Raising Kaena
Issue: Volume: 26 Issue: 5 (May 2003)

Raising Kaena

By Karen Moltenbrey

Although new to the 3D feature film scene, Xilam Animation in Paris opted for the road less traveled for Kaena: The Prophecy by choosing a mature style for the characters, environments, and story line. All images ©2003 Xilam Films, StudioCanal, and

Some things are worth waiting for. And, from the looks of it, the 3D feature film Kaena: The Prophecy is one of them.

Five years in the making, the 90-minute adventure from Xilam Animation in Paris boldly departs from the tried-and-true cartoon-like look of such US blockbusters as Toy Story, Monsters, Inc., and Ice Age, and introduces a unique painterly style to evolve its sophisticated character-driven story. Also impressive is the fact that the digital artists created this feature entirely with commercial software, which forced them to overcome technical challenges by creatively applying the tools at hand, rather than developing specialized code.

Even Kaena's story line deviates significantly from those of its US film cousins. Rather than presenting a humorous children's tale, the movie explores a serious theme directed at teen and adult audiences, although occasionally two worm-like characters offer a dose of comic relief. Kaena unfolds within the fantasy world of a giant tree, known as the Axis, which is inhabited by a tribe of people whose main focus is harvesting the tree's sap, which they then offer to the gods. When the sap begins to dry up, a young woman called Kaena (voiced by Kirsten Dunst) leaves her village to find the root of the problem and a solution. A courageous dreamer, Kaena travels to the forbidden region beneath the clouds. There, she encounters a host of unusual and sometimes hostile creatures, including the Selenites, a race that is also trying to save the tree from impending doom, albeit through the enslavement of others.

"The story is also about the unlikely heroine's journey from childhood to adulthood as she defies authority, traditions, and beliefs in pursuit of her own truths and personal identity—a topic that transcends cultural borders," explains director Chris Delaporte.

In addition to Dunst, a number of other well-known American actors and actresses—including Angelica Houston as queen of the Selenites and Richard Harris as the 600-year-old extraterrestrial Opaz—are likewise lending their voices to the Kaena cast. Because the film is intended for worldwide release, it has been produced in English and will be dubbed in local languages. The production is scheduled to open next month in France, followed by worldwide release this fall. (Xilam was still negotiating a deal for US distribution at press time.)

At first glance, Kaena's overall look and feel is reminiscent of computer games, with its fantastic settings and goal-oriented characters. "The style of the environments will be more familiar to computer game players than moviegoers," contends Delaporte. In fact, he and writer-partner Patrick Daher conceived the project as a game in 1997, pitching it to the newly formed Chaman Productions (Paris), which was focused on producing digital content for games and television.

Impressed by the rich, unusual environments, Chaman's founder chose to expand the project to include a feature film, formerly called Axis, that would be released alongside the game (Computer Graphics World, March 2000, pg. 33). Alas, the ambitious goal of creating a full-length CG film proved too lofty for the start-up. Despite having approximately half the film and game completed, Chaman relinquished control to Xilam, a traditional animation company with expertise in 3D, having developed several computer games and 2D/3D television series. Xilam has since completed the Kaena film and game, with Delaporte still serving as director.

"Telling a story for 90 minutes for a film is far more difficult than telling one in a half-hour for television," says Marc Du Pontavice, chairman and CEO of Xilam. "When it comes to cinema, the story alone cannot carry a project like it can in broadcast. The characters, animation, and style have to be consistent, and they have to evoke an emotional response from the audience."

Despite the strong influences from the gaming industry, Kaena more closely resembles a live-action adventure in terms of its intensity, the realism of the imagery, and the character relationships and interactions. "I didn't want the imagery to have that bright, clean look that most 3D films have, yet I didn't want to deny the medium, either," says Delaporte. "Instead, I wanted Kaena to have a heavy atmosphere, closer to that of a live-action movie." To that end, he chose a darker, painterly style for the imagery that gives it a realistic but not hyper-realistic look.

Using Procreate's Painter and Adobe's Photoshop, artists applied hand-painted textures to Kaena's unusual cast of characters, which gave them a rich, organic look.

The Kaena environments, like the characters, have a similar warm, earthy feel, with brown-tone vines and roots that reflect the dying state of the Axis universe. Accomplishing this look, however, was challenging and time-consuming. According to Delaporte, the team spent nearly six months in postproduction, a significant portion of which the artists spent working in Discreet's flame to achieve the desired style for the film. This was done by color-correcting the imagery to eliminate the crisp, clean look of the CGI, and then transferring it from digital format to 35mm. "When we were done, it looked like a completely different film," he says.

In Du Pontavice's opinion, most of the industry has chosen to "digitize" comedy, a genre that is particularly well suited for extreme character posing, rather than tackle the intimate live-action style of an adventure, which is difficult to imitate using CGI. "With Kaena, we are much closer to bridging the gap between live action and animation," he says. Square had a similar intention when it created the feature Final Fantasy (Computer Graphics World, August 2001, pg. 24), but Du Pontavice and Delaporte believe Square's pursuit of realism ultimately led to the film's dismal reception.

"The look of the Final Fantasy characters was so close to real humans that you can't help comparing those inexpressive actors to the professionals you are used to seeing on a big screen," says Delaporte. "The same goes for the script. You begin to believe that you are watching a live-action movie, and you expect the characters' behaviors and emotions to be extremely realistic. Final Fantasy's script did not achieve that; I believe [the studio] missed the most important aspect of Final Fantasy, which is the fantasy."

Given Kaena's fantastical design, it's doubtful that anyone would make similar comparisons between its digital characters and live actors. But that doesn't make the characters less impressive. Created in Discreet's character studio and 3ds max, the robust models range in size from 200,000 to 1 million polygons. The artists drew the textures by hand in Procreate's Painter, then applied them to the models with Adobe Systems' Photoshop. "This gave the images an organic, stylized look—like an old painting," Delaporte says.

One of the biggest challenges associated with the project was making the characters realistic enough to project human feelings through facial expressions and body movements that straddle the line between the realistic and the fantastical. To reflect the multiple expressions of Kaena, the artists modeled 40 different faces for the character in 3ds max, each representing a different emotion. For each of the other characters, the team generated at least 30 different faces. The majority of the lip sync was accomplished by hand, though the group did use Yulsoft's FatLips 3D to speed up the process for some of the secondary characters.

The animation, like the textures and lip sync, was also crafted by hand. The artists keyframed nearly all the movement, taking care not to make the characters appear unrealistic by over-animating them. The artists made one exception for the crowd movement, which was achieved with motion-captured data acquired by Canadian Motion International in Montreal. "We did that to save time," says Delaporte. "But the level of resolution we needed made the cleanup process arduous."

Because of time and financial limitations, the Xilam team used only commercial products for making the film. This constraint often forced the group to find creative solutions to complex technical challenges, such as creating the unique geometry and textur

According to Delaporte, the film's fantastical story line spawned characters whose unique appearances taxed the artists' imaginations as well as their technical skills. One such creature is the Marauder beast, whose skinless body is composed of muscle-like vines and branches. "We did not have the tools to produce a character with modeled branches as muscles," he says. Furthermore, the creature moves in several of the shots, thereby limiting the number of polygons that could be used, "or we'd spend hours waiting for one picture to be calculated." Alternatively, the group created the creature's distinctive look by generating extremely large and detailed textures that gave it a vine-like appearance.

The artists also faced a content-creation challenge when crafting the film's "liquid" monsters, the Selenites, that try to thwart Kaena's quest. Made from the tree's sap, these creatures had to retain fluid properties yet assume the form of actual beings with expressions and emotions. To accomplish this, the artists used a dual approach. First, they modeled and textured the creatures just as they did for the other characters. Then, for the lower portion of the creatures' bodies, they applied NextLimit's RealFlow, a 3ds max plug-in for creating particle generators, or emitters, resulting in a liquid look. This process enabled the group to "connect" the characters to the sap and to the ground, from which the creatures originate. The group then added morph shapes and animated textures to the Selenites' upper body and head geometry to give them a viscous quality while retaining the required level of model flexibility.

Artists modeled between 30 and 40 different faces for Kaena and the other fantastic characters, providing them with a range of human-like expressions.

The artists were similarly constrained when creating hair for Kaena and other creatures. Mainly, they used Digimation's shag:hair plug-in for this effect, sometimes mixing the results with those achieved from cloth-simulation tools, including Reyes Infografica's ClothReyes. "One of the most difficult aspects of the project was coming up with tricks that enabled us to generate an effect [like sap or hair] using commercial products," Du Pontavice says. "We didn't have a lot of technical help, this being our first 3D film, so our success hinged on the talent and conviction of our artists, many of whom came from the gaming industry."

Will international audiences embrace Kaena's atypical story, characters, and overall style? Only time will tell. In any case, Xilam can be proud of its accomplishment and its courageous decision to think outside the digital box.

Karen Moltenbrey is a senior editor for Computer Graphics World.

character studio, 3ds max Discreet www.discreet.com


Painter Procreate www.procreate.com
Photoshop Adobe Systems www.adobe.com

Lip synchronization
FatLips 3D Yulsoft www.yulsoft.com

Shake Apple Computer www.apple.com
flame Discreet www.discreet.com

shag:hair Digimation www.digimation.com
ClothReyes Reyes Infografica www.reyes-infografica.net/company.php

RealFlow NextLimit www.nextlimit.com

3ds max, flame Discreet www.discreet.com

data management
alienbrain VFX NXN Software www.nxn-software.com

Creating a full-length animated 3D movie is a huge step for any studio, especially one with no prior film or extensive CGI experience. Still, this did not stop Xilam Animation from sowing the seeds of an ambitious idea that would shift the facility's focus from 2D broadcast projects to an entirely new field: that of feature films. Now, following years of dedicated, hard work, Xilam is about to share the fruits of its labor with the world as it releases Kaena: The Prophecy.

According to Marc Du Pontavice, chairman and CEO of Xilam, the transition from the small screen involved a complex learning process, especially in terms of organization and production flow. "Every centimeter and every frame counts on the big screen," he says. "There is no room for mistakes. Every image has to be perfect, and there is a huge amount of image data that must be tracked."

At the peak of Kaena's production, approximately 70 people in three locations were adding and updating digital assets while they worked on certain segments of the movie. "It gets extremely complicated when you have so many people working on different parts of a project," says director Chris Delaporte. "This can lead to problems if the wrong model or texture is used. Also, time is extremely valuable; the team had to have quick access to the imagery, and they had to get feedback fast."

To alleviate these problems and to smooth the work flow process, Xilam implemented NXN Software's alienbrain VFX data management software into its production pipeline, enabling the team members to synchronize their work, regardless of each person's location. This ensured that the groups responsible for modeling, texturing, rendering, compositing, and so on were using the correct version of a file. Because the information was centralized, Delaporte always had access to the data, allowing him to finalize the imagery to ensure that it was consistent with his vision.

"I don't see how we could have finished the movie without it," says Du Pontavice. "It certainly enabled us to compete on the same playing field as some of the larger US studios." In fact, Pixar Animation Studios and Sony Pictures Imageworks recently have implemented alienbrain as well. —Karen Moltenbrey