That is the story behind the animated feature film Wonder Park from Paramount Animation, written and produced by Andre Nemec and Josh Applebaum (
Teenage Mutant Turtles franchise,
Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protcol), from a story by Robert Gordon. Kendra Haaland (
How to Train Your Dragon 2, Mulan) also produced.
This one-of-a-kind park is the vision of third-grade math whiz and aspiring engineer June (Brianna Denski), who spent most of her young life designing the dream with her mom (Jennifer Garner). Called Wonderpark, this make-believe world was truly born from the imagination of a child, with a carousel of airborne goldfish, a river rapids ride aglow with fireworks, the Grand Wonder roller-coaster whose loop-the-loop transitions into a Ferris wheel and then back again, and the gravity-defying Zero-G Land where people can float. Running the park is a chimpanzee named Peanut, assisted by an animal staff inspired by June’s collection of stuffies. But when June’s mom becomes gravely ill, the girl abandons the project – unaware of the repercussions that will result.
While wandering in the woods one day, June finds herself in an enchanted clearing and finds that somehow Wonderland shifted from being imaginary to becoming real. However, the place seems to have been shut down, and what remains is in shambles: Everything is overgrown, broken, and falling apart. And what’s more, unless the park is restored, June is unable to leave. But to accomplish that, she must figure out why a “darkness” hangs over the area.
While June is responsible for bringing her creations to life in the film, in the realm of Wonderland, it is Peanut who is credited for the spectacular innovations he “creates” by using his truly magic marker (though the inspirations actually came from June and were relayed to the stuffed animal by June’s mom, who whispered them into Peanut’s ear as mother and daughter played in the daughter’s bedroom). He is the big-idea person and lets others carry out his concepts. But without June’s ideas, the park begins to break down. At the same time, a dark storm has formed in the sky, draining away the park’s festive spirit and even pieces of the park itself.
Bringing these creations to life on the screen, however, was Ilion Animation Studios in Madrid, which was established in 2002 by the founders of game development company Pyro Studios and whose first animated feature was Planet 51 in 2009. It took a relatively small team of animators close to three years from start to finish to bring the film to theaters. Ilion collaborated with Paramount Animation in LA, with Ilion doing most of the animation, lighting, and comp.
Out of the Box
According to Javier Abad, head of character animation at Ilion, Wonder Park is not the classical family comedy, but rather, contains many sequences that are deeply touching and emotional. “We talk about how we lose our imagination when we grow up, and we tried to do that in a very Studio Ghibli way,” he says, referring to the award-winning Japanese animation studio headed by famed director Hayao Miyazaki and known for tackling more mature subjects via animation.
Technically, the movie contains a number of challenges, from the plethora of vegetation to the realistic cinematography of the film. In terms of the characters, the crew crafted thousands and thousands of zombie chimpanzees, or chimpanzombies, that live in the park. “In animation, the main challenge was to try to be authentic and not exaggerate everything,” says Abad. “Here we tried to be spontaneous, so we were careful with the level of exaggeration.”
The filmmakers also grounded the film in reality. For instance, to highlight June’s urgency to rebuild the park before it is gone forever, the visuals have a sense of live-action camerawork. “We incorporated a feeling of natural light, shadow, and the imperfections of the real world. Some of the scenes are meant to seem overexposed, others underexposed. We imagined where the sun would be in the day sky and how that affects the images,” says Miguel Pablos Contreras, director of photography lighting. “There is evidence of the camera in every shot. The moment June enters the magical world of Wonderland, the light becomes much more enveloping, the colors more vibrant, the overall feeling warmer. It enhances every moment of what she is doing, of her journey and her relationship.”
The film contains a “crazy mixture of different characters,” says Abad, as it reflects the imagination of a young girl. To this end, there is Peanut the frenetic chimp, Boomer the giant blue bear who welcomes visitors to the park, Steve the porcupine who is concerned for safety, twin beavers Gus and Cooper who are in charge of park maintenance, Greta the sensible boar who is crew boss, and thousands and thousands of small monkeys, as well as humans.
Modelers and animators created the characters using Autodesk’s Maya, supplemented with Autodesk’s 3ds Max and Pixologic’s ZBrush. For lighting, they used Maya; rendering, Arnold; and effects, SideFX’s Houdini and Maya; in addition to other in-house and commercial tools. Many of the characters are covered in fur or feathers, which was handled using Peregrine Labs’ Yeti, a node-based procedural tool set for instancing geometry within Maya.
“This was the first time at Ilion that we created various main characters full of fur. In the past, we did a style that was more simple,” says Abad.
There’s no doubt that each character had its own challenges, but Porcupine Steve was one of the most difficult, specifically because of all the quills. The team devised a system for controlling the quills, but it was not user friendly when it came to making changes, says Abad. Maintaining the overall volume of the character was tricky as well.
The monkeys specifically were not overly difficult, but creating them in such a large quantity was. For that task, the artists used Golaem’s crowd software plug-in for Maya for simulating controllable character crowds, as the artists kept the weight of the characters as light as possible to better control the scenes. In addition, there Peanut the chimp, “and for me, apes are difficult because they are similar to humans in terms of their expression. You have to make them believable but not too appealing or you enter the creepy zone, where it looks too humanlike,” says Abad.
In terms of performance, June, the human girl, was challenging, as well. “We had some very delicate themes, so she couldn’t be too cartoony,” Abad adds. June is the central character, a red-haired daredevil full of energy and with a gift for mathematics. At some point in the film, she begins to grow up and act more adult-like; at that point, her animation becomes a little more rigid to reflect this evolution.
Like the characters, the film’s environments were diverse as well. “We have the real world and the imaginary world,” Abad points out. In the real world, there is June’s house and her neighborhood, set up like a typical neighborhood would be, to give it a familiar feel. In order to enter the magic world, June walks through a dense forest, which is filled with trees, plants, and so forth. And then as she enters that magical world, there is the amusement park with all the usual – or, more accurately, unusual – rides. And within the amusement park, there is an area filled with darkness, which Abad describes as “super creepy.”
Although in some instances 2D matte paintings were used (such as for the sky), the majority of the environments were made with 3D geometry.
Without question, the forest – because of the “crazy amount of polygons and the transmission of the light through the leaves” – was the most difficult to render, says Abad. The group at Ilion developed tools to control the growth of the vegetation and trees.
The amusement park is a huge environment that is thrill-filled, but it is divided into scenes for the various attractions. The artists drew their inspiration and basic mechanics for these imaginative rides at an actual amusement park, even testing out the rides for themselves. “We spent hours at different attractions,” says Abad, who, despite his fear of roller coasters and other thrill rides, braved the experience. “To transmit an emotion, it’s important to feel it yourself. For some of us, it was a fantastic opportunity to enjoy the amusement park. For me, it was one of the more terrifying days of my life!”
As Abad notes, the attractions in the film correlate to typical amusement park rides – a carousel, roller coaster, tilt-a-whirl, flume ride – albeit all with imaginative twists. After all, this park is designed through the eyes of a child, but for the film, it is the imagination of production designer Fred Warter, who challenged his team to come up with the boldest and most creative ideas that would likely come from a child. While everything had to be something that doesn’t exist in the real world, it still had to be grounded in actual physics. And that is how the animators approached the attractions. “Obviously we are in a cartoony world, but in that cartoony world, we [leaned] toward realism,” he adds.
There are many visual effects, too, some of which are associated with the various attractions: a river of lava and fireworks, for instance. Also, Peanut’s magic marker generates a trail of sparkles. According to Abad, the river started out with the artists creating a typical fluid as they animated the scene, then Effects changed the water to a thicker lava.
Not the End
Adventures in the wondrous Wonderpark will continue long after the film has exited theaters, as a TV series based on the film is in the works for Nickelodeon, although Ilion is not involved in that production, which is also from Paramount. Nevertheless, Abad says that working with Paramount on the film was an exciting experience, and he hopes that relationship continues in the future. Meanwhile, Ilion is in the process of working with Skydance Media on a number of high-end animated feature films and television series.
Like June in Wonder Park, who had an ambitious vision, the crew at Ilion also had a similar experience when the facility was founded to work on
Planet 51. “It was a really, really difficult project,” says Abad, “because we were starting from scratch, talented artists without any idea of how to do movies. So we spent seven years creating that film [with Sony distributing].”
That dream spawned from the success of Pyro Studios’ Commandos: Behind Enemy Lines. It always starts with a dream and a vision….