Animation supervisor Joshua Beveridge discusses bird wings, wolf packs, cutesy babies and pliable characters in Warner Bros and Sony Pictures Imageworks’ new animated family adventure.
Warner Bros and Sony Pictures Imageworks’ new animated feature film collaboration, Storks, is the latest expertly crafted, gorgeous looking and frenetically-paced CG animated movie to hit the local movieplex. Opening in U.S. theatres tomorrow, Storks takes place in a world where our fearless feathered transporters no longer deliver babies, but packages for internet giant Cornerstore.com. When the Baby Factory accidentally produces a cute and unauthorized baby girl, top delivery stork Junior, voiced by Andy Samberg, races to deliver the troublesome kid before his boss finds out. Cue the “fowl” hijinks. Sorry.
Imageworks animation supervisor Joshua Beveridge and I recently spoke about his work on the film, a production that at its height employed 126 character animators alone. He shared his insights on the four main challenges the studio faced from day one: designing featherless bird wings, developing a workable wolf pack rig, designing cute but not cloyingly sweet babies and a lead character Tulip, who was anything but a predictable “animated film” princess.
Dan Sarto: Describe your role on the film. What were your main duties?
Joshua Beveridge: I was animation supervisor on this show. From company to company that titles changes. It's kind of a weird one. Some studios just call it an animation director. Disney calls it head of animation. Basically, I headed up character motion - quality controlled performances of characters. I made sure they would stay in scene, staged, true to the characters, hitting the story points that needed to hit. I was involved early in the project from day one. Actually, from the beginning of the relationship between Sony and Warner Bros.
I made sure the characters were built in a way they could do all of the things they needed to do. We had many unique challenges on this show that needed specific engineering. Basically, if it's the character moving, that fell under my umbrella.
I also was pretty much the liaison between Warner and Sony, making sure that everyone was happy...here are the storyboards, there are the reels…how are we going to get that onto screen, translate a 2D image into 3D in a way that feels true to the source material?
DS: Did you get to work on any animation yourself?
JB: I did animate a bit myself as well. That doesn't fall specifically under my job description. I just feel personally, it’s the only way to keep your teeth sharp. It's too easy to get out of touch - it's not like riding a bicycle. It keeps you honest. I love animating so I did go ahead and work late and put in a couple of shots. But it is nowhere near my full-time job on the show.
DS: At the height of production, how big was your crew?
JB: I believe this was the largest animation crew we've ever had here at Sony. I think that at one point in time we had 126 animators on at once. That's just animators…character animators. That's not including effects artists, hair artists, lighters, TD's and riggers. That's just a single department of animators - 126. Entirely in Vancouver.
DS: What were the biggest concerns or challenges you knew you’d face going into the production?
JB: There were four things that jumped out at me right out of the gate. The first was our bird design, our language of storks, specifically their wings. The face is always a challenge no matter what the universe design rules are. But this one unique thing to our storks specifically was how we were treating the wings.
Much like how you would draw them in a 2D Looney Tunes short, the wings just changed to hands whenever you would feel like it. They went from being a full bladed wing that you believe is flying these characters around, to, it's got a thumb, an index finger, and a pinkie and the arms are just arms that these guys can drink coffee and wear ties with. These are just dudes – we didn't want it to feel like they’re holding things and pointing at things with their feather tips. It's just a hand. We had to find a really fast, applicable way for that to feel invisible. One of the design choices was their wings weren't made of hundreds of feathers. They don't really have feathers.
You don’t question that it looks like a wing because of its shape and because of the look in the film and the material it's made of. It's obviously a wing. If you handle that wrong in animation, it could easily go down a path of looking like this weird, broken bat wing. We ended up finding this principal we called the "not every brick" principal. Like if a kid draws a house, and they want to state that the house is made of bricks, they just draw two or three bricks and you know that whole thing is made of bricks.
That was the same philosophy we applied to our wing shapes. If it has the broad shape of a wing, and it has a few little kisses of detail, the scalloping of edges that feels like a feather, then that whole thing is made of feathers. I don't think that audiences really question it - it just feels like the shape you're used to seeing in drawings. It already has that shape language built into it inherently. Engineering that to actually work in a rig, to do so fluidly and quickly and hit new shapes on the fly was a big feat. It took a whole lot of controls and a whole lot of blood, sweat and tears both by the rigging department and the animation department to pull that off.
That was a fundamental issue we knew was going to be unique that we had to solve no matter how this movie was going to turn out. It's a movie about storks and they're going to be onscreen a lot. We wanted to do something fresh and unique with their wings but not make that something you think about. I'm pretty proud of how that turned out.
Second, one of the more showcased things that Warner discussed right off the bat was the wolf pack. It's a really hard thing to describe and I don't want to spoil too much. Basically, the concept is that whenever the wolves are in hot pursuit, they can just shout out, “Wolf pack, form a…” and then fill in the blank with some vehicle and they all jump into that shape. It's super absurd, very pushed and just an over the top concept that catches most of the audience off guard. Warner was clear from the very beginning that they wanted this to look impressive, something they could brag about.
Plus, it’s only really funny if it looked hard to do. What was unique with that animation is at Sony, we're getting more and more used to creating incredibly pliable characters, really pushing extremely broad expressions - if you can think it you can make it. What was unique to this is it's not just one character, it's 50 to 200 characters depending on what shape they're all jumping into, which becomes this squishy, pliable expressive unit. The trailer shows a wolf pack submarine and you can see that submarine isn't just a submarine. It doesn't become a rigid thing. It's all these funny-faced characters performing within the shape. But, that shape as a group has to read as a nice squishy silhouette as well. Plus, immediately, in one quick beat, you need to read exactly what it is.
I was up more than a couple nights worrying how we were going to actually pull that off. We did invent new workflow and a couple of new internal tools in order to get that going, figuring out a whole constraint and rig swapping system. Usually with big scenes like that, with lots of characters, there's some way you can invisibly split it into lots of tiny things. But, we couldn't do that here because they all had to squish up against each other and they were all interacting with each other. There's no such thing as breaking it into bite sized chunks.
DS: It’s like a big scrum.
JB: Yeah, exactly. The final two that come to mind were more performance related. The third one is about babies. The whole story hinges on you falling in love with this baby right off the bat - the cuteness of the babies has to hit you right in the heart. So much of that was reliant on nailing the baby design. Once we started getting into the baby’s performance, once we felt confident your first impression of this baby was that it looked adorable, it was a big challenge to get into the baby’s thought process, especially for those of us that don't have babies.
We didn't want them to be knowingly cute. We didn’t want them to coyly bat their eyelashes like they know they're cute and they're manipulating us. It just needed to be “cute.” We did lots of research, watched documentaries on babies as if it was wildlife footage, watched animator’s home videos, things like that.
It's too easy to fall into the habit of making them knowingly coy, that sort of Baby Herman intelligence that they put on with the “Goo goo, ga ga.” We wanted to stay far away from that. That works for Baby Herman because he has that other side of his character where he's a gruff, cigar smoking old guy. But our babies are just babies and they needed to relate to parents as, “That's what my baby's like. I know that. That is exactly what it feels.” But it still has to be a cartoon language extraction where it feels simple and not just every little pixel moving with life-like reference. We wanted cartoon language that was relatable, which was much trickier than you might think.
We learned that with a baby, less was more. Letting them live within the design, sitting in a pose where if they move, they move for a really good reason. Since none of us are babies anymore and you can't ask babies what they're thinking, figuring out the reason they're moving was often a challenge. But, it was easy to see when it just felt wrong. Why is that arm lifting, why is that choice being made?
We came up with a rule of thumb where whenever a baby was introduced to something new in the environment, it could react in one of several ways. The first process was fairly familiar: wide eyed staring, just straight absorption that you could stay in for a good long beat, just taking in new information. Then if it didn't upset the baby, they could reach out and try and touch that thing. If touching it didn't upset the baby, then they put that thing into their mouth. That was the normal thought process of how the baby discovered anything. We saw there's a really specific rhythm to that and if we didn't hit that rhythm, it just felt off.
Then fourth would be Tulip herself, our lead actress. We wanted a unique female lead, where she could be broad and funny in an incredibly exaggerated way, staying far away from the princess tropes. She's very much not a princess. This is the antithesis. It was my personal mission to make sure it didn't look like a whole bunch of dudes just animating a girl. We also wanted to really push her range so she felt fresh and unique. Hopefully we ended up landing there. But finding that exact flavor was a bit of a mission. Honestly, so much of that came from the lead actress, Katie Crown. She really, really nailed that character. She was a lot of fun to animate to. She has fantastic timing, really emotive lines. Honestly, the cast as a whole was great but she was always on her game. She was the bar we had to live up to.
DS: Were any new technical innovations or pipeline tools developed for this show? You mentioned the wing rigging as well as the wolf pack formation rigging. Can you tell us a bit more?
JB: Well the challenge it's not like we can buy external software - it's internal stuff. Our wolf tool was a thing we're calling Pack-It, piggy-backed onto a system developed during the recent Alice through the Looking Glass movie. In that film, there were these time characters, a second, minute and hour. The seconds are little tiny robots and 60 of them all together make a minute and 60 minutes all together make an hour. It's so great when something is being developed and the following show gets to pick up on it and bring it to the next level. We'd have been in a lot of trouble if that happy accident hadn't been developed. We got to customize it specifically for wolves.
The idea was we could have hundreds of characters in one file but just have one rig. That only works when they're all the same type of character. Luckily they were all wolves in our case. It's like a game of hot potato - you're just choosing which one ends up with that rig. Switching who gets rigged takes about four seconds, then you update that animation and choose whether that animation you just updated gets propagated to other characters that are relevant or it’s a new, unique thing. That ends up being a huge time saver. You get to keep improving performance, going back and dialing it in. Even with this tool, it was an incredibly laborious process. Each wolf transformation took about a month in animation. This would've been a lot more laborious if we didn't have that tool.
DS: How different was this project from your work on Hotel Transylvania 2?
JB: Honestly, every project feels like it ends up informing the following one in some way. That just seems like a natural order of things. I definitely feel the fact that we've previously made Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Surf's Up and Hotel Transylvania very much informed what kind of movie this was. The Hotel Transylvania films specifically were so pliable, really pushed - Genndy Tartakovsky’s taste is so specific, it demands that in animation, we must be very conscious of what the underlying drawing the character is living in looks like. That often means breaking the rig completely, pushing it to a place where it was never designed to go, then sculpting from there.
That is a whole new thought process we’ve been working on here for the last few years. Animators aren't just moving the bones and controls around - they also end up sculpting and thinking of their performance as a drawing they're living within as well. We end up getting to focus more on performance, acting choices, where we're looking and when. Style is something we think about a lot here at Sony, the ability to be pliable and make the performance feel spontaneous. We don’t have to engineer this expression for weeks or months and then hit it. We can make it happen on the fly.
One of the things that's so great about 2D, one of the strengths of traditional animation, is the spontaneity, the expression that only happens once. It's not like it goes over and over again. The strength of CG animation has traditionally been the puppet stays in form, stays structured. Now that line is getting blurrier and blurrier because we're getting better at being pliable, spontaneous and squishy. We really enjoy doing that at Sony.
This project was certainly challenging - we all were pushed to the next level, but in the way you want to be. It was creatively challenging in exactly how you want to be challenged as an artist. The day to day involved incredibly collaborative teamwork. This was a fun movie to work on, which you don't get to say that about all the films. The relationship that Warner had with Sony, I don't think could have gone better.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.