Bob Miller chats with the filmmakers of Barnyard to find out what animators do when theyre not being watched.
What do toys do when humans leave the room?
Watch Toy Story.
What do farm animals do when humans leave?
Check out Barnyard.
Its the first animated feature from Omation Studios, helmed by actor/writer/director/producer Steve Oedekerk, best known for Jimmy Neutron, Boy Genius (producer), Bruce Almighty (screenwriter), Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls (director) and the Thumb parody series (actor/writer/director).
Says supervising technical director Jason Barlow, We actually see these characters stand up, hanging on the fence. Hey, howd it go last night? Oh, we had a great time. Great party. Those are the kinds of things that go on so when the humans turn around, they all stand up and theyre now normal everyday characters with human traits.
In the background, we want to see some of these characters doing strange things like tai chi, for example. We want two sheep to give each other a massage. Youll notice a lot of these the second or third time you see this movie. Really, weve taken the background characters for a crowd scene and made them more mid-ground characters.
Our hero is Otis, a rebellious cow who loves to party, hill surf, tease the mailman and does obnoxious pranks along with his misfit buddies. But his dad, Ben, is leader of the farm animals. Ben tries to groom Otis into being responsible. When tragedy occurs, Otis is forced to learn responsibility to save the farm animals from marauding coyotes.
The story is really about Otis and his coming-of-age, Steve Oedekerk says. The idea was a world where when you leave the room, animals stand up. It wasnt even about a barn, where I first got the idea.
I was pitching CG projects before Toy Story came out, and everybody thought I was an insane person, Oedekerk says. For Barnyard, when I first started picturing the characters I really wanted to do it in CG. I really would have gotten this film made years ago, but I got so busy doing movies that we had our demo sitting around for four or five years. I never even pitched Barnyard.
Then, while Oedekerk was producing Jimmy Neutron, Nickelodeon executives visited him at his clubhouse where he showed them his demo.
And then it was just a dance with them, he says. They went, Ooo, we want to do that one next.
Production officially began in October 2003 at Oedekerks Omation studio, located in San Clemente, California. Building their animation crew from scratch, talent had to be pulled from all over the world, namely Brazil, Canada, England, France, Germany, Belgium, Italy, Russia, Bulgaria, India, and Pakistan. Roughly a third trained on the job.
Jason Barlow relates, With over 180 characters to create, develop, manage and troubleshoot, we put together a really bright team of programmers and character riggers to develop a system that runs 24 hours a day.
We kept the animation controls easy. Simple, stupid, fast and efficient rigs [allows] the animators [to give] the best performance. If its not fast enough the animators will complain. Believe me.
Exec producer Aaron Parry says, Its been a great challenge to achieve the scope that Steve wanted, to have a feature competing with the other CG features that are being produced, in not only a very short amount of time, but, be the first startup studio, and come up with tools that can meet and exceed whats available in the industry. These guys have done an amazing job to meet that challenge.
Our biggest challenge has been pipeline, basically, something on this scale, passing it on, says CG supervisor Graham Clark. Its kind of like an assembly line at a car plant. You pass it along from one person to another. He packages it and sends it to the next artist in a way that allows him to look artistically.
Most larger houses have a lot of custom software, whereas were basing the core of our pipeline in SoftImage, which is made in Montreal, Canada. As we grew, we actually started to turn into one of the more larger houses, and base ourselves in proprietary software. Theres always limitations in software, and the director has a vision of what he wants us to achieve. [To meet that vision] we developed a couple of tools here.
One is a hair tool. One of the issues that we have in CG right now is hanging hair, just hanging from the head. Its very difficult to have something that will work dynamically and something that allows you as an artist to control, and so we came up with a system for that. It allows us to apply hair onto a character, and this is unusual; we were able to manipulate the form and length of the hair, so you can change how stiff it is along the length of the hair, just the hair by itself. We were able to give normal hair functionality along with whatever the director wants for the character.
According to Parry, A typical shot in the pipeline moves about six months to get all the way through. [The party scenes] were a little bit longer, given the scope of them. Six to eight months.
Because of the economics that are present in CG filmmaking right now, sometimes a crowd scene lacks energy or you catch the repetition of characters. Steve really wanted to throw a party. Thats the concept behind, why have all these characters? As a producer I went Whoo! 180 characters! But its amazing how we came up with technical solutions to achieve this and support this look. The crowd shots look pretty amazing. I dont think weve seen that energy in CG films at this point.
In films like Shrek, which is very stark in the background, or in Ice Age, you have characters walking around all the time where theres nothing back there, just for production reasons. Here we were with a smaller budget. So we came up with a plan of using motion capture. It was done on Jimmy Neutron with background characters. It was a very low budget film. It looked great where we were trying to get more stuff in. Some background characters would be animating so rough (cause we threw it in quick), and I go, Thats worse than motion capture. And then I thought, Well, motion capture can be a tool for populating the world.
For Barnyards crowd scenes, actors were filmed at the studios own custom-built performance-capture stage.
Its a Vicon system, Barlow reveals. Were running at 120 frames per second, which is what we capture at. Thats typical of most studios. And we have anywhere from a 16-camera system to a 22-camera system setup.
We also have a projection system. We have the skylight blacked out. It allows the director, the supervisors and the actors to see the animation in realtime. Its projected up onto the wall as theyre actually acting out shots in a scene.
Really, its taking all of the talented people that we have here at Omation, putting them into a suit. We normally capture two people at a time on this stage, and we plug that into our system. We brought in some really talented programmers from the stage studios that did The Matrix. They developed a database that allows them to map the animation from the Vicon system onto hundreds of thousands of characters. And we have some ingenious programs that will actually mirror the animation as well. Lets say you do a 100 captures in a day. You can have another hundred by mirroring the animation. The left arm becomes the right arm of a person. You need tricks like that to pull it off.
We can place 30 to over a 100 sensors on any character. For this movie, since some of our characters are much more simpler in nature, we werent doing more of a Matrix or a King Kong movie, where we capture every cell of movement of the muscles. Here we actually do it fast and efficient. We let our animators take it to the next level.
And so, a background animation team enhanced the mocap performances by adding keyframes, according to Parry.
We were able to do the background animation and the principal animation at the same time, so they could really work together on the shots and go, You know, I think were going to keyframe this character but maybe he can do this. I dont know if that amalgamation has ever been done on a shot-by-shot basis. It was really successful, the producer says.
On a case-by-case basis, the voice recording sessions were videotaped to use as reference by the animators.
We definitely take a lot of cues from the voice talent, Barlow says. Here were recording Kevin James on some of the party sequences. He scratches his nose while hes reading the lines. Lets put that into the character. He twitches an eye while hes yelling at somebody; lets put that in as well. The animators do an awesome job.
Barnyards cast is a blend of live-action talent and voiceover specialists, with Kevin James as Otis, Sam Elliott as Ben, Wanda Sykes as Bessy the cow, Andie McDowell as Etta the hen, Danny Glover as Miles the mule, Courteney Cox as Daisy the cow, and Steve Oedekerk as Mr. Beady, Snotty Boy and Snotty Boys father. Cam Clarke (Leonardo from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) voices Freddy the ferret, while Pinky and the Brain stalwarts Rob Paulsen and Maurice LeMarche voice Gopher and Igg the cow, respectively.
In casting his film, Oedekerk says, The first person I had a strong feeling about was Sam Elliott, just cause I felt really, his voice embodied what Ben really was. When I got into Otis, there were only a couple of guys that felt like maybe theyd be fun cows.
I didnt know Kevin James before. I dont even watch his show (The King of Queens) that much. Its just that one of the few times I watch his show, I had always thought he was going to be a movie star, years ago. I just felt like he had our generations Jackie Gleason sort of sensibility. Its fun to see him frustrated. Thats a big deal with leading men. Leading mens roles can be like the most dead, thankless roles because youre reacting the whole time. Jim Carreys figured out a way to swing it around to where hes always doing something. But your normal crew your Tom Hanks how good are you at reacting to a situation thats going on? Kevin has that full magic in him where its fun to watch him struggle with a problem.
The financial model makes it difficult to get [live-action celebrities] to audition because [animated films] tend to pay less than doing live action. Its much less time spent, also. For me, Ill do auditions when Im doing live-action film, but even in live action films, if I just get a sense of someone I know what they do, Ill tend to just cast rather than have him read. In the case of Barnyard, we picked the people that we wanted. Youre always doing a bit of dancing with the studio to get name talent, but, my whole job and goal is to support the film.
As for Oedekerk performing in his own movie, he says, I just fill in the crumbs, thats all. This happened on the film, Kung Pow. I just scratched in the whole movie. And then, when I went to do voice casting, everybody was like, Youre crazy, because of the characters; thats who they are. My stuff kind of happens that way. Were doing a radio play and were casting, and then I just fill in voices, and if theres anything by fluke that comes out particularly good, then it sticks and I go with that.
Rated PG, Barnyards general theatrical release in the U.S. is August 4. But already the property is being produced as a spin-off TV series, scheduled to premiere next year on Nickelodeon, or, roughly 16 months after the movie is released, producer Oedekerk says.
Its a very similar model to what we did with Jimmy Neutron. That was really cool that [Nickelodeon] did that at the time, which they hadnt done before, which was basically planning a larger entity which was do the movie, use the assets for a series, while at the same time [initiate] internet involvement. The same thing with Barnyard. Were doing 13 episodes. [After that] were in the game of how good is it? How much do people love it or not?
Since 1985 Bob Miller has written numerous articles covering the animation industry for publications such as Starlog, Comics Scene, Comics Buyers Guide, Animation Magazine, Animato! and Animation World Magazine. He was storyboard supervisor for MGMs Lionhearts, Courage the Cowardly Dog for Stretch Films/Cartoon Network, Megas XLR for Cartoon Network, and the Say it with Noddy 3D interstitials for Make Room for Noddy for SD Ent. He serves on the board of directors at the International Animated Film Society, ASIFA-Hollywood.