Directors Pierre Perifel, JP Sans and Liron Topaz delve into the making of their CG-animated short ‘Bilby’ -- including the use of the studio’s new Moonray light rendering engine -- in a new exclusive video and accompanying Q&A.
When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade. Or, in this case, Bilby. The second project to emerge from DreamWorks Animation’s fledgling Shorts Program, Bilby was resurrected from the ashes of Larrikins, using characters created for the since-cancelled animated feature that was to be directed by Tim Minchin and Chris Miller inside an all-new story about never giving up.
Making its world premiere in June at the close of the Annecy Festival, Bilby was also selected to screen at the Edmonton Film Festival, the SCAD Savannah Film Festival, and the BFI London Film Festival, among others, winning the Audience Award at the Palm Springs Shorts Fest and Jury’s Choice Award at the SIGGRAPH 2018 Computer Animation Festival.
Set in the Australian outback, Bilby follows the desert-dwelling marsupial Perry through the trials and tribulations of “parenthood” after he saves an adorable defenseless chick from predators and inadvertently becomes her protector. The nearly eight-minute CG-animated short film was directed by animator, storyboard artist and character designer Pierre Perifel, supervising animator JP Sans, and character lead animator Liron Topaz, and produced by Kelly Cooney over a roughly 10-month span.
The dialogue-free short also served as a testing ground for new software that is now in use on all the studio’s animated features currently in production, including The Hidden World, third and final chapter in the tremendously popular How To Train Your Dragon franchise. These new tools include the new light rendering engine Moonray, debris scattering tool Sprinkles, an upgraded wind system for grass and fur developed by Jason Weber, and Locomotion, an animation tool developed by a team led by Topaz for creating cycles of motion.
AWN has a behind-the-scenes look at the making of Bilby with an exclusive new video that shows how the montage sequence in the short film was brought to life, including concept art, animatics, and more. Check out the four-minute video in the player below, and then keep scrolling for our Q&A, which has been edited for clarity and length, with Bilby directors Pierre Perifel, JP Sans and Liron Topaz:
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New DreamWorks Shorts Program Is for the Birds (and Marsupials) --
AWN: How did the three of you come up with the story for Bilby? You had all been working on Larrikins, and Bilby uses some of the characters from that film, but the short is a little under seven minutes so you probably had to come up with some different ideas for it.
Liron Topaz: Correct, absolutely. Even though the character assets were used from the film it was a completely new story. Even the characters’ personalities were changed in significant ways so we could customize them for our film, because we wanted to tell our story.
The original idea for the film was that we wanted to tell a story about a character who never gave up, no matter how crazy and how slim the chances are for him to succeed. We loved the idea of a character who doesn’t give up no matter what, and thought this would be a great attribute for him that people could really connect with.
Once we started, it evolved very quickly into a story about parenthood. All three of us are dads, and we realized that this story is basically about him finding this bird in the middle of the desert and becoming a parent to that bird whether he wants to or not. We loved that idea because as a parent you will basically do anything for your children at any cost. So that was basically what he’s going through. Once he got connected to the bird, he couldn’t stop no matter what.
Pierre Perifel: Exactly. As a dad, or as a parent, we also have the notion that you’re never really ready for it, and at first there’s kind of a resistance from him to actually take care of that baby bird. It slowly grows on him that, among all these adventures that he has to take anyway, that eternal bond between them is a lifelong friendship to the end. That idea of a character evolving into parenthood is really the core of this movie.
JP Sans: What I loved about the story is that it happened organically, in the sense that we had the original idea of never giving up and that organically turned into something much bigger. We’re telling each of our own individual stories within this short, which I think for us made it more successful because we were working on something that we believe in because it’s our story and how we really feel and think about parenthood.
LT: There’s also the friendship that the three of us share. Working on those previous films together, we had a very natural fit between us and a similar vision in our desire to do a short film that was without any dialogue. I think that really sealed the whole thing.
AWN: Were all three of you involved in designing the characters for Larrikins?
PP: Yes. The design itself was probably more me in terms of drawing them, and then Liron and JP worked really hard to take those designs and transfer them into 3D form.
AWN: Several new tools were used to make Bilby, including a light rendering engine called Moonray. Tell us about Moonray.
LT: Moonray is a proprietary rendering engine that we developed at the studio, and Bilby was actually the first testing ground for this tool. This is the first physically-based rendering tool that we’ve ever used. It extrapolates the light and the bounce light and the physics, and everything is physically-based, which is very different from what we had before. Before Moonray, we had to do a lot of cheats to create the feeling of realism, now we have this physically-based starting point to work from.
What I personally love about this short is that they didn’t just go for hyper-realism, but they did it in a way that made it look like a live illustration, which I think is much more interesting. The color keys Richard Daskas, our art director, created for Bilby were so tight, so refined, that basically the lighting department worked really closely to just recreate those illustrations in 3D, which was very successful.
PP: The short film was really the testing base for Moonray, debugging it, fine-tuning it, and making sure that the software would work and that the rendering engine would work later on for all the features from now on.
LT: Yes, all the features are using Moonray right now. So we had to figure out all the problems.
PP: We met with a lot of problems along the way, but would just get in meetings and figure everything out.
AWN: And then there’s another tool for scattering debris called Sprinkle.
JS: The Sprinkle system helps us make the ground a little bit more realistic, or believable -- it adds richness. We had a lot of shots that were really close to the ground, and it was really important for us to be able to art direct what we needed on that surface. The Sprinkle system grabs these predetermined assets that you’ve already created, like little pebbles and twigs and leaves and anything that adds to the environment on the ground, and it’s like a paintbrush but in 3D where you’re painting all these assets on the ground. The whole process is very organic and makes it just that much more rich. It’s great modeling, great surfacing, great everything, and then you have the Sprinkle system on top, it just felt really, really rich.
PP: But it’s in the way that, you know, if you had millions and millions of pebbles, it would be really impossible, like way too much geometry to deal with. In this way, it’s a couple of assets that you just multiply, so it doesn’t add anything in terms of weight.
JS: It felt so much easier with Sprinkles to actually set-dress the ground. Instead of doing it manually, you’re literally paint-brushing the ground. That makes it really, really fast.
LT: And it keeps very artistic for the surface you’re doing. It’s a much more artistic way to do that.
AWN: Liron, you spearheaded Locomotion, which is an animation tool for creating motion such as walk cycles and stuff like that. Tell us more about that.
LT: We wanted to create a system that we could utilize to create locomotion for different characters, but we didn’t want the computer to solve the animation for us. Each character has a very specific characteristic that makes it walk and run and trot in very different ways. So basically, this tool allows us to create the different animations for the different animals and then tailor them together with transitions between the different motions.
JP likes to call it animating by numbers. He could see that the animation is very time consuming, to create everything from the ground up, and you do it every single time that you have to animate that character walking or running. So this is a very efficient way for you to get a starting base, and then you can basically animate the performance on top of it. So you can animate a character walking, and also have it perform and act and react to the surrounding characters and environment.
It was a big time-saver for us and also it allowed us to do all the crowds in the short. We have quite a few of the crowd scenes, with stampedes, or a herd, but we didn’t have anyone from the crowd department so the animators would use this tool to craft these shots, and it was a big time-saver. Now we’re using it for all our new feature films, including How to Train Your Dragon 3.
JS: What’s great about Locomotion is that you can put a character on a path, and with a click of a button you can be like, “Let’s have him walk, let’s have him trot,” then he starts running, then he stops, and all of these just by pressing buttons and these predetermined animations can all stitch together very smoothly so they fit perfectly. Then, if there are any changes to the terrain, or you’ve changed the camera and you want to change where they’re running, you can easily change the curve underneath them and all the animation, all the foot placement, it all just works.
PP: As they go forward.
JS: Yes, it all kind of follows the curve, which is very, very powerful.
LT: One big hurdle for us was how to make sure the feet weren’t sliding. The feet are constantly locked to the ground so we don’t have sliding feet, which was very helpful.
AWN: It almost seems like it mimics an AI tool because you can define the terrain as well as the movement of the character.
LT: It doesn’t have its own brain, so it can’t calculate what it to needs to do, but we’re actually working on a feature for Locomotion that does that. We were able to animate a simple object and have the character follow that speed, but at that point the artist was really the AI -- he’s the one controlling the character but instead of re-animating every single step, he’s using it as like a pallette.
AWN: And, finally, there is also an upgraded wind system for grass and fur.
PP: We have a lot of wind in the final sequence, and we knew it would be very charming in the fur of both animals, but also we wanted the wind to be reflected in the movement of the grass. The question was, “How do you make sure that the grass actually moves in an accurate and satisfying way, and also links to the fur movement so that every time there’s a gust of wind everything moves at the same time and is paced to the same rhythm?”
Character animator Jason Weber developed the tool on his own time, and when he showed it to us we were like, “Yeah, this is exactly what we need!” We asked him if we could push it further and he did it, and he did an amazing job. The system completely understands if there is an object in the path of the wind, and the wind won’t blow with the same strength behind that object. It completely calculates all these elements in the scene so that it feels very, very accurate and makes everything feel very coherent.
LT: The big improvement from what we had before is that this system actually simulates every single blade of grass, with all the grass interacting with each other so that even if the wind was blowing across the wide part of the grass, versus the narrow part, it would react differently.
JS: The development of all these tools was really driven by the story we were trying to tell. The Sprinkle system was developed because we wanted the cameras to go really low on the ground and we needed that level of detail. And the wind, especially in Act Three, was a huge factor in the story.
It was a big part of the storytelling, setting us up for what’s about to happen, and we needed to make sure that the wind, the grass, the fur -- everything -- was synchronizing together. The wind is almost like a character because it’s foretelling the story in that sense.
AWN: Let’s talk a little more about what went into developing this illustrative, stylized look for Bilby that still has this incredible level of detail in it.
PP: One thing that really played in our favor is how bare the environment is. When we started storyboarding and previewing the movie we realized that it was really cool to do very simple graphic frame compositions, with just a simple horizon line, or a very graphic-looking cliff with some clouds behind it.
Then our art director, Rich Daskas, came in, and he’s using these very iconic colors for the backgrounds that allow the characters to stand out. So there’s Bilby, who is blue, and the white fur of the bird set against the red earth and the blown-out sky. The idea is that the red is heat, it’s very dangerous. You see the red environment, and you know they don’t belong. Then, in the last sequence where it’s all coming together, he’s blue against the blue sky, and she’s white against the white clouds. It made everything very illustrative.
JS: There was something about the graphic nature of the shot that we wanted to keep. How simple can we make it? How can we use the scene to tell the story? It all started from the designs for the characters. Everything talks to each other in animation -- design, music, editing, camera work, all of it uses the same language. That’s when everything kind of clicks. Every department’s talking to each other.
From the character designs, to the art direction, to even the animation, the question is how we make a believable performance where audience can really connect with these characters emotionally and what they’re going through, but also make it graphic enough where it can be very entertaining and appealing. So there’s that balance that we’re very conscious of.
AWN: The film had its debut at Annecy, and the three of you were there. What was that was like?
LT: The first time I heard of Annecy I was 12 or 14 years old, and it was always kind of the Mecca of animation. All my life I wanted to go but I never had the chance, and to premiere our film there meant so much to me. Having everybody from the animation industry there and to be able to show our film in such an amazing event was really, really meaningful.
PP: Being French, this was a very proud moment for me. I went to Annecy for many years in a row as a student, but the last time I’d gone was about 12 years ago and I was very humbled and intimidated by all the professionals there. Coming back 12 or 13 years later as a filmmaker from a big studio like DreamWorks was stark contrast. It was really, really, really fun.
JS: It was one of the best audiences that we could think of. We’ve had some great screenings, and they all have their special moments for us, but Annecy was very humbling because I remember being a student seeing films like this and being like, “Man, this is what I want to do. I want to do that!”
Hopefully we can inspire students and other people with our film, but we’re also trying to share our work with our fellow filmmakers. We make these films to show the world the stories we’re trying to tell, and hopefully connect with the audience. We want to make these to showcase them, for people to fall in love with our characters.