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A Year in the Life: Sony Pictures Imageworks Moves Mountains to Produce ‘Smallfoot’

Without the studio’s creative review system, itView, plus a team of 400 artists and Warner Bros.’ decision-making trust, the animated musical comedy might “yeti” still be in production. 

Smallfoot, the new Warner Bros. animated feature film comedy adventure, is a decidedly different take on the legend of the Yeti, a humorous interpretation of how a village filled with the furry critters might view interactions with humans and their freakishly small feet. For Sony Pictures Imageworks, while building and animating a believable Yeti world was a tremendous creative challenge, getting the film made in 12 months, to us outsiders, sounds downright impossible. But, they did it, with the help of their Oscar-winning itView creative collaboration review system, along with a massive team of over 400 artists, and the trust from Warner executives that Imageworks had the talent to help design and finish shots without the traditional, time-consuming review and finaling process a film like Smallfoot would normally enjoy.

For Imageworks, the project began in late 2015, when Ryan O’Loughlin, a DreamWorks Animation veteran, was still attached as director. The studio was looking to make the movie quickly – the mantra of all studios these days -- a theme that continued throughout the film’s ultimate start/stop/start/move-with-haste production schedule. “I took my first meeting for the film in November 2015,” Imageworks VFX supervisor Karl Herbst says. “Ryan was directing. The movie had already experienced a rough start over at WAG [Warner Animation Group] with different production team changes. At that point, we were asked, ‘Hey, if we started early next year, could we rush to get into production as fast as possible?’ And we said, ‘Sure, we'll do whatever we can.’ That turned into us actually producing one of the sequences from the film, the one where Migo [played by Tatum Channing] comes down to the hospital. We made that sequence in 2016. While we worked on that scene, they were still having a lot of story issues and had brought in new writers. But, they wanted to complete that piece to use as a sizzle reel inside Warner. So, we finished it in September of 2016, Then, the movie basically went on hiatus.”

But Herbst and a small team continuing working through the stoppage, designing and testing characters and environments that were sure to be used in whatever new iteration of the story was being developed. “We scaled back dramatically to a skeleton team that continued to work on characters,” he explains. “Warner knew which characters they still wanted in the film, but they weren't ready to say here are all the environments, here's the movie to get started on. So, we continued to do development for characters as much as we could. We did start doing some development on how to approach the environments, using what we learned from the sizzle piece. It was during that phase that Ryan left the film. Karey Kirkpatrick took over as director and was soon neck deep in story. Turned the film into a musical. While that happened, we were able to get going a little bit on the environments. A couple of the main environments were starting to come together, though Karey didn't want to work too much on them until he knew the story was solidifying.”

The production’s most critical challenge, however, was yet to come – could Imageworks make this film in a year? Well, if we put 400 plus people on it and have Warner’s trust to make certain decisions regarding designs and layout, it’s doable, they responded. And that’s what happened. “This production ended up being pretty massive and very fast paced,” Herbst notes. “Bonne Radford [the film’s producer] at one point came to my producer, Skye Lyons, and said, ‘Hey guys, do you think you can make this film in a year?’ And we said, ‘Yeah, but here’s what’s needed to get this done.’ So, in the end, we actually made the film in 13 months. It was incredibly fast. The team was huge. At one point, I think our peak was almost 410 people.”  

Even more critical than a massive team, according to Herbst, was gaining Warner’s trust that the Imageworks team could help design and build all the new environments, even switch them around quickly as story changes dictated, without the normal time-consuming studio review and decision-making process that the new schedule couldn’t possibly accommodate. “Basically, the relationship we forged with the WAG team was, ‘Hey, we're going to co-share in creation of this film…you have trust us that we'll get this movie on-screen for you in the end,’” he reveals. “Karey, Jason Reisig, the co-director, Ron Kurniawan, the production designer, and Devin Crane, the art director, we forged such a great relationship with them. That was the only way we could do it. In a lot of cases, the environments got designed on the fly in layout. We basically built this erector set of pieces we could use, along with a shading system that allowed us to go, ‘Hey, build anything you guys want and we'll make it either rock, snow or ice. We can make this world out of all these pieces. And it doesn't matter which piece you pick. You say you want that shape to be rock, that's fine. Next time, we can make it ice.’ We built all the procedural systems needed to make those switches happen so we could construct these environments very, very quickly. We would quickly do doodles over models, even over shots. The back and forth was very frenetic. It was like that the entire time.”

In 2016, Sony Pictures Imageworks was honored with an Academy Award for scientific and technical achievement (known as a Sci-Tech Award) for their collaborative creative review system, itView. For Herbst, the system was instrumental in the production, providing studio executives, the filmmakers and Imageworks artists with live communication capabilities that made review, comment, information dissemination and recall part of everyone’s daily workflow. “All of our review sessions ran through itView, which stores notes with every clip…we could manage and watch anything that happened throughout the day,” he describes. “Any session we had in the morning, if I forgot a note, I could go back to that session. I could load it back up and squirrel through what was in that list and then find all the notes associated with a given shot.”

“The communication language of a line over an image tells everybody a lot,” Herbst continues. “And so, between conversations, drawings, quick sketches and quickly writing a note on top of something for somebody, we can disseminate notes out to this really large team very quickly. The filmmakers feel like they still have contact with everybody in a way that doesn't make it feel like, ‘Oh, we're just throwing something over the wall and we can't talk to you about it.’ The key thing is that we're live. Everybody's talking to each other all the time, while still being able to do all the drawings. And, all those drawings get stored in that notes system. I bring up a shot and go, ‘Oh, what was the thing Ron drew again?’ I can pull up that sketch, look over the imaging and make sure that information is moving forward.”

By setting up itView workstations for the production executives and filmmakers, Imageworks put decision makers in different locations directly in contact with artists who could act much more quickly on provided input. “For example, I sat in a screening room in Los Angeles, literally with just two other people, because most of our artists were in Vancouver,” Herbst says. “Many of the artists didn’t even leave their desks. They just watched the session on their workstations, wearing headphones and talking into their mics. Everything was very fluid in the fact that you're kind of live all day long when you're doing reviews. We took one of our boxes [an itView setup] and dropped it over in the WAG Smallfoot creative suite. They would watch reviews from there. We also dropped one of those boxes at MPI [Motion Picture Imaging, Warner Bros’ post-production facility], which is where the screening rooms are on the Warner lot. So, Karey, Bonne and their team there could either watch stuff in their suite or on the bigger screens at MPI. The box in their suite was relatively color accurate, but not 100%. When we got into final lighting, they would go over to the MPI lot instead. Karey was only in Vancouver once. Jason actually relocated to Vancouver for maybe nine or ten months. He was on the ground up there supervising the animation, working very closely with Kevin Webb, our animation supervisor. The rest of the film was managed by all of us sort of remotely. And that's how the film got done.”

The other critical area where creative trust led to significant time savings was how the shots were finaled. “Our relationship with the Warner team was so good that many times we would show Karey a shot that was medium quality, and though we still had lighting notes to hit, he would review the work and say, ‘Yes, take it,’” Herbst describes. “I would say 90% of the shots were finaled at medium quality, at which point we would take them to final completion. That let us move quickly because we didn’t always have to wait for refining the final frame because of those last couple of notes. We educated the clients on what medium quality looks like versus high quality, and they got accustomed to what we're going to do to get to that final frame. And, they trusted us to get there.”

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Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.