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Embracing Change in 'The Croods'

The directors, head of character animation and VFX supervisor describe the making of the latest feature from DreamWorks Animation.

The Croods. All images © 2013 DreamWorks Animation LLC. All Rights Reserved.

"You can't hide from change -- it finds us all," suggests director Chris Sanders about The Croods, an "adapt or die" caveman road picture that extends the naturalistic look achieved on How to Train Your Dragon.

In fact, the art direction, lighting and surfacing were more realistic to give it more weight and believability. At the same time, the Zion National Park-inspired landscape and strange floral designs and hybrid creature designs seem alien.

Early visual development.

"The reason was to get the audience in the same mindset as the cavemen," adds director Kirk DeMicco, who conceived of the story with John Cleese back in 2005 when it was a DreamWorks/Aardman co-production.

"We went through a great deal of trouble to build a brand new world where people didn't know what was going to be around the next corner," Sanders adds.

Veteran animator James Baxter, who served as head of character animation, says the Crood family (led by Grug, the dad, voiced by Nicolas Cage) was made to look simian, while Guy, the forward-looking outsider (voiced by Ryan Reynolds) was more of a regular-looking guy.

"Ultimately they are more animal-like than he is," Baxter explains. "They will put their hands down on the ground in a loose way, or go down on all fours every now and then. We wanted them all to have animal characteristics, so Grug moves like a gorilla and Eep [Emma Stone] is more like a jungle cat; and Gran [Cloris Leachman] has her crocodile moments.

They tried to infuse their physicality in the way they hold their hands and feet, including the angles they chose for them to stand in. For example, they turn their feet in and the souls of their feet sideways when they walk.

Meanwhile, the creatures were designed as evolutionary dead-end hybrids. But the biggest concern was trying to figure out how crazy they should be. Early on it was so extreme that the animators thought they were aliens. And so they didn't want to mix up body types like a mad scientist invention. The combinations were rationalized in a bizarre way. The Turkey Fish is a bird that happens to look like a fish. Chunky, the Macawnivore, is a big cat with a giant head and silly fur. Douglas, the crocodog, is just a big mutt.

The latest development at their disposal was an individual sculpting tool that deforms any part of a character beyond the normal rigging capabilities. "It helped us grab and squeeze," Baxter continues. "For instance, to bulge muscles. The walking whale also had a lot of sculptors put into it so it would puff out and squeeze and blow air out of its blow hole in a more convincing way."

There were a lot more VFX advancements, overseen by supervisor Markus Manninen. "We wanted to bring the tangibility of physical lighting to help ground it and to make it seem like real consequence still exists for the characters," Manninen explains. "We could still exaggerate the world but make it fun and inventive."

DreamWorks has been using point-based global illumination (PBI) for several years and has honed it to achieve more traditional lighting. "We were looking for better techniques to do soft lighting," Manninen adds. "Not just sun but the whole sky becomes a light source.

The R&D department took PBI to the next level by adding glossy reflection to it and built a lighting paradigm, which was a giant leap. This was a new lighting approach based more on tangibility and predictability. This allowed them to normalize materials so that every asset would behave the same in any lighting condition. Instead of the sharp specularity you get from a point-based lighting source, you get a much softer and realistic look with glossy reflection.

"So the family really felt like it was in a cave because you could see reflectivity come not just from a source but literally from the floor where light was streaming in softly and it placed everything in the same environment," Manninen continues.

The behavior of fire, depending on how a character interacted with it, was crucial. And when you look at a character's skin and the broad sheen that the fire created, it really emphasized the heat. There were improvements in surfacing overall to get more detail.

When it came to VFX, they reserved a lot for the big finale, developing a pyro approach to make the destruction of the world through this traveling cloud look big with massive amounts of data. "We modeled it very roughly but had to figure out new ways for matte painting because the effect would travel across it and we needed more detail," Manninen says. "We baked those maps onto the geometry and then effects had the ability to break down that geometry so it became a visual effects approach (using Nuke)."

So when it came to the tar sequence, they didn't treat it like an effect but more of a low-tech approach. It was truly both a cloth sim and deformation animation. They used Ncloth for the pulling and motion around the characters, with a sculpt of animated wrinkles close to the body contact. They added Houdini fluid solve for the waterfall with extra noise added via deformers. Bubbles were cloth sims that were moved around and placed in the shots. Then all of the individual parts would go back through Houdini to put out one large piece of geometry.

"I would say 40% cloth sim; 60% deformation animation," the VFX supervisor explains. "The Ncloth sim was so tweaked, it almost turned into a soft body solve."

"These types of stories where you have real people in extraordinary situations are my very favorite," Sanders concludes. "They run around and crash into things because they're cavemen and their world is very hostile, but we had to strike a delicate balance because we needed the audience to sympathize with them and like them at the same time that these characters needed to be believably in opposition to each other."


Bill Desowitz is former senior editor of AWN and VFXWorld, the owner of Immersed in Movies (, a columnist for Thompson on Hollywood at Indiewire and author of James Bond Unmasked (, which chronicles the 50-year evolution of 007 on screen, featuring interviews with all six actors.

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Bill Desowitz, former editor of VFXWorld, is currently the Crafts Editor of IndieWire.