Veteran Sony Pictures Imageworks animation supervisor riffs on designs, characters and production complexity on Disney’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’ fantasy adventure sequel.
Despite a less than stellar theatrical run and more than a few critical pans, Disney’s recently released Alice Through the Looking Glass, a sequel to their 2010 hit, Alice in Wonderland, certainly pushed Lewis Carroll’s whimsical fantasy world to dizzying and dazzling new visual heights.
Directed by James Bobin and produced by Tim Burton and Joe Roth, this latest Alice fantasy adventure integrated a slew of complex animated effects with a large cast of digital characters and environments even more complicated than its predecessor. Back again handling visual effects, as they had on the first Alice film, was Sony Pictures Imageworks, led by Oscar-winning VFX supervisor Ken Ralston and Jay Redd, who brought in Imageworks veteran Troy Saliba to supervise the animation.
In a recent conversation, Saliba, the animation supervision on Oz the Great and Powerful, discussed his work on the film, sharing insights on the animation production challenges as well as the innovative way his character animation team helped the FX group create the Oceans of Time and other key effects.
Dan Sarto: So tell me about your role and scope of responsibilities on the film.
Troy Saliba: Sure. I'm the animation supervisor on the movie. On a film like this, that role tends to expand a little bit because it's not just a matter of working with the modelers to build the assets and then working with the animation team to get the shots through the pipe. There’s more involved when you're working with a director [James Bobin] that's used to shooting things live, especially his grass roots work on Da Ali G Show and projects like that, where they shoot a lot of stuff and then cut it together to build their property.
With a movie like this, as Jay [Redd, the film’s overall VFX supervisor along with Ken Ralston] said, you like to plan the heck out of it and then shoot it and then you get what you planned. But it never goes like that. You get on set and people jam and they come up with creative ideas and you do things on the fly and the editor's sitting there at a table with a bluescreen going, “What do I have here? How do I cut this together?"
You're working with your creatives, your director, your editor and producers, trying to talk them off the ledge and help them visualize how what they shot can turn into the movie they have in their heads. That often involves doing drawings for editorial so they have something to comp in and cut in with their actors on a bluescreen. Often, characters either get left behind by the art department or invented after the art department is gone. So you end up doing character designs and helping invent characters from scratch.
Long before any animation is done, you're still trying to build the movie from the ground up and figure out what it is after you shoot. That's kind of what much of the work has been – the rest of the job I think is more what you'd expect. It's, like I said, working with modeling and animation and just getting through the huge body of work. Lots of characters, lots of scenes.
DS: How much are you going back and forth with the director, the art director and production designer with regards to designs? What do you have to work with? How much are you developing on your own?
TS: We got a lot of great designs from the art department. Mike Kutsche [one of the film’s character designers] does a lot of beautiful work - his designs are all fabulous. When he's gone to the trouble of doing something, it's usually a pretty solid design. The modeling team will just tweak it on a subtle level to make sure that we can perform in the way we need to, that the design feels like the character but can work in our world.
Sometimes, the designs we get are a little bit more vague. They'd be sort of an essence of an idea that the director likes. We have to figure out a way to get that idea to work, to get in and do some drawings and try to steer the director towards a more specific idea. Then, we go in and work with modeling from there. I'm involved in every stage of that process because as the work gets into our department, I want to make sure it's something that we can work with.
Let’s take a character like Wilkins, this little mechanical guy, who is Sacha Baron Cohen's right hand man. The design we received from the art department was really solid so we tried to stick pretty close to it. We just made some small changes to the mechanics so they made a little bit more sense. We added some grooves to his forehead for his eyebrows to travel in so that they moved in a linear manner, which affected his performance in a neat sort of way. Sometimes we discovered things like that as we started building characters. At a glance, it looks like the same character. We tried to stay pretty true to it because the design was really great.
DS: Are you primarily working on character animation? Are you also involved with any art direction of the simulations or other environmental or effects animation? What's the scope of the stuff your team is working on?
TS: Normally, my focus is on the character animation. But in this movie, there are two big visual effects that are a little bit more character-driven than what you'd normally expect. One of them, the rust, is more obvious. I'm guessing Jay explained to you the different aspects of time travel -Alice steals this time machine from Sacha Baron Cohen's character, and the more she travels in time, the more broken time gets, the more it breaks down. By the end of the movie, the world starts to rust over as time decays.
This rust is a little bit sentient, and has to be staged very much with what the characters and camera are doing. So animation was involved in animating curves across the environment and characters to lead the camera. We had to get the director to buy off on the timing so that where these curves went was roughly where the rust was going to be. They were just simple curves, little noodles. They were actually modified spider web rigs that we had from previous movies, as you can imagine.
Anyway, we would animate various curves, multiple curves, to show the main thrust of where the rust was coming from. That way, we could stage the characters and camera and get buy off from the director on what we built. That meant the FX guys weren't doing all that R&D with their expensive procedures - they would use those curves as the basis to run their sims off of.
The other one was the Oceans of Time. When Alice is in the Chronosphere and starts traveling through time, she goes through this kind of limbo, which is called the Oceans of Time. It's like an ocean surface on the top and bottom. You fly through the middle, and on the surface of both these oceans there are memories - she'll see a memory and fly into it. There was a lot of staging with the camera and characters, and sometimes rust was involved in that as well.
It got a little too in-depth for the layout department to do on their own, so animation was asked to step in and rough that stuff out. They built a dumbed-down version of the water sim surface in Houdini that animation could work with and manipulate slightly, in addition to staging the camera, the Chronosphere and these waves. Our goal, again, was to get buy off on all of this as cheaply as we could in animation, get the director and the editor onboard with how we built those scenes, and then move the work into FX. They’d go back into Houdini and whatever other tools they needed. I don't claim to be an expert on the magic that happened once it went back into FX, but they would use what we did as a foundation for their work. We were much more interlinked, the animation and FX departments, than we normally are on a film.
DS: Were you able to use any of the assets from the first Alice film?
TS: Yes, but they all had to be updated because our pipeline grows and changes with every project. Some of them had to be reworked quite a bit, but yes, we started with all the assets from the original movie. Some of the models only needed slight updating.
DS: Did you have to share any assets with Double Negative [the other VFX studio handling shots on the show]?
TS: We shared a couple of the characters, but they were just secondary characters. They did some work with some of the frogs, the fish, things like that, but nothing with hair because the R&D on that would have been too much. They shared with us some of the animation of the frog and the fish from some of the Wit's End scenes.
DS: During the busiest part of the production, how big was your animation team?
TS: I think we peaked at just over 50 animators.
DS: And how long were you on the project?
TS: I got on just after Jay, so I was on for pretty much two years on the button. The animation schedule wasn't two years. I came on during pre-production, then we did the shoot and then animation ramped up after that. The animation team started out small, as the work was coming in from editorial at a trickle - the team built up to 50 by the end.
DS: Were there any new pipeline enhancements, technical innovations or production tools that were developed for this show?
TS: I'd say the biggest new tools were the ones we developed to deal with rust in the Oceans of Time, as well as the Oceans of Time itself. That was a big learning curve. We actually had to come up with an Oceans of Time team that was trained up on the tools to deal with the waves and sequencer tools - instead of doing one shot at a time, an animator would be given a chunk of a scene and do all the cameras in one file so that the continuity worked from shot to shot, making it technically possible to do all that in a timely manner. That was the biggest curve.
Character-wise, our tools, like I said, they kind of constantly changed, but nothing really earth-shattering there. Kind of what we're used to, but the Oceans of Time and the rust were the biggest new things we had to learn. Tools were developed especially for both of those.
DS: Over the years, you and I have talked about a number of projects you've worked on. How did this project compare to previous big projects where you also handled animation supervision?
TS: Well, it's funny because the last project I was on was probably the closest one to this, which was Oz the Great and Powerful. This one I think in scope was a little bigger, especially because of the Oceans of Time and rust, things like that. I think there were more characters, and the volume of work on this was bigger than Oz. On Oz, you had the monkey and china doll, which were two of the main characters, that had a lot of interaction with the actors, whereas this one had elements of all that. On Alice, there was lots of character work, but there were more main characters, there were more background characters, and the film was just more epic in scope. There was some of that on Oz. We had the battle of the baboons and things like that. It was definitely a big movie. This one just felt like it was ratcheted up a notch. Like Jay said, certainly by the number of shots and the complexity, this is the biggest thing we've done.
DS: What were the biggest creative challenges you faced with regards to the animation work?
TS: I think aside from the tech challenges with the Oceans of Time -- which was one of the biggest things we had to muscle through – there were two other challenges. First was the Tea Party scene, because that was a scene that animation had to get involved and help build. You had Sacha Baron Cohen and Johnny [Depp] riffing off each other and there was some humor there, but as far as how the Wonderlandian characters would fit into that, that really wasn't visualized with what came out of the shoot. Our work started with helping editorial with drawings, and then also just doing early blocking tests.
Thankfully, our editor was very collaborative - he would give us a rough cut and then we would be able to ask for, "I need three more seconds on this shot," or, "How about if we added a shot in here to get this gag playing?" There was flexibility to help integrate the characters into that moment a little bit more, to make them part of the humor as well as expand the humor. That creatively was one of the biggest challenges, to make the characters more involved and integrated into what Johnny and Sacha were doing. That was a long scene. We went away and came back to that scene three times in different points of the day. Creatively, that was a big challenge.
The other big creative and technical challenge was the Seconds, which are Time's helpers. We're not allowed to say minions, because we don't want to be related to the minions. They're [the Seconds] basically all the little mechanical helpers that help Time maintain his Fortress of Time and the Grand Clock, all of that. They each had to have their own personality. They had to move in an individual way so when you saw them in silhouette, you could tell one from another.
But, there was also the challenge of having them assemble into the Minutes and then ultimately into the Hour. There's, I think, five or six shots of the Minutes and Seconds coming together to make this giant creature.
That was a challenge because they [the filmmakers] never knew what that was going to be until the end, so we didn't get to plan some sort of well thought out seamless pipeline for this to happen. It ended up requiring a lot of last minute improvisation and inspiration trying to find a way to make this look dynamic with that Jules Verne-ian Victorian feel to it, where it didn't feel too slick and modern. It had to feel kind of clunky and steam-driven. That was a huge, huge challenge, and ultimately came out looking really cool. Those were the big challenges: the Tea Party, the Seconds turning into the Minutes and Hours, and then the Oceans of Time.
DS: These films are so big. They're so much work. There's never enough time. To outsiders, it seems almost insurmountable, yet you always get it done. When you look back on this film, were there any points in time where you took a moment and said to yourself, "This is just really, really cool"? Some scene came together that just made you reflect for a moment and say, "This is why I'm doing this?"
TS: Yes. I don't mean to be cliché, but it's those three things I just mentioned - they were three of the toughest things I’ve ever done. And one of them was built over a long period of time. The Tea Party was something we would get in chunks from editorial and help them sculpt, and that happened over a long time.
Oceans of Time was something, again, that was really complex, but it was also kind of ethereal, so by the time everyone figured out its place in the movie, we weren't left with a lot of time to figure out what it was going to be, what it was going to look like and how we were going to actually get it done. Again, we had to come up with a crack team of animators to work with the effects guys and figure out a way to practically and creatively make this happen. The effects guys spent months and months and months figuring out, lookdev-wise, different avenues to go down and what that was going to look like.
By the time effects and editorial came to a spot where it started to gel and look like something, it then required a massive effort to push the work through the pipe and actually have it feel cohesive. There was a point when we were really digging our heels in on this, where we were like, "I don't know how we're going to do this, let alone how we're going to do it on time." So when we got that done, we were like, "Wow, not only can we do it, but it looks really amazing."
The assembly of the Hour was something that was really left to the eleventh hour. Going into that, we were like, "Wow, this is one of the most complex problems and we're leaving it until we have almost no time left to do it." That was another one where I was like, "Oh, we've got to figure out a way to make this not feel like something that was a last minute addition." We wanted it to feel like something that was designed and cohesive, and again, I had to cordon off some people and make it a specific problem for them to solve.
We had to really jam and come up with creative ways to work it out. Then it was just a lot of long hours and muscling your way through. When it came together at the end, we all sat back and went, "Wow, it worked and it looks really amazing!" Those were the biggest “aha!” moments where we felt like we really achieved something that was unique to the movie, and hopefully unique for the moviegoers as far as an experience goes.
DS: It sounds like this show afforded you an opportunity for much greater creative input and problem solving than you normally get on such a project.
TS: It was great working with James, the director, and Andy [Weisblum], our editor. When there's a sense that this wasn't exactly what we planned going in, and we have all these problems we have to solve, it means that you have to step up to the plate and help the client with those issues - it also means you get a bigger creative footprint on the final product. When you have a director and editor that are collaborative and open to ideas and solutions that may help them with their problems, you feel more creatively invested. This movie had a lot of that. It was really rewarding from that respect.
In the end, it's a more gratifying experience. Sometimes it's nice to just do the work - you get your shots and you just have to crank them out, do a good job and maintain the quality. Sometimes that's good too, but it's nice to have an experience like this where you feel really integrated into the creative process from development all the way to finished film.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.