Issue: Volume: 23 Issue: 1 (January 2000)

A Head-Turning Production

The American folktale of the headless horseman, who attacks those unfortunate enough to find themselves alone on the deserted, winding, dirt road leading to the tiny village of Sleepy Hollow, has been recounted-often in hushed tones-for more than two centuries. In 1819, with The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Washington Irving introduced the world to the legend that for years even frightened the actual villagers of Tarrytown, New York, the locale on which the book was based. About 50 years ago, Disney resurrected the headless rider using traditional 2D cel animation, while Tim Burton's recent depiction in the live-action feature film Sleepy Hollow used a more realistic approach to telling the tale. Straddling the line between fantasy and realism, however, is the broadcast movie The Night of the Headless Horseman, which uses state-of-the-art 3D animation to achieve a hauntingly organic look for the characters and backgrounds.

"Our goal was to achieve a natural, humanistic look that's a hybrid between what's real and what's not real," says
In one of the first all-3D, made-for-TV movies, Computer Animated Technology's rendition of the headless horseman tale gives the characters a chilling, organic look.

Trent Di Giulio, producer and president/founder of Computer Animated Technology (CAT), the Dallas-based facility that animated the production. "Our objective was to add an eerie edge that gave the characters' faces a chilling appearance. The characters have lifelike qualities; they have realistic, fibered hair and whiskers, and they even sweat."

The computer animated version of Irving's tale-one of the first all-3D, feature-length specials made for television-was produced by Dallas-based Cinematek, which partnered with CAT on the project. The concept for telling such a uniquely styled tale, however, originated with Shane Williams, a senior animator at CAT who also served as the movie's director.

It was Williams who, three years ago, persuaded Di Giulio to migrate CAT from a predominantly Alias/SGI house to a Lightwave/Alpha facility, a move, Di Giulio says, that allowed CAT to "work within suitable price parameters to accomplish a project of this magnitude." Unlike large animation houses that take years to complete a similar endeavor, CAT had to turn the project around in about seven months. "The only way we managed to pull this off," Di Giulio says, "was by securing a large commitment from our animation staff of about a dozen artists and fully utilizing our tool set, which includes NewTek's (San Antonio, TX) Lightwave software, along with a variety of third-party plug-ins to achieve all the ghostly effects."
To create the finely detailed textures, the animators used photographs from the actual Sleepy Hollow site as a surfacing source for many of the movie's 3D objects.

While technically challenging to create, The Night of the Headless Horseman's realistic animation quality is a step in a different direction from most 3D feature films such as A Bug's Life and Antz in that it "characterizes people as actual humans," Di Giulio says. "They have realistic human faces with wrinkles and lines, eyelashes, eyebrows, and whiskers. This gives them a far more organic look than what is typically done in 3D animation."

In fact, the characters are modeled to resemble actual people, mostly friends of Williams and Di Giulio. This was done by photographing the human models, then pulling off the facial textures and mapping them onto the Lightwave character models using Sven Technologies' (San Francisco) SurfaceSuite Pro. For parenting (locking) the various Lightwave objects-such as the eyeballs to the face-the artists used Dynamic Realities' (Waukesha, WI) Lock & Key program. The geometry was then stretched and tweaked (by adding blemishes and enhancements) to achieve a somewhat exaggerated look that "fit" the characters, such as Ichabod Crane with his long, pointy nose and sagging cheeks. For the characters' detailed hair, the group used MetroGrafx's (Florissant, CO) FiberFactory.

To provide an authentic look to the houses and scenery in the movie, Williams and Di Giulio visited Tarrytown's historic Sleepy Hollow grounds, which inspired the legend. There they videotaped and photographed a wide range of objects and scenery-including the graveyard, the original church, and the Van Tassel home-to use as a reference and a texturing source for the stone walls, tombstones, dishes, pots and pans, silverware, carpeting, wallpaper, and even the clothing worn by the characters.

For adding a ghostly touch to the imagery, the artists used various Lightwave plug-ins, such as Dosch Designs' (Marktheidenfeld, Germany) DirtyUp for surfacing the heads and faces of the zombies that roam the woods, and Blevins Enterprises' (Moscow, ID) VertiLectric for the eerie lighting effects. The group also used Dynamic Realities' Particle Storm II Pro for particle effects, such as when the horseman's steed dissipates into particles as it crosses a bridge during a chase. Like most ghost stories, The Night of the Headless Horseman contains a good deal of requisite fog effects, which were produced by Lightwave's Steamer volumetric lighting effects.
To replicate the fluid, intricate movements of the 3D horse and its headless, sword-wielding rider, animators used an 18-camera Vicon 8 setup to capture the motion.

To replicate the intricacies of the characters' movements, the group, headed by Crispin Broadhurst, used a Vicon Motion Systems (Oxford, England) Vicon 8 optical motion-capture setup, housed in a three-floor studio at CAT. Wearing spandex suits with strategically placed sensors, actors performed the movements that were later processed and filtered using Kaydara's (Montreal) Filmbox real-time production program, with which the mo tion data was combined with a Lightwave model of the character. The power of the mocap technology is particularly evident in the scene where Ichabod and his sweetheart, Katrina, twirl around the dance floor-fluid, graceful motion that was provided by a pair of nationally ranked ballroom dancers.

This same technology, albeit on a grander scale, was also used to provide the intricate swordplay of the headless horseman and the subtle nuances in the movements of his mount. To do this, CAT merged its Vicon 8 with a similar system owned by LocoMotion Studios in Wimberley, Texas, resulting in what Di Giulio believes is one of the largest motion-capture systems used to date. The 18-camera setup, installed at a local Medieval Times themed dinner-theater venue, captured the articulated, detailed action of specially trained Andalusian horses (known for their high-stepping gait) as they galloped, walked on their hind legs, performed high jumps, and executed graceful bows.

While capturing the motion of the horse and rider proved more efficient and cost-effective than keyframing, the technique was not without difficulty. "One of our big concerns was how to place markers on an animal that will be moving, sometimes violently," says Kei Taniguchi of LocoMotion. "We tried a number of adhesives [for the reflectors], none of which worked well. So we settled on making a [spandex] marker suit for the horse."

Because of the elaborate choreography and movement of the characters and the horse, the group opted to perform very little compositing, choosing instead to render each scene as a complete package-characters, motion, objects, and camera moves. Near the end of the project, however, the group had no choice but to do some compositing (in Lightwave) to bring down its rendering times per frame from four to eight minutes to about two minutes. "We couldn't utilize beautiful camera pans, but it helped us meet our deadlines," says Jay Gillian, executive producer and president of Cinematek.
Like most ghost stories, The Night of the Headless Horseman contains a good deal of fog and eerie lighting effects, which were achieved using Lightwave and third-party plug-ins.

The rendering, like the modeling and animation, was performed on Alpha processor-based workstations from Boxx Technologies (Austin, TX) and Alpha Processor (Concord, MA), using the new 21264 UP2000 processor. Although the group first started off using an array of Pentium IIIs, it soon discovered that the Alphas were at least several times faster. "3D animation is still a relatively cutting-edge technique in feature-length films, and competing in this genre is expensive, mostly because of the rendering requirements and per-seat software licenses," says Gillian. "The Alphas gave us the ability to work within this particular format and deliver the program on time for what we consider a reasonable investment." According to Gillian, the total cost of the one-hour production was just under $1 million.

Alas, not even the Alphas could solve all the rendering issues. Because a wide selection of third-party Lightwave plug-ins was used, not every image rendered accurately. Because of time constraints, Gillian notes, "we often had to accept what we got and make corrections in post." Editing was performed on a Ma trox (Quebec) DigiSuite system, which Gillian says provided the necessary flexibility to make those post-production "tweaks." The final cut was made using in:sync's (Bethesda, MD) Speed Razor.

The organic quality of the animation was a unique look for prime-time television and worked well for this production, which aired on Fox Television during Halloween week. However, Di Giulio believes this style will become more prevalent in the future as lower-priced Pentium- and Alpha-based tools proliferate, making such projects more affordable. "This opens the door for 3D animation in other areas besides multimillion-dollar feature films," he adds.

Karen Moltenbrey is an associate editor of Computer Graphics World.