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'Open Season' Diary: 2D to 3D — Production Design

In the fifth Open Season production diary, Sony Pictures Animation chronicles various production design challenges and the crucial influence of artist Eyvind Earle.

From the AWN/VFXWorld Exclusive Open Season Diaries.

Eyvind Earle took the background out of focus and put all the attention on the characters. All Eyvind Earle images ®, © Eyvind Earle Publishing L.L.C; Open Season © Sony Pi

Sony Pictures Animation established from its inception that it would have no house style in its animation techniques or its production design. That freed the filmmakers of Open Season to develop their own look, driven by the story, its characters and their own imagination.

The studio could not have found a more enthusiastic director than Jill Culton to be part the team to bring the story of Boog and Elliot to the big screen. A self-described nature girl, the story and setting of the film were perfect for her tastes.

In the early days of production, Culton needed to look no further than her own backyard in northern California for inspiration for the look of Open Season. Residing on a former turkey farm, Cultons surroundings literally provided the creative inspiration for the look, tone and style of Open Season.

In fact, on one rainy night in Cultons living room, she and co-director Anthony Stacchi were flipping through a Christmas card book of one the 20th centurys most celebrated artists, Eyvind Earle. They brought that book and many others by the artist back to their offices. The visual development department created a variety of reference artwork, some inspired by Earle, and some by others, but the directors kept honing in on a certain set and back to the style the remarkable Earle.

Earle was born in 1916 and sold his first watercolor to the Metropolitan Museum of Art at age 23. In 1951, he began working at Walt Disney Studios as a background painter. There, he created the avant-garde look for Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom, an Oscar-winning short, and created the painted backgrounds for Peter Pan, Lady and the Tramp and many other films. He was also a color stylist for Sleeping Beauty.

In the 50s at Disney, economy was key, so background painters introduced techniques and styles that would focus on characters. Basically, Earle took the background out of focus, which implied depth, and put all the attention on the characters. In other words, he pushed backgrounds into the essence of the environments.

The Open Season art department and visual development crew, led by production designer Michael Humphries, senior art director Luc Desmarchelier and art director Andy Harnkess, certainly had their work cut out for them. Taking their cues from Culton and Stacchi, they set out to create the world of Timberline, a stylized and whimsical place with striking shapes and graphic lighting. The end result and template, which Humphries and his crew eventually turned over to Imageworks, was truly spot-on with Cultons initial direction.

The Imageworks team lead by visual effects supervisor Doug Ikeler picked aspects of Earles artwork that fit the overall goal and then considered how to integrate the best and most familiar aspects of 3D. They decided to add texture and reality in the hair and other surfaces. Also, although it was important to focus on the characters, the environment still had to be rich. At first there was no intention to create realistic fur in order to keep in line with a more graphic look. Then the initial look development demonstrated a full detail furred render that the team all agreed looked great.

When the fur became more realistic, it elevated the amount of details required to integrate the backgrounds, textures and paintings. But even so, Earles influence still shines through in the character design, the shape language of the film and in the way he focused the viewers eye.

Imageworks Doug Ikeler picked aspects of Earles artwork (top image) that fit the overall goal. Earles influence shines through in the character design, the shape language of the film and in the way he focused the viewers eye.

Director Culton is a traditionally trained animator and wanted a cartoony style of animation, close to the old Warner Bros. style with exaggerated shapes, squash-and-stretch and snappy animation. This graphic, old-style animation utilizes many drawing oriented principles, such as straights and curves, which basically refers to incorporating straight lines being contrasted by sweeping, curved lines to achieve an appealing overall design, or squash-and-stretch to punctuate a snappy move or a character moving and stopping quickly or smears to accent a characters most broad, fast motions. Trying to achieve this style of animation in CG presented some interesting challenges that had to be overcome. One was how to essentially sculpt the characters silhouette without destroying the rig. Another was, since the silhouette-sculpting process was so camera specific, figuring out how to make sure all the work done to achieve a silhouette was maintained throughout the pipeline.

The shape language describes the style used for the geometry created for natural environment, the town and the characters.

The trees best describe the shape language for the natural environment. In the original artwork, the silhouette of the trees was very important, since the trees were very angular with sharp edges. A pine tree at a distance looked almost like stacked cones; the pine needle detail was all in the interior. A great effort went into populating the forest of Timberline.

A particular favorite of the directors are the golden aspen trees, which proved especially challenging when it came time to translate the design and look into 3D. Ikeler and his team created about 18 various tree designs in all. By changing the shape and scale and by rotating and tilting placements, the crew was able to recreate a sort of chaos found in nature.

Golden aspen trees were a particular favorite of the directors. The vfx team created 18 various tree designs and by changing the shape and scale, the crew recreated the chaos found in nature.

The crew at Imageworks spent three months creating the first tree; but that tree became a template for how to translate the stylized trees in the artwork into 3D models. The Douglas fir pine tree had swoopy layers of branches, but the edges had a Christmas card tree look with stacks of interpenetrating cones on the outside and needles in the middle. Painting a cone-shaped tree with a pine needle texture and a smooth profile was easy; creating that same look in 3D was difficult. When the camera moved, the pine-needle texture roughed up the smooth edges. To solve that problem, the Imageworks crew put each clump of pine needles on a card and fashioned the cards into the shape of a tree. As the camera moved around the tree, the layered cards moved so that they were flat against the contour of the underlying structure.

One of the most crucial elements for the trees was integration into the 2D-styled world. Trees are a very large part of Earles shape language. Subsequently, the matte paintings revealed some very simple shapes for tree profiles. Imageworks came up with a library of tree types, ages and levels of detail that would vary based on proximity to camera, proximity to matte paintings, size in frame, directors compositional notes, etc. This allowed a more seamless blend between the highly detailed close up trees and the distant background card trees, which better matched the matte paintings.

Ground cover was hugely important to the directors too. They wanted a rich, lush, detailed environment when seen up close. On any shot, the directors might have decided to move or add ground cover; they wanted control through the final composition. So, Imageworks dedicated a team of between 15 and 20 people to landscaping the ground, which could be created on a per shot basis. The team created five different ground types: pine needle cover, grass cover, dirt, clover and dead grass. Painted maps defined what ground type went where. When the camera came close to the ground, a particle-based system added further details.

In addition to using a flat shader and texture maps to create the ground, the team created a library of supplementary ground dressing using 3D rocks, mushrooms, leaves and a wide variety of flowers and plants. They also integrated a tree root system into the ground. To accumulate elements in particular areas and hand place elements, the crew developed a General Instancing Tool named GIT. With GIT, artists could dot the ground with static particles or even simple sprites that would grow these 3D elements: that is, cards with such elements as painted flowers or grass.

Earles influence (top image) extended to ground cover, which was hugely important to the directors. They wanted a lush, detailed environment. An Imageworks team dedicated to landscaping created on a per shot basis.

The highly art-directed environment needed a quick iterative process to mock up the placement of this detailed ground cover, pre-rendering. The shot manager would forward a simple Maya render from the shot camera to the art department. The art department would paint over quick representations of what ground cover went where directly onto the Maya image. That image would then go to the GIT artist and would instruct the artist to paint maps and make datasets that described what plants and what cover went where. These maps and datasets would then go back to the shot manager who would render out the newly populated environment through RenderMan. This circuitous route was only needed once and kickbacks were seldom.

About 20% of the action in the film takes place in downtown Timberline, which has been described as Northern Exposure meets ToonTown. For Timberline, Ikelers Imageworks team used what they called the wonky factor. In wonky land, there are no parallel lines in the non-organic shapes, no perfect squares and no perfect triangles. A series of concrete steps would use different thicknesses for each step, and the steps would not be aligned.

In Timberline, because the camera primarily stays on main street following characters in the cars, modelers created background buildings without small level detail. They kept the buildings simple and made the scale look odd, which fit the style. Modelers created libraries of such architectural elements as windows and doors that they stretched and scaled for the buildings. Painters created wonky textures that had non-square bricks and exaggerated shapes. Textures sometimes needed to pinch to fit on the side of a parallelogram, but that fit with the look.

Shaw's Lodge (the villain's lair) represents this wonky factor taken to a moody, extreme level: textures are dark and messy; some surfaces and walls suddenly end; uneven, straight lines clash against strange curves; boxes and mysterious shapes pile up randomly on the floor. Most disturbingly: his cellar is littered with randomly hung animal pelts which creates the film's most tense moment as Boog mistakenly negotiates this maze of jagged silhouettes.

For downtown Timberline, the vfx team used the wonky factor: no parallel lines in the non-organic shapes, no perfect squares and no perfect triangles. Also, buildings lacked detail and were kept small and out of scale.

The other human characters throughout are also a little wonky, with exaggerated proportions. The females have elongated faces and except for Shaw, the villain, the males are rounder.

In animation, color is often used to take the audience on an emotional journey through the story. Each sequence of the film had a color palette that the matte painters and lighters used. Lighters controlled the colors in the background and character shadows so that background elements would complement the matte paintings and all the focus would be on the characters. The contrast between characters and environment needed to striking without being too over-the-top.

The design team ultimately wanted to create a believable world a world that was stylized, sophisticated and fun all at the same time!

Various artists at Sony Pictures Animation, who worked on Open Season, have contributed to the writing of this series of production diaries on the making of the film.