading on the faces. The camera could move all over and the team could set up rigs for lighting that would allow light to naturally fall as the character and camera moves. But it wouldn’t look the way they wanted.
“Another thing is, we tend to only animate on twos and threes, when we can,” explains Spangsberg, referring to the quicker-paced movements of the show’s characters. “If you were to do a really slow motion, that's something you do normally on ones, which kind of breaks with the style of the show. So, we always try to do more snappy pose-to-pose movements.”
And the team wanted the look of the characters – shading and all – to be just as sharp and snappy, rather than the typical soft, rounded look that often comes with CG animation.
“It was about finding a midpoint between those flickering toonlines and the blobby lighting,” says Spangsberg. “We had to pick our battles and be realistic, because this isn’t a high-budget show and we had to train 50-60 animators in the beginning. Our solution was to control, by hand, how light would hit the faces of our characters, with no computerization.”
Spangsberg and the team created a “Face Matte” with shading codes detailed with titles like 2AR for a two-thirds neck shadow, 2A for an under-chin neck shadow, 3A for a front-centered face and neck shadow, 4A for a flashlight under the chin kind of face shadow, 4AR for a two-thirds neck and one eyebrow shadow, 5A for just two eyebrow shadows, and so on. There were roughly 13 different coded key sets for face and neck shadows, and it got them the look they wanted, with a minor setback.
“Often, if you watch the show, you'll see that the light direction on the body and hair – which are fully CG – doesn’t always match the light direction on the face,” shares Spangsberg. “You have some shots that are just phenomenal with the way they’re lit and with beautiful, hand-painted backgrounds, and great animation. And then you have the less impressive 20 percent of the episodes that could be a little bit better, but it's not kind of breaking the illusion.”
When it came to the slightly inconsistent lighting, that was a battle the team chose not to get hung up on. Rather than trying to get the most natural lighting they could by compromising the style, their focus was on character design. If it looked good, the natural light direction wasn’t a concern.
“We tried to be realistic, but we always ended up being a bit unrealistic because of how much we did in compositing,” notes Spangsberg. “This show just becomes really heavy in compositing because of all these by-hand elements. You can't just push a button and say ‘render,’ and have the whole scene done. There's nothing like that in this show. We made it very hard for ourselves to make it look really good.”
Spangsberg, who has also been an executive producer on Monkie Kid, Lego Monkie Kid and Lego Elves, says The Dragon Prince is one of the most tedious projects he’s worked on when it came to the visual side of the production pipeline.
“We go more in detail than probably most other shows in lighting, compositing, and rendering,” he shares. “It is very much like an every-frame-a-painting kind of approach. And the production side of this show is struggling with that because no studios that do TV are set up like that. They're all set up that you push a button and then it gets animated, and then you can polish it up a little bit here and there. On this show, you almost had to open up every single shot, and you had to adjust it multiple times.”
He adds, “In theory, having only two tones of shading should be simple. And it’s not like we don’t try to light the scene naturally. But not wanting it to look too CG, having the toon lines, and adding in the face mattes, it gets complicated fast.”
Another complication thrown into The Dragon Prince’s production mix was COVID. Suddenly, all the artists that knew each other and had gotten the hang of the show’s style were all working remotely. On top of that, new artists were added – including people from Malaysia, India, and Berlin – quadrupling the size of the team.
“We initially were all on the floor together in Vancouver and we had a lot of young people on the boards, animation, rendering and production teams, and I was sort of a first-time director in many respects,” remembers Spangsberg. “So, we all had an understanding that we didn’t really know what we were doing, but were figuring it out as we went. But with the few seasons that we're doing right now, the schedule is faster, it’s a bigger team, and it’s all remote. So, the learning curve is bit more uneven.”
Currently working on Season 5, Spangsberg says he, the animators, and compositors are constantly running into new issues every day, but that the upcoming season is still “looking great.” Life has gotten a little easier since The Dragon Prince crew began a new production pipeline as well.
“One of the lighting supervisors came to me one day – it was 9 p.m., we’d had a few beers and were burning the midnight oil trying to make Season 3 look great – and he said, ‘Villads, I will do a full furred character over any toonline characters any day of the week. Toon lines are just killing me,’” shares Spangsberg. “So, we did switch pipelines. Now, for Season 4, 5, 6, and 7, we’re doing most of it in 3Delight and Katana. The characters look more consistent, the pipeline is much cleaner and faster, and we don’t have to go in and fix every line by hand. It’s a massive improvement.”
Without giving away too much, Spangsberg reports that Season 5 will be big and exciting, in terms of both visuals and story.
“In Season 5, there’s quite a bit of rain and water, which is always fun to animate,” he says. “I'm very excited for when that comes out. It’s exciting storylines, and a lot of novelty, a lot of fresh stuff, and all the characters come back. But Season 6…holy shit. It’s very emotional pedal-to-the-metal. I don't want to give too many spoilers away, but there's some crying and anger right out the gate.”
As fans await the upcoming seasons, a fun animation production Easter egg to look for when rewatching Seasons 1-3 is to see how the limited movement during very emotional character moments. If a character is crying, they are standing still. And there’s a reason for that, other than them just feeling stoic and solemn.
“Conveying that emotion in one pose, with 2D tear effects, is hard enough,” says Spangsberg. “But try animating 2D crying on a CG character while they’re moving. It’s insane. Tracking 2D tears on a 3D moving object is tricky and if we can convey the emotion with less movement, that’s the direction we’ll go.”
The art of “strong poses” is a pillar in The Dragon Prince series, where the team lets stances and stares do most of the talking.
“The eyes do a lot of the lifting, and small things in and around the mouth,” notes Spangsberg. “It can be one pose that conveys the conflict and the emotion. But it doesn't need to be overly done. 90% of our jobs for these new seasons was perfecting the choices we’ve made in the past. Unfortunately, it’s a lot of spreadsheets and a lot of me saying the same thing that I’ve already said five times to the 200+ people I’m working with to make sure the show looks cohesive.”
The Dragon Prince’s complex and highly time-consuming pipeline isn’t always the most forgiving, and though mistakes can always be made, they also have to be caught. And on a show so focused on hand-crafted work, there are plenty of times where human errors happen and have to be fixed. And, according to Spangsberg, not everyone is always understanding.
“Someone told me the other day, ‘Villads, you can’t go into detail like this,’ and I was like, ‘To be honest, this show is all about the details,” he says. “The devil is in the details of this show. And you have to get a lot of things right that feel small – like the background being at the right amount of blurriness and depth of field, darkening the foreground character, using the correct face matte, having a little bit of a Vaseline on the lens to create a soft blur because it’s an early morning shot, making sure that the crown is re-toned because it's metal. When you get all that stuff together, it’s just so perfect.”
As a director and executive producer, it’s Spangsberg’s job, he notes, to “try and push as many shots as possible into the top tier without driving too many people insane.” He says it’s the difference between teaching people to compose a shot versus just putting elements on a screen.
“But the mistakes also make it look more hand-crafted, and I had to remind myself, when things looked off-model, that it would be even more that way if it was a fully 2D, hand-animated show,” says the director. “It’s all about making it sing, and adding life to something that’s computer generated. And, when it works, it really works.”
Balancing 2D and CG animation, aesthetically pleasing designs, and also realistic visuals, as well as trying to please fans and the Academy, it’s a lot. And it’s a lot to ask a team to juggle.
“When you’re on a budget and on a schedule, sometimes it’s like, ‘Is it worth going back and opening up that shot just to darken a character slightly in the foreground?’ and honestly, most of the time, yeah, it totally is worth it,” says Spangsberg. “The only thing that sells this show is quality. We don’t have a Lego product line; we don’t have major celebrities driving this thing. What drives it is the quality of the storytelling and the animation.”
The work can be arduous, but Spangsberg notes that the other part of his job is to inspire people to care about the work they do on The Dragon Prince and help them understand why it’s worth so much additional time and effort. Luckily, he has plenty of stories to get his team motivated.
“I had these parents come up to me at the airport and tell me The Dragon Prince made their two daughters reconcile and talk to each other again. I have met fans all over the world who wanted to shake my hand, or give me a big bear hug, and tell me with great passion how much these stories meant to them. People have a really deep connection with this show and these characters. They are what make those long hours worth it.”
He adds, “None of us are getting rich doing animation. We do it because we feel it’s important to tell stories that matter.”