For head character animator Joshua Beveridge and animation director Zach Parrish, it was ropes, not undersea creatures, that proved most daunting in Oscar-winning director Chris Williams’ highly anticipated, all-new CG animated adventure, debuting today on Netflix.
When Joshua Beveridge first read director Chris Williams’ script about massive, killer, undersea creatures and the valiant warrior sailors who hunt them, the former What If…? and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse character animator was, admittedly, panicked, but not about the larger-than-life horned and hungry monsters that would be front and center and stealing the show.
It was the terrible, the dastardly… wait for it… ropes.
“If you look back and wrack your brain through other animated films, you’ll notice there are not many ropes shown at all,” says Beveridge, who was head of character animation on Williams’ new CG animated adventure, The Sea Beast, debuting today, July 8, on Netflix. “Ropes are a pain in the butt to animate. Ropes contain complex regions of slack that come and go, it piles up, it self-collides, drags against objects around it. It’s hard to keep it looking like rope in animation where there are no real physical properties, and the character has to interact with it a lot. It’s like putting your hands in and out of your pockets or through your hair, those are also incredibly complex things. Rope is just one we couldn’t avoid.”
He continues, “I knew how many ropes we would need to animate on the ship and how many action sequences would drown us if we didn't have a better solution for them. I made a PowerPoint presentation to try to explain to our visual development team what exactly was hard about ropes and why we had to overhaul how we work with them. It took a good six to eight months of development to create a system that we could work with in production.”
A stable and fast rope measurement tool with simulated slack, developed by Sony Pictures Imageworks, was just one of the many new systems created for production on The Sea Beast.
Directed by Academy Award winner Williams (Moana, Big Hero 6, Bolt), the film features a voice cast that includes Karl Urban, Zaris-Angel Hator, Jared Harris, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Dan Stevens, and Kathy Burke. The film is produced by Jed Schlanger p.g.a. and Williams p.g.a., from a screenplay by Williams, and Nell Benjamin. Music is produced by Mark Mancina; Joyce Arrastia serves as editor.
Williams’ story features a young Maisie Brumble, who stows away on the ship of legendary monster hunter Jacob Holland and his long-time mentor Captain Crow. Together, Maisie and Jacob embark on an epic journey into uncharted waters and make history, befriending the most dangerous monster of all.
Beveridge and animation director Zach Parrish, who previously worked with Williams on Big Hero 6, helped lead over 600 artists and production staff into battle with their own monsters in animation – tackling not only ropes, but also constant water movement and facial wrinkles to enhance more mature character performances.
Beveridge says The Sea Beast is one of the most complex films Sony Imageworks has done.
“At least, I believe that’s mathematically correct,” he says. “Every animator that joined, when we would debrief them on all the new stuff, there were a lot of, ‘Wow’s.”
Parrish adds, “It's huge. It's epic. Chris really wanted to push the tone and try to do something a little bit more mature and go for more grounded performances.”
But, as they say, the devil is in the details and for the animators to illustrate effective performances, they had to make sure that the environment supported those performances and made them believable.
“In The Sea Beast, we're on water 75 percent of the time, or something like that,” says Parrish. “It's a lot, and what was so impressive about the ‘Buoy System’ Imageworks created was that it would layer in that on-water motion to a character where you could focus on performance as if it were static.”
To make the film feel like it was actually shot at sea, the team created The Buoy System by starting with an ocean that was already simulated, stripped out any choppy surface details, then building a custom constraint process for animators to triangulate on a moving surface. How much of the ocean affected the animation could then be dialed up and down to taste. This, in addition to working with sailing consultants from Master and Commander, were steps to the team’s goal at “earning street cred with sailors,” as Beveridge says, and creating an immersive story.
“Sometimes the boat was moving like crazy, which we would mimic and pantomime in our video references,” says Parrish, who was frequently diving into his own pool at home to act out drownings or getting in and out of boats. “But there are lots of conversations and quieter moments that still have a little bit of that motion, or they're sitting in a rowboat or something of that sort. And so, because they had the Buoy System, animators could layer that on top and dial that in, focus on a performance, and then fine-tune it all at the end.”
Combining animation with physics, Imageworks also designed a new type of pivoting system called “The Sea Legs,” engineered for standing on moving surfaces like boats and picking up that constant motion. A new rig was also created for the camera to feel like a cameraman was standing on the same deck as the characters on the ship. And, as challenging as it was, Parrish and Beveridge say it was also an awesome adventure in animation tech discovery.
“Working on this movie gave us the chance to stretch just a little bit more something that we hadn't quite done,” says Beveridge. “There’s something exciting about that. I love pushing that needle in our medium.”
He adds, “I don't want to give too much credit to the tools. The tools just make things that weren't feasible, more feasible. But it's all hand-manipulated with an animator making absolutely every decision. There's nothing plug-and-play. But every single advancement in our industry that makes things faster, really just makes it so you can do more stuff.”
“More stuff” such as offering aged wisdom and years in the sun and on the water to The Sea Beast warrior characters by adding highly detailed and in-depth wrinkles to faces like Captain Crow’s.
“The fancy tech that we did for wrinkles on our older characters that we called our ‘crease lines,’ that is something I'm proud of that I think will also have a future use for,” says Beveridge. “I found on Spider-Verse that, once we started drawing for emotion lines, it was so liberating to not have to worry about the grid of topology that's on the character anymore. You can just have creases, wrinkles, a little bit more stress lines, and you can dial it up all over the place.”
He continues, “And, on The Sea Beast, instead of just drawn-on ink lines, we found a way to make them actually be carved in in-depth, so it was more of a sculptural thing. And we actually could move them around totally free of the grid.”
Parrish says one of the Easter Eggs of design in this movie is that those crease lines were also used on the film’s youngest character Maisie, in order to enhance her performance.
“She’s one of the more simple characters as far as being younger and everything,” says Parrish. “But crease lines were still used in a few places on her just because you want her to be simple in form, but then there are moments where you need to push that emotion or push the tension and the wrinkles show up and they're integrated so well that you don't really think about it. We really tried to focus on the relationship building and the character performance, especially in Jacob and in Maisie and in Crow, really getting that character specificity and thinking about the emotional journey that they're on.”
The ropes, the water, the wrinkles, all the small details of an animated film that often go unnoticed are, according to Parrish and Beveridge, vital in getting right so that the large action sequences, where characters are battling on the backs, or in the mouths, of monsters, can shine even more.
“There are so many levels of complication to this film,” Parrish explains. “Thousands of characters in environments and things of that sort, that adds a level of complication. But then there are also shots of one character that were some of the most challenging shots to get through because it had to be the right performance with the right feel of sincerity and depth, and those almost took as long, if not longer, than some of these really big action sequences.”
Beveridge adds, “I think that's why there are so many people involved in the process. There are a lot of gut checks. Every animator is working on their shot and really pouring over it. So, tunnel vision is a constant enemy we're all fighting. There was absolutely a lot of adjusting a single eyelid pixel to the point where it felt like it could break hearts.”
Beveridge says he even took detailed looks at Mel Gibson’s head and neck movements in Braveheart as part of his character design research for The Sea Beast. No detail was left unchecked. “We did talk a lot about Mel Gibson head lobs,” says Parrish. “I don't know if it's too honest to say that we did obsess about everything. And we had a leader in Chris, who also obsessed over everything. If even a wrinkle was out of place, it was noted. And the ship, the water, the ropes, all these things we talked about the most because we wanted things to feel real and grounded and all of that because these little things are actually carrying these characters, whose stories we, hopefully, care a lot about.”
He adds, “And that was true of all the animators. That was everybody's process. People had all kinds of crazy rigs set up inside their homes for making sure it felt like the right weight to a sword or some people had ropes that they set up because they were climbers, and they were hanging off of stuff inside of their houses. It was actually really impressive how into it people got to make sure that it felt authentic. [The Sea Beast] has been the ultimate toy box to jump into.”