A Handcrafted Look
January 4, 2016

A Handcrafted Look

On Christmas day in the UK, BBC One delighted children nationwide with an animated adaptation of the much-loved picture book “Stick Man,” the tale of a happy-go-lucky father’s epic journey to make it home in time for Christmas.

Martin Freeman, Hugh Bonneville and Jennifer Saunders lent their voices to the half-hour animated show produced by Magic Light Pictures. The show is available in the US to Amazon Prime members via SOVD. See the trailer here

When they made the decision to produce the show, their fourth adaptation of a Julia Donaldson-written/Axel Scheffler-illustrated story, Magic Light opted to produce Stick Man entirely in CG, which presented some challenges in maintaining the tactile look of stop-motion models and real sets from the previous films. They turned to South African Animation Studio Triggerfish as their creative partner. We grabbed a few minutes with Triggerfish Producer Mike Buckland to learn how they went about it, specifically in terms of their approach to rendering.


What was the focus of your work on Stick Man?

Triggerfish's role on the project started with working with the Director Jeroen Jaspaert and Co-Director Daniel Snaddon to develop storyboards from the script. We then handled all the production design and art direction, the asset creation, character animation, lighting, rendering and compositing. Magic Light also managed the all the voice recording, postproduction, cusic and sound mix.

Why did Magic Pictures decide to do Stick Man in all CG?

The film is the fourth in a series, and distinctive style had been developed in the previous films based on Axel's drawings and inspired by the tactile look of stop-motion models and sets. The films had actually utilized real sets over which they composited the CG character animation. The scope of Stick Man made it too expensive to build so many real model sets and characters, so the big challenge for us was to try an emulate this handmade approach to the whole film, but to do it all in CG. This meant we had to do a lot of work in sculpting, texturing, shading and lighting to achieve the look of physical models and lighting.

How did you approach rendering on this project?

We were using Softimage with the Arnold renderer and the StoA plug-in (Softimage to Arnold), and the ease of use and simplicity of Arnold render settings when trying to complete shots under production pressures was extremely helpful. We could achieve very good-looking results with a minimal amount of lights. We really love the way lights react in Arnold, and even with minimal light setups, we could produce beautiful results that feel natural. Although our look wasn't exactly physically accurate, all our lighting starts with a natural lighting approach. Arnold delivers that very quickly and beautifully, but it also allows you to make creative adjustments to achieve a specific look.

The lighters also appreciated the iterative progressive rendering that helped to speed up the lighting on a per-shot basis. Arnold's .tx converted texture files helped reduce render times considerably. We were able to render sets that were quite extensive and which incorporated a lot of assets with displacements to create the ‘handmade’ look, as well as many densely covered grassy surfaces thath required the rendering of many millions of strands. Despite extensive use of SSS shaders on our snowy scenes, we found that we could get noiseless renders comparatively quickly. We also made extensive use of the AOVs during the compositing process, which allowed us more flexibility in optimizing our render process and achieving the Director's specific vision for each shot.

What shaders did you use?

We used mostly the Arnold Standard shader. Skin_SSS was great for creating a snow shader, Sky Shader for reflection/refraction information, Hair Shader for strand rendering. Store in channel for custom aov's – that was particularly useful for the ocean foam, which relied on quite a lot work in the Comp suite to get the right look.

Any other notes on the production you’d like to share?

Triggerfish has a relationship with Magic Light that stretches back several years. (Their co-founder and producer) Michael Rose was kind enough to give us notes and advice on our script when we were in development on our first feature film, Adventures in Zambezia. So when they decided to produce Stick Man as a fully CG film and asked us to bid on it, we were very excited.  We were already big admirers of their previous animated films in this series, The Gruffalo, The Gruffalo's Child and Room on the Broom, which are beautifully crafted pieces of storytelling.

Images courtesy of Magic Light Pictures.